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Silence Isn't Golden

Chapter Text

The soft breeze blows through the Charger's open windows, rustling the magazine in Tim McGee's lap. Even though he tries to keep his eyes fixed on the world outside, they can't help but wander back to last month's HiTech. After hours of being trapped in the car, he hates to admit that he is going stir crazy. He thought he might have a chance to do something exciting on today's stakeout. Like conduct the interviews or go for a walk around the neighborhood.

Or hell, even go undercover. That would've been thrilling, amazing, and maybe even give him a refresher so he can finally write the next passage in his latest novel.

What the hell was I thinking? I always get stuck in the car.

Worst yet, he and Ziva David are monitoring Tony DiNozzo's interviews of every single one of the neighbors in the whole freaking development. Sure, they're looking for a terrorist and it's part of the job, but Tony has one of those voices that turns that little nagging ache in the side of your head into a full blown migraine. Especially, when he just doesn't shut up.

"…never believe that woman who just answered her door in a bikini. A total MILF in a bikini just invited me to go skinny dipping in a heated pool with her. And here, I thought the suburbs would be boring. You know what, this is why Gibbs picked me to go undercover, McGee. You never would've been able to handle that."

Making a face, Tim presses on his earwig. "I think I would've been fine."

"Yeah right, Probie." Tony laughs right in Tim's ear. "Alright, onto the next house."

Rolling his eyes, Tim picks up the binoculars to check on his partner's location. Since they're on the far side of the Royal Woods development, Tony is nothing more than a tan speck bounding along the residential street. He disappears behind a few fledgling trees and Tim fights the urge to move the car forward to keep his partner in his line of sight.

In the passenger seat, Ziva reads her book while trying to actively ignore Tony's ramblings. She appears to be relaxed, but the way she grips her novels with white knuckles tells Tim that she isn't.

"There's a car in the driveway. So, someone's got to be home. Do you think I'll meet another MILF, guys?" There's a short pause. "How many has that been today?"

"Three," Tim says.

"Did you count that one on Rosewood? The one in the brick house?"

Tim eyes his magazine. "You said she was too old because she was watching her grandkids. Remember?"

Tony chuckles. "Well, she's the mom of a MILF. I saw the homeowner's picture. So, I guess she should count as two, right? Since she's a GILF and all."

In the passenger seat, Ziva's face pinches with irritation. "What is this GILF and MILF? Is it something to do with the house?"

Tony cracks up again. "Not a chance, Zee-vah. It's a Grandma I'd like to – "

"Find time to spend with," Tim interrupts. "Right, Tony?"

"Yeah, sure. Whatever. Alright guys, it's showtime!" Over the earwig, Tim hears Tony knocking on the door. Then he starts into his spiel: "Hi there, my name's Tony DeNiro. My wife, Ziva –" this makes her nearly fold her book in half "—and I just bought the house around the corner. She sent me out to meet the neighbors while she's at…"

At that moment, Ziva reaches towards the console to cut off the two-way mic. Tim listens to Tony ask how good the schools are while the system records everything.

Ziva smacks her book against the side of the door. Tim jumps.

"How are we supposed to listen to this all day, McGee?" she asks.

"It's no different than usual," Tim says, shrugging. "He talks like this all time at work." Then he half-smiles. "At least, we don't have to look at him. Or listen to him talk about movies we haven't seen."

"But he is inside of my head." She presses her fingers against her temples and frowns. "I can still hear him talking. Talking about nothing."

"The mic's still on, Ziva. Of course, we still hear him." Tim laughs awkwardly. "That's what he's supposed to do. Talk enough for us to get a voice signature of all the residents."

"But he is the one doing all of the talking."

All Tim has to offer is a half-shrug because that's their assignment. Listen to Tony talk about anything and everything that pops into his head provided they get enough voice data for Abby Scuito to analyze. Fortunately, they don't need much audio from the residents themselves. But unfortunately, it takes Tony a long time to get the key phrases they need.

Tim surveys Tony's location with the binoculars. Through the leaves, he makes out an older middle-aged man with a beer belly and comb-over.

"How can you think Roger Moore is the best James Bond? That's…"

By the time the team is done arresting their suburban terrorists, Tim will probably need to spend a few weeks in an isolation tank just to get Tony's voice out of his head. Maybe he'll finally put in for a few days' vacation like he always plans, but never gets around to. He promised his sister that he'd head up to Boston to visit her at grad school. And G-d knows he could use a break from the work, from the caseload—he cautiously eyes Ziva—from everyone on the team.

Listening to Tony is reminds me that I need to fill out that request form as soon as we get back.

Huffing, Ziva turns back to her book. Her dark eyes stare unseeing at the pages.

Shaking his head, Tim picks up the camera with the telescopic lens to take a few photos. Through the foliage, he manages to get a few shots of the middle-aged man. Even though the man looks completely innocuous like a plain and boring accountant, he could very be the person that the team searches for.

"I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, Cal. I still think Sean Connery will always be the best Bond."

That earns Tony a door slamming in his face. Tim captures the moment on film, then takes a few of Tony slinking down the porch steps.

"That was a bust, guys. And can you believe that guy liked Roger Moore?" Tony pauses before he says: "Do you think the terrorists are even here? Or are we just on a wild goose chase?"

Ziva releases an agitated exhale. "It is a wild duck race. Why does he never get that one right?"

Tim knows better than to correct her now.

The good mood they shared earlier in the morning has evaporated as the day dragged on. While hours ago they discussed their weekend plans and office gossip and the books they are busy reading, they quickly ran out of conversation material. After the hours drudged past, Ziva grew more restless, pent-up like a wild animal in a cage, driven crazy by the very sound of Tony's voice. If the senior field agent ever discovered his power over her, he would likely use it to send her into a blind rage that would lead to them all being murdered in the bullpen.

"Why hello there!"

Tim checks on Tony's location, further up the street. In front of another brick house, Tony is gesticulating wildly to a petite brunette while he talks about landscaping.

"Perhaps we should take a few minutes for peace, yes?" Raising her eyebrows, Ziva tilts her head towards the recording equipment. "It would still record if we turned down the volume."

Tim looks over like she's lost her mind. "Why would you even suggest that, Ziva?"

"To save our sanity? I do not know how much longer I can take." She picks up her herbal tea from the cup holder and takes a sip. "It is so degrading."

"Grating, Ziva. His voice is grating." He closes his eyes, listens to Tony flirt with MILF #4. "I get it, but this is what Gibbs told us to do. Remember?"

She rolls her eyes. "Fine. Have it the way you choose."

They sit in a tense silence for a long time before a familiar urge niggles at Tim. Instantly, he regrets that extra-large coffee that he brought—and finished a few hours ago. He didn't expect it to take so long.

"Damn," he whispers.

Ziva glances over, clearly interested. "You have to use the bathroom, yes?"

Wrinkling his nose, Tim looks out the window.

"Here," she says, fishing his empty coffee cup out of the holder. "Use this. I promise I will not look."

Tim blankly stares at her.

How the hell is he supposed to just whip it out to his business in front of her? Even if she won't peek, how can he pee with her mere inches away? His parents raised him to respect women and he doubts that taking a whiz with her right there counts.

And then, there's Tony still chattering in his ear to MILF #4 about schools. Or pools. Or mules. Tim has no freaking clue right now, because all he can focus on is how bad he has to go.

Taking the cup from Ziva, he puts it back in the holder. "Thanks, but I'm going to find a real bathroom. Will you be okay to monitor Tony without me for a few minutes?"

She hesitates for a moment, eyeing the recording controls. Then she replies: "Yes, I will."

After a clipped nod, Tim hustles out of the car. His magazine flutters to the ground like a discarded butterfly, but he is too preoccupied to notice.

The air is cool and crisp, a perfect fall day with a bright blue sky and wispy white clouds that look spun like cotton candy. He zips up his jacket to ward off the breeze as he heads towards the center of the development. If the plans that he pulled earlier are correct, there should be a bathroom in the bottom of the pool house. And given the time of year, he doubts anyone would even see him. He should be in and out, back to the car in a few minutes.

"…beautiful children, Rosalee. My wife and I are undecided if we're going…"

Since Tony is still there, still yakking away in his ear, Tim thinks everything is going to be just fine.

It doesn't take Tim long to come up on an in-ground pool covered with a tarp and a white building that is identical to all of the cookie cutter McMansions. He finds the bathroom just like he expected in the bottom of the pool house. And thankfully, he is the only person there.

"I never saw Finding Nemo but I'm sure your son has excellent taste in…"

As he slips into the restroom, Tim flicks on the lights. It's bigger and brighter than he expects with lines of blue stalls and a wall of sinks with lighted mirrors. Instead of looking like an institutional restroom, the pristine white porcelain and soft lighting give it a palatial feel. It figures even the bathroom in the clubhouse would be swanky.

He does his business in one of the stalls, and then washes his hands in the sink.

All the while Tony keeps him company by talking and talking and talking.

"…going to have get together – "

When Tony suddenly goes silent mid-sentence, Tim drops the paper towel to press his earwig.

"Tony? Can you hear me?" Then he tries something different. "Ziva? Are you there?"

Radio silence.

Oh shit, Ziva must've cut the mic.

Dread bubbles up inside him as he reaches for his cell phone. He doesn't know who he should call. Tony to warn him that they aren't listening. Ziva to ask what the hell she's doing. Gibbs to tell him that the very team is being ripped apart by this assignment. It doesn't matter anyway because Tim doesn't get cell reception all the way down here.

He spins on his heel, ready to bolt.

But he catches himself as the sight of the milquetoast man in the doorway. With his short dark hair and kind eyes, the man makes Tim feel instantly at ease. The man gives Tim a questioning glance. After he takes a moment to appraise Tim, he tilts his head and moves closer.

"I haven't seen you around here before," the man says.

Tim manages a friendly—albeit, slightly panicked—smile. He doesn't have time for this, but it's part of being undercover. Playing a part while your mind is moving a mile a minute, trying to come up with scenarios that might be going on around you. Here, he needs to assume Tony's cover of the even-keeled, married man who just bought the house on Rosewood Dr. Not the neurotic, single agent whose one partner just left the other without back-up.

"I'm Tim Mc…Manus," he says, deciding to just go with it. "I'm considering buying one of the houses around the corner. I thought I'd get out to see the neighborhood and I had to, well…" he eyes the bathroom "…you know."

"Yeah, I can see that." The man chuckles, eases into a relaxed and warm grin. "The name's Art Haskell. I guess I should welcome you to the development, maybe-neighbor."

Tim matches the grin. "Yeah, it would be nice to be move here. Everyone's been wonderful so far."

Haskell laughs. "Glad to hear it."

When Haskell stretches his hand out, Tim goes to shake it. As soon as Haskell's hand closes around Tim's, the agent realizes his mistake: not assuming everyone here is a terrorist until proven otherwise.

He doesn't get a chance to react as Haskell jerks him forward. Tim stumbles towards the wall, his hands scrabbling to catch himself.

His head cracks against a sink and the world cascades into darkness.

Chapter Text

After years spent dreading the thought of living in the suburbs, Tony DiNozzo is suddenly warming up to the idea. He never thought it could be so scandalous, so lascivious, so exciting. In just the short time he spent wandering around Royal Woods today, Tony managed to uncover three mid-day extramarital affairs—including one with a pool boy barely out of diapers—a cross-dressing congressman, and a group of stoned, truant teenagers who swore their bong was a tea kettle. Yeah, like he was stupid enough to believe that one.

Of course, he let it all slide.

If it wasn't pertaining to the terrorist the team was looking for, he doubted Gibbs would care less about what minor busts he made. Teenagers floating around their living room didn't seem too high on the priority scale. Even though he could've made more than enough for a comfortable retirement—or at the very least a fancy vacation—by selling that congressman story to the tabloids.

Just how much PTO do I have saved up? Weeks? Months? …years?

The door slamming in his face rips him out of his vacation, plops right back into the moment.

Right, he shouldn't be daydreaming. He should be working.

Working, always working.

Sighing, he climbs down the porch steps.

That house was the most boring yet. Stay at home mom, two kids in diapers, dad slaving away at a desk job in the city. The only thing missing from that domestic hell was that white picket fence and extra half a kid, but Tony just had to settle for American flag flying out front and the petunias in the garden.

As soon as he hits the edge of the driveway, he checks his watch.

Four hours.

The team has been at this for four hours and he keeps expecting Tim or Ziva—or hell, he'll settle for anyone at this point—to tell him they found the voice pattern they need.

But they've been radio silent for almost a half an hour. It was something that Ziva suggested every time Tony tried to include them in his never-ending monologue. Tony looked like a legume, she said, walking about talking to himself. He thinks she might've meant a nut or a loon; he wasn't particularly sure with that one. He never is.

Tony hates to admit that he is happy not to have Ziva in his ear complaining or Tim begging her to relax.

Because all his yakking and babbling and talking is the only way he gets a response from the neighbors. It helps them to feel comfortable, helps them let down their guard. And if not—like that old man that yelled get the hell off my porch, you asshole— at least Tony gets something to check against Abby's recording.

Holding up his hand to ward against the sun, he glances down the street.

Two houses are left before the next intersection. That will be the most natural breaking point so he can remember where he needs to start his canvass again. He heads towards the white sided colonial.

"Hey guys, what should we do for lunch?" he says. "I'm feeling Beltway Burgers again. Maybe a double patty with extra cheese and extra, extra bacon. And how about we get some cheese fries? We can split them." He pauses for a moment, then adds: "You know what, McGee, I'm not sharing with you. You ate them all last time."

But the only reply is continued silence.

He makes a face. He, at the very least, expected a snarky comeback from Tim.

I know you two are listening, but a confirmation would be nice.

Since no one says anything, he decides on his own that he'll just hit the last two house, then head back to the rendez-vous point. If his teammates don't like it, oh well…they can get their asses out here and knock on doors while he goes for lunch.

His stomach growls. Now, he is officially starving.

Tony picks up the pace towards the stuccoed colonial with superfluous columns, peacock-blue shutters and a matching door. He heads up the driveway, past the children's bikes, the cow-print mailbox and gigantic flowers that were fed far too much Miracle-Gro.

He examines the porch for anything out of the ordinary—anything to tell him a terrorist might live here.

But its spiral-cut mini-trees tell him this house will be as boring as the last. His stomach growls again. Thoughts of a Beltway Burger combo meal number 4—two double cheeseburgers and an extra-large fry— with a chocolate milkshake dance through his head.

Maybe I won't share my cheese fries with Ziva after all.

On the second knock, a young woman answers the door. Her straw-colored hair is pulled back into a modest ponytail. A baggy sweat shirt that reads Waverly State hangs over a pair of yoga pants. Based on what Tony can see, her body is toned to perfection. With some make-up and a blowout—not to mention, a little effort—she'd just as beautiful as the women Tony is used to bringing home.

He turns up the charm, lights up his megawatt grin.

Her tired eyes meet his. "Whatever you're selling, I'm not interested."

"Selling? Why does everyone think I'm selling something?" He laughs, cool and confident. "The name's Tony and I think we might be neighbors."

"It's probably the suit," she says.

He takes a minute to examine his perfectly tailored suit.

Since when does this season's Armani scream traveling salesman?

He laughs again. "My wife, Ziva, and I just bought the house around the corner."

She looks up at him. "The one on Rosewood?"

He nods emphatically. "Yeah, that would be the one!"

Something clouds her light eyes, but she reaches to shakes his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Tony. I'm Marissa Jackson. I'm glad to see we're finally getting a little bit of diversity in the neighborhood."

"What exactly do you mean?" he asks carefully.

Her grin is quick. "A stay at home husband. We haven't had one of those before."

"Stay at home husband? Oh, no, I have a…" He decides to just go with it. "Yeah, it's an important job to take care of the house. You know, chores and laundry and….stuff. It's a shame no one gets it."

She nods in solidarity. "I'm so glad someone else understands. My husband doesn't realize how hard it is to stay at home with the boys all day." It's her turn to laugh. "What does your wife do for a living?"

Tony's eyes widen as he realizes he hadn't bothered to build his cover that tightly.

"She's a doctor," he blurts out.

"Oh? That's wonderful. My husband's an orthopedic surgeon." Marissa smiles knowingly. "Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee? It might be nice to share some war stories."

Shifting his weight, Tony isn't quite sure what kind of war story a stay at home mom could have. What would be comparable to his tales of shoot outs and bomb scares and near misses? Diaper blowouts and lost socks and temper tantrums in the middle of Walmart?

He glances over her shoulder to the well-decorated interior of her house.

If there was anyone to get information out from, a lonely stay-at-home mom would be his best bet. He could probably get all the neighborhood gossip over a nice, hot cup of coffee. Maybe, if he's really lucky, she might even feed him.

He grins. "I'd like that, Marissa."

"Perfect." She matches his smile. "Come on in, Tony."

When she steps to the side, he enters the house. There's a living room directly to his right, expensively decorated in varying shades of whites and navy and a set of stairs to his left. Along the walls are pictures of a younger—and slightly thinner—Marissa in a wedding dress with a short, stocky man with glasses and two identical boys who, sadly, look nothing like their mother.

On their way to what he presumes is the kitchen, Tony is busy staring at her ass. And it. Is. Perfect.

He nearly wipes out on the Oriental runner covering the hardwood floor.

"Watch your step," she says, smiling over her shoulder.

Before long, he ends up in a kitchen that is probably every chef's wet dream. Industrial everything with miles and miles of grey granite atop perfect white cabinets. It's beautiful in that Williams-Sonoma catalog, I have no idea how to use half of this stuff kind of way.

She heads over to the corner to fiddle with an espresso maker Tony has at home, but never bothered to figure out how to use. He just thought it looked nice.

"How do you take your coffee?" she asks.

"With lots of milk and sugar," he replies.

She giggles. "Not a problem."

For some strange reason, Tony's gut roils like something might be wrong right now. But everything is right with this scene: lonely stay-at-home mom desperate for a new friend in a development of adulterers and crazed stoner-teens and other miscreants.

If she knew her neighbor is a cross-dressing congressman, she'd have been even happier to see me.

So he ignores his gut.

Not like it has been working right anyway. Ever since that field trip to Somalia with Tim, it has been misfiring constantly. Maybe the desert sands and blazing sun mucked up the wires, melted everything in it to mush. And nothing he does helps get it back to normal.

Marissa turns around. "So Tony, tell me. What is your wife's specialty?"

Oh yeah, I told her that Ziva was a doctor.

"She works with cancer," he says.

She smiles sadly. "Wow, I'm impressed that your wife is an oncologist. It must be hard for her."

"Yeah, it is. She gets so upset whenever she loses a patient."

