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Prologue:

Implacable. That was the word for it, Gibbs realises with annoyed grimace. Leon Vance - Director Vance – was not going to be moved on this.


The narrowed eyes, the unsmiling mouth, the motionless pose at the desk. Hands calmly folded on the folder. He wouldn't move them unless it was to hand over the file. Stubborn bastard.

Just as well he knew a thing or two about stubborn himself. Vance wasn't the only one who was implacable, and NCIS did not need an intern. Would not take an intern.

The temptation to sing “nah, nah, nah, you can't make me,” is so strong, Gibbs has to force down a smile. Vance is implacable, but he wouldn't force this. When it came to personnel, they had an agreement.

He was opening his mouth to say “no” – “hell, no,” in fact – when Vance raises an eyebrow and steps up the attack.

“The FBI wants her. They had her last summer, invited her back. They're talking about starting her even before she graduates.”

Bastard taps the folder and doesn't even bother to look him in the eye. Gibbs braces himself for the trump that has to be coming.

“Fornell says some nice things in here. 'Best investigator of her generation.' 'Asset to any agency'.

Gibbs swings on his heel to leave the office. “She better be good,” he mutters to the doorframe as he exits. An intern!

“This'll be on your desk in the morning after I finish making her an offer,” Vance calls after him, waving the folder.

Chuckling, the bastard.

*

Chapter One:


Ziva was midway through her report when his attention started to wander.

“Lt Miguel Arroyo Hernandez. Last seen alive yesterday evening, leaving a bar - Goldilox, 20th West 10 – approximately 10pm. In the company of two men, also Latino. We haven't yet identified them, but there are several witnesses, and we have a sketch artist working with them, so it ... shouldn't be too long now.”

She pauses, waiting for the explosion. There was no such thing as “too long now” in Gibbs' world. He frowns, but he is looking at the clock. And then the elevator. And back to the clock.

Ah.

“Initial description is dark-skinned, shaven heads, lots of leather, and tattoos. Bikers or street gang, perhaps.”

Two assumptions in one short sentence, and all he does is grunt twice, before his eyes fly back to the elevator. There can be only one conclusion.

Gibbs is expecting someone. And someone is late.

Ziva begins watching the elevator too.

*

The quiet ding reverberates around the Bullpen. The doors slide open, and at first, the elevator seems to be empty. Then a young girl steps out, and does a slow inspection of the entire office.

Lost, maybe, Ziva thinks. But why would they send up a kid on her own?

Fifteen, maybe sixteen, McGee calculates, and orders himself to stop looking at her legs. He is going to need brain bleach the way Di Nozzo's eyes are flicking from the tops of her boots to the bottom of her skirt as if trying to measure the distance.

“What! Miniskirt!” his colleague huffs, rubbing the spot where McGee's elbow had caught his ribs. They are both waiting for the headslap when they notice Gibbs is looking somewhere else, his eyes narrowed in displeasure.

“You the intern? What time do you call this?”

The three agents are still mouthing the word at each other in shock when she fires back her reply.

“The Neanderthal at the desk wouldn't let me up. I've BEEN here since 8.15 but apparently I'm lacking the proper papers. And someone called Gibbs wasn't answering his phone,” she drawls, two parts extreme sweetness to a third of acid. “You guys make the FBI look organised.”

She stalks up to them and slides a heavy messenger bag off her shoulder before sticking out her hand to Gibbs.

“Veronica Mars. Promise I'm worth waiting for.” The coy, honeyed tone is such an obvious flirt – with Gibbs! - that McGee sprays his coffee all over his shirtfront. Nope, not a kid, he hastily revises.

"Ballsy!” DiNozzo thinks and tries to hide his smirk.

Ziva simply nods a welcome, and resists the urge to push her back into the elevator. So the girl is a flirt. Fine. Less than professional, but hardly the first. Very pretty, too. But that has no bearing on anything. Why, then, does this Veronica Mars disturb her?

Something about her smile. The way she wields it like a weapon. And the calculating glint in those too-blue eyes. She is an actress, Ziva realises.

And altogether too good for such a young woman.

*

So this was the guy the big security guard downstairs was so scared of, Veronica thinks sourly. Short silver hair, somewhere in his fifties, she'd guess. Ridiculously well preserved, even if the scowl on his face marred all the pretty. He'd simply growled at her explanation, and yes, pulling on her Valley Girl probably wasn't the most mature reaction, but … whatever. At least two of her new coworkers seemed to like it. The female agent, she noted, didn't. Plenty of time to figure out exactly why that was,Veronica thinks as she braces herself for introductions.

