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Part 1

--Where our heroes are placed

in considerable danger--

Gibbs sat down at his desk after sharing his usual morning glare with his team and took a swig of coffee. He watched covertly as Tony mouthed the words, "What's with him?" to Kate. Kate shrugged. Gibbs hid a grin, glad to see he hadn't lost his touch.

He shuffled through his mail, stopping at a plain white envelope with no return address. It was too soon after Tony's almost deadly bout of plague to take any unusual mail lightly. Gibbs held the envelope up to the light.

"There a problem, boss?" Tony asked.

"Probably not," Gibbs said, squinting at the envelope. It looked like a single sheet of paper with some typed words on it.

"Maybe you should have Abby open it under the hood," Tony suggested, a hint of anxiety in his voice.

Gibbs couldn't fault him his concern. And it was probably a good idea. Most likely not necessary, but the memory of Tony lying almost dead in that isolation unit, struggling to breathe, was all too clear. Gibbs stood, envelope in hand.

Tony, Kate and McGee all stood as well.

"Going somewhere?" he glared at them.

"Yeah," Kate said. "To see what's in that letter." She said it like she thought maybe he'd asked a trick question.

"Are you telling me you don't have anything better to do than stroll down to Abby's lab and watch her open a letter?" Now that was a trick question.

Gibbs watched Kate struggle with her response, knowing she knew she'd be screwed if she said no, but still wanting to go with him. No doubt her own memories of Tony dying were just as horrific, maybe more, as she'd stayed in the isolation chamber with him in an astonishing act of friendship that belied all her and Tony's sniping.

"I'm going," Tony said stubbornly.

Gibbs liked the way Tony sometimes challenged him, even if it did mean Gibbs had to slap him down now and then. Tony would end up leading a team of his own one day; he needed to be able to challenge anyone and anything.

Deciding to be merciful, Gibbs rolled his eyes and said, "Come on." They wouldn't do any work until he was back, anyway, so he might as well let them come with him.

"Drum roll, please," Abby crowed as she slit the envelope open.

Tony rapped a tattoo on the counter ending with a flourish of syncopated beats.

"Nice," Abby said approvingly.

"Could we get on with it?" Gibbs said impatiently.

Abby sent him one of her you-are-so-grumpy looks, but she complied and clumsily, due to the thick isolation gloves, pulled out a single sheet of tri-folded paper. Looking over her shoulder, Gibbs read it. It was typed and began with a quote:

"Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts."

Charles Dickens wrote that, Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs. Do you believe it? I don't. Men should never cry.

Do you ever cry?

It wasn't signed.

"Cryptic much?" Abby commented with a lopsided frown.

Tony was looking over Gibbs' shoulder. "That make sense to you, boss?"

"No," Gibbs said, annoyed. He disliked things that didn't make sense, especially those things that he didn't know if he needed to take seriously or not. It was obviously some nut job with too much time on his hands, but that didn't necessarily mean it was a dangerous nut job.

"So you don't know who sent it?" Kate asked, looking over Tony's shoulder.

Gibbs was starting to feel claustrophobic and it would only be a matter of time before McGee was staring over Kate's shoulder. He eased out from between Abby and Tony and took a few steps to the side. "No," he said again.

His answer didn't satisfy his team. "Anything on the letter, Abs?" Tony asked.

"It looks clean, but I'll run it through some tests," she answered, her eyes lit with enthusiasm for the battery of tests she'd no doubt inflict on the poor, hapless piece of paper.

"It's probably nothing," Gibbs said, but he didn't tell her not to bother.

"Does that quote have any significance to you?" Kate asked.

"No," Gibbs said.

"You really have to stop all the chatter, boss," Tony teased in a serious tone. "Next thing we know, you'll be babbling like a teenage girl." At a glare from Gibbs, he qualified, "Boy. Teenage boy."

Gibbs glared at him again, eyes narrowed.

"Big man on campus," Tony qualified again.

With an eye roll, Gibbs headed for the door. He needed coffee.

"It's too clean," Abby said two hours later, after summoning Gibbs.

"Meaning?" Gibbs demanded, already knowing he wasn't going to get any answers.

"There's nothing to trace. No fingerprints. No return address. The postmark is from the largest post office in Washington, D.C. Whoever sent it used plain Xerox paper and plain white envelopes you can buy at any office supply store. The font type, Courier, is available on every computer. There's nothing special about the ink. It's a big nada."

"I don't like it," Tony said with a scowl.

"All it means is that whoever sent it used gloves," Gibbs argued. "It doesn't mean I'm in any danger."

"If I got that letter, would you blow it off?" Abby asked.

Gibbs hated questions like that. "No," he answered honestly. But Gibbs knew he could take care of himself. Not that Abby couldn't take care of herself, but she was still more vulnerable than he was. "Besides, it doesn't matter. Nothing to trace, nothing to do." Subject was closed.

Tony, still scowling, opened his mouth to speak.

Gibbs shot him a look.

Tony shut his mouth, although if his expression was any indication, Gibbs had only bought himself a few minutes. He glanced at his team, who had, once again, followed him down here like ducklings trailing after their mother. "You all have one minute to get back to your desks and get busy, or I'll start making assignments. And I promise you won't like them."

An alarmed look passed between Kate, McGee and Tony before they fled.

Abby snickered, and Gibbs grinned at her.

The next day, another envelope arrived. Gibbs wasn't sure if he was glad about the light case load or not. If they'd been busy, he wouldn't have time to open his own mail. On the other hand, if this was going to turn into a problem, it was better that they weren't busy.

Thinking he'd just open this one, he heard a discreet cough and glanced up to see a disapproving look on McGee's face. Checking out Kate and Tony, he saw the same expressions. Sighing heavily, Gibbs got up and headed for Abby's lab.

This one started with another quote:

"More grievous than tears is the sight of them."

I agree with Antonio Porchia, Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs. No man should ever be seen crying.

What would it take to make you cry?

"Who's Antonio Porchia?" Tony asked.

Gibbs stared at him.

"On it," Tony said, moving to a computer.

"I'll run tests again, but I'd bet my new studded dog collar that it's clean," Abby declared.

"He's a writer," Tony announced. "Or he was. He's dead. Died in 1968. Born in Italy, moved to Argentina in 1911 and lived there until he died. This quote's from a book called Voices."

"That doesn't help," Gibbs said sourly.

"Yeah, I didn't think it would," Tony said, leaning back in the chair, looking frustrated.

"Is there a link between Charles Dickens and Antonio Porchia?" McGee asked.

This is why Gibbs hated crap like this. Stupid questions that came attached to stupid answers, leaving them with absolutely no direction from which to start an investigation.

Kate's brow was furrowed.

"What?" Gibbs asked her. Maybe she was seeing something he wasn't.

"He wants to make you cry," she said. "Maybe not literally, but he wants to hurt you." She glanced at him. "Who'd want to hurt you?"

Gibbs snorted. If he started writing out a list now, he'd grow old before it was done.

"Okay, I withdraw the question," Kate said quickly. "But the reference to tears has to be significant. It's appeared both times."

Then again, maybe she saw squat, just like he did. "Back to work," he ordered. If he got lucky, maybe they'd get called in on a triple homicide. If not, Gibbs had a sinking feeling he'd be under close surveillance by his team all afternoon.

"Wait," Kate said, stopping the exodus. "He keeps referring to you as Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs, not Special Agent Gibbs."

"Yeah?" Gibbs snapped. "So?"

"So that probably means this is from someone you knew when you were still on active duty," Kate explained.

"You think that narrows the field?" Gibbs asked sharply. "I put a thousand Marines through their paces when I was a drill instructor."

"Did you make any of them cry?" Tony asked.

"All of them," Gibbs answered.

The third envelope appeared on the third day. Before he could even consider just opening the damn thing, Tony was at his desk with a don't-fuck-with-me look on his face. Tony didn't get that look too often, but when it appeared, Gibbs respected it.

It didn't mean he had to like it, though. He glowered his way to Abby's lab and handed the letter over.

"The guy's persistent," Abby said appreciatively. "You gotta give him points for that." Less than a minute later, she had it open. "And he definitely has a jones for crying quotes." She turned the letter so Gibbs could read it.

"The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep people die."

I hope Henry Maudsley will forgive me changing his quote, but it's more accurate this way.

I want you to know, Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs, that I hold you entirely responsible and you must pay the price. Deuteronomy 19:21 demands an eye for an eye. My path is clear.

What will it take to break you?

You seem to be a man with few friends. But you do have people in your life you feel responsible for.

I wonder which one, if they were lost to you, would make you cry.

Shall we find out?

Fingers of dread walked down Gibbs' spine. His eyes met Tony's, who was looking decidedly apprehensive. Then his gaze connected with Abby, who appeared distinctly put out.

"You do so have friends," she stated firmly. "I'm your friend."

Gibbs smiled at her. Of all of them, he probably could count Abby as a friend. And Ducky. Not that he spent much time with them outside of work other than an occasional dinner with Ducky or a few lunches with Abby. Tony--Tony was complicated. Tony was someone Gibbs could be friends with, could possibly be more with, which was why Gibbs kept his distance.

"Is he talking about us?" McGee asked.

"Probably," Gibbs said.

"This feels real, boss," Tony said. "I think whoever this is, is serious."

"I do, too," Kate agreed.

Gibbs nodded his agreement. His team, his people, were possibly in danger. It made him want to punch something or someone. Preferably the scumbag who was sending these letters.

"You made all the Marines cry?" Kate probed, as if she'd been stuck on the idea all this time.

"My job," Gibbs said clearly, "was to find out what they were made of. They had to hit their limit and get past it."

"Did any of them get mad at you?" McGee inquired cautiously.

Gibbs flashed a tight grin McGee's way. "All of them."

"So, long suspect list, then," Tony said.

"Very long," Gibbs assured him.

They all turned to stare at the letter. Thousands of suspects and not even clue one.

"Anyone you drummed out?" McGee asked.

"A few," Gibbs said. "But why now? It's been years. What's making someone come out of the woodwork now?"

"Maybe we could ask around?" Tony suggested. "Hit a few of the bars the Marines frequent; see if anyone's been badmouthing you."

Kate nodded. "I know it's a long shot, but I could go to the post office we know these letters are coming from and see if they've seen anything."

"And I could get a list of all the Marines you worked with, and start whittling it down," McGee offered.

Gibbs nodded. "Go together," he told Kate and Tony. "I don't want anyone alone. Keep an eye out." He eyed McGee and Abby and added, "That goes for you two, as well."

He got four nods in return. They were a good team, the best he'd ever worked with. If anything happened to any of them, he'd find this scumbag and rip his or her still beating heart out of their chest.

Gibbs could hear his team arguing as they headed back to their desks to retrieve their weapons. He followed them slowly, keeping just out of sight, but close enough to listen.

"I think you should go change, Kate," Tony said in his this-is-going-to-be-fun voice.

"Change into what?" Kate asked dangerously.

"Something sexy," Tony answered. "Something low cut with lots of cleavage, and something that really hugs your--"

"If you say something about my butt," Kate snarled, "the only thing that will be changing around here is your voice."

"No, I mean it," Tony wheedled. "While you're distracting everyone with your fatal charms, no one will even notice they're answering my questions."

"Tony, just stop," Kate warned.

"Um," McGee started, "I think that was actually a compliment."

Kate paused, probably rerunning the conversation in her mind. When she spoke, her tone was lighter. "Thanks, Tony. You're still a pig, but thanks."

"You're welcome," Tony said. "I think."

"So who gets to tell Gibbs that he shouldn't be going anywhere alone, either?" Kate asked, changing the subject.

"Let's wait until you change, and then we can tell him," Tony suggested. "It'll go down easier that way."

"First of all, I'm not changing," Kate began.

"Tell me what?" Gibbs interrupted. He was glad to see he'd managed to sneak up on them all. Watching them jump never got old.

"Nothing," McGee squeaked out, sitting down at his desk, his fingers racing over the keyboard as if all the answers to life were there.

Gibbs' back was to Tony and Kate as he walked to his own desk, but he could imagine the silent battle between them as to who would do the honors. His money was on Tony. The younger man was more of a lion tamer than Kate would ever be.

"It's like this, boss," Tony said. Gibbs hid a grin.

He looked up impatiently. "Yeah?"

"The way we see it, this guy, while he's threatening us, is really after you. And whatever he tries, he's gonna do it near you so you can see it going down, and he can see your reaction."


Looking exasperated, Tony said, "So, this buddy thing goes for you, too."

"There's a flaw in your logic, DiNozzo," Gibbs snapped.

"How's that?"

"If he wants me to see something happen to one of you, then having one of you with me at all times makes it all a little too easy for him, don't you think?"

Tony winced and shot Kate a look. She sent one of her fierce do-something looks right back.

"We just don't think you should be alone," Tony said stubbornly.

Gibbs appreciated the sentiment, but he'd be damned if he'd let some nut job define his level of freedom. "Duly noted."

Tony frowned at him. It gave Gibbs some satisfaction that Tony knew him well enough to know Gibbs was blowing smoke up his ass. Then, deciding to thoroughly seize control of the reins again, Gibbs frowned back. "Is there a reason you two are still here?"

Kate shot out of her chair. "On our way."

Tony was moving, too, but he threw one last warning frown Gibbs' way. Gibbs was pretty sure if Kate and McGee hadn't been right there, Tony would have had a few choice words to share. Absurdly warmed by his concern, Gibbs forced his attention back to the files on his desk.

The next morning there was no letter. Gibbs wasn't sure how to feel about that. Tony and Kate came around the corner. "I'm telling you," Tony was whining, "if you'd worn something sexier, we might have gotten something."

"And I'm warning you--"

"Find out anything?" Gibbs said, forestalling any further bickering. If any two people who weren't siblings personified a sibling relationship, it would be these two. Not that Gibbs had any intention of being their honorary father. He'd pass that role onto Ducky.

"Nada," Tony said with an air of defeat.

"That's not exactly true," Kate said honestly.

Tony shot her an are-you-crazy look.

She shrugged.

Tony sighed. "Fine. We found out there're a lot of people who don't like you, boss, but it was just good old-fashioned pissiness," he explained. "'That Gibbs is a son of a bitch, Gibbs didn't show up the day they were handing out emotions, Gibbs would sell his grandmother if the price was--'"

"Tony," Kate hissed at him.

Stopping the negative comments mid-stream, Tony finished with: "That sort of stuff. We did find a few people who do like you, though."

Gibbs was more surprised by that. "You did?" He worked hard on his bastard image.

"I like you, boss," Tony said with one of his irrepressible grins.

Much to his dismay, Gibbs couldn't suppress a short half-laugh. "McGee?"

McGee looked out from behind his computer screen. "Yeah, boss."

"Find anything?"

"Not enough," McGee said unhappily. "I've eliminated all the Marines who have died, moved away from the area, or are on active duty away from D.C., and that still leaves close to a thousand possible suspects."

Gibbs' phone rang and he flipped it open. "Gibbs." He listened to the man on the other end of the line. "We'll be there in twenty." He stood. "Tony, gas the truck and bring it around. Kate, get Ducky. We got a dead body."

It took them less than a day to close the case. People who commited crimes of passion usually left plenty of clues behind and this was no exception. They'd left fingerprints, the murder weapon, and the victim's cell phone. By early afternoon the team had their suspect in the interrogation room. It took Gibbs eleven minutes to get a confession.

A job well done, Gibbs thought in satisfaction as he returned to his desk. The glow of victory was short lived; another plain white envelope awaited him. "Damn it." He'd hoped it was over. Hoped the sender had boxed himself into a corner by making threats that he had no intention of carrying out.

He glanced up casually, mentally crossing his fingers no one else had noticed, but Tony's eagle eyes were watching him. Damn the man and his 20/10 vision. Without saying a word, Gibbs got up and headed to Abby's lab, Tony right behind him.

It started with yet another crying quote:

"Let your tears come.  Let them water your soul." 

By Eileen Mayhew

Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs, I've been making a list.

Anthony DiNozzo

Donald Mallard

Timothy McGee

James Palmer

Abigail Sciuto

Caitlin Todd

Right now they're in alphabetical order. I'll be spending the rest of the day determining their proper order. And by order, I mean in terms of the likely probability of breaking you. I realize it's a flawed experiment, because if it takes three or four of them, I won't know if it's that particular one I've just gone after, or if it's the cumulative effect.

So do I start with the most important one first? The least important? Will the type of death matter?

You see? I have many things to consider.

Sweet Dreams, Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs.

"God damn it," Gibbs swore. When he'd seen Tony's name at the top of the list, his blood had run cold. The relief he'd felt when told they were in alphabetical order made him feel just as badly. He didn't want any of them to die, especially not on his behalf.

Knowing someone was out there, deciding which of his team to kill first, made Gibbs crazy. And whoever this person was, they'd been watching long enough to get the right names on the list. With the exception of Palmer. Not that Gibbs wished him any harm, but he hadn't worked here long enough for Gibbs to consider him part of the team.

If the nut job went for least important first, Palmer was at risk. If he went for most important first--Gibbs found himself glancing at Tony, only to find Tony's eyes on him once again. Gibbs didn't like to admit he had favorites, but Tony and Abby would be at the top of the list, Ducky a close third.

"How are we handling this?" Kate asked.

"I'm open to suggestions," Gibbs admitted. Keeping them all under lock and key would be his choice, but he doubted any of his team would agree.

"Get Ducky and Jimmy," Abby suggested. "They need to be in on this."

Gibbs nodded.

"I'll get them," McGee offered.

Abby methodically began testing the paper again, although Gibbs knew she wouldn't find anything. This nut job wanted to get his hands dirty and he wanted recognition; something as passive as poison wouldn't meet his needs. Gibbs slammed his hand down on the counter. Who the hell was it?

"Boss?" Tony asked.

"Who the hell is this guy?" Gibbs asked angrily.

"Are we sure it's a guy?" Kate asked.

"Yeah," Gibbs said. "I'm sure it's a guy."

Kate acknowledged his words with a nod. Gibbs was glad she didn't argue because he couldn't explain how he knew it was a guy, he just did.

"It's also possible that this is all posturing," Kate threw out. "Most threatening messages don't ever turn into a violent crime."

"You willing to take that chance?" Gibbs asked her. "Because I'm not."

"So, big slumber party here at NCIS?" Abby asked with a spin of her chair. "It'll be great. I can do Tony's nails."

"We could perm my hair, too," Tony said in mincing tones, drawing a grin from Abby.

Ducky chose that moment to walk in with McGee and Palmer. "I understand we're being threatened, Jethro," Ducky said. "Do you believe the threat is genuine?"

"Yes, I do," Gibbs replied. He gestured Ducky toward the letters he'd been receiving.

Ducky read over the four letters. "Most intriguing," he said pensively. "And I agree that extra precautions are in order." He looked at the fourth letter. "If he goes from least important to you to most, I'm afraid our young Mr. Palmer might be the first target."

Palmer looked understandably freaked, swallowing several times in succession. McGee patted him kindly on the upper back, but it didn't look like it helped.

"I know you despise talking about your feelings, Jethro," Ducky continued, "but who would you consider to be the most important? Because, according to this," he said, waving the last letter in his hand, "they could also be the first target. Forewarned is forearmed."

Gibbs forced himself not to look at anyone except Ducky. "I can't make that call."

"If you can't, then who can?" Ducky asked reasonably.

"I don't know what criteria he's using," Gibbs stated. "I've known you the longest, Ducky, so maybe he'll put you at the top of the list. Tony's stayed at my house for weeks at a time, so maybe he'll assume it's Tony. Abby and I have lunch together regularly. If he's thinking it's someone from my immediate team, he may think it's Tony, again, because he's worked with me the longest, or Kate because she's a woman."

"Hmm," Ducky said unhappily. "I see your point."

"We never did get to the post office yesterday, boss," Tony said. "Kate and I could go stake it out, talk to the clerks. I know it's a long shot, but--" He shrugged.

Gibbs didn't want to let any of them out of his sight. "I don't need to tell you to be careful, do I?" he snapped out.

Tony put a hand over his heart. "Boss, I knew you cared."

Gibbs smacked him on the back of his head.

Tony grinned at him.

Gibbs couldn't imagine not having him around. "Check in every hour."

Kate nodded seriously, and she and Tony left on their errand.

Gibbs turned to McGee, but before he could speak, McGee offered up a suggestion: "I'll go through the possible suspect list looking for someone that had something traumatic happen to them."

"Look for any dishonorable discharges," Gibbs added.

"On it, boss," McGee said, leaving the lab as well.

Abby stared at the letters, frustrated. "I don't know what to do, Gibbs," she said plaintively.

"There's nothing you can do until he makes a mistake, Abs," Gibbs said, annoyed as hell at the situation.

"I think perhaps I'll take Mr. Palmer home with me this evening," Ducky suggested.

"Have a Marine escort you to your front door," Gibbs said in a voice that didn't invite disagreement.

"You're really worried, aren't you?" Ducky said, his head cocked to the side. "Why? I know you've received threats before. What makes this one so different?"

Gibbs didn't have a good answer for that. "My gut," was all he said.

"A reliable prognosticator if I ever saw one," Ducky responded. "In the meantime, we've work yet to do downstairs," he said to Palmer.

Palmer looked sick to his stomach and Gibbs didn't blame him. It had taken Gibbs years to handle a death threat with equanimity. "You'll be fine," Gibbs said, hoping he sounded reassuring. Palmer nodded uneasily.

Gibbs cursed under his breath and headed back to his desk.

Everyone got home and back to work the next day without incident. Gibbs let out a breath of relief when Ducky and Palmer reported in. They had all gone home in pairs, McGee and Abby, Kate and Tony, Ducky and Palmer. Tony had wanted to include Gibbs in that, and while Gibbs would have willingly taken either Tony or Abby home with him, adding in the others was a little too much.

"Any problems?" he asked Tony.

"Nope," Kate said. "The post office was a bust."

"The place was a zoo," Tony added. "And when I asked the clerks if they'd seen anyone mailing a white envelope four days in a row, they laughed at us."

"They laughed at you," Kate corrected, as she sat at her desk, putting her purse away and booting up her computer.

Tony made a face at her, then moved closer to Gibbs where he sat at his desk. "Have any problems come up last night?" Tony asked him softly.


There were times, Gibbs thought, when he was almost certain Tony was coming on to him. It was hard to tell, because Tony came on to everyone. Male, female, young, old, it was like breathing to him. And Gibbs was only almost certain because he was relatively sure he hadn't sent any signals Tony's way, and he found it hard to believe that Tony would be foolhardy enough to come on to him without some encouragement, however vague.

On the other hand, it was possible that Tony had picked something up. Gibbs was good at hiding what he felt, but he wasn't perfect. There were the occasional smiles, and even rarer laughs, and the times when he found himself staring at Tony. The man was handsome, at times astonishingly so, and Gibbs did want him.

If there was anyone on the planet who could pick up such scant signals, it would be Tony. His flirting skills were preternatural; very few people were immune. Gibbs had observed people he would have bet money on being impervious, fall under Tony's spell. Even people who were shooting Tony down, eventually succumbed. It was as if Tony could sense any give at all, and he pushed and pushed on that spot until they caved.

Most people recovered quickly, common sense reasserting itself, choosing to label Tony exactly how he wanted to be labeled. Underestimating him. That was how Tony was most comfortable: being underestimated.

