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A Fed, a General and a Linguist Walk into a Bar...

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Very Special Agent Anthony D. DiNozzo Jr., senior field agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, on the D.C. Major Crimes Response Team, realized he was screwed, royally screwed, the moment he asked for an update and didn’t get a reply over his ear-bud.

Fucking typical, and he should have known better than to go ahead with this op when he knew his team lead, Jethro Gibbs, would be side-lined at the Navy Yard for the night. But he knew, in spite of the doubts of his superiors and teammates, he *knew*, there was a serial killer hunting here tonight, and if he didn’t want to find another body in a dumpster, he had no choice but to come out hunting himself.

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They’d been called out to Alexandria on Wednesday morning for a dead marine, Sergeant Warren Coyne, found in a dumpster behind a bar near the river. The body had been stripped naked, signs of violent and bloody sexual assault, pre-mortem torture (ligature marks on wrists and ankles, beatings, burns, knife slashes, broken bones, internal bleeding), post-mortem mutilation of the genitals… it all had an odor to it, and Tony had begun trolling through VICAP, and any other law enforcement database he could get his hands on, to look for similar signatures. He’d even put in a call to a buddy who worked out of the Quantico FBI offices, Derek Morgan, for advice…

He’d had to be cagey about the details, because, lord knew, Gibbs would have a screaming hairy fit if the Behavior Analysis Unit of the FBI tried to take jurisdiction. Hunting serial killers was their thing, after all. But Tony had known Derek Morgan a long time. They had met up at the various YMCA centers around DC over the years, playing pick-up games of basketball and football as their insane work schedules allowed, with other cops and feds from the alphabet agencies, and occasionally coaching the kids at the centers with other volunteers. Derek had recommended him for a couple of criminology programs at Georgetown, put in a good word for him and helped arrange for him to go for bumping up his masters to a doctorate in criminology. Derek was sharp as they came, an excellent profiler, and had inspired Tony to take some courses in that particular area himself.

With Derek’s help, and his own contacts in Interpol and the FBI International Response Team, Tony found other cases that seemed eerily similar… five bodies were left behind bars near the docks in Marseille France over the space of a month two years ago, and another five in Manila in the Philippines, one year ago. Which meant, if Tony was right, unless they did something pretty damned fast, they were going to be looking at four more bodies in Alexandria, before this guy was in the wind again.

Derek had warned Tony how dangerous this particular unsub might be (obviously a violent but organized sexual sadist with power and control issues), and offered to get his team involved at the barest hint NCIS might need help, if Tony would only let him. But the BAU had a hands-off policy unless explicitly called in by the locals on a case, so all Derek could really do here was keep an eye on and look worried.

Gibbs thought it was all pretty thin, and the two other members of his team laughed right in his face. They thought Coyne had been running with a bad crowd, black ops bad, and that had got him killed. Coyne’s record with the Corps was anything but squeaky clean. He had some redacted sections in his jacket from special ops assignments, a two year period when he was supposedly serving at the NORAD Base in Colorado Springs, and after that he seemed to have gone off the rails in a fairly big way, passed from post to post for behavioral issues, and getting himself tied to some pretty shady people. He had been cited for a wide assortment of offences, minor and major, until he was half an inch from getting himself a dishonorable discharge. Someone in his chain of command had pulled strings to get him re-assed to DC, obviously to keep him out of trouble until he could finish out his twenty. Gibbs was thinking the ploy hadn’t worked so well. But to Tony’s mind, that didn’t explain the level of sexual sadism he was seeing in the way the marine had been tortured and left.

Tony, with some advice from Derek, had figured out a probable geographic profile, and was able to get enough information from his Interpol contacts on the Marseille murders to narrow down the victimology on his ‘unsub’, as Derek called the perp. The guy was looking for white males in their thirties, businessmen under enough stress that they went alone to bars outside their own comfort zones to do some serious drinking… and never realized the new drinking buddy beside them had laced their scotch and soda with rohypnol. He didn’t seem to care if they were gay or straight, and the rape was probably more about torture and exerting dominance than any sexual desire. Their marine was a little off the victimology, but Coyne had been wearing a nice civilian suit the last he was seen, Monday afternoon, having gone to a job interview – for a job he hadn’t got, so he would have been an angry drinker that night.

Well, surprise surprise, Tony happened to be a white male in his thirties, he could certainly dress the part of a stressed-out businessman, and while scotch and soda was not his drink of choice, he could manage to scarf down a couple if he had to. So all he needed was a lucky break on whichever bar he chose… well, lucky being a relative term.

When he took all this to his boss, Gibbs had shrugged, still not convinced. But Vance, passing by the bullpen close enough to overhear, had intervened, shocking him green, by backing Tony up. More or less… with a curt, “You got a better plan, Gibbs? Then we won’t lose anything going with this.” So Vance authorized the undercover op to test out Tony’s theory. He had two days to show results, one way or another.

Of course, McGee and Ziva had vocally protested to Gibbs once Vance had left. And what was Gibbs’ ringing endorsement and way of supporting his long-time second and loyal Saint Bernard?

“You heard the Director. You got anything better? No? Then we might as well go with this crap until we do get something better to go on. In the meantime, McGee, put through the paperwork to get us those classified records on our vic. Ziva, see what your contacts can get you on the black-ops front. And DiNozzo… don’t screw this up.”

Yeah, thanks for that, Boss. Make it clear to the team that his undercover op was make-work to fill in their time, and spoil a rare night off, until a real lead came in.

But Tony was becoming more convinced all the time that he was right about this. Which meant the op tonight was vital if he wanted to catch this guy before he left more bodies in dumpsters across the city.

He certainly didn’t count on McGee and Ziva being his only back-up on the equipment in the unmarked NCIS surveillance van. If Gibbs had been there, Tony knew he could count on the Boss to back him up and keep the other two honest, no matter what he thought of the usefulness. But when Gibbs had been called back to MTAC for some other op, it left just his two team-mates to watch his back.

And Tony didn’t trust either one of them further than he could throw them.

As soon as he knew Gibbs had bailed on him, he should have called an end to the op. He knew he should have. But if he didn’t want to see another body dumped come morning…

He told them, he *told* them, that they had better not screw the pooch this time, or there would be hell to pay, because he wasn’t going to let it pass this time. He didn’t care what Abby or Gibbs had to say about it. So okay, when they turned off coms during the Military-At-Home case, a few months back, while he was out trolling for voice-prints in the wealthy suburban neighborhood where their domestic terrorist murder suspects were to be found, there was no actual fall-out. Just a joke, right? Tony was only getting as good as he gave out? That seemed to be what Gibbs and Abby thought, when they both argued him out of filing a reprimand on the pair.

Yeah, no. You back up your partner, and you do a proper job of it, or you aren’t a partner at all. Whatever pranks or jokes he might have pulled back at the office to lighten the incredibly tense and stressful environment, Tony had never, ever, failed to have a partner’s six. Never. And no one had better even think of mentioning Jenny Shepherd in this context, because that had been a direct order, damn it, from a superior to stand down.

After he found out about the coms thing, his own sense of humor had suddenly dried up. He kept his head down and his mouth shut, and he tried to figure out what the hell he was going to do the next time he had to trust his butt in the field to these two.

And this time, he was lining up to be a hot lunch for a serial killer. Even if it was a killer neither McGee nor Ziva believed existed. Like they had so much more insight into this sort of thing than Tony, with his fifteen years of law enforcement experience.

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The bar was near the river, and not so far away from the business districts, in a direct line from the bar where Coyne was last seen, and the alley where he had been dumped. This was one of two such places Tony had targeted as possible hunting grounds for their ‘unsub’, and the likelier one in his mind, because it was just blocks from Wednesday’s crime scene.

Dressed in one of his nicest suits, wearing black-frame glasses, the ones with the built-in camera, armed with the requisite cell phone (a burner he had bought and loaded up with various apps himself, so as not to risk blowing his cover with his own or his work cell), he stumbled into ‘Joe’s’, loosened his tie with a weary grimace, and gravitated straight to the bar, apparently ignoring everyone else in the place.

It only took him minutes to scope out the other patrons. Derek had given him a best-guess on the unsub, as also a white male, probably older but in fairly good shape, given he chose mature men still in their prime, but needed to drug his victims to control them, and seemed to need to prove his dominance with the torture and sexual subjugation. Someone who was attractive enough, charming enough, with the social skills not to alarm his targets as he got close to them… Derek warned him that there really wasn’t much of a profile to go with this guy at this stage, so not to depend on the guess at his age being in his forties or fifties. If the unsub was looking for some kind of payback on a surrogate, the vics might represent a father figure, probably an alcoholic parent, someone who had failed, neglected or abused the unsub, which might make him younger than his targets.

Tony looked around, his face and posture deliberately taking on the mask of bleery, slump-shouldered and stressed out as he waited for his scotch and soda. Joe’s wasn’t exactly a bustling happenin’ place on a quiet Thursday evening, the clientele mostly men, all of them white, mostly on the mature side, no one under thirty, all serious drinkers and mostly local regulars, to judge from the familiarity the barman and two waitresses showed, delivering people’s ‘usual’ without even being asked in most cases. So he focused on the male customers who had to be asked for their orders, as those were the strangers in town, and Tony was looking for a stranger to this bar. He counted four possible unsubs… and one guy at the far end of the bar who wasn’t so unlike himself, handsome even with the gold wire-framed glasses, in his thirties, smart and expensive business attire, and therefore another potential vic.

He had gone over the drill with his impatient and short-tempered team-mates as they had prepped the van for stake-out. Not only did he have a wire on him, an ear-bud and a camera in his thick horn-rim glasses, but McGee was to tie in to any surveillance cameras, on the street, parking lots, ATMs, and in the bar itself. Joe’s happened to have a few of them, as the owner had apparently begun to suspect his employees of skimming the profits. Tony would point out the possible perps, and McGee and Ziva would ID each one and do a background check to see if they had any travel on their history, say, to France or the Philippines. Meanwhile, Tony would play the frustrated businessman in need of a couple of stiff drinks, and not particularly careful of how much he was imbibing. He had come prepared with a number of tricks to disguise that he wasn’t actually drinking all that much.

With a tap at his ear-bud, and a frustrated mumble to act the part, he told his wire, “I got eyes on four possibles. One in the north west corner booth, second under the TV by the pool table, third and fourth at the bar watching the game. Get pictures and IDs on them, ASAP. And check out the guy at the far end. He might be a target, so make sure you keep him in sight. I want to know if he moves, or if anyone approaches him.”

Tony waited for a reply, an ‘on it’, a question for clarification, anything… and got only silence back.

Oh no, they didn’t… not again. Not tonight! He decided he could play up his burn-out persona by growling at subordinates over his cell… he pulled it out, angrily punched in a number he knew well, and barked out, “Where the hell are you guys? Are you not listening at all?”

“Tony?” McGee grumbled back. “Lay off, okay? We’re just getting set up.”

“Just getting set up? You were supposed to be done half an hour ago! What the hell? Did you get the message about the four competitors?”

“Ziva says she’s got it.”

“And our one potential customer? You got him on your radar?”

“Our what?”

“Oh for… Do not screw this up. Do not!”

“Give me a break, Tony. Nothing’s going to happen, because there is no serial killer out there. So stop barking out the orders like you’ve got a right.”

And with that, the line shut down. A second call went straight to voice mail. Tony was ready to throw his cell at a wall… but it was recording everything tonight, on the chance it could be used as evidence. Yeah, evidence of dereliction of duty and insubordination, among other things. So much for rule three, do not be unreachable, and rule one, do not screw over your partner.

Angrily, and not much acting required when he was so disgusted and fed-up with his team-mates and their incompetence and betrayals, both petty and grand, he worked at a text message to request an ID of the poor schmuck at the end of the bar, who had just as much chance of ending in a dumpster as he did.

And just as he hit send, another patron entered the bar. He was tall, trim and fit-looking, straight military bearing but comfortable in his body, with short-cut silver hair, ruggedly handsome, in the age range Tony had been thinking might fit their unsub, mid-fifty-ish.

The guy gave one quick, comprehensive glance around the bar, noting Tony’s four ‘competitors’ and both he and the potential ‘customer’. Then he sauntered over to the stool next to Tony.

He ordered a beer on draft, and pretended to focus on the large screen TV above the bar and the game running with the sound turned low.

Not daring to say anything aloud, Tony texted ‘got another competitor, right beside me, may have caught a bite’ and sent it off before huffing and grumbling into his drink, taking a larger-than-wise swig.

His neighbor sighed and said, “You’re too young to be that stressed, kid.”

Tony frowned. “Not a kid. By any stretch. Old man.”

“You a regular here?”

“No. First time. I was on my way home when I decided I needed a place where no one knows your name.”

The neighbour chuckled. “Good one. Cheers. Hey Norm! This doesn’t seem like your kinda place, though. I woulda pegged you as an Adams House sorta guy.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah, maybe once. Then I decided to go out on my own… you heard that it’s tough to get good help? Is it ever. The bozos I got working for me now… I can’t trust them to tie their own shoe-laces without supervision, let alone close a deal.”

The older guy gave a “tut-tut” noise and settled in to listen to a tale of woe.

Tony spun it out, careful to follow rule seven, always be specific when you lie, and rule twenty-five, the best lies keep close to the truth. He even felt better, venting freely on his incompetent subordinates. His neighbour took it all in, nodding and making agreeing noises at all the appropriate places.

Exactly the kind of guy, and the kind of reaction, Tony had been looking for. Only…

Something was off, here. This guy… his eyes were sharp with shrewd intelligence. His hands were large, strong and sure, with calluses Tony recognized… the hair cut, the cocky attitude, the hands… this guy was military. Or maybe ex-military, since he was certainly old enough to have served his twenty and then some. Not a marine or army, either Navy or Air Force from the ace-pilot swagger. No doubt about it, he was an officer, and pretty high up the chain of command. Not that he couldn’t still be the unsub, was actually a good fit for it when service often called for a lot of foreign travel, but…

The guy’s attention was not all one-way. It was split between Tony and the guy at the other end of the bar, the other potential vic. Whenever any of the other suspects made a move in the direction of the other guy, his neighbour got all tense, and tapped at his ear…

Damn. He had an ear wig too. Competition of an entirely different sort. But who? Not FBI, Fornell would have been all over that, but maybe one of the other services? But what would have put him onto this case? The Marseille and Manila vics had all been civilians, none American, only their marine sergeant Coyne would have called out any of the DoD agencies undercover, and, surely, that was Tony.

Taking a quick check of the sparsely populated bar, to make sure no one was close, Tony took a calculated risk.

“You here looking for someone?”

The other man turned laser-sharp brown eyes on him. “What do you mean?”

Tony smirked. “You’re not here to meet someone, or if you are, they stood you up. You’ve been eyeing the good-looking guy at the other end of the bar, but you’ve only made any kind of move on me. And you’ve been letting me rant away for almost an hour now. How is that anyone’s idea of fun, unless you’re getting ready to hit on me? I’m just sayin’… if you are, I probably wouldn’t say no. And… the name is Tony.” He held out a hand to shake.

Slowly, suddenly and surprisingly unsure, his neighbor extended his own, and they shook. He had a nice firm grip, without trying to assert any kind of power play. “Jack. You really don’t seem like the type to pick up guys in a bar.”

“I was kind of thinking you were the one doing the picking up. I just get veto power.”

Jack seemed to consider that… and then nodded decisively. “Yeah, okay. What do you suggest? You said you *probably* wouldn’t say no, and I gotta think it depends on what I put on the table. So what would you say yes to?”

“How about dinner? I’ve had a bit too much to drink to want to drive home without a solid meal in me.”

“Joe doesn’t seem to have much of a menu beyond nachos and beer nuts.”

“No, but there’s a pretty good Italian restaurant a few blocks from here. Drive me over there, feed me, and I can walk back to get my car. Or not… Deal?”

With a shit-eating grin, Jack straightened from his stool, tossed a nice tip on the bar, and helped a less-inebriated-than-he-seemed Tony stand straight, and led him out of the bar.

And sauntering down the street, Jack holding onto his elbow to keep his wobbly gait steady, Tony still heard absolutely nothing over his ear-bud. His back-up, any reasonably competent back-up, should have been screaming at him right now, and rushing to contain the guy, who exactly fit the profile they were looking for, leading him away to the potential slaughter.

They turned a corner… and suddenly there were half a dozen armed and uniformed guys surrounding them. Jack gave a curt order, “Somebody see this guy gets home safe and sound. He’s just way too trusting in the goodness of strangers to be let out on his own at night,” and turned toward an unmarked van across the street that looked very much like Tony’s own NCIS surveillance van.

But Tony held tight to Jack`s arm and dug in his heels, bringing the older man to an abrupt stop, blinking back at him in surprise at the sudden sobriety. “Hey, Jack. You might want to re-think side-lining me. I’m an NCIS federal agent working an undercover op to draw out a serial killer.”

Slowly, Jack passed his free hand over his face. “Well, crap. Welcome to the party, NCIS federal agent Tony. You better come with me so we can sort this out.”

“Yeah, I better, because my Boss is not going to want to give up jurisdiction, no matter who you represent.”

Jack shrugged and gestured toward his van. The back opened up and they both climbed in, and the squad of military (service branch, unit, base, even rank unknown in the stripped-down green BDU’s they wore) melted back into the night.

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Chapter Text

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There was some pretty impressive state-of-the-art equipment in this van, computers, monitors tied into surveillance cameras on the street, the near-by ATMs, and in the bar itself, screens showing heat signatures, satellite pictures of the neighborhood. All the surveillance his own team should be doing, a few blocks away. An attractive woman with short blonde hair manned one stool, also in tactical BDU’s, her graceful hands flying over the keyboards and controls in front of her. A huge mountain of a man with coal-black skin and a do-rag on his head and over his forehead sat looking over her shoulder with a placid expression, and a small round man in glasses sat with his back to the woman, operating the sound equipment.

The woman glanced over at Jack and his guest and shook her head.

