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The discordant sound of his cell playing Folsom Prison Blues yanked John Sheppard out of sleep. His hand was already on the phone and drawing it close to his ear to respond even before he’d completely woken up.

“Sheppard.” John growled out.

“Wow, aren’t we grumpy this morning, Special Agent Sheppard?” His ex-wife and best friend greeted him cheerfully.

“Nancy.” John turned over in the bed and glanced at his watch. “Do you know what time it is?”

Too early was John’s opinion, especially for someone who hadn’t gotten to bed until earlier that morning thanks to a late flight back after dealing with a sick serial killer in the mid-West.

He smacked a hand over his face and rubbed it vigorously.

“Of course, I know what time it is.” Nancy replied.

He could hear the slight distortion in her voice that indicated she’d tucked the phone up between her shoulder and ear to continue talking to him while she cooked. The sound of her beating something in the bowl was pretty loud and only broken up by the barks of her dog, Boomer.

“I wanted to check you were back and coming over for breakfast.” Nancy asked.

He wasn’t oblivious to the hint of anxiety in her voice.

“I’m back and I’m coming for breakfast to meet Brett.” John assured her. He wasn’t really sure why it was so important to Nancy that he meet her latest boyfriend but he’d play along; he owed her that much after all the crap he’d put her through during their admittedly short marriage.

“His name’s Brent and good,” Nancy said, “I’ll see you later.”

John mumbled a goodbye and slapped the phone down on the bed. He gave a groan.

He was awake.

He wasn’t getting back to sleep.

He pushed back the covers and headed into the bathroom. He followed his usual morning routine, cleaning up just enough to drag on a plain black set of sweats to head out for a run.

He shut the door on his apartment and took the stairs rather than waiting for the elevator; it was a good way of warming up. He paused in front of the building to do a series of stretches and watched as one of his favourite neighbours jogged up dressed in running gear of their own.

Anthony DiNozzo lifted a hand in acknowledgement as he slowed and paused by John. He started a series of cool down stretches.

“You’re late this morning.” Tony commented, a touch breathlessly.

John nodded. When they were both in town and not on a case usually it was John arriving back from his jog to find Tony setting off rather than the other way around; on rare occasions they ran together. “Bad case. Got in late last night.” He knew Tony would understand given he was also a federal agent albeit in a different agency.

Tony winced in sympathy. “You got the guy though, right? The Corn Killer? It was all over the news last night how the FBI had caught him.”

John nodded, hiding his inner enjoyment at watching Tony stretch. John could admit to himself that Tony was one gorgeously put-together man especially when Tony flashed him a quick smile which lit up his classically handsome face.

“You know the news never mentions NCIS when we catch a dirt-bag just calls us federal agents.” Tony complained, straightening up, hands low on his hips. His gaze narrowed on John’s for a moment. “So one totally evil bad guy off the street; that’s a win.”

“Only a million more to go.” John quipped as he did another series of stretches to stay talking with Tony for longer. He figured Tony had seen something of his unrest about the case in his eyes if he was offering words of comfort.

Tony laughed lightly. “Keeps us in a job, I guess.”

“It does.”

“Hey,” Tony said, “you around Saturday? I figure pizza, beer, football?”

John’s heart leaped a touch at the invite, despite the fact that it wasn’t the first time he and Tony had watched a game together since he’d moved in a year before. John knew Tony didn’t mean for it to be a date. The first time they’d met had been because John had bumped into Tony in the elevator and asked for directions to the nearest sports bar; he’d had the apartment a day and hadn’t gotten his cable sorted out. Tony had dragged John back to his own apartment where they’d discovered a mutual love of college football. Since then, it wasn’t unusual for them to meet up to watch a game, or a movie, or just to grab a beer and have someone provide an understanding ear.

“Sounds good.” John replied.

Tony grinned and jerked a thumb back toward the building even as he took a step toward it. “Got to go.” He said, and John liked to think he heard a note of regret in the other man’s voice. “My car’s in the shop and McGee complains if I’m not ready on the dot when he gives me a ride.”

John nodded in understanding as he stopped stretching.

“Saturday.” Tony repeated over his shoulder as he headed inside.

John waved at him in response and waited until Tony was completely inside before he set off for his own run.

It was a typical overcast October day in the nation’s capital city. It made John miss the West coast where he’d lived for a few years, but it didn’t take John long to lose himself in the rhythm of running. His long strides ate up the miles as he made a wide circuit around the neighbourhood. His mind went blessedly blank as he navigated pedestrians and road crossings. He finally let go of some of the lingering horror of his last case and allowed himself a moment’s satisfaction that he and his team had put another killer away.

It was strange, John thought as he finally turned back; he’d never considered law enforcement as a career when he’d been growing up. Back then all he’d wanted to do was fly.

It was the reason why he’d joined the Air Force. He’d achieved his dream too, flying some of the most advanced aircraft in the world; helicopters, jets, cargo planes…there was hardly a bird he hadn’t flown by the time he’d left.

But he had never flown since.

His Special Forces training had made him a perfect fit for the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. A former CO had approached him to join after learning of his discharge and John had never regretted the move. But the physical requirements of the HRT were challenging, and when John had finally started feeling his age, he’d transferred into the Criminal Investigative Branch. It suited him and while some of the cases got to him, he believed he was still serving; still making a difference.

His cell phone rang as he entered his apartment and he groaned as he recognised the ringtone. He picked up quickly. “Hi Mom.”

Catherine Sheppard hummed her hello. “I just spoke with Nancy. She said you’re going over for breakfast.”

“Yeah, to meet Brett.” John said, throwing his keys into the bowl by the door and heading into the kitchen to grab some water.

Brent.” His mother corrected. “He’s a lovely young man, John. He’s good for her so don’t do what you normally do and scare him off.”

“Geez, Mom. Don’t hold back.” John joked. “Tell me what you really think.”

“John…” His mother sighed. “You can’t deny that you’ve chased away the last three men she’s dated.”

“OK,” John said putting the phone on speaker while he twisted the cap off a bottle of water, “one; Harold was a creep…”

“Fine, I’ll give you that.”

“Two; Cyrill was allergic to Boomer.” Which was code for Cyrill trying to kick the dog once Nancy was out of the room and he didn’t think John was watching. Seeing Nancy throw Cyrill out had been pretty great.

“You and Nancy have never really explained that.” His mother pointed out in a dry enough tone that John suspected she knew the truth.

“And three…” John took a gulp of water and sighed. “OK, I kind of chased off Stuart.” He admitted. “But in my defence he was a dweeb and Nancy deserves better.”

His mother sighed. “Really, John? A dweeb?”

“He still lived in his parents’ basement and his main hobby was bird-watching.” John retorted.

“Fine,” his mother conceded, “he was something of a dweeb. But Brent doesn’t come across as a dweeb.”

John picked up his phone and started toward his bedroom. “You’ve met him already?”

“He joined us at the opera Tuesday.” His mother informed him briskly. “I think he’s smart and charming.”

“So, I’ll do my best not to chase him off.” John agreed. “You know some people might think it’s weird how invested you are in your ex-daughter-in-law’s love life.”

“Only those who don’t know she was my goddaughter long before she was your wife.” His mother said cheerfully.

John gave a hum of agreement because it was a good point.

“I don’t think I’ve ever told you but I’m very proud of the way you two remained friends after the divorce.” His mother said softly.  

John swallowed around the lump that had appeared in his throat. “Mom…”

“Very proud.” His mother repeated. “Now, remember…”

“Don’t chase away Brent.” John repeated. “Got it.”

“Just give him a chance.” His mother said firmly. “And speaking of chances, is there anyone you would like us to meet?”

John briefly thought of Tony before he pushed that thought out of his head. He really had to stop crushing on straight guys. Nothing Tony had said to him in the year they’d known each other suggested Tony was interested in him as more than a friend. “When do I get time to meet anyone?”

“You know your father just appointed a new director for R&D, supposedly very smart and…” His mother began.

“Mom.” John didn’t even bother to hide the whine in his voice. “You are not setting me up.”

“At least if I set you up you’d meet someone.” His mother pointed out.

“Why don’t you set up Emily?” John tossed out at her as he yanked his shirt off and dumped it in the laundry basket. “Nobody can be any worse than the guy she’s dating right now.”

“Your sister has a particular type.” His mother sighed.

Yes, John mentally agreed; losers.

“Look, Mom, I appreciate your concern,” John said, “but I’m good. I like being single.”

“I just…” His mother replied, “I just want you to be happy.”

John rubbed his forehead and grimaced at the layer of sweat there.

“And I admit, I’d like more grandchildren to spoil.” His mother continued.

“Dave and Holly have another on the way.” John said, defensively.

His mother harrumphed. “Yes, and this is their third child. Your brother shouldn’t be the only one procreating.”

“Do we have to use the word procreating?” John grimaced. “And do I have to point out the obvious about a gay male relationship?”

“Surrogates.” His mother immediately responded. “Dinner,” she suggested before John could argue further about his likelihood of procreating, “come to dinner on Saturday and meet them. What could be the harm?”

“I have plans Saturday.” John replied without thinking.

There was a pregnant pause and John winced as he realised what he’d said.

“So,” his mother said gleefully, “you have met someone.”

“Sorry, Mom, I need to jump in a shower and get going otherwise I’m going to be late for breakfast.” John deflected rapidly.

“Hmmm.” His mother sighed. “Fine; don’t tell your mother. Go. Shower.”

“Bye, Mom.” John said brightly.

“Take care, John.” His mother signed off and John tossed the phone down.

He glanced at his watch and swore. He might have given it as an excuse to his mother but he really was going to be late if he didn’t get a move on.

o-O-o

“That was a really good breakfast.” John patted his full stomach and tried not to think too much about what he really wanted to do which was to crawl back into bed and go to sleep. He wasn’t going to get a chance to do that though; he only had another thirty minutes before he needed to leave for the office.

“I’m glad it didn’t go to waste.” Nancy said sliding back into her seat beside him at the small breakfast table. She picked up her coffee mug and took a gulp.

John grimaced and picked up his own coffee. “I’m sure there’ll be a good explanation why Brent didn’t turn up.” He offered brightly. “Mom likes him.”

Nancy sighed heavily. “One nice guy. I just want to meet one nice guy.” She sat back. “Is that too much to ask?”

“Tell me about it.” John muttered.

Nancy’s lips quirked upwards and he gave a small inward sigh of relief that he’d managed to cheer her up. She’d been alternatively despondent and angry as time had gone by and there’d been no word from Brent and no sign of him.

“I don’t know why he didn’t come today.” Nancy complained, reaching over the table and snagging a blueberry from a bowl. “All I said was I wanted him to meet my best friend. I didn’t even mention you were a guy. He could have called at least.”

“There’s probably a good reason why he didn’t come.” John said again. “He might have had a family emergency or he could have gotten sick or…anything.”

“Or he’s decided he doesn’t need to be with someone who’s already had two failed marriages.” Nancy said.

“Hey.” John was almost tempted to reach over and take hold of her hand but he stopped just short. “You were a great wife. Greg was an idiot…”

“Grant.” Nancy inserted dryly.

“…and so was I.” John finished.

“You weren’t an idiot.” Nancy said. “You were gay and didn’t know it. We were both too young.”

John grimaced and sat back but he didn’t refute it. He and Nancy had known each other all their lives. They’d started dating at sixteen, he’d proposed at Nancy’s graduation from Harvard, and they’d married straight after college. It had been comfortable and safe. Then two years into his service John had met Lyle Holland and he’d had an epiphany about his sexuality.

Nancy had actually been pretty incredible when he’d arrived home on leave and told her he’d realised he was gay. She’d even offered to stay married to help keep his secret since he’d wanted to stay in the Air Force. But he’d insisted on the divorce knowing it wasn’t fair to her when he felt the way he did about Lyle. Besides, she’d always struggled with being a military wife, and especially with the lack of information about what John was doing. He figured she’d been almost as relieved as he had when they’d divorced.

“Grant was an idiot.” Nancy allowed.

Grant had been a cheating bastard, John thought. Nancy’s second husband had grown jealous of her professional success and had followed the cliché of having an affair with his secretary. At least John had waited until his divorce before he and Lyle had…he stopped that thought before he drifted into maudlin territory.

“So,” Nancy shifted leaning forward suddenly, “enough about my horrible love life.” Her dark eyes met his challengingly. “What about you? Have you made a move on your hot neighbour yet?”

“Don’t you start.” John said exasperated. “Mom was trying to set me up with Dad’s new R&D guy this morning.”

Nancy smiled. “Really?”

“Really.” John rubbed the back of his neck. “She wants more grandchildren.”

Nancy’s brow creased. “She does get that if you hook up with another man…”

“Apparently I could get a surrogate.” John waggled his eyebrows.

Nancy tilted her head. “You’d know I’d offer but you’d be best going for someone younger.”

“Firstly, you’re not old.” John argued, waving his coffee cup at her.

“We’re forty, John.” Nancy pointed out.

“And secondly,” John continued, ignoring the truth about their ages, “I’m kind of OK not having kids.”

“You love Nick and Ally.” Nancy retorted, plucking another blueberry up.

“Sure,” John agreed, “because I can hand them back to Dave at the end of the day.” His niece and nephew were pretty great though.

“And don’t think I don’t see that you’re avoiding the question about DiNozzo.” Nancy said pointing at him.

John hid his face in his mug. “He’s straight.”

“You’ve been flirting with him and pseudo-dating him since you moved into your apartment.” Nancy said smartly. “And I have it on good authority that he’s not as straight as you think.”

John looked up sharply from the bottom of his mug straight into Nancy’s amused gaze.

“Thought that might get your attention.” Nancy remarked with a smirk.

“Nance…”

“My source says he went out with a friend of hers a couple of times years ago, but then her friend called it off when they were spotted out together. He was a cop; didn’t want to draw attention.” Nancy said.

John dipped his head in understanding. He’d left the Air Force for a different reason but being a gay man under the restriction of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell hadn’t been easy. Not that he was openly out as a FBI agent either. There was still a sense that it was best to keep his sexuality to himself regardless of how many seminars the agency ran to promote tolerance and openness. Nancy knew; his family knew; John figured it was enough that he was honest with them. It was nobody else’s business.

“John.” Nancy reached out and placed a hand on his forearm. It made him realise just how tense he’d gotten.

John shook his head. “It’s a big risk, Nancy.”

“I know,” Nancy said gently, “I know it’s a big risk for you, and I’m not talking about just asking a guy out and not knowing their reaction; I’m talking about getting involved with someone you really like.”

He ducked his head.

“I haven’t seen you be this interested in someone since Lyle.” Nancy finished softly.

John swallowed hard. He still found it hard to talk about Lyle despite it being years since the other man had died.

“DiNozzo doesn’t seem like the type to freak out if you were to ask him out.” Nancy said, switching them back to safer ground.

John glanced up at her and saw the willingness to let the more serious discussion go. He gave her a small smile in gratitude. “I don’t think he’d freak out.” He admitted.

Tony was a good guy. If John asked him and he wasn’t interested, John figured Tony was most likely to simply say ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ No, the bigger risk was in some ways Tony saying yes, because Nancy was right; John liked Tony a lot. The more time he spent with Tony, the more he felt that like was morphing into something a little richer, a little deeper. Something he didn’t want to label.

“So ask him.” Nancy pushed. “You realise that not everyone is going to kiss you to give you the heads up they’re interested?”

Her eyes twinkled with amusement because that was exactly how she’d grabbed his attention at her sixteenth birthday party. It was also how he had finally gotten together with Lyle; the other pilot had gotten tired of John failing to get a clue about his interest and laid one on him when they’d been alone on leave.

“OK.” John said slowly. “We’re getting together Saturday to watch a game so…I’ll ask him out then.”

Nancy sat back with a satisfied expression.

“Now can we stop talking about this?” John asked a little desperately.

Nancy laughed and obligingly changed the subject.

o-O-o

John walked into the office and set down the spare muffins Nancy had boxed up for him on the end of Ruben Tyler’s desk. The young African-American had joined the FBI straight out of college a few months before. He was fresh out of the Academy and the Corn Killer had been his first case. John’s team often had new agents spend a period of time with them, gaining a good grounding in investigative work before they were assigned out to field offices.

Ruben’s expression brightened as he sniffed at the box and peeked under the lid. “Blueberry muffins? Awesome. You should see the ones my Gran makes.”

“To share with the rest of the team.” John said and wasn’t surprised when a moment later he was almost pushed out of the way as the others crowded in.

He watched for a few minutes, feeling a little smug about the team he worked with.

“Thanks, John.” Francesca Gomez flashed him a bright smile. She tossed her long dark hair over her shoulder and looked at Ruben with dark beseeching eyes.

Ruben handed a muffin to her with a sigh. “Guess you deserve this. Your tracker virus found our unsub.”

Frankie grinned at him and accepted the muffin. “Thank you, Ruben. Maybe next time you won’t be so sceptical about computer smarts winning the day.”

“Hey, I was wrong.” Ruben admitted with a grin. His café au lait complexion flushed with a hint of red. “I can admit it. Without you, we might never have found Kirby Leyton.”

John felt a flare of satisfaction. Ruben had been outright dismissive of the computer skills in the team and the role they played in bringing criminals to justice when he’d joined them. It was good his opinion was changing.

“And don’t you forget it.” Michael Donnelly snagged a muffin. “We’re the muscle; they’re the brains. We wouldn’t get very far without these guys.”

John watched as Ruben absorbed the advice of the more experienced agent and knew Ruben would pay attention to it. The red-haired Donnelly and John occasionally clashed in their approaches since John was much more laid back than Donnelly, a former cop. But they’d developed a good respect after working together for two years and John knew Donnelly always had his back.

“You should also remember Frankie has a black belt and knows how to use it.” Doctor Rebecca Armitage commented, holding out a hand and accepting the muffin Ruben placed upon it. “Thank you for breakfast, John.”

John gave a nod in response. Rebecca was their resident psychologist; she was superb at getting into the heads of criminals and terrorists. She was also deceptively sweet looking with her strawberry blonde hair, pretty features enhanced with big brown eyes, and slim build. John knew she also had a black belt in judo.

He worked with some dangerous women.

And one really dangerous man.

“Hey, Charlie! Muffin?” Frankie waved the muffin at their second technology specialist; Doctor Charlie Wong.

Wong was a former CIA analyst. He worked with the team providing knowledge and expertise in intelligence and technology. He often boasted that there wasn’t a computer system he couldn’t hack.

“Nope.” Charlie stated, without looking up from his computer screen. “His ex-wife hates me.”

“Yes,” John said dryly, “because Nancy made too many muffins on the off chance I’d bring them into work and you’d die from eating the one she had secretly poisoned.”

But it was true that Nancy hated Charlie. It might have had something to do with how Charlie had insulted her profession and Homeland within minutes of meeting. Of course, then the conversation had devolved into politics and pretty much on any topic, if Nancy was on one side, Charlie would be on the other.

Charlie glanced up and shot him a disgruntled look. “I wouldn’t put it past her. Now, shut up; I’m trying to watch this.” He thrust a hand out toward his computer.

“Watch what?” John asked. He sidled around to stand behind Charlie and tried hard not to wince at the garish lime green striped v-neck sweater vest Charlie wore over a purple shirt. His pants were the same colour purple as the shirt as were the frames of his glasses. At least he’d tied his long dark hair back into a neat ponytail.

John dragged his gaze from Charlie’s ensemble and focused in on the main monitor attached to Charlie’s desk. He frowned at the sight of a radio station surrounded by police and NCIS vehicles. “What is this?”

“There was an on-air shooting this morning.” Rebecca answered as she came to stand beside John. “The host of the show, his technician and a guest Navy Commander out of the Office of Public Affairs were all killed.”

“I guess that explains the NCIS presence.” John murmured. He wondered if Tony had caught the case. “Terrorist?”

“Don’t know.” Charlie said, twirling a pen between his fingers. “No statement yet.”

“I actually heard it in real time.” Frankie admitted.

“Please tell me you don’t listen to that crap, Frankie.” Donnelly complained, brushing muffin crumbs from the front of his black t-shirt. His blue eyes were bright with amusement.

“Adam Gator’s hot.” Frankie grimaced suddenly. “Was hot.”

“OK,” Donnelly joked, “all your cool points? Lost. Right there.”

Frankie stuck her tongue out at him. “You’re just upset that I prefer my men tall, dark and handsome.”

Donnelly was red-haired, stocky and short. John hastily turned his laugh into a cough.

“John?”

John turned at the sound of the team’s Supervisory Agent, Pamela Bellows, and moved off as she waved for him to join her in his office. He left the bullpen and entered the small office closing the door behind him.

It was a sparse space; a bookcase lined one wall filled with legal and procedural books. Pam had been a corporate lawyer before she’d entered the FBI. Her desk was also sparse; a photo of her family, a computer, a blotter, the desk phone, her mobile charging up and one single file open. Her academic certificates decorated the wall behind her.

Her hair was trimmed short and bleached white; emphasising the regal shape of her head and the deep mahogany of her skin tone. She was every inch the professional woman dressed in a smart blue pinstripe pants suit with a plain crisp white shirt. Her shoes were practical ankle boots in a matching navy colour.

John sank into one of the comfortable visitor chairs and gave her his attention as she retook her seat.

“How are you?” asked Pam without preamble. “And for the record ‘fine’ is not an acceptable answer. I saw how you looked when you got off the plane.”

Her direct approach was one of the reasons John liked her. He shrugged. “I just hate it when we have to wait for someone else to get hurt.”

Pam nodded. “It’s never a tactic we just accept, you know that.”

“I know,” John agreed, “and I know we exhausted every avenue this time too. I just…” he gave a shrug in lieu of words.

“Hate it.” Pam finished for him.

John gave a short, sharp nod. There were things he wanted to say but which he’d never give voice to because it just wasn’t him. He’d never admit how waiting for another victim made him feel sick to the stomach; made him feel like a failure. But he knew he didn’t need to because Pam knew him.

“My daddy used to say you can’t save everyone.” Pam said softly.

“But we can try, right?” John said.

Pam smiled widely. “We can try.”

o-O-o

John threw his keys in the bowl by the door and kicked it shut behind him. He dropped the take-out he’d picked up on the way home on the coffee table, dumped his coat on the back of a chair. He picked up the remote without thinking about it and switched the television on.

He headed into his kitchen, pulling a bottle of beer from the fridge and discarding the top by throwing it into the sink. He took a long drag from the bottle as he walked back into the living room. He set the beer on the coffee table, shrugged out of his suit jacket and loosened his tie, sitting down. He pulled the take-out bag closer and unpacked one carton, diving back in for the chopsticks. He finally glanced up at the television screen.

“…and Senator Hal Howard denies any inappropriate behaviour with intern Kelly Schaefer at this time.” The glossy reporter commented in a serious tone from the steps of Congress. “Back to you in the studio, Bill.”

“Thank you, Diane.” The ZNN anchor-man Bill Constantine stared down the camera with another serious face. “We turn now to the brutal shooting of radio host Adam Gator early this morning. Gator’s morning Backtalk show was a mainstay of 86.9 FM’s line-up since the radio station began. For more, let’s go to our local correspondent Julia Polinksi, who is at the radio station this evening. Julia, what can you tell us?”

“Not very much, Bill.” Julia said.

John looked up from his kung pao chicken to find a shot of Julia parked outside the radio station. One lone State police car was parked out the front and all other vehicles were gone.

“What we do know is that at approximately eight A.M. this morning, an intruder entered the station behind me. They shot technician Vincent Clark, a recent graduate from Georgetown before turning the gun on Navy Commander Walter Daniels and host Adam Gator. Commander Daniels was appearing on the show to provide insight into foreign military policy.” Julia reported. “Virginia State police responded to 911 calls following the on-air shots and discovered the bodies of all three men.”

“Do we know if terrorists were behind the shooting?” asked Bill from the comfortable studio.

“Federal agents are investigating and they released a press statement this afternoon which states that attention is being focused on a threat that Adam Gator himself mentioned just prior to his murder here at the station behind me.” Julia said sombrely. “He said and I quote, ‘I want to address a very disturbing threat that I received from a group of fans; whack-pots who don’t know the difference between patriotism and terrorism.’ Immediately after these words were spoken, his life was cut short. It’s disturbing, Bill.”

The camera swapped back to the studio.

“Disturbing indeed; thank you, Julia.” Bill looked directly down the camera. “We will of course continue updating you as more information becomes available. Let’s go now to the weather…”

John flicked over to the sports channel, grimaced at the sight of gymnastics and switched instead to an old rerun of Star Trek. He settled back with his take-out and watched Captain Kirk flirting badly with a half-dressed woman.

Not that John could talk; he’d always characterise his own flirting as bad regardless of whether it was a man or a woman. He sometimes blamed his marriage to Nancy on his own aversion to flirting with anybody else, and he hadn’t actually realised Lyle had been flirting until he’d kissed John.

The memory had John reaching for his beer. He took a long gulp and pushed thoughts of Lyle out of his head.

It had been a long and boring day, John told himself. Hours and hours of paperwork to ensure the case against Kirby Leyton was watertight was bound to make anyone melancholy.

He swallowed some more chicken and tried to follow the action on screen.

His phone beeped. He snagged it out of his jacket pocket and looked at it.

“Brent had to take an early meeting with his boss. He wants to meet on Thursday, say sorry. Can you come out for dinner?”

He grimaced. He could think of better things to do with his Thursday night but he wasn’t going to let Nancy down.

“Sure. Thurs. Text me the details.” John texted back.

A smiley face was his reply.

John shook his head, set his phone down and picked his dinner back up. On screen Kirk had progressed to kissing the scantily clad alien.

A loud knock on the apartment door surprised him. He set his dinner down and hurried over to look through the peephole. Maybe Tony wanted some company…

He sighed heavily as he caught sight of his sister. He rested his forehead against the wood briefly before he took a step back and opened the door.

“Emily.” John began as she bounded into the room.

“John!” Emily pushed her way in and it only took one look at the relentless energy she was exuding as she flung her coat over his to be reminded again of the fifteen years between them.

John shut the door and sighed as Emily toed off her sneakers and threw herself on the sofa. She started eating what was left of John’s dinner.

“Don’t mind me. Help yourself.” He said dryly.

“Sorry,” Emily licked her lips free of the sticky sauce. “You don’t mind, do you? I haven’t eaten since breakfast.” She tucked her legs clad in black yoga pants into a lotus position that made John ache just looking at it.

John sat down beside her and reached into the take-out bag. He opened up the carton of shrimp chow mien he had thought he was going to save for another night. He grabbed his beer before Emily could reach it.

She glared at him.

“You know where the beer is.” John said. “Go get your own.”

Emily bounded away and returned gulping down beer. She swiped at her mouth and sat back down to finish the chicken, pushing the sleeves of her oversized shirt up to her elbows. “Star Trek? Really? You’re supposed to be the cool brother!”

“I am cool.” John got to the remote before she did and placed it beside him out of her reach. “And not that this visit isn’t great, but what are you doing here? I thought you were doing night shifts for the next couple of months.”

“I am.” Emily said. “Can I just say being a junior doctor in the ER sucks?” She waved the chopsticks at him. “I have a night off.”

“And you came here?” John pointed his chopsticks at her.

“You don’t need to sound so surprised.” Emily complained.

He looked at her challengingly.

“OK,” Emily caved, pushing a strand of her dark hair back behind her ear, “so Mom called me.”

John rolled his eyes and drank more beer.

“She said you had plans for Saturday…” Emily batted her dark eyes at him. “Come on, spill!”

“There is nothing to spill.” John said firmly. “I’m just getting together with one of my neighbours to watch some football.”

Emily’s gaze narrowed. “You mean the hot neighbour you’ve been mooning about ever since you moved in here?”

“I have not been mooning!” John protested.

“Mooning.” Emily repeated stabbing her chopsticks at him.

John did the only sensible thing he could; he drank down the rest of his beer.

Emily looked over at him speculatively. “So are you going to close the deal Saturday?”

John choked on his beer. He slapped his chest a couple of times. “Close the deal?!” He spluttered. “Where do you even…” he coughed again.

Emily rolled her eyes expressively. “You don’t still think I’m a virgin, do you?”

John closed his eyes. “Yes. You are.”

She poked him in the ribs. “You are such a baby.”

John opened his eyes. “How is Alfie?” Not that he was all that interested in her latest boyfriend but it was better than talking about his sister's virginity.

Emily wrinkled her nose and pushed up her sleeves again. “Over, like days ago.” She gestured with her beer. “I’m seeing Tom now.”

“Isn’t he Alfie’s brother?”

“Cousin.”

John sighed and rubbed at the side of his head. He was getting a headache.

“So,” Emily said brightly, “I can see why you turned down Mom’s lame attempt at matchmaking if you have a date lined up with Tony.” She grinned at him and set the empty carton down. “He’s hot.”

“It’s football.” John stated firmly.

Emily sighed and pointed her bottle at him. “That’s just pathetic. You need to get laid.”

“Is that your medical assessment?” John shot back.

Emily’s gaze swept over him in sudden terrifying deliberation. “Actually,” she said slowly, “it might be. You look like crap.”

John set his own carton aside. There was a good half of it left. “Bad case.”

Emily closed the distance between them and cuddled into his side. “You want to talk about it?”

“No.” John relaxed as her genuine care and affection sent a rush of warmth through him. He tentatively hugged her closer.

Somehow Emily had missed the Sheppard gene which made them almost allergic to physical affection. Even as a small child she’d just ignore the panic from the rest of the family as she demanded cuddles; demanded to be picked up and held.

“If it makes you feel better Mom tried hooking me up with the new R&D hire too.” Emily offered.

John frowned. “So they’re bi?”

“Hmmm.” Emily shrugged. “I don’t think she knows. I think she was planning to invite the poor schmuck to dinner and see which one of us they batted their eyelashes at the most.”

John laughed out loud at that because he could see their mother doing exactly that. “I feel better.”

“Good, because I need your help.” Emily sighed. “Dad gave me the disappointed face when I went over the other day.”

“Dad adores you.” John said. If there was one thing he knew for certain it was that Emily Alison Sheppard was the light of Patrick Sheppard’s life.  

“He hates Tom.” Emily murmured, twisting John’s tie between her fingers.

“He hates all your boyfriends.” John pointed out. “You’re his daughter. He’s kind of obliged to hate your boyfriends and meet them at the door with his shotgun.”

“I really like Tom.” Emily sighed. “I just wish one time Dad would, you know, bend.”

“You’re talking with the wrong brother if you want advice about how to get Dad onside.” John commented, rubbing her back. “You know he hints I should get back together with Nancy every time I’m over there.”

His Dad had never really accepted that John was gay. If it hadn’t been for his Mom, John figured he and his father would have stopped speaking years before.

Emily hugged him tighter for a moment. “Dave kind of did walk away with all the good behaviour genes didn’t he?”

John hummed his agreement. Dave was the only one of them who had gone into the business; who was happily married with adorable kids.

“Can I stay over?” Emily asked. “We can have ice-cream and watch old movies.”

“Sure.” John squeezed her gently. “Sounds good.”

Emily squeezed back a second before she scrambled away and headed to the kitchen for the ice-cream.

John rubbed the back of his neck tiredly. He really just wanted an early night but…but he’d never been able to say no to his little sister and it looked like that night wasn’t going to be the night when he started.

o-O-o

John checked through the document for spelling one last time and signed his name at the bottom of the report. It was the last report on the Corn Killer and John was more than happy to have it finished. He’d promised himself an early finish; Dave had texted that morning and asked him to swing by the golf club to do some practice putting on the driving range.

He paused as he passed Charlie’s main monitor. It was filled with a picture of first response vehicles crowded along a picturesque suburban setting. “What’s going on?”

“Some kind of bomb went off in Royal Woods a couple of hours ago.” Charlie said, not looking up from his laptop screen where he was writing some kind of computer code. “They think it might be linked with the shooting of that radio guy yesterday.”

John grimaced. A bomb suggested a terrorist connection. He shook himself and got moving. He hadn’t run into Tony that morning but then John had been late since he’d had to share the bathroom with his sister and figure out breakfast for the both of them. He had a feeling his mother wouldn’t have considered the stale pop tarts they’d had as acceptable. He knocked briskly on Pam’s door and poked his head inside. He lifted the file in lieu of explaining why he needed a minute.

She waved him in and took the file off him with a smile. “Thank you. I can submit all the paperwork now and we are done.”

“Until we have to testify.” John pointed out.

Pam grimaced. She hated testifying and it wasn’t John’s favourite part of the job either. “And thank you for bringing my mood down.”

“I live to serve.” John quipped. “I’m going for lunch; you want anything?”

“It’s that time already?” Pam winced as she checked her watch. “Sandwich and soda would be great. Thanks, John.”

John gave her a sloppy salute and headed out. He didn’t bother asking Charlie if he wanted anything; he always grabbed something for Charlie since if it wasn’t for John supplying him with food Charlie would waste away.                                                                             

The cafeteria was bustling with people. It still surprised him just how many people actually worked in the Hoover building. He slid an array of sandwiches onto the tray along with a tub of fruit he knew Pam would like. He grabbed Coke, Sprite and a bottle of water for himself. He headed over to the hot counter and pointed at the least objectionable thing; something that purported to be poached chicken in a white wine and mushroom sauce. He added a spoonful of veg and rice before making his way over to the line to pay.

He stopped behind a familiar form and gave a nod of acknowledgement. “Hey, Ron.”

“John.” Ronald Sacks gave him an answering nod. “Good work on the Corn Killer.”

John tilted his head. “Thought you’d transferred out to Saint Louis.”

“I have.” Ron said. “I’m here for training; Leadership in Ensuring Inter-Agency Cooperation.” He snorted and shook his head even as he showed a single sandwich, chocolate bar and soda to the teller and handed over his card.

In other words; Ron figured it was a load of bullshit.

John gave a sympathetic grimace. He hadn’t hated the course but then he usually didn’t mind working with other agencies. Rebecca usually did the initial liaison role when they had to work with LEOs or another agency and by the time John had to speak to them she had them eating out of her perfectly manicured hand.

“Hey, you around to spar later?” Ron asked as John slid his tray up to the teller who looked at the amount of food askance despite John usually buying for at least himself and Charlie every day they were at the office.

“Heading to the golf club to meet my brother.” John said, pulling a small face. First Emily, then Dave…his Mom was going all out to discover his weekend plans. “Donnelly might be up for it.”

“Yeah, let him know I’ll be in the gym later if he is.” Ron waved John off as they split up, heading in different directions.

John’s team liked the far corner by the kitchen doors and he headed for their usual booth, easily navigating through the mess of tables and chairs. He slid into the left side of the booth by Rebecca and Ruben, opposite Frankie and Donnelly.

Donnelly acknowledged his presence by gesturing with a ketchup soaked French fry.

“Ron Sacks says he’ll be in the gym later if you want to spar.” John informed him briskly as he picked up his cutlery and started to tackle the chicken.

Donnelly’s expression brightened. He swallowed hurriedly. “I might just take him up on that.”

“I thought he’d transferred.” Rebecca commented, wiping her fingers on a paper napkin. She had a half-eaten Caesar salad in front of her.

“Leadership in Inter-Agency Cooperation.” John replied.

“I liked that course.” Rebecca said. “It had some interesting theory.”

John lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug and looked enviously at the burger Ruben was chowing down on. He cut into his chicken with a little more force.

“Sacks has had to retake it twice.” Frankie said around a mouthful of sandwich.

“Twice?” Rebecca frowned. “The exam isn’t that difficult.”

“He’s had complaints from other agencies.” Frankie said.

“How do you know this?” Ruben asked, gesturing with his burger.

“I dated Chad Dorrick last year.” Frankie said. “He was tech support for Agent Fornell’s team a couple of years ago when Sacks was assigned as Fornell’s Senior Agent. Chad?” She licked a thumb. “Very bitter. Says Sacks got all of them reprimanded after they almost jailed some NCIS agent for murder.”

The NCIS agent being Tony.

John knew the story because Tony had told it to him one weekend while they watched Michigan play Ole Miss.

He hadn’t put the puzzle of Tony’s Agent Slacks and Ron Sacks being on Fornell’s team together before but it was all beginning to make more sense to him. He couldn’t blame Tony for being sore at Ron. It sounded from Tony’s perspective that some basic investigating about the body had been missed which should have been done way before they got to the point of arresting him.

“It was a sloppy case.” Donnelly said almost echoing John’s thoughts. “It made us all look bad.”

“Chad says the evidence was pretty compelling.” Frankie argued. “I mean, you have a fingerprint, teeth marks? That kind of forensics is enough to put most suspects away.”

“They had no body.” Donnelly retorted, dragging another fry through the river of ketchup on his plate. “We were lucky that NCIS guy didn’t sue us.”

Rebecca nodded as she carefully pushed lettuce leaves onto her fork. “He certainly had cause.”

“You know I think that case is being used in the Academy as a what-not-to-do.” Ruben commented wryly. “Sounds familiar anyway.”

John battled through his chicken and gestured vaguely around the table. “Reports are done. I’ve booked us some range time this afternoon to practice our shooting.”

“How are you proposing getting Charlie away from his computer?” Rebecca asked amused.

“Same way as always.” John replied.

“Bribery and corruption.” Donnelly quipped.

John soaked up the laughter of his team and let his remaining tension about the Corn Killer case dissolve into nothingness. It was time to move onto the next case.

o-O-o

John watched intently as his brother lined up his shot.

Dave smiled smugly at him when the ball travelled with unerring accuracy into the hole. “That’s ten to eight.”

“Only because you cheated.” John pointed at him with his golf club. “Yelling ‘Mom’ just as I’m about to hit the ball isn’t sporting you know, Dave.”

Dave just grinned at him. “Worked as a distraction, didn’t it?”

John huffed. “You’re just smug because you’re married to Holly and Mom can’t set you up with random people.”

“I admit it.” Dave said cheerfully as they packed up and made to head back to the club house. “And you owe me a drink.”

John sighed but nodded in agreement. “I assume you know the new R&D head?”

“Actually, no.” Dave shook his head. “I was overseas at that global energy convention when Dad made the hire. I haven’t even met them yet.”

John heard the note of disgruntlement and made a sympathetic noise. No matter that David had taken over as CEO after their Dad’s heart attack a couple of years before, their Dad still liked to interfere.

“Highly recommended though and supposed to be a genius.” Dave continued. “Dad thinks they can give us some traction in clean energy. We need to get ahead of the game.”

John made a non-distinct sound which might have been agreement as they entered the club house. They both took a moment to stow their clubs and visit the men’s room before heading to the bar. John ordered a soda water with lime and a light beer for his brother. They were both driving and hard liquor was out.

There was a television screen to the far left and John watched for a moment while the bartender got their drinks together. The reporter was standing outside the gates of the residential area which had been bombed. He frowned as the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen noted there had been four casualties in the bombing.

Dave followed his gaze. “You know Holly and I looked around there before we bought our place. It seemed like a nice neighbourhood. I guess it was too good a target.”

John nodded. “Maybe.”

It wasn’t a typical target for terrorists though. They generally preferred a target that would either draw a more substantial kill rate or take out someone of importance. Royal Woods might be an affluent residential community but he wasn’t aware of anyone of any strategic importance living there. It didn’t make sense.  

The bartender arrived with their drinks diverting their attention away from the television. John handed over cash, waving away the change with a quick gesture. They picked up their glasses and settled in a private booth at the back.

“So, Mom was pretty insistent I talk with you.” Dave commented, regarding John with a curious stare.

John shrugged. “I don’t know why.”

“She’s worried about you.” Dave supplied. “Actually so am I. It wasn’t until she called that I realised you hadn’t mentioned anyone in a serious way since you moved back to Washington. That’s two years now, John.”

John avoided Dave’s questioning eyes and focused on the condensation on his own glass.

“And before that,” Dave continued when John remained silent, “I think you might have mentioned a Gerald once when I overheard you talking with Nancy at Christmas a few years back? Maybe a Max just after you got out of the Air Force?”

“I didn’t think you’d want to hear about my relationships.” John said a touch defensively, and resolutely ignored the fact that there hadn’t been too many to talk about.