Not that bracing seemed to be needed.

“Veronica Mars, here for the summer. Senior field agent Anthony DiNozzo, agent Tim McGee, probationary agent Ziva David. Ziva!”

And that appears to be that, Veronica realises as Agent David launches back into the briefing her arrival had apparently interrupted.

“Ah – yes, Lt Hernandez was last seen leaving Goldilocks at 10pm with two Latino men. Our artist has already interviewed several witnesses, and we should have sketches coming through later this morning.”

“Crime scene?”

“Just a body dump. No tyre tracks. Only a small amount of blood, and Duckie says it's probably post-mortem anyway. You were there, boss. It's the cleanest I've seen.”

“Me too,” the gangly, open-faced man offers. McGee, Veronica tells herself. Timothy McGee.

“DiNozzo?”

“Seen it before, but not with the gangs. They don't give a rat's ass if it's messy. That clean?” Agent DiNozzo has the smarmy looks of a well-shod womaniser, but seems to know his stuff, Veronica thinks as she watches him exchange a look with the team leader. “Mob, maybe?”

Gibbs simply shook his head without bothering to explain. Wordless interactions, got it. This team was expected to operate on telepathy. Veronica feels her lips quirk as she is possessed by the thought of Gibbs in Professor Xavier's chair, and blinks rapidly to banish the image before she is tempted to cast anyone else.

“ … nothing but minor barfights on his service record, and I'm starting on his cellphone records and financial records,” Agent McGee was saying. Gibbs barely raised an eyebrow in Di Nozzo's direction before the younger agent jumped in “and we're heading over to check out the victim's house, boss. Grab your gear, probie!”

Ziva simply rolles her eyes in Gibbs' direction before slinging a backpack over her shoulder and heading for the lift. Meeting over, apparently.

Gibbs' attention filters back to her – at least he wasn't glowering now – and she smiles brightly. “Time for the tour? Or do you want to put me straight to work?”

He snorts, and points to the desks. “Bullpen. You can have that desk. Might need to clear it first.”

And that, Veronica suspects, was probably as much real work as she'd be doing today. This guy looked ready to stick her behind the coffeepot – he probably had his lunch order already written down. She'd had a moment of hope when she'd seen how intently he'd listened to Agent David, but NCIS couldn't be that different to the FBI.

Her first internship had been in the LA field office, and she hadn't so much as looked at a case file that summer. Then she'd landed the big one – Mr J. Edgar Hoover himself, FBI Headquarters, and it had been even worse.

She had tried to tell herself that everyone had to start somewhere, and it was a learning process, and the beige and black suits were just another disguise, but, really. NCIS had her at “no dress code”. And possibly the words “controversial” and “maverick” on Special Agent Gibbs' FBI file. (Which of course she hadn't seen, because the files on federal employees were subject to very tight security. That Mac really shouldn't have been able to crack.)

“Veronica? You with me?”

She jumps – he can't really be a mind reader – and follows him towards a set of the stairs that lead to a mezzanine floor. They climb silently, then he knocks twice on the door before opening it for her and gesturing for her to go ahead.“Director Vance, the intern is here.”

The man sitting behind the desk flicks assessing eyes in her direction and smiles with a complete lack of warmth. He exudes power in a way she has rarely encountered before. Not the showy facade of an actor or politician, but something more covert, Veronica suspects. Knowledge. Secrets.

“Miss Mars. Take a seat, please.”

She sits.

“Welcome to NCIS, Miss Mars. We're happy to have been able to steal you away from the FBI.”

Something in the quirk of his lips tells her he probably knew the exact date she had burned all those beige suits. And just how many times the word “insubordinate” had been uttered by the Bureau pricks. Veronica shifts uneasily on the chair.

“I'm very happy to be here, Director. I was surprised to learn about the role NCIS plays, and the fact that your teams work so collaboratively. The chance to learn from a group, rather than just one person – it held a lot of appeal.” She resisted the urge to turn around and glare at Gibbs, congratulating herself on being so subtle. Only the tiniest stress on the word 'learn'. Go Veronica.

The Director's lips twitch as he glances up at the man behind her.

