Jethro looked around the dirty hotel room. Someone had stripped both beds and dumped the sheets near the foot, and one pillow had been flung so it landed behind the television, stuck there like a fly in a spider web. Something wasn't adding up. Their suspect hadn't slept here alone, but this didn't look like the hideout of a couple of hard-core criminals. Considering the brutality of the murder, Jethro figured he was looking for a hard-core psychopath.
"Well, Probie?" Mike asked, his eyes focused on the bathroom door, but Jethro had already figured that one out. No one closed a bathroom door in a hotel unless they were hiding in it. Following procedure, Jethro moved to clear the closet first since that was closest, and Mike covered the bathroom door.
"Looks like everyone has cleared out, Boss," Jethro said loudly. He doubted any criminals were dumb enough to buy the act, but since joining NIS or NCIS or whatever alphabet soup agency they wanted to call it, he'd found that criminals were a good deal stupider than he'd previously given them credit for. Pulling the closet open, he found it empty except for a pile of boxes for brand new Nintendos and Ghostbuster toys.
Jethro looked over at Mike, but his boss looked just as confused as he did.
"Well, I guess we're going to have to just look someplace else," Mike said, shifting closer to the bathroom.
"Looks like," Jethro agreed before yanked open the door.
"Federal agent! Freeze!" Mike shouted as a whirling dervish wielding a golf club came spinning at them. Jethro barely curbed his instinct to fire, but the sight of a boy not much bigger than his lost Kelly made him retreat rather than engage.
"You snot nosed little heathen," Mike snarled as the club hit him at the wrong angle and his gun flew off into the corner. Mike moved to secure the weapon, and Jethro quickly holstered his own weapon rather than risk another disaster.
"Move," the boy ordered, his dark hair and dark eyes and chubby cheeks not matching up with his fierce tone or the steady grip he kept on his weapon. A boy several years younger stood behind, careful to stay clear of the older boy's swing. Now that was interesting. It took soldiers months to not trip over each other in close combat.
"You need to put that down, son," Jethro said quietly. Kids liked him. He'd always figured it was because they could sense that he wasn't trying to fool them. He was the same man, inside and out... well, except for hunting down the murderer who killed his family and killing him in cold blood.
"Yeah, bite me, mister," the brat answered before taking a swing. In the scuffle that ensued, Jethro hated to admit it, but he nearly lost a fight to two prepubescent kids. One caught him on the side of the knee with the club while the other followed up by throwing some sort of powder at him, making him blind. He had to grope to catch an arm, and then he caught a fist upside his head. If these two were full-sized, Jethro just might have lost the fight. Hell, even half-sized they had a good chance of winning when it was just Jethro. Luckily Mike got his weapon secured and came to the rescue.
"We're not telling you shit," the older one shouted.
"You watch too much television, kid." Mike got a firm hold on the boy, and Jethro was pleased to see that even the older agent looked a little worse for wear. Jethro might be a probie, but these two were little hellions.
“I’m thinking these two aren’t going to give us anything.” Mike grimaced and started down the hall, most likely for a cigarette break. When frustrated, Mike tended to retreat to silence and smoking. Jethro followed his boss, waiting while headed out a side entrance and got a cigarette lit.
“The coroner says we have enough skin for a person, but all the internal organs and bones, and even the flesh is all gone,” Jethro reported.
“Dr. Magnus thought we might use some new test the FBI can run, a DNA Short Tandem Repeat…” Jethro stopped. He hadn’t really caught the rest of it. Well, it wasn’t like the boss kept up on all the technical terms anyway. As for himself, Jethro cared about results, not some fancy names for things. “It can give us a way to definitely link any other body parts we find to this skin.”
“That man just likes to run his fucking tests,” Mike complained. “What good is it to have a fancy test result with nothing to compare it to? I’d rather have fingerprints.”
Jethro nodded. He wished that was an option, but Dr. Magnus said the prints were distorted as though someone had pulled at the skin after ripping it off the victim’s body.
“Did you call Social Services?” Mike asked.