Dave held up a hand. He shifted position, dropping his gaze for a moment before he seemed to rally and looked back at John again. “I know I wasn’t exactly…supportive when you, uh, came out.”

John’s lips twisted. Dave had stopped talking to him for a year outside of family events where he had to be in the same room as him. Luckily John had been based out on the West coast at the time.

“But I’ve never…I just want you to be as happy as I am I guess.” Dave said.

It was sincere and heartfelt and John had no idea what to do with it. He drank some of his soda.

“So, if there is someone,” Dave said, moving the conversation on much to John’s relief, “I’d be OK with you bringing them round; talking to me about them.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.” John stated firmly, thumbing a line of moisture off the glass.

“Then you don’t have plans for Saturday?” asked Dave pointedly.

John shot him a quick look of displeasure at his digging but he caved under Dave’s answering lift of eyebrows. “I have plans with a neighbour, a friend; pizza, beer and football. We get together every now and again.”

Dave’s brow creased and he took a quick gulp of beer. “Is this the really hot neighbour Emily keeps talking about?”

John rolled his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck. “Why didn’t we kill her when we were kids?”

“Because she would have kicked both of our asses if we'd tried.” Dave replied with a laugh. “And don’t think that gets you out of answering my question.”

John replied with a single fingered gesture.

Dave tsked, his eyes twinkling. “That’s not using your words, Johnny.”

The phrase was one their mother often used to chide them when they’d settled for wrestling and fighting rather than talking out their irritation with each other.

“So, I’m guessing it is the hot neighbour and you really like him since you’re determined not to say anything.” Dave sipped his beer.

“I like him.” John allowed. “But I don’t know if he’s…interested.”

“Only one way to find out.” Dave said, putting his beer down.

“So Nancy’s already told me which is why I promised her I’d ask him out.” John tilted his glass in Dave’s direction. “Can we stop talking about this now?”

“God, yes.” Dave agreed.

“How’s Holly?” John asked, changing the subject without a hint of guilt.

“Craving peanut butter.” Dave smiled; it lit up his whole face. “It’s better than the chilli sauce she craved with Nick or the liver and onions with Ally.”

They both subtly shuddered.

“It’s not long to go now.” John commented. “Two months?”

“Just under.” Dave said. “I’m not looking forward to the sleepless nights but it’ll be good to have a baby around again.”

“Let me know if you need me to take Nick and Ally off your hands more.” John offered.

“Thanks,” Dave said, toasting John with what was left of his drink. “I appreciate it.” He took a sip of his beer. “Hey, did you hear Emily had broken up with Alfie?”

“I heard.” John said. “She’s going out with his cousin Tom.”

“Did you…”

“He’s got a clean record.” John supplied. “Architect, works for a firm downtown. He actually seems solvent.”

“That makes a change.” Dave said. “You think she could be serious about him?”

“Wanted advice on how to make Dad like him.” John gulped some of his water.

Dave grimaced. “She does get that Dad is never going to like anyone she brings home, right?”

John shrugged.

Dave’s phone buzzed. He looked at it with a frown. “Well, got to go. Holly needs me to pick up some more peanut butter on the way home.”

John slid out of the booth to give Dave a manly quick hug and slap on the back.

“Same time next week?” Dave asked, already taking a step away.

“If I don’t pick up a case.” John agreed. Golf had always been the one thing Dave and he had been able to bond over. Well, that and the female members of their family. They were both deeply protective over their mother and sister, partially because they’d almost lost both of them in a car crash when Emily was just a baby. David had grabbed Emily, and John had managed to drag his mother out of the car before it blew.

John drank down the rest of his soda and checked the time. It was early and all he had waiting for him at his apartment was a lonely half-carton of shrimp. Emily had also cleaned him out of beer and pop tarts. He decided he might as well have an early dinner at the club and wandered over to the bar to give his order of a steak and fries. He ignored his conscience complaining about the red meat and lack of vegetables; he’d suffered through the chicken for lunch, he damn well deserved the steak.

He sat back down near the television and picked up a newspaper. He quickly found the Sudoku puzzle at the back and settled in.

The steak arrived, medium rare and succulent. The accompanying onion rings and fries were tasty. He half-regretted not getting a light beer for himself but the team was back on rotation and it was wiser to stick with soda. He finished a second puzzle while he considered whether he wanted to hang around for dessert.

“Hey, turn the TV up!” A voice called from the bar.

The volume rose on the television and John got to his feet; it was time to head home.

He wandered back to the bar to settle his bill, only half-listening to the news report, recognising the reporter as the one who had covered the shooting the night before.

“…an urban military group calling themselves Military At Home has this evening taken responsibility for the explosion here at the Royal Woods residential community; their goal? To highlight the need for military protection here in America.” Julia said formally.

“Do we know anything about this group?” Bill in the studio asked.

“No, we do not, Bill, although it is suspected that they are the group Adam Gator was going to expose on his show before he was shot to death.” Julia commented. “The group have not taken responsibility for that shooting in the brief statement delivered to the television station tonight.”

“What’s the damage?” Bill asked, prompting the reporter again.

“The explosion completely destroyed the home of one resident whose name is yet to be released. We understand a young girl who had to be pulled from the wreckage and a federal agent are tonight in critical condition following the explosion. We know others sustained minor injuries and there was some additional damage done to nearby homes. Residents have been evacuated while bomb disposal experts search for any further explosives. Back to you in the studio, Bill.”

A portly man by John’s right grunted. “Just what we need. Some homegrown bozos blowing us up! What next?”

John offered a sympathetic smile but took his credit card back from the bartender and ambled away. He paused outside taking in a deep breath of air.

He took out his phone and thumbed to his contacts. Anthony DiNozzo’s picture grinned up at him. John’s thumb hovered over the call button for a long moment before he exited out of contacts and set the phone to vibrate.

He almost jumped when it immediately vibrated.

John answered the phone and beeped his car open. He slid into the driver’s seat. “Sheppard.”

“John, I need you to come back to the office; we’ve been given the bombing at Royal Woods.” Pam said briskly.

John frowned heavily, rubbing his thumb over his forehead a couple of times. “I’ll be there in twenty.” He started the engine. “You need me to call in the others?”

“Already on it.” Pam replied. “Drive safe.”

John disconnected the call. It was time to go to work.

o-O-o

Rebecca stepped into the elevator just as the doors were about to close. She smiled a hello at John. “Did you manage to get dinner?”

“Just ate.” John said. “You?”

“I had a date.” Rebecca said ruefully, tossing her hair back.

It explained the very nice outfit of high heels, black velveteen jacket and pants with a sheer black blouse which had strategic lacy panels on the front. She made him feel positively underdressed in his short black leather bomber jacket, black jeans and t-shirt.

“I’ll change when I get upstairs.” Rebecca sighed. “It’s a shame; I actually was enjoying myself.”

“Nice guy?” inquired John.

“Very nice girl.” Rebecca returned with a sheepish smile.

John blinked. He hadn’t realised…but then why should he? He smiled at her in what he hoped was a reassuring way. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

“I know.” Rebecca said. “I just didn’t want to be dishonest with you.”

“I appreciate that.” John said awkwardly. He wondered whether she was waiting for a reciprocal announcement of his own sexuality but just as he gave thought to the possibility she was, the elevator pinged and the doors slid open on their floor.

Somehow John wasn’t surprised to see Charlie already there. He suspected the computer specialist hadn’t actually gone home. Rebecca hurried over to her desk while John headed into Pam’s office.

Pam was still wearing the power red pantsuit she’d had on earlier that day signalling she hadn’t managed to get home either before the case had hit. She was bent over her computer, rapidly transcribing something onto a legal pad.

“Hey.” John said quietly.

Pam glanced up at him and waved him in. She pushed a file at him even while she continued to write. “This is going to be a political shit-storm, John.”

Domestic terrorism and injured federal agents?

Political shit-storm was right.

The phone rang loudly in the small space and Pam picked up immediately.

“Yes, sir.” Pam replied. “We’re on our way up now.” She set the phone down and pushed her chair back. She smoothed down her crisp white shirt. “Director Cross is going to brief us.”

John flipped the file shut and waited for her to exit before he followed. He handed the file to an arriving Donnelly. “Get the others organised. Pam and I will be back down to brief them shortly.”

He didn’t wait for Donnelly to nod his agreement. He followed Pam into an elevator.

“The bombing was all over the news this evening.” John commented.

“It’s not just that.” Pam said. “From what I can make out from the little information I got, the NCIS investigation went FUBAR. Two of their people are in the hospital; one of them with serious injuries. One civilian is dead; another, a sixteen years old girl, seriously injured.”

John’s concern deepened and his want to call and check on Tony ate at him as they stepped out into the lush carpet that covered the upper floors. He wished he’d given into his urge to call the other man earlier, but then he didn’t even know if Tony’s team had been the one to get the case.

Pam made her way confidently down the corridor to the Director’s outer office. One of his executive secretaries was behind the desk and she held up a hand as she rang through to announce them.

Pam swept into the office and John followed in her wake, smoothing his expression and hoping he looked at least somewhat professional. He almost stumbled at the sight of four of Washington’s most powerful men.

FBI Director Colin Cross was a six foot, burly with a barrel chest and a bulbous nose. He carried himself well. His white hair gave him an air of seniority and authority. A former field agent he’d always come across to John as blindingly intelligent and competent.

The silver-haired Secretary of Defence, Jack O’Neill was something of a legend. A former Air Force Colonel, he had lost his wife and son in a bank robbery which had led to a surprising political career as he had tried to get tougher criminal laws in place. He had been a shock appointment by the President but had quickly gained a lot of respect from the troops on the ground and a lot of political respect on the Hill. He was surprisingly in jeans and an old shirt thrown over a grey t-shirt rather than a suit.

The third man, Tom Morrow, also had a lot of political weight to throw around since he was the Director of Homeland Security. John had met him a couple of times when he’d accompanied Nancy to various Homeland functions. Morrow kept his thinning hair trimmed short; his sturdy figure was encased in a well-tailored suit. He was a dignified and solid man.

The Secretary of the Navy, Philip Davenport, was completely bald. He was dressed in an extremely expensive suit, and held an uncut cigar in one hand as though it was a talisman. His unhappy expression gave away his discomfort at the meeting and his eyes only lit up with interest as he took in John’s last name, correctly making the connection to Sheppard Utilities and John’s father.

John shook hands quickly as Cross made the introductions and took the seat he was directed to without complaint.

“Thank you for responding so quickly, Special Agent Bellows, Special Agent Sheppard.” Cross was relatively new to the job, having only been appointed a month before. John knew Cross had been a good agent and understood the challenges of being out in the field more than some of his predecessors.

“Not a problem, Director.” Pam said folding her hands neatly on the shiny wooden surface of the table.

“Your unit chief and management line know you’ve been specially assigned to work this case.” Cross said bluntly. “Your reports and findings will come directly to me until this case is closed.”

“Understood, sir.” Pam said politely.

Cross nodded and gestured across the table to Davenport. “Philip. Please read my agents in.”

Davenport sighed and held out the cigar. “I don’t suppose there’s any way I could light this.”

“Stop stalling, Phil, and man-up.” O’Neill ordered impatiently.

Davenport set the cigar aside and looked over at Pam, ignoring John. It suited John. It gave him the opportunity to observe Davenport; to notice the faint white stress lines that bracketed his mouth, the nervous twitching in his fingers and the beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead.

“Yesterday morning, NCIS were called to the site of a triple homicide in Virginia.” Davenport began. “The Major Case Response team were sent to investigate because one of the dead was a Navy Commander out of the Office of Public Affairs. The MCRT for those of you who may be unaware is led by Supervisory Special Agent Gibbs.” He coughed and Cross obligingly poured him some water, handing him the glass.

John took the moment to absorb that his and Tony’s professional lives were about to collide for the first time.

Davenport lifted it in silent thanks before taking a sip. “The team focused on a threat mentioned by the host, Gator, just before he was killed. Gator had luckily recorded all his calls. They tracked down a call to Gator made the day before which originated in Royal Woods. All they needed was something which could be used for comparative identification.”

O’Neill’s fingers were starting to tap on the top of the table.

“The MCRT went out early this morning to gain voice samples…” He trailed away.

“And that’s where things go kablooey.” O’Neill jumped in. He shifted to face them fully. “What we know is that Special Agent DiNozzo had a live wire…”

John tensed at the mention of Tony and he forced himself to focus.

“…which recorded the voice samples he got by talking with the residents who live there. According to the recording, he was knocked out and captured by members of this Military At Home group outside the home of Arthur Haskell.”

Pam and John exchanged a concerned look. John felt a flutter of horror curdle in his stomach.

“His back-up?” asked Pam.

Davenport grimaced.

“Well, that’s where things go from kablooey to fucked up.” O’Neill answered. “His fellow agents did not respond immediately when DiNozzo went silent.”

That didn’t sound like the Gibbs Tony had talked about, John thought.

“When the forensic technician analysing the tape realised the two hours gap between DiNozzo running into trouble and his back-up responding, he contacted my office.” O’Neill continued. “DiNozzo’s missing; taken as a hostage.”

The flutter of horror turned into a knot inside John. He breathed in and out slowly. Tony was still alive and no matter how attracted John was to him, he had a job to do. He had to focus on that.

O’Neill’s fierce brown gaze landed on him suddenly. “Sheppard?”

John lifted a hand as though to wave away O’Neill’s concern and abruptly stopped; he had a gut feeling full disclosure was the way to go with O’Neill. “I’m acquainted with Special Agent DiNozzo. We’re neighbours; friends.”

O’Neill grimaced but held his gaze sternly. “Can you stay objective?”

“Yes, sir.” John said crisply.

O’Neill looked at John for a long moment. John tried not to hold his breath as O’Neill clearly deliberated over whether to keep him on the case.

“Might I suggest this is a different situation to Agent Fornell, Mister Secretary.” Cross murmured. “Agent Sheppard and Agent DiNozzo do not share an ex-wife or a history of interacting on a professional basis.”

“This is a goddamned small world.” O’Neill complained with a hefty sigh. He gestured at John. “You stay on but you’d better not let me down, Sheppard.”

“I won’t, sir.” John replied seriously. And he wouldn’t. He’d get to the bottom of it if for no other reason than to find Tony. He had to believe that Tony would survive.

O’Neill motioned at Davenport.

“As Secretary O’Neill indicates, we know a lot of what happened thanks to the live wire DiNozzo was wearing.” Davenport said. “Specifically we know a member of the Military At Home team recognised and subdued him when he was talking to Haskell; they carried him into the Haskell house. They were joined by a third man and it was determined to set the bomb they had acquired off immediately using a barbeque.”

O’Neill picked up. “Haskell’s daughter interrupted them. It turned into an argument. Haskell and his daughter were tied up and left in the garage with the bomb. Luckily for DiNozzo, as we said, they decided to keep him as insurance and removed him from the house. The tape had sounds of DiNozzo being transported and then nothing; it’s assumed he’s been taken out of range of the wire’s transmission.”

“Haskell was killed in the bombing which occurred later. Kirsten Haskell sustained serious injuries and has spent most of today in surgery. Both of the other NCIS agents sustained injuries and have been hospitalised.” Davenport sighed heavily.

“We need answers.” O’Neill said succinctly, stabbing a finger onto the table. “Which is where you come in.”

John frowned as he went over the information they’d been given. “You said Agent DiNozzo is still wearing a live wire?”

O’Neill gave him an approving look. “There’s a recording of everything and I’ve had someone constantly monitoring the frequency. If he wakes up and can get in range to transmit, he may be able to lead us straight to these morons.”

“You said the other NCIS agents were hospitalised?” Pam asked, her dark eyes bright with intelligence.

“Yes.” Davenport answered. “Agents McGee and David got caught in the explosion. McGee’s in a bad way, he sustained severe burns, a number of breaks and is currently undergoing surgery; David has minor injuries.”

John frowned. Tony always talked affectionately about both of them when he shared stories.

Well.

To be fair there had been the night when Tony had come home from a bad case and they’d both drunk too much, exchanging stories of the worst situations they’d found themselves in. John had shared a couple of his own stories – not Lyle never Lyle – but what had happened with Mitch and Dex…

But Tony had shared being dragged to Israel to answer for the death of one of their agents to the Director of Mossad. Hadn’t there been something about Ziva and being threatened and just…John wished he could remember the details because if both of Tony’s team-mates had been injured in the explosion it suggested they’d gone to investigate long after the bomb had been set and Tony captured.

It begged the question of why they hadn’t immediately investigated why Tony was silent, John thought, suspicion crystalizing sharply.

Pam frowned. “And Agent Gibbs?”

“Back at base coordinating efforts there with Forensics and Autopsy.” Davenport recited neatly. “He also had a call scheduled in MTAC with an agent on an ongoing operation abroad this morning which would have precluded him being out in the field.”

“No check-ins were done between the agents in the field and Agent Gibbs?” Pam asked.

“None to our knowledge.” Davenport answered.

“What do we know about Military At Home?” asked Pam, leaning forward.

“Absolutely nothing.” Morrow was the one to reply. “Agent DiNozzo formally contacted Homeland this morning to ask if there was chatter about the initials MAH. The only link we could offer was that it stood for a policy lobby group, Military At Home.”

“He also contacted us through the usual channels; we told him the same and that, essentially, these lobbyists want us spending money here in America rather than policing the world.” Cross added. “Until today there was no documented suspicion that the movement was shifting from lobbying to violence.”

“Your orders are threefold,” O’Neill spoke up, drawing their attention, “firstly, I want Agent DiNozzo found and recovered ASAP.”

“Yes, sir.” Pam and John replied in unison.

John couldn’t help the small flicker of relief that fluttered through him at the order. He kept a lid on his memories; it wasn’t the time to think of different orders and Lyle behind enemy lines.

“That’s your first priority.” O’Neill continued. “Secondly, I want every single member of Military At Home who was responsible for that explosion today and presumably for murdering those three people yesterday rounded up and brought to account.”

“And thirdly, Mister Secretary?” Pam prompted.

“Thirdly,” O’Neill stated brusquely, “I want to know what the hell went on in the field with NCIS today and whether any charges should be pending to any of the individuals involved.” He looked at John directly, a challenge in his eyes.

John gave a short nod. He’d have to investigate Tony but he could do that. Sure, he didn’t think there was anything to find but he’d keep an open mind.

“Homeland will extend every courtesy to you.” Morrow said. “I was going to assign Nancy as liaison, John, but if you would rather I didn’t…”

“Nancy will be fine, Director.” John replied quickly.

“You’re also getting assigned a bunch of Marines.” O’Neill said. “Captain Cadman is an explosives specialist and Captain Ford has been assigned to coordinate the protective detail for those hospitalised. I’ll have my aide, Major Paul Davis, liaise with you. He’ll also provide you with the confiscated recording and the frequency to monitor.”

John reflected that it really was a small world. He and Davis had served together; Davis in an operational support role to the special ops team but a vital one.

“Agent Bellows,” Davenport cleared his throat, “I will be going directly from here to NCIS to inform Director Vance and Agent Gibbs of the appointment of your team; I’d like you to come with me.”

“Yes, sir.” Pam agreed, realising it wasn’t a request. “Agent Sheppard can brief our team here.”

“You’re OK going to NCIS?” questioned O’Neill.

Pam met his gaze without flinching. “I’ve found that agencies such as NCIS are generally more cooperative on their home turf when we get brought in.”

Davenport snorted. “You haven’t met Gibbs, have you?”

And with that the meeting was over.

o-O-o

Paul Davis hadn’t changed one iota. He still looked like the poster boy for the perfect Air Force officer. His blues were neatly pressed, with an impressive array of medals; his shoes shining with polish. His cover was neatly tucked under one arm. He shook John’s hand warmly.

“It’s good to see you again, John, despite the circumstances.” Paul offered quietly as the brass around them took their leave.

Pam gave John a brief nod goodbye as she fell in-step with the Secretary of the Navy.

“It’s good to see you too.” John said, half-noticing O’Neill giving them a speculative glance. “You have a tape for us.”

Paul picked up the file box on the desk next to him. “And a few other things.”

John directed him to the elevators and they took the next available one. He waited until the doors were closed. “What can you tell me?”

“FUBAR doesn’t even begin to describe it.” Paul blew out a breath. “O’Neill is furious. He’s tough but fair usually; a straight shooter. As far as he’s concerned Military At Home came out of nowhere today and he thinks Homeland, the FBI and especially NCIS who was on point dropped the ball.”

“What do you think?” asked John bluntly.

Paul sighed heavily. “I think he’s not wrong.”

Which wasn’t the same thing as being right. John had to admire the political skill in the way Paul had expressed himself.

“What is concerning,” Paul said, “is that the Secretary’s office was contacted when the recording was analysed because the forensic technician was certain if he escalated within NCIS the breach of protocol, which seems evident from the recording, would be swept under the rug. He’s part-time; he doesn’t normally work with the MCRT.”

John gave a slow nod. He knew from Tony’s stories that the usual forensic scientist was Abby Scuito, a happy Goth. He wanted to know why the stand-in had called in outside help; why Tony’s back-up hadn’t responded too.

“That said, O’Neill isn’t interested in a witch-hunt.” Paul assured him. “He wants the truth not a scapegoat. He definitely wants DiNozzo back safe and sound. He firmly believes in the notion you don’t leave a man behind.”

“Good to know.” John murmured.

The elevator opened up at John’s floor and he stepped out leading the way to the team’s area. He gave a pleased nod to see them all already congregated around the open conference table they used for briefings.

John introduced Paul briskly. He wasn’t surprised when Charlie stared at the Air Force officer with suspicion or when Rebecca gave John an assessing look when he admitted he and Paul had served together before.

He waved Paul into a seat but kept standing as he filled in the team on the facts he and Pam had gotten from their meeting.

“We need to divide our focus.” John said. The strategy for the investigation had solidified with every word he’d spoken. “Charlie, I want you working on that recording and monitoring DiNozzo’s frequency. I want the recording copied and protected every way we can. I want a full transcript of everything that went down so we can validate what we’ve been told. And see if you can find a way for us to pick up the wire transmission somehow.”

Charlie nodded and Paul solemnly opened the file box and extracted a thumb drive. He handed it to Charlie with solemn ceremony. Charlie immediately headed for his computer.

“Rebecca, I need you at the hospital.” John said.

Rebecca nodded swiftly. She knew without being told her job was to interview everyone who’d been involved with the blast.

“Ruben; you’re with her.” John ordered. He glanced at Paul.

“I’ll go with them and introduce them to Captain Ford.” Paul offered immediately. He reached back into the file box and pulled out a stack of files. “Here’s everything NCIS had found and documented up to the point of the explosion, and copies of the personnel files for the agents involved. The physical evidence has been logged into the FBI evidentiary locker. We didn’t remove the bodies from NCIS custody but we can arrange that if necessary.”

“Donnelly, take the personnel files; you’re coming to NCIS with me.” John said. “Rebecca, do you need McGee’s and David’s?”

“No.” Rebecca shook her head. “I’ll go in cold.”

Donnelly nodded and reached across to take the proffered files from Paul.

“When’s Captain Cadman due to arrive?” John asked Paul.

“Captain Cadman’s at Royal Woods; she has orders to come directly here when she’s finished her examination.” Paul said.

“Frankie,” John waved at her, “go through the rest of the files and the physical evidence. Liaise with Cadman when she gets here. Everything there is to know about the NCIS investigation and Military At Home; I need you to find it.”

He’d have to make a judgement call about the bodies but Tony had talked fondly of the very knowledgeable NCIS Medical Examiner so his first instinct was to leave them where they were.

Frankie gave him a smart salute and blew a large pink bubble that snapped.

“Let’s go.” John said.

They all rode down in the elevator together. Rebecca directed Paul and Ruben to an agency car while John headed for his own.

He waited until Donnelly clambered into the passenger seat before he cleared his throat and stared into the rear-view mirror.

“You want to come out now or when we’re on our way?” He said loudly.

Donnelly spun around and stared at the back seat.

“Drive.” The gravelly tone drifted up from the floor of the back seat.

“What the?” asked Donnelly spluttering as John started the engine and started driving.

“Agent Donnelly,” John said dryly, “meet Supervisory Special Agent Fornell.” He pulled onto the street from the parking garage and Fornell popped up from the floor to sit properly on the seat.

“I repeat,” Donnelly said, “what the hell is going on?”

Tobias Fornell glared at Donnelly. “What do you think is going on?”

“I think another FBI agent broke into my colleague’s vehicle for no discernible reason.” Donnelly shot back.

“Oh, he has reason.” John said. “Fornell and Gibbs share an ex.”

“Did DiNozzo tell you that?” demanded Fornell, pronouncing DiNozzo’s name in the Italian fashion.

“The Director.” John pushed back.

“Right.” Fornell sighed. “Look, it’s not that I want to get involved here because I don’t.”

Donnelly gave a snort of derision.

Fornell shot him another glare. “But as someone who has had to liaise with NCIS before I thought it might help to brief you on what you’re about to experience.”

“And doing your friend Gibbs a favour has nothing to do with it.” John finished sceptically.

“You have a personal connection of your own with this case,” Fornell said tersely, “maybe people in glass apartments shouldn’t throw stones.”

Donnelly just gave Fornell an unimpressed look since John had already confessed that he and Tony were friends to his team during the briefing.

“OK,” John said, “go ahead.”

“Just like that?” asked Fornell sarcastically. “What? No more foreplay?”

John stopped at a red light and turned around to look at Fornell steadily which made the other agent squirm.

“Fine.” Fornell said. “Gibbs is a good agent. Whatever went down you have to know he’s already going to be pissed as hell at his agents getting hurt and like a mother bear because DiNozzo’s gone missing. He hates getting surprised by the bad guys.”

“You think it was just bad luck?” John questioned as he pulled away again and took a left.

“With Gibbs’s team?” Fornell nodded. “As much as it pains me to say it; yes.”

“Why?” asked Donnelly, stepping in. “What makes his team so special?”

“I could quote their closure rate but frankly, I’m sure it’s written down for you in those files you’re holding.” Fornell parried. “Gibbs is just that good. So is his team. DiNozzo is a class act as an investigator and undercover, David is lethal, and McGee is a computer genius. They might play fast and loose with the rules at times but they never lose sight that they are there to get justice for the victims. Whatever went down today wasn’t because they weren’t doing their jobs.”

John exchanged a quick look with Donnelly. They both knew without saying a word that neither of them would mention McGee and Ziva’s unexplained lack of response to Fornell.

“Give us your take on them.” John said.

“DiNozzo hasn’t told you all about them?” Fornell sniped.

“Sure, but Donnelly wasn’t there when we were watching football.” John replied easily.

Donnelly flipped open the first file. “Gibbs is a former Marine?”

“Yes.” Fornell confirmed, almost as though he couldn’t help himself.

“And you married his ex?” probed Donnelly. “Which one? It says he’s been married four times.”

“I married his ex-wife, Diane.” Fornell said crisply. “Gibbs…Gibbs lost his first wife, Shannon, and their daughter. It’s not a subject you want to bring up with him.”

John pursed his lips, hearing the thread of real concern that underpinned Fornell’s words. Tony had alluded to the tragedy in Gibbs’s past but not in any detail.

“Gibbs has been with NCIS for years. They’ll carry him out in a box.” Fornell said. “He’s married to his job these days.”

That sounded like the Gibbs Tony had talked about.

“What about DiNozzo?” Donnelly opened up the next file. “Former cop?”

“Gibbs recruited him out of Baltimore.” Fornell said. “DiNozzo is a pain in the ass but he’s an exceptionally good investigator. Don’t tell him I said that.”

“You’ve tried to arrest him for murder.” John commented, frowning a little at Fornell’s pronunciation of Tony’s name which was beginning to wear on him.

“Not because I thought he did it.” Fornell quickly asserted. “Evidence led us both times in his direction.” He snorted. “DiNozzo’s a white hat as far as the job’s concerned.” He paused. “This group who’ve taken him they’re likely to underestimate him; most people do.”

John offered. “What about McGee?”

“Smart, a little naïve despite the years he’s been doing this.” Fornell shrugged. “DiNozzo pretty much raised him from a greenhorn. I heard McGee was injured. You know how he is?”

“Surgery.” John replied succinctly.

“But he’s got some computer skills?” checked Donnelly. “It says he headed up their cyber crimes team for a while?”

“As part of a mole hunt.” Fornell confirmed. “That was kept in-house and Gibbs doesn’t talk about it.”

Tony had mentioned it once but he’d glossed over the details, John mused.

“And David?” Donnelly held up the final file. “She was Mossad?”

“If she was Mossad, she is Mossad.” John quipped. He’d run across a few Mossad agents out in the Middle East. Their skill set was impressive but he’d never liked the games they’d played.

“She’s also the daughter of Eli David, the current Director.” Donnelly said.

John sighed. Political shit-storm didn’t even cover it; they were dealing with a foreign nation and if Tony’s story had been accurate one which wasn’t averse to throwing their weight around on U.S. soil. He pulled up at a stop sign and glanced over his shoulder at Fornell. “You’re pretty quiet on David.”

“Maybe I’ve got nothing to say.” Fornell replied quietly.

John frowned. What was the saying? If you didn’t have anything nice to say…say nothing at all. He took a right and then pulled up abruptly screeching to a halt. He turned around. “Talk.”

Fornell grimaced and pulled his coat tighter around him. “We’ve had some trouble with David in the past.”

“She was cleared of the murder we went after her for according to this.” Donnelly noted.

John’s eyebrows rose. “Is there a member of that team you haven’t accused of murder?”

Fornell glared at him. “Look, what bothers me is that in the past David has given classified intel to Mossad. She also harboured and had a relationship with a Mossad agent who killed an American agent in an operation here in the States. That same Mossad agent almost killed DiNozzo. If it had been up to me she wouldn’t have been allowed back in the country.”

“So why was she?” asked Donnelly, his dark eyes flashing with repressed anger.

John was having to take a deep breath to suppress his own anger. He had a feeling Tony had only told him half the story.

“She was on a Mossad op and got captured by a terrorist in Africa; Gibbs and his team shut down the camp, shot the terrorist and rescued her.” Fornell said succinctly. “She relinquished ties to Mossad, applied for citizenship and Vance called in favours to get her application to be an actual NCIS agent approved.”

“And the unofficial reason?” demanded John, because that litany spoke to the facts but missed the motivations.

Fornell sighed but caved. “She has Daddy issues up the wazoo, and Gibbs, well…”

“He has daughter issues.” John supplied.

“He has a soft spot for both the females on his team.” Fornell allowed. He shifted position again giving away his unease. “Look, I don’t trust her, but do I honestly think she’d collude with a bunch of American home-grown terrorists with an isolationist policy?” His voice dripped with sarcasm as he shook his head.

John nodded slowly. He couldn’t see Mossad sanctioning that either. But the entire scenario nagged at him. “You said she harboured a Mossad agent who Tony killed. Do you think she still has unresolved issues with that?”

“Yeah, what exactly happened with that?” Donnelly asked.

Fornell heaved a sigh. “DiNozzo had evidence that linked a computer found with a known terrorist to Ziva’s apartment. He went over to talk to her; found Rivkin, the Mossad agent, there. They fought and DiNozzo ended up shooting the guy. Rivkin died.” He gestured. “Officer David as she was at the time, expressed some unhappiness at the outcome. From what I could get out of Gibbs her distrust of DiNozzo’s account of what happened was the reason she remained in Israel and then ended up in Africa. So, do I think she still has issues? Who wouldn’t?”

And there was the motive for simply letting Tony hang in the wind without back-up.

John exchanged another quick look with Donnelly. John turned back to Fornell.

“Anything else we should know?” asked John.

“Gibbs will want to be part of the investigation. You should let him.” Fornell said. “Otherwise he’ll just work around you and against you.”

“Good to know.” John quipped. He turned back to the steering wheel. “Thanks for the information. You want out here or shall we drop you somewhere?”

“I’ll get out here.” Fornell agreed smoothly. He made for the door handle on the kerbside.

“Fornell?” John stopped him as he went to exit.

Fornell turned back with a questioning look.

“Tell Gibbs if he cooperates he gets in.” John said succinctly.

Fornell huffed and climbed out.

John pulled away, glad that the late hour meant a dearth of traffic.

Donnelly cleared his throat. “You think Gibbs is going to cooperate?”

John just gave him an incredulous look.

“Yeah,” Donnelly said, “that’s what I thought.” He held up the files. “You want to still go through these?”

John nodded. “Oh yeah.” He rolled his shoulders trying to ease the tension that had settled deep in his muscles. “Let’s find out what Fornell didn’t tell us.” He paused. “Start with Ziva David.”

o-O-o

The agent who walked them up to the Director’s office was young, tall and broad. Ned Dorneget looked solid. Except for the hair. He had a mop of dark hair, untidy despite the obvious attempt to comb it into submission. John felt a strange kind of empathy.

Dorneget directed them into the small outer office and the Director’s secretary rang through. The sound of shouting was evident through the closed door.

Donnelly raised one eyebrow and John made an agreeing quirk with his own eyebrows. Dorneget stared at the ceiling.

The secretary cleared her throat. “You can go in now, gentleman.”

Dorneget didn’t move.

Donnelly just offered a look which said ‘you’re the senior agent.’

John gave an awkward smile of thanks to the secretary – it wasn’t her fault that they were walking into a full-scale temper tantrum if the volume was anything to go by – and moved forward.

He opened the door and stepped through confidently. Donnelly followed; watching his back. Dorneget closed the door from the other side and they were in.

John quickly got the lay of the land.

Davenport lurked at the side of the desk to the right. Behind the desk a well-dressed African-American guy – black hair trimmed even shorter than Pam’s, a neat well-trimmed moustache on his upper lip – was glaring at the tableau in front of the desk where Pam was faced off against the person yelling.

The angry guy had silver hair cut in an old-fashioned Marine style and he didn’t stop shouting to acknowledge their entry. John had him pegged as Gibbs immediately.

“…and I am telling you we are wasting time…”

“No, you are wasting time, Special Agent Gibbs.” Pam held her ground firmly. Her shoulders were back and her chin was up but there was nothing but calm dignity on her face. She looked past Gibbs to John and gave him a nod. “John, Michael.”

Gibbs spun around and a set of piercing blue eyes swept over John dismissively. “This is your team?”

“The agents who will coordinate with you here.” Pam said firmly.

Gibbs turned back, presumably to yell some more.

“Director Vance, may I introduce Senior Special Agent John Sheppard and Special Agent Michael Donnelly.” Pam said pre-empting Gibbs taking control of the conversation again.

John obediently shook hands with the Director.

“You have an update, Agent Sheppard?” Davenport jumped in.

“Doctor Wong is analysing the recording from Agent DiNozzo’s wire and seeing whether we can use the wire’s transmission to get a read on a location. Agent Gomez is supporting and tracking down all intelligence on Military At Home and anyone NCIS identified as suspect during the course of their investigation.” John began.

He saw some of the tension in Gibbs’s face ease; the leader of the MCRT was genuinely concerned about Tony and John felt himself warm to him because of that.

“Agents Armitage and Tyler have arrived at Bethesda and will begin to interview the survivors of the explosion shortly. I spoke to Agent Armitage before we came in and she reports that Agent McGee’s condition has been upgraded to critical but stable. He hasn’t regained consciousness yet but there are early signs he is coming around.”

Gibbs gave a sharp nod. “And Agent David?”

“She’s sustained a broken arm, bruising and a minor concussion.” John supplied easily. “She’s expected to make a full recovery and be discharged in the morning.”

“Thank you.” Vance said, drawing John’s attention away from the relentless scrutiny of Gibbs’s blue gaze. “We’ve been denied access and information about our people for most of today which has everyone feeling more than a little frustrated.” His words were clearly aimed at Davenport.

“Don’t look at me, Leon,” Davenport said, “this went over my head too.”

“The Secretary of Defence made it clear that our first priority is the safe return of your agent.” Pam said. “My team and I will do everything we can to make that happen.”

“And you will have our full cooperation.” Vance said tersely. His gaze landed on Gibbs. “Right, Gibbs?”

Gibbs looked back at Vance evenly.

Pam was too professional to roll her eyes but John could see the desire to do it written all over her face.

John cleared his throat. “I’d like to make a start straight away with the team members here including Agent Gibbs. The sooner we can get up to speed the sooner we can find Tony,” he winced dramatically, “I mean Agent DiNozzo.”

“You know Agent DiNozzo?” Vance obligingly jumped on John’s deliberate slip.  

“Yes, sir.” John said politely. “He’s a neighbour and a friend. He promised me pizza, beer and football on Saturday so I’m going to do my level best to make sure he’s back to keep that promise.”

It wasn’t even a lie but he could see Gibbs simmer down another gear as he allowed himself to be reassured that it wasn’t just another case for just another FBI team.

“Sounds like DiNozzo.” Vance said (and John caught the faint hint of irritation which edged the words). He turned back to Pam. “You’ll keep me in the loop.”

“Of course, Director.” Pam said crisply. “If you’ll excuse me, I should head back to the Hoover building and follow up with Doctor Wong and Agent Gomez.”

“I’ll give you a lift, Agent Bellows.” Davenport offered quickly. He picked up his discarded coat and nodded at Vance.

John waited until Pam and Davenport were over the threshold of the office door before he spoke again. “I’d like to start with Doctor Mallard. I understand the bodies are still in NCIS custody.”

Vance nodded again and made to sit down. “Gibbs can show you the way.”

John took it as the dismissal it was as did Gibbs since he immediately strode out. John followed him without complaint and Donnelly fell into step beside him.

Gibbs led them to the elevator.

John’s lips twitched.

Donnelly looked grumpy as they all got in.

A half-second later and Gibbs reached out to stop the elevator.

John looked expectantly at Donnelly.

Donnelly huffed and crossed his arms. “Fine; I owe you ten, Sheppard.”

John smiled at him and turned to face a glowering Gibbs. “Tony might have mentioned your habit of using this place like a conference room.”

Gibbs’s eyebrows rose a touch. “He hasn’t mentioned you at all.”

“Why should he?” countered John, unsurprised because it wasn’t like he’d shared his friendship with Tony with his team before that night. “Do you talk to him about your neighbours?”

“DiNozzo talks about everything.” Gibbs shot back.

“Does he?” John leaned against the back of the elevator. “Or do you think he just talks about everything?”

Gibbs almost vibrated with the want to argue. “He’s my agent. You need to leave this to me and my team…”

“What Tony is right now is missing.” John cut into the tirade. He folded his arms. “You want to find Tony? You stop arguing and start talking. Let’s start with the case you got yesterday.”

Gibbs glared at him.

“I want to find him, Gibbs.” John said, softening his tone.

Gibbs stared at him for a long moment before he turned and started the elevator again.

John straightened. Behind Gibbs’s back, Donnelly shot him a look which said he couldn’t quite believe John’s argument had worked. John lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. He wasn’t all that convinced Gibbs’s surrender was a surrender.

There was more yelling audible as soon as the elevator doors opened – a female voice stridently protesting.

Gibbs didn’t flinch but walked out immediately leaving John and Donnelly to follow him.

“…and I don’t see why – GIBBS!”

A woman shot across the lab room and hurled herself at Gibbs.

John took the opportunity to scout the environment. A Marine stood stoically just inside the door. John flashed his credentials at him, jerked his head in a silent order to step out and the Marine nodded.

Donnelly slid into the position the Marine had occupied in front of a brightly lit refrigerator.   Machine after machine lined the wall, competing for space with some vivid artwork. The stainless steel table that took up the centre of the room gleamed brightly under the lights. The computers on a central desk were off; the monitors silent and black. The office at the back of the lab was also dark although the door was open revealing a messy desk and more lab equipment.

There were two other people in the lab; a mature man with glasses sat on a stool, dressed in a red patterned bow tie with old-fashioned braces in a corresponding design holding his pants up; and a young guy in medical scrubs with glasses and a faint air of bewilderment.

John ignored Gibbs and the running litany of questions the woman who was hugging the NCIS agent was determined to get out in one breath. Instead John offered his hand to the man in the bow tie. “Doctor Mallard? Special Agent Sheppard.” He gestured back at Donnelly. “Special Agent Donnelly.”

The abrupt silence was the result John had hoped for and he smiled as Mallard followed convention and shook his hand.