“I have a positive ID on your NCIS agent, Sir,” she reported. “Second in command of the NCIS MCRT, Special Agent Anthony D. DiNozzo Jr.”

“That’s Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, thank you very much. And who are you people, exactly? Because you just walked into a federal investigation into a possible serial killer.”

“Yeah, we know,” Jack drawled. “It’s the same guy we’ve been looking for.”

Tony blinked. “Marseille? Manila?”

“And… a few other… places. General Jack O’Neill, two ‘L’s, Homeland Security. Colonel Samantha Carter, Murray Smith, and Dr. Bill Lee. I’m assuming you have back-up around here somewhere?”

“Yeah, I was kind of assuming that too, but I haven’t heard from them in a while. Our van is north of the bar.”

Col. Carter glanced at him and pointed out one of her monitors. The NCIS van was there, with two heat signatures inside… and one of the hacked surveillance cameras was inside their own van, showing McGee poking at some kind of game on the ipad he held in his lap, and Ziva reading a book. And all the monitors were dark. They hadn’t even turned anything on. Not the cameras, not the patches into Joe’s security system, not the sound recording equipment. They obviously had not even attempted to get the backgrounds he had requested, on any of the possible unsubs, or the other potential vic. Worse yet… They had no way of realizing that Tony was no longer in the bar.

General Jack didn’t seem impressed. Murray Smith lifted one eloquent eyebrow.

“Is this considered adequate back-up in a serial murder investigation?” the big man asked.

“No,” Tony gritted out. “It isn’t. I take it the guy in the gold-rim glasses is one of yours?”

“Yes,” agreed Col. Carter. “Dr. Daniel Jackson. He was the closest to the victim profile we had. And he’s a linguist. He speaks the… necessary languages we might need.”

“A linguist. I hope he has field training? FLETC at the least?”

“Not so much,” Jack confessed. “But he does have On-the-Job. Lots and lots of OTJ. Danny can handle this. And we probably do need the language skills.”

Tony nodded thoughtfully. “I had pictured our guy as an American abroad, very likely military or maybe diplomatic service, on foreign rotation or off some naval post or ship, but it would make sense he might be a foreign national, considering.”

Jack was studying him. “What took you to that particular bar?”

“He’s working Alexandria, close to the docks, close to the business sections, likes the more obscure and less crowded venues. Coyne was taken Monday night from three blocks over, left in a dumpster two blocks over Wednesday morning… in Marseille and Manila, the guy had a fixed trajectory, a straight line from the first target location to the last body drop. I drew a line on a map, and Joe’s seemed to fit the parameters the best. Isn’t that how you got here?”

Carter glanced at Jack and shrugged.

“No, actually,” Jack confessed. “We got a call. Someone told us to come here.”

“An anonymous caller? Or a CI?”

“CI?” Carter asked.

It was, oddly enough, the stiff and not-quite-local-sounding Murray Smith who supplied, “Confidential Informant in law enforcement parlance, Colonel Carter.” Although, to Tony’s ear, he ran Carter’s rank and name together as if they were one.

“So what’s your interest in the case?” Tony pressed, since they were obviously very reluctant to supply him with their sources. He had already made an educated guess that they knew Coyne. And if they used to be in Coyne’s chain of command, that made them special ops themselves, if not black ops. ‘Murray Smith’ certainly had a spookish feel to him, and O’Neill certainly struck him as a competent operative. Getting them to tell him more than they wanted to, or thought best, was going to take some finesse on his part. “The other vics were all foreign civilians, until Coyne. And as he was a marine, we got the call. It’s clearly NCIS jurisdiction, so tell me why I should let you muscle in on it?”

Another pregnant glance passed between Carter and O’Neill. Yeah, those two had served together a long time. Jack answered, “Coyne was one of mine. He served on a team under me, once upon a time. He’s since been deployed on other missions… in the south of France and the Philippines, as a matter of interest. There’s reason to think he might not have been entirely kosher the past few years, maybe even passing classified intel… not that he’s the murderer himself, or aiding and abetting… But whatever he got himself into, he didn’t deserve what happened to him, and I have a certain responsibility here. We didn’t realize anyone else would catch the connection between cases.”

“So you set up your own little undercover sting, sent in your linguist as bait… and when I arrived, you figured I was also a potential vic, and you moved to tie me up so I wouldn’t become a target. Thanks for that, Jack. Nicest thing anyone’s done for me in a while.”

“Yeah, and then you rumbled my cover and forced the issue to get me outside so we could have this little talk. And I presume you were keeping an eye on Daniel yourself, in case he got approached by our guy. Thanks back atcha, Tony.”

Tony and Jack shared grins. Jack shook his head. “So all that ranting about incompetent employees… you talking about the two yahoos who are supposed to be keeping you from getting jumped by a serial killer?”

That killed Tony’s mood. “Maybe you better let me deal with my team, hunh, Jack?”

And what, exactly, was he supposed to do with them? He had tried texting and calling over the past hour, and they had ignored all his attempts at communication. Ten minutes ago they were due to check in with MTAC, and if they hadn’t, Gibbs would have had their guts for garters, so what did they report? If he took a time out to go over to the NCIS van and rattle their cage, he stood a good chance of being stranded when O’Neill drove off and left him. That wouldn’t make his day at all.

Well, he had warned them, repeatedly, and given them a chance to prove they’d actually learned their lesson. Which they had promptly blown in every way possible.

He put in a direct call to MTAC, not even bothering to hide it from O’Neill and his team. It was Major Jersey on duty tonight. Gibbs was probably there too, directing whatever op Vance had him on, but this wasn’t for Gibbs, yet. He’d had as many chances to straighten out the team as Tony was willing to give, too. This one was going to have to play out by the book.

“Major Jersey? Special Agent DiNozzo reporting. There’s been several… complications with my op. Another agency was also running an undercover out here in the Coyne case. Homeland is claiming an interest. Please have Director Vance contact Assistant Director Morrow. Let them argue out jurisdiction. In the mean-time, I’m offering my services and all information we have to General O’Neill’s team so we can catch this guy. I’ll take full responsibility for this decision, but I think O’Neill has resources we need to prevent another murder, and… I think they need an experienced investigator on their team. So I’m making this a joint operation as of now. Oh, and you need to be advised that I’ve been unable to reach my back-up for the past hour and forty seven minutes. They don’t reply on my com, or to my texts or answer my cell calls. I have no reason to believe they are in any danger, but I have no way of knowing for sure, and can’t take the time right now to check on them, as I am still in play on the mission. Please send in a team to intercept the NCIS surveillance van. As of now I’m going off com, and I’ll be with O’Neill’s team. You can reach me on this cell.”

Jersey was an NCIS veteran of many years, and knew totally and completely FUBAR when he heard it. “Acknowledged, Agent DiNozzo. Take care out there, Tony.”

“You know it, Frank.”

Jack regarded him with some admiration. “Your back-up is going to get quite a shock when their ‘rescue’ arrives,” he commented. “Carter, make sure you get it all on tape, right?”

“Definitely, Sir,” Carter agreed crisply, sending a sympathetic glance at Tony.

Meanwhile, Jack had taken a cell of his own out. “Hey, Tom, sorry to call so late. Look, that murder in Alexandria. NCIS has jurisdiction, right?... Well, Coyne was one of mine, and this case may have… some overlap with my department. I’m out here looking into it, and I’ve got a Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo with me… Yeah, that’s the guy. We were running duelling undercovers, and he made me. He’s offering his investigative expertise… Yeah, I kind of had that figured. Tell Vance when he calls that I’m going to do my level best to steal him for us... Hey, kidnapping is a perfectly valid hiring technique among some of our allies. You want to talk to him?...” Jack handed over the cell.

“Director Morrow?” Tony assumed, to get a chuckle on the other end.

“I just told Jack you’re the best there is, Tony. He and his team are good, really good, but they’re not investigators.”

“Yeah, I noticed. That’s why I suggested a partnership in the first place. But you know how Gibbs is going to take it, not to mention Director Vance.”

“You let me worry about Gibbs and Vance. They have a bit of a wake-up call coming to them both. You just do your job, and everything else will fall into place. Good luck fending off O’Neill. He’s very… persistent, when he wants something.”

“No kidnapping NCIS Very Special Agents. Gotcha.”

“Good luck, Tony. To you and O’Neill. Be careful out there.”

“Will do, Director Morrow.” Tony had always liked and respected the former director of NCIS… and apparently, the feeling had been mutual. Which made a refreshing change from Tony’s usual bosses of late. He passed Jack’s cell back to him and waited…

He did a silent count-down to his own burner cell ringing. He could almost hear the anger behind the drilling buzz.

“DiNozzo!” barked the familiar dulcet tones of his Boss, Leroy Jethro Gibbs. “What the hell is going on out there?”

Murray leaned over to touch his elbow and point to the monitor on the NCIS van. Tony could only grimace as he watched armed agents converge and rip open the back doors of the van. Jesus. He could only hope their unsub was already inside the bar, and didn’t have any way of knowing what was going on in the streets barely out of sight.

“I gave my report to Major Jersey, Boss. Homeland wants a piece of the Coyne case, and I’m going to give it to them, since they’re currently my *only* back-up, and they seem to be in a far better position to catch our guy right now. I haven’t been able to contact McGee or Ziva for almost two hours. I had Jersey send in a rescue team, because I have no idea why they don’t reply, on coms, text or cell. Rule one and three, Boss. Among other violations. You can slap my head if you want to when I get back, but rule thirty eight applies. My case, my lead.”

There was a beat or two of silence, and then a grimly resigned, “Your case, Tony. Keep in touch.”

“Will do, Boss,” Tony replied briskly. He hung up, gave a heavy sigh as he could only guess how this would all play out tomorrow. But the fact was, he didn’t much care at this point. As long as he could prevent another murder and catch the bad guy, he was going to let the rest of the cards fall as they would.

So he turned to O’Neill and his team with an artificially bright smile, and began to brief them on the facts of the case, giving Carter direction to find the links she needed to assemble the same information Tony already had.

He barely registered that the rescue team had invaded the NCIS van, and, after a few minutes of scuffle when Ziva, predictably, put up a fight with agents she worked beside nearly every day, his two team-mates finally settled down, sat in the back of the van, and let one of the rescue agents drive them back to the Navy Yard.

Å

“Okay, your Dr. Jackson may be a kick-ass linguist, but he needs a bit of coaching in undercover. As that happens to be one of my specialties, mind if I give him a tip or two?”

Carter immediately touched a toggle and said, “Daniel? We’ve got an NCIS agent with us helping out. Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo. He was undercover at the bar when the general engaged with him, hunting the same guy we are.”

From the camera view, Tony could tell the guy was having a hard time remembering not to speak into thin air. “Hey, Daniel. Tony here. Look, take out your cell phone, and pretend to be texting someone you don’t like very much, or who is annoying the hell out of you. Like Jack maybe? I bet he’s a dream to work for, but the crew cut alone must drive you up the wall.”

With a heavy sigh, Daniel pulled a cell out of his pocket and scowled convincingly, even as he tried to suppress a smirk.

“Good. If you need to say something to us now, no one is going to notice or think it odd. Now, you’ve hit most of the high points this guy is looking for, nice Tom Ford, by the way, but he’s after an angry drinker, someone frustrated and stressed. You’ve just been quietly sipping your way through your scotch and soda, not bothering anyone. It won’t do to change character too suddenly, so here’s what we’re going to do. You’re scowling on your phone, texting away, and not getting anything back. This aggravates you. So in a minute you’re going to try and call, and not get an answer. This is going to trip you over into complaining loudly to your friendly neighborhood barman about the unfairness of it all. Think about the one thing that really and truly frustrates you about your job, and rant away. Remember, none of these people know you, and you’ll never be back here again, so this is the safest venting you’ll ever get. That’s why you came here in the first place, a safe place to really get it out.

“Our guy is here tonight, I’d stake my job on it. He’s been watching both of us all evening, to see if one of us suits his needs. I think he would have taken a crack at me, until Jack intervened. But now he needs to see something he wants in you, or he’s going to walk, and we’ll lose him. Now I ID’d four possible suspects, mature white men who are strangers in Joe’s, and they’re all still there, and all four were paying a lot of attention to both of us all evening. So go ahead, and work your way up to a full-on rant, and we’ll see if we can’t catch ourselves a bad guy. And don’t worry, we’ve got your six.”

Carter blinked at Tony, then glanced at Jack. “I’m with you, sir. I think we should take him home with us. He’s wasted at NCIS.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Jack agreed. “We certainly could have used him back when Bocce was causing us so much grief.”

Tony grinned and puffed a little, but his attention was all on the monitors watching the bar.

Å

Daniel had taken his instructions to heart, and was working that phone like a pro. Then he built from a grumble to a full-blown rant to the accommodating barman, who refilled his tumbler.

Tony sighed. “He’s really drinking those scotches? He hasn’t got a way to fake it?” When Jack grimaced and Carter shook her head no, Tony sighed again. “Then… can he hold his liquor?”

“Not so’s you’d notice,” Jack admitted glumly. “A second beer is usually enough to give him a solid buzz.”

Tony frowned at the monitors. “Then he’s not faking the drunken list, either? Swell.”

Carter and Lee ran down what they could on the four men Tony pointed out, but with only facial recognition to go on, it was going to take time. If his own team had been doing their fucking jobs, Tony reflected, they’d have all this info by now.

Jack grinned at his linguist, now waving his hands in passion, ranting about budgets and bureaucrats and fucking pencil-counters making him cut staff and still demanding more results faster. And how the fuck was he supposed to do that, hunh? Could they not do the fucking math themselves? Fine accountants they were. And then there was the damned macho posturing alpha male military he had to work with… who wouldn’t know a gerund from a dangling participle…

Jack asked, “Which one of the four do you think is the best bet, very special agent Tony?”

“I’m gonna go with bachelor number two, under the TV by the pool table.”

“For what reason?” Murray asked.

“The two guys at the bar have been edging away from the loud angry voice, the guy in the corner booth has been drinking too heavily… He’s going to need a taxi out of here. And number two has been faking with the last two drinks served him, one went into the plant holder and the second disappeared after he went to the men’s room. He’s been carefully *not* looking at Daniel the past half hour.”

“Seriously, very special agent Tony, I really need to recruit you for my team. You got half decent clearance, I assume?” Jack pressed.

Grinning, Tony shrugged, and pointed to the monitors Jack and Carter had turned from. “In case you didn’t notice, there’s someone making a move on your linguist. And, oh look, it’s bachelor number two, the guy who was sitting right under the corner TV.”

Carter referenced another laptop screen of information. “Facial recognition just came up. He’s ‘John Smith’ from Oklahoma City,” she said. “Oklahoma driver’s license.”

“Relative of yours?” Tony asked the big black dude.

Dr. Lee said, “It’s a fake ID. He’s not in any US government database. There’s a US passport for him according to customs scans at various airports, but he’s not in our system. Or any system.”

“That’s our guy,” Tony nodded. “And, oh look. The old hand over the glass trick. He’s just dosed your linguist’s drink with a date-rape drug.”

Jack tapped his ear-bud. “Daniel? Don’t drink anything. He’s poisoned your scotch…”

“Oops, too late,” Tony warned. “Get your guys to the back door. He took Coyne out the back. He has to have some kind of transportation waiting there. We weren’t able to get a firm ID on what he’s driving from any of the cams around the first crime scene. But he takes them to a secure and private secondary location, where he takes his time with each victim before he brings them back and dumps them, a block from where they were taken.”

Carter checked her satellite monitors and groaned. “No vehicles out back. He may have… alternate transport, Sir.”

Tony frowned. “If he doesn’t have a vehicle in the ally… he wouldn’t be fool enough to take his vic out on the street, would he? We didn’t see any sign of that with the first crime scene.”

Jack looked grim as he said, “Carter, Bill, look for any sign of that alternate transport. Tony, Teal’c, you’re with me.”

Jack jumped out the back to join his military team, and Tony quickly followed, drawing his secondary piece from its ankle holster, with Murray at their backs. Or was it Teal’c? Yeah, he hadn’t thought Murray Smith sounded like this guy’s likely name.

With a few quick motions of his hands, Jack silently sent his squad separating into different directions, giving only a quick glance to Tony to make sure he understood. Tony, trained exhaustively by ex-marine Gunny Gibbs, gave a sharp nod and followed, fire-arm held cautiously in both hands, but aimed down as he kept his awareness on his surroundings.

They crept quietly to hidden vantage points in the foul-smelling alley behind the bar, stacked with crates of empty bottles and strewn with refuse, a couple of crammed-full dumpsters (Tony made a mental note to check if garbage day had anything to do with which nights their unsub went hunting).

The bar’s back door shrieked at being pushed open, and there came bachelor number two, with an arm around Jackson as the barely-conscious man moaned and complained in some unintelligible tongue. Some self-protective instinct momentarily wakened and Daniel cried out, “Wait a minute, who are you? Where are we going?”

“Just going to the car, give you a ride home. You’re too drunk to drive.”

“Wait a minute. Where’s Jack? Why isn’t he here?” Daniel’s voice was getting more slurred and indistinct all the time, as he hung heavier in the unsub’s hold. And Daniel was no light-weight, Tony had noted that there was a solid frame and muscles on the guy under the elegant lines of the charcoal grey Tom Ford suit. Bachelor Number Two was already staggering under all that dead-weight, so Tony wondered how the hell he was going to get his vic out of the area.

While clutching desperately on to Daniel with one arm, he reached into a pocket for something… in the errant shadows and dim lighting of the alley, Tony thought it was probably a cell phone, maybe calling for a partner. Nothing in the crimes so far indicated a second unsub, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one.

But beside him, Jack cursed out, “Oh hell no. Carter! He’s signaling!”

That was all Tony needed to hear. They had probable cause for an arrest on abduction right now, and that would give them time to hold their suspect so they could get the evidence they needed for the murders. And that was all Tony cared about.

So he leapt out of hiding, his gun up and aimed, and announced, “Hold it right there! NCIS! Federal agent! You’re under arrest. Drop the man and put your hands on your head.”