“You could do worse than Agent Gibbs and his team, Miss Mars. Much worse. Now if you'll excuse me ...”

Veronica smiles and eases herself away from the desk, while Gibbs simply grunts and opens the door. They are halfway down the hall and at the elevator before he speaks again.

“Morgue or forensics lab?”

Neither of which she'd been allowed near on either of her stints with the FBI. Veronica tells herself to be cool, but … yup, still excited. “Morgue, please!”

*

Veronica is half expecting Dr Scully to appear when Gibbs directs her into the large, white room sharp with chemicals and centred around a row of what she is pretty sure are autopsy tables. Just one, at the far end of the room, is occupied. Two white-coated men confer over a scale full of what Veronica suspects is viscera. Her stomach settles into a slow roll.

“Ah, Jethro!”

Gibbs steps closer to the older of the two men, but her feet remain fixed firmly where they are, even if her eyes can't drag themselves away from the gaping hole in the man's chest.

“I thought you were here to learn?” Gibbs says softly, putting a hand under her elbow and ushering her forward.

“Dr Donald Mallard, Mr Jimmy Palmer – Veronica Mars.”

“Miss Mars, lovely to meet you. I'd shake your hand, but ...” Dr Mallard gestures cheerily, his hands still encased in gloves stained and flecked with dark red globs she doesn't even want to guess at. Too late. Her brain insists on supplying all the possibilities and this time, her stomach threatened to rebel altogether.

It must show on her face because the dapper medical examiner – Dr Mallard - sends her a sympathetic smile.

“Is this your first dead body, my dear?”

And just like that, Lilly Kane is lying next to the swimming pool, blood and brain matter oozing from the wound on the side of her head.

“No.”

Too sharp, she realises, when Dr Mallard takes a long moment to study her face.

“It's my third internship, Dr Mallard. I've done two summers with the FBI already.”

Filing, coffee, internet research if they were feeling generous. But Dr Mallard doesn't need to know that. He might even have read her personnel file, but all the words in the world can't really explain about Lilly, or the bus crash, or the horror of discovering that someone you called a friend had raped you, and killed your friends. No personnel file could ever start to explain how three years of high school had hardened her more than any one person had a right to be.

On the upside, it had given her the skills to rock just the right mix of professional detachment and youthful enthusiasm, she thinks as the older man beams at her.

Gibbs, however, will be a much harder nut to crack. He is obviously bored with their little round of introductions, scowling at the corpse on the table as if it is deliberately withholding information.

“Anything useful yet, Ducky?”

“Cause of death was almost definitely blood loss caused by some combination of three gunshot wounds. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to recover any bullets – not even any bullet fragments – so we don't have anything to help identify the shooter. I'm examining stomach contents now, to see if that won't help reconstruct his last movements, and Jimmy has done his absolute best to find any fibres or residues … but – he's very clean, Jethro. Professionally clean.”

“Yeah, Duck, we're working on that. We've got a witness, though, and maybe when we find the kill site ...” Gibbs shrugs, then turns to leave. Veronica shoots an embarrassed smile at Dr Mallard and returns Palmer's cheery wave before following him out the door.

“One more stop then I'll put you to work. This is our forensics lab.”

The doors had only slid open a fraction when Nine Inch Nails comes roaring out to meet them, and really, after that? The lab tech shouldn't have been a surprise.

Gibbs leads her through a maze of monitors and chrome to where they can see a tall woman in a white labcoat undulating to the beat. She spins around and Veronica is still processing – schoolgirl pigtails, anime face, black t-shirt, tiny pleated skirt and ohmygod, the boots! Then Gibbs does the most unexpected thing of all.

He smiles.

“Hey, Abs. Meet our intern. Veronica Mars, Abby Sciuto. Head of Forensics for NCIS.”

Veronica is so impressed with Abby – head of forensics for a federal agency, and not even out of her twenties? - that she nearly misses the incredulous look.

“An intern? Here? At NCIS?”

Little green men flying in from outer space might have met with less shock, Veronica frowns. Sure, she hadn't been able to track down anyone else who had ever interned here, but it wasn't as if she could be the first. Could it?

Gibbs shrugs. “Vance said we needed an intern. And the FBI wanted Veronica.”

“Ohhhh! So you came to us, instead! That's so cool!”And suddenly, making so much more sense, Veronica smiles internally.