“Yes, I am Doctor Mallard.” Mallard responded, although his eyes flitted to Gibbs as though asking for direction.

John turned his attention to the guy in the scrubs. “You must be Jimmy Palmer?”

“Yes? I mean, I am?” Palmer pushed his glasses up his nose and belatedly also reached out to shake John’s hand.

“Abby Scuito, right?” John finally turned around to tackle the woman who had hugged Gibbs and wasn’t surprised when she responded to his outstretched hand by crossing her arms over her chest, obscuring the print of a black squiggle.

She looked exactly like Tony had described her; pale skin, red lips, bright green eyes, dark hair in pigtails, studded leather collar around a neck that sported a spider tattoo, with black jeans and Doctor Martens teamed with a white t-shirt imprinted with the black squiggle under a white lab coat.

Scuito shot him a dismissive look and focused on Gibbs. “Have you heard anything about Tim and Ziva?! They’re still in the hospital, Gibbs! That’s not good.”

“I think it would set all our minds at rest if we had news.” Mallard said with a hopeful note in his voice. He sent John a faintly apologetic look.

“McGee’s critical but stable.” Gibbs reported before either John or Donnelly could speak. “Ziva will be discharged in the morning.”

John wondered at the different way Gibbs referred to his team members; the males were referred to by surname, Ziva by her given name. Distancing or male bonding, John wondered.

Mallard heaved a sigh of relief. “That is good to know.”

“And now we need your help to find Tony.” John said firmly.

“Of course.” Mallard replied.

“And what would you know about Tony?” Scuito demanded.

“Tony’s my neighbour and he’s a friend.” John noticed the chiding look Mallard aimed at Scuito but Gibbs kept a poker face.

“If that’s true then tell me something about Tony only someone who knows him would know.” Her eyes narrowed on him.

John debated whether to play but he figured it would be quicker to convince her of his sincerity playing than if he didn’t. “He has a fish called Kate; he also has a piano. He likes cold beer and sausage and cheese pizza. Now, we can continue playing games or we can focus on finding Tony.”

Scuito gave an unhappy nod, wringing her hands unconsciously.

John debated for a second over whether to insist on speaking to them all individually – he definitely needed to do that if he was going to dig around why McGee and David hadn’t immediately responded to Tony’s silence but…but finding Tony took priority and getting a lead on that meant it was quicker to speak to them as a team.

He gestured at Gibbs. “Agent Gibbs, if you could take us through the case. From the top.”

Donnelly took out the small notebook and pen he carried to make notes. John leaned back against the stainless steel table and simply lifted an eyebrow at Gibbs when he remained silent.

“Oh, for…” Mallard muttered, exasperation coating each word. “NCIS were notified of the shooting by Virginia State police approximately fifteen minutes after the on-air shooting. Of course, the presence of Commander Daniels resulted in their call to us.”

“Duck…”

“No, Jethro,” Mallard said strongly, “Anthony does not have time for territorial posturing.”

The two men glared at each other.

Surprisingly it was Gibbs who gave way. `

“The Director handed me the assignment because of the late Commander’s connection to the Office of Public Affairs.” Gibbs said tersely.

John nodded in understanding; the case had the potential to need someone with a high security clearance to investigate.

“Who was present at the radio station?” asked Donnelly.

“Doctor Mallard and my team.” Gibbs answered.

“Mister Palmer was on study leave yesterday.” Mallard added. “He was also supposed to be out today but he was kind enough to come in this morning to assist me.”

“Did any of you speak to the press who were onsite at the radio station?” Donnelly followed up in an almost casual tone.

A twinkle of amusement lit up Mallard’s expression and Scuito ducked her head away from Gibbs’s disgruntled grimace, a hint of a smile on her lips.

“Ah, well, the previous Director banned Agent Gibbs from speaking with the press after an incident involving the spillage of coffee and some rather colourful phrases.” Mallard cheerfully informed them. “Director Vance has yet to repeal that ban.”

“Lucky you.” John commented to Gibbs. He fervently hated speaking with the press. “Anybody else in your team speak with the press?”

“No.” Gibbs said firmly.

“Any spectators outside of the radio station when you entered or exited?” Donnelly asked.

“Not close enough to get a look at us.” Gibbs replied, and his eyes gleamed with the understanding.

“Tony had a baseball cap and NCIS jacket on; they’d have to have had like amazing eyesight to get a decent look at him.” Scuito agreed, gesturing with her hands.

“Pictures?” asked Donnelly, because they’d run down that possibility anyway.

Scuito looked pissed again. “The bozos who came this afternoon took all the physical evidence.”

“Except for the bodies.” Mallard confirmed.

“OK,” John said, redirecting, “you came back from the radio station and…”

“I performed the autopsies.” Mallard offered helpfully. “My initial findings confirmed my visual analysis at the scene; all three men died due to the gunshot wounds inflicted upon them. Mister Gator died due to a shot which destroyed his heart; the others from internal bleeding due to significant damage caused by the bullets.”

“I used the audio tape of the shooting to identify the weapon as a Remington 7400 model semi-automatic rifle.” Scuito jumped in.

“And analysis of the bullets recovered from the bodies suggested the owner of the bullets had transferred traces of deer urine onto the bullets.” Mallard completed.

“So our shooter’s likely to be a hunter.” John surmised.

“Exactly.” Mallard confirmed. “Although Abigail’s later analysis of tapes provided by Mister Gator’s wife suggested that they don’t belong to a backwater hillbilly militia.”

Gibbs shifted impatiently but stayed silent.

“There was like a box full of correspondence and tapes Gator had kept.” Scuito said.

“The news said you’d focused in on a threat Gator mentioned just before he was shot.” Donnelly noted.

Gibbs made a jerky motion with his head which John took as a nod.

“After hours listening to the tapes,” Scuito asserted, her hands flying up in gestures which underpinned her words, “I found a call to Gator’s cell from an unknown male questioning if Gator was going to join their movement. It had taken place the night before the shooting. Gator called them MAH. I tracked the call to Royal Woods.”

“You said the wife gave you tapes and correspondence.” Donnelly stated. “You go through the correspondence too?”

Scuito shook her head and looked toward Gibbs.

“The rest of the team took the correspondence.” Gibbs conceded with evident reluctance.

“Anything stand out?” asked John.

Gibbs shrugged.

John felt a flicker of irritation as the NCIS agent stayed silent.

“I, uh, think Agent DiNozzo said something about a mailman this morning?” Palmer blurted out as the tension ratcheted in the room.

“False lead.” Gibbs bit out. “His alibi checked out for the time of the murders.”

John didn’t have to look at Donnelly to know they’d track down the mailman anyway.

“So, anything to add about yesterday’s activities?” John threw out the open question to the room and got a series of shaking heads.

“Nope.” Gibbs said out loud.

“Today then.” John said. “You had the tape from the caller and you had the lead on Royal Woods. What next?”

Gibbs’s chin went up. “What do you think happened next?”

It was a challenge and John was sick of playing.

“I know what happened resulted in one of your agents going missing and two in the hospital.” John shot back. “You want to stop the pissing contest so we can clean this up?”

“Rule forty-five.” Gibbs replied.

John blinked at him bemused.

“Oh, oh,” Palmer said excitedly, “I know this one; it’s about the women and the children, right?”

“No, Mister Palmer,” Mallard said quietly, “rule forty-five is ‘clean up your own mess.’”

Gibbs’s head tilted. “Close enough.”

“Hey! This isn’t helping to find Tony.” John said, annoyance beginning to edge into his voice.

Mallard looked suitably recalcitrant. “My apologies, Agent Sheppard, you are quite right.”

“Tony went in to get voice samples pretending to be someone interested in moving into the community.” Scuito avoided Gibbs’s gaze. “There wasn’t any time to build him any kind of real cover but Tony, he’s good. Like really, really good.” Her hands were twisting together nervously again. “So I just wired him up.”

“You wired him?” checked John.

“Yes.” Scuito nodded enthusiastically.

A protective flare gleamed in Gibbs’s eye but John smiled at her encouragingly.

“Could you talk us through the set-up?” He asked.

“Sure,” Scuito said authoritatively, “I mean it was a pretty standard set up. Tony has on this great suit with a breast pocket so we were able to place a listening bug there hidden by his handkerchief. Because it’s really small, it has a limited range, just within a ten kilometre radius but I set it up to record automatically to a receiving audio device which Tim, I mean, Agent McGee would operate.” She bit her lip. “That device was set to record from the wire and download to the main server here every thirty seconds.” She waved her hands. “And I triple-checked to make sure everything was working before they left.”

“Did you analyse the download in real time?” asked Donnelly.

“No,” Scuito shook her head, “there were still like a tonne of Gator’s tapes to get through. The guy recorded everything.”

“She was acting on my order.” Gibbs said strongly.

“You needed to eliminate the possibility that MAH wasn’t the only threat and to see if there were additional calls on the topic.” John supplied understanding why Gibbs had made that call.

Gibbs hardly looked mollified by John’s statement but Scuito’s face brightened momentarily.

“I found an earlier call from the same caller – I matched the voice.” Scuito confirmed. “It was a first follow-up because from what they said they’d previously met Gator in person but there was nothing but a pretty lame attempt to sell the whole protect the Homeland thing.”

John nodded in understanding. “Good to know. Did you…” he broke off as he spotted Dorneget lurking in the doorway. “Agent Dorneget?”

“Um, sorry.” Dorneget said, blushing red. “Agent Gibbs is needed in MTAC.”

Gibbs was clearly torn. His body fairly vibrated with tension.

John motioned toward him. “We can catch up with you later, Agent Gibbs.”

Gibbs grimaced but strode out. Dorneget followed in his wake.

John turned back to Scuito. “Sorry about that. You were talking about finding a second call. Did you have an opportunity to begin analysing the download from the wire after you finished with the tapes?”

Scuito’s expression dimmed. “I didn’t.” Her hands started their wringing motion again. “I mean, we heard about the bombing and about Tim and Ziva being injured so I left to go to the hospital.”

“We can understand that.” John reassured her. “Did you get to see Agents McGee or David?”

Scuito shook her head. “I was in the waiting room. Then Gibbs called to tell me he was sending evidence from the scene at Royal Woods and needed me back here.”

“According to chain of evidence, a Doctor Peter Kavanagh reviewed the download?” Donnelly said. “How did he come to be involved?”

Scuito grimaced. “Well, NCIS has three labs. I’m assigned to Major Case. The other two labs are managed by Carl – Carl Higgins.” She took a breath. “I sometimes get work allocated from the other labs if we’re quiet and I can help, and you know vice versa. So when I left for the hospital I asked Carl to send someone to continue listening to Gator’s tapes. There were two left.” She frowned. “He wasn’t supposed to check the download.”

“Do you know Doctor Kavanagh?” asked John, wondering at the internal dynamics of the labs. It sounded to him like Scuito’s set-up was likely to attract some jealousy.

“Not personally.” Scuito said. “I mean, we’ve talked a couple of times when he’s worked here before and stood in. Just, you know, about work stuff; results, formulas.” She shrugged.

“You said Agent Gibbs called you back from the hospital. Was Agent Gibbs not comfortable with Doctor Kavanagh covering for you, Doctor Scuito?” Donnelly asked.

“Oh, Gibbs didn’t even know he was covering for me.” Scuito said. “He was at the scene.”

“Agent David called him immediately after the bomb was detonated.” Mallard offered. “Agent Gibbs left with Agent Walker’s team straight away.”

“You weren’t called to the scene at that point?” John checked.

“No, Ziva provided minimal information and there was no suggestion at that point that a medical examiner would be needed.” Mallard said. “Agent Gibbs contacted me about thirty minutes after he left to tell me there had been one fatality. Mister Palmer and I immediately left.” The light glinted off his glasses. “When we got there, the scene had been secured but the fire marshal was still inspecting the property to allow us entry.”

“Was Agent David still on site?” probed Donnelly.

“No, both she and Agent McGee had already been assessed by EMTs and we were told they were on the way to the hospital along with the other survivors.” Palmer added.

“Ziva had informed Agent Gibbs that the deceased was the father of a young girl she and Agent McGee had rescued and that the address had been Agent DiNozzo’s last known location.” Mallard said sombrely. “Which is obviously when it became apparent to us that Agent DiNozzo was missing.”

“You removed the body and brought it here?” Donnelly asked, pen poised above his notebook.

“Yes.” Mallard said firmly. “Arthur Haskell undoubtedly died from blunt force trauma caused by the explosion although I did not get a chance to do more than a cursory examination before the autopsy was stopped.”

“I didn’t get a chance to look at anything.” Scuito said, crossing her arms again. “When I arrived back there were Marines here taking all the evidence!” She fidgeted for a second and her lips clamped together.

“We called Agent Gibbs.” Mallard confirmed. “He returned forthwith.”

“And that’s when we found out you FBI guys had stolen our case!” Scuito said passionately.

John held up his hand. “The Secretary of Defence determined jurisdiction.” He thought rapidly over the information they’d given him. “Doctor Scuito, you said you wired Tony? Would you be willing to go over to the Hoover building and work with our specialist, Doctor Wong, to find some way of picking up the transmission?”

Scuito brightened as though eager to say yes, but she quickly looked at Mallard.

“I’m certain Jethro will understand.” Mallard assured her.

Scuito nodded. “I’ll get my things.”

John motioned at Donnelly. “Agent Donnelly will take you as soon as you’re ready.”

Scuito hurried away into the inner office.

“Take the car.” John threw his keys at Donnelly. “I’m probably going to be here a while.”

Donnelly nodded, putting away his notepad and pen. He understood without John needing to mention it that Donnelly needed to question Scuito about the relationships within the team. He needed to do the same with Mallard and Palmer but he needed to check something else out first.

“Doctor Mallard,” John said politely, “I’d appreciate it if you could finish the autopsy on Haskell but if you’re tired I can call in another M.E. and…”

“No, no.” Mallard said brightening. “I’d be happy to finish up.”

For the next few minutes, there was a flurry of movement as they all departed the lab – Mallard pausing to quietly hug and reassure Scuito as they made their way out.

John found himself alone. He took out his phone and made a call. “Paul? Where can I find Peter Kavanagh?”

o-O-o

Kavanagh was surprisingly still hard at work at NCIS. John found him in a small lab tucked away near to the evidence garage. Kavanagh was bent over a microscope looking at evidence on some slide.

John took the opportunity to observe him from the open door: Kavanagh was mature, in his late thirties maybe forty, if John had to guess. He had long hair slicked back with gel and caught in a ponytail with an elastic band. He wore glasses which did nothing for him. John was kind of reminded of the animations for the Grinch.

“Are you going to come in or are you just going to lurk there?” Kavanagh said without turning around.

“Sorry.” John entered and got out his credentials to show Kavanagh as he finally looked at him. “Special Agent John Sheppard, FBI.”

Kavanagh quickly slid off his stool, crossed the room and closed the door. He folded his arms tightly over his chest.

“You’re here about the Military At Home case.” Kavanagh said.

“Yes.” John pointed at the closed door. “Is there a reason why we have the door closed?”

“Please.” Kavanagh said snootily. “You know I blew the whistle on this place. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

John accepted the statement with a tilt of his head. “Let’s start from the beginning.” He suggested. “How long have you worked here?”

“Off and on for ten years.” Kavanagh said.

John nodded slowly. “How often have you covered for Doctor Scuito?”

“On a few occasions, usually when she’s had to go to court.” Kavanagh said. “Usually one of the permanent members of staff puts themselves forward in an attempt to impress Agent Gibbs.” He huffed. “As though he’s really going to give anyone else that position.”

“So you were covering today?” John said, taking out his own notebook and pen to give the appearance of professionalism. He rarely took notes. He had a phenomenal memory and it had never let him down. But sometimes the trappings allowed people to relax more and he could see it working on Kavanagh as the scientist’s shoulders dropped.

“Yes.” Kavanagh said defensively. “It was unexpected and all the others were in the middle of ongoing work.”

“What was the scope of your work?” asked John.

“Doctor Scuito was examining tapes made by the victim to determine if there were threatening calls or ones which matched with the one threatening caller she had already identified.” Kavanagh admitted.

“Take me through what happened.” John advised casually, suppressing his own impatience.

“Well,” Kavanagh shifted his weight and gestured outward briefly, “I went through the audio recordings as instructed. There were only three additional calls recorded between the two tapes; no matches to the previously identified caller. I logged the outcomes.” He paused. “Doctor Scuito had referred to Agent DiNozzo obtaining voice samples when she left. I noticed the large audio file on the server directory when I logged my findings. I had no pending work and believed it would be of assistance to proceed with the matching program.”

In other words, he had wanted to impress Gibbs, John determined.

“You got a result.” John prompted.

“Yes, the address related to Arthur Haskell.” Kavanagh said. “I made a note of the match and decided to double check by listening to the recording from the sampling myself. That’s when I discovered what had happened to Agent DiNozzo and the breach in protocol when Agents McGee and David failed to come to his immediate assistance.”

“Walk me through what you heard.” John ordered.

“Right.” Kavanagh adjusted his glasses. “The beginning of the encounter seemed straightforward; Agent DiNozzo approached the man who I assumed was Haskell. DiNozzo gave him a spiel about moving to the neighbourhood and asked about commuting times. Haskell was replying to his questions when he suddenly broke off and asked ‘what are you doing?’ to which DiNozzo expressed confusion. There was a sound of a scuffle and Agent DiNozzo gave a cry of pain.”

John worked hard to keep his expression blank. It disturbed him to hear how Tony had been taken but he had to focus on getting the answers and information they needed to find him.

“And then?” He pressed.

“Haskell asked his associate who he identified as ‘Matt’ what was going on. The associate identified Agent DiNozzo as a NCIS agent. They worked together to get him in the car and then inside Haskell’s garage where Haskell called a third man, referred to as Zach. Haskell tied up DiNozzo while they waited. ‘Matt,’” and there were finger quotations, “asked to see the bomb. Haskell showed it to him. The third man, who I assume was Zach, arrived and they agreed with Matt that they should set the bomb off as soon as possible.” Kavanagh took a breath.

John waited impatiently for Kavanagh to continue.

“Haskell’s daughter walked in. There was a…a fight. Haskell was knocked out and the girl tied up and gagged.” Kavanagh shook his head. “Zach helped Matt set the bomb up using the barbeque. They determined to keep Agent DiNozzo as a hostage and moved him to the trunk of Haskell’s car and I assume drove away in it. That’s all the recording got.”

John took out his phone and called Wong. “Charlie, is there a BOLO out on Haskell’s car?”

“Yes.” Charlie answered. “No hits yet. Donnelly says he’s bringing Scuito in to assist me?”

“She set up the wire.” John replied.

“Fine.” Charlie disconnected.

John put his phone away. “When did you realise Agents McGee and David were not responding as they should have done?”

“Right away.” Kavanagh replied. “Haskell and that Matt guy shouldn’t have even got him into the garage before they responded.”

“Is there any evidence that the audio on their device was not working?” asked John.

“Doctor Scuito had logged her checks on the equipment.” Kavanagh said. “Look, we all might hate how she’s indulged to an unprofessional degree here but she’s an incredible scientist. She wouldn’t screw up like that. The only explanation is that Agents McGee and David heard and did nothing, or didn’t hear because they’d switched off the audible feed on the device.”

“So you called the Secretary of Defence.” John stated. “That’s not normal procedure.”

“No, normal procedure would be to inform the lead agent.” Kavanagh said. “But Gibbs…I knew he would have just covered it up.”

“You say that like it’s routine for Gibbs to cover up.” John commented. “Do you have any evidence?”

Kavanagh fidgeted in the spotlight of John’s attention. “David once killed a suspect in the elevator. It was all ruled accidental.”

“OK,” said John, making a mental note to hunt out the records on that, “so you believed Agent Gibbs in this scenario was going to ignore the lack of response to an agent requiring back-up?”

“She’ll have some story.” Kavanagh said defensively. “Gibbs will believe her. He always does.” He gestured at John. “She spied on us! She gave information to her own people and had DiNozzo dragged off to Israel because he killed her homicidal boyfriend. And he and the Director just let her back like nothing had happened!”

Well, there was Kavanagh’s motives for whistle-blowing, John thought. He scratched his forehead.

“I wasn’t going to let this go, not this time,” Kavanagh continued, obviously deciding he might as well say everything since he had started, “Gibbs has this messianic cult following here where he gets away with whatever he wants and he protects the women in that team like they can do no wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like DiNozzo, I find him banal and juvenile, but he doesn’t deserve to be left hanging which is why I called the Secretary’s office.”

“So you believe that Agent David deliberately left Agent DiNozzo without back-up.” John stated.

“Yes!” Kavanagh said.

“Why would Agent McGee go along with that?” John asked the question which was nagging at him, because from everything Fornell had said, and everything Kavanagh had substantiated, David had motive to hurt Tony. But McGee? There was nothing as far as John could see.

“I don’t know,” Kavanagh admitted, “but DiNozzo hazed him badly when he joined. They had a public argument in the bullpen a few years ago where McGee told DiNozzo he was a crap leader and to stop calling him Probie. Maybe it’s revenge or maybe he’s just sick of him? He’s annoying enough with all the movie trivia and pranks.”

John wrestled down the urge to defend Tony and gave a short nod instead. He flipped the notebook shut. “Thanks for your time, Doctor Kavanagh.”

“They won’t find out it was me, will they?” asked Kavanagh worriedly.

“The identity of the individual who reported the breach to the Secretary’s office will be kept confidential.” John said formally. “They do know you looked at the download but it’s reasonable to assume all you did was match the caller.”

Kavanagh nodded quickly, understanding John had given him a plausible excuse. “Thank you.”

John stepped around him and left the room. He closed the door after him and shook his head. It didn’t feel like he was doing anything to help Tony.

o-O-o

John’s phone rang just as he left Kavanagh. He picked up and dipped into an empty conference room to take the call. “Hey, Pam.”

“Hey, yourself.” Pam said. “I’m in my office with Frankie and Michael, and I’ve got Rebecca and Ruben on conference. Charlie’s keeping Scuito busy. I want to do a debrief on what we have so far.”

“A mess.” Donnelly snorted. “That’s what we got so far.” And John could picture him sitting on the edge of Pam’s desk, arms crossed and a grumpy scowl on his face.

“Bring it in guys.” Pam ordered. “What do we know?”

John listened impatiently as Frankie and Donnelly covered old ground and only chipped in occasionally.

“So, we’ve got independent corroboration that Haskell definitely made the previous calls to Gator; we also have a voice match. Charlie also prioritised the transcript of the events around Agent DiNozzo going missing.” Pam asserted.

John nodded even though they couldn’t see him. “Like I said I heard the gist from the technician who did the initial analysis.”

“I think Matt might be the mailman Agents DiNozzo and McGee investigated the day before; Matt Lane.” Frankie said. “He’s alibied for the murders though according to DiNozzo’s notes – and can I just say that he’s getting the prize for the most comprehensive note-taker ever; he’s awesome.”

John wasn’t going to argue with that.

“Which leaves Haskell and the Zach guy as potential suspects for the murders.” John concluded.

“My theory is that Zach could be Zach Nelson.” Frankie answered. “He and his wife are the Haskell’s neighbours.”

“We need to track Lane and Nelson down ASAP then.” John said.

“Agreed.” Pam said. “Anything else from you, John?”

“Just a heap of motives for David and McGee to leave DiNozzo without back-up.” John said. “I have Doctor Mallard doing the autopsy on Haskell and I’m going to speak to him next about that. What’s the news from the hospital?”

“Oh, we have news.” Ruben commented dryly.

Rebecca cleared her throat. “Agent McGee sustained third degree burns over twenty per cent of his body; the concern is his left arm which is in a very bad way. He underwent surgery to deal with the breaks in his left leg. He’s still in recovery under heavy medication and has yet to come round although the medical staff are confident he will recover.”

“Kirsten Haskell is also in the acute care ward.” Ruben jumped in. “Her legs were crushed and required extensive surgery.”

“We did speak with Agent David.” Rebecca said. “She was…uncooperative. She was monosyllabic in her answers to our questions. It wouldn’t surprise me if she found some way to leave the hospital despite the Marine guard.”

“Did she give an account of events?” asked John.

“In part.” Rebecca said. “She confirmed she and McGee were in the field to support DiNozzo and that she and McGee went into the Haskell home to investigate DiNozzo’s situation. She claims they were delayed by a security guard who questioned their presence in the neighbourhood. She and McGee were injured helping the Haskells escape the bomb.”

“Did you speak to any other survivors?” Pam asked.

“There are four other residents here at the hospital.” Rebecca said. “A Trent and Gina Goldman. They were walking their dog and were unfortunate enough to be passing the house when it exploded. They have minor injuries and are being kept overnight. When we asked if they remembered anything unusual, apart from mentioning a prospective buyer approaching them which we think was Agent DiNozzo from the description, Trent said he had wondered why Zach Nelson was driving Arthur Haskell’s car when it passed them.”

That corroborated the likelihood of Zach being Zach Nelson.

“The other two individuals, Alfred Hartley and Brian Jefferson, live opposite the Haskells. They sustained minor injuries and smoke inhalation when they attempted to render assistance at the scene.” Ruben added.

“They also mentioned being approached by a prospective buyer.” Rebecca commented. “Paul has said the other residents have been evacuated to a nearby hotel for the night but when we cross-checked the hotel with the names of the residents we’re missing the Nelsons and a guy called Donald Altman.”

“There’s no history of criminal activity for any of them.” Frankie said. “But if we assume this Military at Home group is a new threat then this could be our core group. The conversation between Nelson, Lane and Haskell in the garage suggested that the primary members of their group were all from or associated with Royal Woods.”

“Maybe some MAH members are at the hotel.” John theorised out loud. “This bombing was all spur of the moment.”

“So some of them probably haven’t been contacted by Nelson or Lane.” Rebecca said.

“They may know the original target for the bomb.” John pointed out. Because there had to have been a different target than the Haskell house.

“Ruben and I will head to the hotel next.” Rebecca said.

“Frankie, we need to know everything about the Haskells, Nelsons, Altman and Lane.” John said. “These are suburbanites, right? Kidnapping DiNozzo was also a spur of the moment thing. They had to have taken him somewhere they know.”

“Right.” Frankie said.

“Go.” Pam said. “Rebecca, you and Ruben watch your six. This group has already proven capable of resorting to violence.”

“Understood.” Rebecca said. “Signing off.”

There was a beep which signalled Rebecca disconnecting from the conference line.

“John, it’s just you and me.” Pam said. “What’s your take on all this?”

“You mean do I think NCIS screwed up?” John asked bluntly. He breathed in deeply. “About identifying MAH as a threat and misjudging the level of that threat, no. Not with the evidence they had.”

“But the jury’s out on whether David and McGee dropped the ball in the field.” Pam deduced.

“Yeah.” He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck tiredly. “Gibbs has a reputation for protecting David. She apparently killed a suspect in the elevator with no fallout; she was allowed to return to NCIS and become an agent despite questionable activity including the possibility of espionage. That was the reason the forensic technician called the Secretary of Defence rather than escalating the information on the recording to Gibbs.”

“Donnelly said she has motive to leave DiNozzo without back-up because he was responsible for killing another Mossad agent. What about McGee?”

John sighed. “So far just rumours that he might have wanted to get back at Tony for hazing or pranks. We need to find the security guard David mentioned and question them all to get to the bottom of it.”

Which in McGee’s case wasn’t going to happen until he was conscious and capable of holding a conversation. It was also not guaranteed McGee would remember anything accurately if he’d sustained serious injuries. John had seen men and women forget entire weeks due to trauma.

John shook his head as though to throw off his negativity and get back on track. “I’m going to speak to Doctor Mallard; maybe he’ll have some insight.”

“Come back here when you’re done.” Pam said. “Hopefully we’ll have a lead on DiNozzo by then.”

“Understood.” John said and disconnected.

He held the phone up to his forehead for a long moment. They had leads; they had avenues to explore, chase down and eliminate.

Hold on, Tony, John thought as strongly as he could as though Tony could hear him through the ether; hold on, we’re coming for you.

John took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and walked out in search of the M.E.

o-O-o

Mallard was in autopsy.

John grimaced at the sight of the badly burned body splayed open on one of the tables. Mallard had changed into scrubs and a plastic apron with a plastic visor as head-gear. His hands were covered in latex gloves, his shoes in plastic slippers. Palmer had donned the same.

Mallard glanced over as the doors of autopsy swept open to admit John before he turned back to Palmer. “Perhaps, Mister Palmer, you could step out and procure some sustenance for us? Sandwiches and some tea would be preferable.”

Palmer blinked before he caught sight of John and realisation swamped his face. “Of course, Doctor Mallard.”

John waited until Palmer was gone before he moved closer to the body. His nose wrinkled a little at the smell. Dead bodies were grim; burnt dead bodies were a hell all of their own. He debated how to approach Mallard; the questions he had weren’t going to be easy ones to ask or answer.

“You wanted to speak to me?” asked Mallard, prompting John out of his internal musing.

“Yes, sorry,” John waved a hand towards the doors, “and thank you for, uh…”

“Getting rid of Mister Palmer.” Mallard offered a small smile as he dumped the heart onto a scale and made a note of the weight.

John nodded. He leaned back against a clean stainless steel table. “I need to ask you some uncomfortable questions.”

“I thought that might be the case.” Mallard glanced over at John again and John caught the glimpse of fierce intelligence in the blue eyes that scoured him momentarily. “I assume the appointment of the FBI by Secretary O’Neill wasn’t just a case of jurisdictional juggling.”

“Tony’s cover as a prospective buyer was blown when he was recognised by someone he had previously interviewed.” John informed the M.E. “There was a substantial gap between his being knocked out and the response from Agents McGee and David to the situation.”

“That is…troubling.” Mallard commented, slowing his turn back to the body. “Clearly Timothy isn’t in a position to defend himself. Has Ziva spoken at all?”

“She claims the delay was caused by them being approached by a security guard asking questions.” John said succinctly.

“You don’t believe her.” Mallard stated.

John inclined his head. “Standard protocol would have had one agent remain with the audio device to ensure there was back-up for the agent in play.” He looked over at Mallard. “If both of them responded to the security guard, they knowingly left Tony without back-up, risked his life and the operation as a whole.”

Mallard acknowledged that with a sombre tilt of his head.

“What I do know is that Agent David might have reason to be upset with Tony.” John continued. “He killed her lover and was indirectly responsible for her remaining in Israel after that event. It could be argued she still blames him for the death and for what transpired in its wake.”

Mallard nodded slowly. “I can see why you would have cause to question Ziva’s motives, but I believe that she and Anthony did mend fences once Ziva returned to us.” His gaze narrowed. “May I ask you; what exactly has Anthony told you about his team-mates?”

John quirked an eyebrow upward. “Mostly stories.” He offered a half-smile. “But I always got the sense that Tony considered you guys a…a kind of family. He’s very fond of you all.”

“Well.” Mallard blinked before his blue eyes warmed imperceptibly. “That is very heart-warming to know.” He gestured with the scalpel he held. “And yes, I’ve often thought that Anthony sees us as such. His actual familial circumstances are quite lacking.”

“You mean his Dad’s a dick.” John said. He’d heard about DiNozzo Senior when he’d been in town the year before. Tony had tried to be circumspect but John had come away with a picture of a man who was, well, a dick.

“I would not put it in such terms but yes.” Mallard agreed. He made a note on the clipboard and extracted a lung which he tutted at loudly. “And one can start fitting various members of our team into position like jigsaw pieces; Jethro, obviously as the father figure; Anthony as the oldest son on whom he is hardest as he is the one for whom he has the most expectations. Timothy fits as the younger son; one who attempts to be good and excels academically whereas the other son is more athletic. Abigail is no doubt the indulged daughter; the princess of the family.”

Mallard was almost describing John’s own family, John thought bemused.

“I would probably be a favoured uncle who is there for tea and advice, and Mister Palmer, perhaps a cousin.” Mallard’s expression dimmed for a moment. “Our previous Director, Jennifer Shepard – oh, I’m assuming no relation…”

John shook his head.

“Ah, well, dear Jenny would have been the pseudo-mother in this scenario, or perhaps step-mother might be more accurate.” Mallard sighed. “The current Director, well, perhaps he fits best as the stern uncle who makes you sit at the table, eat your over-stewed vegetables and takes you for very boring educational trips to the back end of beyond.” He paused for breath. “What was I…”

“Team as family.” prompted John, amused despite his impatience for Mallard to finish.

“Yes, well, my point is Ziva, however, has never quite fitted into Anthony’s vision of us.” Mallard bent back over the body. “Because he met her when she was not part of the team and indeed she was openly set against the team’s belief that her half-brother had killed Caitlyn, Anthony viewed her as an outsider; she certainly wasn’t to be trusted.”

John frowned.

“Then, when she was placed onto the team by Jenny and accepted by Jethro, I think he tried very hard to think of her as a…a step-sister; an interloper but someone who it was expected Anthony would protect and come to accept in time.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately Ziva rather put paid to that herself by attempting to manipulate Anthony with highly sexualised behaviour when she joined the team. There is something of a physical attraction which one can reasonably expect between two very beautiful people.”

John shifted position subtly, trying hard not to let the M.E.’s words affect his own want to believe he stood a chance with Tony.

Mallard continued. “But, of course, Anthony would never truly respond to her that way, consciously because it’s against Jethro’s rules and subconsciously because he needed to categorise her as family. Unfortunately, when her manipulation did not work, Ziva responded by challenging his place within the team. There was quite a mean trick she played when she invited the rest of the team to dinner except for Anthony. Effectively she showed him without words that at any moment she could tear down this illusion he has constructed of family. I don’t believe Anthony has ever truly trusted her on a personal level since.”

“But they had to overcome that right? To work together?” John thought out loud. Whether Tony was attracted to her or not, trusted her or not; Tony was fond of her, John would swear to that.

“Yes, I think Anthony settled in the end for considering her as a somewhat exotic second cousin twice removed; still family, still someone to be protected, but with an acceptable level of distance between them.” Mallard commented wryly.

The second lung was extracted with the same tutting as before. John grimaced and dropped his gaze from the sight of it.

“Of course, Ziva stopped trusting Anthony the day he died.” Mallard declared brightly.

John’s eyes snapped back up. “What?”

“Anthony was undercover at Jenny’s behest.” Mallard said. “He romanced the daughter of an arm’s dealer to get to the father, and the whole thing came to a head when his car exploded.” Mallard looked over at John. “For a few hours we all believed the corpse in the car was Anthony.” He pointed at the lung on the scale. “Luckily I was able to rule out the body as Anthony once I saw the lungs.”

John remembered Tony’s story of pneumonic plague and shuddered.

“Ziva realised Anthony had lied to her, lied to all of us for months.” Mallard winced visibly. “In hindsight I don’t believe any of us were truly kind to Anthony in the aftermath when we realised.”

“So Ziva and Tony have a complicated history.” John summarised.

“Indeed.” Mallard confirmed. “And no doubt the events surrounding and subsequent to the death of Ziva’s paramour, Michael Rivkin, did nothing but make that history even more complicated, although I do know she apologised to him, and I suspect he to her.” He gestured at John. “There is much she has not spoken about to anyone regarding her time in Africa but one can look at her actions in the aftermath. She rejected her father, her national identity and her connection to Mossad to place herself more firmly within the team here.”

“She rejected her genetic family for another of her choosing.” John said, following the psychology of the move.

Mallard waved the scalpel at him. “For the family that Anthony has built.” His gaze was filled with the sharp intellect he was wielding as effectively as he had the scalpel. “Like a cuckoo.”

And John got that reference; Ziva was moving in and taking over Anthony’s nest.    

“It’s fascinating to watch.” Mallard continued. “Because of course the main problem with taking over Anthony’s family is what she should do with Anthony himself. She cannot easily assign him a familial role any more than he her. Yet Ziva knows that she cannot simply push Anthony out. She tried with the Rivkin affair and Jethro left her in Israel and chose Anthony. And so,” he gestured again, “knowing Anthony’s importance, Ziva is compelled to consider Anthony as part of her family all the while feeling he is a part that doesn’t quite fit. Just as he sees her the same way.”

“Nothing you’ve said so far is exactly reassuring me that she couldn’t leave Tony hanging.” John pointed out. In fact, the doctor’s analysis had only increased his concern about Ziva.

“Don’t you see? The dichotomy of it is the key.” Mallard said forcefully, frustration giving his words extra passion. “Yes, the history between them ensures they keep each other at arm’s length despite their need to consider the team a family. It creates an unresolved tension which certainly makes any kind of personal relationship between them rather beset with landmines.”

He met John’s eyes.

“But because they need to consider the team a family, they will always act to protect the other. So do I believe Ziva would consciously or deliberately risk Anthony’s life? No. There is some kind of explanation which will explain the delay beyond the mere fact of a security guard, I’m certain of it.” Mallard concluded.

John slowly nodded, accepting Mallard’s opinion and understanding with the explanation Mallard had offered how the medical examiner had drawn that conclusion. It didn’t mean he agreed with him though. There was a lot within what had been said that gave additional weight to the notion Ziva David had motive for endangering Tony.

“Of course, Anthony’s romantic intentions also lie elsewhere.”

John’s eyes flew back to Mallard’s.

Mallard smiled at him kindly. “Let’s just say that since meeting you a conversation I had with Anthony a few days ago is beginning to make much more sense to me.”

John’s mouth went dry and he felt the urge to squirm under the older man’s relentless gaze. “Doctor Mallard, I, uh…”

Mallard turned back to Haskell’s body. “Please, call me Ducky.”

“John.” John offered. He shifted weight and decided to change the subject no matter how much he wanted to question the doctor about his conversation with Tony. “You’ve talked a lot about Agent David. What about McGee?”

Mallard, or rather Ducky blinked at him, bemusement slackening his features momentarily before transforming into something John could only classify as mirth. “Oh, well, you have to remember Timothy is at heart a boy scout.”

In other words, a goody two-shoes.

John hummed. “So, he wouldn’t break protocol in the field?”

“Bend it, yes. But break? Only as a last resort,” Ducky conceded, “and certainly not with the intent to harm Anthony or jeopardise the case.”

“What if it was meant to be a prank, payback for the hazing?” John theorised.

Ducky shook his head, resuming the autopsy. “They tease and prank each other often but never in the field. Of all of Anthony’s familial allusions, his fraternal one with Timothy is perhaps the closest to a real sibling relationship.” He looked over at John. “Do you have any siblings?”

“A younger brother and sister.” John allowed.

“Then, you will be more than intimately aware of the tensions and bonds than exist between an older brother and a younger one.” Ducky said firmly. “So it is with Anthony and Timothy. Timothy looks up to Anthony; wants to be like him in many ways; insecure in part over his own talents and achievements and thus is very defensive about them in response. While Anthony views Timothy as the annoying tag along whom he has to look after but at the same time he’s protective and proud. Anthony quite often places himself between Timothy and Jethro’s temper.”

John gave a short laugh. “I guess that does kind of describe how it goes.” Although he’d never considered that maybe his brother wanted to be like him. “So the gossip that McGee told Tony he was a crap leader and to stop calling him Probie is untrue?”

“Oh, no,” Ducky stopped in extracting what looked like kidneys to glance across at him, “that did happen. Quite a few years ago now, just after Jethro returned from a long absence and resumed his leadership of the team in a manner more befitting a bull than a man. Timothy could hardly take out his frustration at having to resume his place as the most junior member on Jethro; Anthony was the safest person upon whom he could vent.”

John nodded slowly. “Thank you,” he said, “one last thing to clear up? There was mention of Agent David killing someone in the elevator?”

“Ah, well I did the autopsy on that dreadful fellow.” Ducky said. “He had a pre-existing condition. Perhaps Ziva’s striking him caused the end of him, perhaps the stress of being brought in caused his inconvenient demise. There was no way of knowing. Ziva was reprimanded quite severely at the time by Jethro, and later by Jenny, for her impulsive action.”

So nothing that was substantive evidence one way or another. Assuming the reprimands had been private, no doubt it explained why gossip about it had endured.  

“I appreciate you talking with me.” John said.