Gibbs knew better.


Gibbs blinked, realized he'd been staring at Tony while woolgathering. He could feel Kate and McGee's curious eyes on him. Great. Woolgathering about Tony. Probably putting out signals like mad. Signals that Tony would be soaking up like a dry sponge, to take advantage of at a later and more, or possibly less, appropriate time. "No, no problems," he said firmly.

Tony's lips were pursed as he studied Gibbs. Then, thankfully, he pointed to something on Gibbs' desk. "What's that?"

Gibbs followed Tony's gaze, expecting to see a white envelope waiting for him, but there wasn't one. Instead, there was a manila envelope, address written in the same hand as the other four. He held it up, felt its heft. There was more than a single sheet of paper inside.

"That from him?" Tony asked.

Deciding that was too obvious to answer, Gibbs glanced at McGee. "What'd you find?"

McGee frowned, clearly hating that he didn't have a definitive suspect to hand over. "When I ran a query of the list of possible suspects looking for dishonorable discharges, criminal activities, violent behavior, or any psychiatric disorders, I ended up with a list of twenty-three possibilities."

"Good, McGee," Tony said in his usual patronizing tone. "Keep doing work like this and we might even call you by your first name one day."

McGee flashed Tony a disgruntled look, but then nodded toward the plasma screen which was quickly populated by twenty-three pictures. Twelve of them were immediately crossed out with a large red X. "Twelve are dead. Six are in prison." Six more were crossed out. "Two are still on active duty overseas." Two more were crossed out, leaving three.

"And those three?" Gibbs asked, giving them a careful look.

McGee eliminated the twenty disqualified suspects, leaving three on the screen. "First one is Phil Pulowski, currently married and living in Fairfield, California, working as a garage mechanic."

"Has he been acting oddly?" Kate asked.

McGee shook his head. "Nothing out of the ordinary," he reported. "The second one is Andy Berte. Currently living in Denver, Colorado, accounting clerk. No unusual behavior, no missed work."

"And the last one?"

"Mitchell Abrams. Out on parole for child molestation. His parole officer says he shows up for all his appointments like clockwork. Says he's a real piece of work, but that he's only interested in kids as victims."

Tony winced. "Charming." He gestured toward the envelope. "You taking that to Abby?"

"You like sticking your nose into my business?" Gibbs snapped.

"Well, yeah," Tony answered, as if Gibbs were an idiot for asking. Then he grinned.

Sighing, Gibbs glanced at his team and decided it wasn't worth the effort to tell them to get back to work. They were a part of this whether he wanted them to be or not. "Come on," he grudgingly invited them. He wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or gratified they obeyed him so quickly.

This time there was a letter, short and to the point, and a photograph:

"Anger, tears and sadness are only for those who have given up." by Katie Gill

You recognize this picture, you goddamn son of a bitch?

I will break you, Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs.

The picture was of Gibbs, in dress uniform. Everything had been cropped away except for Gibbs, although it was obvious he was responding to something someone was saying to him. There was a half-smile on his face, and he looked vaguely amused, although distracted at the same time. Gibbs didn't recognize the picture, and couldn't recall the circumstances.

"Look familiar?" Abby asked.

"No," Gibbs said, his aggravation growing at the ongoing uselessness of what few clues they had.

"How long ago was this?" Tony asked, peering at the picture. "You look a lot younger."

Gibbs glared at Tony.

"Not that you don't look young now, boss," Tony said with a grin and a bat of his eyes. "You hardly look like you've aged a day if you don't count the gray hair and the lines around--"

"You're a beautiful man, Gibbs," Abby crooned, interrupting, with a stern look at Tony. "The gray hair just makes you look distinguished."

"I was just going to say that," Tony quipped. "Just this morning, I was saying to myself how beautiful you were."

Gibbs forced himself not to smile, concentrating on the picture instead. "It shouldn't be too hard to date this, based on the ribbon bars."

"You were already a gunnery sergeant," Tony observed.

"He doesn't want to give you anything to work with, does he?" Kate noted, scrutinizing the picture. "There's nothing else to see. I can't even tell where you are, can you?"

"Didn't wear the dress uniform that often," Gibbs replied. "Funerals, graduations, visiting dignitaries."

"If you get me the date range, boss," McGee said, "I'll do a search for events that happened during that time and maybe we can narrow our suspect list down."

"Start ten years ago and work backwards, until I come up with something more definite," Gibbs suggested.

Abby squinted at the picture. "I think I see something."

"Where?" Gibbs asked, looking over her shoulder.

"A reflection in that button, see it?"

Gibbs looked but didn't see anything. One of these days he really was going to have to get some glasses. "Make me a copy and then check it out."

She nodded, wheeling her way across her lab on her chair, delighted to actually have something to do.

"What should we do?" Kate asked.

"Help McGee," Gibbs told Kate. Looking at DiNozzo, he said, "You're with me."

Abby handed Gibbs a copy of the picture. He needed to get his file and start working out a time frame. Tony's eyes and sense of humor would make the tedious job go more quickly.

"Nineteen-eighty-eight to nineteen-ninety," Gibbs told McGee, ninety minutes later.

His phone rang. "Gibbs," he answered.

"Arlington Cemetery," Abby's voice said.

"Good work, Abs," Gibbs said and hung up. To McGee he said, "Probably a funeral. Arlington Cemetery."

With a satisfied quick smile, McGee's fingers flew over the keyboard.

Tony was frowning.

"What?" Gibbs said.

"Even if we figure out what day this was," he said, tapping the picture, "how does that help? I'm thinking it's probably not the dead guy coming after you."

"Could be a family member, or someone else who attended the funeral," Kate said. "Someone in the dead man's squadron, maybe?"

"Why were you smiling?" Tony asked Gibbs, staring intently at the picture. "You barely smile at my jokes. What were you doing smiling at a funeral?"

"How the hell should I know, DiNozzo? What were you smiling about seventeen years ago?"

Tony squinted at the picture some more. "Not that you're really smiling. That's more your I-wish-you'd-shut-up-and-go-away wince."

Rolling his eyes, Gibbs got up and headed for Abby's lab to see what she'd come up with.

It was definitely Arlington Cemetery. Abby had also managed to isolate the reflections of the heads of two attendees, but the pictures were too distorted for Gibbs to recognize either one of them. He went back to his desk to find that his team had narrowed it down to sixteen funerals that had occurred over the span of two years. Gibbs recognized all the names, but none of them stood out in his memory as possible red flags. Tony, Kate and McGee were busy tracking down family members and looking for photos of the funerals in hopes of matching the blurry faces Abby had isolated.

His phone rang. "Gibbs." He listened to the voice on the other end. "Where?" He stood up, moving to the map of Fairfax, tapping it. "Got it. We'll be there in twenty." He stood. "Explosion, Marine barracks, Quantico."

"Anybody hurt?" Kate asked.

"Don't know."

"Do we want Ducky?" Tony inquired, putting on his jacket, holstering his pistol.

"Not until we know what we're dealing with," Gibbs said.

There was a dead body, or what was left of it. Gibbs called Ducky and asked him to join them. A few minutes later he cursed and called Ducky back.

"Yes, Jethro?"

"Maybe you should leave Palmer out of this," Gibbs suggested. No point bringing Palmer out in public unnecessarily.

"I suggested that," Ducky said dryly, "but he insisted on coming. We'll be there shortly."

Gibbs hung up. "Look sharp," he called out to his team. "Palmer's coming, too."

Tony handed the camera to Kate and rooted through his back pack, bringing out a pair of binoculars. He started scanning in a circle, looking for anything unusual. When he was facing north, about halfway around, he came to a stop.

"Find something?" Gibbs asked.

"A glint of something," Tony said, continuing his circle, as if disinterested in whatever he'd seen. "Could be a rifle."

The medical examiner truck pulled up. Gibbs moved to the truck, keeping himself between the trees and the passenger side. "Stay in the truck, Palmer."

It was a shot in a thousand. It wasn't until blood spray hit his face that Gibbs heard the gunshot. The bastard shot from an unexpected direction, not from the trees, but from a rooftop. Tony and Kate took off in that direction, guns drawn, while McGee started snapping pictures in hopes of catching something.

Gibbs' attention was all on Palmer. He was alive, groaning and cursing a blue streak that impressed Gibbs. He'd never have guessed Palmer had it in him. It was a shoulder shot; a deliberate shot, because the shooter could have killed him easily. Gibbs yelled at the CO on site, "Call for an ambulance and another ME." Peering through the window, he saw Ducky staring at Palmer in horror. "Ducky, you gonna be able to hold it together?" he snapped.

Ducky blew out a breath and nodded, visibly pulling himself together. "Yes, yes, of course, Jethro. I'll attend to my young friend here; you do what you have to do." He grabbed a towel from the back and began to apply pressure, brushing broken glass off of Palmer.

Gibbs gestured for a couple of Marines to help move Palmer to the back of the truck where Ducky could take better care of his wound. Other Marines stood on guard, forming a phalanx between the truck and anyone who might think of taking another shot.

Gibbs was grinding his jaw hard enough to ache. The threats had become real. And the nut job had decided to start with the least important first, which meant McGee would probably be next. It was possible all bets were off, as their suspect had already broken his own rules by only wounding Palmer instead of killing him, but it was best to be safe. "McGee," he yelled.

McGee spun around. "Yeah, boss?"

"Get out of the open," Gibbs commanded.

It only took a second, but McGee was a smart kid. His face blanched, and he sprinted for the far side of the truck.

The ambulance left to take Palmer to the hospital just about the same time as the second ME arrived, getting Ducky off the hook for the burn victim. Gibbs sent him and McGee back to NCIS.

Tony and Kate returned with nothing, both of them distressed about it. "Sorry, boss," Tony said. "No casings, too many footprints, can't really even tell where he took the shot from without a ballistics report." Looking toward the trees, he added, "I'm gonna go take a look over there."

"Start canvassing," Gibbs told Kate, nodding permission at Tony, who took off at a slow trot. "Someone had to have seen something."

Small notebook in hand, Kate headed toward the nearest group of Marines. Thinking of something, Gibbs called McGee back at the office.

"Yeah, boss," the young man's slightly shaky voice came over the phone.

"Add sharpshooter to the mix," Gibbs said.

"On it."

Gibbs hung up, frustrated as hell that he had no idea who was going after his team. And while Gibbs was grateful Palmer had only been wounded, Gibbs still couldn't wait to take the bastard down.

Tony came back with a small reflective mirror that had been planted in the copse of trees as a feint. There were no visible fingerprints, and it was a mirror sold in any hardware store across the country.

Teeth clenched, Gibbs got in the car, impatiently waiting for his team. Nothing. An explosion with a dead body, and they had nothing.

Back at the office now, Kate was weeding a notebook full of conflicting stories that was getting them exactly nowhere. Tall, short, heavy, thin, carrying a briefcase, carrying nothing, in a suit, in casual khakis. She kept looking, hoping she'd find a trend, something other than the fact that the entire Marine Corp needed to develop better observation skills.

McGee was pulling files on the sixteen funerals for Gibbs to go through.

Abby was working on the sparse evidence they'd found at the explosion site. Basic accelerant, nothing fancy, but it did a thorough job.

Palmer was out of surgery and would recover, but he'd be out of commission for a month or so.

"Weird that both of Ducky's assistants were shot in the shoulder," Tony observed.

Gibbs had just been thinking that. "You out of things to do?" he asked with a scowl.

Tony started walking backwards to his desk. "Nope. Forget I was even here." He sat down and focused on his computer.

Gibbs needed to do something. "You got any of those files pulled together?" he asked McGee. McGee was on the phone but he nodded and handed him three files over his computer. Gibbs took them. "DiNozzo." He wanted Tony and the screwy way he was able to put things together.

Tony jumped up like his chair was spring loaded and, holding two files of his own, followed Gibbs into the closest conference room.

"Funeral number one was for Mark Cohen," Tony read. "Committed suicide." He held the picture up. "Look familiar?" It was a young man, face pocked with acne scars, buzz cut, wearing an enlisted man's Marine uniform.

Gibbs took the picture. "Not really. Did he leave a note?"

Tony flipped through the file. "Who would have gone through his things?"

"His CO wherever he was stationed."

"He went to Quantico. Vehicle repair. There's nothing in here about his effects."


"Mother deceased last year. Father, also Mark Cohen, has apparently been out of the picture since a divorce when Mark Junior was fourteen. I'm still trying to track him down. Do you have any idea how many Mark Cohens there are?" Tony asked with a hint of whine. "Do they bury suicides at Arlington? Wouldn't he get a posthumous dishonorable discharge?"

"Not necessarily," Gibbs said. "There'd be a court review to determine if there was a psychiatric disorder. If he was buried at Arlington, they decided he was mentally ill and found in his favor."

"As opposed to being mentally stable and killing yourself?" Tony asked skeptically.

"Next file."

Tony obediently pulled the next one. "Peter Rogers. Died at sea. Accident. Honorable discharge." He held up the picture.

Gibbs vaguely remembered this one. Remembered being saddened at his death, particularly since it had been the result of an accident. "Family?"

"Parents live in Toledo, two other kids. No evidence of insanity. Neither parent was military and neither belong to the NRA."


"Gregory Paulovitch, died at sea during the Gulf War. Honorable discharge." He handed Gibbs the picture.

McGee burst through the door and handed Gibbs a file. "Rodney Johnson, died on the Samuel B. Roberts when it struck an M-08 mine in the central gulf." He drew in a breath and announced, "His father was a Marine sniper."

"Where is he?" Gibbs snapped out.

"I'm searching for him now," McGee assured him.

"By standing here?"

"Well, uh, no, I mean, yes, the computer is searching while I'm standing here. Boss," McGee added nervously.

"And is your computer going to come in here and let you know when it's found something?" Tony asked with a smirk.

McGee sprinted back to his computer.

Tony grinned, but then frowned. "I still don't get it. What did you have to do with Rodney's death? And even if you did have something to do with it, why snap now, almost two decades later?"

Gibbs didn't have an answer. He left the conference room and stalked to McGee's desk. "Find him?"

"Yes," McGee said. "He's living in D.C., working as an--" He frowned. "He's an attorney, working for Amnesty International."

"Should I go pick him up?" Tony asked, reaching for his jacket.

It didn't feel right. Gibbs opened his desk drawer and removed his gun. "Let's go pay him a visit." Holstering his weapon, he said to McGee, "Don't leave the building until I call you."

"What am I doing?" Kate asked, looking like she was dying for an excuse to get away from her phone and computer.

"Keep checking the rest of those names," Gibbs called back.

Behind him, he heard McGee say despondently, "Damn, he doesn't think Johnson's his guy, does he?"

He lost Kate's response in the ding of the arriving elevator.

Randall Jackson, Senior, Esquire, was not their letter writer. He had an iron-clad alibi for the day's shooting, and Gibbs would have bet money he wasn't lying when he told Gibbs that his son had spoken highly of him.

Which left them back at square one.

"Where we going?" Tony asked, fingers white-knuckled on the dashboard as Gibbs took a fast right-hand turn.

"To go see Palmer. Call McGee and tell him he needs to keep looking for our suspect, and remind him he's probably next on the list."

Tony got out his phone and called McGee. "Boss says Johnson isn't our guy, so keep looking. And lay low, buddy, if you know what I mean. You wanna spend the night at my place, just let me know."

Typical Tony, Gibbs thought with a small grin. He treated McGee like dirt a good deal of the time, but was first in line to help when things get tough.

There was a brief pause as McGee answered. Tony grinned. "You dog, you." He laughed and hung up.

"What?" Gibbs asked.

"Slumber party at Kate's. Abby and McGee are staying there tonight. We're invited if we want to join in the fun." Tony waggled his eyebrows at Gibbs.

"You gonna go?" Gibbs asked.

"Nah, I think I'm staying at your house tonight," Tony announced casually.

That worked for Gibbs. He pulled into the hospital parking lot and started looking for a space.

Gibbs and Tony both flipped their phones shut. Everyone was accounted for and, hopefully, out of harm's way for the evening. Everyone had their curtains shut, had no intention of opening doors for any reason, and weren't planning on running any late evening errands.

As Gibbs made one more phone call, Tony pointed out, "You're breaking your own rules."

"I'm allowed to break my own rules," Gibbs said, hanging up after ordering pizza. "Just let me answer the door."

"You think I could be next?" Tony asked, surprised. "I thought McGee was next."

"No one is next," Gibbs said angrily.

"Right. Sorry, boss. But--"

"I'm not really in a mood to trust this guy," Gibbs said. "He's already changed the rules by not killing Palmer. I don't know who he's watching."

"But if he's doing it in the order he said?" Tony asked. "Not that anything's going to happen to anybody else," he added in a placating tone, as Gibbs glared at him.

Gibbs wasn't an idiot. He knew how much Tony wanted to be his favorite. He knew how much it drove Tony crazy when Gibbs made it seem that anyone else held that coveted spot. It was a difficult balance to maintain, reassuring Tony without giving him too much ammunition to hold over Kate and McGee.

And right now, despite the weird and deadly circumstances, it mattered to Tony where he fell in pecking order risk. Gibbs didn't mind telling him. He needed someone in the loop, and besides, Gibbs didn't think Tony would use this information against McGee or Kate. Tony might be a master at sibling torment, but when it came to the safety of his cohorts, he didn't fool around.

"If he does it in the order he said," Gibbs said, "and if he guesses right, like I said earlier, it would be McGee next."

"And then who?"

Without hesitation, Gibbs said, "Kate."

Tony's eyebrows went up, and Gibbs watched a look of victory cross Tony's face, followed immediately by remorse and a wince.

"That's if he's got the order right," Gibbs warned. "Like I told Ducky, I don't know what criteria he's using." It made him furious to be played like this.

"Who's last on your list?" Tony asked. "Abby?"

Gibbs could tell by the note in Tony's voice that this question wasn't fueled by insecurity. Winning over Kate was obviously enough. Tony was just being thorough now, doing his own brand of connecting the dots.

"I don't know," Gibbs said honestly.

Tony looked surprised by that. "Abby or Ducky?"

"Or you," Gibbs admitted.

Tony looked momentarily stunned. Then he beamed at Gibbs, one of his more brilliant smiles. "I'm in good company."

"The best," Gibbs agreed. "And nothing is going to happen to any of them. Or to you."

"Or to you," Tony said just as fiercely.

He and Tony stared at each other for a long moment. It brought to mind one of Gibbs' grandmother's favorite words. Fraught. It was a moment fraught with, well, with a hell of a lot. Just when Gibbs was thinking the staring was leaving fraught territory and maybe moving into blatant, the door bell rang.

Tony blinked and started to get up from where he was sprawled on the couch.

Gibbs, who wasn't sprawled to quite Tony's extent, stood faster. "I'll get it."

"This was stupid," Tony complained, getting to his feet. "We should have eaten whatever you had on hand."

"Rotten apples and beer?" Gibbs suggested wryly, pulling out his wallet. He moved to the door and called, "Who is it?"

"Round Table," a young man's voice answered.

Gun drawn, Tony looked through the peephole. "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…" he said.

"It's probably a duck," Gibbs said, but he didn't object when Tony moved to the side of the door, gun still in hand. Gibbs took the precaution of standing to the other side of the door, out of gunshot range. Tony reached across and opened the door.

Gibbs grabbed the kid's arm and yanked him into the house.

"Mosquitoes," Tony explained at the startled look on the young man's face. He kicked the door shut, his gun hidden behind his back. He smiled at the nervous kid. "Hey. Smells good."

The kid smiled back; apparently even pizza delivery boys were unable to resist a DiNozzo grin. "Hey," he said in return. He turned to Gibbs. "That'll be $20.11."

Gibbs pulled out twenty-five dollars from his wallet. "Here. Keep the change."

"Thanks," the kid said, smiling more genuinely. He slid the pizza out from its heated container. On top of the pizza box was a manila envelope. "Oh, and this guy outside asked me to give this to you."

"What guy?" Gibbs asked guardedly, taking the pizza and tossing it on the couch.

Tony's gun was out in full view as he cautiously moved the curtain just enough to peer out.

"What guy?" Gibbs barked again, yanking out his badge and showing it to the kid, who looked like he was about to either faint or make a dash for it.

"Uh, just, uh, just a guy," the kid stammered.

Tony put a hand up to stop Gibbs from saying anything else. "Gibbs. Maybe I should do this. You're gonna give him nightmares." Without waiting for permission, Tony focused the kid's attention on him. "We're cops. We're the good guys. That man out there who gave you this? Not a good guy. We need to know what he looked like."

"I gotta finish my deliveries," the kid protested.

"Wanna bet?" Gibbs said snidely.

"Gibbs," Tony said sternly. "Call the pizza shop. Tell them what's going on."

Gibbs tended to be resistant to obeying any orders, but Tony was probably the better choice for this particular interrogation. Flipping open his phone, he called Round Table.

It had taken a while, but Tony managed to get enough information from the kid to do a reasonable sketch. The man had been dressed in black, so that didn't help and, unfortunately, hadn't had any truly notable features. A huge bulls-eye tattoo on his head would have made it easier to pick him out of a crowd, as well as provide Gibbs a good target when he shot the bastard.

"No, no obvious accent," Tony was saying to Kate, as Gibbs listened, growing more and more aggravated as the cops outside reported in, one after another, that they'd come up empty-handed in their search. Gibbs wanted to be out there looking. If he had been home alone he would be out there, but Tony had threatened to handcuff him to the bed--a statement that elicited various reactions from Gibbs, not all of them unpleasant.

"The cops aren't finding anyone," Tony said, continuing his one-sided conversation, filling Kate in. "But he was definitely here. Creepy."

Whatever Kate's next question was, it made Tony's eyes flit to the still-unopened envelope. "No, we haven't opened it yet. We'll bring it in."

Rolling his eyes, Gibbs pulled his knife out of his pocket and slit the envelope open. "Now we have," Gibbs said, unwilling to wait. He ignored the glare of death from Tony.

"My mistake," Tony drawled. "It accidentally slit itself open." He held the phone away from his ear as Kate yelled. When the tirade was over, Tony gingerly returned the phone to his ear. "Wanna tell that to Gibbs?" A pause. "Yeah, yeah, your lips to God's ears."

Gibbs took the envelope into the kitchen. The light was brightest there. Tony followed him in, still talking to Kate. Or Gibbs assumed it was Kate. Abby might be yelling at Tony now. He slid the contents--a stack of photos and another letter--out onto the counter.

Gibbs grew grim as he laid the pictures out side by side. They were of every one of his team, including Ducky and Palmer, all entering their respective homes. Gibbs already knew the man was in possession of a lot of information, but it was disconcerting to see proof that he knew where all of them lived, that he'd been close enough to shoot them any time he wanted to.

"There are pictures of all of us," Tony said into the phone. "At our homes."

Gibbs wanted Tony's full attention. He took the phone from him and said into it: "He'll call you back." He hung up and handed the phone back to Tony.

Tony frowned, but put the phone down on the counter away from the pictures. "Making a none-too-subtle point?" he asked, gesturing at the photos.

"Yeah," Gibbs said shortly.

"So why bother with this afternoon's elaborate set up if he could have shot Jimmy at home?" Tony asked. His fingers adjusted two close-up photos of Gibbs' face right after Palmer had been shot. Gibbs looked pissed.