"My husband is like that too." She joins Tony and hands him a coffee mug. "He takes everything so personally. Even if it isn't his fault, he blames himself. He just can't seem to accept that people die."

At that moment, a cell phone on the island rings.

She shoots Tony an apologetic smile. "I am so sorry, but I have to take this."

He shrugs nonchalantly. "Sure. It's not a big deal."

"It'll just take a second." She smiles again. "Hello? …yeah, I see. …uh huh, sure, I'll take care of that… why won't you bring that over here? Great, I'll see you in a few."

Sipping his drink, Tony relishes the sweet and warm beverage. If he weren't working—and okay, he admits it, wishing she weren't married so he could get into her yoga pants—he might actually enjoy his time with Marissa.

After she ends the call, she places the phone back on the counter.

Tony puts his coffee mug down. "It sounds like you're about to have company. I should probably go."

"I wouldn't dream of it, Tony." Her smile is a little too friendly, a little quick. "Wouldn't you like to meet your new neighbors?

He weighs his options. If some of the neighbors are on their way over, Tony might be able to get more voice patterns in one place and save some time. Then the team would have their day wrapped up quicker than expected. Hell, he might even have his reports finished up early enough to see the first night in his own bed in almost a week.

He nods. "That would be great."

"Perfect. You know what, I'm a little hungry. Would you like something to eat?"

Tony's eyes light up. "Actually, I'm starving."

After a clipped nod, she heads over to the pantry. She pulls out a box of chocolate and dairy and soy and sugar—and flavor—free cookies. Tony's heart drops straight into his stomach. He hopes he doesn't have to pretend to enjoy them because he would rather gnaw off his own arm.

What she pulls out is worse than any diet cookie.

Of course, it's a Glock. Aimed right at his chest.

Even with his reflexes, he has no hope of grabbing the back-up revolver on his ankle before she blows him away.

He raises hands. Then he gives himself a mental head slap for not seeing this one coming.

"Hey guys, a little help here." Cringing, he uses the team's distress word: "Cantaloupes."

Thanks McGee for picking that one out.

Marissa's brow furrows. "What the hell does that mean?"

"That you probably shouldn't pull a gun on a federal agent."

"Yeah, you're right. But you shouldn't be poking your nose around business that doesn't concern you." She gestures at him with the gun. "Do you have a weapon?'

Holding her gaze, he shakes his head. She backs him up against the wall anyway and pats him down. After she pulls out his revolver, she crooks a smile and says, "Mine's bigger." Then she jams the gun against his chest to let him know that she's done screwing around. When he glares at her, she appears to be satisfied.

She points to a chair at the kitchen table, urges him to take a seat.

He follows her order.

Marissa perches herself at the edge of the island. Keepings the weapon trained on Tony, she works on her coffee. Tony finds it ridiculous because she seems so natural like she invites people over all the time for a cup of joe and a side of being held hostage.

"Hey Ziva and McGee," Tony says. "I could use that back-up now."

Marissa's face hardens. "Who are you talking to?"

He smiles smugly. "My team."

With her eyes darkening, she heads over to rip the earwig out of his ear. After she drops it to the ground, she grinds it under her heel of her Ugg boot.

She crooks an eyebrow. "Not anymore."

Pressing his lips together, Tony watches her back towards the island. She stays just far enough away from him that he can't attack without risking taking a bullet. And he doesn't want to take his chances in case the Stepford wife is a better shot than Annie Oakley.

At that moment, the handle on the back door turns.

Tony breathes a sigh of relief.

It's about time you two showed up!

And it seems that Marissa does too. Her grin is broad and relaxed, all wrong for a suspect that should be in the middle of a last-ditch attempt to avoid prison.

"It looks like your back-up's here," she draws.

Tony glances over just in time to watch two men drag a third, drooped over one into the kitchen and drop him like a piece of trash. The two standing men look like bad Laurel and Hardy impersonators. One resembles an accountant while the other is a huge, hulking behemoth.

The man on the ground gives a broken moan and rolls over.

Tony gapes at the sight.

Sprawled out on the floor is a bloodied, bound, and unconscious Tim McGee.

Chapter Text

"McGee?"

It's Tony. Right there in Tim's head, still talking about anything and everything and nothing all at the same time. How can he always have so much to say? And why the hell won't he just shut up?

"McGee."

Tim's head is pounding, throbbing, pulsating with its own heartbeat. He needs a minute to catch his breath.

"Come on, McGee."

But Tony is still right there, still in his head. Yakking and yammering. Still fucking talking.

"Come on, Tim. Stay with me."

And that's when the pound in Tim's head ramps up. The ache starts on his left temple, blistering its way around his head. It feels like his brain is on fire. And Tim's prophesy becomes self-fulfilling. After listening to Tony talk and talk for hours, Tim finally has a headache that makes him wish he were dead.

He groans.

"Attaboy, Probie," Tony draws. "Wakey wakey. Eggs and bakey."

Tim doesn't move. "Get the hell out of my head, Tony."

"That's the last place I want to be, Probie." He barks a laugh before he adds seriously: "Other than where we are right now."

Even though the tone of Tony's voice sends panic thundering over him, Tim can't bear to open his eyes. He wants to surrender to that ache in his head, forget that Tony is there talking to him, just melt away for a little longer.

But the world won't let him go.

Instead, it returns in bit and pieces like radio static. Something hard, cold, and wet pressed against his face. The acrid smell of vomit tickling his nose. He tries to push it away, but his hands are stuck behind his back. He wiggles them, jerks on his wrists. Something bites into the raw flesh. Smooth like plastic.

Zip-tie.

Shit.

Tim opens his eyes, only for them to be assaulted by a blinding light. Everything is so bright, so white, so sickening that it makes him wish that he weren't here anymore. His stomach flops over in his gut and he groans again. Slamming his eyes closed, he rolls deeper into the ground. For a moment, he wonders whether he might've died and ended somewhere…with Tony.

"Why did I end up in Hell?" he moans.

"Hell wouldn't want you anyway, McGee." Tony gives a laugh nearby. "You wouldn't be nearly enough fun to live there for eternity." Something pokes Tim square in the chest. "Come on, buddy. Open your eyes again. Seriously though, you're not dead. At least, not the last time I checked."

Against his better judgement, Tim follows the order.

In place of the demons with pitchforks that he half-expects, he finds a toilet and a shower-tub combo with a rose-patterned curtain. Leaned against a stark white wall rests a wannabe angel with a crooked halo and a shit-eating grin. Tony uses his foot to poke Tim in the chest again.

Tim narrows his eyes. "Knock it off, Tony."

Tony sticks his tongue out and winks. "Go ahead and make me."

"You're damned right, I'm going to – "

Tim bolts upright, ready to kick Tony's ass. But the world whips around him like a sick carousel of an interior decorating magazine with Tony's face smack dab in the middle of it. When Tim collapses back against the tub, the cold vinyl bites through his jacket. He nearly passes out again.

Something grazes his side. He hazards a slit eyed glance.

Tony hangs over Tim, kneeling. Based on his awkward positioning, Tim figures that his hands are bound too. Whatever mess they are in can't be good. Even though Tony smiles like everything is one big joke, there is no missing the apprehension in his eyes. He uses his knee to tap Tim's thigh.

"Are you alright, Tim?" Tony asks, sounding serious for the first time all day.

Tim nods, but that ends up being a bad idea too. He leans rests his head against the tub and waits for the room to stop spinning again.

Tony taps him again. "Stay awake, McGee."

"For G-d's sake, I am awake." When he opens his eyes, he's pleased to find everything is stationary again. "What the hell happened?"

Tony tilts his head. "I'd say we found our terrorists."

"Ya think?"

Tony snorts. "Are you trying to fill in for the boss, McGibbs?"

Tim levels the best Gibbs glare he can, but it only makes Tony laugh harder. Sighing, Tim sags deeper against the bathtub. Tony plops himself down next to Tim. They sit there for a long time, both contemplating their current predicament. Tied up in what looks like someone's bathroom.

Tony gives him a grave look. "Why are you alone, McGee? Did they get Ziva too?"

"No, at least, I don't think they did. I had… " Tim stares at the floor "…I had to go to the bathroom. So I...I broke protocol to look for one. It was only a few minutes. Ziva was still in the car when I left." He pushes a breath through his teeth. "Shit, I can't believe this happened."

Anger washes over Tony's face. Then comes the disappointment. "I can. You bring those damned giant coffees on every stakeout. We've discussed it a thousand times."

"I know. I know." Tim doesn't look up. "I can't…no, no excuses. It won't happen again."

Tony stays quiet. Tim is pretty sure they're thinking the same thing: If we get out of this one alive.

Eventually, Tony speaks up. "Look, we'll deal with it later. Let's just get out of here."

"Yeah." Tim nods. "Where are we anyway?"

"Marissa Jackson's basement," Tony says like it explains everything.

Deciding not to press, Tim accepts the fact at face value.

"And before I forget," Tony continues, crooking a grin, "you got clobbered by a guy who looked like an accountant."

"You got caught by a woman."

"Yeah, well – " Tony looks more than a little offended " – she had a gun. A really, really big one."

Tim smirks. "Yeah, and?"

"She caught me off-guard," Tony says, cautiously. "Then the accountant and his scary-looking friend showed up with your sorry ass. I couldn't do much when the accountant had a gun to your head."

Tim rolls his eyes. "The accountant said his name was Art Haskell."

Tony presses his lips together, considering. "Yeah, I could see that. That's the kind of lame-o name an accountant would have. Did we get any hits on him when you ran the residents?"

Tim half-shrugs. "I don't think so. I'm pretty sure he was clean."

"What about the Jacksons?"

Racking his addled brain, Tim struggles to remember anything useful. All the case's research, while was just completed earlier in the morning, feels like a lifetime ago. In fact, his entire life feels so removed from this moment that it's gone grey around the edges like a dream. Right now, all that matters is getting the hell out of here in one piece...and how much his head fucking hurts.

I must've hit it harder than I thought.

"I think…I think I looked into the husband. Elijah." Tim focuses on the pot of blue flowers on the top of the toilet and the floral prints on the wall. "I never considered the wife."

Tony makes a face. "Yeah, I can tell."

"You obviously didn't either," Tim says, narrowing his eyes.

Tony's cheeks flush before he looks away.

Tim instantly realizes his mistake. Instead of harassing his friend, they should be working together to get the hell out of here. As far as Tony said, they'd just scratched the surface of their suburban terrorist network. There was no telling how deep into the neighborhood it went, how many neighbors were involved and who their contacts were.

The man Tim met, Haskell, didn't appear to be someone capable of selling weapons out of his garage. And maybe that's what is making Tim's gut run cold. The fact that Haskell seemed so bland, so normal, so like the people the team protected every day…not at all like the criminals they hunted.

Tim reaches for the olive branch. "Look, Tony, I didn't – "

"Save it, McGee," Tony interrupts. "I deserved that one. Let's move on."

Tim nods. "What do we do now?"

Tony shoots him a look that says duh. "Try to get the hell out of here before they come back."

"I've got a knife on my – "

"Right ankle," Tony says, nodding. "Already checked and it's gone. I think your new friends took it. Plus, I already searched the cabinets for something to get us loose."

"And?"

Tony presses his lips together. "Unless you want to clean, there's nothing."

When Tim eyes Tony's belt, the senior agent looks at him like he's officially lost it.

Tim sighs. "What about your knife?"

There's a long silence before Tony says: "Oh yeah. I sorta left it at someone's apartment."

"What do you mean?"

Licking his lips, Tony tries his best not to smile. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, McGee. But I met a girl I liked last night and I went back to her place. Let's just say somethings happened that aren't for your delicate ears and I'm supposed to stop by tonight to pick it up."

Tim stares at him like they just lost their last hope. "And you don't have another one?"

At least, Tony has the grace to look embarrassed. "And I don't have another one."

Tim gapes at him for a long moment. Tendrils of panic worm their way into his heart, seizing their hooks into his soul before it threatens rip through him apart.

They are trapped at the mercy of the terrorists, waiting for whatever fate awaits them.

We're going to die.

Tim glances over at Tony with wide eyes. "Tell me that you're kidding, Tony. How can you not have a knife? What happened to Rule 9? You're the one who – "

"Always tells you to follow the rules. I know, McGee. You had your giant coffee and I forgot my knife. I'd say we're even on the screw-ups." His expression darkens further. "And once we're out of here, I'll head slap both of us silly. Until then, I think we might as well to get comfortable while we wait."

"Wait for what?"

"For Gibbs to show up." Another glance that says duh, then Tony relaxes slightly against the bathtub. "The Bossman should be here any minute with half of NCIS to take down these dirt bags."

Closing his eyes, Tim struggles to recall what happened right before Haskell knocked him out. There was Tony yakking and yammering. MILFs and GILFs and schools. Rosalee and Finding Nemo.

Then nothing.

Suddenly, there was nothing but silence. Earth-shattering, deafening, terrifying silence.

Ziva cut the sound on the mic. How the hell could I forget that?

"Oh shit," he whispers, his cheeks going white.

Tony's expression turns confused. "What, McGee?"

"They aren't listening," Tim whispers.

The furrow in Tony's brow deepens. "What do you mean?"

"Ziva was getting annoyed." He presses his lips together and swallows hard. "She said you talked too much, said you were in her head and that she couldn't take it anymore. And you were talking about – "

"McGee!"

Tim snaps back into focus. "Ziva asked me if I wanted to turn off the sound so we didn't have to listen to you anymore. I told her no, that we're supposed to listen in case something goes wrong. But when I was in the bathroom, my earwig went dead. I think…I think she turned it off."

Tony goes eerily quiet, working his tight jaw like a spring. Behind his back, Tony works his hands into fists and fights against the zip tie. Like he thinks he'll gain some Hulk-like strength and bust right out of it. His face burns with pure anger. And that terrifies Tim more than being held hostage by a bunch of homegrown terrorists because Tony doesn't usually get pissed.

Tim doesn't dare to breathe. He just sits there still, with his eyes fixed on the wall in front of him.

Eventually, Tony glances over. Tim feels the way Tony tries to glare a hole straight through him.

On the edge of panic, Tim starts, "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she – "

"I don't think you were, McGee. We'll worry about that later, okay?" Tony says, his voice dangerously calm. "Right now, we need to get the hell out of here."

-oooooooo-ooooooooo-ooooooooo-

Smiling to herself, Ziva stares at the world outside the Charger. The leaves on the fledgling trees are just starting to explode with the impressive colors of fall. Rich reds and brassy bronzes and deep coppers unlike anything she has ever seen before. Autumn was nothing more than a myth, something she only ever experience in books, before she came to America.

She often forgets they have seasons here…until the leaves change or the snow falls or the flowers bloom or eggs cook on the sidewalks. Back home, there is only one type of weather: hot and dry. Depending on where you are, you are either treated to a permanent beach vacation or watching the desert sand melt into glass.

When a chilly breeze flirts with the trees outside, she pulls her jacker closer to ward off the chill. The scent of burning wood wafts into the car. She reaches for her tea to enjoy the spice of the chai.

This moment is one that she is not accustomed in her line of work.

It is quiet, peaceful, and serene.

Too often, she is tormented by the sounds of screams and gunfire and explosions—and yes, Tony—rattling around inside her head. In some memories, she is the one responsible for the anguished cries and bullets' echoes. In others, she is merely the bystander who was too wrapped up in her own life to intervene. They haunt her every waking moment.

At least, Tony's talk about movies and Tim's computer speak sometimes drown them.

But there are so few moments in her life that she finds complete solace in the silence, that she finds salvation and peace from her earthly sins. She yearns to savor the few that find her.

Taking another sip of her tea, she turns back to world outside.

The development and its residents are picture perfect, domestic and flawless. Whomever the team is searching for is like a child playing dress-up in their parent's closet. Weapons deals behind closed doors and traceable phone calls are not the mark of someone particularly dangerous. No, they are the stamp of someone who believes they are playing a game. A game, that Ziva knows, they truly do not understand.

There is no way a true terrorist lives in such a beautiful place.

Sighing, she props her head up on her hand. She knows what will happen soon. Tony will slink back to the car, empty handed and wondering why they went on such a wild duck race. Tim will return too after he empties his bladder which is the size of a green bean. Then, they will go back to Gibbs empty handed and turn back to their work.

Until then, she will enjoy her moment of silence, appreciate her time alone.

Without a second thought, she tucks into her book.

Chapter Text

Brooding, Tony pokes through the cabinet underneath the sink the best he can his hands bound behind is back. Even though Tony didn't say anything, Tim knows he screwed up by getting that damned coffee again. He royally screwed up and it might just the two of them killed. He swallows hard, checking inside the shower again for something to cut them loose. If shower gel and loofahs were helpful, they would be upstairs arresting those terrorists dirt bags right now.

Tim sighs languidly.

His addled mind whirls, jumping from one scenario to the next. If he hadn't brought that coffee. If he hadn't gone to the bathroom. If he hadn't left Ziva.

This whole mess is Ziva's fault. Okay, so I did kinda screw up by going to the bathroom…

But she cut the mic.

What the hell was she thinking?

Probably the same thing they were all thinking: that they should be safe and sound in the middle of suburbia. White collar terrorists out for profit should play by a different set of rules than the ones who were busy building suicide vests and strongholds over in the desert.

Tim tests the zip tie again.

Obviously not.

These terrorists are playing for keeps if they were stupid enough to take two federal agents hostage. After an act like that, there would be no going back for them.

Which means we're either bargaining chips or they're going to kill us soon.

For a split second, the pink rose-patterned shower curtain blurs into a mish-mash of colors. Tim collapses back to his knees, dry heaving. After the nausea passes and the world stops moving, he notices Tony out of the corner of his eye. Kneeling by the cabinet, Tony watches Tim like he about to keel over right here and now.

"I'm fine," Tim snaps.

Tony has the grace not to vocalize his disagreement. His head disappears into the cabinet again and a moment later, a muffled curse echoes in the tight space.

When Tony reappears, his face is grim.

"There is nothing here that'll help," he says. "I thought I…we might've missed something."

Tim smiles half-heartedly. "If there was, we would've found it by now."

Tony silently holds his gaze.

Tim asks what they're both thinking: "What do we do now?"

"Bleed on something," Tony replies.

Rolling his eyes, Tim makes a face. "Ha. Ha. Very funny, Tony. I – "

"No, seriously," Tony interrupts. "Bleed on something."

Their eyes lock as Tim's muddled brain processes the suggestion. Of course, Tony would make a joke at a time like this. They're going to die in a matter of…who knows how long and Tony can't stop the standup routine. The senior agent can't even be serious when their lives depend on it.