The guy looked shocked as he stared uncomprehending at Tony. Then behind him at the rest of the party. He clicked something on the object in his hand, and Tony dived forward in his best Ohio Buckeyes tackle.

A sheen of blinding white light seemed to flood all around him… the strangest tingling sensation… his sight graying out for a second as he struggled to focus… and then he was in a gold-lined room, with the unsub under him and Daniel sprawled under that.

And before he could even get to his knees, there was a weird hissing, wheezing noise behind him, a crackle as if from static electricity, and then Tony felt himself vibrating as if he had stuck his wet finger in a live electrical socket… and everything went black.

Å

Meanwhile, in an alley in Alexandria, one frustrated, resigned voice said, “Well, crap.”

Å

Chapter Text

Å

Vance had come in to the Navy Yard after talking to both Gibbs and Homeland Assistant Director Tom Morrow over the phone. He wanted to talk to his agents first hand to find out what the hell was going on with the Coyne case. He could smell the unmistakable odor of a situation going very bad, and he wanted to be on hand to see for himself and do whatever damage control was necessary.

Oh yeah, it was bad, all right.

Major Jersey had sent in the S&R team under Special Agent Ruiz when he couldn’t contact the MCRT surveillance van. Probationary agent David had apparently assaulted one of the team members when they entered the van and attempted to take control of the operation and the van. Ruiz reported to Vance and Gibbs that the van had been silent, none of the equipment operational, no cameras, no monitors, no sound equipment recording a damn thing, and no sign of DiNozzo, the agent undercover they were supposed to be tracking and protecting from their post. Agent McGee had been playing some kind of game on his ipad, while agent David was reading a book. Jersey had already told Ruiz in his initial briefing that DiNozzo was off com and working with another team, or Ruiz would have immediately begun searching for the missing undercover agent. But since DiNozzo’s team-mates seemed neither concerned nor very interested in the fate of their SFA, Ruiz didn’t feel inclined to enlighten them. He reported back to Vance in some disgust that neither junior agent had even asked about Tony.

Gibbs had ordered that his junior agents be taken down to interrogation, in separate rooms, to cool their heels until he was ready to deal with them.

Gibbs shook his head as he stood before Vance, all too aware that he bore some culpability in the situation. He honestly hadn’t realized how bad it had got. And that was his mistake, because Tony had warned him, multiple times, that the junior agents were off the rails, and not listening to him. Gibbs hadn’t taken those concerns seriously. Frankly, he felt that as long as they listened to *him*, it didn’t matter if they respected DiNozzo as their superior or not. He had known about their failure to back up Tony properly during the Military-at-Home case, and had thought a stern talking-to had resolved the matter. Apparently not.

“Well, Gibbs? Do you want to handle this, or should I?”

Shaking his head in disgust, Gibbs said, “I wish I could lay it all on you, Leon. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this. I warned them never to fail to back up their partners again, and they obviously weren’t listening. But… Rule forty five. Clean up your own mess.”

Vance stiffened. “Care to enlighten me about this previous screw-up, Gibbs?”

Gibbs sighed. “Not particularly, no. But...” He gave Vance the run down on the Military-at-Home incident, including the fact that he had convinced Tony not to write them up at the time. He even confessed he had leaned on his SFA pretty hard, as had Abby, to get him to back down, because Tony had been livid.

“And rightly so,” Vance growled out. “You do realize that there was a time when I had to wonder if I could depend upon back-up to be there for me, just because I was black? That, to this day, very few men in law enforcement or the military confess their homosexual orientation for the same reason? Tell me Gibbs… are they *trying* to get DiNozzo killed? And why?”

Gibbs shook his head, frustrated and angry. “Deliberately? Consciously? I don’t know. I know the insults and jokes have always edged into insubordination, and I let it go. My mistake. But lately… McGee is jealous, and resents being treated like a bratty little brother. He honestly thinks that his computer skills make him a better agent than DiNozzo… partly because you’ve told him so. That’s on you, Leon. As for Ziva… I think she still holds some resentment over the Rivkin thing.”

Vance narrowed his eyes. “And DiNozzo trusted them enough to back him up tonight?”

Gibbs slowly shook his head. “I… I don’t know that, either, Leon. I was supposed to be out there with them, until I was pulled at the last minute. It may have been just that he thought this was important enough to go ahead and do anyway. We may not have put much stock in the serial killer theory, but DiNozzo was pretty certain… and apparently, so was Homeland. And Tony has a lot of faith in his own abilities. He might have thought he could handle it on his own, even without depending on them to be there for him.”

“Aw hell…” Vance sighed, running a hand over his hair. A ding on his phone had him checking an email that had just come through. “Tom just sent me a file. DiNozzo requested everything the Marseille and Manila police had on their cases, and they’d been going through red tape channels… but when the Homeland team got involved, they pulled strings to get the info right away. I’ve got the crime scene photos of the murders…” Vance took a glance at photo after photo, and swallowed with difficulty. “Damn. It looks like DiNozzo was right after all. The wounds, the weapons used… all a dead match for Coyne.”

Gibbs shut his eyes tight and took a deep breath. “Yeah, of course Tony was right, again. So he really was out trying to attract the attention of a serial killer tonight.”

“He was. While his backup sat deaf and blind with their heads in the sand. Oh, by the way, Tom said the Homeland Team was real impressed with DiNozzo. Not so much with the backup NCIS assigned him.”

“Well, no shit, Leon!”

“He said to tell you that the guy in charge of the team is interested in recruiting DiNozzo away from us. And that you know him. A three star Air Force general by the name of Jack O’Neill. Two ‘L’s.”

The name seemed to hit Gibbs hard. “Oh yeah. We go way back, Jack and me. He was a major during Desert Storm. Ran a special ops team… I went out with them a few times, sniper support. Jack was a guest of the Iraqis for three months because his team left him for dead… Jack is a real stickler for the ‘leave no man behind’ rule. He would be pretty steamed about a couple of junior agents who didn’t bother to turn on comms when their direct supervisor was undercover trolling for a killer. But… a three star working an undercover op? Even one with the special ops expertise Jack has? What the hell, Leon?”

“I was wondering that myself. But our curiosity isn’t a priority right now. Alright. Your interviews. I want to stick around to watch. I want to know what the hell they were thinking. But then we turn this over to IA, and they go on suspension without pay, until they’re either cleared or fired. Right?”

Gibbs nodded curtly. “Out of my hands now. This time they went too far, and that’s on them.”

“Not just too far, but with S&R intervention required, and the Homeland team saw it too. I don’t see either of them getting out of this with their careers intact. By morning, there won’t be a team in the alphabet agencies that will let them in.”

Gibbs gave one more sharp nod. “I sure as hell won’t. I gave them one more chance than I should have, more than they deserved.”

“Then let’s get it done.”

Å

McGee was looking nervous, shifting in the uncomfortable interrogation room chair, glancing worriedly at the one-way-glass, then at the camera with the red light pointedly blinking to signal it was running.

Gibbs came in with a crash of the door slamming back to the wall, the force of his shoving it open reflected in the furious scowl on his face. He slammed down the file in his hands and dropped in his chair, staring at his junior agent. Before tonight, he would have sworn the kid had a shining future in the agency, might even have reached his ambition of sitting in the Director’s Chair one day. He had evolved from the stuttering scared-of-his-shadow computer nerd from Norfolk Cyber Crimes into a courageous and competent agent – or so Gibbs had thought. What the hell had happened? After a moment of staring, during which McGee started to sweat, but remained silent, Gibbs finally barked out a command.

“Talk to me, McGee.”

McGee blinked, then seemed to find his spine and grew resentful, with a prideful, even arrogant thrust of his chin. Gibbs could see it happening before his eyes. “About what?” he demanded.

Astounded, Gibbs swallowed his shock. “Let’s start with your verbal report. What was your assignment?”

“Ziva and I were supposed to be backup for Tony’s undercover op in Alexandria, running surveillance. We prepped the van and drove out to Joe’s Bar, the other side of the river. Tony went separately by taxi. We tested the com and… that was it.”

“That was it. You were assigned as undercover backup and surveillance.”

“Yes.”

“So where is the surveillance? Tapes of the com chatter, local cameras inside and outside the bar, any suspects run down… where is it?”

“We… we didn’t actually… come on, Boss. It was all a joke! There’s no serial killer, that’s all just in Tony’s head. You know it, we know it, even the Director knows it. Even if there is, what are the chances Tony picked the one bar in the tri-state where he would be tonight? He must have thrown a dart at a board for that one! It was just a big waste of time out there!”

“Which you spent… doing what? Besides refusing to reply to your direct supervisor and senior field agent, the guy you were supposed to be backing up? Come on, McGee, what were you actually doing on the NCIS dime out there?”

McGee opened his mouth, then shut it tight.

“Since your primary focus tonight was supposed to be DiNozzo, can you tell me when was the last time you knew his whereabouts and status?”

“He was at the bar.”

“When? When was the last time you had first-hand knowledge of his location and condition?”

“It was… just after we arrived. He got there first…”

“You were supposed to already be in place, with taps on all the cameras in the area. Why weren’t you?”

“We stopped… for gas, and then we stopped to grab take-out. It took a little longer than expected. So Tony was already in place when we arrived. But he was just fine. Drinking scotches and watching sports on the NCIS dime,” McGee practically sneered, echoing Gibbs. “Then he got all… bossy. Giving out orders. Like he was better than us. On a useless op that was nothing more than a make-work project because Vance felt like indulging him, or annoying you, whichever. So we decided we didn’t want to play his game.”

Every word out of the man’s mouth was more shocking to Gibbs. How the hell had he missed this level of back-biting resentment and petty grievance? McGee was always the perfect agent when Gibbs was around to see, and even when he used his patented stealth skills to sneak up on the bull-pen, McGee had always seemed properly respectful and cowed, eager to please his superiors, even more eager to avoid the famous Gibbs wrath. But, all-too obvious now, he didn’t see DiNozzo as a superior, or someone to respect, let alone obey. Tony had tried to tell him there were problems, that the insubordination was getting out of hand, that he didn’t trust either junior agent to obey his orders or back him in the field… Gibbs hadn’t listened. Had thought it was a case of Tony going too far with one too many pranks in the office, and was therefore getting what he deserved as payback. And the happy-go-lucky womanizing frat-boy image, taking nothing seriously, quoting movies no one else had seen at the drop of a hat… had got old for Gibbs real fast. He often forgot the mask didn’t go very deep, that it was calculated to get others to underestimate the agent. Well, guess it worked, all too well, even on his team mates and team lead.

“So tell me, McGee. As Tony’s backup tonight. Where is he right now?”

Smirking, the junior agent pointed at the glass. “In the observation room, of course. Having a good laugh at my expense.” He raised his voice for the benefit of his supposed audience. “Okay, Tony. You got us. We weren’t watching or listening to your drivel tonight. So sue us. Not like you wouldn’t have done the same thing in our shoes.”

Gibbs felt his anger ratchet up yet again. “When did DiNozzo *ever* let either you or Ziva down in the field? When, McGee?”

“I… I can’t recall just this minute, but there were times…”

“Never. He never failed to have your six. Ever. And as your direct supervisor—”

“Since when?”

“Since always! He’s my Senior Field Agent, junior agent McGee.”

“Oh, so we have to obey Tony’s orders now? Since when? Even when you had your Mexican siesta, he was a joke, only there as a temporary team lead until you came back from holiday, because we needed someone to sign off on our pay checks. You sure dumped him back in his place fast enough when you came back. You’ve never made us listen to him or obey him before. What’s different tonight? Just because we got caught with our pants down? And tomorrow we can go back to ignoring him and laughing behind his back? Fine. Okay. So we should at least have been paying enough attention to what was going on around the van that Ruiz and his team couldn’t sneak up on us. Lesson learned. Is there a rule that covers it?”

Face like stone and heart cracking, Gibbs muttered, “Rule number one. Never screw over your partner.”

With that, Gibbs vaulted to his feet and bolted from the room. He made it all the way to the men’s room to lose his last three meals and all the coffee he’d consumed that day. Vance soon joined him.

“I… I didn’t know, Leon. I didn’t see it. I have no idea where all that garbage came from.”

“What, you didn’t read McGee’s books? I thought they told the story pretty damn well.” Vance shrugged. “I knew DiNozzo wasn’t getting much respect on the team, from the junior agents or from you. I heard you more than once claim they didn’t have to obey him. I never interfered, because for a long time, I agreed. Then it seemed like it was too late to change course. For a very long time I thought he was a waste of space. Then Tom Morrow had a talk with me, gave me a Gibbs-slap to the head. I found his records from Peoria, Philly and Baltimore. I found his advanced degrees in criminology and psychology. You realize he’s Dr. DiNozzo? I looked a little deeper into his father… did you know the man is a con artist who’s blown his way through three different fortunes, all money he married into? He disowned DiNozzo when he was twelve in order to break his trust funds from his mother’s family—”

Gibbs blinked. “That was true? I thought he was joking.”

“Well, he wasn’t. His maternal relatives stopped DiNozzo Sr. from getting his hands on the trusts, but did dick all to support what was basically an orphan, a twelve year old who was pawned off on the first year-round and cheapest boarding school his ass-hole father could find. Until that case with the Saudis, he hadn’t even seen his father since he was twelve years old. Any contact came through one of Senior’s wives.”

Gibbs shut his eyes tight.

“You get all you wanted out of McGee?”

Gibbs nodded. “There’s really nothing else he can say about the situation, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to talk to him again. Maybe ever.”

“Fine. I’ll finish up with him. What about David?”

That was like a lance through his heart. “No… I’ll have to handle it. You going to watch this time?”

“I think I better. McGee can wait.”

Å

Gibbs next entrance was far more controlled. There was no intimidating the ex-Mossad officer. Their relationship had been entirely different, and far closer. Gibbs knew this was going to hurt, and hurt badly. Only question was how bad. And he couldn’t let Ziva see even a hint of it. She’d sniff out weakness, and capitalize on it, like a shark scenting blood in the water.

So he came in with measured deliberation, sat in the seat, spread out his file, and showed the pictures of murder victims half a world away.

“I’m thinking this proves DiNozzo was right. There’s a serial killer at work in Alexandria. He was hunting tonight in Joe’s bar.”

Ziva studied the pictures carefully, eyes black and opaque, and Gibbs couldn’t help but make the shark comparison again. ‘Dead eyes. Like a doll’s eyes.’ A quote from *Jaws* Tony would no doubt appreciate.

“Tony?” Ziva said carefully, no inflection, not dragging her attention back to Gibbs, still studying the crime photos.

“You were his backup. You should know. Why don’t you know?”

He saw her swallow. It was a small tell, but of what, Gibbs no longer knew. He waited for whatever she chose to say next. When nothing came back and she wouldn’t even look at him, he sighed.

“Got nothing to say? Fine.”

He pulled back the photos into the file and picked up, standing to leave.

“Is he dead, Gibbs? Like… that?”

“You hoping I say yes, Ziva?”

Only then did she lift her eyes to him, and he saw such stark fury in them it shook him.

“It would only be justice, would it not? For Michael?”

Something in Gibbs snapped. Perhaps it was the bond he had imagined between he and the woman he thought had saved his life, had killed her brother in the name of the truth. Even after that interrogation in Tel Aviv, when Tony had turned the tables on Eli David, and Gibbs had learned that it hadn’t only been the truth that prompted Ziva to shoot her brother, but orders from their father… A number of people had tried to warn him, and he hadn’t listened. The first had been Tony, unwilling to trust the woman who had been Ari’s handler, who had profiled Kate Todd for her killer, claiming not to know he had gone rogue. And once the young man had dared to question Gibbs and his decisions, he ceased to be the partner Gibbs thought he was. Gibbs had been withdrawing his trust from his loyal Saint Bernard, by degrees big and small, ever since. Because he thought he knew better about Ziva David. He thought he owned her loyalty, over her father, over her country. He’d been proved wrong again and again, with DiNozzo watching, and that too had caused him to cut off his SFA from whatever support he had every right to expect.

It wasn’t just McGee and Ziva who had left Tony hanging out there tonight.

“Goodbye, Ziva.”

“Gibbs, wait! What does this mean? Tony’s not really dead, is he? If so, you know it’s as much his fault as anyone’s. He knew we weren’t listening. We turned down his texts and phone calls. He should have abandoned his op right then and called us on it. That he didn’t is on him.”

“He was hunting a serial killer. If he abandoned his op, we might have been looking at another body in a dumpster.”

“So he is alive,” and Ziva couldn’t, quite, suppress her disappointment at that. “Then what’s the problem? As with the Military at Home case, nothing untoward happened. No harm no chickens. Correct?” Just the hint of a smirk in her expression let Gibbs know she was teasing him with the mangled saying, expecting what had become an automatic correction that would imply all was back to normal. When she didn’t get it… “He’ll be angry with us, again, for leaving him hanging, but he’ll get over it and we move on. Yes?”

“And the rescue team? The MTAC techs who watched them raid the van, not knowing why you and McGee weren’t answering any calls? Only to find you both with your thumbs up your asses, not doing your jobs? Leaving a fellow agent hanging without the backup you were supposed to be providing? You honestly think anyone is ever going to trust you again? Not just Tony, not just me, but anyone? Anywhere? You’re done, Ziva. Goodbye.”

“Gibbs! No! Wait! Come back, tell me what I must do to fix this! You will help me. I know you will. We have a bond, you and I. You know this. I know this. We made a mistake, perhaps, McGee and I. But that’s all it was. A simple mistake. Tony will understand. He will forgive us. He will not insist we leave the team.”

Gibbs hesitated. “Fix this? How do you propose to do that, Ziva? I warned you and McGee both, never to do this again. Did you listen to me? No, you didn’t. You had your chance, more than your chance, to do things the right way, and you refused. Even a rookie fresh out of FLETC knows better than to defy a direct order from the Director. No, DiNozzo probably won’t insist you and McGee leave the team. But only because he’ll leave himself, probably leave NCIS altogether, when he can’t trust any of us to watch his back, even on the most simple, straight up surveillance op. But you think I want you around, anywhere near me, after this? You or McGee? You think Director Vance will ever trust you to obey an order again, or just do your damn jobs? How stupid do you think that would make us? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Yeah, DiNozzo will probably forgive you. In time. But I won’t.”