Ducky’s input hadn’t completely ruled out malice and forethought in leaving Tony without back-up – particularly in the case of Ziva David – but it had suggested it was unlikely, and that there would be some other explanation.

“Just make sure you bring Anthony home.” Mallard said firmly.

John nodded quickly. “That’s the plan.” He gestured at Haskell. “Is there anything here I need to know?”

“Only that given the position of the body and the injuries I am cataloguing, I would surmise Mister Haskell took the brunt of the explosion.”

“Don’t feel too sorry for him, Doc.” John said, pulling out his phone as he turned for the door, “Haskell helped his Military At Home buddies make off with Tony.”

“Did he indeed.” Ducky glowered at the body.

John took a step toward the door and stopped at the sight of Gibbs and Vance approaching. The doors swished open and Gibbs charged up into John’s personal space.

John held his ground. “Agent Gibbs.”

Gibbs stabbed a finger at him. “You arrested one of my people?”

John’s eyebrows rose. “Not to my knowledge.” He glanced at Vance and wasn’t entirely surprised to see the Director hanging back, his arms crossed over his chest and looking every bit as disgruntled as Gibbs.

“Don’t lie to me!” Gibbs snarled. “Your agent was seen leaving with her!”

John instantly knew what Gibbs was talking about. He glared at Gibbs. “Doctor Scuito agreed to go over to the Hoover building to help our specialist get a read on Tony’s wire. She’s not under arrest.”

“He’s right.” Ducky said strongly.

Gibbs’s head whipped around and he glowered at the M.E.

“I was with Abigail when he asked and she agreed. Really, Jethro,” Ducky said, “this is not the time to be jumping to conclusions!”

Gibbs whirled around and paced away from John.

Vance cleared his throat. “Agent Sheppard, I believe Agent Bellows promised I would be kept in the loop? I believe assigning my people to work on this case without my knowledge is not being kept in the loop.”

John swallowed down the angry retort he wanted to make. “My apologies, Director.” He speared the other man with a challenging look. “I’m sure you appreciate that time is of the essence in a missing person’s case.”

“Of course.” Vance demurred. “But since we are here, perhaps you can provide an update.”

John repressed the urge to roll his shoulders and fall into a parade rest. Instead he rapidly went through mentally what he could and could not say to the NCIS Director.

“We’ve got a transcript of the recording from Agent DiNozzo’s wire. My team is doing deep background on the men identified to pinpoint potential locations they may have taken Agent DiNozzo and, as mentioned, Doctor Scuito agreed to work with our specialist to try and get a read on the wire.”

Vance and Gibbs exchanged a look.

“We’ve followed up with those able to speak at the hospital including Agent David. They’ve provided witness corroboration to who we believe has Agent DiNozzo. We’re also following up on the other residents of Royal Woods.” John stated evenly. “Doctor Mallard agreed to finish up the autopsy on Arthur Haskell but so far it only proves he was in the vicinity of an exploding bomb.”

Ducky nodded helpfully. “That is essentially correct. The cause of death is…” his voice trailed away as he realised Vance and Gibbs were still glaring at John. “Well, I dare say it doesn’t matter.”

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m expected back at the Hoover building.” John said.

“Of course,” Vance said politely, “I’m sure you won’t mind if Agent Gibbs accompanies you.”

Gibbs smiled at him dangerously.

John shrugged and offered a sardonic smile of his own. “Not at all.” He said and meant it. It was a perfect opportunity to get Gibbs alone for an interview.

o-O-o

Five minutes after leaving the Navy yard, John grabbed the handle over the passenger door and decided that if anything Tony had underplayed his stories about Gibbs’s driving.

As they took another corner on two wheels, John cleared his throat. “You know I used to fly F14s,” he commented brightly, “I don’t mind a bit of speed.”

Gibbs shot him a look and simply pressed down harder on the gas.

John was unwillingly amused.

“What didn’t you tell Vance?” asked Gibbs abruptly, breaking the silence.

“What makes you think I didn’t tell him something?” John retorted.

Gibbs took the next corner without slowing down, cut across two lanes and brought them to a halt with a screech of brakes.

John felt the whip of the seatbelt and figured he’d have a bruise the next day.

Gibbs stared at him, his face carved like granite into harsh lines.

John wasn’t intimidated. He’d met Marines and Special Forces guys just like Gibbs a lot in the military. He lifted a single eyebrow.

Gibbs yanked his head around and stared out at the street ahead with its pools of artificial light making the tarmac shine and shrouding the kerbs in shadows. His hands tensed and un-tensed on the steering wheel.

John sighed audibly and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “You’re not stupid, Gibbs.”

Gibbs turned his head to look at him.

“You have to have realised that the Secretary of Defence didn’t just decide to arbitrarily change jurisdiction when there’s an agent’s life at risk.” John waved a hand at the road. “Speaking of which…”

Gibbs was silent for a moment but then he gunned the engine and they set off again. There was something more controlled in Gibbs’s driving which meant John didn’t bother with the handle. He figured that there was something of a truce in place with his admission and gathered himself to interview Gibbs without actually interviewing him.

“Tony respects you a lot.” John offered.

Gibbs snapped a sharp look at him before thankfully turning back to the road. “You said you were neighbours.”

“Friends.” John stressed. “He saved me from having to find a sports bar to watch the football when I moved in.” He lifted one shoulder up and dropped it as though in a careless shrug. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

“That why you caught the case?” asked Gibbs almost casually.

“No,” John shook his head, “we came close to losing it because I know Tony.” He kept his attention forward on the road. “They’d already ruled out Fornell because of his connection to you.”

“Which means someone thinks I screwed up.” Gibbs deduced.

“Did you?” asked John bluntly.

Gibbs sped through a changing light. “Are you hoping for a confession?”

“An opinion, maybe.” John shot back.

“You were the one who pointed out that I have one of my people missing and two in the hospital. Does that sound like a success?” Gibbs snapped.

“Doesn’t mean you screwed up.” John said evenly. “You weren’t even in the field with them, right?”

Gibbs clenched his jaw, the muscle twitching visibly.

“According to Secretary O’Neill you were at NCIS headquarters this morning when this all went down.” John continued. “The way I see it, Tony was chosen to run with getting the samples because, apart from his undercover experience, he likes good clothes and he has an air of affluence. Agent David would have been too exotic and Agent McGee too awkward.”

The car swung around another corner.

“Plus, McGee was needed to operate the audio device in the car.” John said. “He has the better technical skills. David provided additional back-up.” He put a steadying hand on the dashboard. “It all sounds good so far.”

So what went wrong?

The silent question hung in the air between them.

Gibbs suddenly slapped the steering wheel and yanked it hard to the left; the car u-turned in the middle of the road.

“For the record,” John said catching his breath, “I’m pretty sure that’s an illegal move.” His head tilted as he tried to work out where Gibbs was going. He had the most horrific sense of direction on the ground. Put him in the air and he was golden; on the surface though and he had trouble. It had made his SERE training a complete nightmare. “I’m guessing we’re not going to the Hoover building anymore?”

“Nope.” Gibbs agreed.

John’s phone rang shrilly and he answered it quickly. “Sheppard.”

“John,” Pam said, a note of urgency in her tone, “are you on your way?”

“Agent Gibbs is giving me a ride.” John said. “But we’re stopping off at…” he glanced across the car.

“Hospital.” Gibbs said.

“At the hospital.” John repeated. “Any news on the wire?”

“Scuito and Charlie think they have a plan. We could do with you back here; Nancy’s arrived.” Pam said crisply.

Which meant she needed someone to referee Nancy and Charlie.

John’s eyes flickered to Gibbs. “We’ll try to be quick at the hospital. Any other updates?”

“Rebecca and Ruben checked in; they’re OK.” Pam confirmed. “Captain Cadman also arrived, actually let me bring her in.”

There was a sound of movement on the phone and John grimaced as Gibbs took another corner.

“You’re on speaker, John. I have both Nancy and Captain Cadman here.”

“Hey, John.”

“Agent Sheppard.” Captain Cadman greeted him cheerily. “My analysis of the bomb is complete.”

John’s eyes darted to Gibbs and he cleared his throat. “Let me put you both on speaker here too. I think your findings will be of interest to Special Agent Gibbs as well as myself.” He ignored the quick stare Gibbs directed at him. John palmed the phone and tapped it to get the speaker function working.

“Right, sir,” the Captain said, “the bomb has a signature; a Deeter Johanson.”

“Johanson’s a former meth cooker.” Nancy reported. “Homeland have had him on our wanted list for a while. He’s been cooking up specialised explosives and selling them on the black market for the past year. The last bomb we traced to him was used in a potential suicide bomb in Syria.”

“Great.” John commented. “So Military At Home found themselves a bomb maker.”

“Frankie found evidence of email exchanges between Johanson and Haskell.” Pam said. “We think there were four bombs made in total.”

“However, these bombs are usually very stable when they’re kept at low temperatures.” Cadman added. “They need to be at a temperature of four hundred degree Celsius to combust.”

“That explains the barbeque.” Gibbs murmured.

“Exactly, Agent Gibbs.” Pam said.

“So, they used one bomb to blow up Haskell’s house,” John said, “the other three are in the wind.”

“Not exactly.” Cadman said. “Dogs found one other explosive at the property of Donald Altman in his deep freezer. Kinda sad. Guy lived off TV dinners.”

“There were also trace elements of explosives found at the Nelsons and at the home of Gloria and Harold Bridge.” Pam reported. “The Bridges are at the hotel. Rebecca and Ruben are going to bring them in.”

“Understood.” John said. Two bombs missing and no idea of the potential targets. That wasn’t good. “Any leads on Johanson?”

“Frankie’s doing her computer magic to trace his emails back to a location.” Pam said.

“It’s probable he’s running.” Nancy added. “The bombing was all over the news today. He has to think we’ll identify him if only through his association with Haskell.”

“We might get lucky.” Pam said firmly. “Stay in touch, John.”

The phone disconnected.

John put the phone in his pocket. Gibbs didn’t seem inclined to talk and John let him drive. He figured Gibbs had followed the logical line from the notion that if Gibbs had been out of the field and things had gotten screwed up in the field then there were only two scenarios.

Either Tony had screwed up in which case his back-up should have ridden to the rescue immediately.

Or the back-up had screwed up resulting in Tony being missing and the back-up themselves being in hospital.

Hence Gibbs was going to speak to the one person who could tell him why they’d screwed up; Ziva David.

Gibbs turned into the hospital carpark and swung into an open space. John was thankful it was late and the carpark was empty. He followed Gibbs across the lot to the front entrance of the hospital. Gibbs headed for the front desk, showed his credentials and the receptionist held up a hand and made a call.

John wasn’t surprised when a Marine showed up a few minutes later. The young captain looked serious; dark eyes sombre in a dark complexion; the khaki fatigue cap covered his hair; the rest of his fatigues were perfectly turned out; combat boots laced up precisely. He had a holstered weapon on his hip.

“Sir?”

John stepped forward. “Captain Ford?” He showed his own credentials. “Special Agent Sheppard, FBI.” He gestured at Gibbs. “Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS. We’re here to talk with Agent David.”

Ford gave a short nod and fell into parade rest. “Sir. Major Davis placed you on the approved list but not Agent Gibbs.”

John held up a hand before Gibbs could snarl at Ford. “This is an FBI case, Captain. He’s with me. I’ll vouch for him.”

Ford inclined his head. “Very well, sir. If you’ll follow me.” He turned and marched out of the reception area towards the elevators.

They exited on the ninth floor.

A Marine guard sat opposite the elevators with a clear line of sight to the main stairwell exit. He rose at Ford’s arrival.

Ford pointed to the left, took them past a nurse’s station and down a short corridor. Three of the rooms had Marine guards stationed outside of them.

He stopped at the second private room on the right. There were blinds down and shuttered to prevent anyone from seeing inside. Ford nodded at the guard on the door.

“This is Agent David’s room.” Ford said.

“Thank you, Captain.” John briskly knocked and opened the door at the brusque instruction to enter. He waved Gibbs inside and followed him, closing the door behind them.

It was an internal room; the bright artificial lights were the only source of illumination. A television monitor stood silent in the corner.

John watched as the woman in the bed wriggled upwards into a sitting position. Even injured with her arm in a sling, a scrape across her brow, and her hair in disarray, Ziva David was a beautiful woman.

Her dark eyes were wide at the sight of the man with John. “Gibbs!” She said. “Please tell me you’ve come to get me out of here.”

John leaned back against the wall and kept silent. He had no doubt that drawing attention to himself would only cause David to clam up.

“You’re here until morning, Ziva.” Gibbs stopped at the side of her bed. His hands were shoved deep in the pockets of the black overcoat he wore.

“McGee?” David asked quietly.

“Critical but stable.” Gibbs said without giving her any further information.

“And Tony?” David asked. “He has been found?”

Gibbs looked at her rather than replying. “What happened?”

“I told you at the scene, Gibbs,” David said, wide-eyed as though she couldn’t quite believe he’d asked her again.

“Tell me again.” Gibbs ordered.

For the first time since they’d entered, David’s eyes darted to John. “Who is he?”

“He’s not important.” Gibbs stated, drawing her attention back to himself. “Tell me what happened today from the moment you arrived at Royal Woods.”

John had to admire the way Gibbs commanded her attention.

David wet her lips. “We arrived at the community and made ourselves known to the security guard on the gate. He allowed us through and he said he would make a note of our presence for his replacement who was due to arrive.”

“Did he understand not to reveal your presence to the residents?” asked Gibbs.

A line appeared between her eyebrows as she contemplated Gibbs’s question. “Yes, I believe so.”

“You went in.” Gibbs prompted.

“We stopped outside the park area.” David confirmed. “Tony and McGee did a final check with the bug and audio equipment.”

“All worked OK?” Gibbs checked.

“Yes.” David said without hesitation. “Tony left the vehicle and McGee took his place in the driver’s seat. He set the audio device down in the well between us. We could clearly hear Tony.”

Gibbs nodded. “And then?”

“And then we spent many very boring hours as Tony walked up and down the neighbourhood talking to people!” David’s good hand gestured at Gibbs.

“You said you realised Tony was in trouble and went to investigate.” Gibbs said almost softly.

“Yes.” David looked down at the blanket briefly before her eyes went back to Gibbs.

The pouty distressed expression was well done, John thought cynically.

“We immediately took the car to the last house Tony had identified.” David said. “Tony was not in sight. We entered through the front door and found a man and his daughter tied up in the garage. McGee helped the man; I moved to help the daughter. She informed us that there was a bomb in the barbeque across the garage. McGee was still untying the man; he suggested I got the girl clear and to call the bomb squad. We were almost clear when the bomb detonated. We did not see Tony.”

“Tell me, Ziva,” Gibbs began softly, “exactly at what point did you realise DiNozzo was in trouble?”

David’s gaze sharpened and she frowned before her expression cleared. She gestured at him. “I forgot when I spoke with you at the scene – a security guard delayed us responding immediately to Tony.”

“Uh-huh.” Gibbs said. “And how much time do you think was wasted while you spoke with this security guard?”

David wet her lips again and raised her hand to her forehead to brush against the scrape. “I am not certain, Gibbs. We were not paying close attention to the clock.”

Gibbs smiled crookedly. “Agent Sheppard, how much time passed between my agent running into trouble and his back-up’s response?”

“From the timestamp on the recording to the detonation of the bomb? Approximately two hours.” John said without moving.

“Two hours.” Gibbs repeated. His blue eyes had cooled to flint as he stared down his agent. “You want to try this again, Ziva?” He leant into her personal space. “Only this time how about you try telling the truth!” His words were quiet almost inaudible but they were effective.

David flinched. “I have not lied to you, Gibbs.”

Gibbs’s hand snapped out and slammed hard on the surface of her bedside unit. David jumped and turned her head away.

“What the hell were you and McGee doing for two hours while you were not watching DiNozzo’s six?!” Gibbs snarled.

“It is not what you think, Gibbs, I swear to you…” David hurried out.

“What I think?!” Gibbs lurched back and took a couple of steps away from the bed. He took a deep breath and John could see him visibly reining back his temper. “I’m only going to ask you one more time. What happened?

David swallowed hard and there were tears glinting in her eyes. “McGee and I were listening and there was nothing for almost two hours. I began to need a restroom.”

“You didn’t think about this before you went to Royal Woods?” Gibbs snapped out.

“We did not think it would take Tony so long to get the samples!” David said defensively. “The driveways were long and the space between the houses bigger! It took him forever to move from house to house!”

The implied criticism of Tony made John want to punch her, his hands curling reflexively into fists. He forced himself to stay motionless.

Gibbs glared at her and made an impatient gesture to continue.

David dropped her gaze. “McGee knew the transmission range of the bug. I suggested we drive to the nearest service station within the range.”

Anger swamped John and he had to look away from her.

“And did you?” asked Gibbs.

David nodded. “I went to the restroom while McGee continued to monitor the device. When I returned, McGee also took the opportunity to visit the restroom.” She brushed a tear away from the corner of her eye. “I was reaching and knocked over the device. It shut off. I immediately picked it up and switched it back on…Tony’s voice came through fine. McGee returned to the vehicle having also bought a few magazines to read and we returned to Royal Woods. We resumed our previous position.”

Gibbs stared at her.

“When did you realise you’d screwed up with the device?” asked John inserting himself for the first time.

David looked over at him almost blankly as though she’d forgotten his presence. “We had been sitting reading for some time when the security guard approached us and informed us a resident had noticed our stationary vehicle. He suggested we move. As we went to drive off, McGee registered the address Tony mentioned. He…he realised that Tony had already visited that house. He looked at the device and understood immediately that it was in playback mode. He managed to find the last address and…and the recording of Tony being discovered.”

Gibbs paced away from her again.

John pushed away from the wall and assumed the position by the bed. “Did you listen beyond Tony’s cover being blown?”

David sighed heavily. “No. We were both too aware that we had lost time. We responded as I described before.”

Gibbs walked out slamming the door behind him.

David looked crushed. “He will not forgive me for this.”

John shook his head in disbelief at her self-centred statement. He drew out his credentials and her eyes widened at the sight of the FBI badge. “I’m going to call a colleague to come over and take your full statement. They’ll be showing it to Gibbs for him to verify that everything you just said is part of the statement. NCIS will also receive a copy to determine what disciplinary action they may want to take.”

David’s eyes widened. “It was an accident!”

“Breaking protocol to go to the bathroom is not an accident. You should have called Agent DiNozzo and he would have stood down.” John said tersely. “Breaking protocol by reading while you’re meant to be actively listening is not an accident. Breaking protocol by not listening to fully understand Agent DiNozzo’s situation before you acted is not an accident.”

“You do not know anything!” David shot back at him.

John shook his head. “You’d better hope Agent DiNozzo comes out of this alive.” He walked out before he could say anything else.

He took a deep breath, standing in the corridor with the impassive Marine guard stood beside him saying nothing. He walked back down to the nurses’ station, found a small empty office, and took out his phone to call Pam.

“Agent David gave Gibbs a full statement of events.” John filled her in, working hard to keep his tone professional.

“God, how did she think any of this was acceptable.” Pam said angrily. “You think it was an accident or do you think it was done with malice?”

“I’m not sure.” John admitted. “She’s definitely manipulative and definitely has cause in their history to hurt Tony, although Doctor Mallard was of the opinion they’d both moved on from past events and I’m betting if I was to ask Gibbs, McGee and Tony they’d back that opinion up.” He sighed. “I get the impression that bending the rules is something they’re used to doing if it gets them results; and from what I’ve found out about McGee, that would fit with his going along with events as they played out.”

“I see what you mean,” Pam said, “taking the bathroom break after they’d been there a while without incident, or reading and only paying attention to the fact DiNozzo was still talking, given they were still essentially listening to him? It’s risky but not negligent. They could even argue that going to the last address without listening beyond DiNozzo getting knocked out was done out of a need not to waste additional time to provide back-up.”

“Yeah, they could probably get away with that argument.” John agreed. The latter had resulted in Gibbs’s and the first responders wasting time at the scene searching for Tony but ultimately not going straight away would have undoubtedly led to the deaths of both Haskells, and not just the father.

“Which means you think the sticky part of this whole thing is whether David deliberately screwed with the device.” Pam surmised.

“Which is going to be hard to prove.” John said.

“I’ll send Michael to take Agent David’s statement.” Pam said. “I’d like you back at base. I think Doctor Scuito and Charlie are close to getting somewhere with the wire.”

“I’ll round up Gibbs.” John said immediately and signed off. He rubbed his hands vigorously over his face.

He really didn’t know if Ziva David had set Tony up. If nothing had happened, she might have been able to play the whole thing off as accidental, but no harm no foul. He pushed the thought to the back of his mind. They’d substantiated that a screw-up had occurred. It would be up to others to determine whether there was enough evidence to charge David and McGee for criminal negligence.

He had a friend to find and bring home.

o-O-o

Gibbs was outside McGee’s room looking through the window, his eyes pinned on the unconscious form of his junior agent. The only way in was to go through an interim chamber which involved stripping and putting on clean scrubs. They wanted to keep the risk of infection minimised.

John watched silently before he moved forward and took up a position slightly behind Gibbs to his right.

McGee looked badly injured. The left side of his face was bright red, the colour deepening as it travelled down his neck. His left arm was swathed in dressings and propped up on a foam pillow. His torso looked like it was also drowning in bandages. His left leg had a frame holding off the blankets and was clearly in a cast. He had a breathing tube and was hooked up to several monitors and IVs.

Gibbs glanced over his shoulder at John.

John indicated the exit and Gibbs followed him back down the corridor to the elevators. They rode back down and got back in the car in silence.

It wasn’t until Gibbs pulled out onto the main road that he finally spoke. “You got news on DiNozzo?”

John rubbed his chin. “Pam says they’re close on the wire.”

Gibbs gave a short nod and the car accelerated again.

“Agent Donnelly is going to take Agent David’s amended statement.” John informed him briskly. “I’d appreciate if you do a review of it once it’s done.”

Gibbs’s jaw tightened but he nodded again.

John wondered whether to say anything else but he had a feeling whatever he did say wouldn’t be welcomed. Tony had always told him his Boss was a functional mute and John was beginning to understand that better. If Gibbs was going to talk to someone about what had happened with Ziva David, it wasn’t going to be him.

Which was fine with John.

He’d effectively crossed off one item that Secretary O’Neill had wanted; they’d gotten to the truth about what had gone down in the field with NCIS. It was time to focus on Tony and getting him back.

“What exactly happened to DiNozzo?” asked Gibbs abruptly. “The whole story not just the bits you’ve doled out.”

It was a fair question and John knew in Gibbs’s place he would hate being stuck in the dark. John explained as much as he could about Haskell; about Lane and Nelson.

“Damn it.” Gibbs muttered, hitting the steering wheel in frustration.

John figured Gibbs had deduced the plain truth of it; that if McGee and David had done their jobs as back-up properly, Tony would have had help way before the bomb was set, or before he’d been taken.

“We’ll find him, Gibbs.” John said.

“Like you found Lyle Holland?” snapped Gibbs.

John lost his breath. As a sucker-punch, it was a doozy. He pressed his lips together and focused on the road, on breathing.

Gibbs sighed audibly. “You didn’t leave him behind.”

There was the hint of an apology in the sparse words.

John debated whether to accept it. “Forget it.” He rarely talked about Lyle and he wasn’t about to start with Gibbs.

An awkward silence filled the car for the rest of the journey. John didn’t question the pit-stop Gibbs made for coffee and a giant Caf-Pow. He was relieved when they finally got to the Hoover building.

Gibbs followed John into the building almost like a recalcitrant dog which knew it had upset its owner and was on its best behaviour.

John led the way out of the elevator and to his team’s work space.

Pam’s office was empty. Frankie was doing a vid-conference with the lab, a woman in military fatigues who John assumed was Cadman looking over her shoulder.   Neither looked up to acknowledge them.

Nancy gave him a wave from his own desk; her phone was pressed up against her ear.

There was a sudden squeal from the direction of Charlie’s desk.

Scuito waved frantically at them. “Gibbs!”

Gibbs handed her the Caf-Pow and she seized on it immediately, wrapping lips around the straw to suck up the liquid.

Scuito disengaged with a sigh. “Wow, I really needed that.” Her expression sobered suddenly. “Tim?”

“Hanging in there.” Gibbs said. “His mother and sister were there; the Admiral’s on the way.”

Scuito nodded.

John figured McGee’s family must have been in the family room he’d passed.

“And Ziva? She’s OK, right?” Scuito asked.

“She’s fine.” Gibbs said tersely. “What have you got, Abs?”

“OK,” Scuito said enthusiastically, “Charlie and I, we think we have a way to find Tony, or at least his wire.” She bent down and tapped rapidly on a keyboard; the main computer screen on Charlie’s desk shifted to a map of the area. “So, the wire’s transmission range is ten kilometres that isn’t going to change and we have no way for Tony to boost it unless he’s been kidnapped and held in a Radio Shack somewhere, which you know is unlikely.”

John cocked an eyebrow in Charlie’s direction.

Charlie grinned at him. “So, we need some way of picking up the frequency even if we’re out of range.”

“Exactly.” Scuito said, directing a warm smile at Charlie, “which is when we came up with the Twilight Bark.”

“One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” John identified the reference immediately. His niece loved the film.

Gibbs looked at him blankly.

“What do you know,” mused Scuito brightly, giving John a considering look, “maybe you really do know Tony, Agent Sheppard.” She turned back to Gibbs who looked on the verge of exploding and ignored his bad temper. “In the film, Gibbs, the dogs are trying to find the puppies so they bark to the nearest dog, and that dog barks to the next nearest dog, and he barks to the next dog and…” she swivelled back to the computer at Gibbs’s eyebrow rise, “so obviously we’re not using dogs but satellites bouncing off various receivers.”

The map on the computer lit up with orange spots.

“Based on the backgrounds Frankie and Abby did on our suspects,” Charlie continued, “we’re targeting their potential holiday and second homes, and in the case of the Nelsons, their hunting grounds.”

“If we can pick up the wire, we may be able to pinpoint Tony’s location.” Scuito finished with a wide smile.

“Good work, Abs.” Gibbs said. “And, uh…”

“Doctor Charlie Wong, Gibbs.” John stepped in and did the introductions, “Gibbs, Charlie Wong.” He smiled at his team-mate. “And Gibbs is right; good work.”

“Let’s see if it works first.” Charlie said but he was smiling.

Nancy waved a piece of paper at him. “Got him!”

John looked at her in surprise.

“Deeter Johanson.” Nancy explained with an apologetic grimace. “Airport security spotted him at Dulles. He had a one-way ticket for Dubai. Homeland agents are picking him up. I’ve asked them to bring him here.”

“Our tax dollars at work.” Charlie said under his breath.

Nancy shot him an annoyed look. “We’ve also traced how Military At Home paid for their bombs.” She gestured for John to join her at his desk.

“Keep at it.” John said to Charlie.

John was faintly aware that Gibbs followed him as he made his way over.

Nancy had her own laptop open and she pointed at the screen where there was a flashing red Homeland alert and underneath a series of numbers.

John hurriedly made introductions and resolutely didn’t react to Gibbs’s sharp glance when he recognised Nancy’s surname as his own.

“What exactly are we looking at?” asked John, moving them on quickly.

“You’re looking at an Al Quaeda account which Homeland tagged and froze over a year ago.” Nancy said. “This account was accessed last month by Arthur Haskell. He worked for an investment company and had a high level of access. He made a series of under the radar transfers which in total equalled five hundred thousand dollars to an account held by an alias of Johanson’s.”

“Investment one-oh-one.” Gibbs said.

John nodded, lightly resting his hands on his hips. “Use someone else’s money.”

“It also probably gave these guys a thrill to use the money from terrorists who have driven the need for military abroad.” Nancy said. “I’ve been on the phone gathering some intelligence on the Military At Home lobby.”

“Hit us with it.” John said.

“The political lobby started soon after nine-eleven, unsurprisingly.” Nancy said, tucking some hair behind an ear. “Various Senators and Congressmen and women have championed the lobby since that time. It gained a lot of support in the early days but it’s popularity has waned since.”

“There’s been limited terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since then.” Gibbs commented.

“Exactly.” Nancy said. “Most terrorist attacks have been centred on Europe or within the Middle East itself. Of course, what most people don’t know is the number of attacks which are foiled through intelligence and military activity here and abroad.”

“So, these guys figured to gain more support for their cause they’d stage a terrorist attack in the States.” John deduced.

“Replace the word stage with the word perform and you have it right.” Nancy said. “I did some calling around to various contacts. Most of the people I spoke to say the tone of the lobby has changed within the last eight months. They’ve put that down to a change in the leadership.”

She hit a button on her laptop and a picture appeared.

“Senator Richard Goring out of Ohio. Republican. He’s the main face of the Military At Home movement on the Hill.” She tapped the button again. “Goring has made five speeches in the last eight months which have obliquely referred to another terrorist attack being required before people start paying attention or demanding our military spend is spent at home.”

“Nice.” John muttered sarcastically. “Any connection to our motley band of suspects?”

“And that would be a yes.” Frankie inserted herself into the conversation with a grin. “Hi, I’m Frankie.” She stuck out her hand with an expectant look at Gibbs.

Gibbs shook it politely. “Gibbs.”

“Do you prefer Leroy or Jethro?” Frankie prompted cheekily.

“Gibbs.” Gibbs said, but there was a hint of a smile.

John cleared his throat and gave Frankie a pointed look.

“Right.” Frankie eased in beside Nancy and switched on John’s computer, a few keystrokes later and she brought up her findings. “Meet Annie Nelson; Richard Goring’s niece. She attended Liberty University and met her husband Zach Nelson there. Zach comes from old money – his family came over on the Mayflower. He works in his family’s law firm as a partner looking after corporate clients. He had one younger brother who died when Zach was eleven. The details were sealed by the juvenile court. However, newspaper articles around that time noted an eleven years old boy had shot his seven years old brother in a hunting accident.”

“First kill.” John said.

Frankie nodded. “There are a couple of other suspicious deaths in Zach Nelson’s history; a young partner at the law firm died in a similar hunting incident only a couple of years after Zach joined the company. There’s also his secretary committed suicide two years ago.”

“Eliminating competition.” Nancy suggested.

“Or someone who had something on him.” John noted. His gut was churning. “Something tells me he’s our guy for the radio murders. I’m going to bet he has a Remington 7400.”

“No bet.” Frankie quipped.

“Makes sense.” Gibbs said gruffly. “The guy who walked into that radio station didn’t hesitate.”

“Quick and confident killer. He’s done it before.” John agreed.

“Zach Nelson has political ambitions.” Nancy stated. “Goring has mentioned Nelson’s plans to run for Congress to friends.”

“You think they’re using the cause to launch a political platform.” John realised.

Nancy nodded. “Stir up passion with a few foreshadowing speeches, underline that with terrorist attacks, and build on the public’s want to feel safe in their own homes…Nelson and Goring could secure enough of a platform to make a play for real power.”

“That’s a bit of stretch.” Charlie called out from his desk.

John waved him back to what he was doing and sent Nancy a warning glance not to rise to the bait. She raised her eyebrows at him but held her tongue.

“We should have Rebecca do a psychological profile on him when she gets back.” John murmured.

“Send the info to Ducky.” Gibbs suggested. “He’s a qualified forensic psychologist.”

John nodded. He wasn’t above using all their resources.

“Send it to me, Frankie.” Scuito called over. “I’ll send it to him.”

Frankie nodded and bent to the computer. “Sent.” She straightened. “The Nelsons moved to Royal Woods just over eighteen months ago. If we consider them the core of the Military at Home militant group then they’ve spent their time recruiting to their cause.”

She tapped a button and a picture of a balding mature man appeared.

“Donald Altman.” Frankie sighed. “This is kind of sad. He lost his son in Kuwait. His grandson joined the Marines to honour his father and died in his first tour.”

John winced.

“Plenty of reason to sign up to the idea of spending money to protect ourselves at home.” Nancy said compassionately.

“Agreed, and it looks like the Nelsons targeted neighbours who had some level of personal trauma.” Frankie tapped the computer. “Haskell lost his wife in a home invasion. The outlier here are the Bridges. No big drama. However, I did find a series of telephone calls between the cell phone owned by Zach Nelson and the one owned by Gloria Bridge.”

“An affair?” posed Nancy.

“Maybe.” Frankie shrugged.

John’s phone buzzed and he picked up the call swiftly. “Sheppard.”

“I’m downstairs with Rebecca, John.” Pam said briskly. “You should join us. She and Ruben have brought in the Bridges.”

“On my way.” John jerked his head at the monitor. “Speak of the devil. Gloria Bridge and her husband are sitting in our interrogation rooms downstairs.”

Gibbs’s eyes widened. “Then what are we waiting for?”

John rolled his eyes as Gibbs strode away. Frankie smirked at him but Nancy offered him a sympathetic grimace as John went after him.

o-O-o

The interrogation rooms were John’s least favourite part of the building. With grey walls and old pocked ceiling tiles, they smelled of old sweat and the chemical tang of cleaning fluid. A single table bolted to the floor took up the centre; a flimsy plastic chair sat either side. All the interrogation rooms were wired to a central monitoring room run by security. The design was meant to negate the idea of corruption of evidence or intimidation because everything was recorded and transparent. There was still a mirror which backed onto an observation room and took up half a wall.  

For all the interrogation rooms were terrible, John didn’t care much for the observation rooms either. They were narrow grey rooms; cheerless and suffocating with standing room only. The pervading smell in them was bitter stale coffee.

John ushered Gibbs into the right observation room and nodded towards Pam and Ruben who were watching Rebecca question an overweight balding man on the other side of the glass.

There was a brief rush of introductions and handshakes before Gibbs turned his attention to the glass.

“He the husband?”

“Harold Bridge,” Pam confirmed, “financial director of Binnical Pharmaceuticals. Gloria is his second wife. She used to be his Executive Secretary.” The scathing tone of her recitation told John everything he needed to know about what Pam thought about that. “His first wife Elizabeth lives off the alimony and raises their three children in up-state New York, close to her family. Bridge spends most weekends there visiting with his children.”

On the other side of the window, Rebecca gathered her notebook from the table and excused herself. A moment later she entered the observation room and John quickly made another introduction.

Rebecca gestured to the other room and the despondent looking Harold who was mopping his perspiring brow with a white handkerchief. “He has no idea how trace elements of explosives were found in his freezer. He’s telling the truth.”

“In your opinion is he involved at all with Military at Home?” asked Pam.

Rebecca shook her head, the neat ponytail of strawberry blonde hair bouncing around her shoulders. “He made a monetary contribution for tax purposes, but his reaction was one of distaste. He referred to it as Nelson’s kooky bandwagon and he believes that.” She grimaced. “He showed distaste in general for Nelson but that’s probably because he’s aware that his wife is having an affair with him. Speaking of…”

She hit a button which turned the glass dark, obscuring Harold from sight and gestured at the wall behind them. They turned around and she hit a second button which lit up the glass and revealed the second interrogation room beyond.

Gloria Bridge sat nonchalantly in her chair, examining her manicure. Her dark hair was down, artfully tousled. She wore a green pant suit with a wide black belt, and there was a flash of a low-cut black tank top which showed a moderate amount of cleavage. Her feet were encased in sharp black heels. Diamonds flashed on her ears, wrist and finger.

Ruben shook his head. “She is one beautiful woman.”

Rebecca shot him an amused look and turned to John. “She’s going to respond best to you.”

“Me?” spluttered John. He shook his head. He hated interrogations. His strengths lay in tracking evidence, seeing patterns, and deducting. He also wasn’t bad at chasing down bad guys, and on the odd occasion, shooting at the bad guys. Sure, if there was the opportunity to do bad cop, John had silent and brooding in the corner nailed, but contrary to popular culture, the FBI preferred for their agents not to intimidate and threaten suspects – it usually led to lawsuits. There was a reason why he usually left the interrogations to Pam, Rebecca and Donnelly.

“According to Frankie she flirted with DiNozzo on the tape; she’s having an affair with Zach Nelson.” Rebecca said. “You’re her type; tall, dark and handsome. She’s going to flirt with you, think she can manipulate you. All you have to do is play along and she’ll tell you everything.”

“I’m terrible at flirting.” John shot back.

“I know,” Rebecca said, even as she manoeuvred him out of the room, “but she’ll find it adorable.”

And with that he was outside of the observation room and in the corridor, Gibbs smirking at him as the door closed.

John swore under his breath. He rolled his shoulders. “OK, John,” he murmured to himself, “you can do this.”

He stepped up to the interrogation room and walked confidently inside.

Gloria Bridge’s interested gaze swept over him.

John offered her a sheepish smile as he closed the door. “Mrs Bridge, I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I’m Special Agent John Sheppard.”

“I’m not sure I mind the wait if you’re at the end of it.” She replied with an easy smile.

John smiled back nervously and took his seat. “Do you need any water or…”

She shook her head and sat back, crossing her arms in such a way that it displayed her cleavage prominently.

John cleared his throat. “So, thank you for coming in to answer our questions. I’d just like you to confirm for the record that you’ve been informed this interview is being recorded and you’ve also declined the presence of your attorney, Mrs Bridge.”

“Call me Gloria.” She said.

John smiled. “Gloria.” He gestured at her. “Sorry, but for the record…”

“I can confirm I understand we’re being recorded,” Gloria said making it sound very suggestive, “and I’ve declined an attorney.” She smiled at him again. “I have nothing to hide.”

“Well, let’s begin.” John said quickly. “Tell me about your day so far from the beginning.”

Gloria regarded him with a curious stare, tilting her head a little. “Sure.” She said in a tone that told John she was humouring him. “I got up around seven, had some breakfast with Harold. Harold went to his study and I changed into my swimsuit to do some laps in our pool with a cool-down in the Jacuzzi.” She leaned forward with a wide smile. “Getting wet is my favourite way to exercise.”

John felt his cheeks start to warm with the blatant innuendo. He managed an embarrassed smile. “So, you went swimming?”

“Hmmm-hmmm.” Gloria said. “Well, before that we had someone come to the door to ask about the area; dark, green eyes, handsome.” Her eyes were travelling over John as she said it. “I invited him for a Jacuzzi but he said he was married. Are you married, John? I can call you John, right?”

“That’s fine, Gloria.” John said. “And no, not married.” He was half-tempted to tell her he was gay but he figured that would shut her down too much. “Did your visitor come inside your house or…”

“He insisted on talking with Harold. I left them talking on the doorstep.” Gloria said, dismissively.

“And then?” prompted John.

“I got wet.” Gloria smiled widely.

John gave a short laugh. “And after your swim?”

“My manicurist came over and we did a full manicure in the den.” Gloria said, displaying the results. “We’d been invited to an evening barbeque at the Haskells…” she stopped and her eyes went wide, “do you think that’s when the bomb was supposed to go off? When we were all there?”

“We know the bomb was set to cover-up a crime.” John assured her. “Tell me, who else was meant to be at the barbeque?”

“Well, the Baptistes.” Gloria said. “Doralee and Bill. People say you can’t trust blacks but they’re just adorable.”

John winced inwardly at the blatant racism. “Anyone else?”

“Don Altman, he’s a grumpy old bastard; hates everyone. The Goldmans.” Gloria shrugged. “I think Arthur invited most people.”

“Was Zach and Anne Nelson due to be there?” John asked bluntly.

“I think so.” Gloria shrugged and sat back.

“Hmmm. We’ve found a pattern of phone calls between you and Zach Nelson.” John offered. “Are you close as neighbours?”

“Oh, honey.” Gloria gave a regretful smile. “There’s really no mystery in that.”

“No?” John said.

“Harold and me, well, we’ve got an open relationship. He’s had some dysfunction problems and a woman has needs.” Gloria said, smirking at him. “Zach and Annie…it’s more of a business arrangement than a bedroom relationship if you see what I mean, so Zach and I,” she shrugged, “we get together occasionally and use each other.” She batted her eyelashes. “Physically.”

John refused to squirm under her intent gaze. “Did Zach get you involved with his Military at Home lobbying?”

“God, no.” Gloria leaned forward again, accentuating her assets. “Listening to him babble on about all that political stuff? That’s Annie’s domain.”