"He wanted me there," Gibbs growled. "And we still haven't proved he rigged the explosion."

"We haven't discovered any other motive, and this guy's a sick fuck," Tony announced.

"Tell me something I don't know." Gibbs turned his attention to the letter, once again typed.

"The one who loves you will make you weep."

That's an Argentine proverb, Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs.

You were supposed to protect Jimmy Palmer. I gave you full warning, and you still failed.

And you didn't cry. Perhaps I should have killed him after all. But I decided to match the injury to your attachment to them. Mr. Palmer will be the luckiest one.

Based on these photos, if I had to identify the primary emotion you were feeling when the bullet tore into Jimmy Palmer's shoulder, I would say you were angry.

I suspect you'll be angrier in the days ahead.

Gibbs picked up the nearest heavy container, which happened to be an empty flour glass canister, and heaved it against the far kitchen wall. It made a satisfyingly loud crunch and shattered into several large pieces. "Fuck," he said in a rage.

He reached for something else to throw and found Tony handing him the other canister with a, "Here, boss."

This one made a loud thunk as it hit the wall, falling to the floor whole, denying Gibbs the satisfaction of its demise.

"You want something else?" Tony asked as he opened up the pantry door and pulled out a couple cans of soup.

"You think this is funny?" Gibbs yelled at him, taking insult at Tony's handling.

"Yeah," Tony said sarcastically. "Yeah, I think it's funny that Jimmy got shot today, and that McGee's next in line, and that all of the people in the world who matter most to me are being threatened. Yeah, real funny."

Gibbs shut his eyes for a moment, pulling in a deep breath.

"I just think," Tony said, more calmly, "that only one of us should be flipping out at a time. Right now, it's your turn." He tossed Gibbs a can of soup. "So have at it."

Gibbs gripped the can tightly enough to make his fingers cramp. Despite an urge to throw the damn thing at Tony, he was grateful the man was here. Tony could defuse him better than anyone Gibbs had ever met. "I'm done," he said to Tony. "You want a turn?" He threw the can back.

Tony caught it, shook his head, and put both cans back on the shelf. "I'll save them for later."

"Call Kate and fill her in," Gibbs ordered. "I'll be downstairs." He needed to fuck or he needed to work on his boat. Working on his boat was a lot less complicated. Maybe not as much fun, but he didn't really feel like having fun right now.

"How about the pizza?" Tony asked.

"Fuck the pizza," Gibbs said, moving toward the basement door.

He heard Tony mutter, "And I thought coming over here was a good idea, why?"

Despite how pissed he still was, Gibbs found himself grinning as he headed down the stairs.

"How's Palmer?" Gibbs asked Ducky, as they all gathered in Abby's lab the next morning. He relaxed incrementally when everyone arrived safe and sound. Given the shadows under everyone's eyes, it didn't look as if anyone had slept well.

"As well as can be expected, poor boy," Ducky said. "He'll be in hospital for two more days, at least."

"At least he's alive," Tony offered unhelpfully.

Gibbs smacked the back of his head.

"Ow," Tony complained. "Well, he is," he protested. "The guy said he was going to kill us."

"What do we know?" Gibbs snapped out.

"According to the ballistics report, the shot came from here," Abby said, showing a mock-up of the Quantico Marine base on the plasma screen. A caricature of a man, more closely resembling the creature from the black lagoon, marked the spot. "The guy moves fast," she added. The creature scuttled from the roof to the ground and then vanished in a superman blur. Abby grinned at her creation. "Really fast. He got off the roof, managed to take photos of you, and get away without being seen."

"Tennant's team scoured the place," Kate said, picking up the narrative, "and while they found the spot he took the shot from, he didn't leave anything behind. No prints, no casings, nothing."

The sketch Tony had drawn last night showed up on the screen. "I tried to run this sketch through the picture database," McGee said, "but there weren't enough details to match with anyone."


Sixteen pictures appeared on the screen. "These are the funerals you went to, boss," Tony said. "Thirteen of them have surviving family. Five of them have someone in the family with a sharpshooter connection."

Eight of the faces disappeared, leaving five behind. This one," Tony pointed toward a swarthy Hispanic, "had an older brother who was actually on the United States rifle team for the 1992 Olympics. He didn't make it to the finals."

"Where is he now?" Gibbs asked.

"Spokane," McGee answered. "He runs a YMCA." He flipped through his small notebook. "Yesterday he was coaching a baseball game."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "So every suspect we have so far is a humanitarian?" He jabbed his finger at the screen. "Keep going."

Tony pointed at the last man on the bottom row. "This guy's name was Robert Kincaide. Looks like everyone in the family's a card carrying member of the NRA. I've tracked down both his parents and one of his brothers. Dad's dead, mom's in a nursing home on oxygen. The one brother I found is camping, believe it or not, with his Boy Scout troop. And, yes, I have someone checking that out."

"Other siblings?"

"One brother and two sisters. I've got their numbers and addresses. They all live in Tennessee. No one's answering their phones. I've got LEO checking them out."

Kate highlighted another man. "Phil Broward. Marine family from great-grandfather on down."

"Yeah, I remember," Gibbs said, taking a step closer to the plasma screen to peer at the man. "Sniper. All of them. Good ones."

"Father and grandfather're dead," Kate continued. "Two brothers still serving, both accounted for by their COs."

Tony highlighted the only Asian man in the group. "John Li," he identified. "Has a brother in prison for a gang-related shooting. He's not even up for parole for another three years."

"And, we already checked out Rodney Johnson yesterday," McGee said, finishing things off.

"So we have nothing," Gibbs said in a flat tone.

Silence permeated the room.

When it became acutely uncomfortable, Ducky said, "Did any of these five young men die in a manner that would elicit a need for revenge on his family's behalf?"

There was another uncomfortable silence. Tony cleared his throat. "We're still looking, but we haven't found anything yet."

"Put them all back up," Gibbs ordered.

Sixteen faces appeared. "The answer's here, people. Maybe it's not family. Maybe it's a friend, a fellow Marine, a goddamn pen pal. Find it." He glared at them all. "If there's leg work to be done, I do it. Or I'll get another team to do it. No one leaves here and no one goes anywhere alone."

"Nowhere?" Tony asked, leering at Kate.

"Forget it, Tony," Kate said. "If I need company when I use the restroom, believe me, it won't be you."

Tony snapped his fingers in mock disappointment, then looked hopefully at Abby.

She grinned at him. "You can come with me, Tony."

"Thanks, Abs." He grinned back.

Gibbs glowered. "Are we done having a good time, now?"

He was met with several voices saying, "Yes, boss," and Kate, McGee and Tony scattered. Abby went to work on the photos that had been delivered last night in hopes of picking up another reflection.

"Abs?" Gibbs said.

"Yeah?" she replied absentmindedly, peering through a magnifying glass.

"You get a guard. So does Ducky."

"Okay," she said, still distracted.

"I hardly think that's necessary," Ducky protested.

"Remember Ari?" Gibbs said sharply.

"It's highly unlikely I'll ever forget him," Ducky said indignantly, "but your point's taken. Where is the unfortunate fellow who'll be keeping me company?"

Gibbs pointed at the door. "Right outside the door." He whistled and the door opened, revealing two spit-and-polish Marines.

"I want the cute one," Abby whispered in Gibbs' ear.

Looking over the two men, Gibbs wasn't sure he could pick out Abby's version of cute. "Guy on the left?" he said out of the corner of his mouth.

"As if," Abby said condescendingly. She winked at the guy on the right.

Gibbs motioned the Marine on the right over. When he was standing in front of them, Gibbs leaned forward. "Anything happens to her, you'll wish you'd never seen my face."

The Marine never blinked an eye.

Gibbs patted him on the arm. "Good man."

He assigned the other Marine to Ducky. "Try not to wear him out with your stories, Ducky," Gibbs said.

"Actually," Ducky said to the Marine, "this situation reminds me of the time when one of my classmates--"

The door closed behind Ducky and his hapless Marine, cutting off the story. Abby grinned at Gibbs, and Gibbs frowned, pointing at the photos. "Get busy."

Pouting a little, but then grinning again, Abby went back to her pictures. Deciding that was his cue to leave, Gibbs headed back to his desk.

Gibbs knew the Director was funneling cases to the other NCIS teams so Gibbs and his team could focus on their nut job. Even though Gibbs was appreciative, it also frustrated him because he wanted a case he could wrap his arms around and solve. He also knew his team was the best, and he didn't want any crime getting short shrift because his team was too busy to take a call.

Mid- afternoon, a call came in when no other teams were available. Gibbs flipped his phone shut. "They found something by the Anacostia."

"A body?" Tony asked, opening his desk drawer, pulling out his weapon.

As Kate and McGee made to retrieve their weapons as well, Gibbs shook his head at McGee. "You're not going."

McGee opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, then said, "If you keep hiding me, he might decide to take someone else down."

"Or you could walk outside," Gibbs countered, "and this asshole could blow your head off."

McGee swallowed nervously. "I, uh, I suppose that's possible."

"I don't think that image was clear enough, boss," Tony said with one of his someone-please-put-some-Prozac-in-the-boss'-coffee looks.

McGee squared his shoulders. "I can't stay here forever."

"You're not going," Gibbs said implacably. Maybe it was true McGee couldn't stay here forever, but he could stay here long enough to give them time to find the maniac threatening them.

"And don't go anywhere alone," Tony threw in.

McGee narrowed his eyes at Tony.

"Especially to go after a cat," Tony added.

"What?" McGee said in exasperation.

"Alien?" Tony said as if that explained everything.

McGee flashed Tony a polite version of 'what the fuck' and turned to Gibbs. "Whoever this is could get in here," McGee said stubbornly.

"Are you arguing with me?" Gibbs asked coldly.

"Uh, yeah," McGee said with a wince.

"He won't come here," Gibbs said firmly, "if I'm not here. He wants to see me react."

McGee couldn't argue with that, although he looked like he wanted to. Not that it mattered; Gibbs was done arguing. He glared at Tony. "Are you out front ready to pick us up?"

"Is that a trick question?" Tony called over his shoulder as he sprinted for the elevator.

"Do you think he was just waiting around until all the other teams were busy and then set this up?" Tony asked once they were at the river. "And if so, who the hell is this guy that he knows all this stuff?" he added in a pique, as if the maniac's skill was somehow a slur on Tony's.

Gibbs understood Tony's pique. This nut job was making Gibbs feel like an amateur.

"I don't like this," Tony continued as he started taking pictures. "He had to know we wouldn't bring whoever you thought he'd go after next."

Gibbs didn't like it, either. Some jogger on the beach had found a bloody uniform, lieutenant junior grade, and called it in. No body, just the uniform. No name tag. Nothing but a sinking feeling in Gibbs' stomach. Had he guessed wrong? Was the nut job right now focusing his weapon on Tony or Kate? "We ready to bag it?" he asked Kate, wanting to get them both out of harm's way.

She nodded, folding the uniform neatly, then slipping it into a plastic bag and zipping it shut.

Gibbs could feel the danger; it was so palpable he could almost reach out and touch it, but he couldn't find the source. "Get in the car, both of you," he snapped out.

They both shot him a surprised look, but did as told, scrambling for the car.

"Wait," he yelled.

They both stopped up short, looking at him, waiting for an explanation.

Gibbs didn't like being paranoid, but it was possible someone had gotten to the vehicle while they'd been at the crime scene.

"What's up, boss?" Tony called.

"I don't know if the car's clean," he admitted, angry with himself for not guarding their vehicle better. He could just imagine the look on his face if the car had blown up with Tony and Kate in it. He didn't even want to think about it. Choosing a LEO vehicle randomly, he commandeered a ride for himself and his team back to NCIS. He'd have someone else return for their car.

The expression on Tony's face made it clear that he thought Gibbs was crazy, but he and Kate got in the cop car without comment, something Gibbs was grateful for. As the car pulled out, Gibbs stared out the window, knowing they were being watched.

"Was he testing you?" Tony asked when they arrived back at NCIS. "Trying to see who you left behind?"

"Probably," Gibbs grunted. If the nut job had had any doubt as to who to go after next, Gibbs had just handed him his answer on a silver platter. Gibbs hated being out-maneuvered with a passion.

He checked his desk for further envelopes, but there was nothing. Tempted to sweep everything off its surface in a display of anger, Gibbs instead spun around and headed to MTAC to update the Director.

It was Friday, and at Gibbs insistence, everyone had stayed around the clock the last two days, and it was showing on their faces. They were tired. He was tired. There'd been no further communication from their stalker, and Gibbs knew he couldn't keep them all there over the weekend and have a viable team come Monday.

"Everyone go home," he suddenly announced. "But I don't want anyone alone. So either pick a buddy, or you get a guard." Ducky had already chosen a guard, feeling the need for some privacy this weekend.

"I choose you as my buddy, Gibbs," Abby said.

Gibbs glanced at Tony. "You want to stay, too?"

Tony hesitated for a moment, but then shook his head. "No, I'll take a guard. I need to go home for a while."

Gibbs frowned at the unwanted answer. He'd work on Tony later. He turned his attention to Kate. She, in turn, looked at McGee. "Want some company?"

"Sure," he said easily.

And that was that. Gibbs wished he felt better about the whole thing. "Kate, what's your take on this guy now?"

"Actually, the fact we haven't heard from him probably makes him even more of a serious threat. He's laying low, waiting for his opportunity," she said with confidence. "Although, it doesn't mean he won't change the rules. He wants to shake you up," she added to Gibbs. "He could go after any of us if it will get him closer to his goal."

"Of breaking Gibbs?" Tony asked incredulously. "Not gonna happen."

"Everybody can be broken," Gibbs said firmly. "Everybody." He was glad his team thought he was tough, but Gibbs knew that every person had a breaking point. In his lifetime, Gibbs had reached that point a couple of times. He fully believed it was because he had been broken that kept him so strong now. Because once you've been there, you never want to go there again.

"He knows where we live, so he probably has some idea of our routines," Kate counseled everyone. "Leave from a different exit, drive home by different routes, and don't go to the same stores you usually go to."

"He'll only be able to watch one of our places," Gibbs said, "so keep sharp, and if you think he's watching you, let the rest of us know." He turned to Abby. "Being with me puts you at highest risk. You sure you want to come over?"

"You'll keep me safe," Abby said with absolute surety in her voice. "You always do."

Gibbs appreciated the sentiment and hoped to hell it was true.

Abby was asleep in the guest bedroom, and Gibbs went around making sure the doors were locked and to set the alarm. Normally he didn't bother, but tonight he wasn't taking any chances with Abby's safety. He sat on the couch and picked up his phone only to set it back down. He'd already checked in with everyone twice. There was no need to do it again--except that he wanted to.

Besides, he'd be the first to know if something went wrong.

He couldn't help it; he picked the phone up. Then, angrily, put it back down again. Gibbs knew he was being played. Knew this anxiety was just want the asshole wanted.

He resisted a whole ten seconds, maybe eleven, before grabbing the phone one more time and hitting one of his speed dials.

"DiNozzo," Tony answered. "Boss, that you again?"


There was a moment of silence. "Want me to come over? Need more of your chicks close to hand?"

Gibbs sighed. "Yeah."

"I'll pack a few things, be there in thirty."

"Be careful."

"I will. Need anything?"

"Just you," Gibbs said without thinking how that would sound. Once the words were out of his mouth, he realized how true they were. He let them stand.

There was another, longer, moment of silence. Then, teasing, "Aw, boss, I'm having a Sally Field moment here."

"Get your ass over here." Gibbs winced at the second unintended double-entendre.

Tony cleared his throat. "Should I pick up some lube, or anything?"

"Shut up, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, fighting back a grin, and hung up.

Twenty-five minutes later, Gibbs heard Tony pull into the driveway. From the house, Gibbs opened the garage door, hoping Tony would take the hint. He did, easing the car into the garage next to Gibbs' vehicle. Gibbs shut the garage door and opened the door from the house into the garage to greet Tony.

"Nice," Tony said, as he got out of his car. "You can operate the garage door from inside the house?"

"Yeah. I installed it that way."

Tony grabbed his overnight bag from the back seat. "Where's Abby?"

"Asleep." Gibbs stepped back so Tony could enter the house before him. "You eat?"

"You're not planning on ordering pizza, are you?" Tony asked with a wry grin.

"No. I shopped."

"I'm always hungry," Tony said.

"I know," Gibbs said with a lopsided grin. They moved into the kitchen and Gibbs watched as Tony helped himself to snacks from the pantry. He was surprised how little it bothered him considering he was usually territorial about his space. Tony and Abby were probably the only two people in the world who could mess with his stuff without raising his hackles.

"You want something?" Tony asked, his body now wedged between the refrigerator door and its contents.

"Always the consummate host," Gibbs said dryly.

Tony managed to grin and look shamefaced at the same time. "I try," he said dramatically. "Want a beer?"

Gibbs nodded, feeling something inside him relax having Tony here. Tony and Abby. The way he felt having them both in his home told Gibbs that it was these two he had to protect at all costs. "Next time you're home," Gibbs said to Tony, "pack a bigger bag. I want you moving in for the duration."

Tony handed him a beer and leaned against the kitchen counter. Gibbs was subjected to some serious scrutiny. Then, with a nod, he simply said, "Okay, boss." Then Tony grinned mischievously. "I'll need a bigger tube of K-Y, though."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "You still using that stuff, DiNozzo? There are better things on the market, you know."

That got a delighted grin.

For a breath-stealing erotic moment, Gibbs saw himself slicking up his cock, sliding into Tony, watching that grin turn into a gasped moan of desire. Just the thought of it made his groin heavy. His gaze locked with Tony's. Slightly shocked, but then again, not at all, Gibbs watched as Tony's eyes darkened, his nostrils slightly flaring as if he could smell Gibbs' arousal.

Tony put his beer down.

Abby chose that moment to walk into the kitchen. "Hey," she said happily to Tony. "I thought I heard voices."

Gibbs watched as Tony forced his eyes away to look at Abby. "Hey, Abs. How you doin'?"

Abby looked back and forth between Gibbs and Tony. She started to smile. "Wow. I interrupted a moment, didn't I?"

Gibbs sighed. "No, Abby, we were just talking."

"Right," Abby said with a snicker. "Whatever you say, Gibbs." She made one of Tony's growl noises. "You two in bed together?" She fanned herself. "That'll fuel a few fantasies."

To his horror, Gibbs could feel himself blushing.

Abby squealed. "Oh, my God, I made you blush." She turned excitedly to Tony. "Did you see that? I made Gibbs blush." Then she began to laugh at Tony. "I made you blush, too. I totally rule."

Gibbs sighed again, fortifying himself with a large swallow of beer.

"Hey, maybe all three of us could go for it," Abby suggested with a completely unrepentant leer. "What do you say?"

"Abby," Gibbs barked, needing this conversation to end right now.

She grinned at Tony. "It was worth a try."

Tony snorted a laugh. "Totally worth a try. Who knows, maybe we can talk Gibbs into it." They both looked at Gibbs, enjoying themselves tremendously.

He looked back at them with a narrow-eyed glare.

Abby and Tony shrugged at each other. "I guess not," Tony said.

"Oh, well," Abby said with a sigh. "Can I at least watch you guys?"

"Abby!" Gibbs yelled this time. "Stop." His cell phone rang. Thank God. "Gibbs," he snapped into the phone.


It was McGee. "McGee, what's wrong?"

"It's Kate. She's sick. She can't stop puking. She thinks it's food poisoning."

"He wants you to leave the house, McGee," Gibbs bit out, going for the worst-case scenario.

"Or maybe he went after Kate," McGee said anxiously in response.

Tony touched Gibbs' arm. "Need me to go over there?"

Gibbs wanted to be wherever the asshole was. "I'll go," he said. It was time for this nightmare to be over.

"You can't go," Tony said. "He wants you to see whatever happens."

Gibbs had lost his sense of what rules the bastard was playing by. He could go after Tony and Abby if Gibbs left them here alone, or he could go after Tony if Tony tried to leave. "Call an ambulance for Kate," he said to McGee. "Stay away from the door. And get her to puke in an evidence bag." A thought crossed his mind. "No, wait." To Tony, he said, "He might be part of the crew that shows up."

"He might," Tony admitted. "But I really don't think he'll go after McGee if you're not there."

Gibbs thought the nut job might if he got frustrated enough.

"Boss," McGee said tensely through the phone, "someone's at the door."

"Someone's at the door," Gibbs said to Tony.

"I'm gone," Tony said, patting his pockets for his keys and racing for the door.

"DiNozzo's on his way," Gibbs said, unhappy that he himself wasn't. "Kate's alarm is on, right?"

"Yeah," McGee said, his voice a little shaky. "She says it's a good system."

"I know it is," Gibbs agreed. "I installed it."

"Oh. That's good, then."

Gibbs heard a honk. "Crap, hold on." He moved to the device that operated the garage door and pressed it to open. A car squealed out of the garage onto the street, where it stopped long enough for Tony to shift out of reverse into drive, and then squealed down the street.

Through the phone, Gibbs could hear the sound of someone retching, and he winced.

"She's getting worse, boss," McGee said. "I think she's got a fever now."

"I'll call NCIS, have someone come pick her up."

"Um, okay. What should I do?"

"Talk to Abby," Gibbs said, handing the phone to Abby. He reached for his land line and punched in the number for NCIS. He half-listened as Abby did her best to reassure McGee.

Quickly, Gibbs ordered a medical team to Kate's. Then he called Tony. "I just called for a medical team from NCIS," he said without introduction.

"Good. I'll be there in ten minutes."

Gibbs heard a squeal of breaks and some furiously honking horns. "Try not to get yourself killed on the way."

Tony laughed. "That's rich coming from you. I can't even count the number of times my life's passed before my eyes when you were driving."

"That was different," Gibbs said. "I was driving."

"Ha ha."

There was a pause while Gibbs listened to Tony breathing. He wished he was there with him, on his way to Kate's. He just wished he was there with Tony. He wished Abby hadn't walked in at that particular moment. He was glad she had.

"Sort of bad timing on Abby's part," Tony volunteered, as if reading Gibb's mind.

"Or not," Gibbs countered.

After a pause, Tony completely changed the subject by asking, "Did he go after Kate, or is he using Kate to get McGee out of the house, or is this some sort of freak coincidence?"

"I wish I knew."

"Me, too. I gotta go. I'm getting close and I need to pay attention. I'll call you when I get inside."

"You'll call me every fifteen minutes or you'll lose your head."

"You're such a sweet talker, boss."

"I mean it."

"Got it." Tony hung up.

"Shit." Gibbs hung up, too. Abby was still on the phone with McGee. He made a give-me-the-phone gesture at her.

"Hold on, Tim," Abby said, "Gibbs wants to talk to you." She handed him the phone.

"How's Kate?" Gibbs asked.

"Still puking," McGee said, sounding as tense as Gibbs had ever heard him.

"Tony's almost there and an NCIS medical team should be right behind him. Is someone still at the door?"

"I don't know. They stopped knocking. I didn't want to go near it to find out."


"Wait," McGee said. "Something's…wait…"

There was a long pause.

"McGee," Gibbs barked into the phone. "What's going on?" There was no answer. "Shit," Gibbs said emphatically.

"What's wrong?" Abby asked, her eyes bright with unshed tears of worry.