“Gibbs! Please!” Ziva called out one more time. There were tears in her voice, on her cheeks, but Gibbs only looked at her dispassionately, wondering if they were even real. If anything about her was real.

“Was it all an act, from the beginning? Were you always a Mossad spy for your father? No loyalty to any of us if it got Mossad what it wanted? And what was that, exactly?”

Ziva swallowed, staring at Gibbs, no doubt looking for any crack in his stony façade, any tiniest leverage she could use to pry him open, get out of this mess, and crawl back into his good graces. But she must know, by now, that was no longer possible. So, with nothing left to lose, she merely shrugged, and sat back down, sighing wearily, and drawing Gibbs back to the table to sit across from her.

“Jenny and my father were trading favors, and one of those was my place on the MCRT team, in exchange for anything we had on Benoit. You know how obsessed she was with him. I thought you knew all this. After Jenny, Father managed to extend his deal to Vance. Oh, don’t look so concerned. I was told not to risk whatever advantage I had gained by stealing classified information directly from NCIS… if I was ever caught, the repercussions would be disastrous, not just for me, but for Mossad and Israel itself. No, my mission parameters were more subtle than that. I was back-up and handler for a succession of Mossad agents and operations in the US… with federal credentials and official access, I was perfectly placed to run ops just like Michael’s, with backgrounds, BOLOs, warnings if need be, prepared to cover and extract if necessary. My position and mission support was vital.”

“And Rivkin?”

“I made many mistakes there. My father was quick enough to point them all out, as were you. I had ample opportunities to get Michael out of the States, if I had only taken Tony seriously as a threat. But Michael was dead the moment he killed that ICE agent, and he knew it. Only I refused to believe it. All else… I miscalculated on the tarmac in Tel Aviv. That… was unlike me. To challenge you so directly, demand you make a choice you didn’t want to make. I knew at the time I should have played it differently. But… ah well. I had plenty of time for regrets. So when you came for me in Somalia, I knew a better way to proceed, to get my way. For all the good it’s done me.

“I did cut my ties to Mossad… I did chose to apply for US citizenship… all perfectly sincere, at the time… until my father got his hooks into me once more. It’s a weakness, a fatal weakness, I admit, but… what little girl would chose to turn down her father’s approval, if it meant he would also give her his love? Even though I knew he was using me, had never seen me as anything more than a tool, just like he saw Ari… Even though I knew I could never trust him, depend upon him, he would never be there for me the way you were, in Somalia… In his eyes I had betrayed my country and family when I chose NCIS and you, Gibbs… and when I returned to his service, in your eyes, had you known it, I would have betrayed you, NCIS and my new country. I couldn’t win. So I tried to do both, and betrayed both.

“And the worst part? When I learned that it was Tony who drove you to find me in Somalia, Tony who rescued me, backed his partner to the last, even though that partner was me, a woman he could never love, never trust, someone he blamed for the death of another partner… Tony. The ever-loyal, ever trustworthy Saint Bernard. How easy it was for me to hate him, if only because he could be what I never could.”

“Leon thinks you were trying to get DiNozzo killed out there tonight. If that’s true, I’m pretty sure it isn’t the first time, or even the second. Is that what you were trying to do, Ziva?”

“No, I… No… Not… deliberately. None of it was… planned. More like… a daydream. Wouldn’t it be nice if Tony never made it back…”

“Revenge, for Rivkin? A way to consolidate your position here? Or was it simpler than that, envy? Eliminating a rival, or someone you see as a rival, for my attention? I always let you guys compete, thought a little healthy competition between agents brought out the best in all of you. But clearly, I was wrong. It made you and McGee treat Tony like the enemy. Someone to be insulted, undermined, ignored, hated, driven out. Is that how you treat each other? McGee should have been in charge of you out there, junior agent ahead of probie, but he’s scared stiff of you, only too glad to hide behind your Mossad training and follow your orders over any scrap of conscience or sense he has. He followed your lead out in Royal Woods, and he followed it tonight, didn’t he? Does he know you want Tony dead?”

“McGee doesn’t know anything, beyond his own jealousy of Tony, his own resentment of not being treated as he thinks he deserves, by virtue of his degrees, his schools, his supposed genius. He is so easy to manipulate, Gibbs, always. As were you. All any woman need do is appeal to the protector in you, the husband and father who failed your girls, and is so determined not to fail another. Ironic, isn’t it? The only one of you I couldn’t be certain to control was Tony. Your wild card. You would not believe the tricks I pulled, to undermine his authority, with you, with Shepherd, with Vance… the number of times I attempted to seduce him… I fully believed all along the way to control him was through his libido. Everything I knew about him, even before I joined the team, told me he was no more than a silly frat-boy, with no sense, never serious, worthless. More fool me. It was he who strung me along, using our attractions for each other against me even more effectively than I used it on him.”

“But why, Ziva? Why all the games? Your place on the team was secure, if you had just towed the line, and you did. Mostly. You must know he was never a threat to you, unless you made him one. Why attack Tony like that, again and again? Why do you want him dead?”

Ziva raised her dull, defeated eyes to him. “Because you always liked him best. Stupid, isn’t it? When you needed someone to trust, you turned to him. When you needed a strong right hand, you turned to him. When you needed a lead, an answer, a spark of intuition, you turned to him. The rest of us were all mere after-thoughts.

“Even when I was most secure at NCIS, I knew that Tony was watching me. He never trusted me. I think he always held me at least partly responsible for agent Todd’s death. He never fell for either my promises, or my lies. And it grew worse over time. He never failed to back me up as a partner, or to support me when called upon, he came for me in Somalia when no one else would have bothered, just because he was my partner… but every attempt of mine to seduce him, to worm my way behind his masks and under his armor, only made him more skeptical of my motives, more watchful of my every move. It began to seem to me that the only way I could truly secure my position, in your team, your estimation, your life, was if Tony was driven out. So now, at last, Tony has finally been driven out, by my actions. As Abby would say… Go me. And yet it has done me no good at all.”

Ziva shrugged. “What have I left now?”

Gibbs shook his head, saying nothing. There was nothing left to say. When he left the interrogation room this time, Ziva did not bother to call him back.

Å

Chapter Text

Å

Tony groaned as he slowly came out of the jangled fog. What the hell hit him? He would have guessed a taser, but it packed way more punch than he thought the stun guns actually had. Without yet daring to open his eyes, he knew he was sitting up, ankles fastened together, wrists also cuffed in front of him, leaning back against a wall, legs stretched out straight, so he was on a floor. He still had his pants and belt, but suit jacket, vest, tie, shirt and undershirt were all gone, leaving him bare-chested. Oh, and, wriggling his toes, he had socks but no shoes. The ambient temperature in the room was a little on the cool side, all things considered, but livable.

Terrific, DiNozzo, mission accomplished, you are now captured by your unsub, and taken to his secondary location, where he has the leisure time and security to take you apart like his other eleven victims. Good one.

There was sound to one side, another man groaning. Just the way the sound bounced and echoed told him they were in a large inside space, but that was about it. No distant sirens or traffic sounds, no smell of water nearby… so not the cliché warehouse by the river, then. It didn’t have the wet mildewed smell of a basement, either. No oil or gas fumes from a garage, or earthy soil or rich grass smells from a garden shed. If anything, it reminded him of ozone. That canned smell you get on submarines, but with less tight-quarters seaman reek.

His inner Gibbs voice told him briskly to ‘Man up, marine!’ and just open his damn eyes to see where he actually was.

It took a moment for his eyes to clear and focus, but he was in a weird-shaped room, flat floor and wall facing, but the ceiling was oddly arched, as if this were half of a Quonset hut. And even more weird, to stop him thinking ‘submarine’ again, every surface but the mirror-polished floor was covered in gold, embossed gold, bearing columns on columns of what looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics. There were stacks of crates, not made of wood, but maybe heavy-duty plastic, along a few walls, and nothing that looked even remotely like a door, so Tony was hoping it was just hidden behind some of the crates.

What the hell? Was he in a museum storeroom or something? A Rosicrucian closet? Yet another serial killer whose day job was at the Smithsonian?

Another groan from the man beside him, and yes, it was Dr. Daniel Jackson, linguist and undercover asset with lots of OTJ but no official FLETC training. He was also bound at ankles and wrists, hands in his lap, with pants and socks, but bare-chested with no shoes. Oh, and neither of them had glasses any more. Tony didn’t need them, but he would bet academic Dr. Jackson was half-blind without his.

“Daniel. You with me, buddy?”

“Very special agent Tony? Yeah. I’m good. It kinda burned away the scotch and whatever he dosed me with, so that’s a plus. But, God, I hate those things.”

“No kidding. What the hell was it? It felt like a taser on steroids.”

“That’s pretty much exactly what it was. Just don’t get hit a second time, for another hour or so, at least.”

“Yeah, sure. So, Dr. Jackson, it looks like we’re in the basement of the Smithsonian… which is complicated, because there are like, twenty different buildings, about a half dozen on the National Mall alone. But it’s good news, because we’re just across the Potomac from where we were… Although I’m pretty sure we’re not in the aerospace one…”

“Tony? We’re not in a museum. We’re not actually in DC at all… more like… above it. Far far above it.”

“Um…”

Daniel bumped his head, wearily but resigned, on the carved golden wall behind him, and while Tony struggled to find something to say that actually made some kind of sense, or at least a question that might clarify the situation, the whole room seemed to shimmy, and a low-pitched whine echoed all around them.

“Great, and now we’re in hyperspace. That’s going to make it extra tough for Jack to find us.”

Tony blinked. “Hyperspace… yeah, sure, okay. But your General Jack doesn’t actually need to look too far. Because if this guy follows his usual pattern, he’ll have a little play time with us, then drop us off a block or so from where he took us. He keeps his victims no less than twenty four hours, no more than a full week. My guess is the length of time depends on how much fun he’s having. With two of us… if he takes us one at a time… Maybe two weeks. Of course, we’ll be dead by then, and what time we have is not going to be that much fun for us, but…”

“Sorry about this, Tony.”

“Hey, this is the job. I volunteered for this. Not the first time I’ve been handcuffed by a serial killer, and I survived. So don’t give it a thought, Dr. Daniel Jackson.”

“Ah, yee-aah… it may not be the best idea to use my name. I think there’s still a bounty on me, and these guys might know that.”

“So… do I call you Murray Smith?”

“That’s… actually not a bad idea.”

“Uh-hunh. So guys. More than one? The profile says it’s just one guy.”

“One guy doing the murders, but he’s got friends. It’s one of his minions who picks the targets and arranges the… pick up. We’re on a tel’tak, and they take a minimum crew of three to run all the systems properly.”

“Tel’tak. Crew. Far far above DC. Hyperspace. You’re telling me we’re… in… space?”

“Pretty much. Yeah.”

Tony blinked, wrestling with the concept. It didn’t even occur to him that this might be some elaborate practical joke. It was too bizarre, too… word of the day, weird, for that. His mouth opened on a million questions… which all got jammed up in his brain, so he shut his mouth again to try and prioritize which piece of his sudden appalling ignorance was most urgent to be addressed.

Before he could get too far with that, the door of their prison slid open and two… guys? beings?... stood in the opening, aiming some kind of silver hand weapons, things that looked, to Tony’s uninformed eyes, like nothing so much as bent penises. But it was the… beings themselves that had Tony’s jaw dropping… because they weren’t human. The octopus-like tentacles growing out of their heads kind of gave it away, not to mention their… yes, weird, flat silver eyes and weirdly shaped mouths.

“Oh crap…” muttered his companion, more in resignation than anything else.

If Tony was shocked rigid by his first close encounter of the third kind, barely remembering to snap his slack jaw tight closed and slam his best poker face in place, and Daniel seemed to be taking this in stride, the… beings themselves seemed just as surprised.

“Hey, Tenat, Jup. Fancy meeting you here.”

One of the… beings said, in incredulous amazement, “Hans Olo? What are you doing here? Where is Vala Mal Doran?”

Tony’s inner self was jibbering like a monkey at this point, irrelevancies speeding though his thoughts, like, yeah, okay, aliens, why not, why were these guys speaking English, how could he tell an alien’s emotions in such an alien face and voice... but then it registered what the… guy had actually said. He blinked, his runaway train of panic stalled at the crossing. Because, when he thought about it, these… guys did have a certain Industrial Light and Magic feel to them, and might have walked right out of the Tatooine cantina.

“Vala’s out on another job at the moment, but we’re supposed to meet up later. If I don’t make it to our rendezvous, she’s going to be… irate. I don’t suppose you could give us a lift and drop us off? I’m sure she would show her appreciation.”

“I am sure she would not,” one of the… guys retorted, somewhat tartly. Yeah, an alien could be tart. Who knew. “Who is this?”

Tony quickly volunteered, “You can call me Lando.” This earned him a scowl from ‘Hans’. Like he could talk.

“He’s just some hired help we needed for a job. Pay no attention to him. What were you two doing on Earth, anyway? I thought the Lucians were steering clear.”

“We no longer work for the Lucian Alliance,” chatted one of the… guys, while his partner jabbed him warningly with an elbow. “What? He can tell no one. What is the harm? We hire out to others, now. Our current employer has business with the Tau’ri and contacts there. This is our first trip to Earth with him, but his pilot tells us he has been back two other times in the past few years. I think one of his slaves may actually be Tau’ri himself. They have plans to infiltrate, undermine and take over the Tau’ri eventually, and we shall aid them. We have been promised fiefdoms and many slaves of our own, once we are successful.”

So, the writers of all those Bond flicks, 60’s Batman episodes and countless other exposition-rich scripts were right after all… the bad guys really did want to reveal their big evil plan to the good guys just before the climax. All this… guy needed was a little encouragement. Every interrogation should be this easy.

Tony stretched ostentatiously, underlining his bound and helpless status, and said, “So what do you want with us?”

“Our current employer has certain needs which require a prisoner of a certain type to fulfill. You and your servant will supply that need nicely, Hans Olo.”

“You got a time-line on that, or...” Tony pursued, lifting his zip-tied hands to make gestures inviting more information. When he only got a tilted head in reply, he clarified, “I mean, how much time do we have before your big bad boss comes for us?”

“When we reach our destination. Soon enough. Ordinarily, he would complete his work right here in the hold, as he did with the last human, but he was informed that there is an urgent matter awaiting his attention at his home base. And there, he tells us, he has a special room for his... activities, and much specialized equipment to keep you alive until he completes his work.”

Tony nodded. “Nice. A Perfectionist. Good. I wouldn’t want to be in the hands of someone who would waste me on a shoddy half-assed job.”

Daniel stared at him, somewhat nonplussed, while the... informant nodded in agreement, completely missing the sarcasm.

“Yes, he will put what he learns to good use. It is part of his plan, to gain as much knowledge of minor financial enterprises as possible, to target those that might be of use to him, so he can gain control of them as he infiltrates the Tau’ri.”

“Hunh. Diversification, alien style. Cool. But if we’re not Tau’ri,” Tony took a wild stab, looking for any edge in this FUBAR situation, “what could the boss want to learn from us? Because this is an interrogation with fringe benefits, right? Torture us for information? Bonus because he enjoys his work? But we’re not the local businessmen you thought we were. That you were actually looking for.”

Their oh-so-helpful... informant, shrugged at that. “Neither was the last one. But still, he had useful knowledge to impart. He was part of their exploration teams once, knew much of the Tau’ri defenses. And you, Hans Olo and Lando, whatever you have been doing there, our employer will want to know it all. He will take over any of your contacts and activities to make them his own, hopefully gaining much. And if it also gains him a renewed meeting with Vala Mal Doran, that will be a benefit as well. He has often stated he would much like to meet her again.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Hans muttered, almost but not quite under his breath.

“Enough!” said… guy number two, finally losing patience. “We were told to check them. We’ve checked. Now leave them.”

Then he pulled his companion out of the door, and Tony was staring at a solid wall again.

“They listening to us?” Tony asked the only experienced expert he had at the moment. “They got this room wired?”

“I doubt it. The room night be wired, but they won’t be that interested in us, at this point.”

Tony eyed his companion. “Hans Olo? You realize that’s perilously close to copyright infringement?”

“Oh please. Fan fiction writers get away with worse every day.”

“Yeah, but Disney owns the rights now, and they’re pretty militant about their creative property. Never mind… no time for that. What’s the play here, Hans? I’ll back you every way I can, but you gotta let me know what, or who, you need me to be. Who do these… guys think you are?”

“First off, Tenat and Jup are low level criminals, space pirates for want of a better term, but they obviously aren’t in charge. Someone else is calling the shots. Maybe their big bad boss, or maybe he’s just a mercenary serving someone else, supplying them with info on Earth. We recognized some of the features of the murders as being… ‘out of town’ in nature. That’s partly what brought us into it, because Jack suspected Coyne was dealing with ‘out of towners’. We thought that’s what got him killed. The people he’s dealing with are dangerous, and no friends of Earth, but whether they’re part of this? No idea.”

Tony nodded slowly, fitting the evidence into place. “Either Coyne’s… ‘associates’ figured his usefulness was over and got rid of him after draining him of everything he might know, or these… guys are competitors, looking to muscle in on his action. Our murderer has a set order of tortures to use to get what he wants, and he doesn’t bother to vary it, because if it works for him, why change it up? It’s not like he has to worry about getting caught. Victim selection is up to the minions, they’re the ones taking all the risks, all the boss specified for Marseille and Manila were wealthy businessmen, the minion had the call on everything else, but looking most for drunk, no previous connection to the place, and vulnerable. But I do think he, or they, had a personal axe to grind for white mid-to-late thirties angry drunks.”

Daniel nodded. “That makes sense. There are other victims spread across several planets, and your scenario fits for them, too. Not businessmen, per se, but those with specialized knowledge that might be useful, to someone.”

“And your… buddies? Low level criminals, you said, and obviously dumb as bricks. About us, anyway. They strike me as hired thugs.”