Blood trails down Tim's cheek, dripping onto the front of his oxford shirt and all over his dress pants. Some of it plops onto the tile floor, smears across the cottony white bathmat. Right now, Tim is bleeding on fucking everything.

And that's when he gets it.

Tony wants Tim to leave physical evidence in bathroom for when Gibbs finally shows up. So he can solve their disappearance—murder? Shit. Tim doesn't want to think about that.

After Tim gives Tony a tight nod, the senior agent sticks his head underneath the sink again as though he could've missed something in his last fifteen searches.

Tim get to work. He presses his face against the shower curtain, smears his blood along the wall, even manages to get some on the cabinet by Tony. By the time he is done, the sheer amount of blood shocks him. Even though head wounds bleed a lot, this just seem like a lot…like it's too much. He eases himself back towards the bathtub.

His head starts to spin, the world greying at the edges.

Suddenly, Tony appears his vision. "Don't you dare do that again, Tim."

Tim blinks slowly, waiting for the world to come back into focus. It takes him a moment to realize that he is lying on the floor. He struggles to a sitting position and Tony is right there, steadying the younger man with his shoulder. Even though Tim doesn't want the help, he accepts it until he feels stable enough to stay upright on his own. When Tim shifts his weight back, Tony gives him a long look before he seems to accept the younger man is okay.

Tony climbs to his feet and returns to his task. When he comes up empty for the last time, he mutters a colorful barrage of curses. Then clumsily, he pulls one of the blood-soaked towels off the rack and stuffs it into the toilet.

Tim squints up at him. "Tony, what are you doing?"

"I can't let you wreck the place alone," Tony says, smirking.

Nothing happens on the first flush, but by the second, water cascades over the side like a waterfall. Tony does it again and again until the water runs all over the floor, soaks through the bathmat and Tim's pants, slithers under the door. He keeps flushing until they hear three sets of footsteps squelch their way closer to the bathroom.

A woman shrieks, "Why the fuck is my floor wet?"

Tony shoots Tim a look that asks Ready? And Tim responds with one that says On your six, partner.

And Tony flushes the toilet once more for good measure.

On the other side of the door, a woman yells: "What the hell are those bastards doing to my house?"

Quiet deep-voiced placations do nothing to soothe the woman's screeching about those federal assholes and her poor, drenched carpet. When the bathroom door flies open, it slams into the wall hard enough to send one of the framed flower prints crashing into the water.

Tim flinches while Tony stands his ground.

Against the backdrop of a finished basement, a blonde flanked by two men surveys the carnage in her bathroom. Tim recognizes Art Haskell from his previous bathroom adventures and Marissa Jackson from her picture during the team's computer reconnaissance. In person, she looks exactly like a person who could take Tony down with nothing more than a grin and a hair flip: petite and pretty in that girl next door kind of way with cleavage you could get lost in for years. Tim can't place the other man. The newcomer is a tall, burly man with curly dark-hair who eyes Tim and Tony like he might just rip them limb from limb for fun.

Tim gulps.

Marissa covers her mouth with her perfectly manicured hands, eyes wide in shock. "Blood. There's blood everywhere! You!" She points an accusing finger—hot pink tips and all—at Tim because, well, he is the only one bleeding right now. He sets his jaw and glares up at her. "You destroyed my house. What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you do that?"

Grinning, Tony flushes the toilet again. "I think you forgot the first rule of hospitality, sweetheart. Don't lock your guests in the bathroom."

"I can't even deal with this right now."

So the burly man does it for her. He takes a few steps forward to smash his fist against Tony's face. The senior agent's head snaps sideways and he goes down, hard. He collapses into the water next to Tim with a splash. Tim inhales sharply, turning to check on his friend.

But Tony is already grinning again. The strike split his lower lip wide open.

"I haven't had someone try to knock some sense into me for a while." He licks the blood away. "Thanks, Gus."

Crossing his arms, Gus growls in a heavily-accented voice: "That is not my name."

"Care to share it then?" Tony asks.

The man's glare speaks for him.

"Gus, it is then," Tony says.

That earns Tony a boot to the stomach. When he doubles over, he rubs his face on the shower curtain too. His blood mingles with Tim's, and together they've turned the pretty picture of roses into an ugly, bloody Jackson Pollack-like tableau. Tim leans back against the shower curtain too.

Marissa stamps her foot, throws her hands over her head. She pulls the gun out from the small of her back and points it towards Tony before she seems to think better of it.

"Get them out of here!" she yells.

Tony shoots Tim a look that asks Are you in?

Swallowing hard, Tim just nods. Whatever happens now, they'll do together.

When Haskell and Gus move forward, it becomes clear that she is the leader. Haskell drags Tim to his feet by his upper arm while Gus chooses the less friendly approach. He picks Tony up by his hair.

Tony nods. Go time.

Tim goes to drive his shoulder into Haskell's chest, but the man anticipates the action and shoves the junior agent face-first into the wall. Stunned, the agent topples back to the ground with his ears ringing and world spinning. He sits there, entranced by Tony and Gus.

Before Tony even gains his footing, he slams his head into Gus' nose. The dirt bag backpedals, hands pressed to his face as blood snakes down his chin. Tony body-slams the man into the wall, then round-house kicks him in the side. While Tony's first strike might've hurt the behemoth, the last two just seem to piss him off.

Just as Tony goes to hit Gus again, Marissa points her gun at him.

Tim kicks her in the knee. Cursing and flailing, she goes down. The gun lands right next to Tim.

Haskell picks it up first. His aim jumps from Tim to Tony and back again.

"Nobody move!" he yells. "I'll shoot!"

The weapon shakes in his grip. A desperate, untrained man with a gun is a recipe for disaster. He ends up picking Tim as the target.

Tony kicks Gus in the shin to draw Haskell's aim.

"Do you want to try me?" Haskell asks, swinging is weapon at Tony.

Tony juts his chin out defiantly. "I dare you."

Tim holds his breath.

They square off for a long, silent moment. Haskell obviously is trying to decide whether to make good on his threat while Tony keeps challenging him to pull the trigger. Because, Tim decides, Tony is completely insane like that.

Marissa scrambles to her feet. Her wet hair hangs limply in her face. Mascara is all over the place, giving her the appearance of a raccoon. The glint in her eye is murderous when she wrests the gun away from Haskell.

"No one is shooting anyone in my bathroom, got it?" she growls.

"Yeah." Haskell looks away. "Sorry."

She rolls her eyes. "Just get them out of here."

Gus drags Tony, struggling and kicking, out of the bathroom. Haskell hangs his head, following the pair sheepishly.

Marissa levels her gun at Tim. He stares up at her with as much anger as he can muster.

"Get up," she orders.

Tim looks her dead in the eye. "I already know you won't shoot me in here."

Her mouth twitches into an amused grin. "But my friends will kill yours out there."

That's enough to get him to his feet. He is more unsteady than he thought and the rooms already spinning. When he doesn't move fast enough, she shoves him forward and he stumbles. For someone so tiny, she is deceptively strong. She goes to push Tim again, but he shies away from her. Wherever they're going, he is to go by his own volition, under his own power. And if they're going to kill him, he will stare these bastards in the eye when they pull the trigger.

Outside of the bathroom, the room is what Tim always pictured as domestic, suburban bliss. The lightening is a soft fluorescent that makes the space feel inviting, homey. The walls are painted a soft, heather grey with family photos of a happy smiling Marissa, her chubby husband, and twin boys. A white leather sectional is crowded around a television where Xbox controllers wait for their players return. Tim can't help but wonder what game the boys are playing and if it's one he would enjoy too.

The only thing out of place in the picture-perfect domesticity is the dark blue, plastic tarp in the middle of the floor. Tony is already lying face down on it. Gus stands over him with a boot on Tony's back and a gun pointed at the back of his head.

Tim freezes.

Throughout his career, he has cleared enough crime scenes to know how this will end. The bodies and their scenes are always moments frozen forever in time. He never really thought about what happened in those seconds before his scenes when life stopped and they became a corpse.

Sure, he knows the mechanics of it. The pulling of the trigger. The stopping of the heart. The ending of someone's life.

Nut he never thought about the feelings. The fear. The terror. The dread. The uncertainty that there might not be anything after this life.

His heart plummets.

We really are going to die.

A hard shove sends Tim stumbling. He trips over his own foot and lands flat on his face. It's far less elegant than how he pictured his last moments.

He shifts to face Tony. Their eyes meet. Even Tim can't miss the raw terror in Tony's eyes.

And that horrifies Tim.

Tony never shows fear because he is never scared. He is nothing more than juvenile humor and childish glee. In between the movies and the spitballs and the pranks, there shouldn't be any space for Tony to be scared. All Tim wants right now is a joke, a wisecrack, something—anything—to tell him that they're going to be okay, that they'll get through this. Even if it isn't true.

But even Tony isn't up to laughing right now.

Tim hazards a small smile as though to say Thanks for the run and Tony matches it with one that seems to say Right back at ya, Probie.

So that's the way it ends, Tim figures. With a smile and by Tony's side.

They're going down together.

As teammates.

As partners.

As friends.

-oooooooo-ooooooooo-ooooooooo-

Two chapters down and Ziva is just getting to the good part. Mr. Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth and his subsequent rejection. She barely bites back the glee as she leans deep in the seat, reading on. If Tim or Tony ever discovered her obsession with old-fashioned romance novels, she would never hear the end of their taunts. She would likely have to kill Tony with something off her desk. Tim, however, would be another story. She would spare his life unless he was stupid enough to mock her a second time.

It has been quite a long time since I have made contact with them.

She turns towards the radio and –

Suddenly, there's a bang on the window.

Ziva nearly leaps out of her hair.

An old man with a newsboy cap and a green Fair Isle sweater peers into the car. He leans through the open window, squinting through his coke-bottle glasses at her. The scent of wet dog, old people, and onions makes her gag.

"Hi there, pretty lady. What's your name?" the man asks.

She smiles slightly. Just like Tony always says, there is a crazy old man in every neighborhood. Perhaps he is right. About some things. Sometimes.

"Ziva," she replies.

When he glances at her equipment, he widens his eyes so big that they nearly pop out of his head. "Are you using that special equipment to monitor the weather there, Miss Ziva?"

She humors him. "Sure."

"And your book?" He gestures to her lap. "What are you reading? Anything good?"

"Pride and Prejudice."

He nods like he's heard it all before. "That Mr. Darcy…"

Before she can stop herself, she almost swoons. "That Mr. Darcy."

He studies her for a long moment, then glances towards the sky. "You might want to close those windows, Miss Ziva. I hear we're to get rain soon. And if you use it on the news, you can quote me. The name's Willie Eisner."

"It is nice to meet you, Mr. Eisner. But I believe we will be okay." Ziva smiles. "Provided it does not rain mice and hamsters."

"I never did see a hamster fall out of the sky," the man says, still looking at the clear blue sky. "But I guess there is a first time for everything."

She nods knowingly. "And a second time for nothing."

"Exactly." Tapping the side of his nose, he grins. "Have a nice day, Miss Ziva."

When he turns to leave, she waves. As she watches him amble away, she settles in her seat. Finally, someone understood her. After all those times that people told her she was wrong about American colloquialisms, she feels vindicated. Her sayings were not wrong, they never were. She had never found the right person to talk to. And now, a real, live American agreed with her and she couldn't be happier.

As soon as she sees Tony and Tim, she will inform them of how they have been wrong for so long. Without giving them a second thought, she dives back into her book.

That Mr. Darcy…

Chapter Text

Killing Tim and Tony right away ends up not being the terrorists' plans. Instead, the terrorists decide on an interrogation session before they pump the agents full of bullets and ditch their bodies.

Tony takes the brunt of Gus' warm-up session. Tim winces with every strike that Tony takes. The right side of Tim's own face is swelling, the skin tightening like a balloon from the hits he already took. Not too long ago, Gus lost interest in him and doubled his efforts on Tony because the senior agent just won't shut the fuck up.

Kneeling, Tim watches Gus try to beat that damned, shit-eating grin right off Tony's face.

When the senior agent looks up at Gus, that lopsided smile is still there. Always there. Like Tony has some sort of death wish. Despite the cut on his lower lip and the double black eyes and bloody nose, Tony won't stop smiling. He hawks a bloody lugey on Gus' pants. That earns Tony another backhand. His head snap sideways and he almost goes down.

He manages to push himself back up, He spits something towards the couch where Haskell is trying to ignore the entire scene. Whatever it was looked a hell of a lot like a tooth. Tim shudders.

Just as Gus winds up again, Marissa grabs his arm to stop him. When he backs away, she slides in between Tim and Tony with her hands on her hips, surveying them. The gun, tucked into the front of her yoga pants, reflects its deadly intention under the soft, ambient lighting.

Tim looks away.

"Okay, you two, here's the deal," Marissa sing-songs, using the tony probably reserved for her children. "The first one to tell me something useful gets to die quickly. The other – " she casts a sideways glance towards Gus " – well, I'll let my friend decide what he wants to do."

Without missing a beat, Tony says: "Your taste in movies sucks."

Marissa blinks. "What?"

He jerks his chin towards the DVD cabinet that's brimming with romantic comedies, box sets of bad sitcoms, and animated movies that Tim has never, ever heard of. If they were closer, Tim would've elbowed Tony to shut him the hell up. Because whatever he's doing is not helping. At fucking all.

Tony straightens his back, looks up defiantly. "Your taste in movie is awful, sweetheart. You let your boys watch animated crap. I'm don't think I could even call them movies. You don't have anything by Disney. Or Pixar. Or – " A kick to the side cuts him off, but he keeps going anyway. Doubled over, he wheezes: "What are you teaching your children?"

She smirks. "To do what they need to do to get ahead."

Tim jumps in before Tony gets himself killed. "Is that what you think you're doing? Getting ahead?"

When Marissa turns towards him, Tony shoots him a look that says Shut the fuck up or I'll kill you myself.

Tim ignores him.

"I am getting ahead, Fed. More people consider me important than ever before." She nods carefully. Tim's heart plummets when he realizes there are more of terrorists than just the three here. "Do you know what it's like giving up your career, your friends, your life for your ungrateful family."

Tim shakes his head. "I can't say I've ever had the chance."

Crossing her arms, she takes a moment to consider him. Eventually, she lets her guard down. And Tim thinks his impromptu plan might just be working. Humanize himself and Tony enough to convince the terrorists to let them go. Or hell, keep them alive long enough to escape. Because Tim is pretty sure that Tony's plan of getting the shit kicked out of himself until Gibbs shows up can't go on forever.

"It's mind numbing," she admits. "Play dates. Bake sales. Homework help. Taking care of the kids while your husband works late every night and every weekend. School bullshit. It's insane how much work it takes to run for PTA president. Arranging meetings with arms dealers is so much easier. So much more exciting."

Behind her, Tony is staring at Tim with wide eyes. Whack job, he mouths.

Tim nods, to her and Tony. "I get it, Marissa. I really do. It's not easy doing all the work in a relationship. Believe me, I've been there." He pauses for a long moment, glances around the basement. "But what I don't get is how you got here. You're about to kill two federal agents. In your basement. Why?"

When she pulls the gun out, Tim winces. While he hadn't known what to expect, he didn't think it could escalate so quickly. Surely, there had to be a more logical trajectory from bake sales and play dates to blowing his and Tony's brains out. There was an extra step in there somewhere, a hop-skip-and-a-jump over something important that he missed because normal people don't murder federal agents because they didn't become PTA president.

That's assuming Marissa Jackson was ever normal…

Tim wracks his addled brain, trying to figure out what cue he missed and how to backtrack to fix it. To fix this.

Why didn't he let Tony handle this part? Because as good as Tony is as being a human punching bag, he is so much better than Tim at talking people into things and out of them, off of ledges, and into his pants, and everything in between.

Marissa crouches in front of Tim. She rests the gun against the fleshy part of his jaw. He holds her gaze as the gun dances along the edge of his throat.

Behind her, Tony lunge at them. Gus catches him first, wrapping an arm around Tony's neck and gripping his hair, pulling him back. Growing frantic, Tony fights the hold with every ounce of strength.

But caught in this moment is just Tim and Marissa. Both searching for mutual understanding and common ground.

"Have you ever had your husband tell you that you're about to lose your house…your home…because he is busy gambling his paycheck away?" she asks darkly.

Tim pauses for a long time before he says: "No, but I'm sorry you went through that."

There is a flicker in her eyes like she might just burst into tears. Or blow him away.

Instead, she smashes the gun against the side of his head. It snaps sideways, leaving him feeling like he's suspended from ceiling before he slams into the plastic tarp. He lies still, his head pounding in time with his racing heart. Over top of him, someone is shouting. Screaming and cursing, really. But it doesn't matter now. Marissa has the gun pointed at the back of his head and he's only a few pounds of pressure from leaving this world.

She drives her Ugg boot into his gut. Tim tucks his knees up, rolls over, gagging.

"McGee!" Tony yells.

The world stops spinning long enough for reality to catch up.

"How much does NCIS know about us?" Marissa shrieks.

Tim can't find his voice. He can't even breathe because his lungs won't work anymore. They just don't want the air.

Marissa kicks him in the side again. "What – " kick " – does – " kick " – NCIS – " kick, kick " – know?"

Even if Tim wanted to answer, he can't get enough oxygen to say anything.

There's another kick, harder this time. Something snaps deep inside his chest and it burns like fire.

I think that was one of my ribs.

Tim closes his eyes, lets his mind wander away from his body again.

Is this how Tony handled getting the shit kicked out of him earlier? Just close your eyes and drift away.

If Tony can take hits from a linebacker wannabe, Tim sure as hell can handle a beating from a woman who looks more like high school cheerleader than a domestic terrorist. Sure, he has been hit by a woman before, but damn, this one has moves from her yoga classes that Tim would love to learn.

Another kick leaves him retching.

"Hey! That's enough!" Tony yells.

And that's enough to remind Marissa that there is someone else to extract information from, that she has someone else to kick the shit out of.

Tim starts to get up. "Tony, don't…"

He freezes when he finds himself staring down the business end of Marissa's Glock. She points it right between his eyes.

Her attention is laser focused on Tony. "You tell me. Or I pull the trigger."

Tony has the balls to grin at her. "And mess up your beautiful basement? Have you ever tried to get blood out of carpet, sweetheart?" He makes a clucking noise with this tongue. "Not easy."

Gritting her teeth, she screams like a toddler having a temper tantrum.

Then Gus shoves Tony down to the tarp where Marissa moves towards him. Lying flat on his back, his eyes are dark as she towers over him. She points the gun at his head instead. The rigidity in her stance tells Tim that she won't hesitate to blow Tony away.

"I won't ask again. What does NCIS know?" she says, her voice as dangerous as the gun. "If someone doesn't answer me, I start shooting."