“I’m on it, boss.” Jethro hated turning those two over to the system, but since they hadn’t witnessed anything—at least not anything they were willing to share with the feds—they got turned over to the state. If Jethro could find their father, he planned to kick the man’s ass.
Heading back into the building, Jethro made a beeline for the phone. When something unpleasant had to happen, it was best to do it fast.
“Hey, Gibbs,” Creswell called over the cubical walls.
“Yeah, what do you need?”
“Are those two kids yours?”
Jethro had a flash of pain. His kid was gone. Kelly’s smiling face flashed through his memory, but he brutally shoved the image away. Remembering her wasn’t bringing her back any more than killing Pedro Hernandez had. Besides, Creswell meant the Winchester boys.
“Franks just asked me to call Social Services to pick ‘em up. You need the interrogation room?”
“Well, there’s a problem with that. Kaplan went to take the young one to the bathroom, and he lost the kid.”
“He… what?” Not bothering to wait for an answer, Jethro sprinted for the interrogation rooms. If Sam was gone, he was willing to bet money Dean was too. But they were in the middle of a federal agency. They wouldn’t get far. Hopefully. With these two boys, Jethro wasn’t sure the normal rules applied.
The alley smelled of urine and vomit. Any other child would be complaining—making faces and picking their way around the worst of the gore. Ninety-nine percent of adults would do the same. Instead, Dean stood where he could use the metal dumpster to cover his flank and held the metal pole like a baseball bat. Jethro suspected that if he got too close, Dean would hit him hard enough to disable him. Even though the regs demanded that Jethro pull his weapon, he left his jacket closed and tightened his hold on young Sam.
“Let him go,” Dean warned as he inched forward. It put his foot in the middle of what was either rotting food or the really disturbing fecal matter of someone who needed to go to the hospital. This was not a part of town for children.
“You know I can’t do that.”
“You know I don’t give a flying fuck about your rules,” Dean shot right back. And yes, Jethro was starting to get that impression.
If Jethro pulled his weapon, this wasn’t ending well. If he didn’t, it wasn’t ending well. If he let Sam go, these two boys were going to run back to a life that had left them acting more like child-soldiers than American kids. Jethro narrowed his eyes. Appealing to them as kids hadn’t worked. When Mike offered Sam ice cream, the look of incredulity had been priceless. So, if they were going to act like soldiers, maybe Jethro needed to change his tactics.
“Look soldier,” Jethro started, feeling strange addressing a twelve-year-old that way, but the kid did have the instincts. “You don’t know where your father is.” Jethro threw that out there on a hunch. Dean’s face remained impassive, but Sam’s big eyes pretty much gave it all away. They didn’t know.
“So, you need to find a place to shelter up until you can reconnect with him, right?”
The weariness on Dean’s twelve-year-old face was enough to twist any father’s heart.
“So, you can either take off and try and feed yourselves out here. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of one of the biggest crime sprees the city has seen. Violence, drugs, people killing each other… it’s all at record highs.”
“We can take care of ourselves,” Dean interrupted, but Jethro could see the fears starting to shine through the cracks in his façade.
“You can in normal conditions, but if a DC gang targets you, I’m not sure you can protect yourself and Sam,” Jethro said, shamelessly exploiting Dean’s obvious need to protect his brother. “And you’re out here, alone and exposed, until you can find a way to connect with your father. However, if you come back, you get three hot meals a day and a relatively safe place to stay where the fights are limited to other kids, and I don’t think you’ll have a problem handling yourself there. Your father is still going to try to connect with you. What’s the smart choice here, Dean?”
“Dean?” Sam asked softly. He wanted to come in, but he wanted his brother more. He squirmed in Jethro’s hold, but Jethro didn’t ease his grip on Sam’s arm and shoulder for a second. Given half a chance, these two would still bolt like wild rabbits.
“They’ll split us up.”
“They may,” Jethro agreed. He had the feeling that Dean wouldn’t appreciate empty promises and platitudes. “It’s hard to find a home willing to take in two boys. Sam is more likely to go to a foster home, and you’re more likely to end up in a juvenile facility, especially if you take credit for this little prison break, and I think you plan to do exactly that. However, it won’t change the fact that you will be sheltering up somewhere safer than out here.”