“Oh yeah. I don’t think Tenat and Jup are killers themselves, they’re really *not* very bright, but they are for hire, and wouldn’t mind aiding and abetting for a price. They think I’m a petty criminal, by the way, not unlike themselves, a partner to a rather notorious… um, independent contractor named Vala Mal Doran. You probably have a better idea than I do of how underworld types like these work, no honor among thieves, temporary allies and/or competitors, changing at the hint of a profit, bailing when the going gets tough.”

“Yeah, okay. Gotcha. Same old crap, different day. Tentacle heads notwithstanding. Your general said something about you getting a tip about Joe’s Bar. What was that about? You have anyone on the inside who might help us out of this?”

“Sorry, no. It would be nice, wouldn’t it? This type of alien tech uses a specific and very rare mineral called naquadah. Once we found out about Coyne, we scanned the surrounding area for it, and Joe’s lit up like a Christmas tree. The guy at the bar had a lot of alien tech on him.”

Tony sighed. “Okay, so on to plan B… What’s our play? We’re space pirates trying to cut a deal? I guess that’s an improvement on playthings for a serial killer. We got any leverage here? Sounds like they don’t trust your Vala further than they can throw her, so getting them to ransom us may not be in the cards. But can we convince them to let us go if we promise to supply them with information, or the victims they want?”

“Probably not… They won’t think they need us for either of those things, won’t believe it if we offer our services... And I don’t want to take the chance someone on this ship, or at our destination, might recognize who I really am.”

Tony eyed his companion with a grin. “Rather notorious yourself, hunh, Hans?”

“Let’s just say... I’d prefer not to let them interrogate me. However... if we can get out of these restraints, we might be able to take over the ship.”

“Hijacking in space? I like it.”

Like it? Tony *loved* the idea! The more he heard, about aliens, space pirates, threats to Earth, space ships... the more his inner eight-year-old, the one who had seen *Star Wars* seventeen *million* times, jumped up and down, waving his arms and shouting with glee. Space adventures? Count me *in*!

But first, they needed to get free. Tony inspected the bonds on his wrists, what looked like plastic zip-ties, conveniently fastened in front of him, which simplified the next step considerably. When Daniel frowned at his fumbling at his belt, only to bring out the knife cunningly hidden behind his buckle, those expressive eyebrows raised.

Tony smirked. “The ever-popular rule nine… never go anywhere without a knife.” He cut his ankle restraints, then bent down to free Daniel’s ankles. “Hold out your wrists.”

Daniel quickly thrust out his arms, and Tony made short work of the ties, passing the knife to Daniel to do the honors for him.

“Let’s go steal a spaceship, partner.”

Å

Nothing like having an experienced guide, and Daniel certainly knew his way around a tel’tak. With military hand signals he must have picked up from General Jack, Daniel led them down corridors – all done in gold embossed ancient Egyptian chic – until they reached what was evidently an engine room, and an unwary human-looking crewman in leather pants and vest, who was bent over a drawer lined with glowing crystals, facing away from the door.

Tony picked up a handy solid-looking tool lying on the floor, crept up behind the oblivious crewman, and swung it at the back of the guy’s head. He went down like a ton of bricks.

It was almost too easy. That was a little worrisome for a more-paranoid-than-usual very special agent, but Daniel quickly disarmed their unconscious prisoner. They dragged engineering-guy back to their storage locker, bound and gagged him with whatever they could find at hand, including a handy supply of the zip-ties. Daniel knew how to lock the door from a corridor panel.

“That was easy,” Tony whispered. “This is too easy, right? Are we walking into a trap?”

Daniel considered that seriously for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Aliens tend to be pretty arrogant about the poor dumb Tau’ri. Uh, that’s us. The Tau’ri. They never seem to see it coming when we turn the tables on them. They’re a little more careful around my other team-mates, Teal’c, Jack and Sam, because they’re obviously warriors, but me? The helpless linguist-archeologist-civilian on the team? Pfft. We were bound and locked in a storage bay, so that’s where they expect us to stay.”

“Seriously? They don’t expect us to escape?”

“Tenat and Jup just checked on us. I think we’re good for at least an hour.”

“As long as they don’t miss engine-room guy.”

“Well, yeah.”

More creeping about, and they captured one more unwary humanoid by Daniel shooting him with the ‘zat’ gun he’d got from the engineer. That hissing, wheezing sound and the bright blue static crackle were all too familiar to Tony. This was one of the mysterious tasers on steroids. They copped another ‘zat’ for Tony, with the terse warning, one shot stuns, two shots kills. Safety tip. Good to know. But, seriously, a space-gun? Phaser on stun! His inner eight-year-old was ecstatic with glee. Tony was hard-pressed to restrain a giggle when Daniel showed him how to activate the silver thing, and its likeness to a penis became even more pronounced when it… umm… extended.

Yeah, some macho alien male invented this thing, or at least designed it. *Que es mui macho*?

When they tripped over Tenat and Jup in some sort of galley, taking a break, things got slightly more complicated… but neither of the octopus heads were very good fighters, and were totally unfamiliar with Tony’s brand of down-and-dirty scrappy street fighting. It didn’t take long for him to knock them to the floor, leaving them open to Daniel’s quick work with his zat.

That made four crewmembers now locked in the storage bay, all bound and gagged, and only engineering guy was awake. In a totally casual and ruthless move, Daniel calmly aimed and shot the guy with his zat.

“Not the other three?” Tony asked neutrally as Daniel turned and led the way back into the corridor.

“Can’t. Not yet, anyway. The other three have already taken one zat blast already. Another so soon would kill them.”

“And we don’t want to do that.”

“Well, I don’t, not until they force me to. Why? Are you feeling blood-thirsty?”

“Nah,” Tony grinned. “Just remembering Coyne’s autopsy. He didn’t have a very good last day.”

Daniel sobered and nodded. “Yes, but I’m still a bit squeamish about killing if I don’t absolutely have to. No matter how expedient, it’s never a good idea, in my experience.”

“Hey, you’re the Jedi Master here, Hans. I’m just the poor padawan space pirate learner with a hell of a learning curve to get through. I said I’d follow your lead, and avoiding a kill-shot is kind of my instinct too. I’d rather arrest them than have them commit suicide by cop.”

Daniel nodded. He led them, oddly enough, back to the engine room. He took a speculative look at the drawer left open, and after running a finger over the glowing crystals racked up inside, he carefully closed it. Then he went to a console and turned on a monitor. Tony peered over his shoulder, but all he saw was a collection of squiggles that looked like more of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but were probably alien. Well, Jack had said that Daniel knew the languages they’d probably need on this.

“Got a question for you, Hans. Once we do hi-jack this tel’tak… how the hell do we fly it home?”

“Not a problem,” Daniel murmured absently, studying the screen before him. He pressed a button, and the screen suddenly shot out to become a three-D image hovering above them, enlarging at Daniel’s control. The outlines of a triangular ship expanded before him, walls, rooms, sections labeled, not that he could read them… Way Sci-fi, and Tony grinned, eyes going wide with avid interest.

“Cool!”

“There,” Daniel pointed. “Heat signatures. There’s us, in the engine room, there are our four captives in the hold, and there are… three more. All on the pel’tac… Um… that’s the bridge, control room, whatever. Hunh…” He tapped a few commands and the view zoomed in on the bridge. Yeah, Tony was going with bridge. He was a navy cop, after all. Then even he could see that there was something a bit odd about two of the heat signatures they were focused on. One seemed to have an extra… squirmy thing, hovering around the navel, while the other had one curled around his spinal column.

“Oh yeah, that’s not good,” Daniel sighed. “That one is Jaffa, and that one is definitely a Goa’uld.”

“Oh yeah? I used to have one of those. Then the wheels fell off.”

Daniel smirked wryly back at him. “Sorry. Two different flavors of aliens. Let me just double check our prisoners… no, those guys are just common or garden. That one, in the command chair, used to be human, or at least humanoid, until something like a sea snake ripped a hole in the back of his neck, attached to his spinal cord, and took over his body. He’s super strong, super healthy, super hard to kill. And that just might be necessary, because they are also super cranky when everything doesn’t go their way.”

“I hear ya. Got a boss just like that.”

“This guy, the Jaffa, has the larval form of the same sea snake species incubating in a special pouch in his stomach. He’s also super strong, healthy and hard to kill, trained from childhood to fight, and will do anything his master tells him, and that would be the Goa’uld.”

“Will the zats work on them?”

“For a little while. Not as long as on humans. And when they wake up, either one will be able to snap those zip ties.”

“So, hard to kill and hard to keep under control. I’d suggest encasing them in carbonite, but that would just be silly. Hey, this is a space ship… does it have anything like stasis pods we can shove them all into? Make them go to sleep until we can hand them over to someone else?”

Daniel frowned at him, eyebrows crinkling adorably over his nose. “Stasis pods? No! Why would you even… wait, let me check the inventory. This is a smuggler’s vessel, after all. They might have anything squirreled away.”

Tony grinned. “There ya go. I bet the *Millennium Falcon* would have stasis pods.”

Daniel threw him a skeptical arched-brow look over his shoulder. “Maybe, but stasis pods are Ancient tech, and these guys are Goa’uld… whole other kettle of fish. Unless they found one or stole it from somewhere… a-and… wow. Good call, very special agent Lando. They did score a dozen hik’na’kra. Not stasis pods, but… well, thingies that attach to the temple and render the subject unconscious until removed. It’ll work on Jaffa and Goa’uld, too. Usually used as a medical device.”

“Hey, our need is for the good of our health. Close enough.”

Daniel nodded decisively. “They’re in a box back in the hold. We’ll go get them, make sure they work on our prisoners, and then come up with a plan to storm the bridge.”

Å

Their *first* problem was…

It took a good half-hour to find the damn mechanical anesthetic things. By that time all four of their prisoners were awake, wriggling around and trying to shout past their gags. It was distracting, and annoying. Tony was tempted a couple of times to test out the zats on them, just in case there had been enough time since their last doses. And Tony wasn’t much help in the search, because he couldn’t read the labels on any of the crates, so all he could do was protect Daniel’s rear while he went through box after box. The stuff in them… clothing in gaudy sparkles and gold lamme, what had to be various kinds of weapons from their sub-machine gun shapes and ugly dull metal looks, other varied sparkly things… as unidentifiable as they were to Tony, he longed for a chance to study them all more closely.

Even Daniel let himself get briefly distracted by some of their finds, giving a mild ‘ooh’ or ‘aah’ and setting a few carefully aside. Including one bread-box-sized canister glowing bright gold and humming faintly. That he almost squealed over, only to glance apologetically to Tony.

“Sorry. If we do make it home, this… well. We call it a ZPM. Think Holy Grail.”

Then they discovered some of the crates were mis-labeled…

Finally, though, Daniel came up with the box of small silver disks. And yes, they worked a treat. Four blissfully sleeping bad guys, even the octopus headed… guys, all out like lights.

Å

Their *second* problem was…

The tel’tak PA system came alive with an angry and guttural string of what sounded like Klingon to Tony’s uneducated ear. Daniel paled even as he straightened from putting the last silver disk on the last guy, and looked up at the presumed location of the speakers.

“Hans?” Tony guessed, “Do the guys on the bridge have access to the same heat sensor monitors you looked at in engineering?”

“Yeah, Lando. They do.”

“Terrific. They’re coming, aren’t they?”

“Well, the Jaffa is. The Goa’uld is mad that his crew have apparently sneaked into the hold to play with his toys. This is bad etiquette, because he’s the boss, no Goa’uld *ever* shares well with others, and he gets first dibs on us. So his Jaffa servant is about to come down here and knock a few heads together.”

Tony blinked. “Wait. They don’t realize that the only guys moving around are their prisoners?”

“Doesn’t sound like it. They just got an overview of six signatures in the hold and… I told you they’re arrogant, right? Never even occurs to them the Tau’ri might be able to get the drop on them?”

“Then let’s get the drop on them. You hide behind that crate over there, I’ll hide over there, and… you want to zat them, or shall I? If we both shoot, that’s two shots and that kills, right?”

“Right. I’ll do the shooting. I’ve got a lot of practice at this.”

“Be my guest.”

Moments later, when the door whooshed open, in stomped a truly big guy, coal black skin, shaved head, and a gold badge of some kind stuck on his forehead. He was covered in metal plates that clanked and Tony would guess weighed a ton. If this guy was super strong, why the hell would he diminish such an advantage so drastically by weighing himself down with a good two hundred pounds of armor? On a space ship with two prisoners and five other crew, besides his boss? He was going to have to ask Daniel about that, later.

The guy came in shouting angrily, even before he took in the sight of four of the crew lying, out cold, on the floor. And by that time, it was too late. Daniel nailed him with the zat, then Tony rushed in while the guy was still reeling to slap a silver disk on his temple, putting him out so that he fell like a redwood to a lumberman’s axe.

Tony hoped that it was his imagination, the shudder in the floor when the guy landed, face down. He helped Daniel drag the guy to rest with the others, tipping him over to get a closer look at the forehead badge.

“Ah damn,” Daniel growled out.

“What is that? A tattoo?” Tony thought Abby would probably love something like that, if it could be removed for court appearances.

“Kind of. All Jaffa bear the mark of their Goa’uld Lord. Most are black, but their generals, the First Primes, get a gold one. This symbol is for the System Lord Baal. Now, maybe this guy just changed allegiance after we executed the last Baal clone… or maybe the guy on the bridge is one who got away.”

“Baal. I know that name from Sunday School. It’s ancient middle eastern myth, isn’t it? A Babylonian God of some kind?”

“Akkadian not… Oh please, no, don’t start quoting *’Ghostbusters’*. Not the time. You can trade quotes with Jack once we’re home and safe. Yes, Baal was a god in Mesopotamia. That’s sort of a thing with the Goa’uld. They actually think they are gods. It gives them the divine right to enslave whole planets and destroy anyone who gets in their way.”

“Including the poor dumb Tau’ri.”

“Especially us.”

And that would be their *third* problem.

Å

Chapter Text

Å

“Does this change the plan?” Tony asked. “Do we still storm the bridge and take over the ship?”

“Yes. We don’t really have any other option, if we want to get home.”

“So… System Lord. That sounds… impressive. But here he is, on a tel’tak, with one Jaffa guard, by default making him the general, and a crew of five, probably all hired-help mercenaries, like your buddies Tenat and Jup. That’s a bit of a come-down for a god of Mesopotamia, isn’t it? Or is he just taking us to his city of gold, or his monstrous super battle cruiser, at the head of his super space fleet?”

“The Goa’uld have fallen on hard times, so the best he’ll have at this point is a pretty good bolt-hole.” Noting Tony’s questioning look, Daniel expanded. “They took on too many enemies at once, all of them gunning for the System Lords, while their Jaffa slaves were rebelling and their power bases were crumbling, and they still couldn’t stop fighting among themselves for power. Their whole empire fell to pieces, and the few who survived are on the run. Baal lasted longer than most, got to Earth, caused a lot of problems for us and scored himself some cloning technology… so at one point there were about fifty of him wandering around. How he thought that was a good idea, I’ll never know, because, yes, all fifty immediately started competing to find out who was top dog Baal. In limited numbers they were marginally better at cooperative thinking and action, but, in the end, no Goa’uld, clone or not, is ever going to accept second best.”

“Okay… so, how about this. We sit here and wait for Baal to send the last crewman down here after us. We zat his ass, slap a disk on him, and then it’s two against one.”

“But he’ll know something is wrong by that point. And he can, if he wants, control the life support systems. He can make it very uncomfortable for us. Too hot, too cold, close bulkheads around us and suck out the air…”

“And kill his jaffa and crew as well as us?”

“He’s Goa’uld. Serves them all right for failing him.”

“Ouch. Way harsh. So we do our storming two on two, even if Baal is super strong?”

At this point, a comm link on the jaffa’s armor blared away with an odd garbled voice.

Daniel knelt down and pressed a button on the comm. He barked out a string of Klingon nonsense in a much more bass tone than his usual speaking voice. Whatever he said must have been good, because he got a single syllable in reply, and the link shut down.

Replying to Tony’s lifted brow, Daniel explained, “He wanted to know what was taking so long. I told him I zatted them all and would return at once.”

“We better go then. You’re sure there are no internal security cameras on these things?”

“Goa’uld arrogance. Why would a god need to check them? His First Prime has it all under control.”

“You know, I’m not getting a very favorable impression of the Goa’uld, here.”

“And you haven’t even met one, yet. Well, probably not…”

Å

Tony could only shake his head as he looked down at the two bodies sprawled across the polished mirror-bright floor of the bridge.

“That was just *way* too easy. How the hell did these Goa’uld manage to rule a galaxy when they’re this incompetent? How do they hold on to any of their ships, when they’re this easy to hi-jack?”

Tony was feeling disillusioned and dissatisfied by their efforts at piracy. Oh sure, they were alive and well and now in control, but… yeah, disillusioned and dissatisfied with the quality of bad guy out here in deep space. He got the same feeling when taking down a meth-head.

Daniel could only grin at him as he slapped disks on both the Goa’uld and the last crew member, presumably the tel’tak pilot, since he had been the one sitting at the controls, while the Goa’uld guy had been sitting in the ostentatious command chair, without even a captain’s log button on the arm rests. Oh, and pilot was Tony’s bachelor number two from Joe’s bar, the guy who had dosed Daniel and kidnapped them both.

Tony helped Daniel drag the pilot out of his chair so Daniel could take over. The linguist looked extremely comfortable at the controls of an alien space ship, quickly turning on systems, reviewing alien scribbles as they danced across monitors, and then operating just a few buttons, dials, switches, toggles and levers.

The huge front windows before them were a bewildering and mesmerizing light show in blues, like laser fireworks, streaming past in ribbons of light. Tony couldn’t resist stepping closer, staring.