Then McGee was back. "Boss, I smell smoke. I think we're in trouble." Another phone rang in the house. "That's my cell phone."

"It's probably Tony," Gibbs said. "Answer it. Keep this phone close by so I can hear what's going on."

There were some scrambling noises, but then he heard McGee say in some desperation, "Tony?"

"Yeah, McGee, I'm here." Tony's voice was calm and all-business.

"Is there anyone outside?" McGee asked.

"Not that I can see."

"I smell smoke, Tony."

"I'm on my way up."

"Hey," McGee said, "how did you know where to come? I thought Kate wouldn't tell you where she lived."

"Please, probie," Tony scoffed.

"Right. Okay. Sorry."

"I'm at your landing. I'm gonna take a look around. Don't talk for a minute."

Gibbs could hear McGee's nervous breathing as they both waited for Tony's report. Finally, "No one's here. But someone's been smoking outside Kate's door. There're two butts here. Let me put on a pair of gloves. Hold on. Okay, got 'em. Tim, do you know how to turn off Kate's alarm?"

"Yeah, she showed me how last time I was here."

"Are you by the door?"


"Do you think you could get by the door?" Tony asked with strained patience. "Gonna be sort of hard to let me in, if you don't."

"Be right there," McGee said a little sheepishly. "Okay, I'm here."

"Look through the peephole. See me?"

"Yeah," McGee said in relief. "I see you."

Gibbs had no doubt that McGee, for all the fact that he was shaping up to be one hell of an agent, was very glad Tony was there.

"Let's do this fast. Turn off the alarm, unlock the door and stand to the side."

Gibbs heard beeps as alarm buttons were pushed, then the metal clunk of a lock being turned. A door opened and shut, was locked again, and then there were more beeps as the alarm was reset. Remembering to breathe, Gibbs yelled, "McGee? Can you hear me?"

"Yeah, boss."

"Put DiNozzo on," he ordered.

"He wants to talk to you," McGee said to Tony.

"I'm in," Tony said to Gibbs. "I didn't see anything out of the ordinary outside, but it's a large complex with a lot of cars. I came up the stairwell and didn't see anyone, but someone hung around outside the door long enough to smoke two cigarettes. I need to get them to forensics to check for prints and DNA."

"Go check on Kate," Gibbs said.

"Where's Kate?" Tony asked McGee.

"In the bathroom," McGee said.

"She's gonna love this, me seeing her puke," Tony said with a hint of glee in his voice. There was the sound of footsteps, then, "Hey, Kate, you look like shit."

"Oh, shut up, Tony, and just shoot me."

Gibbs grinned. He'd heard that loud and clear and guessed Tony had held the phone out on his behalf. It didn't sound like she was dying.

"What's up?" Tony asked. "Besides everything you've eaten for the last week."

"It feels like food poisoning," she said, and then she was puking again.

"Someone's at the door," McGee said.

"Okay," Tony responded, "I'll check it out. Wet some washcloths, McGee. One for her to hold, one for the back of her neck. And get her some cold water to sip on." More footsteps. "You still there, boss?"

"Still here, DiNozzo." Gibbs appreciated Tony taking care of Kate. It was obvious that McGee had never spent the night hugging a toilet.

"Who's there?" Tony yelled through the door. "Sorry, boss," he added, as if realizing he'd just yelled through the phone, too.

Gibbs could hear the answer. "NCIS. Gibbs called us."

"Yeah?" Tony asked skeptically. "Prove it."

Gibbs grinned approvingly.

There was a pause. "It's me, Tony, Bob McCulloch. Remember that night at Legends when you--"

"Yeah, yeah, never mind," Tony cut him off. "McGee, come shut off the alarm again."

More footsteps, more beeping, door being unlocked, voices, door being locked, more beeping. It wasn't as good as being there, but at least Gibbs could tell what was happening. Better than fifteen minute check-ins. "She's in the bathroom, down the hall to the right." A pause. "Boss, want me to call you back?"

"No, keep me on the line."

"Do I have to keep talking?"

Gibbs snorted. "No. Just make sure I can hear what's going on."

"You got it."

Gibbs glanced over at Abby who was sitting at the kitchen table across from him. "Tony's got cigarette butts," he told her.

Her eyes lit up. "We going in?"

"Yeah." The on-call forensics team could handle it, but he'd rather have Abby on the job.

Gibbs held up a finger to stop Abby from talking as he listened to the medical team attend to Kate. He could hear them tell her they were going to draw some blood and start an IV. McGee told them she wasn't puking as much. There was some conversation about giving her an anti-emetic versus letting her keep puking until it was all out of her system.

"What'd she eat, McGee?" Tony asked. "It had to be something she had for dinner, because we all ate the same thing for lunch. Never mind, just bag up any leftovers so I can take it with me."

"Where did the food come from?" Gibbs asked.

"I'm on it, boss," Tony said. "Let me call you back, I'm getting a crick in my neck." He hung up.

Gibbs frowned at his phone.

"Is Kate okay?" Abby asked worriedly.

"Sounds like it," Gibbs said. "They're drawing some blood."

"Let's go," Abby said, practically quivering. "I need to get to work." She was already standing and halfway out of the kitchen.

In complete agreement that being at work was a thousand times better than sitting at home doing nothing, Gibbs grabbed his keys and followed Abby out the door to the garage.

Gibbs was a third of the way to NCIS headquarters when his phone rang. "Gibbs," he answered.

"Hey, boss," Tony said. "They're gonna take Kate to the infirmary for observation. They think she's fine, but they'd rather keep an eye on her. If I'm gonna baby sit McGee--"

"Hey!" came a protest.

"--I'd rather do it at my place or McGee's place. Not much to do here. Too girly. You on your way in?"

"Yeah, we'll be there shortly."

"I've got evidence I need to get to Abby."

"Send it in with the medical team," Gibbs said. "Call me when you get home." He hung up.

Abby grinned at him. "You two are so cute."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "There is no me and Tony, Abby."

"There was definitely something going on, Gibbs," Abby said with complete confidence. "Sex was definitely in the air."

"There is no me and Tony," Gibbs repeated himself.

"Hmmm," Abby said, studying Gibbs. "Maybe not yet, but there will be," she added with another grin. "You two will be so hot together."

Sighing, Gibbs concentrated on driving.

Halfway there, Abby asked, "Can we stop for a Caf-Pow? I feel the need for some serious caffeine."

Gibbs hung a fast right. "Sure." He was pretty sure one of the convenience stores that sold the drink was just a few minutes away. They'd have to backtrack a little bit, but they'd still get there before the evidence.

He pulled in and parked.

"You want anything?" Abby asked, opening the car door.

"I'll come in," he said, needing his own version of caffeine. Abby got her Caf-Pow while Gibbs helped himself to a large-sized coffee, then paid for both. His phone rang. "Gibbs."

"We're in trouble, boss," Tony yelled.

Gibbs could hear gunshots being fired.

"Where are you?" Gibbs demanded. "Abby, car." She ran gratifyingly fast.

"California and Ashton," Tony said.

Practically right around the corner. Gibbs got in and slammed his coffee cup down into the holder. "Hold on," he told Abby.

Abby nodded, placing her Caf-Pow between her feet and bracing herself with one hand before quickly taking the open cell phone Gibbs thrust at her. She turned its speaker on as Gibbs backed up the car with a squeal and threw it into drive.

"Did you call for back up?" Gibbs snapped at Tony.

"McGee's on it."

"What happened?" Gibbs swore he could feel the left tires lift off the ground as he made a sharp right turn.

"I screwed up, boss. I didn't notice we were being followed. Whoever it was took out one of my tires. I almost flipped the car."

"Can you see who's shooting at you?"


There was a sound of a gunshot.

"Fuck! McGee, you all right?"

Gibbs let out a curse of his own.

"Jesus, that was close," Tony said, back on the line. "Whoever it is has a long range rifle. I can't see anything, and our weapons are useless."

"What position are they in?"

"North of us. Shit!" Another gunshot. "McGee, keep your fucking head down!"

"I'm almost there," Gibbs said.

"Wait!" Tony broke in urgently. "This is what he wants. Fuck, I shouldn't have called you. Don't come. We'll wait for the LEOs."

Gibbs realized Tony was right a second too late. He saw Tony's car, and yanked on the steering wheel to turn the car around so he could get out of there. There was another crack of a rifle firing, and Gibbs felt his rear tire go. He was struggling for control when another crack sounded and the rear window splintered.

He saw Abby go down and his heart stopped. "Abby?" he cried out in fear.

"I'm good, I'm good!" she yelled. "I'm just hiding."

Another tire was blown out. Then another shot hit the car and Gibbs could smell gas. Stopping the car so that Abby's side was away from the shooter, Gibbs instructed tersely, "Out of the car, Abby. Go for the trees and hide."

Abby nodded, her face pale, then she was out of the car and running.

Gibbs got out, too, and ran for Tony's car. When he arrived, he could hear Abby still scrambling. To help distract the shooter from Abby's movement, he yelled out, "Who the hell are you?"

A shot landed a foot away from where he was standing.

"That the best you can do?" Gibbs taunted. He hoped like hell that Tony had gotten McGee out of the line of fire. Gibbs could hear sirens; the LEOs were on their way.

"Boss," an angry whisper hissed at him. "Get the fuck down."

"DiNozzo," Gibbs whispered back, "is McGee safe?"

"Yeah," he was reassured. "I sent him to the trees to hide out."

There was another shot off to the left, which was followed immediately by a frightened cry from Abby.

"Abby!" McGee shouted, running in her direction, revealing his location.

There was another shot, another pained cry, and the sound of a body hitting the ground.

Gibbs and Tony ran for the trees, Gibbs' heart jack-hammering in his chest. Jesus, it was dark. As if to prove Gibbs' point, Tony tripped over Abby and went flying.

"Ow," she complained. Alive. Gibbs felt the pressure in his chest ease a little. Then he tripped over McGee. He barely managed not to fall, then hunkered down to assess the situation. In the background, he could hear a vehicle drive away.

"Abby, you all right?" Tony said, crawling over to her.

"Yeah. That shot came awful close and scared the hell out of me," Abby answered in a rush. "Where's Tim? Is he hurt?"

"He's here," Gibbs said. He got his hand on McGee's throat, searching for a pulse. Expecting the worst, he was surprised when he found it easily. "He's alive." Gibbs could smell blood. "But he's been hit," Gibbs added. "McGee, you with us?"

There was no answer. Gibbs started running his hand over McGee's body, found wetness on his skull and his leg.

Just then, the LEO's arrived, bringing a lot of noise and light to the situation. "Tony," Gibbs bit out.

"I'm on it." Tony stood up, badge in hand. "There're four of us," he called out. "All NCIS. I've got my badge in my hand. Please try not to shoot us. We've got one man down who needs medical attention."

"Who made the call?" one officer called.

"The man who's down. Tim McGee. I'm Special Agent Tony DiNozzo."

"Walk over here, nice and slow," he was directed. "Arms away from your body."

"No problem," Tony said, doing as instructed.

An officer met him half way and checked out his ID. "You need an ambulance?"

"Boss?" Tony asked.

"Yeah," Gibbs said. "I need a flashlight."

"Nick," the officer yelled in response to Gibbs' statement. "Bring a light and a first aid kit over here."

An officer, presumably Nick, ran over with a large flashlight and a kit, and shone the light on McGee. With the light, Gibbs found the gunshot McGee had taken in the thigh. Tony pointed out the rock McGee had smashed into as he fell, accounting for the head wound.

"Sorry, boss," Tony said dispiritedly. "Shit. I shouldn't have called."

"No matter what, DiNozzo, I expect you to always call me. I shouldn't have come," Gibbs said, taking the blame. "He's good, whoever he is," he reluctantly admitted, furious at himself and the situation. He created a tourniquet out of an ace bandage, tying it high up on McGee's thigh.

As he pulled it tight, McGee groaned, a welcome sound.

"Hey, Probie," Tony said softly. "I thought I taught you to duck better than that."

McGee groaned again, then slitted his eyes open. "Sorry, boss," he bit out to Gibbs. "I should have laid low." Every other word was punctuated by a panted breath and a gritting of teeth. "Tony told me to keep quiet."

"It was my fault for tripping over my own feet," Abby chimed in. "Sorry, Tim," she added, holding his hand. "But thanks for trying to come to my rescue."

"Some rescue," McGee said in self-deprecation.

"You ever been shot before, McGee?" Gibbs asked him.

The incredulous look McGee sent his way was answer enough.

"You're doing good," Gibbs said, impressed McGee was even conscious. "Tough guy."

McGee managed a pained but pleased smile.

Gibbs closed his eyes for a second. That was two, right in front of him. When he found this guy, Gibbs was going to kill him. Slowly.

Gibbs hung up his phone. Ducky had called to tell him he'd gone out of town to visit an old friend. Gibbs hoped the distance kept Ducky safe.

"Good old Staphylococcus aureus," Abby said, interrupting Gibbs' thoughts. "It was in the sushi."

"Planted?" Gibbs asked.

"Nope. Kate said she'd probably left it out too long before refrigerating it," Abby answered.

"So, just regular food poisoning?" Tony asked, with a sidelong look at Gibbs.

"Looks like."

"What about the cigarettes?" Gibbs asked grouchily. He'd been up most of the night, along with Tony and Abby, and after everything that had gone on, his body was screaming for sleep.

Abby scowled. "Nothing. Nada. No prints and no DNA. He used a plastic filter to smoke them. Look." She put an enlarged picture of the butts on the screen. "See here, see how it's compressed?"

"Security cameras?"

"Taped over," Tony said. "The guard was doing his rounds and missed the whole thing." He stared at the screen, frowning. "What was he doing there? Just trying to freak McGee out?"

"Probably," Gibbs said. "Panic makes you stupid." As evidenced by all the stupid things they'd done last night. At least McGee was all right. Once again, the bastard had only shot to maim, not to kill. Gibbs had no doubt the severity of injuries would increase from here on out. Unfortunately, it was anyone's guess who he went after next.

Tony ran a hand through his hair, leaving a mess behind, like he'd just crawled out of bed. Yawning, he admitted, "I need some sleep before I fall down."

Abby pointed to the mat in the corner of the room where Tony had often slept. "Go. Sleep."

"Don't you need some sleep?" Tony asked her.

She shook her head, holding up the Caf-Pow that had, miraculously, come through the skirmish intact. "I'm good." She winked at Tony. "Besides, when I get sleepy, I'll just snuggle right up next to you." She elbowed Gibbs.

Gibbs glared at her, too tired for teasing. He was unable to stop a flash of annoyance at the thought of Abby going anywhere near Tony, even though he knew Abby wasn't competition.

She shot him a look, then said, "There's another mat in the closet there. You need to sleep, too."

Abby was right, as much as it pained Gibbs to admit it. The adrenaline rush from last night had left him more tired than usual. He watched as Tony moved to the closet to get out the extra mat, unrolling it next to his. Then Tony collapsed on his mat, taking all of three seconds to fall fast asleep.

"Go ahead, boss man," Abby said with a little push. "I'll keep guard."

Gibbs nodded and made his way over to the other mat, lying down gratefully next to Tony. He was awake long enough to notice Abby dimming the lights, but then he was out.

Whispering woke Gibbs. He kept his eyes closed to give himself a few seconds to orient himself. Time to figure out who was whispering and why, and who he'd gone to bed with last night, because someone was plastered all over him. Or maybe he was the one plastered all over his bedmate. Or both.

"They look so cute together," someone said, whispering and squealing at the same time.

That was Abby. It was all coming back. Gibbs had gone to sleep in Abby's lab.

"Are they--?" another voice whispered back, sounding shocked.

That would be Kate. And Gibbs was guessing the body he was pressed up next to was Tony. His mind might have doubts about the appropriateness of starting something up with Tony when his team was under siege, but apparently his body was all over it. Literally.

Squinting his eyes open, he saw he and Tony were face to face, Tony's head resting in the hollow of Gibbs' shoulder, Gibbs' arm snug around Tony's side. Their legs were tangled, putting their groins in dangerous proximity. Tony felt good against him. His body was hard and strong, and Gibbs wished they were naked, alone, and somewhere else.

With bated breath, Gibbs waited for Abby's answer.

"Nah," Abby said, with the ease of someone comfortable with lying on behalf of friends, a skill Gibbs was currently grateful for. "Who knows who they think they're in bed with." She snickered. "And, hey," she added, "should you be out of bed? You still don't look so good."

"I feel like crap," Kate admitted. "But if I have to feel like crap, I'd rather pass the time doing something useful than lie in an infirmary bed wishing I was dead."

Gibbs saw that Tony was awake and staring at him.

"How's Tim?" Kate asked, still speaking softly to Abby.

"He's gonna be okay, but he'll be out for a while," Abby responded. "This whole thing sucks the big one."

Tony's gaze left Gibbs' face to travel down their bodies. He started to grin. "Feels good, boss," he said so quietly Gibbs almost didn't hear him.

It did feel good, but this wasn't the time and it sure as hell wasn't the place.

Something must have shown on his face because Tony nodded and, with a very believable half-asleep grunt, rolled over until his back was to Gibbs, easily disentangling them.

Gibbs chose that moment to pretend to awake, sitting up, rubbing his eyes. "What time is it?" he asked.

"Eight in the morning, sleepyhead," Abby answered. &uuot;Time to rise and shine," she added with nauseating enthusiasm.

Gibbs shot her a look. "Did you sleep at all?"

"Nope," she said with a slightly manic grin.

"Any news from our scumbag?"

Abby shook her head. "Nope."

"Get some sleep. Now," Gibbs ordered. "I'm getting coffee." He stood and observed Kate who was dressed in green scrubs, looking pale, the dark shadows under her eyes making her look like a starving orphan. "Kate? You look like shit."

"Women do not like to be told that, Gibbs," Kate said in a scolding tone.

"I'm serious," he said. "I think you should sit."

Abby gave her chair to Kate. "I'm gonna lie down," Abby announced, actions suiting her words as she collapsed on the mat and lay close to Tony. She grinned up at Gibbs and Kate. "Maybe Tony will drape himself all over me, now," she said hopefully, snuggling really close. Too close, as far as Gibbs was concerned. He was appalled to be feeling jealous. He was too damn old and too much of a bastard to feel jealous.

When Tony, obligingly, turned and wrapped his arm around Abby, Gibbs frowned and went in search of coffee.

Two hours later, Gibbs, Tony and Kate were looking through files. Gibbs slammed his fist down on the table in the conference room they were sitting in. "Damn it, no one is this good. There's got to be something that will trace back to him."

There was a knock on the door jamb. "What?" Gibbs snapped.

"Uh," the young man at the door stammered out. "The service records Special Agent DiNozzo ordered are here."

Tony waved tiredly. "Bring them in."

A cart of boxes was wheeled in.

"Ugh," Tony said. "I need more coffee. Anyone want anything? Besides coffee?"

"Yes, I want some clothes and a toothbrush," Kate said, even as she stood to get a box.

Gibbs glanced at the young man who had wheeled the cart in. "Have someone go to Special Agent Todd's home to get her toothbrush."

"Gibbs, if you weren't my boss, I'd kiss you," Kate said happily. To the young man, she said, "Actually, I have a bag already packed in my car. In fact, why don't you just bring my car? I'll need it when we're…"

"Sprung?" Tony offered.

"Right," Kate said wryly. "Will I be allowed to go to the garage?" she asked Gibbs, a touch of exasperation in her voice.

"With an escort," Gibbs answered.

Kate looked like she wanted to say something snippy, but then thought better of it. "My landlord can let you in to get my keys. Here's my address and here's the license plate number." She scribbled a plate number on a Post-It note and handed it to him. "Hurry. Tooth decay is setting in as I wait."

The young man took the sticky note and practically ran from the room, probably before Gibbs, or worse, Kate, gave him anything else to do. Tony followed him out, hopefully to bring back lots of coffee. Gibbs grabbed a box off the cart and began to empty its contents on the table.

The only thing that made this bearable was that, with the exception of Ducky, who was safely out of town, all his surviving team members were with him and safe for the moment.

Forty-five minutes later empty coffee cups littered the table, and there were two boxes still to go. There was another polite knock on the door jamb and then keys were handed over to Kate, with a note indicating the parking space level and number.

Kate stood, keys grasped firmly in hand.

"Where do you think you're going?" Gibbs asked, without even looking up.

"Please," Kate begged. "I have to get my stuff and take a shower. I'll be fast. I'll be back in thirty minutes."

"Make it twenty."

Kate rolled her eyes, but she headed for the door.

"Take Tony with you," Gibbs added.

"To the shower?" Kate asked with some asperity.

Tony looked interested. It made Gibbs want to smack him. "No, to the garage. I don't want anyone alone. Get Abby to go with you to the locker rooms. Tony can wait outside."

"You're no fun," Tony complained to Gibbs.

"Shut up, Tony," Kate said tiredly. "I want a shower. If it means I have to put up with you ogling, I don't even care."

Tony looked even more interested, and he was grinning. His tom-cat-on-the-prowl grin.

Gibbs sent him a look that, hopefully, said something along the lines of: 'Touch anyone else but me and I'll rip your balls off'.

Tony kept on grinning, but now it was directed at Gibbs.

Rolling his eyes, Gibbs decided he obviously needed to work on that look some more.

"Tony," Kate snapped, leaving the room.

After Kate was out of sight, Tony had the audacity to blow Gibbs a kiss. Gibbs kept the smile off his face until Tony was gone.

He'd barely gotten back to work going through the current file when there was another knock. "Sir?"

"Don't call me sir," Gibbs said to an even younger man, who looked about twelve years old; Gibbs thought he was a mail clerk. "I work for a living." He really did hate it when people called him sir but he had to admit, he also liked to watch people stumble over what to call him.

"Yes, s--, uh, yes, Special Agent Gibbs. Here." The young man held out a brown manila envelope. "This was just delivered with a note to get it to you right away."

Gibbs took the envelope. "Who delivered it?"

"Uh, I don't know, sir, uh, I mean, I don't know."

"Find out," Gibbs ordered.

"Yes, sir--, um, crap, ye--"

"Now," Gibbs said. He pulled out his penknife and slit the envelope. He'd let everyone yell at him later, or try to yell at him. Holding the slit side down, he let the photos and tri-folded letter slide out onto the table. There were dozens of pictures of the events of last night. Despite how dark it had been, they were sufficiently exposed, indicating the presence of sophisticated camera equipment. But then everything the nut job had done spoke of sophisticated equipment.

Not wasting any more time on the photos, Gibbs opened the letter.

I got lucky last night, although I suspect you don't feel the same. Not that it was really luck; it was about preparation and perseverance paying off.

Here is your quote for the day:

"Tears and complaints - the means which I have called water power - can be an extremely useful weapon for disturbing cooperation and reducing others to a condition of slavery." By Alfred Adler.

That's what you do, Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs, reduce others to a condition of slavery.

You kept Tim McGee safe for quite a while. At least you tried, even though it wasn't enough. I suspect, if you could, you'd keep Caitlin Todd safe, too. Yes, she's who I'm going after next. And I've decided I can't wait for circumstance to work in my favor to have you nearby when it happens. You'll catch me before I'm done if I do, and that's unacceptable.

Perhaps you'll break, perhaps you won't. Perhaps you're incapable of feeling anything at all except anger. Let's see what happens when your pretty Miss Kate is lying in a hospital bed. By now, my trap will have been sprung.