“I want to go with Dean to the facility,” Sam said. Jethro took that as one vote in favor of going back, but Dean seemed to have the authority here, so that’s where Jethro focused.
“I can request that you stay together, but that’s not my call, guys.”
“Yeah, they’ll just shove us anywhere that we won’t get in the way.” The bitterness spoke of experience with the foster care system.
“You only need to use them until you can move on,” Jethro pointed out.
Dean eased back an inch and looked Jethro up and down. “You’re supposed to be telling us that we’d be better off in the system.”
Jethro sighed. He knew what happened in the juvenile system, but he also knew these two were living in dirty hotels and stealing so they could trade for food. “Personally, I do think you’d be better off, but that’s not my call. I don’t know how you live.”
“Considering that you’re the one refusing to tell me how you live, you know that’s true.”
“Yeah, but you’re thinking that you could make everything better for us, that you can save us poor little urchins. Fuck you,” Dean announced grandly. They’d picked up an audience of two winos and a hooker who was out early for a shift. One of the winos started applauding slowly.
“I think if you can’t save yourself, I can’t do anything for you,” Jethro answered honestly. “But I am taking Sam back. Since I’m not willing to fight with you over this, I guess you have to make your own choice.” Jethro waited as Dean seemed to think that one over. If Jethro could only help one boy, that was better than nothing. Besides, Jethro suspected that half the reason Dean was so strident was his fears about not being able to protect his brother. Left on his own, he might come in sooner rather than later.
“Dean, you could get some of that medicine that makes your stomach feel better,” Sam said.
“Shut up,” Dean snapped at the same time Jethro demanded, “What? Why would he need medicine?”
“Sometimes his stomach hurts and he throws up and it comes out all pink,” Sam explained.
“It does not,” Dean protested in the most obvious lie Jethro had seen since Kelly had tried claiming that it wasn’t her who had colored on the living room wall with green crayon.
“Shelter up in the safest place you can find, and gather resources in the most efficient way possible. You know what you should do here, Dean,” Jethro urged him. The kid needed medical attention, which changed this game. Unfortunately, that fact didn’t make Dean any more tractable.
“I’m only doing this so Sam doesn’t have to sleep out here,” Dean said as he took a careful step forward.
Wary of the weapon the kid still held in his hand, Jethro retreated, pulling Sam with him. “Okay then, let’s get back to the car,” he said in his most neutral tone. With a nod, Dean dropped the metal pole. It rattled loudly against the concrete, but decision made, Dean ignored that as he strode past Jethro and Sam and headed for the NCIS car.
Jethro gestured toward the door on the right. "That'll be your bedroom."
"And Sam's," Dean said. He turned to give Jethro a 'don't fuck with me' glare. For a twelve-year-old, he pretty much had it down.
"That's between you two," Jethro said mildly. He wasn't about to start trying to micromanage these two, not when it seemed like their own father had let them do whatever they wanted. Jethro was going to have to go slow enough to keep from sending Dean running in the opposite direction.
"What's that room?" Without waiting for any sort of permission, Dean darted under Jethro's hand as Jethro tried to catch him. Throwing open the door to the old master bedroom, Dean stood looking into it. Shannon's sweater lay on the bed, and the sight of it was enough to make Jethro's heart press into a hard little ball of pain.
"Who stays here?" Dean asked, that edge of challenge in his voice.
Jethro had to take a breath just to avoid snapping. Dean didn't deserve that.
"No one who's coming back," Jethro said. Reaching out, he went to pull the door closed, but the little shit slid into the room before Jethro could stop him.
"You drove her off, huh?" Dean asked with a smirk, and Jethro nearly lost it. He might like kids... he might cut them some slack... but Dean wasn't a kid by any measure other than a yardstick. He was a short adult. A mean, short adult.
However, as Jethro opened his mouth to shout, he saw the flinch, the moment where Dean stiffened his spine to endure what was to come. The gesture cut Jethro off as fast as a civilian walking through his line of fire. Standing in the door of the room he had shared with Shannon, the room where Kelly had crawled between them during thunderstorms, Jethro couldn't yell at a child who had never been given any of that. Taking a breath, Jethro rethought his strategy.