Then, a low subliminal hum Tony hadn’t even registered ceased, the ship gave another weird shimmy, and the front windshield cleared to show them a stunningly impressive panorama. Stars spangled the view, but off to the right there was a huge spectacular spreading stain of light and color he recognized from Hubble photos… a nebula. Birth-place of stars. Oh yeah, now he knew he was in outer space. And he was so thrilled by that, he could hardly take in anything else. With their opposition all under control, the ship theirs, his partner looking perfectly competent to organize their way home, Tony let himself relax, a little bit, and just bask in the adventure. And wondered how soon, once they were home, he could sign up for General O’Neill’s team.

Daniel briefly glanced at the window, only slightly less impressed than Tony with the view, before shaking himself, re-focusing on their still tenuous situation, and calling up yet another monitor. A star map swirled out and around his head with color-coded stars. It obviously all meant something to Daniel, as he checked the tiny red flashing blip in the center that Tony guessed was them.

“So. You know where we are?”

“I do now. Just need to set co-ordinates and get us turned around for home.”

“You said a tel’tak needs a minimum crew of three. That’s you… and probably not me, because I can’t even read any of this stuff, and I’m just as liable to press the big red button that says ‘self destruct’.”

Daniel grinned. “Not a problem. It has an autopilot. Tel’taks are pretty easy to fly anyway, if you can read Goa’uld. Which I can. Most of the systems are point-and-click. The Goa’uld aren’t big on allowing their minions to read or write… literacy and access to knowledge make them too hard to control. So their systems have to be easy to use. They need an engineer in case something goes wrong with the engines, which, cross your fingers, I think we can do without, and the third crewman is usually for weapons. Also not necessary, if our luck holds. And since we’re no longer tied up in a hold waiting to be vivisected by a serial killer, I think we’re on a roll here.”

“Uh, yes. About that. My team thinks of me as a trouble magnet, so…”

Daniel hesitated briefly, frowning. “Hm. I’ve been accused of that particular… characteristic myself, a time or two… No, you know what? Keep a good thought, and don’t buy trouble.”

“Okay,” Tony shrugged, more than willing to go along with that. Sounded like something Gibbs should turn into a rule. “But… I’d feel better if I cleared this ship anyway. Tell you what. I’ll go check to make sure there’s no unaccounted-for surprises hidden away, make sure our other prisoners in the hold are still sound asleep. My cop and agent instincts are warning me to clear the entire vessel as priority one, if we don’t want to fail as badly as the stupidly complacent previous owners of this ship. And wouldn’t that kind of probie goof just win me a Gibbs-slap to the head that would land me into the middle of next week?”

Daniel blinked at him, expressive eyebrows lifting up on his forehead. “Your boss slaps you? Isn’t that… like… assault?”

“Hey, in this case I’d deserve it.”

The skeptical look Daniel shot him shook him a little. It was always a bit of a shock to view his team’s actions as an outsider might… not knowing the history… or… something. He fell back on well established avoidance patterns and changed the subject.

“Then I’ll see what they have in the galley. Don’t know about you, but space piracy is hungry work. I might also try and find our clothes and shoes. Oh, and when I get back, think I’ll take a whack at questioning our prisoners. Bachelor number two is the one who took us, after all, probably did the heavy lifting with Coyne as well.”

Daniel nodded agreeably. “Knock yourself out. It’s going to take us…” he consulted another monitor, “…about eight hours to get back to the Solar System. But keep in touch, okay? Just in case.” Daniel called up the 3D thermo-map of the ship again from his console. “I’ll keep an eye on you. Call me if you need directions.”

Tony nodded. “I think I’ve got a pretty good blueprint of this thing in my head, but thanks.”

“Look for this squiggle on the walls.” Daniel pointed out an embossed gold symbol to the right of the door at about eye-height that looked like the tattoo on the jaffa’s forehead. “Touch it to open a communication to me. That one,” and he pointed out another distinctive squiggle, “opens doors, and when you leave a room, touch it a second time to lock it behind you.”

“Gotcha. I’ll check in every ten minutes.”

Tony left the linguist to his work, steadied himself against a corridor wall when a shimmy told him they were back in hyperspace, and trotted off.

Å

It took him almost an hour to check out the whole ship for stowaways or hidden dangers, not to mention their prisoners in the hold, before grabbing lunch.

Daniel happily accepted the sandwich Tony had cobbled together for him, pulled out of a sack Tony had found in someone’s quarters and loaded up with various goodies he’d found. Tony then passed over a bottle of… whatever it was. Some kind of fruit drink, Tony thought, having tested to make sure it wasn’t alcoholic. Drunk in charge of a spaceship felt like it should be against everybody’s laws.

Daniel paused while chewing to mumble out, “Find our clothes?”

Tony sighed. “Yeah. In pieces, in a heap, in a round room at the stern with a weird circle painted on the floor. Shoes were a write-off too. But they left our watches alone, so here’s yours.” Tony was already wearing his Mickey Mouse watch. “Shame about your Tom Ford. That was a nice suit.”

Daniel shrugged. “I can put it on my expense account. They pay me too much as it is… plus hazard pay.”

Tony grinned, biting into his own sandwich and swigging at the fruit juice. Then he took a moment to pull out two shirts he had found amongst the pirate swag in the hold, while he was checking their prisoners. It had been something of a challenge, finding the least sparkly and poufy articles. He passed a satiny blue one to Daniel, then shrugged into the sheeny green one himself. “These Goa’uld have appalling taste in clothes, by the way.”

“Oh yeah. Great if you’re into gold lamme, but otherwise… It’s practically a defining characteristic of the species. Oh, hey. Color coded to match our eyes? Nice.”

Tony chuckled, and offered a salute with his fruit drink.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, more comfortable now that their chests weren’t hanging out. Tony had a brief memory of Ziva, sitting back and mocking he and McGee as they had to change shirts, once, in the NCIS bullpen… He shuddered. Maybe it was time to find a new career? He used to change it up fairly often, getting restless and antsy when something happened to erode his trust in the people around him… had thought with NCIS and Gibbs he had finally found a place he could belong to… as pathetic as that made him feel. That neglected, abandoned and disowned kid in him was always looking for the security of a family, even as he shied from any hint of commitment in return, too afraid to trust that it wouldn’t be yanked away from him, or that it was just an illusion, to dissipate like early-morning fog in sunshine. He’d been burned way too many times, one way or another, by people he’d dared to put his faith in. He wondered if he was too damaged, by now, to ever want to trust again. Tonight’s misadventure with McGee and Ziva hadn’t even been that much of a shock, and he found himself numb to their betrayal.

Tony stared wonderingly at the light-show beyond the front view-screen. Then he commented idly, “Your General Jack offered me a job. I’m thinking of taking him up on it.”

Daniel’s eyes lit up. “Really? I was actually going to recommend that. You’ve been really good at taking this all in your stride… and you did pretty much save our bacon with rule nine. It won’t save you from reading and signing a stack four inches deep of non-disclosure agreements… but we could really use someone with your skills. As you’ve probably already guessed, not all the aliens have left our little isolated, blissfully unaware world alone. And I’m kind of tired of being the fill-in person when they need somebody with skills no one else in the organization seems to have. Like investigations and interrogations… undercover work…”

Tony chuckled. “I don’t know… you did fine, with a few pointers. You did, after all, go in to Joe’s to catch the eye of a serial killer. Mission accomplished.”

“Yeah, and why do I think you are an expert at that, Mr. Trouble Magnet?”

“Oh, hey. Speaking of interrogations, I’m pretty good at those, too, if I say so myself. You finished lunch? I think I can’t wait much longer to find out what’s going on with our case. The suspense is killing me, here.”

Daniel nodded, wiping his hands on his poor mistreated pants. “I have to admit my curiosity is hitting overload, too. What do you suggest? I usually play good cop, asking all the questions in a calm reasonable voice, while my team-mate, Teal’c, stands silent and glowering in the corner, cracking his knuckles, playing huge terrifying menacing intimidating cop.”

“You mean Murray Smith, Hans ? I met him in your surveillance van. Yeah. He’d be good at that, I can tell. Let’s start with bachelor number two. You just sit there at the controls, ignoring us, and offering suggestions and explanations for your newbie partner when it seems right. Act like he doesn’t even exist, and, as far as you’re concerned, you’ve got better things to do than pay any attention to me.”

“Fair enough.”

“This thing got a video recording app on it? We usually tape interrogations for evidence purposes.”

Frowning, Daniel checked a few screens, then nodded. “Okay. Got it. This will record onto a crystal. Sam has a few toys for playback later on. Aaand… we’re recording.”

“Great. Okay… This is Special Agent Anthony D. DiNozzo Jr., NCIS, and Dr. Daniel Jackson, Homeland Security…”

“Sorry, no, I’m with Stargate Command, the SGC.”

“Cool name. You’ll have to explain that to me later. This is NCIS Special Agent DiNozzo and SGC linguist Dr. Jackson, aboard the spaceship *Century Peregrine* in deep space, on our way home to Earth. We were both undercover tonight in Joe’s Bar in Alexandria, working the investigation into the murder of marine sergeant Warren Coyne, when we made contact with our suspect, tentative identification ‘John Smith’ from Oklahoma City. My mission was to play potential victim for a possible serial killer working internationally, who had killed sergeant Coyne earlier this week. General Jack O’Neill of…?”

“Home World Security,” Daniel obliged.

“Hunh. Should have figured that one. Okay. So. I was taken out of play, but Dr. Jackson, working with General O’Neill, was also playing bait in Joe’s Bar. He was approached by Mr. Smith, who slipped him a date-rape drug of some kind in his drink. Mr. Smith took Dr. Jackson out the back way into the alley behind the bar. Myself, General O’Neill and several of his armed military contingent closed in on the alley. The drugging and attempted abduction of Dr. Jackson gave me probable cause for an arrest, and it also provided a link between Mr. Smith to Coyne’s murder, so I broke cover to identify myself as law enforcement and make the arrest. But Mr. Smith had a communication device on him, and when I neared, his confederates had activated a transport beam and caught all three of us, Smith, Jackson and myself. After a period of time restrained in a cargo hold, Dr. Jackson and I freed ourselves and took over the ship. These cool little silver disks keep a suspect unconscious, and we have five more members of the gang secured in the hold right now. This guy Dr. Jackson has identified as the Goa’uld Baal, who is the suspected ring-leader of this gang, and, I’m guessing, wanted for any number of charges, on and off Earth. I’m going to take the sleepy-time device off Mr. Smith so I can question him on his recent activities. Oh yeah, by the way, Dr. Jackson and I are using our undercover aliases for this, he’s Hans Olo, and I’m Lando. Don’t blame me, the theme was Dr. Jackson’s idea.”

Checking first to see that the zip ties held their ‘Mr. Smith’ in place, Tony carefully pried the ‘sleepy-time device’ off Smith’s temple. The suspect blinked, stared around in some alarm, seeing their prisoners in charge of the bridge, and his boss laid out asleep on the floor at the back of the control room. Daniel had also left the heat sensor monitor up so they could be sure their prisoners remained where they left them. Smith didn’t miss the implication. The ‘oh shit’ look he gave as he turned to Tony made the agent grin.

“Well, Mr. John Smith of Oklahoma City, glad you could join us. You can call me Lando, but I’m actually a Very Special Agent with NCIS. That’s navy cops to you… oh, and we have jurisdiction over crimes involving marines, too. I’m investigating the murder of marine sergeant Warren Coyne. Now. Just to be clear, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?”

‘Smith’ blinked and gave a tug on his restraints.

“Come on, John. Do you understand your rights or not?”

Swallowing convulsively, he merely nodded.

“Good. With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

“Not really,” John admitted glumly.

“Well how about I ask some questions, and we’ll see how it goes? Since we’re in deep space jurisdiction might be a bit hazy, but the crimes I’m investigating were perpetrated on US soil and involve a marine victim, so… that makes you mine. So how about we begin with your real name?”

Closing his eyes and knocking his head back against the bulkhead, the man seemed done in. “I’m Gerald Howard.”

“Wow. That sounds very American. You Tau’ri, Gerry? For those playing the home game, that means born on Earth.”

“Yeah. I’m Tau’ri. I was a regional operations manager for Farrow-Marshall… until a few years ago.”

Daniel, doing a bang-up job of looking busy at the controls of the tel’tak, chose this moment to interject. “Farrow-Marshall was the global-national tech company the Goa’ulds Baal and Athena took over to build themselves a foothold on Earth.”

“Wow, new meaning to the term ‘hostile takeover’, I’m guessing?” Tony observed over his shoulder. “So what happened, Gerry? You figured out your bosses were puppet-master aliens out to conquer the world? You saw too much?”

“Not exactly. They caught me trying to embezzle from them. They told me they’d prosecute if I didn’t help them. So I… helped. At first it was just accounting… irregularities. Cooking the books. A little money laundering and tax fraud. But… I kept getting dragged in, deeper and deeper… About five years ago, the bosses liquidated the company assets and… left.”

Daniel observed, “They must have decided we were going to lose against the Ori.”

Tony didn’t bother asking about the ‘Ori’… “Rats leaving a sinking ship?” he guessed.

Gerry nodded and Daniel commented, “Pretty much.”

“But they took you with them, Gerry?”

He shrugged. “I know Earth. I know business. They figured I could help them if they ever needed to get a foot back in the door. I didn’t have any choice! I was trapped on his ships, surrounded by his jaffa, too damn far from home… I just felt lucky he didn’t slip a symbiote in me. I guess they figured it might be handy to have a minion available who wouldn’t set off any naquadah detectors, like a Goa’uld or jaffa would. I learned Goa’uld, learned to run nav systems… I was thinking maybe I’d get a chance to make a run for it, one day… But for the first couple of years, we didn’t go anywhere near Earth.”

“But that changed, two years ago.”

“Yeah… From stuff I overheard, and a couple of close calls we ran… space battles, lost a few ships… I gather Baal was down to the last clone, and being hunted by pretty much everyone. He was certainly down to his last ship, this one… the rest were all either blown out of the sky, or taken by Free Jaffa, Tok’ra, Lucien Alliance or other minor Goa’uld still out there. The Ori weren’t a threat anymore, so he started going back to his old possessions, trying to find a place to start over, re-build his empire. He figured his best option was to keep his head down, start off small, hope to pass un-noticed. He said that’s how Anubis managed to survive for ten thousand years, to come damn close to taking over the galaxy. So he came up with this plan to grab a bunch of random small business people, get as much information about them as possible, then kill them, so he could take over their businesses. A farm here, a mine there, a transport-shipping enterprise…”

Tony nodded. This was confirmation of what the octopus… guy had told them.

“But by that time, he only had five lieutenants he really trusted to send out on missions, more ‘hostile takeovers’. So we worked it five businesses at a time. We would go in first, chose five targets, and then later bring in the take-over teams. I don’t know why Baal didn’t just give the targets three zat’ni’katel blasts… I think he liked the idea of scaring the natives with the bodies we left behind, to make sure any employees in our wake were properly cowed. While the takeover teams consolidated their control, to the point the businesses could pretty much run themselves, we’d move to another planet to take over five more. We’d return on a semi-regular basis to re-assert control, deal with any problems and collect our profits. When we got to Earth, I recommended he stay away from the US if he wanted to keep a low-profile.”

“So you went to Marseille first, then Manila?” Tony prompted.

Gerry nodded, looking defeated.

“And because you were his Tau’ri business expert, he sent you to make the choice of who to grab. Guys who were strangers to the bar you picked, looked successful… and reminded you of your father, maybe? He was a mean drunk when his job wasn’t going well, right, Gerry? Must have felt like a bit of pay-back for all those missed little-league games when you were a kid?”

Gerry blinked at him. “How did you… yeah. Yeah, I guess. Baal wanted them to be good-looking, too… he kept saying he wanted to mix some fun along with business.”

Tony shuddered a little. “But this time you figured, what the hell, it worked in Marseille and Manila, time to take on the US, no matter the risk? And DC? Not New York? Wall Street is the financial capital of the planet, after all.”

“Yeah, and for that reason a little more obvious a target. Too obvious, I thought. Besides, Baal figured in DC we might catch ourselves a lobbyist or even a member of the government. Although, in that case, I would have argued for a three-zat, rather than leave a messy and prominent body in our wake.”

Tony glanced at Daniel for an explanation. Daniel sighed. “One shot stuns, two kills, a third vaporizes the body. No evidence.”

“Ouch,” Tony winced. “So where did Coyne come in? You thought he was just another businessman? No, that doesn’t fly with me, Gerry. Coyne was already connected to Home World, right? Selling, or trading on its secrets? It was no accident that you picked him up.”

“Coyne was working with a team of renegade NID agents. They were hunting ex-Trust… me, my boss, our five take-over teams. Whether to put us out of business altogether, or take over our operations themselves, I don’t know. Both, probably. Let us join or we’ll arrest you. When we got to Earth, a week ago, we checked on our existing holdings, first… we found that they’d already identified one of our French enterprises and taken it over themselves. But Coyne wanted to make a separate deal of his own. He left a message, asking for an interview. He wanted a spot on our team. Well, ‘wanted’… demanded. Threatened to call his team on us if we didn’t agree to take him on. Baal sent me to talk to him. Stall, keep him quiet… then we’d grab him like we grab the others.”

“And the info you got out of him?” Tony prompted at a raised brow from Daniel.

“He told us all about the renegade NID cell he belonged to. How much they know about what we’re doing, what their plans might be. He didn’t know that much, really, no more than we could have guessed already. I got the impression they didn’t trust him all that much… go figure. He thought he’d get a better deal with us. Bad call on his part. But he did give us contact information, how to track them down. Oh, and they had found out, somehow, that there was a Tok’ra spy worming his way into one of our off-world holdings, so we needed to take care of that, soonest. That’s where we were heading. But then we’ll return to Earth. If we act soon enough, Coyne’s team won’t have figured out what happened to him before we have a chance to jump them. Baal is still mulling over plans for dealing with them before we leave Earth this time. Meanwhile, I was sent out to grab the next regular victim, to give Baal something to occupy himself with on the journey there and back.”

Tony considered all of this. There was a limited time window, certainly, for catching the Earth-side traitors, but Tony was pretty impressed with General Jack and his team, so with this information, he suspected Jack could gut the renegade NID operation in no time. He asked for a few more specifics and was referred to a pouch of crystals on Baal’s belt. In there were the recordings of his ‘interview’ with Coyne.