Gibbs had launched into an explanation of Abby's skills - pretty much everything the FBI maintained multiple specialist labs for, by the sound of it – and was fast moving on to what was obviously the real purpose behind her tour. An investigator who didn't answer his phone and obviously hated email. Right.

“Watcha got, Abs?”

“Oh! Um. Ducky's trying to give me an idea of what we're after ballistics wise, but we've got no bullets or shells to work with – someone's actually removed them from the vic's flesh, Gibbs! I've got a few residues to look at, but … the feet and hands have been washed, and I'm guessing he's been redressed too, so … probably nothing worthwhile.”

The poor woman looks so downcast that Veronica feels sorry for her.

“I guess the fact that you don't have anything is something in itself – from what I've heard, you guys are the best at this stuff,” she volunteered. “Maybe I could do some research on other clean scenes and bring them down to you to see if there are any parallels?”

Gibbs simply grunts, while Abby jumps up and down with glee. This, Veronica thinks in awe as they headed for the elevator, is a woman who really loves her work.

Kinda cool, she has to admit.

*

She and Gibbs have barely stepped from the elevator when David and DiNozzo come tumbling out, clearly engaged in some sort of argument.

“Ziva, I'm just saying, Gibbs would never agree -”

“Wouldn't agree to what, Tony?” Gibbs drawls, just as Ziva kicks her partner and shoots her eyes in Gibbs' direction.

“Uh, nothing, boss. Wouldn't agree to ...”

“Docking people's pay for gossiping? Yeah, I would.”

DiNozzo is still searching for something to say, his partner hiding behind his back and quite clearly shaking with laughter, when McGee hollers across the room.

“Boss! Drawings of the two suspects have just come through. Loading them up now!”

The screen between the desks flickers and two photographs depixellate into clarity.

One man is thin-faced, weaselly, nondescript. The other ...

“Looks like a charmer – but that crown tattoo should make it easy enough,” Gibbs voice echoes, as if from far away.

The other ...

He'd hardly changed at all. His head is shaved again, like it had been in junior year, when he was the king of the PCH Bike Club. He is leaner, perhaps, and the soul patch is more defined than it was when saw him last. Before he went to jail. For the second time.

Veronica stares, then closes her eyes as her mind starts to spin. Could she warn him? Misdirect them? He has a criminal record. Even through the DMV, he'd be easy to track. They'd find out anyway. And would know she had lied. There is nothing to gain by keeping it quiet.

She feels like Judas anyway.

“I know who that is,” she says, and even as she speaks, her right hand finds her left shoulder, rubbing circles, drawing comfort. Remembering.

He pounced the minute she opened the door. “Show me.”

Show you … what? The essay I'm trying to write? A dance routine? My boobs?” She'd nailed the line, she knew she had, but he was in no mood to be swayed.

He got you, didn't he? He took something from you.”

My pride? My sense of safety? My peace of mind? Too many questions she didn't want to answer, but he'd always known how to stop her thinking, stepping behind her to collect her hair in one huge fist. She'd been brushing it, over and over, and it crackled with static as he wrapped it around his hand, gently lifting it free of her neck to reveal the shaved patch underneath.

V.” His voice was choked, but his arms were around her now, pulling her back into his chest, into warmth and strength and solidity and safe.

I've got you. I've always got you, chica.”

Her eyes blurred with tears, and all she could see was orange and black of his new tattoo, the big cat caught in full leap, it's tail curling about his bicep and head turning to snarl at her from his wrist.

A jaguar?”

My great grandmother said it was my spirit animal, to help me find my strength. Ix, it's called.”

It's beautiful. The idea, too. Maybe I should get one.”

You got me, mami. I'm your jaguar.”

Four months later, she was sitting in the back of the court as he was sentenced for failing to return the last of the student card machines. They'd worked the case together, and she had surrendered two, and ignored his hints about finding a third. He hadn't used it, but simple possession had been enough to convict a former felon, and the guilt was crushing her.

His lawyer dropped the envelope into her hands as the courtroom emptied.

Inside were two sheets of paper. On one, a jaguar lazed, dark brown eyes staring out at her, and one paw raised as if in benediction. On the other, a woman's back, gorgeously adorned with the same image, the jaguar's paw resting protectively on her shoulder.

She deserved the pain, she told herself as the needle bit, over and over. Two weeks later, after the scabs had fallen off, she had driven up to Chino to visit him for the first – and last – time.

Ix had been her strength ever since.

***