Gibbs didn't read the rest. He shot out of his seat and ran for the garage. He took the stairs three at a time, slamming through the first level door, wishing he'd noticed what level Kate's car had been parked on. "Tony?" he yelled.

No answer.

Racing down another flight of stairs, Gibbs was almost knocked out as the door slammed in with a kick. Tony was carrying Kate. Not stopping when he saw Gibbs, Tony kept running, Gibbs right behind him.

"There was something in her suitcase. It fucking bit her. When we find this fucker, he is going down," Tony swore, as angry as Gibbs had ever seen him.

Gibbs flipped his phone open. "Shit," he said, realizing Ducky wasn't around. He dialed Abby. "Kate's been hurt," he said without any preamble. "I need medical assistance; she was bitten by something. Then go to the 2nd level parking garage with appropriate gear and find out what it was that bit her. It was in her suitcase." He hung up. "What was it?" he asked Tony.

"I have no fucking idea," Tony said, barely winded. "It was her right wrist. Can you see it?"

Gibbs grabbed her wrist and saw a set of puncture marks. "Snake," he guessed. He dialed Abby again. "I think it's a snake," he said, then hung up again. Knowing Abby, Kate's injury aside, she'd think it was cool to go hunting snake.

They burst out of the stairway, and Tony made a bee-line for the infirmary, people leaping out of his and Gibbs' way. They could stabilize her while they waited for anti-venom to be brought there or for Kate to be transferred out. Gibbs had no doubt that whatever bit Kate was poisonous enough to require anti-venom. But, hopefully, not poisonous enough to kill her.

Tony lay her down gently on a gurney. A doctor and a nurse were waiting, and they immediately descended on Kate, getting vital signs, putting a tourniquet on her arm and lowering it.

"Shit," Tony said angrily, "I should have done that. Shit." He moved away from the bed, leaning against one of the walls, watching them take care of Kate.

"You got her here, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, moving with him, speaking quietly.

"Because you sent me with her," Tony said back. After a quick look at Gibbs, he added, "Don't even think about taking the blame for this."

"You're my team, my responsibility. And I've let three of you get hurt." Gibbs wanted to put his fist through a wall. Only needing to have both hands in good shape to hold the gun that would put a bullet through this guy's heart kept him from it.

Gibbs' phone rang. " How's Kate ?" Abby said as soon as he'd answered.

"What bit her?" he countered.

"A coral snake," she said tightly. "I already called Bethesda and they're preparing some anti-venom. They said to apply a compressive bandage--"

"Wait," Gibbs said. "Tell it to them." He handed the phone to one of the nurses. "Abby," he said in explanation to the nurse. "She has information."

The nurse took the phone, and Gibbs barely paid attention to their conversation, focused on Kate's still body. The phone was handed back to him. "What?" he said into it.

"She should be okay, Gibbs" Abby said consolingly. "As long as she gets the anti-venom soon, she'll be fine."

That wasn't good enough. She shouldn't have gotten hurt at all. No matter how hard Gibbs tried, it wasn't good enough.

"I'm guessing this was our nut job?" Abby asked.

"Yes," Gibbs said shortly. "There are more photos in the small conference room. Go check them for anything that will help." Gibbs hung up, feeling trapped. Even at NCIS he hadn't kept Kate safe. Even forewarned he'd failed to keep them safe.

"We need to catch this guy, boss," Tony said tightly.

Gibbs couldn't agree more. "What's going on?" he asked the doctor who had just hung up his own phone.

"I've just been informed that the anti-venom has arrived, which means she'll be getting it in plenty of time to avoid the worst effects of the bite," the doctor informed Gibbs. "Now, she'll just need to recover from the anti-venom which has a very nasty kick. Of course it didn't help that she just got over food poisoning," the doctor added. "Her body wasn't as strong as it could have been. But she'll be all right. We'll get her stabilized and then move her to Bethesda."

She looked so pale lying there, barely conscious. This ended now. Gibbs refused to let anyone else get hurt.

"Let's go," he said to Tony. The two of them left the infirmary and headed back to the conference room.

"This reminds me of that movie Ten Little Indians," Tony said. "One by one, they were killed off."

"No one is dying," Gibbs spat out between clenched teeth.

"I know that, boss. I'm just saying it reminds me."

Gibbs knew how many times Tony's elephantine memory for movie plots had actually held them in good stead. "How did it end?"

"The person who was left, after everyone else was dead, breaks down and--" Tony stopped. "Never mind. The ending sucked." Tony entered the conference room, returning to the file he'd been looking through before leaving with Kate.

Gibbs sat and stared at the file in front of him. "He killed himself?"

"What?" Tony asked.

"The last one left, he killed himself?"

"She, and, yeah," Tony said cautiously. "But they were dead, boss. No one here's dead. You get the distinction, right?"

"Yeah, DiNozzo, I get the distinction. I'm not about to off myself," Gibbs snarled.

"Okay." Tony went back to his file. He flipped the page and started to read.

Gibbs looked around for the letter. He hadn't finished reading it. Not that he wanted to know what the fucker had to say, but he still needed to read it. The photos were gone, so maybe Abby had taken the letter as well.

"Uh, boss?" Tony said, staring at the words in front of him like they were as poisonous as Kate's snake.

Gibbs saw the letter on the floor and bent down to pick it up. "What?"

"How much do you remember Mark Cohen?"

"He the suicide?" Gibbs asked, reopening the letter.

"Yeah. He was a seriously fucked-up kid. Look at this."

Out of the corner of his eye, Gibbs saw Tony pushing the file in his direction, but he was quickly scanning the rest of the letter.

I am also speeding up my timetable. So, two today. And that leaves two. Ms. Sciuto, and Mr. DiNozzo. Did I choose correctly by leaving those two last?

How do you plan to protect them?

I don't think you can.

"Fuck," Gibbs said, yanking out his phone, calling Ducky. He thrust the letter at Tony. Tony read it and let out a curse of his own. "No answer," Gibbs said in frustration after the phone forwarded into voice mail.

"I'll go," Tony said, already standing.

"No," Gibbs quickly responded. "You're not going anywhere. I'll go."

"Forget it, boss," Tony said, standing in the doorway. "You're not going anywhere."

"DiNozzo," Gibbs said in warning.

Tony didn't budge. "I mean it," he said. "He could be trying to lure you out, to get you near Ducky before he hurts him."

"Or Ducky could already be hurt," Gibbs countered, standing toe to toe with Tony.

Tony still didn't budge. Gibbs respected that even though it made him want to push Tony through a wall. "He knew the trap for Kate had been sprung. He had to have been at her apartment complex until just a little while ago."

"Maybe," Tony said. "Or maybe he had someone else keeping watch for him, or maybe he was talking about getting the snake in her suitcase as the trap being sprung. Call another team. Besides, I think I have a lead on who this bastard is. We need to work it from this end."

That got Gibbs' attention, and he decided maybe he wouldn't shove Tony through a wall after all. He called the Director and asked him to send a team to Ducky's out-of-town location. "Tell me," he said to Tony when he hung up.

"Look at this," Tony said, shoving the file the rest of the way across the table.

Gibbs began reading, growing still as he absorbed the handwritten words on the paper. He flipped the page and saw more underneath. Pages and pages of it.

"What is this?"

"Mark Cohen's journal," Tony said. "It was in his personal effects. This is a copy of it. The original was sent to his next of kin."

"Who was…?"

"His mother."

Gibbs read another paragraph, trying to picture the young man in his mind, wondering how he could have missed this.

Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs made me cry, papa, I'm sorry. I know you hate it when I cry. Don't hit me, papa. I'm sorry. I know you say never to cry, but I couldn't help it. He made me do it. Please don't hit me. It won't happen again. I promise. I promise you'll be proud of me. You won't ever need to hit me again. You'll come home and be proud of me. You won't have to hit me. And even if you do, I won't cry. I promise.

Paragraph after paragraph, all essentially saying the same thing. Even though Gibbs knew he had been doing his job, it made him feel like a child abuser.

As if reading his mind, Tony grabbed his arm. "The only person who fucked this kid over is his father."

"I should have seen it," Gibbs said, not allowing Tony to excuse him so easily. Then, deciding he could feel guilty later, he said, "I thought this kid's mother was dead."

"Not then, but get this, when she did die, apparently whoever executed the will looked for dear old dad, found him, and sent him all of her and Mark Junior's belongings." Tony held up an address. "Exhibit A. I'm betting Mark Senior's our stalker."

Gibbs gestured Tony out of the room. "Find out."

"On it," Tony said, heading for his desk.

Gibbs stayed behind, staring at the written words that existed now as the epitaph of a troubled young man.

"Gibbs," Tony said.

Still in the conference room, Gibbs looked up from Mark Cohen's journal. It had only gotten more sad and twisted. Now Gibbs wanted to find the father, not just to avenge the injuries done to his team members, but also to avenge the young man who'd been so mistreated and abused as a boy.

It only took Gibbs a second to realize that Tony didn't have good news. "Ducky?" Gibbs asked, feeling sick to his stomach.

"He's alive," was all Tony said. "Come with me to see Abby."

"Where is he?"

Tony walked over to Gibbs and tugged at his arm. "Get up. We need to go see Abby. I'll tell you both at the same time."

Gibbs balked, yanking his arm away. "Is he okay?" He didn't want Tony handling him.

Sighing, Tony backed off. He stared down at Gibbs. "He was taken to a local hospital; I arranged to have him taken to Bethesda."

"Great idea," Gibbs said angrily, sarcastically. "That way we can have an entire wing filled with my fuck-ups. Are they saving two beds for you and Abby?" When Tony winced, Gibbs felt like a piece of shit. "Tony."

Tony shook his head. "I get it. Things suck. But they're not your fuck-ups, Gibbs. You didn't put them there."

"I sure as hell didn't keep them out of there. I knew he was coming for them, and I just stood by and watched it happen."

Tony stared at him for a few seconds as if he might argue, but then, wisely, apparently decided it would be a waste of his time.

"How did you find out before me?" Gibbs asked.

"One of the cops that responded to the call is a friend of mine. When he saw Ducky's ID, he called me."

"Why were the cops there at all? An NCIS team was going to check on him."

"There was a lot of yelling, and a neighbor called the cops," Tony answered grimly. "The bastard went after Ducky with a baseball bat. His friend tried to intervene. Apparently, he's in worse shape than Ducky."

"Is he conscious? Are either of them conscious?" Maybe they could get a description.


"Did you find Mark Cohen's father?"


"Damn it, DiNozzo," Gibbs snarled.

"Abby's helping me track him down," Tony defended himself. "He's no longer at the address they sent Mark's stuff to, and he didn't leave a forwarding address. For all intents and purposes, he fell off the face of the earth." Tony studied Gibbs for another few seconds. "I'm going to see Abby. When you're done with the hair-shirt routine, that's where I'll be."

Glad to have a target for his frustration, Gibbs went on the attack, saying, "What gives you the right, DiNozzo--"

A flash of anger crossed Tony's face and he interrupted Gibbs. "If you fucked up, boss, then so did I," he said in a cold, tight voice. "I knew what was going on. I was six feet away from Kate when she got bit. It never crossed my mind to check out that suitcase." Tony's voice got louder, and he took a belligerent step toward Gibbs.

Gibbs had never had Tony's anger directed at him. It was an interesting and fairly disconcerting experience. "Tony."

Ignoring him, Tony kept talking, growing louder. "I was the one who decided it was safe to move McGee. I was the one who called you so the asshole could shoot McGee in front of you."

"Tony," Gibbs said again. "Calm down."

"Fuck you, boss," Tony yelled.

Gibbs got it then. It was Tony's turn. "You need a can of soup to throw? I'm fresh out of canisters."

Tony blinked, and just that fast, grinned, letting out a sharp laugh. "Fuck."

Gibbs grabbed on to Tony's sense of humor like a lifeline. If he got lost in a world of guilt, the asshole would win. There were a lot of ways to break someone, and most of them had nothing to do with tears. "Let's go see Abby," he said.

"Good idea," Tony said, with a tired smile.

They all sat on one of the mats, leaning against the wall, Gibbs in between Abby and Tony. He had his arm around Abby so she could snuggle up to him. Tony was sitting as close as he could, creating contact between them from shoulder to knee. Every computer in Abby's lab was running a different search for their stalker.

"Poor Ducky," Abby said disconsolately, then she sniffed. "This sucks."

Gibbs kissed the top of her head. "Yes, it does." At least she was safe. She and Tony.

"Hey," Tony protested. "I think it sucks, too. Don't I get a kiss?"

Gibbs rolled his eyes, but finding the idea appealing, turned his head toward Tony, intending to kiss him on the temple. Tony had other ideas. Gibbs found himself kissing Tony on the lips. It wasn't a long kiss, but it was a real kiss. Their lips slid together, a hint of tongue easing their movement. Gibbs' stomach flipped in that wonderful, warmth-flushing-body kind of way, and it was all he could do not to cup his hand behind Tony's neck and keep the kiss going, mouths open, tongues exploring.

It was Tony who managed to pull back first. He stared at Gibbs, his eyes dark, his tongue flicking out to taste his lips. "Wow," he said softly.

"No kidding," Abby agreed with heartfelt enthusiasm from behind Gibbs. "Are you sure the three of us can't work something out?"

Gibbs glowered at her. "Abby. Stop."

Abby blinked at Gibbs, her eyebrows rising. "Huh. You mean that don't you?"

"I do," Gibbs declared sternly.

Tony leaned forward so he could see Abby past Gibbs. "I'm getting the feeling that Gibbs doesn't like to share."

Tony was right. Gibbs didn't like to share. He especially didn't intend to share Tony, not even with Abby. "That's right. I don't." He turned his glower on Tony. "No sharing."

"Got it," Tony said easily. "No sharing. I can do that." He winked at Abby, though, mouthing, "Sorry."

Abby winked back. "Me, too," she mouthed in return.

"And if I find surveillance cameras in either Tony's or my bedroom," Gibbs warned Abby, "I'll ground you from your lab for a week."

Her mouth dropped open. "That is way harsh, Gibbs."

"I mean it."

Pouting, Abby sat back against the wall. Then she grinned. "You can't stop me from thinking about it, though."

Tony snorted out a laugh. Just then, two of the computers dinged, and all three of them were up and moving.

"I'm going," Gibbs announced, Mark Cohen's three potential addresses in hand.

"No, you're not," Tony snarled at him. "Not alone."

"Did you get a promotion when I wasn't looking, DiNozzo? Because, unless I've lost my memory, you report to me, not the other way around."

"Gibbs," Tony began.

"Or," Gibbs interrupted him, growing more annoyed by the second, and something else as well, disappointed, maybe, "are you under the mistaken impression that this thing between us gives you the right to question my orders?"

Tony closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them again, they were sparking with anger and frustration. "Yes. No. Yes," he stammered, "if it means that I keep you from doing something incredibly stupid. You go out there alone and he grabs you, what's he gonna do?"

Gibbs scowled, looking for a way not to answer. Finally, he unwillingly admitted, "Demand that you and Abby come to him."

"Yeah, and do you think for a second that we won't come?" Tony asked, looking at Abby for confirmation, who nodded emphatically. "If he threatens to kill you, do you expect us to just stay here and do nothing?"

"Yes," Gibbs snapped. "That's exactly what I expect you to do. My life isn't worth the two of yours. It's not an even exchange."

"Your life is totally important to us," Abby protested.

"And I'm supposed to live with myself if I get the two of you killed?" Gibbs demanded, needing them to understand that he'd die first. That he'd be as good as dead, anyway, if either of them died.

Tony let out a beleaguered sigh as if Gibbs were the stupidest man he'd ever met. "If you don't go alone, it won't happen."

"You need back up, Gibbs," Abby said.

"Meaning me," Tony explained, still in his Gibbs-is-stupid mode.

"And then this nut job will go after you," Gibbs said, perfectly willing to turn the tables on Tony, letting him join the stupid club. "Not gonna happen."

"Maybe I--" Abby began.

Tony and Gibbs both turned to her, saying at the same time, "You're not going anywhere!"

She blinked at them both, frowned, then grinned. "Aww, that's so sweet." Then she frowned again. "But what do I do if you both go, and then he calls and tells me he has you guys?"

"Nothing," both men said again at the same time.

"That totally sucks," Abby proclaimed.

"Maybe we should send a different team out," Tony suggested.

"He won't be there unless I go," Gibbs said. There was no way he trusted another team to take this guy out.

"Then I'm going, too," Tony said implacably. "We're better together. If he is there and he's waiting for you, or for me, we'll be safer together. I'll have your back and you'll have mine. That's the only way I'm letting you out of here."

Gibbs ground his teeth. "DiNozzo," he began in threatening tones.

"Forget it," Tony said in a loud voice. "I know if we, if you and I--" He stopped and tightened his lips, as if annoyed at his inability to say what he wanted to say. He tried again. "If this thing between us turns into something, I know that things can't change here at work, I get that. And I get that this job can be dangerous and we're all at risk sometime or another. But--" He stopped again.

"Keep going, Tony, you're doing good," Abby said, cheerleading.

He shot a lopsided grin at her and then turned back to Gibbs. "This whatever, this almost-thing between us--and I know this is gonna sound stupid--but it already feels like the most serious relationship I've ever been in. And I'll be damned if I'm gonna lose it before it even gets started because you have some sort of martyr complex or some Superman delusion and think you can take this guy on alone."

Gibbs opened his mouth to speak, but Tony talked right over him.

"He's good, Gibbs. He's smart. Really smart. Special Ops smart." To Abby, he said, "Have we done a search for something like that?"

Her eyes lit up and she sailed her chair across the room to her computer.

Tony turned back to Gibbs. "He's probably already thought about every possible action you could take right now, and figured out how to make it work against you. And what that means to me is that whatever you do, I'm watching your back. And that can be here, duct taped to one of Abby's chairs, or it can be out there as we go and get that bastard." He drew in a breath as if he were starving for oxygen.

"You go, Tony," Abby said proudly, as she typed madly into her computer, inputting new search parameters.

"Can I talk now?" Gibbs asked, annoyed. Impressed. Turned on.

Tony nodded, looking as stubborn as Gibbs had ever seen him.

Gibbs turned to Abby. "Can I have a few minutes alone with Tony?"

Disappointed, Abby nodded. She pointed toward the southeast corner of her lab. "Security cameras don't pick up that spot," she told him with a saucy grin.

He narrowed his eyes at her machinations but, while she made herself scarce, Gibbs grabbed Tony's arm and dragged him into the corner.

"You're not changing my mind," Tony said.

"Even if I give you a direct order?" Gibbs demanded.

"Even then. Even if it means you decide that this," Tony waved his hand between them, "isn't going to work." He stuck his chin up as if bracing for a blow.

Gibbs couldn't take it anymore. He gripped Tony's waist with both hands and slammed him into the wall, pressing against him. He took a second to observe the startled expression on Tony's face, recognizing that Tony was as likely to think that Gibbs was planning on slapping him around as anything else.

Slapping Tony around wasn't what Gibbs had in mind, even though a part of him would enjoy it, as irritated as he was with his second in command. Right now, though, Gibbs had to kiss the man. Had to feel the heat of Tony's body against his. Had to feel Tony's erection against his thigh, and press his own into Tony's thigh. Just for a minute. And even though that minute would leave Gibbs as sexually frustrated as he'd ever been, one minute with Tony would be worth it.

He claimed Tony's mouth, his tongue seeking immediate entrance. Tony might have been initially startled, but Gibbs had to give him credit for getting with the program immediately. With a groan, he opened his mouth, letting Gibbs' tongue inside. Then his hands were on Gibbs' ass pulling him closer. Tony shifted his legs apart and Gibbs thrust his thigh in between Tony's legs.

Gibbs could feel Tony harden against him. His own cock was as hard as diamonds. If Abby weren't probably watching, and if this bastard weren't picking off all his people one by one… That thought was a like a bucket of freezing cold water. They didn't have time for this. He pulled Tony in tight, hugging him, resting his forehead on the younger man's shoulder, taking a second's respite in his strength. It was an odd feeling, needing someone. Gibbs hadn't allowed himself to feel that in a very long time.

As if sensing the shift in mood, Tony hugged him back, putting space between their lower bodies. He pressed a kiss against Gibbs' neck. "We'll get the bastard," he said softly. "I promise. We'll get him, and we'll make him pay."

Gibbs found himself believing Tony's words. He allowed himself a few more seconds in Tony's arms then backed away, forcing his desire to a back burner for the time being. It didn't help that Tony looked so damn fuckable. Jesus. "We'll finish this later," he said to Tony, daring the universe to just try and get in his way.

"You better believe it," Tony said in return, adjusting himself with a grimace. "Next time you jump me like that, it better be where we can finish what you started." He ran his fingers through his hair and then licked his lips.

Gibbs bit off a groan. Tony was beyond attractive right now; he was practically glowing. Hoping he didn't just look like he'd been sexually molesting his second-in-command, Gibbs walked out of the corner and into the center of the lab. He glanced back at Tony to find him watching Gibbs with a hungry smile on his face.

"Get your gun," Gibbs said. "Let's go get this bastard."

Tony's eyes brightened and he pumped his fist in a victory gesture. "Yes!" He sprinted out of the lab toward the bullpen.

Abby chose that moment to walk in. Conveniently timed, Gibbs thought. When he saw the blush on her cheeks, he sighed.

Flashing him an unrepentant grin, Abby fanned herself. "Hot. It's hot in here."

Gibbs rolled his eyes heavenwards, looking for strength. Then, serious, as serious as he'd ever been, he said, "Abby, when we leave, he'll probably call. He'll say anything to get you to leave this building. He'll say he has us, he'll say he's shot us, he'll say we're asking for you. I need to know you won't do what he says."

Her brows furrowed, little unhappy lines across her forehead. "But, Gibbs--"

"I mean it, Abs," Gibbs said, cutting her off. "I need to know you're safe. I know you're smart, and I know you're brave, but if Tony and I can't handle this guy, you're not going to be any help. You're not. You're just going to make it worse. If he calls you, you call me. And if you can't get me, you call Tony. And if you can't get Tony, you get the Director, and you let him handle it. But you don't leave this building. And you don't go anywhere alone. Promise me."

She sighed, but nodded. "But you have to promise me that you'll be all right," she insisted. "You and Tony. I can't handle anything bad happening to you. I can't."

Hoping to hell he wasn't lying, he said, "We'll be fine." The corner of his lip curled up in a smile. "You heard DiNozzo. He won't let anything happen to me."

"He better not," Abby said with a ferocious pout. "And you better not let anything happen to him."

Tony walked back in, his gun holstered, Gibbs' gun in his hand. "You tell Abby that this fuckwad's gonna try to mess with her head?"

Gibbs nodded as he took the gun. "We need to brief the Director," he told Tony. Turning to Abby one last time, he said sternly, "You call me if he calls you. That's all you do."

"I get it, Gibbs," she said, half annoyed, half worried.

The Director was about as pleased with Gibbs and Tony going alone as Tony had been with the idea of Gibbs going alone. Which meant it didn't happen. Adorned in a bullet-proof vest, matching the one Tony wore, Gibbs fumed as he sat in the car outside the first of three of Cohen's potential residences. A platoon of Marines was already inside checking it out before he or Tony would be allowed in.