Tony glanced at Daniel, tilting his head to ask if there was anything else they might need to know. Daniel shrugged then shook his head, looking too interested in whatever he was reviewing on the monitors to care greatly.

“Okay, Gerry. Thanks for your cooperation.” Then he slapped the ‘sleepy-time device’ back on his temple.

He straightened up and stood at Daniel’s shoulder.

“Think I should question Baal next?”

“Probably not. He’ll only lie, or try to manipulate us, and at this point, I don’t want to take any kind of chance that he might overpower us and turn the tables. Anyway, I think we got everything we need from Gerry, and these recordings.”

“Yeah. I agree. So. We have Baal, with recorded evidence of at least one of his murders, as well as his conspirators. That’s a win for our mission tonight, and my case can be officially closed, the world a little bit safer for mid-thirties stressed-out white businessmen. We have Baal’s tel’tak with all its stolen space pirate swag, which is a bonus for us. And we can get Gerry to ID those five take-over teams. Not to mention ten Earth businesses currently in enemy hands, nine by aliens, one by renegade NID, and we can round those guys up and repatriate their management. You and Jack can clean up the businesses Baal took over on other planets (and I can’t believe I just said that with a straight face, Jeez). Aa-and, as icing on our cake, we can grab the renegade NID cell Coyne worked for, as traitors to the planet. Sweet. So what are you up to there, Hans?”

“I’m going through Baal’s navigation logs, where he’s been the past few years. Yeah, probably would have been a good idea for him to wipe his nav history on a regular basis. But this gives us the location of all his bolt-holes, where he’s been operating lately. May include more piles of stolen space pirate swag, as you call it.”

“Cool! Job well done. And we’ve got a couple of hours before we reach home. So how ‘bout you teach me how to fly a gen-u-wine space ship, Hans?”

Daniel grinned. “*Century Peregrine*?”

Tony shrugged, then laughed, whole-heartedly, for the first time in what felt like forever.

Yeah, he could get used to this kind of life.

Å

Chapter Text

Å

Tony was back in the hold, poking around again in the stolen space pirate swag, when Daniel opened the ship-wide com.

“Lando? You might want to come to the pel’tac. We’re just about to come out of hyperspace, and you’re going to want to see this.”

Tony trotted back to the bridge to join his partner. He took over the command chair as if he owned it – great vantage point for looking out the front view-screen. “Oh, hey, Hans, I found more of those gold glowing canisters you like so much. There’s three more of them.”

Daniel turned to stare at him, those adorable eyebrows of his dancing high on his forehead. Tony had to admit, he’d never met anyone who had such expressive eyebrows before. They were almost like another language for the inter-stellar linguist. He wondered if he could talk alien to anyone with those things, without the need for actual words? Which pretty much made him the polar opposite of Gibbs… a functional mute who couldn’t communicate effectively with anything but a sniper rifle, as opposed to a linguist who could hold whole conversations with his eyebrows alone.

Tony grinned at his fanciful observations and paid attention to his partner.

“Wow. Okay. That’s great… That’ll make a lot of people happy, especially since we can probably trace back to where Baal got them. Which is just as well, because my team *hates* it when I get into a mess.”

“Hey, we got out of it, too. Won’t that make it better?”

“Not really. Worse, if anything. And we mostly got out safe because of you, and the fact a newbie civilian saved us both is adding insult to injury, for Jack especially.”

Tony frowned, cocking an eye at his partner. “How come?”

Daniel chuckled. “You’re with NCIS, right? Navy cops? You work closely with military and ex-military?” Tony kept nodding. “Then you know how it goes. Sometime or other, someone, and it was probably their drill instructor, first day of basic training, convinced them that you can’t be a real man, capable of tying your own shoes, without being military. Civilians are the poor dumb weaklings in constant need of their protection. They may qualify it over time, try and make exceptions in their heads for other armed services, but no matter how many times someone proves them wrong, they just have this ingrained bias… a blind spot in how they see civilians. You were a regular cop before NCIS, right? Then you may get an occasional pass because you’re trained in law enforcement, but I bet it’s only occasional, right? Now, me, I’m an archeologist, a linguist, an academic… I am so far removed from their concept of military that they can barely see me at the best of times. So no matter how many times I prove I’m perfectly capable in the field, they just *never* see it coming.”

Tony nodded. “Hunh… never thought of it like that… but that explains a lot. What about your General Jack? You’ve worked together for a while, right? He must have confidence in you, right?”

Daniel gave an evil snicker. “Oh, Jack is the worst. He tries, he really does, he’s the first to tell people not to underestimate me, but… no. He never sees it. Teal’c finds it absolutely hilarious, that everyone thinks I’m so helpless and feckless, when, just to survive as long as I have on a front-line first-contact team, I’m obviously anything but. But to Jack, I’ll always be that sneezing, floppy-haired geek he met years ago, that little archeologist lost he dragged home, like a lost puppy he found in the snow.”

Daniel shot him a wide-eyed pathetic look that had Tony laughing at the big puppy eyes. Yeah, most military would be toast to that look. “Not that I mind,” Daniel assured him. “It’s a significant advantage, being underestimated, undervalued, forgotten behind the door. At least, in this job. Works a treat on the Goa’uld and any number of other big bad wolves out there. But… I get the feeling that you have a similar shtick.”

Tony had to grant him that one. “Not as good as yours… I tend to go for ‘frat-boy womanizer who never grew up’. Problem is, my team bought into it, years ago, and getting any kind of respect from them now is something of a lost cause. Not so good for me…”

Daniel gave him a considering look. “Got caught in your own mask? Hm. I can see where it wouldn’t work so well for you now. Got a fall-back? Plan B? Because now would be the perfect time to pull it out and dust it off… start fresh with the SGC.”

Tony gave this serious consideration. “Maybe… I’ll have to think about it.”

Daniel nodded, then was distracted by something on his monitors.

“Why I called you back up here… We’re just about home. I’m bringing us out of hyperspace just beyond Jupiter. We’ll be enough in its shadow so Earth satellites can’t detect us, because I’m not sure if the cloak on this thing works or not, and no need to give every astronomer on Earth conniption fits.”

Tony chortled. “Cloaking device. Of course it has a cloaking device! Why wouldn’t it work, though?”

“Remember we found engineering guy messing with a drawer of crystals? That was the cloak system. He might have been trying to fix a glitch, and I’ve got a flashing warning light on that board. So we’re going to stick around in Jupiter’s shadow until one of our ships finds us.”

Tony blinked. “One of our ships… sure. Yeah. Okay.”

Daniel grinned at him. “Yeah, we’ve got a fleet of them. Not a big fleet, maybe, but yeah.”

Tony shook his head, sighing happily. “I so have to get a job with you guys.”

“And bonus, nobody will slap your head. Jack says he sometimes wants to slam me into a wall, but, so far, he’s never actually done it. I do tend to die a lot, but… it doesn’t seem to stick, somehow.” He noted Tony’s jaw dropping, and merely shrugged. “Trouble Magnet.”

“Yeah, no, that’s not a good enough explanation for what you just said. But… I guess it’ll have to wait.” Tony had just felt the ship slowing, and the shimmy was accompanied by the view-screen clearing from laser-show blue streaks to…

“Oh my god…” Tony breathed.

It was Jupiter. Jupiter. Right there, close enough to touch… Huge and colorful and staggeringly impressive… right there in front of him! Banded yellows and browns and whites and ochres and reds, and, yeah, that big red circle of centuries-old storm swirling angrily, rotating, slowly, slowly, to the right. Small circle shadows also crossed the clouded surface, from tiny moons in orbit. And, even though he knew he’d read about it somewhere, he hadn’t been expecting to see a halo ring around the gas giant, ice shards occasionally glinting in a stray reflection from a distant tiny sun.

And all Tony could find to say as he gulped convulsively on a heart lodged in his throat was, “Oh my god… oh my god…”

“Yeah,” Daniel agreed, pleased with the reaction. “Worth just about anything, right?”

“It’s… it’s…”

“Yeah. I know. But this is the tip of the iceberg, Lando. I remember one planet we went to, early in the program… Oannes. Most of it was ocean, the bit of land we saw was pretty barren, just volcanic sand and volcanic vents here and there. But look up, and… there was another planet, taking up half the sky. Banded a little like that, but so close, it seemed to be falling out of the sky on top of us. This massive planet hovering over our heads… seemed to weigh everything down. And the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen.”

Tony took a deep breath, trying, and failing, to collect his thoughts, when a small bell somewhere rang.

Daniel touched a few controls, bringing up a 3D of the surrounding space, to show another ship out there. The view-screen swung away from Jupiter (aww!) to show it. It was a little clunky and boxy… like someone had built a three-story factory and then launched it into space. Not sleek and aerodynamic, like Tony had imagined a space-ship to be, or even the sleek and pretty triangles like their *Century Peregrine*, but then… In space, what did aerodynamic really matter? Functional was what you really needed. Although… couldn’t it be just a little more arty? More Frank Lloyd Wright, maybe? Tony felt his paradigm shift way out of control.

Daniel flipped another switch. A female voice barked out a command.

“Unknown tel’tak, please identify yourself, or we will open fire!”

“Oh, hey Sam! It’s Daniel… Dr. Daniel Jackson, SGC, and Very Special Agent Lando… sorry, Anthony D. DiNozzo Jr., aboard the stolen space pirate ship *Century Peregrine*. We’re fine, Sam. We’ve got Baal and his minions on ice, and lots of really great stolen space pirate swag in the hold. Vala’s just going to be so green with envy… All thanks to Very Special Agent Tony and his rule nine, which I think we should institute at HomeWorld and all its agencies… and, like, observe *religiously*.”

“And what is rule nine?” Sam asked with a smile in her voice, even as Daniel toggled something to bring the interior of the other ship’s bridge in view, to reveal Colonel Carter in the very Star Trek command chair. At her shoulder were a very relieved and happy looking General Jack, and a smug and satisfied Murray Smith.

Tony piped up, “Never go anywhere without a knife.”

“Good rule,” spoke all three, with nods.

Å

While he was stuck at the SGC, a converted missile silo and complex under the old NORAD base at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colorado, signing a ton of NDAs and getting the medical check-up of his *life*, and that included the fall-out from his bout of plague…

A beautiful raven-haired woman in blue fatigues, worn in what he suspected was a very non-regulation swagger, with a megawatt smile, flounced in, arrowing right to his cot in the infirmary where he sat waiting for test results to come in.

She stood right in front of him, feet spread wide, hands on her shapely hips, studying him with focused interest. Focused ever-so-slightly-prurient interest. One eyebrow raised and she grinned like a tiger about to make nice with an antelope.

“You know, if I hadn’t learned better, I’d have to say Earth has a *very* interesting if somewhat *very* limited gene pool. *Ever* so interesting… You know how very much you look like my Daniel? And Cameron? So, are you my Daniel’s Very Special Agent Lando?” she demanded.

Tony stood up, grinning right back, offering a hand. “NCIS Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, ma’am. I was Lando for the undercover op.”

“And you saved my Daniel with your rule nine. I heard. Good work, Very Special Agent. I’m Vala Mal Doran.”

Yeah, Tony knew that name. “Ah, you’re the independent contractor Daniel told me about. Like our stolen space pirate ship?”

“Oh, it’s *lovely*! We’re going to have such fun, messing up the Lucians with that thing. But you, Very Special Agent Lando, are due a very special gift for saving my Daniel. Carolyn told me you’ve got some scarring on your lungs?”

“Um, yeah. I had the plague a few years ago, and—“

Vala gave him an even brighter grin and pulled something out of a pocket on her fatigues. It looked like a disk made of gold, with a big red crystal set in the middle, and it fitted into the palm of her right hand, somehow.

“Well, you’re in luck. I don’t go around fixing people for no reason, you know. But you’re a very special case. No, just sit there. This won’t hurt a bit.”

Okay, so it didn’t hurt, exactly… but a warmth started in his chest, and seemed to spread… and the warmth increased, increased… then increased again, to just short of unbearable…

He was gasping by the time the red light faded, hand on the cot beside him as he leaned, unable to hold himself sitting up without the support. Dr. Lam came forward to run some whirring device over his back.

“Good job, Vala. Thanks. Agent DiNozzo, can you take a deep breath for me?”

Still gasping, Tony struggled to draw in air. This had been his life since that damned envelope shot white dust in his face all those years ago. Any unexpected or sudden activity on his part, and he could suddenly find himself fighting for air, unable to get anything past his damaged lungs. Diving into the Potomac after his boss and that kid Maddie had just about killed him, gave him a case of pneumonia that had laid him up for weeks… any kind of cold put him on the bench these days, chasing suspects when they chose to run was a crap shoot, whether he could tackle them and bring them down before he ran out of air and collapsed like a gasping fish on the sidewalk… and it was getting worse over the years, not better, so that he truly feared he would have to retire from the field one of these days…

The warmth was fading, he was finally able to sit up without a prop again, and he took one deep breath in… For the first time in years, he could do so without choking, without feeling the pull or the smothering stoppage, without feeling like he was going to die, again, and remembering the blue lights that still haunted his nightmares, when he gave into them.

He shut his eyes tight, and concentrated on just breathing… in and out… feeling the health and vitality he had feared he had lost forever… feeling like he could run and run and run and never stop… suddenly eager to try that out… People who had never had the plague, who never struggled with their breath, had no idea, how wonderful, how glorious that simple act was, how they took it for granted, and would so regret it when it was lost…

“Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you…”

Å

There was some kind of bureaucratic wrangling going on way over his head that he didn’t really understand, that required him to stay at the Mountain until the red tape got itself untangled. Something about security clearances and jurisdiction… Not his problem, he figured, until someone actually started including him in whatever the issue was.

Tony had plenty of time to work on his case reports for NCIS. He even had one *complete* version that would have to be redacted to hell-and-gone before anyone at NCIS could read it, and that included the Director, maybe even SecNav. But then, just to be kind, he also produced a version with just enough vague detail to get past the censors, and still explain what had happened, just for his Team Lead and Director. After all, he could understand, and even sympathize, with the frustration of having a case ripped away from them, to know it was closed, but not how, why, or any details at all. But Baal, Gerry and their cohorts would never see the inside of an Earth court room, or a jail cell. Even JAG would never get the full scoop on this one. Then he prepared an equally cagey email for his buddy Derek Morgan, because he knew the guy had been a tad stressed over Tony’s involvement with a possible serial killer. If Tony then suddenly dropped out of sight altogether, as he fully intended to do, Derek might try and get his tech analyst to storm the citadel, and Tony didn’t want anyone getting into trouble over this.

He had one more contact to make.

“Director Morrow? It’s Agent DiNozzo, sir.”

“Tony! Thank God. So after all the warnings, you went and got yourself kidnapped after all?”

“Hey, by bad guys, not O’Neill. Not his fault. He didn’t know I’m as much of a trouble magnet as Dr. Jackson, and two of us together… well. The trouble magnetism kind of exploded out of control. All’s well that ends well, however. But the reason I’m calling…”

“You’re ready to take O’Neill’s deal.”

“Wouldn’t you be, sir?”

“Hell, yeah. If I was ten years younger… five even… But you want to know if you can trust them.”

“Just wanted another perspective, sir. My gut says they’re solid and will have my back no matter what, but… I’m not so sure I can trust my gut any more. It seems to be letting me down lately.”

He heard a sigh echo down the phone line. “I’m sorry it’s got that bad for you, Tony. But as far as O’Neill and his operation… I trust that man, and his people, with my life, and the lives of everyone on this planet. They know how to get the job done. And Jack’s first rule is ‘leave no man behind’. If that’s good enough for you…”

“Yeah. Yeah, sir, it is. Thanks, Director.”

“Take care of yourself out there, Tony.”

“Always my aim, sir.”

Oh yeah, going with Jack was a no-brainer for Tony, thrilled with the chance to have more space adventures.

So, once he hung up, he started on his resignation letter from NCIS.

“You might want to hold off on that,” General Jack commented as he leaned against the door frame of Tony’s temporary quarters, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain. “We think we’ve come up with a way to have you assigned to us as Agent Afloat.”

The light bulb went on over Tony’s head. “That’s why it’s taking so long to get me released?”

O’Neill really did have a grin best described as ‘shit-eating’. “If I have my way, I’m not letting you go at all, VSA DiNozzo. We’ve got a lot of marines serving in this agency, so it’s not much of a reach to drag in NCIS, and we do need the skills you bring to the table, as you well know, by now. This way, you can keep your seniority, benefits and pension with a government agency. And it’ll drive your Director bug-fuck nuts when he tries to ask questions, and we tell him it’s above his pay-grade.” Jack grinned an evil grin, wiggling a scar-bisected eyebrow, and Tony out-right laughed. Yeah, that sounded about right.

But that did mean one last trip to the inside of the NCIS orange pumpkin, and a last meeting with his old team.

Å

Tony had spent the night before at his apartment, calling a few friends, frat brothers, Derek, Abby, Ducky and his beloved Autopsy Gremlin among them, to let them know he was okay and going to be out of touch for a while. He had a new long-term assignment that was going to require a lot of travel for a while – to France and the Philippines, as a start. Not to worry about him… this wasn’t like his last Agent Afloat posting, a reprimand and an exile more than anything else… no, he was thrilled and excited about this opportunity, and he’d be in touch as much as circumstances allowed.

Everyone was pretty much thrilled for him and congratulated him… with the exception of Abby, but he had expected that. She moaned about change, grew weepy over missing him, apologized for ever talking him out of reprimanding Ziva and Tim the first time they failed him… seemingly unaware that the Military at Home case hadn’t actually been the first time they failed him, as team-mates and friends. She made a stab at trying to guilt him into staying on for Gibbs’ sake… what would he do without Tony to support him and watch his back? Tony stopped her, as gently as he could, and told her that boat had sailed. He needed someone to watch his back, too, and Gibbs wasn’t that guy any more. Hadn’t been for a while.