"You know how you don't want to talk about your father? Well, let's make some ground rules. I don't make you talk about your father, and you don't ask about this room and the woman who lived here." Jethro watched as Dean carefully considered that offer with the seriousness of a banker considering interest rates or a sniper taking in the angles.
"Deal," he finally decided, holding out his hand to shake on the matter. Jethro took Dean's hand. Usually when children mimicked that sort of adult gesture, it felt cute, but this was a serious moment between two men, one of whom happened to be twelve.
Dean turned and walked out the room and headed for the one Jethro had indicated. He opened it and stopped cold. "Pink?" he demanded incredulously.
Jethro smiled at the horror. Maybe it was because Shannon and Kelly had repainted the room while Jethro had been overseas, but Jethro had the same reaction. His little girl would always live in her sunny yellow nursery with a bright rainbow painted behind her bed. This bubble-gum pink wasn't his Kelly.
"We can paint it," Jethro offered.
"We aren't going to be here long enough to bother," Dean said, all defenses in place.
"And I would prefer any color you picked over this," Jethro said, and even as he said it, he could see Dean narrow his eyes. Jethro had a feeling he was about to have a shit-brown colored room. Dean wasn't going to make this easy.
Jethro plodded toward the phone. This single father crap was worse than boot camp. Hell, at this rate, he was going to end up apologizing to Jackson for all the shit Jethro had done while growing up before begging the old man to help him out.
"Gibbs," Jethro answered the phone.
"How are they?" an unfamiliar voice asked. Jethro's threat assessment hairs on the back of his neck all stood at attention.
"Depends on who wants to know." If this was social services again, Jethro couldn't afford to piss them off. Dean had the market cornered on that.
"I did my best for them."
Well, shit. It was their no-good father. "Look, you can lie to yourself any way you want, but if you come near me or these boys, I'll have you put in prison."
"I didn't..." There was a pause. "I'm not a murderer."
Jethro sighed. This was not a conversation he wanted to have when Dean and Sam were asleep upstairs. He lowered his voice. "I know you're not. And I know some strange things were going on with Peterson. However, I will arrest for what you did to those boys. Dean has ulcers, you bastard. You might have taken him to a doctor when he said his stomach hurt."
Another pause spoke of John Winchester's guilt. "I didn't know."
"You're their father. You should have."
"I know. I should have done a lot of things. I should have gotten them a dog."
Jethro's guts tightened into a knot. "Are you stalking us? If so, you should know I'm an armed federal agent and I don't particularly like you right now." It would kill Jethro to pull the trigger because that one act would destroy any fragile truce Jethro had managed with those two boys upstairs, but to protect them, he'd do it.
"I had to make sure they were okay."
"The way you did when you abandoned them in a dirty hotel room?"
"You know, they would have escaped any other cop." John sounded strangely proud of that.
"And then Dean would still have his ulcer and Sam would still be so desperate for approval that he pretty much turned to anyone who could give it to him," Jethro shot back. This was feeling like war, and Jethro wasn't losing. Not this time. He'd killed for family before, and he damn well would again.
"That's why I didn't take them out of that school," John said. "When the bus stops outside the school, they always look for me. And I stood behind the coffee shop on the other side, and I thought about it. I wanted to call them to me, because they would have come and you never would have seen them again."
"But I didn't," John cut him off. "I can't stop hunting the thing that killed my wife. I can't. There's too much at stake."
John's voice turned into a low growl. "What would you know about it?"
Every bit of anger that Jethro had ever stored up came raging out. "I killed the monster that took my family. I laid on a hill and I waited until I could blow his brains out. And you know what? My wife is still gone. My little girl is still dead." Jethro did something he rarely did... he shouted out his rage. "You can hunt down every fucking monster and they've still won because the people you love are gone and they stay gone."
Horror stopped Jethro's rant. He looked up to see Dean standing at the top of the stairs.
"They're dead?" Dean asked. "The woman who stayed in that room, she's dead?" Jethro didn't answer. He couldn't answer. Slowly Dean started down the steps and Sam appeared at the top, his wide eyes solemn and fearful.