What made Gibbs even more annoyed was that the Director had sent two other teams, with their own Marines, to check out the second and third residences. They were under orders to call Gibbs if they found anything. Gibbs wanted to get there first.

"He's not here," Tony said, staring at the house.

Gibbs looked out the car windows, assessing the area for good places for the asshole to hide. There were dozens of them. He agreed with Tony, but still felt like a sitting duck. He was sorry he'd decided to brief the Director.

"Think Abby will try to do something stupid?" Tony asked.


Tony glanced at Gibbs. "What did you do?"

"I left four Marines guarding her."

Tony grinned. "She'll either never forgive you or be totally jazzed that you think she's sneaky enough to need four people keeping an eye on her." He paused. "Which she is," he added in an admiring tone.

One of the Marines came to the car. "Everything's clear, Special Agent Gibbs. You can go in now."

Gibbs bit out a "Thank you, Lieutenant." Opening his door, he added, "Come on, DiNozzo."

Tony opened his door, but took a second to stand.

The brief hesitation somehow communicated to Gibbs that the possibility of getting shot was crossing Tony's mind. A frisson of fear slid down Gibbs' spine and he looked around again, resisting the urge to tell Tony to stay in the car. He felt a surge of pride when Tony stood tall.

For a nightmarish moment, Gibbs expected a shot. Expected to see a bloom of red on Tony's body, but nothing happened. The vest would hopefully protect him from a chest shot, but considering where McGee and Palmer got shot, that left a lot unprotected. Tony caught his eye, let out a shaky laugh, and turned to head into the house, Gibbs right behind him.

"It doesn't look like anyone lived here," Tony said a few minutes later. "I mean, ever. I don't see prints anywhere. The kitchen sink, the refrigerator, any of the dishes. If he did live here, he wiped it clean."

Gibbs whipped out his phone and called the team in charge of the second residence. They should have been there by now and it was obviously where he and Tony should be. This place was a waste of time.

"Dexter," came a voice over the phone.

"This is Gibbs. You there yet?"

"The Marines are checking it out now. I'll call you right back." He hung up.

Gibbs scowled at the phone.

"This reminds me of The Poltergeist," Tony said.

"What?" Gibbs said snappishly.

"This house. There was this really short weird-looking woman who was some sort of psychic who could sense when houses were haunted. She did this cleansing thing in the movie, and then, in this little pipsqueak Mickey Mouse kind of voice, she says: 'This house is clean'."

"And?" Gibbs prodded, intrigued despite himself.

"And then really evil, creepy things started happening and everyone almost died," Tony said, his eyebrows going dramatically up and down. "Or like Silence of the Lambs. When Clarice goes into the suspect's home it looks all Donna Reedish, but in the cellar the guy's kidnapping women and cutting their skin off of them." He moved to a closed door that probably did lead to a cellar. "What do you think?" he said, with a dramatic gesture at the door.

"I think one of the Marines checked it out already," Gibbs said. Despite his own words, he moved to the other side of the door, gun in hand. "Open it."

"Okay, but if a dog barks, I'm out of here," Tony stated.

Gibbs had no idea what Tony was talking about. He guessed there was a dog in one of those movies.

Tony opened the door, and Gibbs found himself looking at a bunch of coats. "Got a movie for this, DiNozzo?" Gibbs drawled, as he put his gun away.

"Yeah," Tony said with a grin. "The Chronicles of Narnia." He shoved the coats aside and patted down the back wall. "Nope. No snow."

Gibbs smacked Tony on the back of the head. "Could we focus, please?"

"Ow," Tony said, rubbing his head.

Gibbs rolled his eyes. He never hit hard enough to hurt. His phone rang. "Gibbs."

"It's Dexter. You need to see this. I got a room full of pictures."

"On our way." Gibbs started quickly walking toward the door. Over his shoulder, to Tony, he said, "They found something at the second house."

"Like what?" Tony asked, trotting to catch up.

"Pictures," Gibbs informed him. They'd find out more once they got there.

When they arrived, they found a room with hundreds of pictures taken of Gibbs and his team. Based on their content, their nut job had been watching them for months. Maybe even a year. That was almost all the room held: pictures taped to all four walls, a basket on the floor holding tape and scissors, a waste basket with a few discarded picture bits, and a chair.

"As soon as he got his son's stuff, the guy must have totally snapped," Tony said, putting on a pair of gloves.

"He'd already snapped," Gibbs bit out, putting on his own pair. "This just gave him a focus." The longer Gibbs looked at the pictures, the angrier he got. Their privacy had been invaded for months.

"I guess it's a good thing," Tony said quietly to Gibbs, after looking around to make sure no one would overhear, "that we hadn't, you know, before now, or we might be looking at some pictures I'd just as soon no Marine ever see." As an exhibit, he rapped a knuckle against a picture of Abby with McGee, her hand on his ass as they were walking into her apartment. There was another one of Kate at dinner with some guy, and Gibbs getting in and out of a silver convertible, a redhead at the wheel. "Who is that woman, anyway?"

"An old friend," Gibbs said shortly. And then, as a soft aside, he added, "It's always going to be a risk. You sure you're up for it?"

Tony grinned at him. "In every way, boss."

Gibbs wasn't sure whether to roll his eyes, smack Tony, or kiss him. He knew what he'd do if they were alone. As if he'd spoken aloud, Dexter and the Marine with him left the room. Gibbs' eyebrows rose at the possibility, even if he knew they weren't alone enough. Tony had the right idea; Gibbs wasn't starting something he couldn't finish.

Tony ripped a picture off the wall and held it, slantways, up to the light. "These pictures are covered with prints."

"He knew once we found this room we'd know who he was," Gibbs stated. "No point covering his tracks now."

Frowning, Tony looked around. "I don't get it. Not that I'm complaining, but why isn't he trying to shoot me or something? I was sure the place would be full of booby traps."

"All the Marines did was look for bodies and bombs," Gibbs said. "There's still a lot he could have left for us to trip over."

"Are you trying to cheer me up?" Tony asked Gibbs. "Because if you are, you suck at it." He followed his statement with a grin.

One side of Gibbs' lips turned up in a grin before he could stop it. In retaliation, he snapped, "I'm glad you're finding the situation so amusing, DiNozzo."

Tony shrugged, saying, "It's the way I cope. If I can't laugh about it, I don't think I'd make it through all the bad times, you know?"

Gibbs did know. In fact, Tony's irreverent sense of humor often got them all through the bad times. "Yeah, Tony. I do know. And no matter how much I bitch about it, don't ever stop."

That garnered him a careful look, as if Tony were trying to determine if Gibbs were serious or just giving him a hard time, but then the grin was back, brighter than before. Tony looked around the room. "Do you think he knows we're here?"

"Yeah, I do," Gibbs decided. "He'd want to see how I reacted to this." He started looking around the room, trying to figure out where the nut job could have put a camera.

"Do we care if he knows that we know?"

"No," Gibbs said shortly. "It's a little late for that."

Tony pointed out the vent on the far wall, close to the ceiling. "There?" Without waiting for Gibbs' response, Tony pushed a chair against the wall and stood on it, staring into the vent. "I see a blinking red light."

"Got your knife?" Gibbs asked.

"Of course," Tony said haughtily. "That's rule number nine." He held out his hand. "But I'll take yours, anyway. Mine's in my belt."

Gibbs slapped his Swiss army knife into Tony's hand. He remembered now about Tony's belt knife. It was what had gotten him and that gunny out of the sewers alive. Nice to know some of his rules were rubbing off, even if Gibbs had decided to throw number twelve out the window.

He opened his phone and dialed Abby.

"It's your dime," she answered.

"We've got a camera. Any way you can trace it to see where it's being fed to?"

"Four Marines, Gibbs? You think I'm Houdini or something?"

"Answer the question," Gibbs said. "And yes."

"Oh. Cool," Abby said happily. "I'll need the serial number on the back of it."

"Am I going for it?" Tony asked.

"Yeah," Gibbs said. "We need a serial number." Not that he actually expected this exercise would lead them somewhere helpful. Gibbs told Abby he'd call her back as Tony began unscrewing the vent. He wasn't in the mood to have his eardrums assaulted by either Abby's chatter or the loud background music.

When he had one screw out completely, and the other almost out, Tony said, "Do you hear that?"

"What?" Gibbs said, his eyes darting around the room.

"Sort of a hissing noise."

Gibbs moved closer to Tony and sniffed the air. "Like gas escaping?" he said impatiently, needing more information.

"No," Tony said slowly. "More like a 'sssss' sound, like a--" The last screw dropped to the ground, and Tony yanked the vent off.

Gibbs finally heard the noise and dove for Tony, knocking him off his chair. Tony hit the ground with a thud, even though Gibbs tried to take the brunt of it.

"Snake," Gibbs finished angrily.

Right behind them, two snakes came out of the vent system, pissed off and hissing like mad. They fell to the floor, bodies lashing, mouths open revealing sharp fangs.

"Shit," Tony yelped, grabbing Gibbs and retreating to a corner of the room, as far away from the snakes as possible. Then, voice disgusted, he said, "I should have guessed that. Stupid." One of them slithered in their direction, but Gibbs tossed a chair at it, forcing it to dart to the side.

"Nice save, boss," Tony said with heartfelt gratitude.

"Don't thank me yet," Gibbs said, infuriated. "I was stupid, too. I should have seen that one coming a mile away." It wasn't bad enough that this bastard was always one step ahead of him, but Gibbs' brain had to shut down, too. It had been a long time since Gibbs had faced such a relentless and talented enemy, and he didn't like it one bit.

"At least you figured it out before I became snake food," Tony said. "Although," he countered, pointing at the coral snake winding their direction, "I think we're still on the menu." He shifted a little until he was behind Gibbs.

It was somewhat gratifying and amusing to Gibbs that Tony somehow expected him to battle serpents on his behalf. He turned the waste basket upside down, dumping the photography detritus on the ground. In one easy motion, he placed the waste basket on top of the snake and then secured it by placing the retrieved chair on top of it. "One down," Gibbs announced.

"My hero," Tony said with a grin, batting his eyelashes. "Argh," he then added, as the second snake seemed to give him an evil look.

"I don't think he likes you," Gibbs said with a crooked grin.

"I'm more disturbed that you seem to find that amusing," Tony said with a frown. "If you let that thing bite me, you can forget about getting lucky."

"The last thing I'm worried about right now, DiNozzo, is if I'm going to get lucky," Gibbs said, looking around the room for something to catch the snake that was slowly slithering their way.

"Way to woo me, Gibbs," Tony said, disgruntled. "I feel a headache coming on."

"I feel a head smack coming on," Gibbs rejoined.

Tony took a step backward. Unfortunately, the movement caught the snake's attention. It rose up, hissing.

"Damn it," Gibbs said. "Don't move." He could always call for help, but there was no telling what the snake would do in response to someone coming through the door. There was a time when Gibbs used to catch rattlesnakes with his friends out in the woods behind his house with his bare hands, but that had been a long time ago. He could try to shoot it, but he wasn't sure his eyes were up to the task; it was a bitch to grow old. "Think you could shoot it, DiNozzo?"

"Yeah," Tony answered doubtfully. "But I'll have to move to reach my gun, and old snake-eyes here can probably move faster."

"I'll get its attention on me, then you shoot it," Gibbs suggested.

"I don't like that idea, either," Tony said unhappily. "At least right now it's not actually going for either of us, even if it's definitely thinking about it." He frowned. "That's one pissed off snake."

Ignoring Tony's protests, Gibbs took a step, stomping on the ground, hoping to catch the snake's attention through the vibration. He did it again. The snake took the bait, focusing on Gibbs.

That was all the opportunity Tony needed. In one quick motion, he grabbed for his gun and shot the damn thing's head right off. The sound brought the NCIS team and the Marines running, weapons at the ready.

"Show's over," Gibbs said. "This one's dead, there's another one under the waste basket." He gestured at the pictures on the wall, speaking to Dexter. "Get these to the lab. Anything else in the house?"

Dexter shook his head. "Nope, I just finished checking out the rest of the place. This was the only attraction." He directed his team to start collecting the evidence.

Gibbs waited until Tony was at his side before leaving the room. "Nice shot," he told Tony.

"I can be taught. After all, I only have so many baseball caps," Tony answered with a grin.

Gibbs let out a short laugh and then pulled out his phone, calling the third NCIS team.

"Wajeski," a voice said over the phone. There was a lot of noise in the background.

"This is Gibbs. Did you find anything?"

"Yes," Wajeski said. "He left a few nasty surprises. I have two Marines down."


"Fortunately not, but both have been shot. He had several doors rigged. Two went off before we wised up. Other than that, the house is empty. The only furniture around was used to rig the doors. No prints that we can see."

Gibbs hung up. "Damn it. Where does this asshole live?" They had nothing on him, except two more snakes and a photographic shrine of Gibbs' team.

"Who's dead?" Tony asked anxiously.

"No one. He rigged the last house, though, and two Marines got hurt."

Gibbs' phone rang. He checked the number, saw it was Abby. "Yeah, Abs," he said.

"Gibbs?" her voice asked, shakily, tearily.

Gibbs flashed Tony a look that was enough to get Tony next to him, doing his best to listen in. "What is it?" Gibbs asked.

"He called. He said I had to be at the hospital in thirty minutes or he'd start killing them. He sent video, Gibbs," she added with a wail. "He's there. He just showed me today's newspaper in McGee's room, and the TV was on in Jimmy's room, and it's a show that's on right now."

"Do not go anywhere, Abby," Gibbs demanded. "Tony and I will head over to the hospital."

"But, Gibbs, if I'm not there, and he kills someone because of it," she said, sniffing, "it'll be my fault. I have to go."

"No, you don't. It'll be my fault because I'm making the decision. But no one's going to get killed."

"Except Cohen," Tony added darkly.

Gibbs agreed with that sentiment. "Abs, I mean it. Stay put."

"It's not like I can go anywhere with this platoon you have guarding me. Really, Gibbs, four of them? It's like a parade everywhere I go. And not a fun one with clowns and old guys in stupid hats driving stupid little cars." Her cadence grew faster and faster on every sentence until by the time she hit the stupid hats part she was almost babbling hysterically.

Gibbs was even gladder he'd stuck her with four guards. If he knew Abby, she'd probably already tried to shake them. "Stay there," he said again, sternly. "I'll call you from the hospital."

"How about if I bring them all with me? That way I'll show up, so the guy won't kill anyone because of me, but I'll have plenty of protection."

"No," Gibbs said. "He's not going to honor any deal he makes with you. He just wants you there so he can hurt you. This discussion is over. There are pictures on the way to you. Check them for prints." He hung up. "You hear all that?" he asked Tony.

"The asshole's at the hospital?" Tony asked, a glint of promised retribution in his eyes.

Gibbs nodded.

With a shared look of determination, both men headed out of the house. Gibbs commandeered his vehicle from his assigned driver, and he and Tony watched the video Abby had been sent on the video link. There was no doubt about it; the bastard was there.

"How the fuck did he get past security?" Tony asked, his brow furrowed in frustration.

"I don't know. But, I'm going to find out," Gibbs said, calling the NCIS agent in charge of protecting his people at the hospital. Gibbs didn't even give him time to say his name. "Rogers, the bastard's there. He's been in and out of their rooms. I want to know how he managed that."

There was some stuttering, then, "I don't know. I set it up just like we talked about," Rogers said. "No one goes in the room unless they work at the hospital, and even then, I have all the IDs run by human resources. No one's been in any of the rooms unless they work here, Gibbs. Either that, or he's got a whole team lying for him."

"Damn it," Gibbs swore. To Tony, he said, "The bastard must be working there."

"You mean for real?" Tony asked.

"Everyone who's gone in those rooms was vetted through the human resources department, including ID pictures."

"I'll get Abby to send over that picture we have of him," Tony suggested, flipping open his phone. "It's old, but it might help them figure out who it is."

Gibbs nodded and went back to his phone conversation. "We're faxing an old picture of the man. His name's Mark Cohen. Consider him extremely dangerous. He's got nothing left to lose at this point, and he'll kill anyone who gets in his way. Understand?"

"Yes," Rogers said.

Hanging up, Gibbs called the Director to fill him in.

Once they arrived at the scene, there were headsets waiting for them so Gibbs could stay in contact with key agents, Tony included.

"Let's go get this asshole," Tony said, looking grim.

Gibbs wanted to tell Tony no heroics, but there wasn't any point. He'd seen Tony put himself between a shooter and a target before, and he had no doubt Tony would do it again. Gibbs just had to hope that Tony wanted to get lucky enough to keep his ass alive.

He looked up to find Tony gazing at him. For a long moment, their eyes connected, the air almost sizzling between them. There was both a threat and a promise in Tony's eyes. Gibbs got it; Gibbs better keep his own ass alive, or there'd be hell to pay with Tony.

The first thing Gibbs and Tony did was check on the team. Kate and Ducky were sleeping. Gibbs winced at Ducky, this being the first time he'd seen him since word of the beating. He was a mass of bruises on his left side. McGee and Palmer were awake, although McGee was doped up.

"We should get them out of here," Tony said.

Gibbs shook his head. "We can protect them better here," he stated. He gave Rogers, the NCIS agent on duty, strict instructions that no one was to go in or out of any of their rooms. No one. Gibbs wasn't prepared to trust anybody right now. He amended that. "No one but me or DiNozzo," he clarified. "Someone has a problem with that, you send them to me."

Rogers nodded, already on the headset, getting the word out. The doors leading to Ducky, Palmer, Kate and McGee's rooms were shut, an armed agent standing in front of each one. Other agents, as well as Marines, patrolled the hallways.

Tony sidled up to Gibbs. "How does he think he's going to get to them? He had to know this would happen."

Gibbs had no idea. Thinking furiously, he tried to imagine the man's plan. The bastard had failed to get Abby to come to the hospital, and he had no access to the four he'd already hurt. That left him or Tony.

Reading his mind, Tony said, "He's gonna try to get one of us. Probably me."

Over Gibbs' dead body. Looking around for possible hideouts, Gibbs watched as the Marines carefully checked every room. He saw Rogers in the nurses' station, checking out all the small rooms that branched out from there. There was no way their quarry would be on this floor.

"Together or separately?" Tony asked.

"Together," Gibbs said definitively. He wasn't letting Tony out of his sight.

Tony tossed out several options. "Stairwell? Outside? Roof?"

Gibbs reluctantly had to admit he couldn't read this guy. "You got any ideas?" he asked Tony right back.

"I'll bet he's outside. Waiting for the brouhaha to die down, false alarm, all that jazz. Then," Tony continued with a grimace, "he'll go for me as soon as I leave."

"Outside," Gibbs agreed. "Try not to get shot. I'm not in the mood to lose an agent." Especially you, went unspoken.

The look in Tony's eyes said he'd heard the unspoken caveat. "Got it, boss."

They made their way downstairs through the stairwell, watching each other's backs. With each step, Gibbs could feel his tension mount. Even more than at Cohen's houses, he knew they were walking right into a trap, but had no idea how to spring it without either him or Tony taking on the part of the rat.

The local enforcement officers had closed down the drive to the hospital, keeping local foot traffic away. It gave the outside of the hospital a weird, abandoned look. There were agents at all the other exits, keeping an eye out. It didn't matter; the bastard would be wherever Gibbs was. He considered, and then discarded, the idea of having extra agents stand with them. All that would ensure would be a higher list of casualties. Gibbs knew the bastard wouldn't care who he had to hurt to make his point.

Tony straightened his shoulders as they approached the door. "Ready?"

"Do. Not. Get. Shot." Gibbs warned him, emphasizing each word.

"Got it. Good safety tip. You either."

They made their way out the front door, keeping out of sight as much as possible, but the few columns, stone planters and benches offered scant cover. With a quick hand signal, Gibbs got each of them situated behind a large column. Through his headset, he asked, "See anyone moving?"

"No," Tony said.

Gibbs heard several more negatives from other agents through his headset.

Tony indicated he was moving up to another column.

Gibbs nodded, gun out, eyes vigilant. Tony sprinted to the next column.

A shot rang out, and Gibbs saw the concrete splinter near Tony's feet. Taking into consideration where the shot must have come from, Tony lunged for the lee side of the column, just as another shot came nerve-wrackingly close.

The place would soon be crawling with LEOs, agents and Marines. Gibbs needed to end this now before Cohen's time constraints made him any more deadly. "Give it up, Cohen," Gibbs yelled out. "We know who you are, and this sick game you're playing is over."

Not surprisingly, there was no response. Gibbs wondered if Cohen had already called it a day. Only one way to find out. Gibbs stepped out from behind his column. "You still out there, Cohen?"

"Gibbs," Tony hissed angrily.

A shot at his feet answered that question. "Can't say I think much of your shooting skill," Gibbs taunted him.

"It's not your turn to die yet, Gunnery Sergeant," Cohen called back after a few seconds.

The voice didn't come from where Gibbs had expected. He glanced at Tony, and saw that he'd noticed the same thing. When more shots followed, the only thing that saved Tony's life was that he was already moving, ducking behind a large stone planter.

Gibbs could hear a commotion in the lobby behind him and footsteps coming around corners as other agents converged on the area. "It's over, Cohen," Gibbs tried again.

"You can't watch him forever," Cohen yelled. "Him or Ms. Sciuto." He sounded like he'd moved again. "By the way, did I get it right? Have I saved the best for last?"

Gibbs didn't dignify that question with a response.

"Boss," Tony said through his headset, "I'm just gonna poke out and draw his fire. See if you can figure out where he's at."

Gibbs was about to say no when Tony did it. He let his foot slip so his leg extended past his cover. He was pulling it back when the bullets started to fly, the ground peppered with shots. Tony let out a yelp and yanked his foot back.

Gibbs wanted to make sure Tony was all right, but kept his focus on the job in front of him. He aimed his gun toward the source of Cohen's shots and fired several times. There was some scrambling and then silence. Gibbs wanted to believe the reason for the noise and then lack of noise was Cohen falling out of a tree after one of Gibbs' bullets had killed him. Unfortunately, he was afraid it meant that Cohen had decided this opportunity was lost to him now and had made good his escape.

The extra agents appeared and Gibbs sent them after Cohen, pointing out his last known position. Then he went to Tony. "You all right, DiNozzo?" he asked, concealing his worry, given all the witnesses looking on.

Tony was fingering a hole through his pants. "These were my favorite jeans," he bitched. His finger went through the hole and out the other side. There didn't seem to be any blood.

"Next time you come up with a stupid idea like that, DiNozzo," Gibbs snapped, "wait for me to agree to it."

Tony stared up at Gibbs. "But you standing in front of him without any cover is okay?" He shook his head in annoyance and then glanced at Gibbs' gun. "I heard you shoot. I don't suppose you killed the bastard?"

"No," Gibbs said disgustedly. "Just ended the game for the day." He holstered his weapon.

"Shit," Tony said, equally disgusted. "I was really hoping this was going to be the end of it." He fingered the hole in his jeans again. "With me and you--" He cut off and glanced around at what seemed to be throngs of people surrounding them. With a wry grin, he finished, "--alive."

Gibbs wondered what Tony had been planning on saying. With me and you leaving together? With me and you in bed? With me and you screwing like minks? All of the above would work for Gibbs, or would have worked for him if they'd been able to apprehend Cohen.