John hummed. He could tell she was lying but there was nothing he had as evidence to pin her down on it. “Has Zach asked you to do him any favours recently of the non-sexual kind?”

Gloria regarded him carefully for a very long moment. “The only favours I’ve offered Zach are of the sexual kind.”

“So you have no idea how trace elements of an explosive might have gotten into your freezer?” asked John bluntly.

Gloria reared back in a pretence of surprise. “Believe me, I don’t go anywhere near the freezer.”  

John nodded; that he could believe. “Well, I think that about covers it.” He said brightly. “Before we finish though it would be remiss of me not to warn you.”

“Warn me?” Amusement coloured her slightly doubtful tone.

“Yes,” John said seriously, “Zach Nelson along with a second accomplice is a person of interest in the explosion that killed Arthur Haskell and seriously injured three people today. Nelson has a history of killing anyone he thinks is a weak link.” He smiled suddenly, shark-like and biting. “I’m sure though as you know nothing about his Military At Home activity and involvement with explosives you have nothing to worry about, Gloria.” He slid out of his chair. “I’ll arrange for someone to take you and your husband back to the hotel.”

He took one step and then another toward the door.

“Wait.” Gloria said.

John turned back to her and raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“If I did have some information, would I get some protection?” Gloria asked bluntly.

John sat down again. “If you were a material witness we could arrange for protective custody. If you want to change your mind about a lawyer, I can arrange that.”

“No, that’s OK.” Gloria said. “Just…I will need protection from Zach.”

John nodded. He levelled his best ‘start talking’ look at her.

“Look,” Gloria said spreading her hands as though letting go of something, “Zach talks a lot.”

“About?” prompted John.

“When we moved to Royal Woods, they approached us into making a political donation for their cause, this Military at Home thing. Harold gave them some money,” she shrugged, “some tax break or something. Anyway, it was all talk for a long time. Zach kept telling me he and Annie were going to become the next Presidential family off the back of this but nobody took them seriously.”

“What changed?”

Gloria sighed heavily. “About a year ago Zach brought Matt Lane along to the soiree he and Annie were holding. He’d met Matt on some hunting trip and they were both really gung-ho about the cause. Matt was the one who started saying only an act of terrorism was going to get them any attention; Zach and Annie were agreeing with him.” Her eyes met John’s sombrely. “Honestly? The rest of us all laughed at the idea.”

John inclined his head in acknowledgement. “When did you stop laughing?”

“Arthur Haskell moved in soon after. His wife was shot to death by an intruder in their home.” Gloria shook her head. “He was heartbroken and Zach hooked him almost immediately.”

She crossed her arms and used her hands to rub at her upper arms briskly as though to warm herself.

“About six months ago, Zach called me. He wanted to meet up.” She shrugged. “We met out at his hunting cabin and he was revved up, ready to go. He jumped me the minute I was inside the door. We were drinking champagne after and he said he was celebrating because they’d just discovered a way to get the money to make a real statement; Arthur knew how to get the cash for them.” She grimaced. “After that, it just snowballed. Suddenly they were contacting bomb-makers and there were actual bombs.” She looked at him again. “I didn’t think they’d actually use them.”

“The trace in your freezer?” asked John.

“Zach needed somewhere to keep one.” Gloria shrugged. “I wasn’t going to tell him no.”

John nodded. “What are the targets?”

Gloria sighed and shifted position. “They talked about taking out a military target. Matt said as a mailman he could get access to the Norfolk base. Haskell thought no-one would actually get hurt, but Zach…” she winced visibly, “he would say to me that only another nine-eleven was going to make an impact; people dying.” She leaned forward again. “I really, really didn’t think he would actually do anything. I thought he was all talk.”

John swallowed the urge to rail at her for her stupidity. If she had come forward, the deaths that day could have been avoided.

“Where would Zach go to hide?” asked John.

“He and Annie have properties all over.” Gloria waved a hand. “Maybe the hunting lodge out by Luray? I don’t know. He has a pilot’s license and a plane, you know?”

That was unwelcome news. He pressed her for additional information a couple of times more, but it was clear she’d said as much as she was going to say.

“Someone will come by with your statement.” John informed her. “Once you’ve signed it, you’ll be transferred into protective custody.” There’d be a conversation about whether to charge her for conspiracy but John figured they’d make it a part of the deal to keep her compliant.

“Will you be there?” Gloria asked, rallying. She tried a slightly vulnerable pout which did nothing for John.

“I’m going to be hunting down Zach Nelson.” John said to her, getting up and heading for the door.

He shut it quietly for all he wanted to slam it.

Pam and Ruben joined him in the hallway; Gibbs leaned on the wall beside the open observation room door. Somehow John wasn’t surprised to see Fornell lurking behind him like a shadow.

“Good job, John.” Pam said warmly.

John shrugged away the praise. “We didn’t learn anything new.”

“But we know where they might hit.” Pam said.

“I’ve called the Director.” Gibbs stated gruffly. “Norfolk will go on alert but it’s unlikely they’ll hit there now.”

John crossed his arms; he didn’t disagree with Gibbs. “They want to make a big statement.”

“Bombing one of the boats out there would give them that though, right?” Ruben asked. His young face was creased with confusion, knowing the two older agents had picked up on something which he wasn’t seeing himself.

“Maybe.” John sighed. “But if they’re going for something like nine-eleven, they wouldn’t just focus on a military target. Sure, the Pentagon got hit on nine-eleven but what most people focus on is…”

“The Towers.” Pam concluded, nodding. “Well, still a good job, John. Why don’t you take a break?” Her phone rang loudly. She sighed and answered it. “Agent Bellows speaking.” Her dark eyes went suddenly wide and they shot to Gibbs.

He looked at her inquisitively.

“Understood, Donnelly. You and Major Davis come back to base. We’ll get a BOLO out.” Pam disconnected the call, her eyes never leaving Gibbs’s. “We have a problem.”

“Another one?” asked John, grabbing her attention briefly before her gaze returned to Gibbs who straightened to meet the challenge there.

Pam lifted her chin. “Ziva David is missing; they’ve searched the hospital and she is no longer there. She’s in the wind.”

Problem was an understatement, John thought with dismay as Gibbs whirled away, Fornell following after him. It was a goddamn disaster.

o-O-o

“You OK?”

Nancy’s question had John pausing momentarily as he stirred creamer into his coffee, although ‘stirred’ was probably an overstatement given the small plastic device only seemed capable of drawing weak lines in the liquid. He glanced over his shoulder at his best friend, who stood in the break-room doorway, and shrugged.

She crossed the space between them and hugged him. “He’s going to be OK, John.”

John tentatively hugged Nancy back, letting the familiarity of her comfort him. He sometimes thought he didn’t deserve Nancy in his life but he loved her too much to let her go.

She eased back and cupped his cheek, searching his eyes. “It’s OK to be worried, John.”

John sighed and stepped away from her. He hated talking about his feelings, and he didn’t want to dwell on how he felt about Tony; it was too much and too distracting; he needed to stay focused. “Coffee?”

Nancy leaned against the counter as John put a cardboard cup underneath the machine nozzle and pushed in the code for a cappuccino.

“You know I’ve been teasing you for months about your hot neighbour,” Nancy commented softly, “and I’ve known you liked him, that you’ve been really interested for the first time since Lyle. But I think I’ve been blind to just how much you already feel for him.”

“Nancy…”

“You’re already half way in love with him, John.”

He looked away from her too perceptive gaze and focused on stirring his coffee while the machine hissed and spluttered its way through Nancy’s drink. He didn’t confirm she was right. Nancy knew him too well.

She nudged him gently. “Lyle would have wanted you to be happy, you know.”

He did know. It was almost the last thing Lyle had said as his life drained out of him under a hot Afghani sun. He’d made John promise to live his life; to go on without Lyle. John forced the memory out of his head as pain, even dulled and muted by time, washed through him again.

“I’m looking forward to meeting him.” Nancy said, pulling him back to the present. “He must be pretty special.”

“You’re pretty special yourself.” John blurted out. “You know that right? I don’t say it a lot but…”

“I know.” Nancy smiled at him. “Anyone who’s loved by you understands you’d rather face going naked to the opera than talking about feelings, John.” She picked up her cappuccino and reached for a thin tube of sugar. “I blame your father.”

John decided that needed no response and handed her the sugar along with another pathetic plastic stirrer. “Dad does hate opera.” He joked.

Nancy nudged him again. She frowned at the way the stirrer wasn’t even breaking through the fluffy artificial cream on the top of her drink. “By the way, you don’t need to worry about meeting Brent.”

John looked up sharply from blowing on his coffee.

“I ran into his boss as I was leaving the office yesterday. There was no meeting that meant he missed our breakfast. When I faced Brent with it at lunch today, he admitted he’d been with someone else.” Nancy’s lips twisted. “He said he hadn’t realised I thought we were dating exclusively yet.”

“You need me to hit him?” John offered, feeling a touch helpless as he always did when he had to comfort her.

Nancy leaned into him and kissed his cheek, reaching up to rub the lipstick off him. “Thank you but I already accidentally dropped my chocolate mousse in his lap.”

“Classy.” John said admiringly.

“Worth it.” Nancy sighed and held up the plastic stirrer. “This is about as much use as a fish on a bicycle.”

John smiled and rummaged around the break room until he dug up a proper piece of cutlery. It was a fork but its handle still did a better job than the stirrer.

They walked back out to the bullpen. Pam, Donnelly and Frankie were absent, organising protective custody for the Bridges and organising the re-questioning of the neighbours Gloria had mentioned would be at the barbeque. Rebecca and Ducky were bent over the conference table, papers and photos spread out in front of them, talking quietly as they pulled together their profiles. Fornell had dragged Gibbs away for better coffee and hadn’t brought him back. John just hoped they hadn’t gone off the reservation completely and decided to try and find Ziva David on their own.

John wandered over to Charlie as Nancy retook his desk.

Charlie held up a hand to stop John from speaking. “Try it again, Abby.”

Scuito tapped a series of commands into the main computer and hit enter. There was a crackle of static and…

“…and an unbelievable headache.”

Tony DiNozzo’s voice had John’s knees go weak with relief. Tony was alive. He closed his eyes briefly, finally acknowledging the fear which had been his constant companion since he’d discovered Tony had been taken.

Scuito turned around and high-fived Charlie, whooping loudly.

John leaned on Charlie’s desk as naturally as he could and reminded himself to breathe as the others gathered round them to congratulate Charlie and Scuito.

He nodded at Scuito who was grinning ear-to-ear; her relief at finding Tony alive written all over her face. “Good work, Doctor Scuito.”

“Abby.” She offered with a wide smile.

John nodded an acknowledgement of the olive branch.

“Seriously, why haven’t I practiced getting out of cuffs more?” Tony complained. “It’s not like this is the first time I’ve had to do this although bonus that I don’t have a knife-wielding serial killer cuffed to me this time.”

“He’s kidding, right?” asked Nancy.

Abby shook her head, her pigtails bouncing. “It was a few years ago. I told him then we should have chipped him!”

“As much as we like to joke he is as loyal as a Saint Bernard, Abigail, Anthony is not actually a dog.” Ducky pointed out dryly.

“But if he was chipped, we could find him.” Abby argued.

“Can you narrow it down to a property based on which communication tower is relaying?” John asked.

Charlie sighed and wheeled across to a different laptop. “Yes and no.”

John followed him and stared at the monitor as Charlie brought up the map.

“This is the end-point for our Twilight Bark.” Charlie pointed at a red spot on the map. “It’s near Luray.” He tapped some keys and a circle appeared around Luray. “The wire is somewhere within that radius.”

“Overlay with known properties from our main players.” John ordered.

Three orange blips appeared all within the circle but spread out.

John grimaced and stared at the map. They could arrange a coordinated assault; hit all three locations at the same time. It would take a lot of manpower but they could argue it.

“Record everything he says.” John ordered. “See if Tony mentions something that will narrow the options down. I’ll round up everyone; we need a planning session.”

John strode away without waiting for a reply. A quick text to Frankie and Donnelly had them confirming they were on their way; a brief phone call to Pam did the same, and she pointed him at Fornell’s office for Gibbs.

Fornell’s seniority afforded him a corner office, tucked away on the seventh floor of the opposite wing in a maze of corridors. Someone needed to know the building very well to find their way to it and John swore under his breath as he finally got the right corridor.

He found himself slowing as he neared the office; the door was marginally open and he could hear the low rumble of Fornell’s voice.

“…and like I told you; Sheppard’s got a good head on his shoulders. You need to leave this with us.”

“It’s my team, Tobias.” Gibbs protested immediately.

There was a moment of silence and John took a cautious step forward.

“I screwed up.” Gibbs’s voice had John abruptly stopping again.

“Alright.” Fornell said. “I know I’m going to regret this but I’ll bite. How did you screw up?”

“I let her back on the team.” Gibbs said.

John held his position, quiet as a mouse just like the Air Force had trained him.

“You didn’t do that alone, Gibbs. You wanted to give her a second chance. Vance wanted to give her a second chance. DiNozzo and McGee put their lives on the line in that op. It’s not all on you.” Fornell said.

“My gut told me it was a bad idea, that she still had an issue with DiNozzo. Ducky warned me that she hadn’t worked through everything enough.” Gibbs argued. “But I didn’t listen to him!”

“Woah, woah, woah. Now hold on a minute! You think she targeted DiNozzo deliberately?” Fornell asked, saving John from having to burst in and ask Gibbs himself.

“I don’t know.” Gibbs admitted. “But if anyone was going to set-up a hit and make it look like an accident…”

“Did you tell Sheppard that?!” Fornell bit out angrily.

Gibbs’s answer must have been non-verbal.

“Damn it, do you really think Sheppard would have left her there with just a single Marine guard, who was more interested in keeping others out than her in, if you’d told him what you just told me?”

The answer was no; John would have had her under watch. But as much as he might think Gibbs had been wrong not to say something, he knew there was no proof that she had set-up events. And it was such a long shot if she had. She couldn’t have known Tony would run into trouble.  

“Listen,” Fornell was saying, “you need to…”

John knew he couldn’t continue eavesdropping; he moved and rapped on the open door, sticking his head in as the conversation ground to an immediate halt. He nodded at Fornell but looked over at Gibbs who was clutching at a travel mug as though it was his life’s blood.

“Charlie and Abby tuned into DiNozzo’s wire. We’ve got three possible locations. We need to confer.” He moved back, confident Gibbs would follow.

Gibbs caught him up at the elevator and John wasn’t surprised to see Fornell bringing up the rear. He raised an eyebrow at the other agent’s presence but Fornell stared stubbornly back at John as though daring him to protest.

They all got in the elevator.

John stabbed the button.

“Well,” Fornell said, “this isn’t awkward.”

Both John and Gibbs turned to glare at him.

He lifted his hands in a gesture of peace.

“Is DiNozzo actually talking on the wire or is it dead air?” Fornell asked.

“He’s talking.” John answered.

“Sounds like DiNozzo.” Gibbs muttered.

John led the way out, through the connecting corridor to the right wing and his own team. They were all gathered around the table except for Charlie who continued to be hunched over at his computer, headphones on and presumably listening to Tony. John slowed as he saw the Director.

Cross gave him a nod of acknowledgement and looked vaguely amused at the sight of Gibbs with Fornell. “Special Agent Gibbs, I’ve heard a great deal about you.”

“Director.” Gibbs shook his hand politely.

“Shall we get on with it, gentlemen?” Cross waved at the conference table. “Secretary O’Neill is joining us by phone.”

The spider phone in the centre of the table was glowing with its green lights lit up.

John glanced at Pam who gave him a quick nod before she spoke up. “Secretary O’Neill, let me get straight to it. We’ve identified a credible threat to national security. I’m going to handover to Deputy Director Nancy Sheppard to provide Homeland’s assessment.”

Nancy leaned over the table toward the phone. “During the past year an element of Military at Home have moved from lobbying to militant. Intelligence did note increased reference to another act of terrorism being required on U.S. soil to galvanise support. However, this was not given serious consideration or priority given the lobby is predominately white, middle-class college-educated Americans. Forensic examination of email accounts held by the main suspects in today’s bombing reveal a systematic conspiracy to terrorise the American people with the ultimate aim to gain the White House and political power under the banner of Military at Home.”

John folded his arms across his chest.

“Warrants have been issued for all identified members of the group involved in the email conspiracy including Senator Goring.” Nancy continued. “We have a continued national security threat with four known members of the group at large. They had procured four bombs from a known South African bomb-maker, Deeter Johanson who was arrested attempting to leave the country. Johanson had confirmed during interrogation this evening that all bombs require a detonator as they will only combust when they reach a temperature of four hundred degrees Celsius.”

Pam leaned forward. “This is Agent Bellows, Mister Secretary. The FBI can confirm that one bomb was used today at Royal Woods using a barbeque as the detonator.”

“It’s possible alternative detonators may be MacGyvered in a similar way.” Nancy confirmed.

“We have confirmation from another member of the group that Norfolk base was considered a viable target.” Pam continued. “The base is now on alert. However, analysis suggests Norfolk may not have been the ultimate target; nine-eleven is often referenced by the group. Both Agents Sheppard and Gibbs have suggested the target may have changed.”

“Homeland are considering this a clear and present danger.” Nancy said.

“Well, I guess better late than never.” O’Neill commented sarcastically. “Do we have any lead on these yahoos?”

Pam looked across at John.

He stepped forward, using both hands to lean over the table and talk into the spider phone. “Sir, with assistance from NCIS we have got a read on Agent DiNozzo’s live wire. He’s alive and being held somewhere in Shenandoah at one of three possible locations.”

“Assistance from NCIS.” O’Neill repeated. “You just forget about my third objective, Sheppard? Agent Sheppard not other Sheppard. Obviously.”

“No, sir. We didn’t forget. We investigated NCIS as instructed.” John replied, ignoring the shocked look on Abby’s face. “The NCIS investigation was conducted appropriately in regards to Military At Home. Their assessment of the threat level was conducive with the information they had at the time, and as you know they did confer with Homeland and with the FBI.”

“I’m guessing there’s a but coming.” O’Neill said, caustically.

John sighed. “Special Agents McGee and David should probably face some kind of disciplinary action. According to Special Agent David there were minor breaches of protocol in the field; problematic but not necessarily negligent if each is viewed in isolation. However, she revealed that the protocol breaches were compounded when she knocked the audio device switching it off and incorrectly switched it back on in playback mode.”

John didn’t look at Ducky and Abby but he sensed their distress.

“That ultimately delayed their understanding that Agent DiNozzo was in trouble. She claimed it was accidental.” John continued. “We’re waiting on Agent McGee waking up and being cognisant enough to validate her statement, but David’s since gone AWOL from the hospital which raises a concern.”

“Major Davis?” O’Neill said. “Did we not have Marines guarding the hospital? Did they all go to sleep?”

“Agent David asked to visit with her colleague.” Paul moved forward to respond. “Captain Ford did not see any issue with giving into her request. She went missing between her room and his.”

“Tremendous.” O’Neill said cuttingly. “Fine. She’s not a priority. What are our options for the next step, Agent Sheppard?”

“First option is we launch a systematic and coordinated take-down of all three probable locations for Agent DiNozzo.” John said. “It’s likely that at least one member of the four MAH suspects is guarding Agent DiNozzo. They may be able to provide additional information on the potential target. Raiding the other properties may also turn up additional intelligence or members of the group. This option has the benefit of also securing the safety of Agent DiNozzo without delay.”

“And the disadvantages?” asked O’Neill.

“We play our hand.” John said. “They haven’t discovered the wire on DiNozzo yet. They also don’t know we know they are the primary suspects.”

“That’s right, Mister Secretary.” Rebecca said. “They’ve ran to give themselves alibis; to pretend not to have been present and to try to ride out the immediate investigation.”

“But targeting their properties will mean we give those members of the group notice we know who they are, and if they’re not there we may send them further into hiding.” O’Neill said. “Second option?”

“Gather more intelligence. Try and identify where they are going to hit.” John said. “Go after Agent DiNozzo when we have a confirmed location.”

“And maybe lose him in the meantime when they realise what an astoundingly bad idea it is to hold a federal agent hostage especially if they discover that wire.” O’Neill commented.  

“Yes, sir.” John said.

O’Neill sighed.

John kept his eyes on the spider phone as O’Neill evidently took the time to consider what needed to happen.

“Start planning your op to take all three locations but gather as much additional intelligence as you can. I want you in the lead on this, Sheppard. You have the tactical background.” O’Neill said finally. “We need to get these guys before they have a chance to hit a target. Coordinate with Major Davis any military assets you need. I’ll need the President to sign off so Colin – you and Agent Bellows can meet me at the White House to help explain all this.” He sighed. “I’m going to have to wear a goddamned suit.”

“Yes, sir.” Cross said.

“And Sheppard?” O’Neill said stopping John from straightening up. “The priorities haven’t changed; bring DiNozzo back.”

John wished he’d had O’Neill as a CO. He nodded sharply. “Understood, sir.”

o-O-o

John rolled his shoulders and tried to ease the knot of tension lodged between them and wrapped around his spine.

Maybe he’d been slightly biased but he’d called in the Hostage Rescue Team to lead and work with the Marines they had. HRT were trained for the type of operation that was going to be needed; the rest of his team would act as secondary support. Gibbs had argued to be part of the operation as had Fornell, and while John had some concerns he’d acquiesced. Better to know where they were than having them do their own thing.

The HRT lead Max Guerra cast a look across the table and sent him a wordless query of concern. John gave a slight shake of head dismissing the concern and bent again to their planning.

“First location is a cabin; wood structure; single living and kitchen room; single bedroom on the same level; outdoor amenities. No car port; nothing fancy.” Frankie reported crisply. “Belongs to Matt Lane’s brother. According to his bank and credit statements, Lane visits there regularly for hunting trips.”

“It’s unlikely this is where they’re keeping the hostage.” Max noted. “Not enough space even if it’s remote enough not to draw attention.”

“Agreed.” John said. “It’s also got a single accessible road.” He pointed at the map.

“Matthew Lane was the one who brought terrorism to the table for Military At Home.” Rebecca said. “His older brother was a serving Marine injured by drunk teenagers who were protesting the Iraq war; the brother, Peter, sustained a brain injury which effectively gives him the mental age of a small child. Peter lives in a care home which is paid for by the government.”

“Lane is a believer.” Ducky chipped in. “His faith is absolute. He believes he is a soldier of the cause and will act in defence of the mission.”

“He’s a cool customer.” Rebecca agreed. “Following his part in Agent DiNozzo’s abduction and setting the bomb, he finished his mail round and returned the truck to base. He left in his own vehicle and headed to a mall; his vehicle is still there and Lane is gone.”

“Rebecca and I both agree; Lane is likely the person who has chosen the target for the remaining bombs and is likely to be the one tasked with setting up the next attack.” Ducky finished soberly. “While it is not likely you will find Anthony or Lane at the property, it is probable that he has plans for the mission as he sees it secreted somewhere there.”

John exchanged a quick look with Max. “Ground op; Agents Armitage and Donnelly should go in as support for the first location.”

“Agreed.” Max confirmed.

“That takes care of Team Alpha’s objective. Team Beta will focus on the second location which is also unlikely to be where Agent DiNozzo’s being held.” Frankie said. She pointed at the map. “This cabin is owned by Donald Altman as an investment. It’s within a small select community of cabins which are generally used for high-end vacations. Security has confirmed that there have been no unexpected vehicles entering the community. The property company employed to upkeep the cabin have already confirmed that Altman’s cabin is empty but the two surrounding cabins are rented out and have been occupied today.”

“So difficult to sneak an unconscious man in there without being seen.” Max commented.

“Altman has also never used the cabin.” Frankie said. “That said, we have growing evidence that Nelson and Altman pulled a switch after Nelson drove away from the Haskell house. Looking at the camera footage on the security gate of Royal Woods, we can clearly see Altman driving the Haskell car when it exits.”

“Theory is that Nelson drove straight to Altman and got him to drive the car.” John said, folding his arms. “Possibly to throw us off. Altman has also been heard on the wire since we tuned in.” He nodded at Frankie who pressed a button on her laptop.

“Here’s your food.” Altman said gruffly.

“Room service.” Tony quipped. “Fantastic. What is that? Tomato soup, a roast beef sandwich and some chips? You’re really spoiling me.” There was a chink of metal. “I don’t suppose you can let me out of these? I mean, I’m already shackled like a dog to the post here, it’s not like I can go anywhere.”

There was a pause.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” Tony remarked. “I think I’m going to have to pass on the sandwich. Pretty sure I have a concussion; stomach’s a little queasy. Your friend hit me pretty hard.”

“He’s not my friend.” Altman responded.

“Then why are you covering for him?” Tony said almost conversationally. “You seem like a reasonably decent guy. You might be prejudiced against anybody who isn’t a white protestant Republican, but I’m guessing you worked hard before your retirement; did the traditional marriage and kids thing. And I’m guessing until today, a completely law abiding citizen. Why are you helping them keep me hostage?”

“You don’t know anything.” Altman said. “You’re just a punk who stumbled into a discussion at the wrong time and place.”

“Is that what they told you? What I am is a Special Agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.” Tony said calmly. “You’re currently holding a federal agent hostage.”

“You’re lying! They don’t want to hurt anyone just blow up a communication tower; make a statement!” Altman argued fiercely. “They want to bring our military home! That’s where they belong! At home not dying in some Godforsaken country!”

Tony’s voice was gentle; compassionate. “Who did you lose?”

“My son.” Altman said. “My grandson. They wanted to serve, to protect us.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Tony said.

Altman huffed. “Like you care.”

“I care.” Tony replied passionately. “I told you; I’m a federal agent. I took an oath to protect and serve too. I wear my badge with honour knowing every time I wear it that it might be the last time; that I might die serving the men and women of the Navy; making sure they get justice.” He paused. “That’s what I was doing in your community today; trying to find justice for Commander Walter Daniels. He was gunned down in a radio station yesterday by a member of the Military At Home group. The radio show host was going to expose the group as terrorists. We traced a call to him back to your community. Your friends? They’ve already killed three people.”

“Do you really think I’m going to believe you?” Altman said.

“What do you think is going to happen to me?” Tony asked bluntly. “I’ve seen your faces. I can identify you. Do you really think the others in your group are going to just let me go? They already knocked me out and have taken me hostage.”

“I’m not going to listen to you!” Altman growled. “Eat, don’t eat. That’s all you’re getting.”

“You really think your son and grandson would want you to be an accessory to murder?” Tony shouted.

There was the sound of a bang.

“Well, I guess we convinced him.” Tony sighed. “I guess soup it is. Yum.”

Frankie stopped the recording.

John let out a breath slowly, realising he’d somehow started holding it as Tony had tried to convince Altman.

“As you can see Mister Altman’s belief in Military at Home is rooted in loss.” Ducky said sombrely. “It is very likely that Zachary and Anne Nelson played upon his grief to inveigle him into their scheme.”

“We believe Arthur Haskell was manipulated in the same way.” Rebecca wrapped her arms around her torso as though to comfort herself. “Haskell was considered expendable and we fear Mister Altman is considered the same. It’s unlikely anything concerning Military At Home is at the cabin but we know of at least two occasions when Nelson used it for a liaison with Gloria Bridge.”

“Agent Bellows and Tyler will support HRT on the cabin takedown.” John said. “I’ll be with you on the third location as will Agents Gibbs and Fornell.”

Max nodded and pointed at the map. “This third one causes a logistical problem. There’s barely a road in and out; security fencing all around it, probably a significant security system, and a number of outbuildings.”

“The Nelsons’ hunting lodge.” Frankie confirmed. “It has a primo security system and the Nelsons registered two guard dogs, Dobermans.”

“Ducky and I both agree that it’s likely Agent DiNozzo is being held here probably in an outbuilding.” Rebecca said.

“Anne Nelson was already in situ at the hunting lodge.” Frankie stated. “She’s been there all week and was only due to return for the Haskell’s barbeque this afternoon.” She frowned. “Nelson left the community approximately twenty minutes after Altman. He made his way to work. Security there confirmed he left after the reports of the bombing. I’m trying to find his vehicle route through street cameras but it’s slow going. He could be at the lodge; he might be with Lane.”

“He just went to work after setting that bomb?” Max whistled. “Cold.”

“The Nelsons are the architects of this scheme.” Rebecca chipped in. “Both show signs of psychopathy although we’d have to sit down with them to properly assess and diagnose.” She sighed and scratched her head absently. “My money is on Anne Nelson being the one wearing the pants in the relationship; she’s ambitious, used to getting her way and is highly intelligent. There’s a history of…bullying and intimidation in her past – rivals who went away, in one memorable case got food poisoning, or dropped off the map completely.”

“However, it is unlikely that you will find any direct evidence linking Anne Nelson to any criminal activity.” Ducky said gravely. “She is very careful and, in her husband, she has the perfect weapon and scapegoat. I expect that unless we catch her with a smoking gun, she will claim to be as much a victim in this as anyone.”

“Zachary Nelson is most likely a psychopath.” Rebecca continued. “He has a record of violent behaviour and suspicious deaths in his background. He enjoys hunting as it provides a legitimate excuse for him to kill. It’s worth noting that Nelson wanted to leave DiNozzo with the bomb; it was Lane who suggested he would have value and to keep him alive.”

“It is almost certain that should Zachary Nelson alone determine Anthony’s fate, he will not hesitate to kill him.” Ducky confirmed.

John kept the flinch he felt from showing with difficulty. “Max?”

“So, this is where we’ll utilise the Marine support.” Max confirmed. “Three coordinated approaches; remote computer support to hack the security system, turn it off, open the gate; ground operation, Team Charlie-Gamma, to sweep from the gates up to the house and secure the house; Team Charlie-Alpha will be the air operation with fast-rope deployment into the grounds to secure DiNozzo and the rest of the property.”

“One bomb may be on site.” John noted.

“That’s where I come in.” Cadman said. “I’ll join the Marines in the ground operation.”

John nodded. “Gibbs, Fornell…”

“We’ll go in on the ground.” Fornell said. He caught Gibbs glaring at him. “Don’t even try to claim you could fast-rope in.”

“I’m assuming you’ll fast-rope?” Max grinned at John.

John nodded. “We’ll leave at oh-one-hundred with operations to commence in parallel at oh-three. It’s now twenty-two-oh-five. I’d recommend power-naps for those who don’t need to be involved with the prep.” He looked around the table at his team, at Gibbs and Fornell, at the others drafted in to help. “Let’s do this.”

o-O-o

John sat at his desk.

Nancy had gone home reluctantly barely thirty minutes before. He’d be surprised if she wasn’t back at first light.

The women in his team had bedded down in Pam’s office. It wasn’t the first time they’d had a sleepover there. Donnelly had curled up under his own desk. Charlie hadn’t bothered to sleep; he was beavering away trying to establish where Zach Nelson and Matt Lane had gone.

Fornell had ushered the NCIS team out earlier and John suspected Gibbs was hiding out in Fornell’s office cuddled up to the coffee machine.

John had eschewed going home himself, but it was past midnight and he’d taken over monitoring Tony’s wire. He was comfortable; feet up on his desk, leaning back in his chair, earbuds in so the whole office wasn’t disturbed.

It was clear that Tony was hoping that the wire was transmitting to somewhere; that he had deduced it might be a way to find him. Tony had commented that he hoped his team were listening. He had explicitly wondered out loud what had happened with McGee and David; had hoped they were alright. But he’d also immediately told himself to stop thinking about that, and it was clear to John that Tony was fully aware of what it meant that they hadn’t stopped him being taken, and was contemplating the reasons. But other comments were very useful; he’d described the entire space he was in and it was clearly an outbuilding. It had helped solidify John’s plans even more.

But Tony was tiring. By his own admission, he’d barely managed half the soup and one bite of the sandwich had made him too nauseous to continue eating. Tony had also started coughing about thirty minutes before; his voice turning hoarse. It was obvious he was trying to stay awake but struggling.

“I have a concussion.” Tony sighed heavily. “Not supposed to sleep. Why do they ask you the President’s name? I mean, you might have lost an entire year of memory and you’d still get the President’s name right. Although I guess not so much in an election year. Well. If the President changed. Which you know Obama’s going to get a second term. I like the guy which may be a flimsy way to decide a vote but that’s what swings it for me.”

John smiled at that. He’d voted for Obama too and his father would probably shoot him if he knew. Patrick Sheppard had voted Republican all his life.

“Woah, is this heavy? Too heavy.” Tony murmured. “I…” he broke off to cough, “I should be thinking about something else and not politics. Favourite film maybe. That would be a hard concussion question; what’s your favourite film? Although maybe that’s not such a great question for me because there are so many. OK so maybe what’s your favourite Jack Nicholson film? That would be a good concussion question, right?”

John wasn’t sure he could remember all that many Nicholson films.

“A Few Good Men, for the record. ‘You can’t handle the truth!’” Tony coughed. “Maybe Nicholson’s too obvious. Maybe Harrison Ford? Something like the best Ford film other than Star Wars and Indiana Jones? The Fugitive. Of course, Tommy Lee has a lot to do with that too and…” He coughed again abruptly cutting himself off.

John bit his lip as he waited for Tony to regain his breath.

“OK, I’m just going to close my eyes for a bit, rest my voice, stop wondering why these people have really tight and horrible to unlock ankle-shackles on hand.” Tony said softly. “Just…promise to check every outhouse, henhouse, doghouse…don’t, don’t stop looking.”  

We won’t, John thought at him as strongly as he could; we won’t.

He almost jerked in surprise as Gibbs suddenly appeared beside his desk. John removed one earbud and frowned as he took in a guilty-looking Abby wringing her hands again beside the NCIS agent, with Fornell lurking behind. He raised a finger to silently ask them to wait.

John motioned for Charlie to take over monitoring Tony and then signalled for Gibbs, Fornell and Abby to step away from the bullpen and into an empty office across the hall. Fornell settled near to the door, almost guarding it.

“What’s up?” asked John, perching on the desk and resisting the urge to play with the stress ball Agent Keeler kept there.

Gibbs stared at Fornell before shifting his gaze to Abby; he jerked his head at John. “Tell him what you told me.”

Abby bit her lip and sighed. She met John’s curious gaze. “So Gibbs told me what Ziva said about knocking the device and switching it into playback by accident?” She grimaced and shook her head. “I, uh, demonstrated the playback mode to both Tim and Ziva and there’s this flashing yellow light that comes on for the first minute so you know it’s in playback. Just like I showed them the green one would be for real time transmission.”

It hadn’t been an accident.

“Look, I’m sure Ziva just made a mistake.” Abby said turning pleading eyes towards Fornell and it was obviously not the first time she’d made the plea. “She got confused or something. Tell him, Gibbs. She wouldn’t do this deliberately!”

Fornell snorted. “She already admitted abandoning their post for a toilet break, not actually listening to what was going on and reading instead, and then barrelling in without a clue of what had actually gone down! She’s AWOL! Does any of that sound like just a mistake to you?!”

Abby looked crushed and she turned to Gibbs with another pleading expression. “Gibbs!”

Gibbs looked over at John. “What happens now?”

John rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m going to need you to make a full on the record statement, Abby.”

Abby grimaced.

“Look, on its own it proves nothing.” John said. “Maybe she did get confused, maybe she didn’t. Maybe it was an accident. Frankly, I don’t know but I know when we find Agent David your additional evidence will be something we question her about and which she’ll have to have a damned good answer for.”

“Any luck on the BOLO?” asked Fornell gruffly.

John shook his head. “She’s gone to ground.” He looked at Gibbs. “We had a police unit check your place and she’s not there. There’s a watch on her apartment and the Israeli embassy.”

“She won’t go back.” Gibbs said with certainty.

“She’s Mossad.” John shrugged. “I’m sure she had a dozen plans lined up for disappearing if she ever needed to disappear.” He sighed. “As much as I hate to say this, we may not be able to find her but this and running isn’t exactly making it look credible that it was all just an accident.”

“There has to be some other explanation.” Abby said fiercely. “She wouldn’t hurt Tony; she wouldn’t!”

Her face crumpled and Gibbs moved to comfort her, wrapping his arms around her. John slid off the desk and waved Fornell out of the room too, leaving them alone.

Fornell raised an eyebrow. “You have a plan.”

John smiled at him humourlessly. “I always have a plan.”

“You intend to share this plan anytime soon?” Fornell asked gruffly.

John looked at Fornell pointedly. “Drop the notion that David did this by accident and it doesn’t take a genius to work out what she’ll do next one way or another.”

She’d attempt to finish what she had started; she’d go after Tony again, or she’d attempt to protect herself probably through an appeal to Gibbs. John was prepared for either eventuality.

Fornell got it. John could see the realisation hit in the sudden gleam of understanding in his eyes. His gaze snapped back to the office. “He won’t like it.”

John smiled again. “He doesn’t have to like it.” He walked back to his desk and signalled that he was back monitoring the wire.

“…thought I’d be asleep but it’s cold in here and my head hurts.” Tony coughed again. “I just hope I get out of here before the weekend. I have this really hot date lined up.”

John froze; his body stilling at the words. Tony had a date at the weekend? He swallowed hard against the pain of disappointment…

“Not that they know pizza and football is a date.”

John closed his eyes at the relief which poured through him.

“We’ve been dating a while and they still haven’t caught on. Maybe I didn’t catch on either at first because well, complicated.” Tony continued whimsically. “Ducky said I should tell them and maybe I will. Maybe this is the universe’s way of telling me to get a move on and take a chance.” He coughed again. “OK, need to stop talking.”

John sank back in his chair, his heart pounding. Tony thought they’d been dating. He closed his eyes against the rush of emotion and knew he couldn’t deal with the revelation. Not then; not while Tony’s life hung in the balance. But after…well, John had high hopes Tony was going to say yes when John asked him to the movies.

o-O-o

It had been a while since John had worn tactical gear to the extent required by HRT. But somehow being at Quantico and putting on the black BDUs, strapping on a thigh holster for his primary weapon on one leg, and his knife on the other; placing the flak jacket over his jacket, rolling up the sleeves and pulling on the wristband he had once worn when going into battle…it all brought back memories.

He inserted the earbud and attached the thin microphone to his collar, securing the power pack in the top pocket of his jacket.

Max waited until all the men had left the locker room before approaching him. “You OK, John?”

“I’m good.” John said.

“You going to keep it together if DiNozzo’s dead when we get there?”

The blunt question took John’s breath away. He shot Max a furious look. The wire was still live but Tony had seemingly fallen asleep or into unconsciousness about an hour before.

Max raised his hands. “The word is that he’s your friend and you know I have to ask.” His expression softened, his brown eyes going almost liquid with compassion. “Especially if he has the same kind of friendship with you like I did.”

John sighed heavily. He didn’t regret the friends-with-benefits arrangement he’d had once with Max, but it had been years before and they’d both ended it amicably knowing they were never going to be more than somewhat in like with each other. “Tony and I…we’re not together, Max.”

Max cocked his head to the side, the dark strands flopping artistically over his forehead. “But you’re interested.” He smirked suddenly. “I’ve seen pictures; I can see why.”

John didn’t bother replying. He tugged on his boots and made sure they were laced correctly. He grabbed his gloves.

“He must be pretty special, huh?” Max said almost contemplatively.

“He’s a good guy.” John said shortly. “He deserves to come home.”

“Then let’s go get him.” Max slapped a hand on John’s shoulder.

John nodded and pushed past Max, tapping the microphone on. “Comms check. Alpha Team confirm status.”

“Alpha Team is en route to location; twenty minutes out.” Donnelly replied.

The ground teams had left almost an hour and a half before. Traffic was quiet in the middle of the night but the trip out to Luray still took time.

“Beta Team confirm status.” John said, following the corridors out to the helipad.

“Beta Team is ten minutes out.” Pam replied. “We’ll confirm when in position and will wait for the go signal.”

“Roger that.” John said. “Charlie-Gamma Team confirm status.”

“Charlie-Gamma are twenty minutes out from location.” Cadman replied crisply.

“Home Base confirm status.” John said as he hit the open air.

“We have eyes and ears on all of you.” Cross responded. “Good luck out there, people.”

“All teams be apprised that Charlie-Alpha is now airborne.” John said as he climbed into the helicopter and patted the pilot’s shoulder to confirm lift-off. Max settled in the seat next to him and handed him earphones.