The truce Jethro had with Dean was too tentative for lies, so when Dean asked if his father was on the phone, Jethro nodded. The world shifted under his feet as he felt the battleground start to shake. But Jethro couldn't win by force. Dean had proven too resistant and defiant and every other word the state child psychiatrist could pin on him. So when Dean held out his hand for the phone, Jethro surrendered it and turned his back. Walking to the front window, he went to look out at the darkened street.
Beowulf snuffed and stuck his nose in Jethro's hand, and Jethro scratched behind the shepherd’s ear. If the boys wanted to take Wulf, Jethro wouldn't stop them any more than he'd stop them from going to their father. Oh, he’d shoot John dead if it meant protecting the boys, but trying to force the boys to stay when they didn’t want to would simply inflict more wounds on two young souls that already carried too damn many.
Dean was making a lot of affirming noises, and Jethro started walling off his heart from the coming pain. He shouldn't have taken them in, not so soon after losing Shannon and Kelly. Maybe there'd be time for a wife and kids later, but right now, his soul was about as raw as an open wound.
"Okay," Dean said. Jethro kept his eyes focused on the street. He didn't need to see Dean smile at the thought of escaping the unreasonable old marine who was forcing them to go to school.
"Dean?" Sam asked softly.
"He said we should stay here."
Jethro whirled around to see both boys standing at the bottom of the stairs with matching confused expressions.
"He's not coming back?" Sam asked softly, and Jethro ached for the boy. As much as Jethro didn't want John Winchester anywhere near his family, he hated the man for not trying to come back. His feelings didn't make sense, even to him.
"He said this was a good place for us, that this last time, it was too close."
Sam chewed on his lip, which was never a good sign. However, Jethro knew enough about the Winchesters to make a few assumptions.
"In war, a soldier can't have someone he loves too close. It's dangerous," Jethro said. "We lose focus. We put ourselves and others at risk. And the more he loves you, the more dangerous it is."
"Is that why he leaves us behind?" Sam's quivering voice begged someone to tell him the pretty lies that would help him chase away the nightmare. The fact was that John Winchester had lost himself to his own need for revenge, but that was a truth for another day. Besides, clearly John did love his children--he loved them enough to leave them, and as a father, Jethro understood the depth of that kind of love.
"Yeah, kiddo, it is." Jethro went over and scooped Sam up, holding him tight and wishing he could do the same with the more prickly Dean. "Your father needs to fight, but he needs to keep you safe, and he doesn't know how to do both. But I shouldn't have woken you up with shouting."
"We weren't sleeping. Dean was showing me pictures of women."
Jethro's eyebrows went up, and when he looked over, Dean was slowly turned a rather shocking shade of red.
"Well, maybe your brother and I can discuss that issue later," Jethro offered, giving Dean a sharp look. Surprisingly, Dean actually ducked his head as though sorry.
For now, though, Jethro just wanted to get his boys upstairs and tucked in. And then he wanted to sit in the dark and have a big drink of bourbon in honor of a father's sacrifice. Tomorrow would be time enough to worry about the rest.
A Father in More than Name Only
“Hey, Dad!” Sam called loudly.
Jethro hesitated. The boys had never called him that, but Sam was waving madly, and Dean looked utterly frustrated. “Sam, Dean. You boys ready to go?” he asked. He’d found with the Winchester boys that when things were strange, you just waited for them to share. Pushing never helped. Of course, you also had to hope that the strangeness didn’t include selkies or werewolves. When Jethro had taken in the boys, he never could have imagined the way they would change his life.
“Jethro,” Dean said when he was close to the truck. “The dork was ready to go an hour ago. Apparently he’s not playing well with others.”
“Boys!” Jethro used the stack of mail he still had in his hand to slap Dean on the back.
Dean mouthed something at Sam that looked a lot like “Pussy.”