"Do you think you won't make a mess? People bleed a lot when they get shot in the head." Tony actually laughs. "How will you explain that to your hubby?"

Over on the couch, Haskell has the grace to look nauseous. He changes the channel on the television.

Tim swallows hard, trying to send his heart back down to where it should be. How Tony can be so causal, so dismissive, so fucking flippant like his life—their lives—don't matter.

Marissa tightens her grip on the gun, ready to pull the trigger.

Tim struggles to his knees. "NCIS doesn't know anything! We – "

"Shut the fuck up, McGee," Tony snaps.

But Tim is on too much of a roll to stop. " – were here to figure out who the terrorists are! We have nothing on any of you!"

Finally hearing what she wanted, Marissa lets the gun drop limply to her side. Her grin is almost pleasant as she apprises them. Tim leans forward to quell the ache in his side while Tony levels the best Gibbs-glares he can manage at her. Unfortunately, the double black eyes and the missing front tooth make him look more like a friendly Jack-o-Lantern than their terrifying boss.

Then she turns to Haskell and Gus. "See? I told you that they don't know anything."

Haskell's face is white as he stares at the two agents. "Yeah, you were right. Now what?"

Gus is right there. "We finish them off."

"Not yet," she says, her tone calm and chilling. "We have to figure out where to dump them first. That one – " she points at Tony " – is right. I'd rather not mess up my basement."

-oooooooo-ooooooooo-ooooooooo-

Resting her book against her chest, Ziva heaves a sigh. If all men were like Mr. Darcy, her life would be far more exciting…and far less lonely. She leans back in the seat to soak up the world outside.

Domestic simplicity flows all around the neighborhood around her and for a moment, she lets herself pretend that she is just as much a part of it as everyone else. Joggers out for a mid-day run, walkers with their dogs, and mothers with their strollers. It's a life she might have always wanted, but never could have. No matter how hard she tried.

At that moment, her stomach growls. The hour must be growing closer to lunch time.

Frowning, she checks her watch.

Somehow, Tim had been in the bathroom for nearly an hour. No one—not even, Tim who takes longer than a woman in the bathroom—should still be gone. Hopefully, he did not get lost on his way back to the car. Even with his terrible sense of direction and the identical looking houses in the development, he should be back by now.

Sighing, she reaches for the radio. She holds her breath, bracing herself to hear Tony talking and talking and talking. When she turns it on, the sound is surprisingly absent.

"McGee?" she asks. "Where are you? Have you gotten lost again?"

Silence is the only reply.

"Tony? Have you met all of the neighbors yet?"

More silence.

Perhaps Tim and Tony have chosen this moment to play a prank on her. It would be surprising for Tim to be sucked into Tony's games, but it has happened before during a momentary lapse in judgement. She suspects they snuck off to get lunch together and abandoned her.

If they have gone without me, I will make them pay.

Since they aren't answering her, she decides she'll track their location with their earwigs. Then she will rewrite their rules by crashing their boys-only lunch. Reaching over to the computer, she searches the location data on the screen. Neither of the earwigs appear to be online. She runs another search, just in case the information is in correct.

What pops up next turns her blood to ice.

No listening devices found.

Chapter Text

As soon as she is out of the car, Ziva takes off in a dead run towards the pool house. Based on the schematics the team studied before they arrived, it is the only place where Tim would have found a bathroom. Her heart pounds in her chest as her feet slap against the concrete. Shocked parents with little kids and people with dogs do their best to get out of her way. Friendly Mr. Eisner turns to say hello again, but she doesn't break stride until she hits the pool house.

Her chest heaves, struggling to catch her breath as she ducks inside. The shadows make the space dark and desolate. Her skin crawls as though someone watches her every move.

Pulling out her weapon, she creeps onto the balls of her feet. She clears the main room before heading straight for the men's bathroom. She purses her lips, listens hard for any movement inside.

But it is as quiet as the dead.

She leans against the wall and peers inside to find only darkness. When she turns on the lights, they flicker a few times before they come to full power. She slips inside to check the stalls, kicking each one open as she moves down the line.

No one is here.

Maybe she should try searching the women's –

The sight of blood on the edge of a sink stops her in her tracks. She touches her fingers to it.

Still wet and warm. Fresh.

Then she crouches down to inspect the pool on the floor. Whomever took that hit probably took enough damage that they weren't going anywhere on their own.

Someone must have hurt McGee…

"Ben zona," she mutters, reaching for her phone.

No service.

-oooooooo-ooooooooo-ooooooooo-

Once they're alone, Tony turns to glare at Tim. "What the hell were you thinking, McGee? Now they have no reason to keep us alive!"

Tim blinks. "In case you weren't paying attention, I was trying to keep you alive, DiNozzo! She was about to shoot you."

Making a face, Tony scoffs. "That Stepford wife wasn't going to kill us here. Didn't you hear her freak out about the bathroom? She's too worried about making a mess."

Tim considers the thought for a long moment. Then he whispers, "Fuck. I just got us killed, didn't I?"

"Of course you did," Tony says, without hesitation. Tendrils of panic begin to worm their way through Tim before Tony adds: "But it's a good thing I have a plan to save our asses."

Turning around, Tony displays a nail file in his hands.

"What are you going to do with that?" Tim asks.

"Give myself a manicure."

Tony makes a show of rolling his eyes before he starts sawing through the zip tie. Still kneeling, Tim watches Tony work the file through the plastic.

"Where did that even come from?" Tim asks.

"Gus' pocket." Tony snickers. "I knew that guy's cuticles were too nice to trust someone else to do his nails. The man takes pride in his fingers."

Tim swallows audibly. "Don't you think he'll notice it's missing?"

"And touch up his manicure before he kills us?" Tony scoffs. "Twinkle Toes'll wait until we're dead and buried before he does that. No way in hell is he going to want to mess up his cuticles by dragging two corpses into the woods or wherever Miss Marissa decides to dump us."

Tim pales. "Nice thought. That's – "

"Not going to happen, I promise." Tony gestures towards the stairs with his head. "Just keep your eyes peeled for our new friends."

Nodding tightly, Tim angles himself so he has an unimpeded view of the stairs. He also takes the opportunity to drag his bloodied pants all over Marissa's white carpet. If they're going to die somewhere else, he is going to leave as much physical evidence for Abby as possible.

With his blood all over the place and Tony's tooth under the couch, it should be more than enough to put Marissa, Haskell, and Gus away for life. Even if their bodies never turn up. If the open and shut case didn't involve him and Tony being murdered, Tim might be more excited about an easy day's work.

His heart quickens.

"Almost," Tony says. "Almost there. Aha, I got it. Finally."

Glancing over his shoulder, Tim catches Tony rubbing his wrists. The senior agent's smile is lopsided and relieved like he didn't expect the nail file to work.

Then he is instantly by Tim's side, working on the zip tie on the junior agent's wrists. A few tense moments later, it gives way and Tim works his hands to get the blood flowing again. The pins and needles prick their way up his palms, dragging all the way up to his fingertips.

When Tony bolts towards the couch, Tim's eyes widen.

"Leave the tooth, Tony! We've got to get out of here," Tim whispers harshly.

Pausing, Tony stares at him like he just lost his damned mind. Then he runs his tongue over his teeth and nods. "Ah, I didn't realize there's one missing. It's okay. It'll grow back."

Tim doesn't have the heart to tell him that he isn't a shark.

But Tony pauses by the end table to hold up a landline telephone. "I never thought I'd be so happy to see one of these babies. And you always say technology will save us, McGee. It looks like the technophobes win again."

If they weren't sitting around waiting to die, Tim might've rolled his eyes. But he keeps them fixed on the top of the stairs, just in case the terrorists come back down.

"Hurry up, Tony!" Tim hisses.

"I'm on it, McGee. The damn thing's a rotary."

Tony dials, lets the click click click of the number wheel turn. By the time the call goes through, Tim is about to lose it. When Tony murmurs thank G-d, Tim lets himself relax…just a bit.

"Boss?" Tony says hurriedly into the phone. "McGee and I found the terrorists…okay, so they might've taken us hostage, but we found them….yeah, we need help. Like now." He relays the address, then a short pause before adding: "I don't know what happened to Ziva…all I know is we need help." He shoots Tim a look. "Yeah, I'll make sure that McGee doesn't get dead. I can't keep the other promise."

And with that, Tony places the phone on the end table. From the receiver, Tim hears Gibbs yelling for Tony to come back to the phone, to just tell him what the hell is going on, to not get himself dead.

Tony climbs his feet. When Tim follows, black stars explode in his vision and he stumbles. Tony catches him around the waist, holds upright.

"Are you okay, McGee?" Tony asks.

Tim nods. "I'm fine. Let's just get the hell out of here."

While Tony's look calls Tim a liar, the senior agent doesn't bother to fight. He tucks the nail file into his sleeve as they sneak towards the bottom of the stairs. Nestling himself against the wall, he stares up at the open door. Tim follows him, crouching by the banister.

They eavesdrop on the conversation carrying from upstairs. Marissa asks Gus where would be a good place to dump Tim and Tony's bodies. He replies that he has some fishing hole near the Anacostia. Every so often, Haskell suggests they just leave the agents here and head for Panama. And every time, Gus and Marissa crack up like Haskell is a stand-up comic.

Tony glances towards Tim. "Make sure to remind me that we should check out Gus' hidey hole later. Think of all the skeletons in his closet, err…cabin."

Tim presses his lips together and it makes his face throb.

He knows exactly what Tony is doing. Trying to stall and give Gibbs more time to ride in with the cavalry to save them. With the head injury and the other bruises, Tim is pretty sure that he isn't the kind of sparring partner Tony wants in the fight for their lives. If the positions were reversed, Tim probably wouldn't want himself either. But he is all Tony has and well, Tim decides, it's too damned bad because he isn't going anywhere. Tony is stuck with his discombobulated, bleeding ass.

"Let's get out of here," Tim says.

When Tim tilts his head towards the stairs, the world turns sideways. He closes his eyes, tries to rattle everything back into its proper place. When he opens them, everything looks like normal.

Except Tony.

Tony still gives Tim that overly concerned, please don't keel over on me look.

Before Tony has a chance to speak, Tim makes a face. "I. Am. Fine."

After an exasperated sigh, Tony seems to accept that Tim isn't going to take no for an answer. He glances back towards the open basement door. When Marissa strides past, he shrinks closer to the wall. They hold their breath, anticipating one of their captors coming back down to finish them off.

After a tense moment, Tony looks over at Tim. "Alright, McGee, here's the plan. Run."

Tim squints at him. "That's it?"

"We aren't in the physical shape to fight. So we run like hell." Tony's eyes turn solemn. "Got it?"

Tim nods. "Yeah."

When Tony holds his hand out, Tim shakes it. His heart seizes in his chest, knowing exactly where this moment is headed. That last moment—if we don't get out of here, I love you man—talk Tim has never wanted to even think about, let alone ever have.

"Just in case we make it," Tony says somberly. "You and I. We had a good run. You've become one hell of an agent and a damned good friend, McGee. I've been proud to call you my Probie."

And that's the moment Tim understands Tony's real plan. Draw the enemy fire to save his man like a good solider. Sadness bubbles up inside Tim's heart, but he doesn't show it. There is no way he's leaving Tony behind. Whatever happens, they'll do it together.

We are going to get out of here.

"I've been honored to have your six, Tony," Tim says. Because, well, just in case. "Thanks for being my partner. And my friend. Someday, maybe I'll even get to call you boss."

Tony cracks that shit eating grin. "Alright McGee, let's get move before you start crying."

Tim rolls his eyes.

When Tony starts up the stairs, Tim whispers: "Age before beauty."

That earns him a light head slap, but it helped Tony relax. With Tony in the lead, they slip up the stairs. They crouch against the wall to check their surroundings. Marissa is standing in the kitchen, nursing a cup of coffee and ranting to Haskell about how their missile supplier it trying to gouge them. The man looks like he wishes he could be anywhere else.

Tony points in the opposite direction. "We go through the living room for the front door."

"Where's Gus?" Tim asks.

Tony shrugs. "I don't know. Probably with Haskell and Marissa."

Tim nods quickly and it makes his vision swim again. The ache in his head kicks up again, but he ignores it. When Tony sneaks into the living room, Tim is hot on his heels.

Suddenly, Tony stops dead. Tim barrels right into him.

And that's moment Tony's plan goes to hell.

Gus is sprawled out on Marissa's couch, dirty boots propped up on the coffee table, watching a soap opera on the flat screen. As soon as he notices the agents, he jumps to his feet.

"You two!" he bellows.

Tony shoves Tim backwards. "Run McGee!"

Then Tony enacts his own plan. Engage the enemy to let his friend escape. Tony springs forward and tackles the behemoth at the knees. They land on the coffee table and it splinters under their weight. Tony grabs one of the legs and starts wailing on Gus.

Tim is about to jump in the melee when a voice warns: "Don't move."

He glances back to find Marissa standing in the entranceway, gun in hand.

She winks at him. She fucking winks at him.

At that moment, something deep inside Tim snaps. He has had enough of this shit. He rushes towards her. Clearly not expect it, she doesn't even get a shot off before he body slams her. She flies backwards, arms pinwheeling and eyes wide, into a small powder room. He slams the door shut and holds it closed. She thrashes her body against it, cursing and howling.

The gun ends up beside his feet.

Suddenly, he is thrown sideways. When he recovers, he finds Haskell holding the door closed.

Tim starts, "What the – "

"I'm not a killer," Haskell says. "Go help your friend."

"McGee," Tony rasps. "A little help?"

Deciding that he has no choice but to trust Haskell, Tim scoops Marissa's gun off the ground and turns to where Gus holds Tony by the neck with a gun to his temple. When Tim checks his arm with his left eye, the world tilts. He shakes his head, tries to get everything back in the right place, but everything is spinning. His aim jumps from Tony's head to Gus' to the television and back again.

The gun's not moving. I'm not moving.

His stomach lurches.

"Shoot him, McGee," Tony gasps, struggling in the hold.

How the fuck does Tony expect him to nail the shot if he can't see straight?

Tim's eyes keep drifting towards Tony's bobbing head. If he pulls the trigger and his aim is off, Tony is dead. If he doesn't, Gus will be the one to blow Tony's brains out.

Tim closes his eyes. "Tony, I – "

"Pull the trigger!"

Even with a gun to his head, Tony is insolent and defiant. He jerks against the arm around his neck as though it might be his last act in this life. Gus tightens his grasp on Tony, making him gag.

"For fuck's sake, Tim, pull the G-d damned trigger!"

And the second Tim catches a glimpse of Gus' head, he does.

Both Gus and Tony topple to the ground, together. Tim stands stock-still, gun at his side and staring blankly at the mess all over the television.

He doesn't dare to breath. Dare to move.

Did I just kill Tony?

Then a groan, movement.

"Nice shot, McGee," Tony says. "I guess all of those video games finally paid off."

After he pushes himself up, he tries to wipe away Gus' blood with his jacket sleeve. It just ends up smeared all over his face. He grins lopsidedly, nonchalantly. But there's no missing the relief in his eyes.

"You had me a little worried there," he admits, surveying the carnage.

And that's when the pound in Tim's head ramps up. It feels like something is inside there, trying to split his head in half. Tim forgets to breathe. He drops the gun and collapses to his knees.

Another breath gets away from him.

"Now isn't the time for a panic attack, McGee," Tony says, sounding so far away.

"It's my head, Tony." Tim shoves his hands against his forehead. "It feels like it's going to explode."

Tony is in his face suddenly, gripping his cheeks with both hands. "Stay with me, McGee."

And suddenly, the walls close in around Tim. The lights are too bright for him to manage. In his line of sight, Tony blurs in and out of focus.

He can't breathe.

He can't fucking breathe.

"For the love of G-d, breathe!" Tony shouts, sounding like he's underwater.

But Tim can't.

"Stay with me, McGee!"

The world goes grey around the edges as the ever-present darkness sneaks up on him. He slams his hands against his head because right now, he just wants to rip the damned thing off his neck. He just wants to make the pain go away.

"Just stay with me, Tim. Please stay with me."

Then the pain, and the world, slip mercifully away.

Chapter Text

Sitting on the ambulance bumper, Tony DiNozzo huddles under a reflective blanket. While it keeps the icy wind away, it does nothing to ward off the chill seeping into his bones, freezing him straight to the core. He stares unseeing at the crowd on the other side of the police tape.

A bunch of lookey-loos—moms with babies in strollers and elderly neighbors and those stoner teens and the cross-dressing congressman in men's clothes—congregated to watch the fucking three ring circus of Metro PD, ambulances, and NCIS. Under their watchful eyes, Marissa Jackson and Arthur Haskell were hauled away by Metro in cuffs, an unconscious Tim whisked to an ambulance, and Gus—real name: Pavel Ivanovich, hired muscle with outstanding warrants in six states—in a body bag.

Tony is the only one left.

And he doesn't know why. He is caught somewhere between having to face what happened and lingering on the ambulance bumper to relive every second of being in that basement.

He runs his fingers over the raw flesh on his wrists. Even though the skin burns like hell, it is a small price to pay because he lived. He fucking lived. But Tony isn't ready to find out whether Tim will be as lucky.

He glances back to the crowd again, but he is adrift in a sea of strangers without a life boat.

Tony is pretty sure that Jethro Gibbs is around here somewhere. He showed up shortly after Tim passed out, after everything was over. When Tony sat by Tim's side, feeling his friend's thready pulse and praying—actually, praying—to whomever was listening to let Tim make. Please just let Tim make it.

And after the ambulance carted off the junior agent, Gibbs tried to placate Tony, tried to apologize because he hadn't been there with them. Like somehow the whole fiasco could've been Gibbs' fault because he was back at the office…doing whatever he does when they're in the field.

But Tony just shook his head and asked what would happen to Ziva. Gibbs launched into some bullshit about needing to speak with Ziva first. Tony stopped his there, said simply, "That's not good enough boss," and plopped himself down on the ambulance bumper.

Tony hasn't been able to move since.

Suddenly, the young paramedic, wiry-limbed and nervous-eyed, comes into Tony's view. He leans forward, getting into Tony's personal space. When Tony meets his gaze, the paramedic jumps back.

"We're ready to go, sir. You know, to the hospital," he says as though Tony might kick his ass. "Only if you, you know, want to. Sir."

Tony presses his lips together. "Is anything broken?"

"Excuse me?" the paramedic asks.

"My bones. Are any of them broken?" When the paramedic shakes his head, Tony continues: "Do I have a head injury?"

"I don't know. You'd need – "

"Do you think I have a head injury?" Tony interrupts.