The flight didn’t settle the nerves shifting in John’s belly. He’d never felt comfortable flying after what had happened with Lyle and…

He took solace in the fact that the pilot was good; it was a steady flight with confident shifts in airspeed and direction when needed. John glanced out of the window and checked the other two helicopters were flying in perfect coordination with them.

Max gave him a thumbs-up.

Time ticked away on the flight; the ground teams for all three locations took position, waiting…

“Coming into range of the target location.” The pilot confirmed.

John cast one last look around the cockpit. “Charlie-Alpha Team Leader to Home Base; Operation Homefront requesting go.”

“You have a go.” Cross confirmed.

Two ropes deployed either side. Max went first and John followed after him. He was glad he had insisted on keeping up his skills, on keeping up his gym time but he still felt his breath catch; felt the burn in his muscles as he descended, winced at the heat that burned through his gloves…

He landed and moved away from the rope, taking a covering position as others descended and joined them.

Max checked with his tech guy who was looking at a heat scanner. He raised two fingers and pointed at the barn they had figured to be the prime location for Tony’s captivity based on the acoustics and from the descriptions that Tony himself had provided about his situation.

John kept silent as they ran up to the barn and took positions around it. In the distance he could hear barking; the sound of engines approaching, shouts…

Max gave the signal and one of his men ran up to deal with the lock using a small amount of explosive; just enough. It burned and sparked in the dark.

John went through smoothly, pushing the door open. The barn was in darkness except for a square patch where the moonlight flooded through a skylight. It gave just enough light to reveal a glint of a steel bucket.   John knew Tony had been using it as a toilet; the wire had recorded when Tony had moved it as far as he could with the chain on his ankle from where Tony himself had been secured. John scanned to the left and his heart jumped at the sight of a slumped figure up against a supporting post, a figure who was beginning to stir.

He hurried over and into Tony’s eye-line. He placed one hand on Tony to keep him still and lifted his finger to his lips.

Tony blinked up at him but gave a quick nod which was swiftly followed by a wince and a rough cough.

John glanced around the barn. Max’s men were in position guarding the door. “Package is secure. I need a medic over here.” He ordered in a low tone. He shoved his rifle to the side and bent back down to deal with the cuffs.

Tony grinned at him lightening quick and discarded the cuffs himself. John couldn’t help smiling back at him as Tony rubbed his chafed wrists. He gave Tony his hand-gun, a silent question in his eyes over whether Tony was OK to use it.

Tony took it with a grateful look.

John made way for the medic and took out his torch to deal with the ankle-shackle Tony was wearing. He placed the torch between his teeth and took out his lock-picks peripherally aware of the medic, Barry, checking Tony’s vitals and frowning heavily.

“Headache?” Barry hissed quietly.

Tony cleared his throat roughly. “Yeah, it’s a doozy.”

The admission made John hurry with the lock-picks and he was pleased when he heard the loud click.

Suddenly the dull thud of gunshots somewhere beyond the barn ripped through the hush.

John and Barry immediately turned to cover Tony, aiming their weapons at the front door of the barn.

“Charlie-Gamma report.” John ordered.

“We’ve got shots fired up at the house.” Fornell reported grimly. “We’re investigating.”

John motioned for Barry to continue seeing to Tony.

A soft groan had him glancing over his shoulder.  Barry was examining Tony’s ankle it looked raw.

Barry frowned heavily and reached into his bag. “This is going to sting and we’re going to need you to stay quiet until we have the location secured.”

“Right.” Tony said and closed his eyes.

John smelled the sharp acrid scent of antiseptic and winced as Barry swiped it over the ankle area. He wasn’t surprised when Barry took out an injection pen and motioned for Tony to turn over. John motioned for the man to his left to cover and stooped to support Tony as he twisted around to give Barry enough access to inject his upper buttock.

Tony gave a low moan as the first shot went in and Barry stopped him from turning back. Barry held Tony’s head still for a long moment examining the bloody patch; hairs dried red and stiff. Barry glanced up at John conveying concern without saying a word.

“I need to cover this but when we’re more secure.” Barry said in a low almost dispassionate tone. “That was a tetanus shot. I need to start you on an antibiotic; you’ve got two open wounds.”

John wrapped his hand around Tony’s and wasn’t surprised when it was gripped hard as the second shot went in. “Almost done, Tony.”

“My team?” whispered Tony. “John, is my team OK?”

John squeezed Tony’s hand. “Gibbs is up at the house with Fornell. David and McGee are injured but they will recover.”

Concern was written all over Tony’s face.

“You’re not telling me something.” Tony said and coughed again.

John nodded. “It needs to wait.”

“But you’ll tell me.” Tony insisted.

“I’ll tell you.” John promised.

“Charlie-Gamma reporting; house is secure.” Fornell reported in his ear. “Altman is dead. Nelson is claiming self-defence; we have her cuffed and ready for transport.”

“Understood. Charlie-Alpha Lead,” John said, “report.”

“All out-buildings cleared. We’ve got the two Dobermans tranq’d.” Max confirmed.

“Send in a stretcher and clear a space for the medevac of Agent DiNozzo.” John ordered. “Alpha Team, report status.”

“Cabin is secure.” Donnelly reported. “We found a stash of papers and a hard drive in an old tin box. We’re reviewing now.”

“Roger that.” John said, watching as Barry finished strapping up Tony’s ankle and turned his attention to his wrists. “Beta Team, report.”

“Vacation cabin is secure and we’re searching.” Pam confirmed. “We have a lot of excitable holiday guests to calm.”

“All teams; report back to Home Base if you find anything. I will be accompanying Agent DiNozzo to Bethesda.” John glanced down at Tony who looked back at him with a surprised expression. “Home Base, you have control.”

“Home Base has control.” Cross confirmed.

“You’re coming with me?” Tony asked.

“Consider yourself in protective custody.” John said.

Barry put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I need to cover that head wound now.”

John helped situate Tony into a more comfortable position, Tony leaning a lot of his weight on John as Barry worked on him quickly and efficiently.

Gibbs came running up with two men in flight suits and John belatedly realised he still had hold of Tony’s hand. He gave a final squeeze and Tony offered a chagrined smile as they let go. John stepped aside as Barry helped Tony up and onto the stretcher.

Gibbs gave John a sharp narrowed look as he stooped to check on Tony, a hand reaching out to cup DiNozzo’s chin. “You OK, DiNozzo?”

“I’m fine, Boss.”

Gibb’s eyes flitted to Barry demanding answers.

“If by fine he means he has a serious concussion, a possible skull fracture, bruising and a scraped raw ankle.” Barry listed out dispassionately. “And he’s dehydrated with an inflamed larynx.”

“See?” Tony joked. “Nothing wrong with me.” He spoiled it by coughing.

“Go to the hospital, DiNozzo.” Gibbs straightened and looked at John. “You keep him safe, Sheppard.”

John nodded. He jogged alongside the stretcher as Tony was carried out of the barn and across a yard to a field where an air ambulance waited.

Barry stopped John as he went to clamber in. “I need to make him comfortable and prep him for travel.”

John waved Barry inside the helicopter and patiently took up a position with his back to the door. He could see across to the house. It was all lit up; vehicles strewn outside of it like discarded toys with their headlights blazing. He breathed in and the scent of earth, bark and leaves filled him up. He reached into his top pocket and shut down his mike, almost absently.

There was noise behind him and John glanced over his shoulder to see Barry waving him inside.

Tony was swaddled in blankets with an IV ported into the back of one hand providing him with fluids; he’d been given a headset to protect his ears. Barry pointed at the large plastic evidence bag to the side which contained Tony’s pants and jacket and John gave a quick smile of gratitude as he pulled on his headset.

John shifted up to sit by Tony’s head as Barry closed the doors and patted the back of the pilot’s seat confirming they were clear. He put a hand on Tony’s shoulder to catch his attention.

“You comfortable?” John asked.

“Not really but I’ll deal.” Tony coughed again.

“No talking.” Barry instructed sharply. He pinned John with a glance. “He needs to rest his larynx.”

Tony rolled his eyes. John’s lips twitched.

“So what happened? You can tell me…” Tony plastered an innocent ‘wasn’t me talking’ expression on his face as Barry shot him a look of pure exasperation.

“Don’t think I won’t inject your ass again.” Barry warned.

Tony held up a hand in apology. He turned beseeching eyes on John as soon as Barry subsided; the demand to talk evident in the dim lighting of the helicopter cabin.

John pressed his lips together as though to stop himself but the debate was short and sweet; he knew he’d be going insane if their positions were reversed.

“Blink once for yes, twice for no, OK?” John said seriously.

Tony blinked very deliberately once.

John shifted position to move a little closer even though Tony would hear him through the headphones. “You’re going to have to give a statement later about what happened to you so I’m going to avoid giving you any info on that. Deal?”

Tony grimaced but he blinked once again.    

“Some time after your abduction from Royal Woods, Agents McGee and David became aware that the audio device they were listening to you on had been switched onto playback mode.”

Tony frowned, his forehead creasing with puzzlement lines.

“Agent David informed Gibbs of what happened.” John said evenly. “They’d been listening for a long while, needed a toilet break. They found the nearest service station; she and McGee took turns listening. While McGee was on his break, David says she knocked over the device and although she switched it back on immediately, she didn’t realise it was in the playback mode.”

Tony closed his eyes and when he reopened them, John realised he’d retreated behind a mask.

John kept going. “They returned to the residential community and eventually McGee recognised the address you gave as being one he’d heard before; he checked the device, realised the error. They discovered your last known location and went to check it out. The Military at Home group had set a bomb and left two people tied up in the house. McGee and David got caught in the blast rescuing them. The male home-owner died; his daughter is in serious condition as is McGee. David sustained minor injuries and left the hospital AMA.”

“How bad is McGee?” Tony asked, ignoring Barry’s look of disapproval.

“He’s got third degree burns over twenty per cent of his body; he may lose his left arm; his left leg is pinned together.” John said bluntly. “He’s expected to recover but he’s going to be out for a while.”

Tony coughed and John placed a hand on his shoulder again to offer some comfort. He knew how he’d feel if someone had given him that news about his brother or sister.

“My fault.” Tony croaked out. “I got myself caught and…”

“Hey.” John held Tony’s gaze and was thankful that Barry seemed to be purposefully ignoring them. “You did nothing wrong.”

Tony turned his head away and blinked furiously; John could hear the way his breath sounded more like a sob; see the way he swallowed, that he was struggling. But he eventually turned back.

“I saw someone approaching – reflection on the car.” Tony grimaced. “I just – it was a mailman and I didn’t think anything of it until he was…it was probably Matt Lane.” He blew out a breath. “He hit me with something and…I don’t remember anything until waking up once in the car, then in the barn.”

“Your wire picked up the encounter and abduction.” John said firmly. “This was not your fault.”

Tony looked unconvinced and partially opened his mouth, presumably to argue when Barry turned and looked at him pointedly. Tony’s mouth snapped shut again.

John squeezed Tony’s shoulder drawing his attention back to him. “The Secretary of Defence called in the FBI after the bombing.” He continued, moving the story along to get Tony past McGee’s situation. “My team were assigned the case. My team is tracking down the Military at Home group. They have another two bombs which may be in play. You don’t need to focus on that though; just get yourself better.”

Tony grimaced.

“So,” John said, desperately searching for a topic to distract Tony, “I was listening to your wire earlier when you were talking about how they should ask you which is your favourite Jack Nicholson or Harrison Ford movie as your concussion check.”

Tony’s eyes widened, alarm written all over his face briefly until he covered it with another mask.

John realised his mistake. Tony knew what he’d said and he had to be wondering if John had listened further and heard how their pizza and football was a hot date. He debated whether to say anything else, whether it was the right time to say anything. They weren’t exactly in a private space since the headsets meant everyone was listening in. But he wanted to reassure Tony and maybe that was more important.

“Personally I prefer Batman for Nicholson.” John offered. “Heard you had a hot date lined up for the weekend; maybe you should watch the movie with them.”

Tony’s mask melted away and he gave John a tentative but genuine smile. They sat looking at each other.

“The Witches of Eastwick.” Barry said suddenly, breaking the silence.

John and Tony looked over at him inquisitively.

“My favourite Nicholson film? The Witches of Eastwick. One word: Cher. Man, what’s not to like?” Barry shrugged and grinned at the horrified look on both their faces.

o-O-o

John came awake in an instant.

He sat up and took immediate stock of his surroundings.

Tony was still asleep in the hospital bed. The bed was at an angle and there was an artistic architecture of pillows deployed so his chest was propped in an upright position. Tony had protested at the nasal cannula but given in eventually. There were two IVs attached; one for fluids and one providing a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Machines were attached to monitor his breathing and heart-rate.

While it might have seemed like overkill John had been present for the discussion of scarred lungs and risks of chest infections and infection in general. He understood why the medical professionals had been so insistent on the treatment. Tony had argued despite having no voice until his lung specialist had turned up – and seriously it was completely whacked that it was the same guy who’d put an end to Tony’s professional sports career.

Luckily Tony’s scans had come back negative for a skull fracture, swelling or visible bleeding or clotting. The blow had broken the skin and had required three stitches but it wasn’t serious. The same was true for the chafing on his wrists and ankle from the restraints. Tony had been dosed with a suitable level of painkiller and allowed to sleep.

The stream of medical tests and treatments had allowed no time for any private interaction with Tony. When it had finally been the two of them alone, the sun was beginning to rise and Tony had been half-asleep between the drugs and the absence of the adrenaline which had kept him going during his captivity.

John had arranged a wingback visitor chair so he was between the door and Tony, and had settled into rest with a gun in his hand. He’d briefed the Marine guarding the door to knock first before any personnel or visitors were allowed through. The instruction had been followed when a nurse had come to check on Tony’s vitals around oh-ten-hundred.

But it hadn’t been a knock which had woken him.

John checked his watch. It was almost thirteen hundred. His stomach growled at him. Loudly enough that he threw an anxious glance toward Tony. John rose noiselessly and stretched, still seeking the element which had disturbed him.

Voices.

There were voices coming down the hallway and faintly through the door.

John sighed, holstered his gun and slipped silently out of the room. The Marine came to immediate attention.

“Nobody enters without me.” John said even as he zeroed in on the voices at the end of the corridor. He glanced back at the Marine and read the name stencilled onto the fatigues. “Understood, Sergeant Stackhouse?”

“Understood, sir.” Stackhouse responded briskly but without attitude.

John nodded at him. “Good man.” He set off to the end of the corridor.

Gibbs and Ducky immediately turned toward him but Abby carried on arguing with Ford who stood firm against her passionate diatribe and the wavering balloons she was carrying.

“Ford, what’s the problem?” John cut through Abby’s volume and Ford threw him a grateful look as Abby stumbled to a halt.

“Sir, only Agent Gibbs has been cleared by the FBI to enter the area.” Ford confirmed John’s suspicion.

John held up a hand as Abby went to open her mouth. “Doctor Mallard and Doctor Scuito can go on the list.” He indicated for the three to follow him and paused still some distance from Tony’s room. “McGee’s area is further down and is a clean zone; if you wish to visit you’ll have to go through sterilisation, change into protective gear and masks.”

“I anticipated as much.” Ducky said. “They’re trying to minimise the risk of infection.”

John nodded and didn’t add that it looked like McGee was going to lose the arm anyway. “He usually has a member of his family with him.”

“Has he come round?” asked Gibbs brusquely.

“According to my last update early this morning, McGee regained consciousness yesterday night. He was in extreme shock and was immediately medicated again.” John replied. “We’re going to have to wait until his recovery is further down the track to find out what he remembers.”

Gibbs grimaced but his pale blue eyes showed a reluctant acceptance.

Ducky sighed. “Abigail, as we discussed earlier, I know you wish to see Timothy but perhaps it would be best for you to wait. I will approach his family and request a visit. It is probably best to ensure the number of visitors is minimal until such drastic cleanliness measures are no longer required.”

Abby bit her lip before she surged forward and hugged Ducky. “You’ll tell him we miss him and love him. And you have to tell him that Tony and Ziva are fine; you know he’ll be worried. Oh, and tell him he was a hero and…”

Ducky patted her on the back and hushed her. He glanced at Gibbs and stepped away to continue further down the corridor.

“We can see Tony, right?” Abby asked.

“Let me check he’s awake.” John said firmly. “If he’s still sleeping you’ll have to wait; the doctors wanted him to get some rest. Also, if he is awake, the docs are going to insist on seeing him before you.”

“We’ll wait.” Gibbs said, shooting Abby a quelling look.

John pointed at the chairs on the other side of the corridor and walked away. He opened the door to Tony’s room carefully and stepped inside silently.

Tony blinked back at him from the bed. “Abby’s here?” His voice was very hoarse and almost non-existent.

“You heard her?” asked John surprised.

“Good ears.” Tony waggled his eyebrows. He gestured at John to help him. “I need to pee.”

“Shouldn’t we call a nurse to unhook you from everything first?” asked John walking up and pressing the button to call one.

Tony deflated as he looked at all the wires and tubes he had connecting him to medical apparatus. He sighed. “I really need to pee.”

“You could have had a...”

“No.” Tony said immediately.

John could understand the refusal of a catheter. He turned at the knock on the door and went to answer it.

The grandmotherly head nurse, Ethel, who’d situated Tony and taken the vitals earlier that day, entered and ignored John completely as she went to assist Tony. She was tiny and terrifying; a grey cap of hair, sharp blue eyes and orange blush that must have been in fashion at some point in her life.

“Need to pee.” Tony explained urgently.

Ethel raised her eyebrows. “Good morning to you too, Agent DiNozzo.”

Tony attempted a charming smile. “Good morning, Ethel. Can I go pee now?”

“Hrmph.” Ethel glanced back at John grumpily as she began to assist Tony. “Step out, Agent Sheppard. I’m sure Agent DiNozzo can manage to pee on his own. Doctor’s on his way.”

“Right.” John said because he wasn’t going to argue with Ethel; he figured he’d lose. “I’ll step out.”

“Coward.” Tony mouthed as Ethel turned to unhook the IV.

John grinned at him, gave him a wave and left him to Ethel’s devices. He was not surprised when Abby sprang to her feet at the sight of him.

“He’s awake?” She asked excitedly.

“Awake.” John confirmed. He had a feeling Gibbs knew exactly what had woken his agent too from the indulgent look Gibbs sent Abby. “Doctor will visit and once he’s taken a look, you can visit.”

Abby squealed and launched herself at him. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

John patted her back tentatively and glared at Gibbs who wasn’t even attempting to hide his glee at John’s reaction to being hugged. He was relieved when she stepped back.

“Right.” John said awkwardly as she beamed at him. He had never been so relieved to see a doctor approaching in his life. “Doctor Pitt.”

“Bradley!” Abby hugged the doctor tightly.

Gibbs gave Pitt an approving nod as he shook hands. “Glad to see Tony has the best care available.”

“Gibbs, good to see you again.  He’s a unique case.” Pitt confirmed with a grin. “I’m guessing you want to visit?”

Abby nodded enthusiastically. “We brought balloons.”

“So I see.” Pitt said. “Actually if he’s in good enough shape we’ll probably release him later this afternoon.”

John could see Gibbs’s shoulders drop a touch as the realisation Tony was probably OK if he was likely to be released.

Pitt glanced at John. “Agent Sheppard, the exam should take around thirty minutes if you want to grab something to eat and drink.”

John acknowledged the implicit order to stay out of the room with a nod, and absently noted how Abby’s face dropped as she processed the waiting time.

“Let me see you inside and I’ll go do that.” John said.

It only took a moment to usher Pitt inside and to revise his instruction to Stackhouse to allow anyone Pitt authorised. He made his way back to Gibbs.

“We’re going to go and pick-up some clothes and things for Tony. He’s going to need his stuff if he’s getting discharged.” Abby informed him excitedly before Gibbs could speak. She handed the balloons to John.

John took them.

Gibbs smirked at him and went after Abby.

John rolled his eyes at the ceiling and walked back towards Tony’s room where he tied the balloons to the door handle.

“Not a word, Stackhouse.”

“No, sir.”

John plucked his phone out of his pocket as he walked away from Stackhouse. He speed-dialled Pam who picked up gratifyingly quickly.

“John, good to hear from you. Any further news?” asked Pam.

“Tony is likely being released later today.” John confirmed.

“Damn.” Pam sighed. “Not that I want him to be injured badly enough to need the hospital but…”

“But it’s easier to protect him if he’s in here.” John agreed. “It’s going to raise some questions when I stick with him.”

“You can handle it.” Pam said dryly. “By the way, Rebecca is on her way with your go-bag and food. I thought you might need a break and a change of clothing.”

“Thanks.” John said, grateful that Pam was the type of boss who considered the practicalities and didn’t expect her agents to be superhuman. “Any news your end?”

“There’s a lot of information to shift through but Lane talked a lot about taking out a group of kids at a local softball match; kids of important figures. He was due to referee one today and there’s an onsite barbeque for the kids and parents following the game. We’re going along to provide security and see if Lane shows up.”

John grimaced. “Do you think he’ll keep to his target?”

“Maybe.” Pam said. “He bombed a local community yesterday. This would make sense; a house, then a group of school children.”

“Yesterday was to cover for them discovering Tony.” John argued. “Lane knows NCIS identified him as a suspect in the shooting. He has to think we would figure that there was a mailman at the estate and identify him.”

“And he becomes the top suspect for who might have recognised the NCIS agent who went missing and so figures we might find out his planned movements.” Pam concluded with a sigh. “You could be right. But that means any of the information we got might not be useful.”

“Or it might just mean that he’s not going to show up where he’s expected to be.” John frowned as something Tony said came back to him. “Tony said he caught the reflection of someone approaching but he didn’t register it as a threat because he saw the uniform of a mailman.”

“The uniform.” Pam repeated. “People automatically register the uniform and…”

“Grants them a lot of access.” John said. “You can get into buildings, through security…and people don’t register that it’s a threat; it’s just a mailman.”

“Damn it.” Pam muttered. “I’m going to have Frankie mine the information again; see what hits.” She sighed. “We can’t just let the game thing go unwatched though…”

“Put the Marines on to it.” John suggested. “What’s the chance of some of those kids not belonging to military parents?”

“Little to none.” Pam said. “OK.” She sighed again. “Anne Nelson has lawyered up. She’s not saying a word.”

That wasn’t a surprise.

“Lane have anything around which could implicate her?” asked John.

“That’s…possible.” Pam said. “We haven’t been looking but it’s a possibility. I’ll get Charlie on to it.”

They finished up and John went in search of Ford. One brief conversation later, another check to confirm that Tony was still deep in the middle of his medical assessments, and John wandered down to the staff locker-room which the Marines had apparently negotiated for their additional use.

He stripped off his gear, placing the weaponry underneath the small stack of clothes and headed into the shower. Five minutes later he was feeling more human. He used the generic soap and shampoo from the dispensers stuck on the walls and while they were slightly antiseptic in smell they did a reasonable job of getting him clean. He tied one of the available towels around his waist and was rubbing another over his head as he walked back out to the locker room, not looking forward to pulling on his dirty clothing. He almost yelped at sight of Rebecca sitting next to his clothes.

She grinned at him. “John.”

“Rebecca.” John stood clasping one towel to his chest like a Victorian damsel as he took in her appearance.

She had changed clothing from the practical gear she’d worn for the raid during the night, opting for one of her usual black pantsuits with a green blouse. Her boots had a low solid heel and were a practical choice. She carried her weapon holstered on her right hip, her badge clipped to her belt.

He sniffed suddenly. “Burger?”

“Yep with fries.” Rebecca confirmed, handing over the take-out bag.

He immediately reached inside and stuffed a handful of the fries inside his mouth. He was suddenly ravenously hungry.

“Brought your go-bag. Charlie added a couple of things he said you asked for?” Rebecca patted the backpack beside her. She stood and winked at him. “I can see you and the burger need time alone. I’ll step out.”

John was too busy eating to respond except to flip her a finger. She disappeared laughing.

Ten minutes later the burger and fries were demolished and John was dressed in clean black jeans, a matching black t-shirt and his usual leather jacket. He used the thigh holsters for his weapons keeping the knife and the handgun. He wished he’d kept the rifle but he’d handed it to Barry to return to HRT once they’d arrived at the hospital.

He checked the bugs that Charlie had given to him and wondered whether he would need to use them. They were a similar type to the one Tony had used in the field. Limited in range but still a force to be reckoned with.

He stuffed his dirty clothing into the backpack and carried it out.

Rebecca was waiting for him in the corridor. “Pam sent me to get DiNozzo’s statement.” She said. “I understand he remembers?”

“He remembers.” John led the way back to Tony’s room.

It looked like good timing; Pitt was just exiting.

“Doc?” John asked as they all came to a halt just outside the closed door. “What’s the verdict?”

Pitt smiled. “He’s still a Buckeye.”

John smirked.

“Seriously,” Pitt continued, “we’re going to discharge him in a couple of hours if there’s no change. Knowing Tony he’ll do better resting at home.”

“Well enough to give a statement?” Rebecca checked.

Pitt nodded. “Although try to keep his talking to a minimum; he needs to be resting his larynx.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Rebecca promised.

“Gibbs not here?” asked Pitt, glancing around bemused.

“He and Abby went to get Tony’s stuff.” John explained.

Pitt nodded. “Well, I’ve got rounds. I’ll be back in two hours to do his final check.”

John introduced Rebecca to Stackhouse, knocked briskly on the door and ushered her through.

Tony sat in the wingback chair John had previously bagged for himself. He was dressed in a thin hospital robe over white scrub pyjamas. He’d clearly showered because his hair was still damp, and he’d shaved the scruff off his face. He was positioned over by the window and there was a portable table on wheels in front of him with a desultory meal of broth and pudding sat on top of it. The lack of machinery and monitoring eased something in John.

Tony looked up with a warm smile, his gaze flitting to Rebecca with curiosity. “Please tell me you’ve come to save me from this.” He pushed his spoon back through the thin brown liquid.

His voice was very hoarse and only just audible.

“If I’d known I’d have brought you a happy meal like I did for John.” Rebecca quipped.

“I like her. John, can we keep her?” Tony joked.

“Tony, Agent Rebecca Armitage; Rebecca, Agent Tony DiNozzo.” John waved between the two of them.

“Very Special Agent.” Tony corrected with a wide grin which didn’t make his eyes as he shook hands with Rebecca.

“Rebecca’s going to take your statement.” John said. “We can wait until you’ve eaten?”

Tony grimaced and shook his head. “Go ahead. Ask your questions. It’ll be a good distraction.” He valiantly swallowed a spoonful of broth and pulled such a disgusted face, John couldn’t hide his amusement.

Rebecca pulled over the other chair in the room; a plastic monstrosity. She sat down and took out a digital Dictaphone from her handbag. She switched it on and prefaced the usual mandatory information before she placed it on the tray alongside the pudding.

“If we could begin with the reasons why you were at Royal Woods.” Rebecca said encouragingly.

Tony went over the initial murder investigation and the trail to Royal Woods succinctly. His report was professional and clear; John was impressed.

“Who determined the task allocation in the field?” Rebecca prompted.

“Agent Gibbs had a scheduled call in MTAC. He instructed me to gather the voice samples – I was the obvious demographic choice.” Tony detailed dispassionately. “Agent McGee has a stronger technical skillset; he was best placed to look after the audio receiver equipment; Agent David could provide additional back-up and support.”  

“In your own time if you could provide a report of what occurred.” Rebecca said crisply.

Tony stirred his soup and with a sigh pushed it away. “I managed to get most of the samples without issue. My last stop…I saw a car leaving a driveway with a male at the steering wheel, I ran up, waving at him to stop. He did. He was Caucasian, dark hair, suit and tie. I engaged him as I had done the other residents; said I was moving to the area, asked about the commute times to D.C.”

He shook his head and winced. When he looked back at Rebecca, his expression was masked.

“I saw a reflection in the car; a mailman. I didn’t think anything of it. I’d noticed the van a few times while I was walking around but hadn’t seen the actual guy.” Tony continued hoarsely. “I went to ask the driver another question to get more of a sample, and he looked behind me as though surprised. I think he asked ‘what are you doing?’ or something like that. I half-turned and saw something coming at me; I think I tried to duck, maybe?” His hand drifted up to the back of his head where he’d been bashed. “We’d interviewed a mailman the day before. Matt Lane. It’s possible it was him but I didn’t see enough to make an ID. That’s all I remember until I woke up in the trunk of a car. I tried to get myself free, kick out a taillight but I…I think I passed out. The next time I came round I was in the barn.”

“Tell me about that.” Rebecca coaxed.

“I was cuffed; shackled by the ankle.” Tony sighed. “I was visited twice by the same guy; Caucasian, glasses, balding; flannel shirt and pressed cream pants. He was at the first house I visited; not the same as the driver. I can ID both of them.”

“Did you see anybody else?” Rebecca pressed.

“No.” Tony said. “Nothing until I was rescued.”

Rebecca gave a nod and shifted position slightly. “Agent Sheppard said he’d informed you of what happened to Agent McGee and Agent David.”

Tony reached for his pudding. “Yes.”

“Tell me about your relationships with them.” Rebecca said.

“What do you want to know?” asked Tony, spooning up the pudding into his mouth.

Rebecca cocked her head to the side. “What do you think I want to know?”

Tony huffed a breath of squeaky laughter. He pointed his spoon at her. “You’re good. Psychologist, right? You do the profiles for John’s teams.”

Rebecca shot John a look.

“I may have told some stories.” John admitted.

“Doesn’t change my question.” Rebecca said, turning back to Tony.

Tony made a show of licking the spoon before he pointed at her. “Here’s the thing you need to know: prior to this incident Agent McGee or Agent David have never provided me with cause to believe they wouldn’t provide me with back-up in the field.” He set the spoon down carefully on the tray.

Rebecca stared at Tony for a long while. “Agent David went missing after she left the hospital. Do you have any idea where she’ll go?”

Tony sat back. “Ziva will turn up when she wants to turn up.”

Rebecca nodded and brought the official recording to a close. She picked up the Dictaphone and switched it off. “I’ll step out and let you finish your pudding.”

John watched as she manoeuvred her way out of the room.

“Is she expecting you to sweet-talk me into something more on Ziva?” asked Tony, pushing the tray-table away.

John helped him get it completely clear. “Sweet talk isn’t really my style.”

“No,” Tony agreed, looking momentarily amused despite his weariness, “I guess not.”

John perched on the bed opposite Tony.

Tony looked at him directly. “What do you think happened?”

“Bottom line? McGee and David were too relaxed about the task and bent protocol, which increased the risk that your back-up would be delayed, and so you didn’t get back-up when you needed it.” John said bluntly.

Tony’s lips pressed together hard.

“I haven’t spoken with him because of his injuries, but from everything I’ve heard I think McGee didn’t maliciously place you at risk. I think he did it thoughtlessly, because nothing had happened and the area was affluent and atypical for where we believe terrorists to live, and he had a woman needing the bathroom and being insistent on it.” John continued. He was also certain that McGee wouldn’t return to field duty given his injuries, and NCIS would probably eschew any disciplinary action.

“And Ziva?” prompted Tony, holding John’s gaze.

John sighed. “I think Agent David by her own statement initiated the need to bend protocol increasing the risk to you. She was directly responsible for the technical snafu although she’d been shown how to work the device, and that snafu masked your need for back-up until it was too late. The pertinent question is; did she do any of it with deliberate intent to harm you?”

Tony’s gaze didn’t move from John’s. His expression gave nothing away.

John shrugged. “I don’t know. What we know is that you two have a history which gives her motivation to harm you. We know she went AMA after telling Gibbs what happened, even though she’d claimed it was an accident.”

Tony was silent but John could tell he was thinking everything over.

“What I also know is that if it was a deliberate attempt to hurt you, she would have had to have known you’d ran into trouble otherwise she got very lucky on a longshot and proving that needs some exact number crunching on times.”

Tony lifted an eyebrow. “You do calculations on game statistics in your head all the time.”

“I do,” John confirmed, “but I don’t have exact timings to do these calculations; I have verbal estimates and on the estimates, I won’t lie, I think it’s close. I think there is a chance which is why I have a member of my team lined up to check it out once their work on Military at Home and tracking down the missing bombs is done.”

Tony sighed heavily and closed his eyes. He looked tired and in pain.

“Hey,” John said, “it’s possible this was just bad luck; that they relaxed too much, bent the rules and got caught out.”

Tony opened his eyes. “Even if…” he trailed away looking so uncertain but John could fill in the rest; even if it was just bad luck, how was Tony meant to trust them in the field to provide him with back-up ever again?

There was a loud knock on the door.

Tony gave him a small smile, another mask slipping over his hurt.

John slipped off the bed and went to answer the summons. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to see Gibbs and Abby standing there. Abby ignored him and bounded across the room to hug Tony.

Gibbs dropped a back-pack next to John’s and gave him a nod as John closed the door.

Tony squeaked and mouthed the word ‘help’ at Gibbs and John over Abby’s shoulder. Both of them ignored him in favour of smirking.

“Abs…” Tony finally said. “Breathing!”

Abby inched back in her platform boots and beamed at him. “I’m so glad you’re alright, Tony.”

Tony smiled at her as she wrapped her arm around his and perched on the arm of his chair. He looked over at Gibbs. “McGee?”

“Ducky says they’re taking him into surgery.” Gibbs said, losing any trace of humour. “He’s going to lose the arm.”

“Damn.” Tony said.

“But it’s not the end of the world, right?” Abby said quickly. “He can get voice recognition software to help him with the computer work and it’s not like it’s his shooting arm and…”

“Abs.” Gibbs said firmly.

Her expression was fierce. “We are not giving up on him, Gibbs.”

“No, we’re not.” He agreed.

“Has anyone heard from Ziva?” asked Tony, jumping in and looking directly at Gibbs. It was clear who he believed she would contact.

Gibbs gave a single shake of his head.

Abby sighed heavily. “She’s probably just upset and confused and not thinking straight and…you know she’d never do anything to hurt you! She just got things confused! That has to be it and…”

“Abby.” Gibbs said sharply.

Abby offered an almost mutinous glare. “Gibbs.”

Tony suddenly pouted dramatically. As a tactic to change the subject it was an obvious one but it worked. “Did either of you bring me anything to eat?”

Gibbs pointed at the discarded meal. “What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s right with it, Boss?” Tony shot back.

Abby jumped up. “I’ll go find you something from the cafeteria.”

“Thanks, Abs.” Tony said gratefully.

Gibbs waited until Abby was out of the room and the door was closed before he spoke again. “You got something to say, DiNozzo?”

John frowned at the challenging tone but Tony replied before he could speak.

“Rule one, Boss.” Tony’s words didn’t lose their impact despite the lack of volume and the measured delivery.

Gibbs turned and walked out.

John watched him go but hurriedly turned back to make sure Tony was OK.

Tony grimaced, rubbing the side of his head. “It never goes well when he knows we fucked up and it gets pointed out to him.” He pushed himself out of the chair and made for the bathroom. “Can you give me a minute?”

John nodded. “I’ll be just outside.”

Gibbs hadn’t gone far; he was pacing in the corridor, his dark overcoat swirling behind him.

John closed Tony’s door gently. He resisted the urge to rub a hand furiously through his hair.

“Take ten, Stackhouse.” John ordered.

“Sir, yes, sir.” Stackhouse turned smartly and marched off.

Gibbs came to a halt.

John leaned a shoulder up against the wall and crossed his arms. Even with Gibbs standing with his back to John, he could tell Gibbs was processing, mind whirling.

“Rule one?” asked John. For a long moment, he thought Gibbs wasn’t going to reply.

“Never screw over your partner.” Gibbs answered tersely.

“Good rule.” John said. “You know I have a sister. She’s my father’s favourite. Dave and I learned pretty quick if we weren’t going to get into trouble for something she had done, Mom was the best person to get involved.”

“I’m not their father!” Gibbs said dismissively.

“No, you’re their boss,” John agreed almost conversationally, “which means you don’t get to play favourites.” He waited until Gibbs whirled around fury in his eyes. “No matter how much she might play the daughter card.”

Gibbs took a step toward him, stopped and whirled away again. He took a couple of steps away as though leaving.

“Has she contacted you?” John called out.

Gibbs stopped and turned back. He walked back up to John until he was right in his face. “Stay out of this.”

John pushed off the wall and straightened. He was the same height as Gibbs and it put them squarely in each other’s faces. “You and I both know I can’t do that.”

Gibbs’s gaze flitted to the door behind him. John could see him putting two and two together and…

“That’s why you’re here?!” Gibbs stated angrily. “You think she’s what? Going to come back and finish the job?!”

John simply held his ground. “I read the reports of what happened in Israel last night.” It had kept him occupied as he’d waited for the operation and listened to Tony.

Gibbs’s eyes widened with surprise.

“O’Neill is very obliging about ensuring I have access to all pertinent evidence in what is still an ongoing investigation into NCIS’ actions in the field.” John explained shortly. “Officer David as she was then put Tony on the ground and pointed a loaded gun at him. This, after he was transported abroad within hours of sustaining injuries and being interrogated by the Director of Mossad about killing Rivkin in self-defence despite Rivkin killing an American agent.”

“He did his job!” Gibbs snarled.

“Yes he did.” John said calmly. “Why didn’t Ziva David come back with you?”

Gibbs froze.

“The reports are interesting.” John commented. “Of course, I also have the advantage of having talked with Ducky and hearing the unofficial story of how she asked you to choose and you chose Tony. Only that’s not the whole story, is it?”

“You don’t know anything!” Gibbs stated.

“I know Vance’s report makes mention of how you were informed that David had been under orders to kill Ari Haswari to specifically gain your trust.” John said firmly. “And I know from Agent McGee and Doctor Scuito’s reports that you were informed that David had given intel to Rivkin and withheld evidence from NCIS investigations.”

Gibbs was too much of a Marine to give ground but he couldn’t quite prevent his disconcertment at John finding out the information he had from showing.

“So I figure the truth is that until then you had believed David saved your life when she killed Ari Haswari at a great personal cost to herself.”

John was close enough to see the alarm that flared in Gibbs’s eyes.

“And that got her a free pass onto your team,” John continued undaunted, “because you felt you owed her; felt you had a responsibility to her.”

He closed the inch between himself and Gibbs.

“So standing on that tarmac in Israel, when she asked you to choose, I think you finally looked at her and for the first time saw Officer David for what she was; a foreign operative who had successfully manipulated you, and who was attempting to manipulate you again.”

Gibbs glared at him but John wasn’t finished.

“Leaving her behind? That was her punishment.” He kept his eyes locked to Gibbs’s. “What has you riled, Gibbs, is that after Somalia, you took her back; punishment over. And now you don’t know whether or not she’s played you again.”

John inched back and stepped out of the stand-off, turning back to knock on the door to go back inside with Tony. He shot Gibbs another look over his shoulder as he waited for Tony’s permission.

“I really hope for Tony’s sake, Gibbs, that yesterday was an accident. Because as bad as knowing his team-mates fucked up when he needed them is, it won’t be as bad as finding out she deliberately chose to leave him in a bad situation to get some weird screwed-up form of revenge.” He held Gibbs’s gaze with a fierce one of his own. “Whichever it is, I can guarantee you this: he won’t have to take one for the team this time.”

He opened the door and went back in to Tony.

o-O-o

Pitt had discharged Tony right on schedule.

John was glad that once Abby had returned with pizza, Gibbs had corralled his wayward forensic scientist and left. Tony had been managed a couple of slices before he’d pushed the box away and settled for sipping on the banana milkshake she’d brought to go with it.

They’d spent the rest of the time with Tony asking John about the Military at Home case and the two of them mulling over the information John had shared.

John stood beside the wheelchair on one side; Rebecca on the other as they made their way down in the elevator. Tony had complained about using the wheelchair but Ethel had simply stood there with the wheelchair blocking the door until Tony had sat in it.

Tony had changed into sneakers, sweatpants, a grey t-shirt which proclaimed his status as a Buckeye, and a soft grey hoodie. He was also wearing a shoulder holster underneath the hoodie. Tony had crowed at the sight of the weapon and replacement credentials when he’d opened his go-bag.