A call up to the ward reassured Gibbs that his team was safe. He lifted the ban prohibiting anyone from the room, allowing staff to enter. Cohen's picture had been circulated and, according to Rogers, had been identified as a nurse's aide who'd worked at the hospital part-time for six months. He wouldn't be getting back in.

"A nurse's aide?" Tony asked. At Gibbs' nod, Tony winced. "Weird to think he might have been touching them, giving them baths. Blah." Tony gave an all-over shiver. "Kate's gonna freak."

"His address on file is the first house we went to," Gibbs noted.

"Well, he wasn't living there," Tony complained. "He has to have another place where he's staying."

The agents who'd gone after Cohen came back, not surprisingly, sans Cohen. "Sorry, Gibbs," the lead agent said.

"Anything?" Tony asked.

A second agent held up a baggie. "Shell casings." Tapping the camera, she added, "Footprints."

"That went…?" Tony prompted.

"To a car parked nearby. I've got someone taking casts of the tire tracks. They vanished once he hit the paved road."

"Crap," Tony said heavily. "I hate this guy." He ripped the Velcro fastenings to his vest and pulled it off. "And I hate wearing these things."

Gibbs couldn't agree more. On both counts. Too tired to bother taking off his vest, Gibbs sat down on the bench in front of the hospital. Tony sat down next to him. Slowly, the NCIS agents, the LEOs and the Marines left the area until Gibbs and Tony were alone. "We're missing something," Gibbs said. "This guy is too good to be a civilian."

"All I could find on him was that he worked as an accountant."

Gibbs scoffed and sent Tony a sidelong glance. "You think this guy is an accountant?"

Tony shook his head. "Maybe we should give McGee a laptop, let him do some sleuthing for us. He's a little dopey, but I bet he can surf the web in his sleep."

A car, vetted by security at the end of the drive, began to enter the circle. Gibbs was curious as to who it might be, given the limited number of people who would pass muster. He was about to call down to get a name when the sliding glass doors behind Gibbs and Tony opened, and they heard a familiar excited voice.

"Gibbs, Tony, they said I might find you out here. You won't believe what I found out about this guy."

Gibbs ground his teeth as he spun around. "Abby, what the hell are you doing here?" Gibbs swore to himself that four Marines were about to be assigned to the most hellish location on earth.

Abby waved his question off as if it wasn't important. "When they called to tell me they were bringing in evidence, they said the excitement was over, so here I am." She grinned at them both as if her cleverness knew no bounds.

"And your guard?" Tony asked.

Abby made a raspberry noise. "Amateurs."

The car came to a stop close by, and Gibbs and Tony both turned to see who had arrived. Gibbs saw the weapon before he saw the man's face, but it was enough to bring him to his feet, weapon drawn, Tony immediately following suit.

"Abby," Gibbs ordered, "get back inside. Now!"

"I don't think so, Gunnery Sergeant," Cohen said, gun pointed at Gibbs' head. "If you move, Ms. Sciuto, or you, Mr. DiNozzo, your boss is dead."

Abby, who had been turning to race back inside, came to a complete halt.

"You can't kill both of us," Gibbs said. "You shoot me, he'll shoot you."

"I have no intention of shooting you. This hasn't ever been about shooting you. It's been about breaking you, remember? It's been about getting revenge for what you did to my son."

"What's to stop me or Agent DiNozzo from shooting you right now?" Gibbs was sorely tempted.

"Because that would be murder," Cohen said, smug satisfaction written all over his face.

"That hasn't stopped me before," Gibbs said. "The way I see it, I'd be doing the world a favor." He slipped the safety off his gun, saw Tony follow his lead.

"Just say the word, boss," Tony said, "and this guy is toast." He lowered his gun a tad. "At least let me blow off his kneecap."

"The windows are bullet proof, Agent DiNozzo," Cohen said, "and if you fire at me, you'll bring others into harm's way. Do you want their lives on your head?"

"Any blood that gets spilled," Gibbs said clearly, "is on your hands, Cohen. No matter what you do here, no matter what happens, you're going down for it, one way or another." Gibbs kept aim on the bastard's forehead. "And I still have a clear head shot. Put your gun down. Now. Or I will shoot you."

"Can you shoot me fast enough to keep me from shooting one of them?" Cohen asked. "Which one should it be?" His gun moved until it was pointing at Tony. "I find it very convenient that you've hand-delivered them both. Oh, and I definitely think it's time to start killing now, don't you?" With that, the gun swung toward Abby.

Tony let out an anguished, "No!" and leapt in front of Abby.

Gibbs fired his own weapon a nanosecond after he heard Cohen's gun discharge. A nanosecond too late. He saw the bullet hit Tony in the chest just as Tony threw himself in front of Abby. The momentum of the bullet at such close range blew Tony backwards into Abby, knocking her down. She screamed Tony's name in horror.

In slow motion, Gibbs watched them fall to the sidewalk, registering the thuds of their bodies landing. Cohen's body was falling, too, one bullet hole right between his eyes.

Walking away from Tony and Abby to go check on Cohen was one of the hardest things Gibbs had ever done. He could hear running feet and knew medical attention was on its way, assuming Tony was alive to need it. But Gibbs had seen what weapons like that at close range did to a body, and Tony's heart would have been ripped to shreds when the bullet entered him.

Gibbs pushed that thought aside. Pushed it all aside. He couldn't even begin to process the thought that Tony was probably dead. That there would be no 'me and you' of any kind. A part of him hoped Cohen was still alive so he could rip his fucking heart out.

But Cohen was dead, staring sightlessly up at Gibbs. Gibbs had seen enough dead bodies to know. If he'd been alone with the bastard, Gibbs would have shot him again and again until his gun was empty.

There was an NCIS ID half falling out of Cohen's pocket. That explained how he'd gotten through the security at the bottom of the hospital drive. Gibbs drew in a deep breath and turned back.

Abby was sitting, curled up, crying her heart out. There were medical people around Tony; but seeing as they weren't hurrying to get him up off the ground and to the emergency department, Tony was dead.

He wanted to keep on walking. Walk right by Abby, by the hospital, just keep on walking until he dropped. He felt wearier than he'd ever felt in his life, sick of it all.

"Shit," a voice growled, "that fucking hurt."

Abby's eyes sprang open, disbelieving hope in them. "Tony?" she said shakily.

Gibbs ran for the knot of people. "DiNozzo?" If he was alive, why weren't these assholes taking him to the emergency room?

"Gibbs? You all right?" the same voice asked.

Like the parting of the red sea, the medical people moved so that Gibbs had access to Tony. He was sitting up, clutching his chest.

"Me?" Gibbs asked incredulously. "You're asking me if I'm all right? I thought you were dead." Gibbs voiced cracked on the last word and he had to clear his throat.

"Me, too," Abby said with a wail. She clutched Tony's hand so tightly he winced.

"Abs, I'm gonna need that later," Tony said.

With an apologetic look, Abby loosened her grip, but she didn't let go.

"Why aren't you dead?" Gibbs asked, crouching down to look at Tony. He glanced around, noticing for the first time that there wasn't any blood. Tony wasn't dead. Somehow that was harder to believe than assuming he'd been dead.

Tony parted his shirt, revealing a second vest underneath. "Thought it might be a good idea, even before the Director told us to wear them," he said, wincing again. "And not that I'm not glad to be alive, but that hurt like a bastard."

Two orderlies appeared rolling a stretcher. One of the lab-coated medical people by Tony's side said, "We need to do an x-ray to confirm the impact of the bullet didn't do any significant damage. You are one very lucky man, Agent DiNozzo."

Tony eyed the stretcher with a jaundiced eye. "I think I can walk."

"Get on the stretcher," Gibbs ordered, not willing to take any chances on Tony's well-being. He'd already used up a year's worth of luck.

"Boss," Tony whined.

"Get on the goddamned stretcher," Gibbs snapped.

"O-kay," Tony said slowly, eying Gibbs as if he was an explosive device on a countdown rapidly approaching zero. He put out a hand to push up off the sidewalk, but with a groan, gave that up as a really bad idea.

Gibbs was there in an instant, and between him and an orderly on Tony's other side, and after Abby reluctantly released Tony's hand, they got him standing and then sitting on the gurney. Gibbs reveled in the warmth of Tony's very alive body.

Tony stared up at Gibbs, a slight smile on his face, a look of understanding amusement in his eyes. "Gotta let go, boss," he said softly. "Let them run their tests, and then we're out of here."

"Only if they say you can go," Gibbs warned him. After the head of the gurney was raised, he helped Tony lay back. "Try not to fall off," he said sarcastically. "Your survival instincts are a bit off today."

"Gibbs," Abby protested, "he totally saved my life."

"Which he wouldn't have had to do if you'd stayed put like you were told," Gibbs bit out, angry with Abby, and trying hard not to take out his frustration about everything on her.

Fortunately, Abby looked properly chastised. She turned to Tony. "Tony, I'm sorry. If you had died…" She didn't finish her sentence, only swallowed, her eyes tearing up. "I thought you were dead."

"Hey, Abs, it's okay," Tony said tenderly. "I'm hard to kill." His eyes met Gibbs. "Got that, boss? I'm here for the duration."

Gibbs nodded tightly.

"You gonna wait around and give me a lift home?" Tony asked, as if afraid Gibbs might bolt.

"I can give you a ride," Abby said.

"No," Gibbs countered her. "Abs, you need to go now. And you need to not drive." He gestured for a Marine to join them. When he stood at the ready, Gibbs said, "Would you please drive Ms. Sciuto back to NCIS headquarters?"

"Right away, sir," the Marine said. Gibbs didn't bother to tell him not to call him sir. He didn't have the energy.

"Gibbs," Abby protested. "I don't want to leave. I want to make sure Tony is all right."

Gibbs took a deep breath. "Abby. Go away. I'm mad at you, and I don't want to talk to you right now. I'll have someone call you with Tony's results."

"Gibbs," she said tentatively, her brow furrowed.

"I mean it," he warned. "You screwed up, and Tony almost died because of it. Do you get that?"

"He was probably gonna shoot me, anyway," Tony offered on Abby's behalf.

"It doesn't matter," Gibbs said implacably. "It's a different situation when it's two armed NCIS agents dealing with an armed suspect than it is when there's an unarmed civilian thrown in the mix."

Tony and Abby exchanged glances. Tony's head jerked a little to the right, toward the Marine. "I'll call you later," he said to her. Then he crooked a finger to beckon her closer. "I'm real glad you're not dead, Abs."

She flung her arms around him, then, remembering he was in considerable pain, turned it into a kiss on the cheek. "Me, too, Tony. Thanks for saving my life." She pulled back, her eyes wet, and a typical Abby resilient grin on her face. "You were awesome. Wait until Kate hears about this," she promised. "I'll tell her and McGee about it over and over and over again."

Tony let out a laugh which turned into a cough, which segued into a desperate attempt to stop both the laughing and the coughing. He pressed against his chest, trying to draw in a breath.

"Go," Gibbs said, wanting to be able to focus all his attention on Tony.

Abby hesitated for a minute, but then she nodded at her Marine. "Gibbs, about those Marines--" she started tentatively.

"Not your concern," Gibbs interrupted her. He really didn't want to talk to her. They'd clear the air later; they always did, but right now she needed to go.

She bit her lip as if just realizing she'd banished her four guards to Siberia. Then, with a heavy sigh, and another half-hearted wave at Tony, she left with the Marine.

Gibbs watched her walk away. He was looking forward to the conversation with those four Marines. He could take his frustration out on them and for as long as it took. Not that he'd have to do much to punish them. When word got out--and Gibbs would make sure it did--that they'd let a civilian woman escape their guard, they'd be laughingstocks. Not that it would be enough. He'd make sure they were transferred out. He didn't want incompetent soldiers based at NCIS.

Realizing Tony's stretcher was in motion, Gibbs turned his attention back where it belonged and caught up. "When'd you put that vest on?"

"When I got my gun," Tony said. "It's one of the new thin, light ones. I sort of forgot about it and just put the regular one over it."

Incapable of expressing how thankful he was that Tony had had the foresight to keep that vest on, Gibbs just put his hand on Tony's arm and squeezed.

Gibbs was banished into the waiting room after Tony told him he was scaring the doctors. While he paced, he called the Director and filled him in. Then he went up to check on the rest of his team, visiting Ducky first. This time, the good doctor was awake.

"Jethro," Ducky said, weakly, but in good spirits. "I understand you've taken care of our little problem."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. Little problem. That was one way of putting it. "How are you feeling? You look like shit." He sat down on the chair next to Ducky's bed.

"Yes, I imagine I do," Ducky said. "A bit achy. Nothing I won't recover from. I just spoke with my friend Robert, and I'm glad to report he's well on his way to recovery as well."

"Glad to hear it." Gibbs ran a hand through his hair and grimaced.

"Don't say it, Jethro," Ducky warned. "None of this was your fault. You can hardly be blamed for the acts of a madman."

"He could have killed all of you," Gibbs bit out, exhaustion sweeping over him. "While I stood by and watched it happen."

"But he didn't. And that's a testimony to you and your skills."

Gibbs snorted, shaking his head. "I couldn't stop him, Ducky. He out-thought me on every front. And the only reason he's dead is because he wanted to be." He hung his head. "And the only reason Tony's not dead is because he had a second vest on. Otherwise you'd be getting out of this hospital bed to go to his funeral." His eyes stung, and he rubbed them with a thumb and index finger. "Look at me," he whispered. "The bastard did it."

Ducky put the head of his bed up higher so he could reach out a hand to Gibbs' shoulder. "No, he didn't. These aren't tears of a broken man, dear friend. These are tears of relief that it's over, that we're all alive. When Abby called me to tell me Cohen was dead, I wept a few tears myself. Don't fault yourself for caring about us."

Rubbing his eyes again, Gibbs let out a shaky breath. "It was so close."

"Yes, Abby told me." He squeezed Gibbs' shoulder. "I don't blame you for being angry, Jethro, but don't let it go on too long. The girl's beside herself for letting you down."

"Did she tell you anything about the bastard?" Gibbs asked. He hadn't even bothered to find out what had brought Abby to the hospital.

"Yes, he was, in Abby's words, so secret down under, he makes Special Ops look like kindergarten. He abandoned his family at the behest of the government, was given a new identity, and then proceeded to work on top-secret wetworks operations for decades. According to Abby, he started going a little, what's that word she uses, ah, yes, hinky, a couple years back, and the government decided to forgo his services, leaving him, apparently, at loose ends."

Gibbs loved his country, and it was his honor to protect the people who kept it safe, but there were lines frequently crossed that kept him up at night. "No wonder I couldn't keep up with him," Gibbs said. The news made him feel marginally better.

"And there must have been some good left in him, when you think about how easily he could have killed us," Ducky added.

"He was escalating," Gibbs corrected Ducky. "He physically attacked you and your friend, and he would have killed Abby if Tony hadn't taken the shot for her."

Ducky shivered. "I'm just grateful it's over. The whole thing was quite disturbing." He yawned. "So young Anthony is all right?"

"They're x-raying him now. I wouldn't be surprised if he has a few cracked ribs. Cohen was close when he pulled the trigger. Tony'll be sore for a few days." When Ducky yawned again, Gibbs stood. "I'm going to go check on everyone else."

Ducky nodded, his eyelids drooping. "Jethro, you stopped him. And we're all alive. Keep your focus on that."

"Thanks, Duck," Gibbs said. "Get some sleep." Advice immediately taken, as Ducky seemed to already be snoring.

A crooked grin on his face, Gibbs left the room with a lighter heart than he'd come in with.

Tony smiled at him when he got back to his curtained off section in the emergency department. "Hey, boss. Everyone okay?"

Gibbs nodded. "Ducky had his usual words of wisdom, Palmer stuttered, McGee's stoned on the good stuff, and Kate said to tell you she doesn't believe a word of it."

Letting out a short laugh he immediately regretted, Tony grinned through the pain. "Ow."

"What did the x-rays show?" Gibbs asked.

Tony shrugged, or started to shrug, and then thought better of it. "Badly bruised. Maybe a crack or two, but nothing to write home about."

"Did he give you something for the pain?"

"I got stuff at home," Tony said. "Help me up and let's get out of here."

Gibbs moved to his side, wrapping his arm gingerly around Tony's waist. "Slowly."

Tony barked out a half laugh. "No worries about that. I think I'm gonna be on slow motion for a few days."

Between the two of them, they got Tony standing. Keeping a slow pace, they got Tony signed out, and out the door. Tony, with some assistance from Gibbs, lowered himself into the passenger seat of Gibbs' car.

"Where are we going?" Gibbs asked when a decision had to be made.

"My apartment," Tony answered. "Better bed, better sheets."

Gibbs scowled. "How do you know that?"

With a slight grin, Tony said, "Because I know you. And I would bet a year's salary that I have a better bed and better sheets."

"Sheets are sheets," Gibbs rejoined huffily.

"Sheets are not sheets," Tony said confidently. "Wait until you feel mine. You won't want to get out of my bed. Trust me."

Taking advantage of a red light, Gibbs turned to Tony and said, "I know I won't want to get out of your bed, but trust me, it won't have anything to do with your sheets."

Tony blinked at him and then actually blushed.

Grinning, Gibbs gunned the engine when the light turned green.

Part 2

--Where our heroes

get their well-deserved desserts--

Gibbs helped Tony settle down onto the couch, then went rifling through Tony's medicine chest for some Vicodin. He found a generic version and came back with a pill and a glass of water. Tony popped it in his mouth and washed it down with a long swallow. "Thanks." He handed the water back to Gibbs, then leaned back, closing his eyes.

Gibbs sat across from him, just looking at him. Right now, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to drink his fill. Tony was far from his usual sartorial splendor: his clothes were stained, his hair was disheveled, and there was a bruise on his cheek from when he'd hit the sidewalk, but him sitting there, breathing, was just about the best thing Gibbs had ever seen.

He could tell when the pill started to take effect; there was a marked release in the tension in Tony's shoulders. Gibbs thought maybe now Tony could tolerate some sort of massage. Before, it would have been too much.

"Sorry about this," Tony said softly.

"For what?"

Opening his eyes, Tony gestured at his chest, the couch. "This. This wasn't exactly how I pictured our first night together, with me moving like a hundred-year-old man."

Gibbs got up and sat down next to him, tempted to smack Tony upside the head. Instead, he reached over and framed Tony's face with his hands. "Tony, you're alive. Nothing else matters. I don't care about anything else." Tenderly, he kissed Tony's lips. "You're alive. Jesus." Gibbs chest hurt just thinking about the alternative.

Tony turned the kiss into more. He might still be hurting, but he obviously wasn't down for the count. His tongue came out to caress Gibbs' lips, then dip in between them.

With a groan, Gibbs opened his mouth, inviting Tony inside, his cock hardening as Tony tried to excavate his tonsils. Their tongues dueled, thick and wet and hot. Forgetting for a moment, Gibbs leaned on Tony, intending to take him down on the couch.

"Ow," Tony yelped, looking like he'd forgotten, too. "No leaning, boss."

"Sorry," Gibbs said penitently, not only for hurting Tony, but for breaking the mood. He sat back, hands off. "And maybe you should think about calling me Jethro."

Tony grinned. "Jethro?"

"This isn't the first time you're hearing that," Gibbs said, eyes narrowing at the grin. It had been a long time since someone had been foolish enough to give him shit about his name.

"Leroy Jethro Gibbs," Tony said, still grinning.

"You think my name is funny?" Gibbs said with a warning glare.

Tony did his best to contain his smile, but he just couldn't do it. He was biting his lips so hard they were white.

Gibbs let out a long sigh. "Fine. Get it out of your system."

Tony sat up a little straighter, winced at the movement, and grinned again. "This would work better if I could dance around. You get that, right?"

"Just do it," Gibbs snapped. "And then, trust me, we're done. This is a one-time only offer."

With that stupid grin plastered to his face, Tony started singing the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. "Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed…"

Gibbs gritted his teeth and stared stoically at the man that, for some reason Gibbs couldn't fathom at the moment, he'd decided to take to his bed. As he listened to the lyrics, wondering what on earth possessed him to get involved with someone who actually knew the lyrics--all of them--Gibbs was having serious second thoughts. Although he did admit that Tony had a nice voice.

"Hills, that is, swimmin' pools, movie stars." Tony stopped singing and sighed happily. "Jethro Bodine," he drawled out. "Max Baer, man, he was great."

With a look of only partly mock horror, Gibbs said, "Oh, my God, you are Jethro Bodine."

With another shit-eating grin, Tony nodded his head at what he considered to be high praise. Then, frowning, he complained, "Hey, I dress better."

"Whatever," Gibbs said. "Are you done?"

"Jethro," Tony said by way of response, rolling the name off his tongue, as if tasting it. "Jethro." He started grinning and bit his lips again. "Sorry, boss, oops, Jethro, but your name just doesn't fit you. You are a total hard ass. A Jethro is a laid-back rifle-toting, beer-guzzling redneck."

He finally lost control of the grin, and Gibbs could see Tony's expression was loopier than usual; the Vicodin was definitely doing its job. "Come on, Romeo," Gibbs said, standing. "Let's get you to bed."

Tony's eyes lit up. "We gonna fuck now?"

"No, DiNozzo, we're not going to fuck now," Gibbs said dryly, even as a part of his anatomy seemed to perk up at the idea.

"Why not?" Tony pouted, as he watched Gibbs move to stand in front of him, his crotch now at Tony's eye level. Tony grinned again. "That's more like it," he said. He put his hand out and covered Gibbs' crotch. "I've been wanting to get my hands on this for a long time, now," he confessed, as he clumsily started to undo Gibbs' belt.

Gibbs let out a strained laugh as he fought Tony's hands off. "Jesus, you have a one-track mind. All I want to do here is help you up."

Tony appeared to think about it. Then he nodded. "Okay. Okay." He wrapped his fingers around Gibbs' arm and Gibbs levered him up.

Tony came up easier than Gibbs expected, and he found himself practically hugging the man. Tony took advantage by wrapping his arms around Gibbs and resting his head on his shoulder. Without thought, Gibbs' arms returned the favor and he found himself in the middle of a loving embrace, something he hadn't experienced in too long. His fingers caressed Tony's hair, and he smiled when Tony let out a pleased moan. "Ready to walk?"

"No," Tony said. "This feels good."

"We can do this in the bedroom," Gibbs promised.

That got Tony's attention. He pulled his head back and said, "I want to do more than this in the bedroom." His voice was making all sorts of promises that seemed to have a direct effect on Gibbs' cock.

"Don't make promises you can't keep, DiNozzo," Gibbs said with a grin.

"Aw, come on, Jethro, you're a smart man. You can figure out how to fuck me without me having to move."

Gibbs' head was suddenly filled with visions of Tony tied up, helpless, unable to move, while Gibbs thrust into his body. "You're killing me here," he said desperately.

Tony's eyes were dark now, and he leaned back in to capture Gibbs' lips in a passionate kiss, licking his way into Gibbs' mouth, getting reacquainted. Giving in, Gibbs kissed him right back, one hand clutched in Tony's hair, the other on his ass, someplace Gibbs had wanted to have his hands on for a long time.

"Bed," he gasped out.

"Bed," Tony said breathlessly in return.