The paramedic jumps, flinches, looks at everything but Tony. Then he squares his shoulders and approaches the agent. He leans into Tony's face and holds a flashlight up. Tony groans at the searing pain when the paramedic swings the light back and forth to check the his pupils. Then they play the games: how many fingers? and follow my finger.

When they're done, the paramedic nods resolutely. "I think you're okay, but I still recommend – "

Tony stops listening because he caught a glimpse of someone familiar in the rubber-neckers. There's a flash of dark hair, somber eyes, and catlike grace.

Fuck. I can't talk to Ziva right now.

"Alright, Hawkeye, you win. Let's go," he says.

The paramedic's face turns confused. "What?"

"You should watch more TV, kid," Tony says. "MASH is a pretty good show."

The paramedic still looks completely clueless as Tony climbs onto the gurney. But once Tony is away from the doors, the paramedic closes them before anyone changes their mind. Then the ambulance roars down highways and city streets towards Alexandria General.

Lying on the stretcher, Tony stares at the metal ceiling. He counts the rivets, watches the stacks of gauze and medication and tubing pitch dangerously at every turn.

All the while, his tired mind runs at full speed to try and makes sense of everything. He and Tim were stranded, alone, abandoned, without back-up. Whenever he called for help before, he could expect someone to be there. For the first time in his career, no one came. No one fucking came.

And the worst part of it all is Tony has no idea whose fault it is.

For some inexplicable reason, he blames himself. Maybe if he'd just taken a stronger hand with his teammates when they screwed up. Or if he'd just given them a dressing down when it was warranted. If he'd just been their boss instead of their friend, maybe none of this would've happened.

Tony presses his lips together.

No, it couldn't have been him. He'd done everything right, tried to be the best damned agent he could be and tried to make Gibbs proud. And maybe, he did. Tony always preferred to think so.

Could it be as simple as it just being Tim and Ziva's fault?

Out of the two of them, Tim deserved less of the blame. G-d knows anyone who's ever been on a stakeout has had to pee at some point. And the junior agent, always respectful and proper and modest, never could just whiz in a cup in the car like a normal cop. If Tony could forgive anyone for dropping the ball, Tim would be the easiest. After all, he'd been right by his side, walking through hell to get back home. Sure, Tim fucked up big time, but he still had Tony's six all the way until the bitter end.

Until he dropped…

It really is all Ziva's fault.

She cut the mic. She hung them out to dry. She left them alone in the field, in the hands of a group of terrorists. Everything that happened today was her fault.

What if there's more to it than that?

Tony tries his hardest not to fall down the rabbit hole, but his mind won't turn back.

What if it was partly Gibbs' fault for their mish-mashed team?

His boss used to sing the praises of his gut, claiming that he had a knack for picking people who would have your six in and out of the field, the kind who would be there the moment that you needed them. He'd been right as hell about Tim.

But Ziva? Gibbs' gut was probably drunk that day.

And couldn't it be Gibbs' fault for not trusting Tony when he said that Ziva cut the mic? For some insane reason, Tony expected his boss to fire Ziva on the spot. Instead, he got an I'll handle it.

What the fuck does 'handle it' mean anyway?

It almost sounded like Gibbs would bench Ziva for a few weeks, make her the team's paperwork bitch when she got back, and then set her loose into the field again. With Tony. With Tim. Like they were a fully functional, trustworthy team again.

Will I ever be able to trust her again?

In his heart, the answer is a resounding, hell no.

He dry-heaves.

Paramedic Hawkeye is quick to Tony's side with a metal basin, but the agent waves him away. The man slinks back to the bench to keep a watchful eye on a patient that wants nothing to do with him.

When they arrive at the hospital, the world turns into a blur of doctors and nurses and hospital equipment that he has never seen before. He is whisked away for test after test to ensure that nothing is broken, that everything is still in its proper place.

He asks about Tim over and over. Still in surgery is all the nurses tell him. Eventually, a pretty doctor with a nice smile tells Tony that he has nothing worse than lumps and bumps and a minor concussion—all in fancy medical speak, of course. But they're keeping him overnight for observation, just in case.

The hours tick past midnight with still no word on Tim's condition. An overweight and overly friendly nurse, who talks away too much about her grandson—also named Tony—dims the lights to let him catch some sleep.

Tony is nearly out when soft footfalls send him into panic mode.

He opens his eyes to find Ziva at the side of his bed.

He bolts upright. "What are you doing here, Ziva?"

"To see how you are," she says simply, like they're friends, like everything is a-o-fucking-kay.

He presses his hand to his head. "I'm alive, no thanks to you. Where the hell happened back there? Where were you?"

"I did not hear what was happening." She looks away.

"Because you cut the mic."

Her frown deepens. "I merely turned down the volume on the listening device. It was still recording."

"But you weren't listening."

She won't meet his eyes.

"So you didn't hear me call for help? Or McGee get brained by that guy?" He clenches the blanket on the bed, wringing it in his hands. "You didn't hear any of it."

She hugs her arms to her chest.

"Look at my face! Look at what happened to me because of you." She still won't look at him. He beats his hands against the bed, howling: "And what about McGee? They tried to beat him to death! One of them was going to blow my brains out!" Pausing, he tries to force himself to calm down. It doesn't work. "We almost died in there. And that's your fault."

Tears start to sneak down her cheeks. They glisten in the light sneaking in from the hallway.

"It was not what I intended," she whispers. "I did not wish for you or McGee get hurt."

"Didn't wish for it?" Tony presses his hand over his eyes. "Of course you didn't wish for it. No one wishes for their partners to get murdered."

"I – "

But Tony keeps going. "Never, in my entire time in law enforcement, have I had a partner ignore my six. Whenever I called for back-up, someone always came. Except for you."

More tears come. "I am sorry."

"Do you think sorry is going to help McGee? Do you – "

"I came to say that I am sorry and I meant for none of it."

He starts to rise. "Get the fuck out!"

Her haunted eyes study his face for a long moment before she straightens her stance. Then with another "I never intended for any of this to happen," she leaves him alone.

With the anger bubbling in his gut, Tony hits the nurse call button.

Her smiling face appears in the doorway. "What can I do for you, darlin'? Are you finally ready for those pain meds the doctor recommended?"

Tony shakes his head. "How's Agent McGee?"

"Still in surgery, it seems," she replies. "I've called up there a few times, but they can't tell me anything yet. You'll know as soon as I do."

"Thanks." The thought of Ziva coming back roils his stomach. "Say, can I get the forms to sign out of here?"

"You know the doctor wanted you to stay overnight," she says, growing serious for the first time. "She wanted to make sure nothing was going to go wrong before she cuts you lose. Plus, you look like you could use the rest."

"I'd like to sleep in my own bed."

After a long pause, she seems to accept that she won't change his mind. "I'll see what I can do, darlin'. It just might take a little while."

He half-smiles. "Apparently, I've got all night."

With a clipped nod, she dims the lights again. Then she disappears from the door frame. Tony settles back into the bed, hoping to catch a few minutes of sleep before leaves.

What feels like mere seconds later, the room lights are flicked back on. He blinks owlishly at the sudden brightness.

Did I just fall asleep?

"Are you Agent DiNozzo?" a man's voice asks.

Tony squints through the light. Standing by the door are a short, thin man with salt and pepper hair sticking out from a surgical cap and a tall, long-limbed younger-looking blonde. They wear matching green scrubs.

Those must be Tim's doctors.

Tony swallows hard.

And if they're here…

"Are you Agent DiNozzo?" the man repeats, slower this time like Tony has a head injury.

"Yeah, that's me."

"I'm Dr. Peyton, chief of neurosurgery, and this is – " he gestures to the woman " – Dr. Smith, chief surgical resident. We're here to update you on – " he checks his chart " – Agent McGee's status."

Tony's heart plummets. "And?"

Dr. Peyton doesn't look up. "Agent McGee came in with a moderately-sized, acute subdural hematoma in his left parietal lobe."

"What does that even mean?" Tony asks, confused.

"The blunt force trauma he suffered caused some bleeding underneath his skull. We went in and repaired the vessel. It is quite remarkable that Agent McGee was up and moving around with that type of injury, let alone doing what I heard he did."

So it turns out that Tim's injuries are so much more serious than Tony originally thought. And here, he chided Tim for having a panic attack after he took out Gus. If that's the last thing Tim heard…Tony doesn't know whether he'll be able to live with himself.

Dr. Peyton glances to Dr. Smith and she takes over without giving Tony a chance for questions. "My team and I handled the internal abdominal injuries. Broken ribs. Collapsed lung. Swollen spleen which I removed when I repaired his hemorrhaging splenic artery."

Tony gapes. "You took out his spleen."

Both doctors share an amused smile when Dr. Smith continues: "It doesn't really do anything anyway. Not to mention, that's the least of his worries."

"But is he okay?"

Dr. Peyton takes over again. "They're moving him up to the ICU as we speak. Once the anesthetic is out of his system, it will a waiting game to see if he regains consciousness."

Tony swallows audibly. "If."

"We remain optimistic, but we aren't out of the woods yet." For the first time, Dr. Peyton meets Tony's worried eyes. His face softens. "We need you to sign some forms, Agent DiNozzo. We need you to decide how much intervention you'd like us to take in the event things take a turn for the worst."

The doctors approach the bed to pass Tony a clipboard. He flips through the pages, his brow crinkling. He has been through too much and his head hurts too damned bad to consider things like DNRs and lifesaving interventions and code blues…and for fuck's sake, organ donation.

Dr. Peyton already has the pen out.

"Why are you giving me these?" Tony's head snaps up. "Shouldn't you be waiting for Tim's sister? She should be the one making these decisions."

"You were listed as Agent McGee's medical proxy," Dr. Peyton says calmly. "What we do is up to you."

"Why would he do that?" Tony asks, a little hysterical, a little crazed.

"Evidentially, he trusts you with his life." Dr. Peyton tries to smile, but he just ends up baring his teeth. "From what I heard about your day, I'd say the feeling is mutual."

Tears start to brim in Tony's eyes. He looks away.

"Will you do everything?" Tony whispers.

Dr. Peyton nods. "You have my word."

Tony takes the proffered pen and signs every paper that guarantees that the hospital will put Tim back together again. When he gets to the form marked Organ Donation, he hesitates.

Dr. Peyton places a firm hand on Tony's shoulder. There is a practiced steadiness to his touch like someone who has spent a great deal of time counseling others in life and death decisions.

"It's just in case, son," Dr. Peyton says. "If Agent McGee doesn't make it, we would need that form in order to keep his body stable until…" Mercifully, Dr. Peyton doesn't finish.

Until they can harvest Tim's organs.

With the tears still biting, Tony stares blankly at the form. The words swim together, blurring into one big mess of giving Tim's life away. If Tim dies—which he won't, right? right?—Tony doubts his friend would want other people to die when they could've been saved. When he could've saved them. Tim always was—is, for G-d's sake, is—just that kind of person. Giving and kind and generous.

Tony holds his breath as he signs the form—and possibly Tim's very life away.

He swallows hard. "Now what?"

"We wait for Agent McGee to wake." Dr. Peyton squeezes Tony's shoulder again. "In his own time."

Nodding tightly, Tony studies the faded print of sailboat on the wall. Dr. Peyton gives Tony's shoulder one more squeeze and another promise to do everything. Then Dr. Smith mutters her sympathies because well, it seems she's already given up.

Then, he's alone.

Tony sits on the bed, staring at that print on the wall while his mind whirls with what will happen to Tim, what will happen to him. Sometime later, his nurse comes to get his signature on the AMA form. He listens to her lecture as he signs his life away. Then she gives him a set of green hospital scrubs, a bottle of pain pills, and a gigantic hug.

The rest of the night is like watching a movie of his life.

He dresses in the scrubs, then takes the elevator up to the ICU. He pauses in the doorway of Tim's room to stare at inert from of his friend in the hospital bed. It's pitch dark with only a patch of light from the hallway to highlight Tim's pale skin against the jet-black bruises on his face. There are more machines in there than in Abby's lab and they're all hooked up to Tim by tubes and wires.

Tony can't bring himself to go inside. He can't even take a single step over the threshold. If their positions were reversed, he knows Tim would be by his side until he woke. But Tony can't stand the hiss of the ventilator or the beep beep beep of the heart rate monitor.

He just can't bear seeing his friend like this.

"I'm sorry, McGee." He swallows the regret, backs away. "Tim. I'm sorry, Tim."

Tony heads out into the frigid night to take a cab on the hospital's dime. The city streets are desolate and deserted like he and the cab drivers are the only ones left in this miserable world.

When he gets home, he takes two pain pills and chases them with Scotch until he passes out.

Chapter Text

As soon as he wakes up, Tony checks out the window. The world outside is still dark, probably that ung-dly hour of the morning that no one in their right mind should be up. After that, he stops paying attention to how long he spends cocooned on his couch. Instead, he measures the passing of time by the bottles that line up next to his pain pills.

First comes Scotch.

As he cracks open the bottle, Tony sends an e-mail to the director asking for a transfer to another team. He wants to stay in DC, but he’ll taken an opening anywhere in the world at this point. He sends a follow-up e-mail too, begging the director to reassign Tim somewhere else. It doesn’t matter where they end up as long as they’re nowhere near Ziva.  

Sometime around the halfway mark, Gibbs shows up. He lurks in the hallway, pacing back and forth like an angry panther. Tony stands by the door, too drunk to face his boss. There are so many things he would say thanks to the alcohol that he just isn’t ready to do.

Gibbs slams his fist against the door, bellowing: “Open the damned door, DiNozzo. I know you’re standing right there. I can see your feet. I gave you your space in the hospital. Now, we need to talk.”

“Did you fire Ziva, boss?” Tony asks.

“Not yet.”

“Why not, boss?”

Gibbs pauses. “DiNozzo, you need to trust that I’m handling it. Just open the door.”

But Tony isn’t ready to listen to what he knows is coming. That his makeshift family—the closest thing to a real one that he has ever known—is unraveling right before his eyes. He can’t hear how he’s being rash and hotheaded and just play stupid by looking for a transfer. That Tony is blowing everything out of proportion because Ziva, well, Ziva didn’t mean for any of it to happen. That she’s staying on the team. Because hey, who gives a shit about what happens to him and Tim anyway?

He can’t look his boss in the eye and hear how Gibbs fucking chose Ziva over them.

Just like Tony always knew he would.

Next comes rum.

The hospital calls to update Tony on Tim’s condition. Still in a coma, but hey, he has strong brain activity so there’s that. He isn’t dead and his super brain is still chugging away. But every day that he spends trapped in the recesses of his mind, the less chance he’ll make it.

“How long until he wakes up?” Tony asks.

“It could be minutes, hours, days.” The nurse gives a long pause. “Or even years. But Tony, when are you coming to visit? Tim’s dad is anxious to talk to you.”

“Older guy with a bad haircut?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Tony rubs his hand over his face. “Is his name Gibbs?”

She laughs like this whole thing is fucking hilarious. “Yes, it is a strange name. Do you think that’s a family name or something?”

Then comes vodka.

The Turner Classic Movie Network is playing a Cary Grant marathon. The films that Tony loves are like old friends, safe and secure and predictable. Since he knows exactly what is going to happen, there is no way they will let him down. They never could like the people in his life—like his team—does.

Tony sleeps through most of North By Northwest. He half-watches Arsenic and Old Lace while he tries to sober up. He recites the dialogue to His Girl Friday. And when Charade finally comes on, Tony wills himself not to cry. Sometime when Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn end up running through the Parisian city streets, he gets it.

He finally fucking gets it.

He and Tim were left to die while the other stayed behind, relaxing. And his boss—the one man Tony would’ve followed to hell and back—wouldn’t fix it. He wouldn’t say the magic words, Ziva is gone, I choose you and Tim. That, in and of itself, was worse than he could’ve ever imagined. He wants to ask Gibbs what he’s waiting for, how he can still keep Ziva on the team.

Does Gibbs really think they could still be one big, happy family after everything?

Tony hits the last of his liquor cabinet. Gin.

The phone rings while he’s fighting with the lid. He has spent so long dodging Gibbs’ calls that he barely hears it. When he checks the caller ID, it’s the hospital.

Tony swallows hard.

“Hello?” His voice is rough and scratchy like he hasn’t had a drink in days.

“Agent DiNozzo?” asks the man on the other end.

Tony’s heart drops straight into his stomach.

Every time someone called before, it was a nurse. A woman.

If the doctor is calling me.

His eyes wander to a copy of Deep Six lurking on his bookshelf. Even though he’d never say it out loud, he loved that book because it gave him a chance to relive his team whenever he opened it. He might’ve perused a few passages—okay, the whole damn thing—during his bender.

“Agent DiNozzo?” the man says again.

“I’m here.”

“Dr. Peyton from Alexandria General.”

“Ah,” is all Tony can manage.

There’s a smile in the doctor’s voice. “Tim is awake.”

Tony swallows audibly. “Is he…is he okay?”

“He’s asking for you.” He pauses. “As far as I can tell, everything appears to be okay at this juncture. But I believe it’s too premature to assure you that he’ll be completely back to normal. We still need to take it one day at a time.”

“Thank you. I’ll be right over.”

Before the doctor has a chance to reply, Tony ends the call. He hustles into his bedroom to throw on whatever clothes he finds in his closet. He ends up in one of his favorites outfits: a jet black Zegna with a white shirt starched within an inch of his life. He skips the tie and belt. He gathers his wallet and his phone, but when he goes to get his car keys, he can’t find them. He rips his bedroom apart, searching before he ends up sitting on the floor, sprawled out by the bed.

Fuck, they must still be in my desk.

He decides to deal with it later.

So he heads downstairs and asks the doorman to lock up for him. He tries to ignore the hushed whispers and horrified stares from his neighbors. He looks like he got hit by a truck after being left for dead and he knows it. No amount of scrubbing could remove all the blood from the gashes on his face, his left eye is swollen mostly shut, and the bruises on his face have gone from purple black to that grotesque yellow-green. He is unshowered and unshaved, but dressed to the nines and his hair is combed. Plus, he is on his feet. That counts for something, right?

Tony takes a cab to the hospital. The cabbie gets one eye on Tony and the other on the road.

“You must’ve been in one hell of a fight, man,” the cabbie says.

Tony smiles lopsidedly. “You should see the other guy.”

“Fucked up? Like you?” the cabbie says, clearly interested.

Tony looks out the window. “In the morgue.”

The cab screeches to a halt and he kicks Tony out a few blocks from the hospital. Tony pulls his suit jacket tighter to his body, huffing up the sidewalk to the hospital. He walks straight past a surprised intern at the check-in desk and takes the elevator up to the third floor. A pretty nurse in lilac scrubs gives him a friendly smile and points him to Tim’s room, 322. Under ordinary circumstances, Tony might have gotten her number, but he looks too much like roadkill to even try.