The balloons had thankfully been left behind and Rebecca had turned up early to take any luggage to the car leaving all their hands free in case they were needed.

John let Rebecca lead the way out of the elevator and into the busy lobby area of the hospital.

“Ten o’clock.” Tony said suddenly.

John glanced over and saw the back of a mailman’s uniform there was a package tucked under his arm. He was heading to the elevators on the other side of the lobby and went into them. John stopped them abruptly in the middle of the lobby.

“John?” asked Rebecca.

“It was Lane.” John said taking out his cell phone. He speed-dialled Pam. “I need immediate back-up and bomb squad to Bethesda. Identified suspect, Matt Lane, seen entering premises with suspicious package. Agent Armitage and myself responding.”

“Acknowledged. Stay safe, John.” Pam responded. “Back-up on its way.”

Tony was getting out of the wheelchair as John signed off.

“Where do you think you’re going, Agent DiNozzo?” asked Rebecca shortly.

“To assist.” Tony replied. “He needs a heat source to make the bomb work, right? Bethesda has one of the only onsite medical waste incinerators left. It’s in the sub-basement.”

“We got this. You assist with the evacuation.” John said firmly. Tony was injured and as much as he didn’t like the idea of leaving Tony alone without protection, the bomb threat took priority. “We need everyone who can be evacuated out of the building.”

Ethel grimaced. “With me, Agent DiNozzo.”

Tony shot John a partially exasperated, partially concerned look as he moved to follow her.  “Stay safe.”

John was already running for the stairs and took out his weapon. He moved at a steady pace and without looking knew Rebecca was just behind him. He went through the stair door to the sub-basement in standard procedure; he opened, Rebecca went in low, gun aimed; he followed, gun aimed high.

They were soundless as they followed the corridor; John on the left, Rebecca on the right. There were large double doors labelled with warning signs of hazardous area; medical waste. They required a security access to enter.

John took out his phone and called Charlie. “We’re standing outside the doors to the medical waste area. No security card. I need access.”

“Give me a minute.” Charlie said.

John could hear tapping in the background.

“Go.” Charlie said and the doors beeped green in front of John.

Rebecca opened up one side and John slipped through, sliding his phone into a pocket still connected to Charlie. There was a security guard down; a medical technician splayed in an unnatural position next to her. Rebecca slipped forward confident John would cover her. She placed two fingers against the security guard’s jugular and shook her head. A similar check of the technician had the same response.

John moved forward, gun aimed.

Steady and silent.  

Around one corner.

Another.

Voices drifted over to them.

Loud.

Threatening.

John directed Rebecca to the left. He went to the right.

He paused at the edge of the wall and looked around it cautiously.

Lane stood to one side; he was unwrapping the package. There was another man – Zach Nelson, John realised – in blue overalls and a baseball hat who had a gun pointed at two technicians in protective gear who were kneeling with their hands behind the backs of their heads.

“Tell me how to override the temperature control!” Nelson screamed, pointing the gun at one of the men’s heads.

John moved. “FBI! Put down your weapons! Move away from the incinerator and the personnel! We will shoot!” His gun was levelled on Nelson.

Rebecca had joined him; crouched low but her weapon securely aimed at Lane.

Lane exchanged a frantic glance with Nelson.

Nelson moved at the same time as Lane…

Lane threw the package he was holding toward Rebecca…

Nelson shot in John’s direction causing him to hit the floor to avoid being shot…

When John looked back up, the two were running for the back exit.

Rebecca shouted at him. “I’ll stay with the bomb!”

John took off running.

A shot rang out and he ducked automatically, his instincts surging forward. They took the back stairs and were going up.

“Charlie!” John snapped out breathlessly as he checked he was clear to follow before diving through the doors after them. “I need back-up! Back stairs!”

He couldn’t let them get too far up the stairs which were no doubt being used for evacuation. He sprinted up the stairs, taking two at a time but his gun was always aimed, his eyes on the targets above.

Lane was falling behind Nelson; harsh pants filled the stair well.

John fired.

Lane crumpled; he slumped onto the stairs with a harsh cry.

Nelson continued up.

John passed Lane, kicking the gun Lane grasped away from him. The mailman was sprawled face down; the back of his uniform showed a single bullet entry, mid-spine. He wasn’t going anywhere.

There was a shriek from further up the stairs. Young. Female.

John turned the corner…and stopped.

Nelson had grabbed a young girl from the stairs in front of him; arm wrapped around her torso, under her ribs, pinning her arms. She was dressed in pyjamas; a robe; a cap covered her head. She was a patient.

He was using her as a shield and a hostage; his back to the wall, the gun pressed against her head, a few steps up on the next set of stairs.

A doctor stood on the landing above blocking his path up…mature, female and brunette with her sable hair pinned up. She was resolute and the uniform under the white coat gave away her status as an Air Force captain.

“Get out of the way!” Nelson screamed.

“I can’t do that, sir.” The Captain said. “Not while you have Lisa.”

John’s eyes flickered upward. Someone was ushering the rest of the civilians out of the way; clearing the stairs.

The doors to John’s right opened slowly and Tony eased his way through, weapon drawn to pin Nelson in further.

“Give it up, Nelson!” John shouted. “It’s over.” He knew he could take a head shot but it would traumatise the little girl. “Let Lisa go!”

Nelson looked frantically from Tony to John and back to the Captain blocking his way. “I’ll kill her! I’ll kill her if you don’t move, lady!”

“You shoot her, we shoot you.” John said immediately.

“You have nowhere to go, Nelson.” Tony added. “Give the girl to Doctor Fraiser.”

“I want a helicopter on the roof! And a clear path!” Nelson demanded. “NOW! Or I swear I’ll kill her!”

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists, Nelson.” John said firmly.

Tony’s gaze flickered momentarily to John and John gave a slight nod; he had the shot. There were sounds drifting down the stairwell. John knew without checking that if he looked up he’d see Marines pointing their guns at Nelson.

Lisa sobbed; her whimpers terrified and heart-breaking.

“She’s seven years old, Mister Nelson.” Fraiser said. “Please give her to me!”

“MOVE!” Nelson snarled.

Tony glanced toward John again with an apologetic look. John wondered what he was apologising for when Tony suddenly moved.

He shifted his gun from pointing to Nelson to holding it up to the ceiling, his other hand held up to show it was empty.

“Hey,” Tony said, “let’s all take a breath.” He slowly moved to set his gun on the ground, standing up with both hands raised, open and empty. “I was taken before because a federal agent is a valuable hostage, right? So, I’ll come with you and we leave Lisa here with Doctor Fraiser.”

John’s lips pressed together unhappily but he couldn’t fault Tony’s motive to get the girl out of it unharmed.

“Take Agent DiNozzo, Nelson.” John advised grimly. “Give Lisa to the doctor. Take Agent DiNozzo and we’ll give you a clear path to the roof.”

Nelson looked uncertainly at Tony, his eyes flickering to John and up the stairs.

“Captain Ford!” John raised his voice. “Move your men back!”

“Sir, yes, sir!” came the reply.

Nelson gestured at Tony. “In front of me! NOW!”

Tony grimaced but moved. He stood in front of Nelson, blocking John’s shot. Tony’s eyes found John’s.

A second later, the girl was dropped and Nelson’s gun was shoved up against Tony’s chin. Nelson’s hand on his shoulder.

“Get the kid and scram!” Nelson screamed.

Fraiser had already gathered Lisa to her. She picked up the girl and swept past Tony and out of the stairwell door to the safety of the lobby.

“Sideways! Keep in front of me!” Nelson ordered Tony.

John followed slowly as Nelson dragged Tony upward a step. He tried to find a vulnerability but couldn’t see one. His best bet was to catch them on the roof.

“STOP FOLLOWING!” Nelson shouted. “STOP FOLLOWING!”

John stayed on the floor just outside the doors to the lobby until he lost sight of them. He charged through the doors and got his phone out of his pocket.

“Charlie, I need an express way to the roof!”

Pam, Donnelly and Frankie ran up to him and he waved them towards the stairs. “Get a medic and see if Lane is alive! I left him on the stairs! Rebecca’s with the bomb in the incinerator room!”

Donnelly and Frankie left; Pam stayed with him.

“Far right elevator.” Charlie informed John. “I’ve hacked the hospital system and have control. I’ll take you straight there, my friend.”

John ran for the elevator. Pam stepped through with him.

“Charlie, find another route for Captain Ford and his Marines. Get them to meet me on the roof.” John pocketed his phone as Pam handed him an earbud and a microphone.

“All operatives, Agent Sheppard now has ears.” Pam said dryly.

“Nelson has Agent DiNozzo.” John reported. “He’s on the way to the roof. Ford, coordinate ambush on roof via elevators.”

“Understood, sir.” Ford replied.

Pam shot John an amused look.

“What?” demanded John.

“You in Major mode. I know I had doubts you were really a Major? I mean, the hair alone…” Pam began.

“And slouching.” Frankie’s voice sounded in his ear. “Don’t forget the slouching. Oh, and Lane is like the dodo; extinct. Bullet went straight through the spine, into the heart and out. There’s a lot of blood.”

“What’s the situation with the bomb?” asked John, his eyes on the ascending numbers.

“Captain Cadman and her team are containing it.” Rebecca reported. “Myself, Michael, Agents Fornell and Gibbs are on our way to you.”

“Bethesda is almost evacuated.” Paul Davis said. “Three critical surgeries could not be moved. Medical teams refused to leave their patients.”

John nodded; it was what he had expected.

The elevator was almost at the roof.

He signalled for Pam to move to the left; he took the right. The elevator pinged and the doors slid open. John did a visual sweep.

“Roof door is on the far side to your right.” Charlie instructed. “DiNozzo’s doing a good job keeping Nelson slow and steady, he’s got maybe five more minutes before he hits the roof; Ford is a minute behind you. Rebecca and co are two.”

John swore as he set eyes on a stationary helicopter. “Do we have a pilot on the way up? We have a helicopter just parked here!”

“Sir, the pilot was evacuated. I don’t have anyone qualified.” Ford responded.

John wrestled for all of a second with his surging panic; he had a job to do and Tony was relying on him getting this right. He needed to get his tactics straight. “I’ll take a position in the helicopter. Nelson will head straight for it. Ford, get your men hidden in positions around the helicopter. Rebecca, get your team to cover the exits. He’s not getting off the roof.”

“I’ll take the back of the helicopter.” Pam said.

“Right.” John muttered.

They’d just got inside when Ford’s Marines started to deploy. They spread out evenly taking covering positions and faded out of sight.

“We’re all set.” Rebecca said. “Gibbs and Fornell have eyes on the stairs.”

“Nelson’s had DiNozzo secure his hands with zip-ties – DiNozzo not Nelson.” Charlie reported. “On the roof in five, four, three, two…”

The roof door was flung open and John kept his body low in the well of the front seat.

“Do not fire unless you have a clear shot.” John ordered.

Nelson was good. Similar to how he’d used Lisa as a human shield, he’d effectively put Tony in the same position except the arm which was keeping his hostage close was looped up under Tony’s left armpit, across his shoulder and had a gun at the end of it under Tony’s chin. He had a second gun aimed outward in his other hand.

Nelson kept to the walls, keeping Tony in front of him. He was slightly smaller than Tony and able to thwart any line of sight.

John swore as Gibbs broke cover and took a couple of steps out into open space.

“NCIS!” Gibbs shouted. “Give it up, Nelson! You’re surrounded!”

Nelson didn’t hesitate; he swung and fired at Gibbs. Gibbs dived trying to get out of the way of the shot and back behind cover.

“Every time someone comes at me, I’ll find a way to hurt this guy when I’m clear! Understood!” Nelson shouted.

“Gibbs is shot.” Fornell said, changing position to deal with Gibbs. “Through and through to his arm but it’s bleeding.”

“John?” Pam asked urgently.

“Out now.” John said.

They’d left the far doors open on purpose and slid out easily. Pam hurried around using the tail to hide her path to a nearby vent for cover. John stayed hidden by the main body of the helicopter and the sliding door of the back cabin. Nelson’s attention was away from the helicopter but he was using the far wall as a guide-rope to reach it.

“Anyone have a shot?”

“Negative.” Ford answered.

“We’ve got the exits covered.”

“Everyone stay back.” John ordered, a new strategy coming to him quickly. “I’m going to hide in the back of the chopper. When he takes it up, I’ll deal with him then. He’ll relax if he thinks he’s gotten free.”

“Hell of a risk.” Fornell’s voice said.

“Best chance we get of getting out of this without Agent DiNozzo getting shot or hurt.” John said as he clambered into the back of the chopper and hiding under the stretcher there in the centre between the benches. He covered himself with a blanket and prayed Nelson wouldn’t check.

“Ford, give me a commentary.” John ordered.

“Nelson is almost at the chopper.” Ford said. “He’s keeping Agent DiNozzo between him and everything, moving him so we can’t get a clear shot. He’s at the chopper; making his way down the tail using DiNozzo and the chopper.”

Shadows fell over John and he tuned Ford out as Nelson and Tony made their way around the side of the chopper.

“He’s coming around to the side of the chopper with the open doors.” Ford said tersely.

John held his breath as he heard Nelson roughly push Tony into the front and follow in behind him; pushing him into the seat closest to the roof exits. He shut the door and John felt the chopper jolt.

“What now?” asked Tony, hoarsely.

There was a dull thud and an agonised groan.

“He just knocked out DiNozzo!” Ford reported crisply. “Repeat; DiNozzo is out.”

Nelson muttered. He started the helicopter up; the rotors beat above their heads.

John held his breath. He felt the helicopter lifting-up; swinging wildly around.

“Sir?” Ford asked urgently.

John stayed silent. He needed Nelson in the air before he tried anything.

“Keep silent, kid.” Fornell advised Ford.

He tuned out the voices in his earbud and focused on the feel of the chopper. They were gaining altitude. He could feel the breeze rushing in from the open back door.

Nelson gave a whoop. He thought he was free and clear.

John stirred slowly, carefully moving the blanket away before crawling out keeping the stretcher between him and the front seats. Nelson was busy flying; Tony looked to be unconscious slumped over with his head resting on the far door.

John pressed his lips together and slowly inched toward the back door. He’d lucked out that it was an old-fashioned UH-1 type helicopter with struts rather than wheels. He slid to the outside of the helicopter holding on tightly.

Nelson hadn’t noticed him.

John clung to the outside and looked down briefly. He closed his eyes; felt the rush of the wind around him; he could barely catch his breath they were so high. Good going, John, he thought tiredly. He was clinging to the outside of a helicopter.

Tony was relying on him, John told himself briskly.

He moved.

In one swift motion he opened the front cabin door and punched Nelson viciously in the face before he reached down tossed the gun Nelson had put on his lap, and undid the lock holding his restraints together.

Tony twisted around suddenly and grabbed the gun Nelson had left in the well beside him. He pointed it at Nelson’s head.

Nelson shook his head, dazed. He blinked in owlish astonishment at the sight of John before turning to look at Tony with shock. “I knocked you out!”

“Just made you think you did.” Tony said dryly.

John kept his grip on the helicopter and pointed a gun at Nelson’s head with his other. “It’s over, Nelson.”  

Nelson glanced back at Tony.

“Give me an excuse.” Tony said firmly.

“Tony, keep the gun on him but climb into the back.” John ordered.

Tony wasn’t restrained – Nelson hadn’t bothered to strap him in. He kept his grip on the weapon as he made the awkward move to the back of the helicopter.

“Shift over.” John ordered Nelson. “One wrong move and we’ll shoot.”

“You need me to fly.” Nelson said confidently even as he slid across, his hand moving from one cyclic to the other smoothly.

John climbed in and looked at him darkly. “No, we don’t.” He didn’t bother looking into the back. “Tony, you got him?”

“Got him.”

John put his gun down on the far side of the seat from Nelson and put the spare headset on. His belly filled with butterflies; nausea churned in his gut, the taste of bile rising as he reached for the cyclic, as his feet found the pedals and his left hand grazed the collective.

He could do this, John told himself as he heard Tony order Nelson off the controls.

His heart pounded.

Lyle.

He steadied the helicopter automatically.

Afghanistan. Anti-aircraft missiles all around them.

He changed direction, back to Bethesda.

Panic as they were hit. Lyle beside him already injured, too much blood. Spiralling down. Nothing he does stops their descent.

Crash, crash, crashing…

He kept breathing, aware of Tony talking to Nelson without listening to the words, just letting the sound anchor him.

Lyle in the wreckage, dying in John’s arms…a last goodbye.

Be happy, John.

Tony.

He had to focus on Tony.

Who was apparently reading Nelson his rights.

John glanced over. Tony was holding steady; the gun pressed against the back of Nelson’s head almost painfully. Nelson was pale.

Bethesda was ahead of them.

“Ford,” John said, “I’m bringing back a present. Will be with you in five.”

“Yes, sir.” Ford said gleefully.

“You know this should be a NCIS bust.” Tony complained but there was no heat in his words, and his green eyes twinkled at John as he looked back briefly again.

John smiled. “The news would just say it was federal agents anyway.”

Tony laughed.

And it was that sound which carried John through. He set the helicopter down on the roof. Marines converged all around them.

Nelson glowered as John picked up his gun and gestured at the door.

“Out.” John ordered. “On the ground. Hands behind your head.”

“I want a deal.” Nelson argued.

John smiled, nasty and fierce. “Like I said. We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

Nelson’s head flinched forward as the gun pressed into his head made itself known forcefully.

“So sorry. My hand slipped.” Tony apologised brightly.

“Perhaps you should follow my orders before it slips again?” John suggested in the same tone.

Nelson opened the door, slipped off his headset and got out. He sank to the ground. Ford was on him in a heartbeat, securing him with zip ties and yanking him to his feet to haul him across the roof and away.

“OK?” asked Tony softly, his voice barely a whisper.

John took a breath.

He’d flown.

He’d flown and he’d made it.

His hands weren’t shaking and he hadn’t thrown up.

He looked at Tony and nodded. “OK.” He grimaced as he took in the bruise forming on Tony’s forehead; there was another bruise under his chin. “You, on the other hand…”

“What?” Tony gave a weak laugh. “I’m fine!” His voice was barely more than a squeak.

John just looked at him.

“Damn it.” Tony sighed. “And I was so close to going home.”

John was laughing as the rest of his team ran up to help them.

o-O-o

The rain was lashing down in straight sheets that made driving more of a challenge than an enjoyment. The roads were drenched with a layer of water; headlight beams cut through the rain in diffuse shards of lights. The sky above was an ominous grey, heavy clouds as far as the eye could see with no end in sight.

John steered into the underground parking beneath the apartment building and parked in his usual spot with a relieved sigh. He glanced over at his passenger unaware of the soft smile curving his own lips.

Tony was asleep. He’d been discharged first thing that morning after another round of checks. Another scan the night before had ruled out additional head trauma from the blow he’d received from Nelson. The bruise under his chin made shaving painful but wasn’t serious. He’d thankfully managed to regain most of his voice after resting it completely overnight.

He looked good.

John berated himself a little for thinking that when Tony was still hurting and still in his protective custody.

But he did.

Look good.

Tony was snuggled up against the window. He wore a green t-shirt under a soft grey hoodie; dark grey jeans which hugged his thighs and rear. He looked younger than his age. John figured his own outfit of black jeans, t-shirt and jacket made him look every inch his age. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.

Tony snuffled and blinked his way back to wakefulness, evidently subconsciously registering the car had stopped. “Home?”

John nodded. “Home.” He let his gaze linger as Tony stretched and rolled his shoulders. “You OK?”

“Hospitals are crappy places to sleep.” Tony complained.

“So are cars.” John said dryly.

“Cars are great.” Tony bantered back with a sheepish grin.

“Well, I’d continue driving but the weather doesn’t agree.” John commented.

They should probably get out of the car, John considered idly. The small space was cosy though; intimate.

John clasped Tony’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Come on. I’ll make you some soup for lunch.”

“Make?” asked Tony as they finally got out of the car. “Have you been hiding skills because I’ve never seen you actually cook?”

John closed his door. “Hey, even I can open a can of soup.”

“I look forward to it.” Tony quipped, grabbing his back-pack from the trunk while John grabbed his own.

John ushered him into the elevator, pleased to find it was working. It was a bit hit and miss. His phone buzzed. He took it out and read the message from Pam.

“News?” asked Tony, eyes bright with curiosity.

“Apparently Gibbs and Fornell teamed up on Zach Nelson and bluffed him into a full confession.” John shook his head. “I can’t believe your boss is working with a hole in his arm.”

“That’s Gibbs.” Tony said with a smile which didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I thought Fraiser was going to shoot him herself at one point.” John said. The diminutive doctor had helped patch up the injured as a way of saying thank you for the assistance with Lisa.

“Janet’s great, isn’t she?” Tony grinned. “I think Gibbs likes her.”

Likes likes her?” checked John almost choking in surprise.

“He has a thing for spirited women who don’t put up with his bullshit.” Tony shrugged.

John hummed. “Blood splatter came back on Altman’s death. They’re charging Anne Nelson with murder.”

“So everything’s wrapped up.” Tony said as they stepped out of the elevator.

“Not everything.” John said holding out his hand for Tony’s keys.

Tony sighed but dropped them into John’s hand. “You know I am a Very Special Agent.”

“Uh-huh.” John said, dropping his back on the floor next to the door and drawing his weapon. He swept Tony’s apartment quickly and thoroughly. “We’re clear.”

Tony brought both bags in and dropped them near to the door. He closed it and heaved a big sigh. “Home.”

John threw the keys at him and Tony caught them one-handed. He locked up and dropped the keys into a bowl.

Tony turned back to him and looked at him across the room.

The atmosphere fairly hummed with tension; with unspoken words.

“So,” Tony said cheerfully, the strain an underlying note in his tone, “I assume the FBI frowns on their agents kissing the people they have in protective custody? Because I think that this is the first time we’ve properly been alone without having someone listening in or you rescuing me and…”

John crossed the room and kissed him.

There was a tiny, tiny moment where John’s heart might have stopped, when everything seemed to freeze and pause before Tony kissed him back.

Soft and gentle.

Lips touching and rubbing as one kiss segued into another.

Tony’s hand cupped his cheek and John kept his hands light on the back of Tony’s neck, careful of the healing wound at the back of his head. He felt a hand grip his hip pressing him forward.  

Tony made a small whimper at the back of his throat and a shiver went through John, arousal rushing through him.

He eased away; slow lazy kisses until they were both standing, holding onto each other, breathing heavily, the tips of their noses bumping together.

“So, I really should have had my sexual identity crisis sooner,” Tony said, hooking his finger through the belt loop on John’s jeans, “but I guess I would have still had to wait for you to realise we were dating.”

John smiled and kissed him chastely even though he needed to pull away; to get some distance between them so that he could think clearly. “For the record, the FBI does have a rule about not kissing the person you’re meant to be protecting.”

“Rule-breaker, huh?” Tony smiled but John could see the understanding in his green eyes. “I like that about you.”

“My COs? Not so much.” John confessed, his thumb rubbing Tony’s neck gently before he pulled away completely.

“Right.” Tony said. “I guess we put this on hold until Saturday.”

There was a hint of a question and John nodded.

“’Fraid so. If she hasn’t turned up by then I’ll have someone else come protect us while we have our date.” John promised.

Tony sighed. “Oh, she’ll turn up.”

John watched him as Tony slumped down on his sofa, hunched over with his head in his hands. John sat down on the coffee table opposite him.

“You want to talk about it?” He asked.

“God, no.” Tony said.

John leaned forward and kissed Tony’s temple. “I’ll make soup.”

Tony huffed a breath of laughter. His fingers caught John’s as John got up, a light tangle that brought John to a stop and made him quirk his eyebrows in a silent question mark.

“Thanks.” Tony said sincerely.

The day drifted by.

He and Tony wrote reports side by side sending them off to their various Directors. Tony talked to Abby, Ducky, Jimmy and Gibbs on the phone, working on something on his laptop, while John kept track of the investigation into Military at Home remotely, reviewing reports and information from his laptop.

It was over dinner with a Hitchcock movie playing on the TV that Tony finally cracked.

“I’d be stupid to stay at NCIS.” Tony said and stuffed his mouth full of pizza.

John licked a thumb. “Do you want to stay?”

Tony swallowed and set the pizza down. He picked up a napkin and rubbed his hands free of the grease. “Gibbs…” he stopped and huffed, shaking his head slowly. “I’m an idiot.”

“You’re a member of Mensa.” John took another bite of his pizza.

“Doesn’t make me not an idiot.” Tony rubbed the side of his head. “Possibly I shouldn’t be thinking about this right now.”

John kept silent. He’d learned in the year they’d been friends that there wasn’t any point pushing Tony to talk about something if he didn’t want to talk.

“I would be stupid to stay.” Tony said eventually, picking up his pizza again.

John picked up the bottle of water he was drinking and took a sip.

“This whole thing…” Tony put the pizza down. “It makes me think about things which maybe I should have been thinking about before.” He looked over at John. “Would you stay?”

“No.” John said honestly.

“You are a very smart person.” Tony pointed his pizza at him. “Even if you refuse to join Mensa.”

John hummed and turned back to the TV.

“OK,” Tony said, “so maybe I think I need to stay.” He dumped his pizza back into the box. “Which even I know is a terrible idea.”

John smoothed the label on his bottle of water and sighed. “Ducky has this theory.”

“He does?”

“He says you’ve built this idea of a…a family at NCIS.” John said a little awkwardly.

“Huh.” Tony said, his eyes on John.

“I can see how it might be hard to leave your family behind.” John said. “No matter how much they fuck up.”

There’d been a moment when he’d come out, when Dave hadn’t been talking to him, and his Mom had been too busy dealing with his Dad’s disappointment to reassure him, and when Emily had tried to pretend he was still married to Nancy…he’d thought about it. Because Lyle was dead and he’d lost the sky and maybe he didn’t deserve anything else.

But he’d had Nancy.

Nancy who’d bullied him into life and talking and showing up to family events and sending birthday cards and Christmas presents and…she hadn’t let him run away.

But his situation…his situation wasn’t the same as Tony’s.

“Huh.” Tony said again.

John lifted his water to his lips and paused. “Are you planning to say anything other than ‘huh?’”

“I don’t know,” Tony said, “are we going to kiss again? Because I think that might stop me saying ‘huh.’”

John’s lips twitched upward into a smile. He ducked his head, sipped his water and tried not to think about kissing Tony.

Tony smiled at him as though he knew exactly what he was thinking and pushed the pizza box away.

“Ducky’s not wrong.” He shook his head and grimaced, reaching up to gingerly poke at the bump on his forehead. “Thing is…they’re not my family. I know that.”

John sipped his water as Tony stared sightlessly at the TV screen.

“Ducky isn’t my great-uncle; Jimmy’s not my weird cousin.” Tony listed out dispassionately. “Tim’s not my brother or Abby my sister, and God knows Gibbs is not my Dad.”

“And Ziva David?” asked John.

“I don’t know.” Tony admitted quietly. “I’ve never really figured out where she fit.”

“Maybe that tells you something.” John said.

“Gibbs thinks of her as a daughter.” Tony picked up his drink. He’d stuck with Coke in a frosted bottle telling John he wanted to keep a clear head.

“Does he?” asked John. “Or is that just what she wants everyone to think?”

Tony looked over at him in surprise. He lowered the bottle from his lips slowly. He brushed a thumb over the top as he considered John’s comment. “You know I heard you and Gibbs yesterday.”

John’s eyebrows shot up.

“Good ears.” Tony reminded him.

“Right.” John said. “Do I need to apologise?”

“Nope,” Tony said, “it was kinda hot hearing you defend me.”

John felt the heat of the blush on his cheeks.

“And it was good, getting another point of view.” Tony set the bottle down with a sigh. “Kinda proved I would be stupid to stay.”

John waited.

“Gibbs…he brought me into NCIS.” Tony said finally. “Back then, the teams were more like a traditional cop set-up – experienced guy with a less experienced guy, but you worked together as partners. Gibbs was hard to work with but he was good; I learned a lot. Then…change of policy and suddenly we were being told to become a wider team; bring in other skills.”

“Same thing happened most places.” John commented.

“Changed things.” Tony said succinctly. “I stayed anyway. Really, I should have left years ago.”

John shifted position, turning more fully toward Tony. “Why haven’t you?”

“Because sometimes I thought I owed it to Gibbs.” Tony admitted with a sigh. “Or because I thought they needed me even if they didn’t see it. Or I needed them.” He took a drink of Coke and offered a small rueful smile. “It’s all very dysfunctional.” He looked back over at John. “You’ve profiled the team as part of the investigation; you’ve got to have come to that conclusion.”

John rubbed his chin as he considered his response. “My objectivity on the subject is skewed because of you.”

“But I’m not wrong.” Tony countered, although his eyes lit up at the admission.

“But you’re not wrong.” John repeated quietly.

Tony changed the subject, pointing something out about the movie. John let him. Tony needed to come to his own conclusions in his own time.

They settled down to sleep soon after. The apartment settling into darkness.

John took the sofa after a playful discussion about how two grown men couldn’t fit into Tony’s bed. He had a feeling they’d be sleeping over at his unless Tony upgraded.

Or maybe Tony wouldn’t want…

John stopped that thought before it got started. They’d kissed. It was a start. Nancy was going to kill him for not telling her immediately after it had happened.

It had been a great kiss.

There was a sound.

John was instantly alert.

He held still, waiting.

It was coming from the door to the apartment.

John silently swung off the sofa and to his feet in one graceful move, palming his phone on the way and sending the prepared text; he padded on bare feet to the door, his gun drawn.

Tony appeared beside him. Like John, Tony had worn sweatpants and a t-shirt to bed, and he looked sexily rumpled.

“You should stay in the bedroom.” John said in a near whisper.

Tony shook his head. “I’ve got this.” He was also whispering.

“You don’t have to take one for the team. Not this time.” John said.

Tony placed his hand on John’s arm. “Thank you but…I need to do this.”

John searched his resolute expression and nodded. “I’ll be here if you need me.” He swiftly gathered up the evidence of his stay and went into the bedroom, dumping the pillow and blanket on the floor before closing the door on the room. He flattened himself against the wall and peeked into the living room as Tony switched on a lamp and opened the apartment door.

“Ziva, why are you breaking into my apartment?” Tony’s voice broke the silence.

“I did not have a key.”

Tony made a drama out of a sigh; he moved aside and John watched as Ziva David entered and came to a stop in front of the sofa. She was dressed for breaking and entering; black cargo pants, jacket, and black leather gloves. Her hair was scraped back in a severe ponytail. He could just see the hint of her cast in the bulky outline of her arm. She busied herself putting away her lock-picks.

John watched as Tony moved to stand on the other side of the sofa from Ziva, keeping the furniture between them. John appreciated that Tony had somehow enabled the positioning so Ziva stood with her back to John.

Tony stood hands on hips, with an expectant expression on his face. “Seriously, Ziva, you couldn’t have just knocked?” He sounded annoyed rather than anxious.

“You have never before invited me to your home.” Ziva responded. “I did not know if I would be welcome.”

“I might have been a little surprised but I could have coped.” Tony replied.

Ziva shrugged. “I am here now.”

Tony hummed. “What’s so important you had to track me down?” Tony lifted his chin. “You’re a little late for the record.”

Ziva’s body language softened suddenly. “This is what I wished to talk to you about. To clean the air.”

“Clear the air.” Tony crossed his arms. “Go ahead.”

“It was just an accident, Tony.” Ziva said passionately. “McGee and I…you have to know we would never do anything to harm you.”

“And yet…” Tony’s voice was laden with sarcasm.

“We didn’t think anything would happen!” Ziva spun away and paced to the mantelpiece and back to the bed. “There had been no sign of trouble, nothing! We stayed within range of the bug and…and I accidentally knocked the device! It was just, how do you say, bad luck!”

Tony hummed. He took a step back, leaned against the shelving unit behind the sofa. “What did Gibbs say?”

“He walked out when I told him.” Ziva swallowed hard. “He was disappointed.” She looked away from him to the window. “With me.”

“And you haven’t been by his place and talked it out with him.” Tony surmised. “Why not? You managed to get around the FBI and into his basement when they were after you before and it’s not like you’d need to break-in.”

“He will not listen to me in this matter but he will listen to you.” Ziva said.

Tony laughed. “When has Gibbs ever listened to me?”

“He will listen to you about this.” Ziva insisted. “If you say you still trust me, us, this will all steam over.”

“Blow over, and no,” Tony said firmly, “it won’t.”

Ziva looked at him imploringly. “But I have told you! It was an accident! Please, Tony.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I need…I cannot lose you, lose the team. Please.”

Tony looked at her, calm and almost expressionless except for the muscle twitching as his jaw clenched. “Tim lost his arm if you’re interested.”

Ziva blinked and frowned, wrong-footed. “I do not…I am…that is terrible news.” She said finally. “Is he alright?” She gestured violently. “Of course he is not alright. I am…” she shook her hand by her head. “I am sorry about McGee.”

“NCIS is probably going to forego the disciplinary action he would have received.” Tony commented in the same conversational tone. “He’s got a long road of recovery, and although his needs will be accommodated, it’s almost certain his days as a full field agent are over.”

Ziva nodded before she caught what he had said fully. “Disciplinary action?”

“McGee was the senior agent, nominally in charge of your actions in the field.” Tony pointed out briskly. “My duty in the matter as Senior Field Agent was superseded by the nature of the task. The operative in play cannot hold the responsibility for their back-up as by definition they are in play.”

“I did not realise…” Ziva began.

“If you were still a Mossad Liaison Officer and a week into working with us, I might have accepted that.” Tony said. “But even if you hadn’t picked that up from working as part of the team for so long, your probationary agent training would definitely have spelled it out.”

Ziva took a breath. “I can see that you are angry.” She made another hand motion. “Perhaps I should come back another time.” She took a step toward the door.

“Tell me, Ziva,” Tony said regaining her attention, “what went through your head when you heard me getting knocked out?”

Ziva turned back to him. “We were upset. Obviously. It was horrible to hear, to know we had let you down so badly. McGee was frantic with worry as was I.”

“Hmmm.” Tony said. “I guess you’re talking about the second time you heard it?”

Ziva froze. “I do not understand.”

Tony’s eyes met hers, challenging and taunting her. “Timing is everything, Ziva.”

“Why must you talk in riddles?” demanded Ziva furiously.

John admired the way Tony kept her off balance even while he wondered where Tony was going with it. Neither Charlie nor Frankie had had time to do the detailed analysis on the timings.

Tony looked at her almost pityingly. “There is this thing called evidence. Do you know how the audio device works?”

Ziva looked at him blankly.

“Abby gave you a demo.” Tony pointed out. “I know she did.”

Ziva shifted her weight. “Yes.”

And John could see the moment she made the connection that she should have known about the playback mode.

Her chin shot up, her eyes blazed. “I admit I did not pay full attention. It was McGee’s job to handle the device.”

Tony smiled sharply. “Well, let me explain. The device…”

“I know how the device works! I do not need you to explain it to me!” Ziva snapped.

“Obviously you do.” Tony shot back. “Unless you’re taking back the supposition that you accidentally put it in playback mode.”

John felt his breath catch in his throat as the two of them stared at each other angrily.

“The device,” Tony repeated tersely, “is connected to the bug. It records everything. We’ll call that stream A. Abby had set-up the device in our op to effectively record stream A and send an updated version to the NCIS server as a back-up. She also set-up the device to play stream A in real time so you and McGee could listen and ensure if I ran into trouble you were there to back me up.”

“I do not…” Ziva tried to interrupt.

“Only the device has this playback mode.” Tony continued, talking over her.

“I got confused about the colours!” Ziva proclaimed. “That is all and…”

“The thing is that playback mode isn’t playing back the entirety of stream A.” Tony said, raising his voice a touch.

Ziva stopped talking.

And John knew exactly what Tony had deduced.

“Let’s say you did accidentally knock the device and switch it off.” Tony said. “Stream A temporarily stops recording. But you switch it back on and stream A picks up again. But there’s a gap in the recording.”

Ziva was still as a statue.

“Maybe only for a couple of minutes while you panic and switch the device back on.” Tony said. “But a gap.” He held her gaze. “Interesting thing about the copy of the recording we have squirrelled away on the back-up NCIS server? No gap.”

There was a long breath of silence.

Tony had always known the truth about what had happened, John realised. He hadn’t needed to wait for the timings at all.

“Let’s call that Exhibit A,” Tony said in a mock cheerful voice, “because I was actually talking about Exhibit B, the playback mode.”

“Tony…”

“Playback mode can be switched on at any time. When you switch the device into playback mode from real time, the device takes a snapshot of everything it’s recorded already on stream A and creates stream B. Playback is stream B.” Tony stated crisply.

Ziva stared at him.

“Let’s say you did accidentally knock the device and switched it into playback mode, and didn’t hear me get into trouble.” Tony continued. “Stream B should end at the point you knocked the device. You shouldn’t have been able to listen to me getting into trouble at all.”

“This is…” Ziva threw up her good hand in place of a word. “McGee must have found a way of accessing the stream with your attack and…”

“Doesn’t work that way.” Tony said firmly.

There was another long pause.

“Why?” Tony asked, sounding almost defeated. “Just…tell me why, Ziva.”

Ziva looked at him. She suddenly looked tired, weary. “It was not planned.” She shook her head. “It was a moment of…madmen?” She looked in Tony’s direction.

“Madness.” Tony corrected softly.

“McGee went to the restroom.” Ziva said. “And…and I heard you…Lane knocked you out. I…I was going to get McGee but I needed to stay, to listen, to know what would happen to you…we were already too far away to help you.”

She paced away to the window which was blocked with shutters. Her back was to John, to Tony.

“I realised then...it was too late to prevent what would happen…and I knew Gibbs, Gibbs would be so angry. We had broken rule one and we would be too late to help you. You may not know but he chose you, Tony, in Israel. I made him choose and he chose you.”

Tony sighed. “Leaving you behind in Israel, Ziva…that was all about Gibbs punishing you for lying to him, for you breaking his trust.”

She spun back to Tony shock written all across her face.

“It had nothing to do with me.” Tony gave a sad laugh. “Didn’t really get that myself until yesterday.”

“But…” Ziva spluttered and took a step before stopping. “I do not understand.”

“He’s Gibbs?” Tony offered and rubbed his upper arms as though he was cold. “Who knows why he does the things he does?” He shrugged.

“No,” Ziva stated brusquely, “no! He has always chosen you.”

“When Ziva?” Tony asked patiently as though he had all night to simply stand there and listen to her justify herself.

“He told me off for not inviting you to dinner; getting you shot in the box.” Ziva said furiously. “And he chose your side over Jenny with the whole thing with the Frog and he did, he did choose you over me with what happened with Michael! Every time! It is you!” She gestured at him. “You are always in the way!”

And finally they were getting to the truth of it, John thought. But he wasn’t going to give Tony much longer. They had what they needed.

“So, what? You figured Gibbs would be pissed at you and so you did something to make him even more pissed off?” Tony’s tone had taken on a bite; he was baiting her.

“I did not think!” Ziva shouted. “I thought if I could just arrange it so it would look like an accident it would be better but…” she gestured passionately, “McGee brought the magazines and took forever to realise the truth and…you were gone and the bomb still had not detonated.” She shook her head. “I did not know it would all go so badly…it was a mistake.”

“No kidding!” Tony retorted. “Tim lost his arm because you sat on my abduction, Ziva! A sixteen years old girl lost her father and is severely injured! Do you get that?”

Ziva breathed heavily, almost panting as she glowered at him. She spun away again and paced back.

“How did you know about the device?” asked Ziva.

Tony’s green eyes narrowed on her. “I do have this thing called experience. I’ve used the device before. You know Gibbs hates knowing the technical stuff. It only took me signing into work to get a copy of the recording on the back-up server to confirm what I knew was fact.”

Ziva looked away, stuffing her hands in her pockets.

“The cat is out of the bag, Ziva.” Tony informed her wearily. “Abby probably would have worked it out already if she hadn’t been distracted with everything else going on. And once they’ve put MAH to bed, the FBI will run the analysis of the recording and timings. They’ll work out the logistics and practicalities and come to the same conclusion. I think they’d probably have already worked it out but terrorists trying to blow up Bethesda got them distracted.”