The two men made their way into the bedroom, Gibbs maintaining enough presence of mind to keep Tony from hitting any walls. Once in the bedroom, Tony started to take off his t-shirt, but a low moan escaped him when he tried to lift his arms up too high.

"Hey," Gibbs said. "Let me do the work here, okay?"

Tony blew out a breath. "Good idea." He raked Gibbs with a look. "Except I've had fantasies about getting you out of your clothes," he added with a sigh.

"Plenty of time for that," Gibbs said huskily. Rucking up the fabric, Gibbs worked Tony's shirt off of him. The bruise on Tony's chest sobered him up better than a bucket full of ice water. It almost covered Tony's chest, a huge blotch that went from Tony's left collarbone almost down to his navel, from breastbone to armpit. The center of it was right over Tony's heart. So close. He came so close to losing this man today.

Tony looked down to see what Gibbs was focused on. "Wow," he said with a wry grin. "That's pretty impressive." He shrugged. "Better than being dead, though," he added pragmatically.

Gibbs didn't know how Tony could be so casual about it. "Don't," he cautioned, his voice rough. "Don't joke about it."

Despite Tony's drugged state, he gave Gibbs an intense stare. "Hey," he said softly. "I'm okay. I'm alive, and we're both here together. Things are looking pretty good from where I'm standing."

"I thought you were dead," Gibbs said, unable to let it go. "When he shot you, and you fell against Abby, I thought you were dead. I thought I'd come back and find a huge gaping hole in your chest, and your blood all over the sidewalk." Gibbs felt a correspondingly huge gaping hole in his own chest at the thought and found it suddenly hard to breathe.

"Come here," Tony said, offering the only true medicine that would work. He coaxed Gibbs into his arms and held him tightly. "We're both gonna have nightmares about this one, Jethro, but it'll pass." He rubbed his hands comfortingly up and down Gibbs' back. "Right now, I just want to be with you." He pulled back a little. "I love you, Jethro Gibbs."

Gibbs blinked against a sting of tears. "I almost lost the chance to hear that." He cleared his throat, appalled at his inability to keep it together.

"Should I say it again?" Tony asked kindly.

Gibbs nodded.

"I love you. So much," Tony said, kissing Gibbs softly on the lips. He pulled back again, watching Gibbs.

Gibbs wanted to say it, but he was afraid if he opened his mouth, he'd lose it.

An understanding expression appeared on Tony's face. "Do you love me, too?" he asked, helping out.

Gibbs nodded. He had to clear his throat again, and he let his head drop to Tony's right shoulder, hiding.

"You think I'm ever going to tell anyone about this?" Tony asked, his fingers carding through Gibbs' hair. "You don't think I get how you must feel? You're holding it together better than I could if it had been you he'd almost killed. I love that you feel this much. I love that it's because of me."

As much as Gibbs wanted to hear what Tony was saying, he also wanted him to shut the hell up. It wasn't helping. Aggravated, he sniffled.

Tony laughed, his chest vibrating against Gibbs' body. "I bet you're hating this, aren't you?"

"Yes," Gibbs said vehemently into Tony's shoulder.

"Want me to talk about sports for a minute?"

That got a laugh out of Gibbs. How did he end up with this? With someone so gorgeous, astonishingly kind under his teasing exterior, and someone who knew him so well.

Gibbs pulled away, knowing Tony would see his reddened eyes, not to mention his now snotty nose. He thought he might smack Tony's head if he said anything about it. Of course, Tony grinned at him, saying, "Looking good, boss."

"Shut up," Gibbs said emphatically. "Not another word." Making sure Tony was steady on his feet, Gibbs headed for the bathroom, grabbing a wad of toilet paper that he blew his nose into. After washing his hands, he went back to Tony, who was sort of swaying. Gibbs stood in front of Tony. "Where were we?"

"Um," Tony said, brow furrowed. Then his eyes lit up. "Taking off our clothes." He made as if to take off his shirt, but then realized it was already off. His hands moved to his belt. "You better hurry up, Jethro, I'm way ahead of you."

Glad to feel more on an even keel, Gibbs obliged Tony by stripping off his own clothes. He was done before Tony, who had managed to get his pants and boxers half-way down his legs, but still had his shoes on. He was looking down as if the concept of removing his shoes and pants was just too overwhelming.

Smiling, Gibbs walked Tony to the edge of the bed and sat him down. Then he crouched down, pulled off Tony's shoes, followed by his socks and pants. When he was done, he took a moment to admire Tony's body. He'd seen him naked once before, when that stupid iguana had scared Tony to death. Tony had let out a blood curdling yell that had brought both Gibbs and Kate running to his room to find Tony, hair sticking out every which way, in nothing but his birthday suit.

This time was better. No witnesses. And he could touch. "Move back on the bed," he said, pulling down the comforter.

Tony nodded and turned over to crawl up the bed over the mound of comforter, giving Gibbs a heart-stopping view of his tight ass. When Tony hit the pillows, he slowly sank down on his right side. "Ohhh," he said in pleasure. "I love my bed."

Gibbs made himself comfortable on the left side of the bed, facing Tony. He had to admit the bed was nice. And the sheets felt like silk. Much nicer than his. Much.

"Hey," Tony said with a smile. "So, what's the plan? Don't tell me that the first time we're in bed together, we're not going to do anything."

"That's what I should tell you, but no, we are going to do something." Gibbs opened the bedside drawer, assuming supplies would be there, and rooted around for the lube. Once he had it in hand, he got out of bed. "Scooch over here," he said, patting the side of the bed he'd just gotten up from. While Tony was scooching, Gibbs went and got a towel.

Once Tony was settled, Gibbs got on the bed behind him, and pressed in close.

"Hmm," Tony said happily. "I like this. I could get used to this."

Gibbs could, too. He put some lube on his hand, and reached around Tony. His cock had softened quite a bit, but it rallied immediately at the touch of Gibbs' hand. Tony thrust into his fist, but then groaned, and not in pleasure.

"Let me do it, Tony. You stay still."

Tony let out a noise of frustration. "How about you?"

"I'll take care of me," Gibbs said. He continued stroking Tony from root to crown, listening to Tony's panted breaths and whimpers.

Tony separated his thighs. "Fuck me this way, then. I want to feel you."

Gibbs could see that Tony was not going to relax unless he thought Gibbs was being taken care of, and he liked Tony's suggestion. Gibbs lubed up his cock, and then wiped the remainder between Tony's thighs. "You ready?"

Tony nodded, smiling, happier.

Gibbs moved closer and pushed himself between Tony's thighs. It had been way too long since he'd had sex with anyone he cared about, and it felt too good for words. He groaned, and thrust again.

"That feels great," Tony sighed, "you pushing up against my balls. Do it again."

Gibbs did as instructed, and then put part of his attention back on Tony, getting into a rhythm where he stroked in time to his thrusts. The crease to Tony's ass was getting lubed by the friction, and every now and then Gibbs' cock would snub against the puckered entrance to his body. Every time he did, Tony would let out a fevered moan.

"Just do it, Jethro, please. I want you inside me. I want to feel you in me for our first time."

Gibbs was tempted. Really tempted. "I don't want to hurt you."

"You won't," Tony promised him, "and even if you do, I don't care. I want to feel your cock in me. Please. I'm already slick, and the Vicodin's got me all relaxed. Just do it."

Against his rational judgment, which had been in short supply ever since they'd arrived at Tony's place, Gibbs carefully reached across Tony to grab a condom. He smiled crookedly at Tony's blissful sigh. It figured he'd be a pushy bottom. Gibbs rolled on the condom, and lubed himself up again. "Push up your knee," he said, patting Tony's leg.

Tony complied, reaching behind and pulling himself open. "All yours, Jethro. Come on."

Very pushy.

Hurting Tony any more than he had to was out of the question, so ignoring Tony's insistent demands, Gibbs lubed his fingers to check out Tony's claim that he was ready. His fingers slid right in, Tony's body clearly one of those lucky ones who responded quickly to stimulation. Or maybe that made Gibbs the lucky one. Withdrawing his fingers, he replaced them with his cock and pushed. Gibbs moved easily past the tight muscles, sliding right in.

The groan that movement elicited from Tony almost made Gibbs come right then.

"God," Tony said, pushing back, "you feel so good. So fucking good." He wrapped his fingers around his cock and started to stroke.

Gibbs pushed his hand away. "Stay still, I'll do that."

"I always knew you were talented," Tony panted out, every breath ending on a moan. "So good. You fit me perfectly."

Gibbs quickly found his rhythm, stroking and thrusting. When he hit Tony's prostate, Tony let out a growl that resonated through Gibbs' body. After that, Gibbs kept hitting it, until Tony was practically purring like some beautiful, exotic tiger.

Finally, Gibbs could tell Tony was getting close. His excitement communicated itself so that Gibbs knew the second Tony was about to come. He let out one last groan and exploded all over Gibbs' hand. The pulsing of his orgasm around Gibbs' cock was all it took to set him off. He thrust one more time and saw stars as he came deep inside Tony's body.

He lay there for a minute, trying to breathe. As his cock began to soften, he pulled out gently, taking the condom and tying it off. Grabbing the towel, he did the best job he could wiping off lube from his hand, his cock, and Tony's ass and thighs, then wrapping the towel around the condom. Gibbs peered at Tony, smiling. The man was out for the count.

Quietly getting out of bed, even though he was sure a freight train coming through the room wouldn't wake Tony up, Gibbs headed for the bathroom. When he was done with all his ablutions, feeling clean and more relaxed than he had been in days, he crawled back into bed behind Tony, pulled up the comforter, and fell fast asleep.

The next morning, as he shut off the shower, Gibbs realized he could hear voices. He'd been up for quite a while already, an early rising time too ingrained to ignore despite the events of the last day and night.

Tony had still been dead to the world, so Gibbs had decided to go for a run and maybe pick up something to eat after noticing the mostly empty refrigerator. He'd run a loving hand through Tony's hair, kissed his forehead, and then quietly left for his run.

Tony had still been sleeping soundly when he'd returned. He'd left the pink bakery box on the kitchen table and gone to take a long hot shower. Gibbs liked Tony's shower almost as much as he liked Tony's bed. The water pressure was phenomenal, and the shower head was as large as a dinner plate, making it feel like he was standing under a waterfall.

Drying himself off, Gibbs tried to figure out whose voices he was hearing. First he recognized Abby. Then, after a few moments, he realized Kate was here, too. He could hear Tony's deeper voice answering their questions. He sincerely hoped Tony had put some clothes on before answering the door.

Gibbs wondered if he should stay in the bedroom, or go out and face the music. He also wondered what spin Tony had put on him being here. Maybe he'd better eavesdrop for a few minutes to see what story Tony had come up with. Decision made, Gibbs quickly got dressed, and then, walking quietly, headed down the hall until their voices could be clearly heard, just in time to hear Kate ask: "Who's in the shower?"

"Gibbs," Tony said.

Gibbs winced, hoping Tony's brain wasn't still on drugs.

"Gibbs?" Kate asked in astonishment. "Gibbs is in your shower? Why is Gibbs in your shower?"

Gibbs couldn't wait to hear Tony's answer.

"He went for a run. He asked if he could use the shower, I said yes."

"Why is he even here?"

Gibbs noticed Abby wasn't volunteering any information, which was a very good thing. For her.

"He's mother-henning me," Tony said.

"What?" Without even seeing her, Gibbs could feel Kate's jaw drop. "Since when does Gibbs mother-hen anyone?"

"Hey," Abby protested, "he's a great mother hen."

Gibbs rolled his eyes.

"Maybe for you," Kate said, obviously to Abby, "but to Tony? Why's he mother-henning you? He'd never mother-hen me," she added with some pique.

"I told you he liked me best," Tony said evilly.

"Tony," Kate said, annoyed.

"It's a guy thing, Kate," Tony assured her. "Nothing to get nuts about. He runs in the morning. He likes to run around here, more than around his house, so he killed two birds with one stone. He came to check up on me, made sure I made it through the night in one piece, then he went for his run. Seeing as he brought breakfast back with him, I told him he could use the shower."

"Did you make it through the night okay?" Abby asked with affectionate worry.

Gibbs could definitely attest to that.

"Yeah, Abs, I'm okay," Tony reassured her. "As long as I don't move, laugh or cough," he added, humor in his voice.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

A few moments passed. Gibbs wondered what was going on.

"I'm really sorry, Tony," Abby finally said, breaking the silence.

"Abby," Tony began.

"No, I mean it. I know I have fun flaunting the rules and making fun of Gibbs when he's being strict and all, but I would never, I mean never, have forgiven myself if you'd…" There was silence again and then a sniff.

"Abby, really, it's okay. I'd give you a hug right now but my ribs sort of feel like they're going to shatter into a million pieces if I touch anyone, so just pretend I'm hugging you, okay?"

"We've all made stupid decisions, Abby," Kate volunteered. "You've seen me make too many of them."

"Me, too," Tony threw in. "Too numerous to mention."

There were another few moments of silence. Gibbs wondered if it was time to make his entrance.

Abby must have decided it was time to stop the drama, because when she spoke again, she said in a teasing tone, "I thought maybe it was the new love of your life in the shower."

She lost a Caf-Pow for that comment, Gibbs thought darkly.

"That's a nice thought," Tony said, his voice sounding as if he were smiling.

"I'm afraid to ask," Kate said with dripping sarcasm, "but who is this very disturbed woman who's the alleged love of your life? And, please, spare me the details. I know you find it hard to believe, but none of us hang around hoping you'll give us the details of your sex life."

"Speak for yourself," Abby protested. "I do."

Gibbs just managed to keep a laugh from escaping.

"Hmph," Tony said in a mock-wounded tone. "I don't kiss and tell."

"Since when?" Kate hooted.

"Go on, Tony," Abby prompted. "Tell us all about it."

Gibbs hoped Kate didn't notice Abby's non-use of female pronouns.

"Tall," Tony said dreamily. "Beautiful blue eyes, silky hair."

Gibbs wished he could see Tony's face right now. Then again, maybe not. After all, with company present, it's not like he'd be free to ravish the man. Not that he'd be able to do that, anyway, as sore as Tony probably was this morning. On the other hand, it hadn't stopped him last night. Memories of claiming Tony last night swept through him and settled in a warm liquid pool in the pit of his belly.

Doing his best to regain control of his body, Gibbs decided it was time to make an appearance, so he walked into the kitchen. First thing he did was notice that Tony was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and looked good enough to eat. Then he gave Abby a kiss to the top of her head.

She let out a happy shriek and wrapped her arms around him, giving him a hug. "Oh, you love me again." Pulling back, she said, very sincerely, "Gibbs, I am totally sorry. I promise I'll stay put next time."

Gibbs snorted, finding that highly unlikely. But, hopefully, she'd learned a lesson. "You leave me anything to eat, DiNozzo?" he asked, opening the bakery box. He was glad to see there were several pastries still uneaten. He grabbed one and took a bite.

"I hurt too much to eat," Tony complained.

"Take a pill," Gibbs advised, studying Tony for a few moments, deciding he looked like crap. The pill container was still sitting on the kitchen counter where he'd left it last night. Gibbs reached for it, opened it up, and slapped one on the table. "Here."

Kate crossed her arms over her chest. "This is a new side to you, Gibbs. Who knew you were a mother hen?" She sounded distinctly put out. Gibbs guessed it was because she knew he'd never be at her house forcing her to take her medicine.

He wasn't about to get into a pissing contest about it. "Take it," he said again to Tony, ignoring Kate.

The three of them sat there and watched Tony place the pill in his mouth and drink some water.

When he was done, Tony frowned at them. "If I'm the best you got for entertainment, you all need to get a life." Then he grinned.

Abby grinned back. To Gibbs, she said, mischief in her eyes, "Tony was telling us that he's in love."

"Yeah?" Gibbs asked. "Anyone I know?"

"Maybe," Tony said with the air of a ten-year-old with a secret. "I already told Kate that I don't kiss and tell."

"Since when?" Gibbs asked.

"See?" Kate crowed. "That's just what I said."

"Mock if you must," Tony said heroically. "My lips are sealed."

Kate snorted. "Yeah, until another woman in a short skirt catches your eye."

Gibbs caught Tony's eye, and they had time to exchange a quick smile before looking away.

"I believe Tony could fall in love," Abby said faithfully.

"Thanks, Abs," Tony said, taking a bite of pastry. "Nice to know one of you believes me."

She beamed at him. "McGee sends his regards. He'd have come, too, but his doctor said he's off the leg for at least another week." She leaned forward. "And I don't know if Gibbs told you yet or not, but the Director is making us all take a few days off. He says we've had a stressful week."

Tony snickered. "Yeah, it wasn't my favorite week ever." He quickly looked at Gibbs, then away. "Although, parts of it weren't horrible."

"Yeah?" Kate asked defensively. "Which parts would those be?"

"The parts where none of you died," Tony said quietly.

Kate's face softened, and she reached out and touched Tony's hand. "That goes both ways."

"Totally," Abby said in all sincerity. "So, Tony," she added in a lighter tone. "Do you have a killer bruise?"

Tony lifted his t-shirt to show Abby. Gibbs could barely stand to look. Staring at it last night had been more than enough.

"Holy shit," Abby said.

Kate's eyes grew wide, and as Tony lowered the shirt, she paled, as if it was just sinking in how easily Tony could have died.

"It's a beauty, isn't it?" Tony said, almost proudly. Then, he yawned.

Gibbs suspected the Vicodin was taking effect. He shot a sidelong glance at Abby. When she looked at him, he jerked his head, indicating that it was time for them to leave.

Abby nodded. "Looks like your drug is kicking in. You gonna crash?" she asked Tony.

He nodded. "That's about all I'm good for right now." His eyes closed for a second, and he struggled to reopen them. Then, grinning mischievously at Gibbs, he said, "You gonna keep mother-henning me, boss? Wanna tuck me in?"

"Yeah, I'll tuck you in, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, as if Tony was almost more bother than he was worth.

Abby stood, leaning down to kiss Tony on the cheek. "I'm sorry you're hurting so much," she said softly.

"You are totally worth it," Tony muttered sleepily back to her.

"You better take care of him," Abby said to Gibbs.

"Me?" Gibbs replied, all innocence. "I just dropped by to check on him. I didn't sign on for weekend duty."

Abby grinned at him when Kate wasn't looking. Then to Tony, she said, "Call me if you need anything."

"Yeah, me, too, Tony," Kate said. "Especially if this new love of your life shows up. I want to meet her so I can warn her off."

"Ha ha," Tony said, his eyelids drooping.

Gibbs stood and moved to Tony's side. "Come on, DiNozzo. You're going to be on your face in another few seconds."

Tony nodded wearily and, with Gibbs' help, made his way to a somewhat lopsided standing position.

"He looks like crap," Kate said.

"He's asleep on his feet," Gibbs observed. He managed to get Tony turned in the right direction. "Time to walk."

"Walk?" Tony complained.

"To your bed," Gibbs coaxed.

Once again, Tony professed his undying affection for his mattress. "I love my bed, Gibbs."

"I know you do," Gibbs said, not able to stop the crooked smile on his face. "I think that's who you're really in love with." He tapped Tony's thigh. "Come on, walk."

Tony looked down at his bare feet as if asking them for their opinion. Abby was suddenly at his other side. "I think maybe you could use some help," she offered. She lifted Tony's right arm and slung it over her shoulder.

The pill was really wiping Tony out this time. Gibbs and Abby started moving, with Tony stumbling along in their wake. Between the two of them, they got Tony into bed fairly quickly. Gibbs was glad he'd taken a moment to pick up their scattered clothing from last night.

He let Tony get under the covers still dressed in his jeans and t-shirt; Gibbs would take care of that later. Tony was asleep before his head even hit the pillow. With a smile for Abby, Gibbs followed her back to the kitchen, where Kate was rinsing out coffee cups.

"Do you want me to check on him tomorrow?" Kate asked. "I can."

Gibbs shook his head. "He's right. I do like to run over here, so it's easy enough for me to check in on him."

"Okay, but call if he needs something."

"That goes for me, too," Abby said sincerely.

Kate picked up her purse. "You leaving now?" she asked Gibbs.

He shook his head. "I'll just stay a little longer."

"We can stay, too, if you want." Kate offered.

Gibbs looked at Abby.

"No, we can't," Abby said quickly. "I need to get home and you're my chauffeur."

Kate shrugged. "Okay." She frowned at Gibbs, but Abby tugged at her arm, and in a few seconds, they were out the front door.

Gibbs could hear Kate complaining as they headed for her car. "He'd never do that for me," she bitched.

"Would you want him to?" Abby asked with a laugh.

"Hell, no," Kate said emphatically. "It's just the principle of the thing."

"Aw, you're just mad that he likes Tony best," Abby teased.

"I am not--" Her words were cut off by the slamming of a car door.

Chuckling, Gibbs made a fresh pot of coffee.

Tony slept for six hours and Gibbs slept right along with him for most of it. He'd gone in to watch Tony sleep and couldn't resist the temptation. It had been a long week.

"Hey," Tony said softly.

Gibbs opened his eyes and found Tony smiling at him. Not his broad smile, just a contented, happy smile that Gibbs really liked.

"Hey," Gibbs said in return, feeling pretty contented himself.

Then Tony frowned. "Did Kate and Abby stop by or did I dream that?"

"They stopped by," Gibbs told him.

"Oh." He frowned again. "Did I say anything stupid?" he asked nervously.

Gibbs shook his head. "You were a consummate liar," he said with an approving grin.

"Oh. Good."

He looked endearingly confused, and Gibbs had to lean in to steal a kiss. The one kiss turned into two and resulted in some serious heat. When Gibbs pulled back he was breathless. "You gonna remember this?" Gibbs asked.

"Crystal clear, boss," Tony said, leaning in for another kiss. Then, as if he'd used up all his energy, he sagged back down.

"Boss?" Gibbs asked.

"Jethro," Tony corrected himself. "I'm tired." He glanced at the clock. "How long did I sleep?"

"We," Gibbs corrected him, "slept six hours."

"I feel like I could sleep another twelve," Tony complained.

"Then you should."

Tony's gaze moved to Gibbs' crotch. "You look like you have something there I should take care of."

"You can take care of it later. You go back to sleep. I'm going to run home, pick up some more clothes, and stop for some groceries."

"But you're coming back?" Tony asked somewhat anxiously.

"As soon as I can," Gibbs assured him. "Want another pain pill before I go? I could fix you something to eat."

"No," Tony said, daring to stretch a little. "I think I feel better. Not great, but better." He wagged his eyebrows at Gibbs. "I think I might even be able to take care of that pressing problem of yours when you get back."

"Count on it," Gibbs said, sneaking one last kiss. "Get some more sleep now."

"Okay," Tony said, snuggling into his bed. "I love--"

"Yeah, I know," Gibbs interrupted him. "You love your bed."

Tony shook his head. "I love you."

A furious spate of butterflies attacked Gibbs' stomach at the sincerely worded endearment. It wasn't even the first time Tony had said it, but it still had a powerful effect.

"Jethro," Tony tagged on with a grin.

Rolling his eyes, Gibbs stood. "I'll be back soon."

"Gotcha," Tony said, closing his eyes.

As Gibbs left the bedroom, shutting the door behind him, he heard Tony softly singing, "Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed…"

Laughing, Gibbs reached for his keys.

The End.