I bet she sent me to the psych ward.

But it turns out, she wasn’t lying.

Room 322 is probably meant to be a cheery place in a mess of sickness and disease. But it resembles every hospital room Tony has ever seen. Sunlight streams through the window, bathing the room in a healthy glow. Framed pictures of seascapes hang on the walls, but they’re hidden by a huge bouquet of red and black and skull balloons and black roses in beautifully carved crystal vases.

Abby strikes again.

Four. One for every day since the event.

Beside them are a pile of old books, their spines creased and fraying with age. The titles are worn away.

Ducky was here too.

And a bright blue stuffed bear with the words It’s a Boy! embroidered on the foot. The price tag from the hospital gift shop still hangs on the toy’s ear.

Tony half-smiles.

Leave it to Gibbs to buy the perfect gift for every situation.

A television over the door plays a talk show that Tony can’t believe he recognizes. It’s the one with undesirable people trying to figure out who is the father of their ugly babies.

In the middle of the room, Tim McGee lays languidly on a hospital bed. His open and cloudy eyes stare longingly at a television remote that’s just out of reach. Black bruises in different stages of healing are painted against his porcelain skin.

As Tony draws closer, he frowns at the sight of the breathing tube in Tim’s mouth.

As soon as Tim notices him, his face lights up. He tries to talk, gags, then scowls at the tube. He reaches for a notebook and pen that’s laid out on his lap.

Hi Tony, he writes. I didn’t think you were coming.

Tony rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t know what happened. I guess I lost my mind for a little bit. But I’m here now. How are you feeling, Tim?”

Tim studies him for a moment, then turns to his notebook. You look like shit.

Laughing, Tony slides into a seat. “You’re one to talk. You’ve got a tube in your face.”

Hot nurses give me a sponge baths. Sucks to be me.

And that’s the moment, Tony is pretty sure that Tim will be just fine. Tony genuinely laughs and for the first time four days, he lets himself relax.

Tony points to the breathing tube. “Does that thing suck as much it looks like?”

Tim shrugs. Keeps my lung from deflating again.

Nodding, Tony decides to leave it at that. Because right now, he doesn’t care why Tim still has the breathing tube in as long as it makes him better.

When Tony notices the hospital food plate on Tim’s tray table, he makes a face. Who brings food to a guy with a breathing tube jammed down his throat anyway? Figuring Tim isn’t going to eat it anyway, Tony rips into the ham sandwich. It’s warm, slimy and absolutely disgusting.

Tim glares at him. That was mine.

“Not anymore.” Tony grins. “You’re not missing much, McGee. Hospital food sucks.”

Scowling, Tim watches Tony tears into a sandwich like he hasn’t eaten in a week. And Tony can’t remember the last time he did. The only memories he has from his own coma are a couple hazy encounters with a pizza delivery man and fighting with his microwave for a Lean Cuisine. 

Tim taps on his notebook. Was I really out for four days?

“Yeah. It’s been pure hell for us.” He leaves out the part about his bender. “The doctors weren’t really sure what was going to happen. They were worried.” He looks away, then adds: “I was worried.”

Tim taps on his pad, drawing Tony’s attention back.

What happened?

Tony shrugs. “Something went bad in your super brain. Your lung blew up.”

Tim rolls his eyes. I know that. Ziva?

“I’m going to take care of it,” Tony says.

But what about Gibbs? What did he say to Ziva?

Swallowing hard, Tony wishes his friend was still in a blissful, drugged out states so they didn’t have to discuss it right now. Tony crosses his arms, meets Tim’s gaze. Despite the haze in his eyes, Tim is there, all there. And while it’s the best outcome Dr. Peyton said they could’ve hoped for, it won’t make what Tony is about to tell him any easier.

“I don’t know,” Tony says. “I haven’t talked to Gibbs.”

Since when do you avoid Gibbs? Tim writes.

Tony’s features pinch. “Since I have no idea what the hell he’s doing. Ziva’s still on the team.”

He didn’t fire her?

Tony shakes his head.

Panic blasts across Tim’s face when he tries to talk. He gags against the tube. Then he tries to get his pen to the notebook, but he can’t do it fast enough. Then pen skips out of his hands onto the floor. When he goes for the breathing tube, Tony is on him in a flash, pinning his hands on the bed. Tim thrashes against him. The beep beep beep of Tim’s heart monitor quickens.

“Easy, McGee, easy.” Tony gets into his face. Their eyes meet. “You go after that tube and they’re going to pump you so full of drugs that you’ll sleep for a week.”

Instantly, Tim stills. His eyes grow wide, pleading.

“You don’t want that, right?” Tony asks.

Tim is barely able to shake his head.

“Okay, I’m going to let you go and get the pen. If you do that again, I’ll get the doctor. Got it?”

When Tim nods, Tony releases his friend’s hands. He picks the pen up off the ground and places it into Tim’s shaking hand. As soon as he gets it, Tim scribbles on the paper.

Why didn’t Gibbs fire her?

“I don’t know,” Tony says honestly. “But I need you to trust me.”

I do. Always have, always will.

“Same here, McGee. I’ve got your six.”

Then suddenly, Tim’s heart rate monitor spikes. He goes after the breathing tube again as though he can’t stand it being there. Tony grabs the junior agent’s hands again, holding them down while Tim stares up at him with wide, terrified eyes. It’s the same stare Tim gave him in the bathroom when he realized they were alone, abandoned, and without back-up.

“Easy, McGee. I wasn’t kidding about getting the doctor.”

That makes Tim fight even harder. His lips move, desperately trying to say something.

The beep beep beep upticks even higher and at that moment, two nurses rush into the room. One of them bumps Tony out of the way with her amble hips so she can restrain Tim. The other administers a medication into his IV line. His movements instantly slow, his eyes growing heavy until he is asleep within a few minutes.

Tony just stands there, dumbfounded.

With Tim stable and sleeping again, one of the nurses move to Tony’s side. She’s short and stout, nearly busting out of her hot pink scrubs with wild, flame-colored hair. That’s when Tony thinks Tim might’ve been lying about the hot nurses earlier.

“Don’t worry about your friend, sugar,” she says. “It wasn’t anything you did.”

“What just happened?” Tony asks.

“They get worked up with the breathing tube sometimes. Having that thing in their throat irritates everything and it can make ‘em a little crazy.” She crosses her arms. “We don’t usually let patients stay awake like that, but Dr. Peyton made an exception so Tim could talk to you.”

“And now?”

She smiles sadly. “We help him sleep until it’s time to take it out. Your friend needs the rest. And by the looks of things, you do too.”

And just like that, she slips out of the room.

Tony squeezes Tim’s limp hand, hard. Even though Tim is completely sedated, Tony tells himself that his friend can feel it, that his friend knows that he’s still here.

“We’re a team, McGee. You and me. That’ll never change.”

--

Chapter Text

After he watches Tim sleep for a few hours, Tony accepts that his friend won't be waking up anytime soon.

So Tony decides to head over to NCIS. After his bender and hiding from Gibbs, he figures it is time to face his boss head-on like the very special agent he is. And now that he knows Tim will be okay, Tony needs to get his head out of his ass, needs to get his shit back together for his partner.

He takes another cab. Ignoring the nervous glances of the cabbie in the rearview mirror, he stares out the window to watch the world pass him by. The cab stops out front. Tony pays the driver.

On his way into the building, Tony ignores the shocked stares and the hushed whispers of the other agents. Yes, he wants to say, I went 10 rounds with a prize fighter and a bunch of terrorists. And you know what, Tim and I won. Who wants to mess with me now?

But he just keeps his head held high and goes straight to the bullpen.

Jethro Gibbs is at his desk, working at his computer with that old hunt and peck typing style. Somehow, he appears older and more haggard than ever before. It's like he hasn't slept since the event either.

At the sight of Tony, Gibbs' head snaps up.

"DiNozzo," Gibbs says quietly, gently.

Tony freezes at the edge of the bullpen. Gibbs climbs his feet, drawing closer.

His expression comes concerned and fatherly and all fucking wrong. It isn't what Tony expected at all. There is no hellfire and brimstone from the Gibbs of old. He is tired and worn out.

Tony's heart slips into his stomach when meets Gibbs' gaze.

And Tony knows…he fucking knows exactly what his boss is doing. He is trying to preserve what little he had, trying to patch his team together, trying to do whatever he can to keep his makeshift family together. But all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put what they once had back together again.

Tony blankly stares at his boss.

Gibbs puts a protective hand on Tony's shoulder. The tender gesture is something that just four days ago—has it really been that long?—would have elated Tony, vindicated him, honored him. But right now, it feels surprisingly hollow.

"McGee's awake, boss," Tony blurts out.

"How is he? I was there over night, but the doctors couldn't tell me anything."

Tony tilts his head. "He seems like he's okay. They had to sedate him again. I think the nurse said he'll be in a coma until they can take that tube out."

Gibbs frowns. "I was hoping to talk to him."

Tony half-shrugs. "I guess it'll be a little while."

There's a long pause while Gibbs just stands there, stiff and stock still.

For the first time in his talkative life, Tony doesn't have anything to say. He is expecting Gibbs to make the first move. He is expecting Gibbs to say how Ziva is off the team, fired or reassigned to some hole in an off-the-grid location.

There is nothing but silence.

And suddenly, Tony has no idea why he came running back to NCIS. Maybe he expected this place to feel safe, inviting, like home. But standing here with Gibbs, talking like they are…he feels like a stranger.

Tony gestures towards Ziva's desk. It's still covered with her personal effects—photos and books and that tiny Israeli flag. "Where's Ziva, boss?"

"Suspended until the formal investigation is over."

"What the hell?" Tony blurts out. "She should be off the team"

"It's not that easy. I need to find out exactly what happened."

Tony steps forward. "She cut the mic, boss. That's all you need to know."

"I know, Tony." Gibbs gives a long pause. "I get why you're angry. I – "

"Angry, boss? I'm fucking pissed." Tony laughs humorlessly. "And there was a time when you would've been too. McGee and I almost died!" He lets the thought sink in. "All because Ziva broke protocol."

Gibbs squeezes Tony's shoulder. He shies away. "I'm handling it."

"What's handling it, boss? Slapping her on the wrist? Sweeping this whole thing under the rug?"

"Reassignment to another team. Sending her to another location."

Tony throws his hands up, steps away. "I wouldn't have pegged you as a fan of cover-ups, boss."

"I'm trying to protect you." There's a long pause. "All of you."

Tony rolls his eyes. "Tell that to McGee."

"I'm going to when I can talk to him. IA is investigating all of you, DiNozzo! That's why I came to your apartment. To talk to you. To warn you."

"What?"

"They're looking at McGee for that bathroom break. Ziva for turning off the sound. And you…" Gibbs looks away. "And you for running your damned mouth about MILFs and bikinis and GILFs. IA is trying to determine whether it constituted as sexual harassment."

"But boss – "

"IA is still determining whether Ziva could have been justified to cut the sound because you were offending her. Vance want all of your asses. And if I fire her now, you all go." Gibbs presses his lips together. "I'm trying to find a reason to help you and McGee stay."

Tony's heart plummets. Bile bites the back of his throat. He moves his mouth, trying to form words, but it's like the damned thing just doesn't work anymore.

Gibbs taps Tony's shoulder. "Go see McGee again. Come back sober."

"I am sober, boss."

"You need to give me time to fix this." Then he murmurs something about needing to go see Abby about the recordings. And a moment later, he's gone.

Alone, Tony moves deeper into the bullpen. He stands in the middle, desperately trying to memorize every last detail. It feels a lot like the summer after his mother died, the summer his father shipped him away to his first boarding school. He is trapped in that moment, that one that chills him to his very core, that moment where everything changed in the blink of an eye.

IA is investigating me. Of all the things that Gibbs wanted to tell me, I never expected that.

I know I'm not a model agent, but still. I'm damned good at my job.

He stays, frozen. He takes in those bright orange walls that he always hated, but they're no longer eyesores. Instead, they remind him of a happier time when he would bound into work to join his teammates, his friends, his ramshackle family. He soaks up the set-up of the desks, marveling at how four very different people came together to function as an effective, capable team for so long. He wants to remember every moment of what it felt like to be part of a team.

To be part of a family.

He sighs.

Of course, it wouldn't last forever. It couldn't. Like every good he ever had in life, it was fleeting, gone up in smoke before he ever had a chance to catch his breath.

I think I'll always blame Ziva for that.

The world catches up to him, nearly tackling him to the ground as it sucks his breath away.

Now, there is nothing else for him to do. Gibbs is only keeping Ziva employed to keep Tony and Tim safe from IA for the time being, the senior agent decides he might just have to give those bastards what they want. Without him, they couldn't justify keeping Ziva anywhere in the agency.

With a heavy heart, Tony moves to his desk. He pulls his go bag out of the bottom drawer and fills the little available space with his personal effects. There are a lot of candy bars and DVD cases from movies Tim and Ziva borrowed over the months. And straws. Why did save so many straws? He discovers his shoulder holster among the mess and packs it up.

At one point or another, he loved everything in this desk.

Now, they are nothing more than bits and pieces of a life he can never return to.

Underneath it all, he uncovers the shoebox where he saved those medals Gibbs didn't want like a hero-worshipping hoarder. He doesn't remember the last time he looked through them, the last time he even thought about them. They are reminders for Tony. Tokens of a time when he idolized his boss before he realized Gibbs was merely a flawed moral, just like him. There was a time when Gibbs would have razed NCIS and salted the earth over something like Ziva did. But he is busy holding fast to a place they never could return to. Holding fast to Tony and Tim, his boys.

If Gibbs couldn't make the sacrifice, Tony would do it for him.

And he is almost content to leave it at that. Pack up his things and slink back home to throw his resume into Washington's alphabet soup.

But maybe he isn't as sober as he thought because he slips one medal into his pocket—a silver star Gibbs was given after finding Chris Pacci's killer. Then he slings his bag over his shoulder, hikes the box against his chest. He straightens his back, takes a deep breath like the proud man he once was. He takes the steps up to the director's office two at a time and blows right past the secretary du jour.

She is on her feet instantly. "Agent DiNozzo, you can't go in there. The director is in the middle of a meeting. A very important meeting."

Ignoring her, Tony barrels straight into the director's office. Inside, an older man in dress whites with the ribbons a Fleet Admiral sits across from the director. Two aides—Lieutenants, Tony thinks— are in full military dress stand on either side of him as they take notes. Leon Vance is in full smooze mode, complete with smarmy smile and glasses of Cognac for all.

As soon as Tony is in the room, they go dead silent.

"I tried to stop him, Director," the secretary says quietly.

Vance just nods. "I'll handle it, Misty."

She gives Tony an uneasy glance before she retreats from the room, closing the door behind her.

"Admiral Coulter, I apologize for the intrusion." Rising from its chair, Vance gives Tony a stare that could freeze hell. But Tony has spent too long being glared to death by Gibbs to notice any effect. "Agent DiNozzo, as you can tell this isn't a good time."

Tony approaches the desk. He nods towards Coulter, "Sir."

Coulter nods, clearly interested in the entertaining turn their probably boring meeting took.

"With all due respect, Director," Tony says. "I think it's as good a time as any to discuss Ziva David and my place on the team."

Vance presses his hand to his forehead.

"You and I both know that she should be off the team," Tony blurts out.

Vance offers Coulter a tight smile. "If you wouldn't mind giving us a few minutes to discuss this matter in private, I can assure you – "

Leaning back in his chair, Coulter makes no intention of leaving. "I think I'd like to hear what the young man has to say. It's been a very long time since I've had the chance to see NCIS in action. I always enjoyed watching the Agents Afloat work on my ships."

Vance makes a face. "It's a personnel matter that needs to be discussed privately."

Coulter smiles, even more intrigued now. "Then pretend like I'm not even here."

Closing his eyes, Vance takes a steadying breath.

Tony lays into him. "You and I both know that Ziva turned off the recording device while I was in the field. She put me and McGee in the hands of those terrorists. She's the reason that he's still in the hospital right now. What is Internal Affairs going to do with her?"

"Likely reassign her to another area that fits her expertise." Vance presses his lips together. "It's likely that something similar will happen to both you and Agent McGee."

"Seriously? You're planning to break the team up again?" Tony asks, stepping forward.

Vance steeples his hands. "While you are all assets to the agency, Officer David's presence helps ease relationships with her father and sending her back to Israel wouldn't be prudent."

Before Tony can speak, Coulter leans forward. "Israel?"

"Officer David is a Mossad liaison," Vance explains. "Here on special assignment."

"Mossad? Like the spy agency?" Coulter says, his face turning serious.

Tony squares his shoulders. "One in the same."

"You've had someone whose past is in espionage working at the agency?" Coulter asks.

"Yes, sir," Tony says. "And she is still listed as active duty with Mossad."

One of the aides gives a little gasp as the other stares at Vance, clearly shocked. Coulter leans back in his seat, props one ankle on his knee as he considers the thought. He runs his hand along his chin.

"Is her presence not a possible issue of national security?" he asks.

Tony throws his free hand up at Vance as though to say, See? Even this outsider gets it.

But Vance, ever the bureaucrat, just shrugs. "It is a tad more complicated than that. Our tenuous relationship with Mossad is tied to our continued employment of Officer David."

Tony rolls his eyes. "So you're telling me that IA won't find any evidence of wrongdoing."

Vance's silence speaks for him.

Addressing Coulter and his aides, Tony throws his free hand out theatrically. "That, gentlemen, is what an official NCIS cover-up looks like. I almost had my brains blown out. My partner, Tim McGee, just woke up from a coma. And it's all because Officer David stopped listening to our radios."

The Admiral shifts in his seat. "Tim McGee? Isn't that John McGee's boy?"

Licking his lips, Vance nods carefully.

Coulter raises his eyebrows, motions to one of his aides. They pass him his cell phone, but Tony is too involved in glaring Vance down to pay any attention. The look in Vance's eyes tells Tony everything he needs to know. Ziva will be reassigned to some clandestine unit. He and Tim will never see field duty again. Tim will likely end banished back to Cybercrimes. And if Tony is lucky, he'll be reassigned somewhere as a case agent somewhere deep on dry land in a non-port city. If he's not, he'll be shipped out as the Agent Afloat on the next destroyer.

Tony can't—won't—let that happen.

"Let me make IA's decision easier on you, Director." Tony thumps the box on Vance's desk. "I quit."

Vance blinks. "What?"

Tony is aware of how many people watch him, but he continues anyway: "I won't take part in your cover-up." He says a little louder as though trying to convince himself: "I quit. My creds and weapon are in the evidence locker. Consider them surrendered."