John knew Tony meant those words for him; to apologise and to acknowledge that John would have known the truth soon enough.

“So it is over.” Ziva said wonderingly.

“It was over as soon as you chose not to respond when I needed back-up.” Tony replied evenly.

Ziva shook her head. “Why have you not told them already?”

“Why do you think?” asked Tony.

Ziva laughed and looked up at the ceiling. “Because you needed me to believe my story was still accepted so I would reveal myself.” She shook her head. “And to think I once warned Ari not to underestimate you.” She took her hand from her pocket and the snick of a knife sliced through the air.

John felt his heart leap into his mouth; he changed position, readied himself…

“Perhaps this is how it was always supposed to end. You and I.”

Tony looked at her pityingly. “You’re seriously going to try to kill me with a knife?” He reached behind him and drew the gun he’d had hidden there.

Ziva smiled bitterly and sprang.

The sound of the gunshot was loud.

“No!” Ziva stumbled as her leg crumpled beneath her.

John was there a split-second later; stamping hard on her wrist to get her to release the knife which he kicked away. He put his gun to her head, heart pounding loud enough to echo in his ears.

“Don’t kill her.” Tony said, keeping his gun aimed at her. “That’s what she wants.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Four in the chest.”

Ziva snarled and lashed out with her good leg at John. John sidestepped it and as he was readying himself as she reached for a second weapon, the door flew open.

Gibbs stood there, gun raised…

Another shot rang out and Ziva flinched backwards as his bullet hit her rendering her good arm useless.

Donnelly pushed past Gibbs and went immediately to Ziva. Frankie was next, already on her cell calling for an ambulance.

Pam was last through, hovering in the doorway next to Gibbs. “We need to take your weapons.”

Tony nodded, walked over and handed it to her. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the bug he’d placed there at John’s request; the bug whose transmission had been activated as soon as John had sent the text. “Did you get everything?”

“We got everything.” Gibbs said. His gaze seemed locked on Tony’s.

Pam reached out and placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder, compassion shining from her dark eyes. She looked across the room. “John, why don’t you and Agent DiNozzo go to your apartment? We can wait until tomorrow for your statements.”

“Right.” John went to grab his keys from his backpack, casting a concerned look back at Tony and Gibbs.

He hurried back and found Tony stood by the doorway watching as Frankie administered first aid and Donnelly started taking photos; as Pam talked on the phone to the Director.

“Come on.” John said.

Tony didn’t move.

Gibbs reached out and tapped the top of Tony’s head gently.

Tony started, eyes flickering to Gibbs who held his gaze.

“Rule five, Tony. That hasn’t changed.” Gibbs said firmly. “Go on with Sheppard.”

Tony turned to John and he pulled Tony away from the scene, leading him up the corridor and into John’s apartment.

Tony stood just in the entryway, barely a few steps in front of the closed door. He was pale and unmoving; devastation on his face.

John set his keys and gun down on a side-table. He moved back to Tony. He took one awkward step into Tony’s personal space and when he didn’t protest, John wrapped a tentative arm around him, pulling him in…

Tony came alive. He clutched onto John almost violently and for a second they wobbled before John guided them down to the floor, wrapping another arm around Tony’s shoulder as he sprawled against John. One of Tony’s arms ended up around John’s waist, his hand grabbing onto the back of John’s t-shirt while the other gripped the front.

And John held Tony tightly. So tightly. He closed his eyes against the flash of memory; the knife and Ziva and…

Tony tucked his head onto John’s shoulder, burrowed into him, silent and shaking.

John wanted to tell him it was going to be OK; that it was OK.

But all he could do was hold on tightly to Tony; hold on and not let him go.

o-O-o

Epilogue

December 30th 2010

John groaned as the phone on the bedside table started playing Folsom Prison Blues. He stretched out a hand and grabbed it, answering it on remote.

“Somebody had better be dead, Nancy.” John said in a loud whisper.

Tony turned over in the bed beside him, telling him without words that the call had woken him up and it was fine to stop whispering. He felt Tony’s arm slide around his waist and his lips drop a soft kiss on John’s exposed shoulder.

“You shouldn’t be this grouchy when you’re getting laid. I wanted to check…” Nancy began.

“Yes,” John said quickly, “breakfast. Both Tony and I will be there. Hanging up now.”

He disconnected the call and slapped his phone down on the bedside table. He turned over and kissed Tony, shifting closer to him and hooking an ankle around Tony’s calf. He felt Tony pull him closer and went willingly. They exchanged lazy kisses for a minute.

“We should get up and go running.” John murmured, stroking a hand over Tony’s spine and being rewarded by a miniscule shudder, and a firmer tug that brought their bodies closer.

“Or we could stay here.” Tony waggled his eyebrows and grinned.

John laughed and kissed him again, and again but with intent as he rolled Tony over and set about increasing both their heart-rates.

o-O-o

Tony slid the car smoothly into Nancy’s drive, parking the car behind Nancy’s sporty Audi and John sighed in contentment.

Tony smiled at him; a private smile so warm and genuine that John in his most sappy moment had promised himself he’d try to make Tony smile that way every day.

It had been a tough couple of months for Tony after the fallout of the Military at Home case and John was still protective. He figured he always would be about Tony.

Tony grabbed the flowers he’d picked up and followed John into Nancy’s brownstone. Tony sniffed appreciatively beside him and beamed.

“Cinnamon apple muffins.” Tony said and set off to the kitchen like the muffins were a homing beacon.

John might have felt hard done by since Nancy was baking Tony his favourites and not his, but she had turned up the day after the confrontation with Ziva, had taken one look at Tony curled up in abject misery on John’s sofa, and was almost as fiercely protective of Tony as John.

John wandered through to the kitchen and watched for a second as his ex-wife cooed over the flowers and Tony cooed over the apple muffins. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his pants and stood there for a moment just...happy.

Tony looked over at him and winked. “So, Nancy, who are we expecting for breakfast? Don’t think it’s escaped us that you haven’t given us a name.”

“You ran three different types of background checks the last time I gave you a name.” Nancy said dryly.

Tony shrugged, his eyes twinkling. “John was the one who arrested him.”

“Fornell arrested him.” John said, walking further into the kitchen, and absently patting Boomer who had padded over to him. “You were the one who found out he was a wanted murderer.”

Nancy started laughing.

“So tell us about the new guy.” Tony said, taking the basket of muffins over to the table.

Nancy fussed with the flowers. “We met a diplomatic event just before Christmas. He’s…different.”

The doorbell rang.

Boomer barked and took off for the door.

Nancy paused as she made to follow him and glared at them both. “Behave; promise.”

“Promise.” John said.

Nancy gave him a suspicious look and left.

“So, I’m doing the background checks again?” asked Tony.

“Oh, yeah.” John agreed cheerfully, noting a male voice had joined Nancy’s in the hallway. Accented. European.

The man who appeared beside wasn’t Nancy’s usual type. He was short and slim, with long brown hair swept back from a widow’s peak and he wore round wireframe glasses which hid bright curious eyes. If it wasn’t for the smart blue suit and crisp white shirt, it would all have given him an air of mad scientist.

“John, Tony.” Nancy said warmly, “I’d like you to meet Doctor Radek Zelenka.”

o-O-o

Tony glanced over at John as he drew to a stop at a red light. “You OK?”

John settled for a one-shouldered shrug.

“You know you’re allowed to hate the guy.” Tony smiled at him.

“I know,” John replied, “which is why liking him is so fucked up.”

Tony laughed. “So, we’re hoping he’s not a secret spy.”

John couldn’t quite stop the bubble of laughter that swelled up inside of him from escaping. “Yeah,” he breathed out on a sigh, “besides, Nancy really likes him.”

And he wanted Nancy to be happy so he could deal with the oddness of his ex-wife moving on with someone else; after all she’d been nothing but supportive of him and Tony.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, made a face and answered it. “Mom.”

“Well don’t keep me in suspense,” his mother immediately said, “what’s he like?”

“He’s cool, super-smart. He’s attached to some new U.N. Science commission thing.” John repeated. “Tony likes him.”

“Wow. OK.” His mother stammered.

He took the phone away from his ear and looked at it bemused before returning it back to its original position. “Mom?”

“Well, it’s just…that’s the first time you’ve liked one.” His mother pointed out. “You are still going to run the background checks?”

“Yes, we’re going to run the background checks.” John confirmed.

“Good.” His mother said with a hefty sigh. “Knowing Nancy he’s going to turn out to be a secret spy.”

John started laughing.

His mother chuckled in his ear. “You and Tony are both still coming tomorrow night?”

“It’s your annual New Year’s Eve bash.” John said. “We’ll be there.”

“Did Dave talk to you?” His mother asked briskly. “He didn’t pick up when I called.”

“Yeah, Dave texted me yesterday.” John said. “He says he’s sleep-deprived.”

“He has a three weeks old baby.” His mother said dryly. “Of course he’s sleep-deprived.”

John made a mental note to see if Dave needed him and Tony to take the older kids for an overnighter again. Tony was adorably awkward around kids but he’d been a big hit when he’d started reading Harry Potter and had started acting out all the parts.

“Got to go, Mom, we’re almost at work.” John said, noting the landmarks. They were close to the Hoover building.

“Give my love to Tony and you take care.” His mother ordered him.

“Will do, Mom.” John wrapped up the call as Tony pulled into a side-street to drop John off. It hadn’t escaped John’s notice that Tony dropped him in a different place every time. “Mom sends her love.”

Tony nodded. His fingers tapped restlessly against the steering wheel.

John glanced over at him. “You OK?”

“Yeah,” Tony turned to look at him and offered a rueful grimace, “sorry, just thinking it’s maybe about time I decided what to do next. O’Neill was fantastic giving me an indefinite paid leave after…everything. But…I miss it and we’re less than forty-eight hours away from a new year. Seems like it’s time to make some decisions.”

John nodded slowly. “You know whatever you decide to do, I’ll support you.”

“Even if that’s going back to NCIS?” Tony checked.

John grimaced. “I’d be concerned if you went back.” He nudged Tony’s hand with his. “But you should do what makes you happy.”

Tony reached over and linked their hands. “You have to get to work so as much as I hate to say these words; talk tonight?”

John rubbed his thumb over Tony’s knuckles. “Talk tonight.” He leaned over and kissed Tony gently before he got out and waved Tony off. He took a moment to take a breath, slipped on his sunglasses to protect himself from the winter sun and headed to the Hoover building.

o-O-o

“You know now you’re a Supervisory Special Agent you’re supposed to make your office an inviting place for your subordinates.” Fornell commented from the doorway.

John grimaced and looked around the threadbare office he’d inherited from Pam devoid of its books and pictures. He figured he should probably sit in the chair but he preferred where he was; perched on the desk on the visitor’s side.

He hated the chair.

He hated the office.

“The only welcoming thing in yours is the coffee machine.” John pointed out, returning his attention to the personnel file he was reading.

Fornell entered the office and closed the door.

“OK,” John said, “this just got a little creepy.” He tossed the file on his desk.

“Scuttlebutt is that DiNozzo went to work this morning.” Fornell stated without further preamble. “He met with Interim Director Lange.”

Vance hadn’t survived the Ziva David debacle. He’d vouched for her and gotten the Secretary of the Navy to push the approval through for her application as a NCIS agent. Vance had apparently moved back to the West coast with his family in the aftermath.

John kept silent and folded his arms over his chest.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Fornell huffed, apparently taking the non-response as an invitation to sit down in the single visitor chair in the corner.

John decided the look of patent disbelief on his face was the best response to that.

“Oh, please!” Fornell said. “Gibbs told me DiNozzo’s been staying with you.” He waggled his eyebrows. “As in…staying with you.”

John stared at him.

“Don’t look at me like that. You should be thanking me.” Fornell said, pointing at him again.

“Thanking you?” John said not bothering to hide his incredulity.

“Thanking me.” Fornell repeated. “Gibbs was all for running over and threatening you with a shotgun for taking advantage of his Senior Agent. I stopped him.”

“Ducky said it was him.” John replied.

Fornell waved his hand dismissively. “I was the one who blocked the door and made Gibbs listen to Ducky.”

It probably said something about John that he was more amused than annoyed by Fornell.

But then he’d already sat through the excruciating visit with Ducky when he’d told John and Tony about Gibb’s concerns, how he’d promised Gibbs he would talk to them, and his own admonishment that he hoped they had talked about effectively starting a relationship when Tony was emotionally vulnerable.

Of course, he and Tony hadn’t talked about it.

But they had taken five minutes after that visit to double check they were still on the same page. Tony’s response had been blunt and to the point; regardless that they’d both been stupendously dense about the whole thing, they’d been in a relationship for quite a while before Ziva’s decision to leave Tony without back-up and Tony was damned if he was going to let her ruin anything good in his life ever again.      

John shook his head. “As fun as you completely disregarding the agency’s Equality and Diversity policy is, Fornell; what do you want?”

“What do I…” Fornell spluttered. “I told you! DiNozzo met with Lange!” His eyes narrowed on John. “He’s thinking of getting back to work.”

John nodded. “And that has to do with you because?”

“Because we want to make him an offer.” Fornell said smugly. “Your boyfriend is a helluva investigator. Three disparate pieces of information about Joey Montelli from three different sources and he pulled wanted murderer out of his ass.” He punctuated every word with another stabbing point. “He has past experience of bringing down mob bosses and arms dealers. He’s good. He should be working for us.” He sniffed. “Cross thinks so too.”

John was torn between pride and worry. “You really think he’s going to come work for an organisation which has investigated him twice for murder?”

“We have a secret weapon.” Fornell said.

“What?”

“You.”

John burst out laughing.

“He’ll have got the offer by now. Cross had it couriered over to him.” Fornell said. “Go home. Cook him dinner. Give him a blowjob. Get him to sign.”

“OK,” John held up a hand, “I’m going to stop this here before you say something I’m going to have to punch you for.”

“You do realise once the word is out he’s going to be getting offers from all over?” Fornell said brusquely.

“Tony will decide what he wants to do and I’m going to support his decision.” John retorted.

There was a rap on the door and Frankie stuck her head inside.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said, not looking sorry at all, “but we need you out here, John.”

“That’s OK, Agent Fornell was just leaving.” John said, staring pointedly at him.

Fornell got up and John followed him out. He kept his eyes on the older agent until he was out of sight.

John turned to Frankie. “You needed me?”

“Nope.” Frankie grinned at him and pointed at Donnelly. “He said you needed a rescue.”

Donnelly shrugged. “You looked like you were about to punch him.”

“Personally, I was hoping you would.” Charlie said without looking up from his monitors. “I had ten bucks on it.”

Rebecca grinned at John and held out her hand expectantly to Ruben who was perched on her desk. “That reminds me; pay up.”

“Damn it.” Ruben hopped off the desk, went to his own and picked up the last apple muffin he had bagged before they had all disappeared. “Here.”

Rebecca beamed at him.

“Best team ever.” John declared. Even if he hadn’t exactly wanted to be promoted and put in charge of the motley crew. Still he couldn’t blame Pam for taking her promotion and moving to New York.

Which reminded him he still needed to look at the personnel folders on his desk and choose a new member. He sighed and headed back into his office.

o-O-o

The warmth of the apartment was blissful. John peeled his gloves off, shrugged out of his coat and hung it up on the hook by the door. Tony’s coat was already there which given there was the scent of something tomato-y and Italian emanating from his kitchen wasn’t a surprise.

He took off his suit jacket and dumped it on a chair on his way into the kitchen.

Tony was at the stove stirring the sauce. A bubbling pot of water was waiting for the fresh pasta he’d made.

John took a moment to ogle his boyfriend. Tony wore a snug pair of blue jeans and a soft green sweater which John recognised as Emily’s Christmas present to him. He was barefoot and his hair looked a little damp. He looked fantastic.

John saw the open bottle of red wine on the counter and went to get a beer. “Hey.”

“Hey back.” Tony said, glancing over his shoulder. “Good day?”

John shrugged and settled beside Tony, leaning back against the granite counter. “I chose a new team member.”

Tony offered him a taste of the sauce on a spoon.

John accepted it with glee and almost burnt his mouth as he eagerly tasted. It was tangy and tasty like most of the things Tony cooked. “I love your cacciatore.”

“Hmmm-hmmm.” Tony said, amused. “Who’s your new guy or girl?”

“Special Agent Leila Pendergast.” John said. “Former Deputy Sheriff with the Marshals. Her hand to hand scores are fantastic. She’s spent the last year in Florida. Starts on Monday and we’ll see how she fits.”

“You have a thing for women who can kick your ass.” Tony said amused.

“So do you.” John returned.

“Eh.” Tony shrugged, his eyes sparkling with humour. “Who doesn’t love hot girls with guns?” He leaned over and kissed John’s lips softly. “Only thing better is you.”

“Yeah?” John was ridiculously charmed.

“Two words; thigh holsters.” Tony said turning back to the stove and dropping the pasta in the water. “They were seriously hot.”

John blushed.

Tony noticed straight-away and looked both triumph and un-repentant.

John poked him in the ribs and ignored the squawk of protest. “You're pretty hot yourself.”

“Yeah?” Tony’s ears went pink but he grinned widely.

“Yeah.” John leaned in and kissed him, open-mouthed and with tongue.

Tony made a lovely whimpering sound as he kissed John back with the same passion.

The oven timer dinged.

Tony groaned and pulled away. “That’ll be the garlic bread.”

John’s stomach growled.

“Guess that decides what we’re doing next.” Tony quipped.

John dropped an apologetic kiss on Tony’s lips. “I’ll get changed.”

Dinner was good. They talked mostly about Nancy’s latest boyfriend who had turned out to be a prominent scientist and genius with no criminal background, an impressive resume of academic qualifications and who was working on world peace with the U.N. John and Tony both commiserated with each other about their feelings of total inadequacy.

Tony hadn’t found out anything about Zelenka’s time in his homeland of the Czech Republic and wouldn’t until Tony tapped his contacts in Interpol.

They settled on the sofa after dinner, pressed together but not exactly cuddling as they watched a Christmas film from Tony’s extensive collection.

“I dropped by NCIS.” Tony said eventually.

“Fornell mentioned it.” John said.

Tony gave a short huff of laughter. “Did he tell you he gave me a job offer?”

“Uh-huh.” John sipped his beer. “Apparently I should offer you a blowjob to get you to accept.”

Tony laughed and shifted position, putting a little bit of distance between them so they could look at each other fully. “I wouldn’t turn down the blowjob just for the record.”

“But you wouldn’t take the job.” John stated with certainty.

“Nope.” Tony shook his head. “Although I did consider the entertainment value of seeing Slacks’ face when he heard but…no.” He shrugged. “It was a good offer though.”

“Cross likes you.” John set his beer down. “What did Lange say?”

“Mainly that she can’t wait till they appoint someone formally as Director so she can get back to L.A.” Tony winced and held up a hand. “Deflecting, sorry.”

John shrugged.

Tony gave a small sigh. “It was good, really. Better than it would have been with Vance. I think we had some respect there at the end but Vance never got me.”

“His loss.” John wasn’t going to spare much thought for the former NCIS Director.

“She called Chegwidden.” Tony frowned. “I didn’t realise he’d been appointed SecNav.”

“I think O’Neill gave Davenport the option of resigning or getting shot when it looked as though he was just going to have Vance take the fall.” John commented dryly. “You were saying?”

“Right, so Chegwidden says he has two offers for me; one is a team at the Navy yard, Supervisory Special Agent, a second MCRT effectively. There was talk of the Rota team coming in since they’re having to do some budget cuts but…Chegwidden’s stopped all that.” Tony rubbed a non-existent spot on his jeans. “The other position is NCIS liaison to the SecNav office. I’d effectively be his trouble-shooter. He’d use me to parachute into any investigation anywhere if he thinks he has cause to keep an eye on it.”

“What do you want to do?” John asked.

“Honestly? I don’t know.” Tony sighed heavily. “I guess even though I knew it wasn’t going to happen, a part of me just believed I’d just go back and it would all be the same. I’d be back working for Gibbs, and the team…” He grimaced. “Doctor Cranston’s going to have a field day with me next session.”

John offered his hand and Tony slid his along John’s palm, linking their fingers.

“What other offers did you get?” asked John. “Fornell thought you’d be swamped.”

Tony blushed a little. “DEA. Homeland. Abigail Borin called me and said she wasn’t going to offer me anything at the Coast Guard because she figured I’d get a better deal elsewhere but if I didn’t like anything to call her.”

John whistled, impressed and proud and just utterly delighted Tony had choices. “Any of them offer you a blowjob?”

Tony laughed. “No. God, Borin would sooner castrate me.” He tilted his head. “The DEA offer was a lot like the FBIs. I think they want me for undercover.”

John held back his grimace. “You’re good at undercover.”

“We both know it’s a young man’s game and I’m not that young anymore.” Tony said with a finality which John couldn’t deny he was pleased with.

“You know whichever one you take we’ll make it work.” John said confidently.

Tony’s eyes warmed and his fingers tightened around John’s. “That’s kind of the other part I wanted to talk about.”

“Oh?” asked John. Nerves began to flutter a little in his belly.

“I’ve, uh, kind of moved myself in here because of what happened at my place.” Tony said quietly. “Which you’ve been great about and…”

“Hey,” John interrupted him and shifted closer so he could cup Tony’s cheek with his free hand, “I have loved having you here.”

“I’ve loved being here.” Tony admitted roughly. “But I was thinking, well, I need to do something with my apartment and…and this place as much as it’s great, is yours.” He held John’s gaze and John could see a touch of fear flicker through before resolution set in. “I was thinking maybe in the New Year we could look at getting a place together.”

John felt happiness swamp him. He reached over and kissed Tony.

“That’s a yes, right?” Tony checked, laughing as John tackled him. “Or do I need to offer a blowjob?”

o-O-o

In one way John wished he could persuade Tony out of the weekly visit but he knew Tony needed to visit McGee, so he did the only thing he could and provided moral support.

McGee had chosen a rehab centre close to Bethesda and it was a bright cheerful place. A Christmas tree still took centre stage in the lobby area, tinsel decorated the reception desk and there were Christmas tunes playing over the sound system.

John watched as Julian, the usual receptionist, greeted them with a broad smile.

“Tim will be pleased to see you.” Julian said. “He’s in his room, but he does have some other guests with him...”

“TONY!” Abby barrelled down the corridor and Tony only just managed to remain standing as she latched onto him and clung to him koala style with legs wrapped around him as well as arms.

Gibbs nodded at John as he joined them in a more sedate manner.

“Gibbs said you came by yesterday while I was at my seminar and I couldn’t believe I missed you!” Abby gabbled happily as Tony hugged her back.

“You just saw me Monday night.” Tony said dryly.

“But I missed the return of Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo – you are coming back, aren’t you? Because it’s…”

“Abby.” Gibbs interrupted her.

Abby glanced over, read Gibbs’s stern expression and sighed dramatically as she let Tony help her down and onto her feet. “Fine. I won’t say anything.”

“Thinking about my options, Abs.” Tony said warmly and tapped her on her nose. “When I make a decision, you’ll be like the…tenth person to know.”

She mock-punched him on the shoulder. “Tony!”

Tony smirked at her and turned to Gibbs. “Good visit?”

Gibbs nodded. “He’s getting there.”

Abby tugged on Tony’s arm. “Come on. He said you’d be coming by and you’d get a kick out of my present and…”

Tony shot John an apologetic look as Abby dragged him away up the corridor. John signalled he’d be in the small visitors’ lounge to the right of the lobby. McGee got nervous when John accompanied Tony and as much as John still held a lingering resentment over McGee’s actions the day Tony got taken, he wasn’t so much of a dick that he was going to show up and stress an injured man just for the hell of it.

Well.

He was that much of a dick but Tony would only get upset and John did care about that.

John paused in the doorway as he realised Gibbs was following him. He raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry.

“I’m her ride.” Gibbs explained shortly.

John decided getting coffee was probably the best strategic move. The rehab centre only had a generic drinks machine but it was free. John tapped in the code for a white coffee with sugar since he’d discovered in the past month it was the only way it was drinkable. He wasn’t surprised when Gibbs went for black.

He sat down at a small table and took out his Sudoku book. Gibbs took the seat opposite and stared at him.

“You got a question, Gibbs?” asked John without taking his eyes off the puzzle in front of him.

“You getting a place together?” Gibbs asked bluntly.

John pursed his lips and filled in a box with the number nine. “Yep.”

“You’ve been good for him.” Gibbs said grudgingly.

John finally glanced over at Gibbs and found him glaring down into the dregs of the small cup of coffee as though he couldn’t quite believe it was all gone.

“He’s been good for me.” John replied, turning his attention back to the puzzle.

“You hurt him and I’ll shoot you.” Gibbs said tersely.

John looked up from his puzzle. “You know I was expecting to get this talk weeks ago.” He waited a beat. “Fornell said he blocked the door.”

“Fornell sat at my table with popcorn while Ducky lectured me for three hours.” Gibbs said caustically. He tossed the plastic cup in the trash and stood up. “You want another?”

“God, no.” John pulled a face at the one he had.

Gibbs took a moment to grab two more for himself and sat back down. “He talked to you about his options?”

“Some.” John said guardedly, writing in the answer to another box just for something to do since he’d actually solved the whole thing while Gibbs was getting coffee. “He said going back to your team wasn’t on the table.”

“It isn’t.” Gibbs huffed. “Chegwidden made that clear to me.” He tossed a second plastic cup into the bin across the room. “You know which way he’s leaning?”

“If I did, would I tell you?” asked John, not looking up from the puzzle and painstakingly putting another number into another box.

“Like I said,” Gibbs said, “you’re good for him.”

John was surprised into looking up.

Gibbs looked back at him evenly. “You have plans for Sunday?”

“Nooo.” John replied uncertainly.

“Tell Tony to bring you to mine.” Gibbs offered.

John was relieved to hear heavy footsteps approaching; they caught both their attention and Abby soon appeared in the doorway, beaming from ear to ear.

“Tony loved my Christmas present.” Abby declared brightly. She looked over at John. “Oh hey congrats on your promotion! Tony’s like way proud of you.”

John shrugged and smiled at her. “Thanks.”

“Did Gibbs finally give you the…”

“Yep.” John said amused despite himself.

“Good,” Abby said, “because he said I couldn’t give you the talk until he’d given you the talk so…”

Gibbs rolled his eyes and tossed his third empty cup across the room. “Let’s go, Abs.”

“But I haven’t had the chance to threaten John yet.” Abby complained as Gibbs took hold of her elbow.

“Next time!” called John as Abby was firmly pushed out of the room.

“Happy New Year!” Abby shouted over her shoulder.

John shook his head, bemused. He waited almost a full hour before he went in search of Tony. The corridors were empty as he wound his way through the building to McGee’s room. He slowed as he heard voices through the partially open door.

“…and my lawyer says they’re going to summon me for her defence even though I refused.” McGee said, tension and stress radiating from every word.

“It’s a tactic, Probie.” Tony said. “They’ll call you and declare you a hostile witness. I shouldn’t worry about it.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” McGee snapped. “My lawyer says they’re going to blame me.”

John bit his lip. He wanted to storm in and defend Tony but he knew Tony was more than capable of doing it himself. He put a hand against the wall and waited.

“Tony, I’m…” McGee stammered suddenly as if he’d caught a clue about what he’d said and how he’d said it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t…I mean, I know...”

“Probie…”

“It was my fault.” McGee admitted, sounding thoroughly miserable.

“McGee.”

“I know it was my fault. I should never have left without telling you, or not left at all and told Ziva to hold it and…”

“Tim.” Tony interrupted him briskly. “We’ve talked about this before. You apologised. I accepted. You have to let this go.”

“It’s not that easy, Tony.” McGee said quietly. “I don’t know how you don’t hate me.”

“Yeah, you screwed up.” Tony said firmly. “But we worked together a long time, Tim. I’d prefer to focus on all the times you were there, not the one time you weren’t.”

There was a silence.

“Has she asked to see you?” asked McGee. “Abby said Ziva sent messages to her and Ducky; she thinks Gibbs too.”

John’s eyebrows flew up.

“No,” Tony replied grimly, “she and I said everything we needed to say the last time we talked.”

“I don’t want to see her.” McGee admitted.

“Then, don’t.” Tony advised. “You need to focus on you, Tim, and you know getting your bionic arm to work.”

“It’s just, if I do get summoned…”

“It’s not going to get that far, McWorry.” Tony interrupted. “She’s probably going to get some kind of deal with the pressure Eli David and the fancy lawyers he hired for her are putting on State.”

“That’s just wrong.” McGee said unhappily. “I’d rather testify than that. She tried to kill you.”

Tony sighed loudly. “OK, we should stop talking about Ziva and talk about something else before John comes looking for me.”

“You’re really moving in with him?” McGee said.

“Yeah.” Tony sounded so enthusiastic and John’s lips curved without thought. “We thought a house. Somewhere with some yard space.”

“I’m happy for you, Tony.” McGee said.

“I’m happy for me too.” Tony replied.

And that, John thought, as he rapped his knuckles on the door, was the perfect cue for him to join them.

o-O-o

“Do you think Dad will notice if I fall asleep here?” Dave rested his elbow on the bar and propped his head up with his hand.

“Dad won’t.” John said, taking a sip of the whiskey he’d ordered, “Mom, on the other hand…”

“Damn it.” Dave sighed. “You know how much sleep I had last night?”

“Not a lot.” John deduced from the bags under his brother’s eyes. “You need me and Tony to take the kids for a couple of nights?”

“Only if you take the baby too.” Dave quipped, reaching for the glass of bourbon he’d ordered as the catering service supplied barman slid it across the smooth wooden surface.

“I don’t think Tony and I have the right equipment for the baby.” John pointed out dryly.

“Holly could provide you with a couple of bottles.” Dave commented. “There’s a pump thing.”

“TMI.” John coughed through the sip of whiskey he’d just taken.

Emily slid into the seat next to Dave. “My feet are killing me.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have worn three inch stilettos?” Dave suggested, pointing down at her shoes which were strappy, black and seemed to be holding position through some kind of female magic.

“They make my legs look fantastic.” Emily sniffed and smoothed a hand down the strappy black dress which went with the sandals and which also seemed to be holding in place mostly through luck.

“I can’t believe Dad allowed you to wear that dress.” John commented.

“I wore the white number first.” Emily said smugly, waving at the barman to get his attention. “Cosmopolitan, please.”

“Do we want to know how much less material the white one had?” asked Dave in a side-whisper to John.

“No.” John said decisively.

A blonde woman approached; tall, confident and with her hair pinned up. Compared to Emily, she was dressed conservatively in a dark blue cocktail dress with a matching bolero jacket. “David, it’s good to see you.”

“Sam.” Dave smiled at her and greeted her warmly. “Let me introduce you to the rest of the Sheppard clan; my brother, John and sister, Emily.”

John held out his hand and found it taken in a surprisingly strong grip.

“Guys, this is Doctor Samantha Carter, our new R&D Director.”

John blinked.

“You seem surprised.” Sam said with a hint of a question at the end of her statement.

“I might have gotten the impression my mother thought you were male when she mentioned your appointment?” John replied hesitantly trying a smile that he was sure was more awkward than charming.

“Oh,” Sam said, “I get that a lot. I prefer Sam so Sam Carter.” She shrugged. “Everyone assumes male.” She looked interestedly at the cocktail Emily was picking up. “Is that a Cosmo?”

Emily nodded.

“One for me, please.” Sam said to the barman. She turned back to Dave and asked him about the baby.

John leaned on the bar and smirked as Emily rolled her eyes as Dave got out his phone to show pictures. It didn’t stop her gathering around to view them.

“Sheppard.” O’Neill’s voice behind him had him turning around in surprise.

“Mister Secretary.” John said formally. “I didn’t realise you’d been invited.”

“I ran into your Mom.” O’Neill remarked as if that explained everything. “Good party.” He pointed at the whiskey John was drinking as the barman approached. “I’ll have what he’s having.” He gestured at John. “I heard you requalified as a pilot.”

John tilted his head in acknowledgement but he didn’t speak; regaining the sky was something he didn’t want to talk about it.

“You want to requalify for any military aircraft just give me the word.”

John stared at him.

“Another couple of years, Sheppard, and DADT will be gone. The President’s going to insist on it.” O’Neill looked over at John. “I’m not above stealing you back when that happens.”

John smiled. “You can try.” He joked awkwardly.

O’Neill hummed. “Where’s DiNozzo at? I thought you two would be glued at the hip.”

John choked on his drink for the second time that night at the blunt question. “My ex-wife stole him for a dance.”

“Has he decided what he’s going to do?” O’Neill asked bluntly as he took his drink from the barman.

John shrugged.

“If he needs another option, tell him he can come talk to me.”

“You could tell him yourself, sir.” John said, trying to make his refusal polite since he actually liked O’Neill.

“No, I can’t.” O’Neill grimaced. “A.J. made me promise.”

John hid his amusement in his glass of whiskey; O’Neill would probably not want to be smirked at.

O’Neill suddenly pointed at Sam, his eyes gleaming with interest. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

“Apologies, Mister Secretary.” John said dryly as they both shifted to join the huddle of Dave, Emily and Sam beside them. “Sam, may I introduce you to the Secretary of Defence, Jack O’Neill. Mister Secretary, Doctor Samantha Carter, our head of R&D.”

The two stretched out their hands and John almost boggled at the sight of O’Neill beaming at Sam as they shook hands and didn’t let go.

“Mister Secretary.” Sam said warmly.

“You can call me Jack.” O’Neill replied with a bright smile.

Sam’s amusement lit up her face.  

“May I interest you in a dance, Samantha?” O’Neill asked.

“I’d like that very much.” Sam said, tucking her arm around his offered elbow.

“Excuse us, Sheppards.” O’Neill said.

“Did the Secretary of Defence just pick up our R&D Director?” asked Dave.

“Yes.” John said. “That just happened.”

“Right.” Dave said. “Good. I thought I might have hallucinated that.”

“Hallucinated what?” Patrick Sheppard sidled up to his children holding a glass of champagne. “Why are you all at the bar?”

“Sleep deprived.” Dave claimed straight away.

“Feet hurt.” Emily said brightly.

John shrugged. “My ex-wife kidnapped my boyfriend.”

“I would kidnap your boyfriend.” Emily said. “Have you seen how yummy Tony looks in a tux?”

“It’s true John’s boyfriend is yummy in a tux.” Patrick said with a sly grin.

John swallowed his whiskey the wrong way for the third time that night.

“Patrick.” Catherine Sheppard’s amused voice had her entire family jumping. “I’ve told you before to stop trying to shock the children; that’s my job.” She smoothed imaginary lint from her husband’s jacket. “Now, it’s almost midnight. I suggest we start moving the party to the conservatory so people can watch the fireworks.”

“Yes, Mom.” All three Sheppard children replied in unison.

John felt his mother’s hand on his arm as he went to follow Emily and Dave; he paused. He looked at her inquiringly. “You need something, Mom?”

She smiled at him. “Why don’t you take Tony up to your usual spot?” She winked at him and moved away with a smug look.

John wasn’t stupid enough not to follow her instructions. He found Nancy and Tony trapped talking to the company’s legal counsel.

“Apologies, Richard,” John broke in smoothly, plastering a diplomatic smile on his face, “the fireworks are just about to start if you’d like to move to the conservatory I believe your wife was looking for you.”

“Of course thank you.” Richard moved away quickly.

“Thank God.” Nancy downed the rest of her champagne. “Do you know how utterly boring that man is?”

“Yeah, I did not have enough alcohol for that conversation.” Tony said, looking down at his own empty flute in mock disappointment.

“I’m stealing my boyfriend back now, Nance.” John said firmly as he placed a hand discreetly at the small of Tony’s back.

“Fine.” Nancy huffed. “Don’t share.” She winked at them and grinned broadly. “I’m going to get some more champagne for the fireworks. I’ll catch up with you later.”

John smiled back at her and nudged Tony. “This way.”

Tony shot him a pleased small smile as they slip past the party crowed. He threw John a questioning look as he diverted them to get coats and to pick up a bottle of whiskey and two tumblers from the library. He led the way up through the house to the attic and out the large window which had a wide ledge which overlooked the drive and his Mom’s walled rose garden. It was the best seat in the house for the fireworks.

John carefully led Tony out onto the ledge and they sat down carefully. The drop was high and there was no railing between the edge of the shelf and the ground. It had been his favourite spot as a child; the closest he could get to the sky.

As soon as Tony was settled, John poured the drinks; he handed Tony one tumbler before he sat and picked up his own.

“Cheers.” John said tipping his tumbler to knock gently against Tony’s.

“Cheers.” Tony sipped the whiskey and made a pleased hum.

“Did Nancy tell you why Radek didn’t come?” asked John, curious to see whether she’d told Tony when she’d sidestepped the question all night otherwise.

“He’d already made plans weeks ago with some friend who’s a software billionaire and apparently part-time pain in Radek’s butt.” Tony said. “She was just keeping everyone else in suspense as punishment for finding out Radek was a secret spy.”

“Secret spy for us.” John said defensively. “And it was you who found out.”

Tony smiled at John. “Nancy blames you for corrupting me.”

John laughed and shook his head. “By the way O’Neill said to talk to him if you didn’t like your options.”

Tony sipped his drink. “I think I’m going to work for Chegwidden. I know he’s a good boss; fair. I’d still be stationed at the Navy yard most of the time so Abby will be happy, and I’ll get to see Ducky and Gibbs regularly. Maybe Tim if he comes back.” He glanced at John. “It might mean some travel.”

“We’ll work it out.” John said confidently.

“Yes,” Tony said, smiling, “we will.” He nudged John’s knee with his. “How long were you listening at Tim’s door today?”

“He’s worried about being summoned to testify.” John stated truthfully.

“He really doesn’t need to be worried about it.” Tony said.

John nudged him back. “You really think she’ll get a deal.”

Tony looked back at him with a cynicism in his green eyes which John had rarely seen there before. It was the cynicism of a seasoned cop; of a federal agent who’d seen how politics worked up close and personal.

“Yeah,” John agreed quietly with Tony’s unspoken certainty, “she’ll get a deal.” He should have killed her, he thought, because if Ziva David ever got free there was no doubt in John’s mind that she would find some way of coming after Tony.

“She would be better negotiating for an insanity plea and getting some help.” Tony said. “That’s the advice Ducky gave her.”

“He went to see her?” John asked surprised.

“He told me about it when I visited NCIS yesterday. Abby would have gone too except Gibbs found out and made her pinky promise not to go.” Tony shrugged. “Ducky isn’t wrong. Honestly, I’m not sure Ziva’s been in her right mind since she had to kill Haswari.”

“I don’t care as long as she doesn’t come anywhere near you.” John said.

“Yeah, she and I in the same room would be a bad idea.” Tony said tipping his glass toward John. “It’s sad though, you know? I look back and…I don’t think all of it was a lie or a manipulation, not even the majority of it. She made a mistake at Royal Woods, a big huge mistake which spiralled and got out of control until she couldn’t see her way out of it. But the Ziva who was the strong, kick-ass woman who was truly part of our team – she deserves better than to end up as a pawn for her father again. I miss her.”

John stayed silent. In his opinion, Tony had already given Ziva more than enough chances. He had a feeling some of Tony’s capacity to forgive was based in his insecurities but Tony also had a big heart and no matter what had gone down, it didn’t take away that Tony had been genuinely fond of Ziva and had considered part of his family; a friend.

“Is it weird for me to want to focus on the good things?” Tony asked.

“No,” John said softly, “I think you have a right to deal with what happened any way you want to.”

Tony leaned in and stole a kiss.

A firework shot into the air and broke them apart. Red sparkles lit up the sky before a bright blue one followed, and a white. A cheer erupted and echoed through the house.

It was midnight.

John kissed Tony gently. “Happy New Year.” He whispered and was rewarded when Tony smiled back at him; warm, sweet and genuinely happy.

And John considered the past few months; considered his promise to Lyle to be happy and thought that finally, maybe, he could keep that promise after all.

He had his team.

He had his family.

And he had Tony and the sky.

fin.