He packed up a case or two and a garment bag for a few suits. He wasn’t sure what he’d need as he led his team of marines on a chase after alien traitors and NID rogue cells. He was negotiating with O’Neill on who he might need as permanent members of his team, for computer work, accounting expertise, whatever other skills would be required to finish off the Trust. It wasn’t even clear what office he’d be working out of, in Colorado Springs, Nevada (!??), Antarctica (!!!???!!!) or DC… Daniel and Vala were recommending he be given command of the *Century Peregrine*, and join them hunting Lucians out there in the wild black yonder. The only sure thing was, he wouldn’t be returning to the Navy Yard.

So now, early Monday morning (and he had totally lost track of days of the week, living on a space ship, and then twenty-eight floors under a Mountain) he dressed in one of his favorite suits (because clothes were armor), fully observing rule nine. He walked into the NCIS Navy Yard bullpen, and began packing up his desk. Mickey Mouse stapler was the first thing to go in his go bag. The box in his bottom desk drawer, with all of Gibbs’ medals, was the last, and he really didn’t know what to do with it.

It wasn’t lost on him, the moment he got off the elevator, that both of the other two MCRT desks had been cleared of all personal effects. Hunh.

As more and more people appeared, they stopped for a double-take at Tony, then came over to welcome him back, congratulate him on a case well solved… and what actually had happened there, anyway? He merely smiled, shook hands, and shrugged. No one mentioned the empty desks. The few who glanced meaningfully their way had sour expressions… not at Tony, that was all sympathy, but the disappointment and disdain for agents who hadn’t done their duty was clear enough. No one asked, either, about the packing up of the SFA desk.

Since Abby, Ducky and Jimmy already knew about his reassignment, he had arranged to go out with them for lunch, to say his goodbyes. Which left…

Vance actually stopped by his desk. “Special Agent DiNozzo. Welcome back. When you have a moment, I’d like you to come to my office.”

“Of course, Director.”

Tony wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that Gibbs had yet to show up in the office, and it was already eight o’clock.

Å

Tony didn’t make Vance wait. Cynthia, executive assistant for three Directors now, gave him a bright smile and shook his hand, too. Yeah, Cynthia knew the score. She buzzed him right in.

There wasn’t even the usual pretense that the Director had better things to do than waste his time on a lowly agent. Vance immediately stood from behind his desk, and gestured Tony over to the comfy sofa. He even offered coffee, which Tony politely declined. Doctor Lam had had some biting things to say about Tony not following in Daniel’s footsteps where caffeine addiction came in. Tony didn’t bother to describe the Gibbs dependence on caffeine, much less the Caf-Pow situation.

Tony could confess to himself, though, that the kid-gloves treatment was unnerving him. He honestly thought Vance would be overjoyed to ship him out Afloat once again.

“First of all, Agent DiNozzo, well done on closing the Coyne case. You were right about the serial killer connection, and all of your deductions about the case were dead on, including the killer’s next hunting ground. Well done.” Vance held up a hand, “No, I won’t ask for any details I’ve not already been given. It was explained to me, in great detail, by a number of people, that such information was above my pay grade. In fact, I’ve heard that phrase so often this past week, I feel like it’s been tattooed on my butt. And I do appreciate the private report you sent.”

Tony, wondering where this was going, if anywhere, realized the Director was waiting for his reaction. “Thank you, Director.”

Vance nodded, once, decisively. At last, the expected toothpick came out of a silver cigarette case. “I also want to apologize, for the failure of your back-up on you undercover op. That could have been… far more catastrophic than it was, if the Homeland team had not been there to pick up the slack.”

Homeland? Above his pay grade, check. Again, Vance seemed to expect some kind of reaction from him. “I’m not sure what I can say about that, Director. You know it wasn’t the first time that happened?”

“Yes, Agent Gibbs filled me in on the Military At Home case.”

“I should have filed an official reprimand at that time, and… didn’t. So letting them believe they could get away with such behavior is partly my fault. But you must know, I won’t be going back into the field with either one of them. Ever.”

Vance nodded. “I completely understand. And you’re not alone in that decision. Almost every team lead in the organization has expressed the same concerns to me over the past week. But there is no longer an issue, because both Agent McGee and Probationary Agent David have been fired, for cause.”

Now, that was a shock. Tony would have thought Vance would find some way to salvage the situation, sending McGee to Cyber, Ziva to CI/CT, or even translations, come to that… and maybe that’s where his former team-mates should have been posted all along.

Tony assimilated that information. Then accepted it. Fair enough. “That’s going to leave the MCRT gutted. I assume you have a plan for getting it back up and running again.”

Vance’s eyes narrowed. “I had hoped… I could prevail upon you to come back as SFA. I know you’ve accepted an Agent Afloat liaison position with Homeland, but I thought…”

He must have seen the absolute horror and denial in Tony’s eyes, although the Very Special Agent felt he had kept his poker face in place…

Tony decided he needed to nip that idea in the bud. Not for one month, one day, not for one more case, would he let himself be crushed under Gibbs’ thumb. That moment on the pel’tac of the *Century Peregrine*, when Daniel had stared at him, appalled, that his boss could cuff him on the back of the head, for any reason at all… Seeing it from the perspective of an objective outsider, putting his memories of the past decade through that same filter… he was rather appalled himself, and astounded, if not ashamed, that he had ever let it get that out of control.

Yeah, so not happening. Not ever again.

“No sir. With respect, no. And part of the reason is that respect, well, it needs to go two ways, not just one. And I haven’t felt a lot of respect on the MCRT, not for a very long time. Frankly, I deserve to be treated better.”

Vance sighed, and nodded, reluctantly. “You do indeed. And I’m man enough to admit much of the fault is mine. But I will… respect your wishes, and your choices, Agent DiNozzo. Good luck with the new post. I have no doubt at all that you’ll do NCIS proud.”

Å

Gibbs had still not arrived at work by the time Tony had finished off the last of his MCRT and SFA reports, leaving everything in his old job compete, ship-shape and ready for whomever to take over.

Stopping by the bullpen one last time, after bringing Ducky, Abby and Jimmy back from lunch, Gibbs still hadn’t turned up. And no one, absolutely no one, had made the least mention of it.

Tony just hoped the man wasn’t half way to Mexico, again.

Å

Everything he needed to do at his apartment was done, the services put on hold or on remote payment options for the cleaning service, even Kate-the-fish was passed to an elderly neighbor who often seemed lonely to him. Kate was good and un-demanding company. His luggage was ready for the cab that would take him to the airport in the morning. He’d be flying out of Bolling in the morning with O’Neill’s hand-picked team.

That left just one last thing to do, and he really did hope the man was still there.

He drove to Gibbs’ house and was relieved to see lights on… so, not in Mexico on another siesta.

He walked in, as always, through the un-locked front door, and it suddenly occurred to him, how long it had been since the last time he had been over. He hadn’t felt welcome to invite himself over, or make himself at home, for a very long time. He had his own ideas about why that had happened, and only part of it was the torch he had secretly, or maybe not so secretly, carried for his boss from the moment they met. It was when he got the distinct impression Gibbs felt some shadow of attraction back, that their relationship had really gone downhill. Tony had always assumed Gibbs was just that bad at maintaining any kind of relationship with anyone, but then he considered Daniel’s take on a military man’s ingrained bias against civilians… maybe the free-wheeling DiNozzo was just too different for Gibbs to accept as a potential long-term partner… in any way.

But whatever the reason, he knew only too well that Gibbs would never allow him close enough to act on that possibly mutual attraction. It was telling that any time Gibbs betrayed even the least affection for his SFA, he immediately followed it up with a verbal, emotional, or even physical slap-down.

Tony sighed as he made his way to the stairs, and descended to the basement.

The smell of sawdust, the soft sound of a hand rubbing lovingly over wood with a sanding block… so familiar. He was going to miss that. He was going to miss the implied support and friendship, too, but he had been missing it for years, he just hadn’t realized till now.

“Hey, Gibbs,” he greeted, settling on the bottom stair. “Been a while since I was down here. Like the new boat.”

Gibbs seemed to stiffen. Tony wondered briefly why… not feeling any regret, was he, for the distance that had grown between them? That had been entirely the team lead’s decision, not Tony’s. Regret had never been in the ex-marine’s DNA before now.

Gibbs emptied a jam jar of screws, but Tony shook his head and raised a hand. “No thanks. I’ve got an early flight tomorrow.”

“You’re taking the Agent Afloat assignment.”

There was no question there, so Tony let the silence lengthen. If Gibbs had anything to say… and even as Tony waited, he realized how futile that expectation was.

“I just dropped by to say good bye, and thanks. I saw Ducky, Abby and Jimmy at lunch. Didn’t want you to be the only one I didn’t see…”

Gibbs winced visibly, his hand stopping abruptly in its motions, and again, Tony wondered why… until a flash of memory came up. A dinner party Ziva had thrown, with himself the only member of the team not invited… pointedly so from the jokes flying around the next few weeks. While he recovered from Ziva’s ricochet bullet to the arm.

Taking a deep, easy, natural breath, Tony plunged on. There really wasn’t much to say, but he wouldn’t have felt right, leaving things like they were.

“I just wanted to thank you. For taking a chance on me. For all you taught me. My new employer is pretty impressed with rule nine, and it certainly saved my life this time. I have to admit… some of what I learned was what not to do, but, hey…”

Again, with the wincing. Tony wasn’t used to Gibbs wincing, betraying any kind of reaction on that stoic marine mask that might hint at vulnerability. It was messing up his world view.

“Anyway… well, thanks.”

Gibbs still hadn’t once met his eyes. Engrossed in his sanding.

“So… well, I guess this is it. So long. Gibbs.” He stood up to take his leave… and finally, there was the very first hint of actual feed-back.

“Tony.” Well, one word, anyway… and only after another lengthy pause did it become more. “Glad you made it back okay. You were MIA for three days.” There was a weight of despair in that bleak comment. Seventy two hours, not knowing where his SFA was, if he was even alive? When their unsub was known to kill most of his victims after about forty-eight, after lengthy torture sessions?

“Wow. Okay. You must have really pissed off O’Neill. It was actually only eighteen hours.”

Another tell-tale wince. “Yeah. He was pissed.”

Tony figured there was a story there… but he wasn’t all that interested in hearing what it was. He thought he could probably make a good guess. He had heard enough disparaging remarks from pretty much everyone in Colorado, over the NCIS way of doing things. And he had already decided that it was no longer his job to make excuses for other people’s fuck-ups.

He took another step out of his old life, and Gibbs made another stab at… whatever he wanted to say.

“You’re not going to even ask? About the team?”

That turned Tony cold. He had really hoped to get out of this without letting go of the monumental anger and hurt he carried for their betrayal of him. And he couldn’t, he absolutely could not, stop up his mouth in time.

“What team.”

Gibbs nodded curtly, still not looking anywhere in his direction. “They told me that was your attitude.”

Tony didn’t bother to ask who ‘they’ were. He figured it was probably everyone who had been trying to talk to Gibbs. “What attitude?”

“Tim and Ziva who.”

Tony was silent a moment. “I warned them. They didn’t listen. That’s on them. If they had listened to me, even once, the past few years, none of it would be necessary. They haven’t been on my team for a very long time, Gibbs, and we both know it. Your team? Maybe. But I haven’t been on your team, either, for a while now. Not as far as you’re concerned. It shouldn’t be so much of a surprise, I guess, that they both took that on board. So, when I finally realized that… I guess I’m a bit slow that way. But, yeah. I’ve moved on.”

He could almost hear the other man’s teeth grind on that one. Tony sighed. “You want to tell me. Okay. Go ahead.”

“Ziva’s been deported, back to Israel.”

“Her citizenship?”

“Revoked.”

“Oka-ay…” That wouldn’t have been about failure of protocol. But if they went digging into her other activities, Tony figured they wouldn’t have to look far to find Rivkin wasn’t her only questionable action. She had always been a little too arrogant, a little too dismissive of NCIS as a whole – barring only Gibbs – to be as careful as she would have to be to get away with espionage and treason forever. Well, he had warned her. He had warned everyone, one time or another, and no one had listened. “McGee?”

“His father the Admiral hit the roof, sicced lawyers on us for wrongful dismissal. Until we showed them the tapes. Your friends at Homeland helpfully supplied surveillance of the van, and you trying to contact them. Don’t know if McGee will pursue it any further.”

Tony shrugged. “He’s got his computer skills. He’d get paid more in the private sector anyway. Not like he can’t fall back on his writing if he needs another career. He could get a whole novel out of the Coyne case alone… although he’ll have to switch the details around some if he wants Agent McGregor to come out looking like a hero. And blame Agent Tommy for everything that went wrong.”

More silence. Tony took one more step on his way to a clean getaway…

“Didn’t ask about me.”

“You? You weren’t even there.”

And yet another wince.

“I’m gonna run ops in MTAC for a while. Let someone else build a new MCRT. Balboa and his team will be primary. Then… maybe training.”

“Training?” Tony yelped. “Come on, Gibbs, you’d almost do better to take a desk job, and I know that would kill you with boredom, but you haven’t got the patience for probies. You’re shit as a trainer!”

This time the wince was a full-on grimace.

“Okay, yeah,” Tony held up a hand to interrupt what little Gibbs might have to say for himself, because the double entendres were a little too thick. “This was clearly a mistake, coming here. All I wanted to do was drop by, say thanks, and good bye… This is not what I intended. That every word out of my mouth would seem like a calculated dig. I promise you, that’s not what I mean. I just wanted… I don’t know. A little closure. To leave things on a better note. I’d like to think I’d be welcome back, to visit, if I ever… okay, no. Obviously too much to ask. I’ll just get out of your hair now. Watch out for yourself, Jethro. You know I won’t be there to do it for you anymore.”

“Tony, I… I made mistakes. I was wrong. I didn’t have your back.” It was all coming out in a rush now. “Wasn’t much of a leader, either. Don’t think there’s anyone in the entire agency willing to work with me…”

“Sure there are. You’re a legend, Gibbs. Your closure rate alone—“

“Not mine. Never just mine. Just as much yours, if not more... And you’re right. If we’d been a team, like we should have been, everyone would know that… No one wants to work for a bastard like me if you’re not there to soften the blow.”

“No!” Tony objected. “You are *not* asking me to come back as your SFA. Even you can’t be that stupid to think I’d do it. Or do you think I’m that pathetic, to come to heel, again, at the crook of your finger? Well there’s no chance in hell, Gibbs. I’m done with all that. I’ve had a better offer. Way better. In fact, if you ever want a job… I just might be able to add you to my team… as a junior member.”

The briefest of smiles crossed that rugged face. “You gonna head-slap me if I screw up?”

With a flare of temper, Tony finally took the gloves off.

“Okay, you know what? It has very recently been impressed upon me that no one deserves to be hit on the head, for any reason. That’s not happening, ever again, unless I get to arrest, maybe even shoot, the guy doing the hitting. And trust me, Gibbs, I will do just that. So, fair warning.”

At last, Gibbs looked up and met his eyes. There was realization in those ice-blue eyes, and yeah, maybe regret too. “Got it.”

The heat went out of Tony in a whoosh, like a stargate shutting down. “See you remember it, then, Gibbs. There’s not another agent in the world going to stand for even a fraction of what I put up with all these years. Maybe because I’m some sort of masochist… maybe because I’m too pathetic and needy, still that abandoned and disowned kid left to sink or swim on his own. And maybe there’s a bit of truth to that. But it didn’t start out that way. In the beginning, for a while there, we were a good team. We had each other’s backs, we had respect for each other. I don’t know what the hell I did to lose that respect… maybe it’s when I stopped protesting the head-whacks. Got a friend who thinks a military guy will never truly respect any civilian, not long term, so maybe it’s as simple as that. But I’m not making that mistake again, working with someone who doesn’t give me the respect I deserve. And for that rather hard lesson in demanding my due… I have to thank you.”

Gibbs nodded. Then he studied his former second in command. “You sure you’re not just running away from me?”

Tony had to take a moment to think about that. “I didn’t just stay all this time for the team, Gibbs, and not even for you. It was important work. I’m a cop. It’s who I am. Getting justice for victims, dueling with the suspects in interrogation, stopping the bad guys, and then there’s that thrill you get when a case suddenly opens up and you see the answers right there in front of you… even when the team wasn’t working so well, even when it all started to fall apart, the work was more important to me than anything, even my self-respect. That’s why I stayed, as long as I could. And that was as long as I knew I had back-up if I needed it. That’s not the MCRT any more. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that back.”

“And this agent afloat job can give you all that?”

“General Jack promised me, leave no man behind. You were right about Coyne, by the way, at least part of what got him killed was the crowd he was running with. That’s going to be my first case, chasing them down and seeing they don’t do any more damage. And that’s important work, too. Damn important.” Yeah, ‘save the cheerleader, save the world’ important.

Then Tony remembered a stellar nebula spread out against a blanket of stars. The view of Jupiter and its rings. A ship lined with gold hieroglyphics. A Holy Grail canister of golden light. And the one glimpse Daniel had shown him, of a big stone ring exploding into a geyser of water, and settling into a vertical pool of the bluest blue… Gate to the Stars.

“No matter what, Gibbs, no matter what else has happened… I’d still be taking this job. It’s a better offer than any I can even think of.”

Gibbs nodded, seeming a little easier than he had since Tony walked in. “Good, then. I wish you well. No… I wish you luck. The way you attract trouble? You’re gonna need a shit-load of it.”

Tony grinned. “I will at that. But I’ll do a good job, Boss,” and Tony knew Gibbs heard that title, the first time he’d said it, and meant it, in a very long time. “I’ll do you proud.”

“If there’s one thing I never doubted, Tony, it’s that. Just… sorry I stopped remembering that myself.”

It was as much of an acknowledgement as Gibbs could bring himself to give.

Tony nodded. “So long, Gibbs.”

“So long, Tony. And… if you are ever back in DC… you’re always welcome here.”

Tony was skeptical. But as an olive branch… he could accept it as such.

“I’ll keep it in mind, Gibbs.”

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