When Tony storms out, Vance clears his throat as he looks at Coulter. He tries his best to come up with a bureaucratic spin for that. Tony is half-way through the bullpen when he stops dead.

Even though he is leaving and that should make Internal Affairs go after Ziva, Tony still needs a back-up plan. That's when something Admiral Coulter said in the meeting: a possible issues of nation security.

Ziva is an Israeli superspy set loose on American soil. As she used to say, leopards would never change their stripes, and maybe she never did either. While she might be on her way to becoming an American citizen now and an official agent, she probably still had contacts in Israeli. Contacts who gave her information, who usually preferred to be paid in their own special currency: states secrets.

What are the odds she sent someone something important from our network?

He presses his lips together.

If NCIS won't do anything with her, I sure as hell will.

Without a second thought, he heads to Ziva's desk. He pulls out her computer tower, hoisting it up as he heads towards the elevator. Right now, he isn't sure whether he'll be able to find what he's looking for himself or if he'll need Tim to do the honors.

He gets all the way to his car before he realizes what he's done.

Quit his fucking job. The only thing he's known for the past ten years. And the only possible back-up he could have in a fight against Ziva. Not to mention, he stole a government piece of equipment.

He needs to figure out a way to play clean up. Fast.

Pressing his lips together, he pulls out his cell phone for one last play. For that Hail Mary pass on the 70-yard line, down by five points with ten seconds to go.

There's an answer on the first ring. "DiNutzo! To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Tony smiles. "Hey Fornell, remember when you offered me a job? After Slacks…I mean, Sacks left."

"That was a joke. You of all people should…" A pause. "Gibbs didn't find out about that, did he?"

"Would you be interested if I were on the market?" Tony asks.

Fornell chuckles. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Tony rubs the back of his neck. "Good, but there's a catch."

"What are you playing at, DiNutzo? What's going on?"

"Tim McGee comes too." Making a face, Tony mentally headslaps himself for making plans for Tim's career without consulting the man. "If he wants to..."

"Two of Gibbs' best people are jumping off his team? Whatever happened must've been big."

Chapter Text

With the stolen computer in his backseat, Tony ends up on the other side of the city before he even registers what happened. He runs on auto-pilot, watching his own life unfurl before him with the same rapt interest that he would his beloved movies.

Deep in the heart of Washington, the Hoover building looks one part prison, one part college science building, and two parts concrete disaster. Finding a place on the street where someone won't ding—or steal—the Mustang sucks.

He huffs the two blocks, go-bag and computer in tow.

Tobias Fornell is waiting in the foyer, arms crossed and staring out the double doors for Tony. They share an awkward hand shake where Fornell doesn't seem to know what to do. Neither of them speak while Tony gets his visitor's badge and Ziva's computer is x-rayed within an inch of its hard drive's life.

"Here you go, Mr. DiNozzo," the security guard says with a smile.

And for the first time since he graduated from the Academy fifteen years ago, Tony isn't Agent or Detective or hell, even Officer. He is a Mister. Just an ordinary concerned civilian.

He clutches the computer tighter, more certain than ever that he needs to right Ziva's wrong. How he had to walk away from a promising future and a great career at NCIS. And for what? Because one of his partners couldn't do their job and his agency couldn't be trusted to protect him.

And don't even get me started on what they did to Tim.

Tony trails Fornell into the elevator and it looks oddly like the one from NCIS. For a split-second, Tony expects Gibbs to materialize next to him and head-slap him into the next century for the rash decision he made. Once the doors close, Fornell takes a page from Gibbs' playbook and hits the emergency stop button. The elevator bounces to a stop and the back-up lights buzz on. And Tony lets himself believe that the angry old man in the elevator is his former boss, not Gibbs' closest frenemy.

Fornell breaks the silence. "What in hell is going on, DiNutzo?"

Tony's fingers sweat, making the computer nearly slip out of his grasp. He hoists it higher. For some reason, Tony can't help feeling embarrassed now that he's here. He wishes he could hit the door open button and creep out of like nothing had ever happened, like he hadn't called Fornell in a moment of panic, like he could just slink back to his couch for the rest of his life. Things were easier when he didn't have to put on his big boy suit and deal with them.

Christ, I need a drink.

"Come on, DiNutzo. You wouldn't just call me out of the blue looking for a job for you and McGee unless something big happened." Fornell studies Tony's face. "Not to mention, you look like you went three rounds with a prize fighter."

Tony clears his throat, fiddles with the computer cable. He shoots Fornell a sideways glance, surprised to find concern and surprise in the FBI agent's eyes. Before he can stop himself, the story comes pouring out. Tony recounts how Ziva cut the mic, Tim spent almost a week in a coma, and Vance's desire to bury it in a hole that stretched almost to China. He leaves out everything about Gibbs because well, Tony thinks his former boss was trying to protect him and Tim. Not to mention, Tony still feels that sense of duty, that sense of owing Gibbs everything that made him into the agent he is today.

To his credit, Fornell doesn't interrupt. He doesn't even move. He just listens with an impassive and emotionless expression until Tony is finished. Silence settles between them, only the whir of the elevator creeping in between them. Tony starts to feel like he should be climbing the walls because he doesn't know what the fuck is about to happen.

Eventually, Fornell nods. "So tell me, what's with the computer?"

"It's Ziva's work one. I thought there might be something on it to help me…" Tony lets his voice trail off.

What exactly did he think would happen? That he would show up at the Hoover Building and Fornell would let him run wild through Ziva's desktop? Then what? Did he truly believe that he could scare her into going back to Israel? Or just make her go to ground here in the States?

Licking his lips, Tony looks away. Maybe he should've thought it out a little better because now that he hears it out loud, it seems like such a stupid plan.

Fornell is nodding. "And you thought I'd help you take David down?"

Tony still can't look at him.

"You know, DiNutzo, I'm in as long as you find something worthwhile on that machine. If it's empty, you drop it and move on. I'm not going to have one of my agents working a personal vendetta on my time."

Blinking, Tony glances over. "One of your agents?"

"Yeah, you wanted a job at the bureau." His smile is predatory. "I got first crack at you and McGee. Both of you are mine now."

"Thank you."

Fornell shakes his head. "It wasn't just for you. I owe Gibbs a big debt. I consider taking care of his people when he can't as helping pay it off."

"That's fair," Tony says.

"Look, the job I pulled for you probably isn't what you're expecting." Fornell's hand hovers over the emergency stop button. "But it was the best I could scrounge up on such short notice."

Tony tilts his head.

"I happen to like Sacks' replacement, so I don't need a senior agent and I doubt you'd want to start over as a junior agent. But there is an opening for a senior agent in cold cases. You report to me, but have more of your own oversight. If he chose to come, you'd have McGee as a direct report."

Tony smiles. "That sounds nice."

"Don't get too excited, DiNutzo. It's a lateral, cross-agency move, at best. More work, probably about the same pay. But you'd be the one picking the cases and calling the shots for your team. Which includes…McGee. Maybe." Fornell hits the emergency stop and the elevator groans to life. "We do have better dental. And by the looks of things, you need it."

"It doesn't sound like a terrible place to start."

Fornell nods. "Make me happy and I might be able to get you a probie."

By now, Tony's gap-toothed smile is full blown. "I'll do my best, sir."

"I expect nothing less from you, DiNutzo." Fornell makes a face. "And for Christ's sake, don't call me sir."

After they shake on it, the elevator doors open to reveal the basement of the FBI. Unsure as to quite where they're going, Tony follows Fornell past the morgue and the evidence garages. They enter a dark room that reeks of must and old paper and wet dog. Fornell turns on the fluorescent lights and they flicker to life, one glimmer away from plunging them back into pitch darkness. The room seems to stretch into infinity in both directions. Metal shelves are lined up floor to ceiling, brimming with cardboard boxes.

Tony stops to marvel. "Are these the cold cases?"

"Welcome to purgatory, DiNutzo." Fornell nods. "Everything dating from some cases in 30s until now. Whenever we run out of leads, it gets packed up and stored here in hopes that someone will break the case wide open."

"How often does that happen?"

Fornell taps a box with his hand. "Almost never."

"Ah," Tony says, staring at the boxes. "Where should I start?"

Fornell half-shrugs. "Wherever you feel like. When I said you were in charge, I meant you're in charge. This is entire place is your domain now." Fornell whirls his index finger around. "Feel free to go nuts."

Completely overwhelmed, Tony stares at the expanse of boxes that stretches on forever. Even if he had an entire lifetime to work these cases, he wouldn't even make a dent.

Fornell whistles loudly. Tony's attention is ripped off the cases, boxes, and thoughts of the lost souls trapped here forever. He gestures for Tony to follow him into a small office by the entrance.

When Tony heads into the office, he is shocked by how old everything is. It appears whomever used to occupy the office left work one day in the 1970s and never looked back. Maybe the faded orange shag carpet that scared them away. Or the two, ancient metal desks pushed together. Or they got tired of staring at the print of a cat clinging to a branch with the words Hang in there! on the wall. A pet rock in its original box rests on one of the desks. Fornell opens it up, tossing it up and down in one hand.

Not groovy.

The only things from this century are two relatively decent computers.

Fornell smiles apologetically. "Like I said it was the best I could do on such short notice."

Swallowing hard, Tony struggles to muster up some enthusiasm for his new home. Is a view of the outside world too much ask? The whole room smells like stale bologna and sweaty feet and old man cologne. But, maybe, with a little—okay, a lot of—work and a familiar face, it could end up feeling like home. If it's one thing Tony learned from all the boarding schools, home isn't a place. It's a feeling.

He puts Ziva's computer on one of the desks and hooks it up to the monitors.

"Tell McGee that I can get him whatever kind of computer he wants as soon as he decides to come onboard." Fornell grabs one of the chairs. It squeaks like it's being ripped apart. "Scratch that. Tell him he can have what he wants as long as he stays on budget."

Tony nods. "I'll see what I can do."

"Good, now let's fire that bad boy up and see what Ziva's hiding on there."

And Tony does.

It takes a while before they get things up and running. First, Fornell doesn't know if the office is even equipped for the internet. Then Tony has to infiltrate Ziva's home screen by guessing at her password over and over again. He never would've pictured her as a MrDarcy1983 kind of girl, but hey, whatever grant him access. Once he brings up the computer's operating system, he channels his inner McGeek and gets to work. Within a matter of hours, he uncovers several plans for Naval destroyers and aircraft carriers and confidential NCIS personnel documents. Amassing them on her hard drive isn't the act of treason that threatens her, it's the using her official NCIS e-mail to active Mossad e-mails. Gibbs', Tim's, and his personnel files are among the documents sent around the world.

Sure, it's just recon. Exactly what any good spy or agent or law enforcement officer would do. But it might be what I need to make my case.

Tony glances at Fornell. "Is that enough?"

"That's enough to bring her in, but it'll take a lot more to make an espionage charge stick." Fornell climbs to his feet. "You know what, I'll go get her and we'll let my guys dig through her computer while she sits in the box. If that's what you found in an hour, imagine what the nerds can find overnight." He jerks his head towards the door. "Do want to come and do the honors?"

Tony shakes his head. "Do you mind if we wait a few days?"

Fornell's brow furrows. "Why? I thought you wanted her out of NCIS. Hell, I would've thought you wanted her on a plane back to Israel."

Nodding, Tony holds Fornell's gaze. "Believe me, I do. But I think McGee deserves to see it too."

Chapter Text

Three days later, Tim McGee is healthy enough to walk out of the hospital. He calls Dr. Peyton a miracle worker. Dr. Peyton says Tim his favorite kind of patients: one lucky SOB. With Tim’s near complete recovery, the nurses give him knowing smile and saying for once, the good doctor isn’t right. Tim got—is—a miracle. Most people with his injuries, one nurse says, don’t wake up, let alone end up completely normal.

But he doesn’t feel completely normal.

The blurry spot right in the middle of his left eye’s vision is disconcerting. Not to mention, the huge goose egg behind his ear. His head is shaved on one side with staples along the healing incisions to match the sutures in his chest. He still has that nagging ache in head as well as a burning in his chest. When all is said and done, Dr. Peyton promises, the pain should ease and Tim will have some pretty badass scars.

While the physical pain was something he expected, he didn’t predict the emotional fallout. He woke up from his coma into a post-apocalyptic wasteland where he didn’t recognize anything and nothing would ever, could ever be the same again. The team he thought would be together long after Gibbs’ retirement imploded on itself while Tim was sleeping his life away.

From what Tony said, Internal Affairs was investigating all three of them. Tim for his bathroom break because they seemed to think if he hadn’t been there at that time, things might’ve gone differently. They also seemed to Ziva might’ve cut the mic because of what Tony was talking about. They were busy trying to determine whether what Tony said could’ve that made her feel uncomfortable enough to cut the sound…and leave Tim and Tony to die.

To add fuel to Tony’s fire, Gibbs wouldn’t call for Ziva’s firing. Hell, Tim would’ve settled for Ziva being reassigned to some covert sector that only ever gets mentioned in whispers around NCIS.

Tim knows that’s coming after the formal IA hearing, but he never thought Gibbs would wait until then. When Tim asked him what the hell was going on, his boss said it was to protect him and Tony too. That if he fired Ziva right now, it would lead to them being reassigned as well. Gibbs wanted to wait until IA cleared Tim and Tony before he made his move. From where Tim sat, it appeared that Gibbs thought the only way to take down Ziva was to throw Tim and Tony to the IA wolves as well. And after that, Gibbs wouldn’t talk about it anymore. They’d talked about the weather and Abby and Ducky and Palmer too, but not about what had happened to him. What happened to the team.

Then somewhere in that mess, Tony quit. Walked right out of the building with Ziva’s computer and never looked back. Then he got a job with the FB freaking I. After all of Tony’s wailing and gnashing of teeth at the Feebees, Tim can’t believe he joined their ranks. And if Tim wants, there’s a job waiting for him too. With a badge and a desk and any computer he wants…as long as he stays on budget.

When the cab pulls up in front of the Hoover Building, Tim debates about telling the driver to take him home instead. Even though he promised Tony that he would come straight here, a shower and a few nights in his own bed seem like a great idea right now. He just needs some time alone, to process everything that happened. The non-stop parade of visitors—and fuck, his dad showed up. How was he supposed to deal with that?—at the hospital left him no time to sleep, let alone even breathe.

He lingers in the back seat too long.

The driver glances at him in the rearview. “This is where you said, right? The Hoover Building?”

Dipping down in his seat, Tim stares up at the FBI building. The off-white concrete blends into the steel grey sky. It reminds him of the math buildings at MIT. Ugly 1960s utilitarian style with a pinch of prison-chic for good measure. 

“Is there another Hoover building?” the driver asks.

Tim shakes head. “No, this is the right place.”

After pulling some crumbled bills out of his pocket, he tells the driver to keep the change. Just as he climbs out of the cab, fat, icy rain drops tumble from the sky. They plop on his head, freezing the exposed skin and slipping under the staples. It is a strange sensation, but oddly comforting at the same time. He turns up the collar of his coat to ward them off and jogs clumsily towards the entrance.

When he catches a sight of himself in the glass door, Tim cringes. His left eye is still black, almost swollen shut and there are bruises splattered across his cheeks. The incision on his scalp is fire red against his ghastly white skin. Dressed in the real clothes Tony brought him, Tim looks a bit like Frankenstein’s monster ready to terrorize the villagers. He hopes everyone left their pitchforks and torches at home.

Tim turns back to the cab. It’s already gone.

So he slips inside and goes through the motions in the lobby: smiling at the security guard, signing the visitor’s log and clipping the visitor’s badge to his coat.

A young and overly enthusiastic probie meet Tim at the guard’s station. His baby face is pulled into a broad smile, his blonde hair spiked as the only hint of personality against his bland, black suit. Tim wonders if he ever looked that thrilled to be at work.

“Hi there, Agent McGee. I’m Cooper Sutton.” He is all hand shakes and big grins. “It’s so nice to finally meet you. Agents DiNozzo and Fornell are already upstairs waiting for you.”

After gesturing for Tim to follow, the young man bounds towards the elevator with the excitement of a dog trying to play with its master. Tim can barely keep up. Hand pressed against the deep ache in his side, Tim slowly drags his aching body into the elevator. Then on the third floor, he limps past the rows and rows of soulless, dreary grey cubicles and the black suits of people toiling away in them.

Now I get why NCIS has orange walls. This place is fucking depressing.

Sutton is two cubicles ahead, glancing back. “Agents DiNozzo and Fornell are in interrogation room 5, Agent McGee. They’re waiting for us. Well, for you. I can’t wait to see an interrogation first hand. It’s going to be awesome!”

A breathless “Ah,” is all Tim can manage.

Of course, the interrogation rooms are all the way on the other side of the fucking building. By the time they reach them, Tim wishes he were at home, in his own bed. Dr. Peyton told him that he’d be sore for a little while, that it would take some time before he got back to himself. But Christ, this seems excessive. He can’t even walk across the damned building without feeling the pound in his head, the burn in his side, or the pull of the stitches on his chest.

Oblivious, Sutton points ahead to a grey door. “You and I are supposed to stay in observation.”

He props the door open with his foot and lets Tim catch up. Sweat pours down Tim’s face and his voice is gone. So he just gives a stilted nod to let Sutton know that he was listening.

That’s when Sutton actually looks at him. “Oh G-d, are you okay, Agent McGee? Do you need a chair? Some water? Maybe something to eat? I have Jell-O in my lunch bag. It’s green. Do you want some?”

Wheezing, Tim shakes his head.  

“Are you sure you’re – “

“I. Am. Fine,” Tim snaps between breaths.

As though not accepting it, Sutton nods cautiously. After Tim heads into observation, Sutton disappears. Before Tim can breathe a sigh of relief, Sutton comes right back with a chair. Tim rolls his eyes and stays on his feet.  When Sutton gestures at it like he just won a prize, Tim shakes his head.

Then Sutton heads over to wall to press on the button to let him communicate with the people in interrogation. “We’re here.”

And that’s the first time Tim glances into the interrogation room. His jaw drops.

Facing the two-way mirror, Ziva sits at an interrogation table across from Fornell and Tony. Her face is full of hellfire and brimstone as she glares at the two agents.

“I take it we are now able to get this movie on the street after your man behind the mask finally showed up,” Ziva says.

Fornell and Tony share a questioning look.

She sighs like no one ever understands her before she continues: “The matter of what happened at Royal Woods is still under investigation by Internal Affairs. It is being investigated by NCIS, not the FBI. You had no right to bright me here like you did.”

Neither Tony nor Fornell move.

“Perhaps it is time for me leave,” she says, rising from her chair.

“You were brought here as a courtesy, Officer David,” Fornell says suddenly.

Ziva cocks head, on guard. “For what? I have apologized to both Tony and McGee for my actions. Director Vance has chosen to reassign me to the Los Angeles unit. What else is left?”

Before Fornell can speak, Tony leans forward. “What the hell is your problem, Ziva? You almost got me and McGee killed. How can you act like it doesn’t matter?”

Her face turns impassive.

“Killed, Ziva. You know what that means, right? Like dead dead.” Tony shudders. “Like six feet under, pushing up daisies, ex-parrot kind of dead.”

Fornell bites back a laugh. Tim fights the urge to be sick.

Ziva stares at Tony blankly. “I do not understand the movie reference.”

“It wasn’t a movie. It was freaking Monty Python!” Tony exclaims, throwing his hands up. “But that’s not the point! It’s that you never get anything! You never knew what it meant to be a good partner, have our sixes, and do your fucking job.”

She tilts back in her chair. “I have provided assistance in countless missions and – “

“None of that matters because the one time we needed you, you weren’t there! The one time we needed you, you weren’t listening because you turned down the mic. Who the hell turns their back on their partners like that?”

Crossing her arms, she sets her jaw.

“How do you think I felt when that guy put a gun to my head?” Swallowing hard, he rubs his temple “How do you think I felt when I watched McGee collapse at the scene? I thought he was dead for Christ’s sake.”

She doesn’t speak.

Tony licks his lips. “How do you think McGee felt when he woke up from that coma?” 

That’s the first indication that Ziva has even been listening. Tears prick to her eyes as she looks away to study a spot on the wall.

When the ache in his side kicks up, Tim presses his hand against it. Sutton pushes the chair closer. Tim turns to glare at him until the probie moves away.

 If he were honest with himself, Tim doesn’t even know how he felt when he came out of that coma. Numb would probably be the best word for it. Like nothing that had happened were real. Like he was watching a movie of his entire life go down in flames on a screen in front of him. Or watching a movie of his team—and the closest thing he has to friends—vie to tear each other apart in an interrogation room.

It just isn’t right.

“None of it was meant to happen Tony. That I swear to you. If I could take it back, I would. But I cannot.” Ziva’s eyes flick to the two-way glass. “It has happened and now, I must live with the consequences.”

“All of us do, Ziva,” Tony says.

She presses her lips together, meets his eyes. Tony climbs to his feet to pace around the room. He crosses his arms tightly, sags against the wall.

Eventually, Tony sighs. “You were my teammate, Ziva. You were my partner. You were my friend. I just want to know how you let everything happen.”

Ziva places her hands flat on the table. “I already said it was not my intention. It was a mistake that I did not mean to make. Tony, I am sorry. McGee – “ she glances back towards the two way glass and Tim could swear that she stares straight at him“ – I know you are here and I am sorry. I had my reasons for what I did. I will assure you both that I will not make this mistake again.”

Tony tilts his head. “Do you think any other team will trust you after they find out what happened?”

Shaking her head, Ziva stands. “Look, Tony, I made a mistake. I did what I could. But I think it is best for us to part now.”  

When she starts up to leave, Fornell clucks his tongue. She turns around, obviously confused, as he places several pieces of paper onto the table. From where he stands, Tim can’t see what they are. He wonders whether there’s a point to all of this.

“What is that?” Ziva asks.

“Files from your work computer,” Fornell says succinctly.

She points directly at Tony. “So it was you who stole my computer. Gibbs said it was taken away for maintenance.”

Tony pulls a grin that says What are you gonna do about it?

Rolling her eyes, she turns back to Fornell. “Many people have files on their computers.”

“You were sending military plans and personnel files to foreign operatives, David,” Fornell says.

Tim gapes. While he knew Ziva kept in contact with her previous life, he’d always thought she managed to keep NCIS and Mossad separate. Tim trusted her. The team trusted her. And what did she do? She sent their secrets to her old friends. 

Ziva opens her mouth, closes it, then tries again. “I was doing my job.”

“For who, David? Us? Or Mossad?” Fornell gestures back to her chair. “I think you should take a seat because you’re going to want to hear what I have to say.”

While she follows the order, her eyes are murderous as they dart between Tony and Fornell. She lifts her chin defiantly, but ready to listen.

“You, of all people, know that’s espionage,” Fornell says. “You’re in the United States. Sending covert information to a foreign government. If you’re lucky, you’ll get life in a federal prison. If not...” He slides the pages closer to her. “I hear Gitmo is nice this time of year.”

Ziva stares blankly at Fornell. “I do not believe you.”

“Do you want to try me?” Fornell asks. “I was ready to ship you to Gitmo without this meeting, but DiNutzo convinced me otherwise.” She glances to Tony, her eyes softening slightly. “He wanted to give you an out. A one-way flight back to Tel Aviv. Leaving – “ Fornell checks his watch “ – now.”

Her cheeks pale as she stares at the papers. “I do not have anything. My passport. My – “ Reaching into his suit jacket, Tony tosses a passport onto the table. When Ziva inspects it, she glances up at him. “You went to my apartment and searched my things.”

“It’s not much fun being blindsided, is it?” Tony says. There’s a sadness in his voice.

“No, it is not Tony. I would not have expected something such as this from you.” Taking the passport, Ziva stands. “I will go and pack to – “

“No packing,” Fornell says. “You’ll leave now. Tel Aviv or Gitmo, your call.”

The two choices hang heavy in the air like dead weights, both threatening to drag her under water to drown. When she grasps the gravity of the situation, resignation falls over her face.

“I choose to go home,” she says quietly.

Fornell nods. “Agent Sutton will see that you make your flight in time.”

Next to Tim, Sutton claps his hands and pulls his keys out of his pocket. He holds them up like he has been given the mission of a lifetime.

“That’s my cue!” Sutton exclaims.

Tim just rolls his eyes at the younger man’s enthusiasm.

 “Yes, it is,” Tim says blandly.

When he goes to leave, Sutton pauses by the door. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about you from Agent DiNozzo, Agent McGee. I hope you choose to join us here.”

On the edge of shock, all Tim can do is nod.

He is far too tired deal with this shit right now. Ziva sending military secrets to her old contacts. Tony using it to send her back home. Gibbs standing idly by while the whole thing played out. Not to mention, Internal Affairs reassigning her to another team. Sure, he and Tony were cleared of any wrongdoing. But really, how the hell is Tim supposed to go back as the lone surviving member of Team Gibbs?

Suddenly, Tim’s world tilts sideways. He ends up in the chair, head between his knees, breathing hard. He wills himself not to vomit here in the observation room. Because that would be a great way to get started at a possible new employer. He glances at the overhead light to keep the nausea away.

Suddenly, his skin crawls like someone is watching him.

In the doorway, Ziva stares at him. There is remorse and regret in her eyes.

“I am still your friend, McGee,” she says.

Tim half-smiles. “I know, Ziva.”

“I will never forget what it felt like to have you and Tony with me. It was an honor to serve with you.”

Before Tim has a chance to reply, she’s gone with Sutton bounding at her heels.

Tim doesn’t have a chance to reflect or think—or even fucking, breathe—before Tony comes bursting into interrogation. The former senior agent is all hopped up on adrenaline and nervous energy like he gets after a particularly exciting bust. He clasps his hands together, rocking on his feet.

“Hey, McGee! How are you feeling?” Tony asks.

“I’m here,” Tim says, suddenly exhausted. 

As if sensing that Tim needs less excitement, Tony tries to compose himself. But he just ends up pacing around the observation room. Tim fights the urge to head slap his friend into next week.

“Have you thought about coming to come work here? With me?” Tony blurts out, sounding like a little kid begging his best friend to build a boys-only fort together.

Tim half-nods.

Tony leans forward. “What do you say, McGee? Come be a Feebee with me?”

“Count me in.” 

Chapter Text

Exactly one month after the event, Tony receives the first post card. It's a beach scene where the ocean stretches out to meet the sky with the sun dipping lower towards the water. In the foreground, a sea turtle starts its trek to meet the sun. The words Cancun are emblazoned on the bottom.

On the back in Gibbs' block, militaristic script is a message.

Knew what you were going to do before you did, DiNozzo. Knew there was no stopping you, so got out of your way. Time to retire anyway. Rules 1 and 5. You made me proud, kid. Keep it up. Stay on McGee's six. Good luck.

Even though he heard from Fornell that Gibbs retired shortly after the event, the post card still comes like a punch to the gut. Seeing it here is confirmation that Ziva's act ripped their lives apart, not just his and Tim's. He puts it on his coffee table and hits his liquor cabinet. He grabs the Bourbon that Gibbs left him—hell, he thinks Gibbs left it. Because who else would leave a bottle of Bourbon and a tiny wooden boat on his welcome mat in the middle of the night?

Tony collapses into the couch, cracks it open. Sure, it's a snowy Tuesday, the perfect kind of day to hunker down in his basement lair with Tim and dig through those cardboard boxes. But the weather is also perfect to search for the clarity that comes at the bottom of a bottle.

He pours himself a glass, swills it around. Then he pulls out his cell phone.

Tim answers on the first ring. "Tony, you're never going to believe – "

"I'm not coming in today, McGee," Tony says.

"What?" There's a long pause. "Why?"

"I totally forgot I've got a dentist appointment today. They're putting my final bridge in." He runs his tongue over the spot where the missing tooth was. "I gotta get myself looking good again so I can finally score a date. This dry spell is a new record for me."

Tim huffs like a month without a date is perfectly normal. "I thought you saw your dentist last week."

"Yeah, but it didn't fit. They had to send it back."

"Then why did you show it to me and asked me to guess which tooth was the fake one? Like I didn't know which– "

"Look, McGee, I have to go to the dentist."

Tim makes a clucking noise, telling Tony that he doesn't believe the lie. Thankfully, he stops pressing. "Okay. Then I'll see what I turn up on the Patterson case and run down – "

"Stay put and do your computer voodoo. We'll run down the leads together when I'm feeling better."

The rustling on the other line sounds like Tim is flipping through a file. "But I just found that the victim's girlfriend was – "

"Rule 7."

Another long pause. "Gibbs or DiNozzo?"

Tony swigs his drink. "DiNozzo."

"Never make a move without someone on your six." He hears the smile in Tim's voice because it's the one Tony made to protect his partner, his friend. "I read you loud and clear, Tony. I'll see what I can come up with on my own today. Then we'll tackle it when you get back."

"Good. I'll check in with you tomorrow, McGee. Have a good day."

Tim waits a long moment before he says: "I got a post card from Gibbs too."

Tony pounds back his drink. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Tim."

And before Tim has a chance to speak, Tony hangs up on him. Over the next few days, he kills the bottle of Bourbon and whatever else he has left in his liquor cabinet. He spends his nights passed out on the couch, his days hunched over a piece of loose-leaf with a pen. He starts a letter to Gibbs over and over again, but he never makes it past the first line. When he emerges from his apartment mid-week, he has a letter in his desk that is sealed in an envelope, but will never be sent.

Boss,

I made my own set of rules. I think you'd like DiNozzo Rule 12: Stick by those who stick by you. I didn't figure out where we stood until after you left. I know you tried to protect me and McGee.

Thanks for the opportunity…and the Bourbon.

Tony.

-oooooooo-ooooooooo-ooooooooo-

At Tony DiNozzo's suggestion, Arthur Haskell is offered a life in witness protection for him and his daughter in exchange for testimony against Marissa Jackson and whomever else is involved in their domestic terrorist cell. He jumps at the opportunity and tells the US Marshals everything he knows. Due to his testimony—Marissa Jackson is sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder of two federal agents—and what NCIS uncovers in Marissa Jackson's house leads them to bust over a hundred people across the country that were involved in black market arms' deals.

It ends up being the largest domestic terrorist bust in NCIS history.

-oooooooo-ooooooooo-ooooooooo-

SIX MONTHS LATER

When he first started on Gibbs' team, Tim listened to Tony extol the benefits of a two-man team. After all, Tony had played the right-hand man to Gibbs long before Kate showed up…long before Tim showed up. It was, Tony said, efficient, uncomplicated and drama-free. You fell into a routine with your partner, playing to the other's strengths and weaknesses and anticipated their actions before even they did. Tim would often laugh and shake his head, certain that it would be too much work with not enough help.

After they defected to the FBI together, Tim learned just how wrong he was.

He and Tony fell into breathtakingly easy routine in their basement lair.

Grab a cold case box. Review the files and the evidence.

If there were any discrepancies—or if Tony's spidey senses tingled—they would start over with fresh eyes until they hunted their dirt bag down. They days were long and the nights longer. But so far, they'd closed six murders, five missing persons cases, a couple of a sexual assaults, and a burglary—though that one was mostly an accident.

Tim finds the new job rewarding, almost addictive. Giving families closure grants Tim a near high—he knows it's just serotonin from a job well done—that leaves him floating around the basement of the Hoover Building for days. It reignites his passion for law enforcement, gives him the energy to keep going, lights a yearning to rip open another box and start it all over again.

For the first time in his career, he is satisfied, accomplished, appreciated. Dare he say, happy.

Tim couldn't imagine doing the job with anyone other than Tony.

He hazards a glance at his partner, who's busy driving them to pick up their latest dirt bag. A twenty-something gangbanger that murdered a convenience store clerk a few years ago. It's the kind of case that didn't rank very high on the FBI list to solve at the time, but will earn Tim and Tony a hug and a smile and a hearty thank you from the young woman's family.

Tony has his jaw clenched, his game face on.

Ever since their adventures in Royal Woods, Tony always gets so serious when they get ready to make a bust. Tim thinks he left his sense of humor and that child-like joy in Marissa Jackson's basement. Now, he's always so serious in the field, playing the straight man to Tim's jokes. Tony is all business and on high alert unless they're in their basement office, toiling away. That's the only time the Tony DiNozzo that Tim recognizes from NCIS ever makes an appearance.

Resting his head against the passenger seat of the SUV, Tim watches the rundown rowhouses of Columbia Heights whiz past. He allows himself a small smile as he psyches himself up to arrest another murdering bastard that doesn't know what's coming.

From the driver's seat, Tony clears his throat. "Hey McGee, what are you thinking about over there? You're awfully quiet today. It's creeping me out."

Tim shrugs. "Just life."

"Did you ask that girl down in the armory out yet?" When Tim shakes his head, Tony tilts his. "If you don't do it soon, I'm going to do it for you." A short pause. "Then what is it? Did you get another post card from Gibbs? You always get weird when he sends one."

"No, but I take it you did." Tony nods, so Tim asks: "Where is he now?"

"Nassau."

"That's not a bad place to end up for the summer."

Tony half-smiles. "Like you'd expect him to be anywhere else."

And if Tony bothered to ask him, Tim would probably say that he thought Gibbs would be anywhere else. After they quit the agency, Gibbs ended up retiring to a little casa—Gibbs had said it was Spanish for shack—on a Mexican beach where he spent his days big beer hunting. When he grew bored of that, he took to sailing around the Caribbean on one of the boats he built. Gibbs would often go weeks without any word before sending one of them a cryptic post card from some exotic location they'll never get the chance to visit. The last one Tim received was a month back from St. Thomas that said simply Beer is cold. Fish are biting. Hope you are well.

Tim looks back out the window. "What did this one say?"

"He's heading west to see if he can make it home again."

"Ah," is Tim all says.

"I have no idea what it means either." Shrugging, Tony laughs. "I think he's happy."

Tim smiles. "I'd like to think that too."

They ride in silence until Tim double-checks their destination on his phone and tells Tony to take a left.

Eventually, Tony says carefully: "Did you ever hear back from your dad's friend? That Admiral?"

Tim's cheeks flush.

As it turned out, his father's reach—the same one he spent most of his adult life trying to escape—went further than he could ever imagine. Admiral Coulter, the man who crashed Tony's meeting with Vance, had roomed with Tim's dad back when they were ensigns on their first sea tour. As time dragged on and tours took them all over the world, the men stayed in touch. First as colleagues, later as friends. After he'd witnessed the conversation between Tony and Vance, Admiral Coulter put in a call to his old friend SecNav to get the ball rolling to remove Vance from NCIS.

"Yeah," Tim says, voice bordering on a whisper. "He called the other day to check in. I think he's trying to keep tabs on me for my dad. It's driving me crazy."

"Then why not just call your dad? He came to the hospital, right?"

"It's a long story that I'm not getting into." Thankfully, Tony just leaves it at that. "He wanted to update me on what happened to Director…well, I guess former Director Vance."

Tony takes his eyes off the road. "And?"

"Associate director at the NSA."

"Lucky them," Tony says darkly.

Tim laughs. "Tell me about it." He lets the silence stretch for a few minutes before he says: "While we're talking about that day, did Ziva ever try to e-mail you again?"

Tony grips the wheel hard enough for his knuckles to go stark white. "Yeah, she sent another one trying to apologize. Like if she keeps saying she's sorry, it'll change anything that happened." He dramatically rolls his eyes. "I'm pretty sure she wants me to ask Homeland Security to lift the ban on her passport so she can get back in the States."

"That'll be the day."

"Over my dead body," Tony says, giving Tim a sidelined eye. "Has she reached out to you?"

"Maybe. Probably. Who knows?" Tim shrugs. "I blocked her e-mail address so she goes straight to my spam folder. I can't really deal with it anymore."

Tony purses his lips. "You'll have to teach me how to do that."

"Sure, we can do it as soon as we get back."

But Tim knows no matter how many times he offers, Tony will never ask for his help. For some reason, it's like Tony can't let go of that last connection to Ziva. Just like he can't let go of Gibbs either. Tony hoards Gibbs' postcards, using them to decorate his half of their make-shift office alongside the half-finished wood projects they collected from Gibbs' house after he high-tailed it for the Mexican border. Maybe they are Tony's way of remembering what he had once—that naivety, that innocence, that makeshift family—before only he and Tim were left. Mementos of a life once lived, a shared past that neither can completely leave behind.

And Tim often doubts Tony wants to forget it. NCIS is too much a part of Tony for him to let it go. Hell, it's too much a part of both of them to leave it behind. And Tim doesn't want to forget it either.

Moments later, they pull up to the curb a few blocks away from the row home where their murderer lives. Tony puts the car in park. They check their weapons, back-up clips, and set their earwigs.

Bemused, Tony turns to Tim. "What's our distress word today?"

"Kumquats." Because the fruit distress words drive Tony crazy.

Tony makes a face. "Fine, but today is the last time you get to pick the word."

Tim laughs because they'll be having this conversation at the next bust.

Tony is already climbing out of the car. "Come on, McGee. Let's go catch ourselves a dirt bag."

Tim grins. "On your six, boss."