“Dean!” Jethro snapped with a little more heat. When people had warned him about the teenage years, Jethro had assumed they were exaggerating. However the second Dean turned fourteen, he seemed to become a profession button pusher. If he ran off to do one more solo hunt, Jetho was going to start chaining the boy to the bed at night. And then Sam. Sam would follow Dean anywhere, and unfortunately that meant that ten year old Sam seemed to be following Dean into adolescence early.
Dean held the door open so Sam could get in the middle. “He didn’t want those other dipshits calling him an orphan.” Dean gave Sam a hard shove as he crawled into the truck. “What does it matter what those idiots think?”
Jethro sighed. Sam did care. No matter how much Dean tried to bully him into being a good little soldier, Sam was always going to have a softness in him, a weakness his brother didn’t have.
“Lay off, Dean,” Jethro told him as he got behind the wheel.
“He shouldn’t care what they think!” Dean complained.
“I can call Jethro ‘Dad’ if I want to,” Sam said, and he was definitely nearing the edge of his emotional control. If Dean kept this up, Sam was going to disintegrate into yelling or crying. While the psychologist called that reaction healthier than Dean’s hard shell, Jethro wasn’t so sure. Some days Sam felt brittle.
“We have a dad, Sammy. Remember him?” Dean’s sharp words made Sam’s eyes go big. Jethro slammed the truck door and looked at his two boys.
“Dean, do you love your dad less than Sam does?” Jethro asked. Yes, it was a little rough, but in the last few years, he’d learned to treat Dean like a man. Every emotion immediately vanished from Dean’s face. “I mean, you’re old enough to remember your mother. So if you love two parents instead of one, does that mean you have less love for your father?”
Dean glowered at him. “Hell no.”
“Language,” Jethro warned him. “So, if your father had been married to another man instead of your mother, would you have loved one less because you loved two men you called father?”
“I get it,” Dean snapped.
“I don’t love Kelly less because I love you two,” Jethro said softly. He still felt a twinge of pain at the loss of his first family, but his second family needed him too much for him to let that pain bury him. He liked to think that Shannon and Kelly were up there looking out for their boys. He could just imagine the way Shannon would smile at them. He cleared his throat and pushed those thoughts away.
“But Sam,” Jethro said firmly, “you don’t let other people’s opinions force you to make decisions. If you want to call me ‘Dad,’ I’m very honored. But if you’re just doing it for those other boys, that means you’re letting them have power over you. Do you really want them to have enough power that they can make you change—make you do things?”
Sam looked up at him with wounded eyes, and Jethro draped his arm over Sam’s shoulders. “Hey, kiddo,” Jethro said softly, “I love you, and your father loves you. You know why he had to leave, but do you think those other kids understand all this stuff?”
Sam shook his head.
“Damn right they don’t understand it. They’re idiots,” Dean offered. “You’re better than them, Sammy.”
Jethro knew when he was ahead, so he decided to change the subject to Dean’s football game the following week. By the time Jethro pulled up in front of the house, he thought the conversation was over. Dean got out and let his brother slide out his door before he slammed it shut. Sammy was already running for the front door when Dean turned and looked right at him.
“Sam doesn’t always see things the right way. Thanks, Dad.”
Before Jethro could gather his thoughts, Dean had turned and was running down the street toward his best friend’s house. He left Jethro leaning against the truck with his chest feeling too tight. Sam might have used that word carelessly, but Dean… He never said anything he didn’t mean. Knowing that Dean saw him as a dad nearly drove Jethro to his knees. They were his boys. They had been for years, but now they understood that.
“Dad, hurry up. I gotta pee!” Sam called.
“Hold your horses,” Jethro said, “I’m coming.”
Tony took the first opportunity to escape his new boss’s gaze. Gibbs unnerved him at times. Worse, Tony tended to get silly when he was unnerved, and he knew he was screwing up with the jokes. Gibbs was probably already wondering why he’d hired some worthless Baltimore cop. A tiny little voice whispered that Tony had been a fool for even taking the job at NCIS.
But he couldn’t stay in Baltimore. Wendy was in Baltimore. Danny Price was in Baltimore. Every damn cop on the force who thought Tony should have stood by his dirty partner and helped him cover his crimes was in Baltimore. So Tony was in D.C. With Gibbs. With Gibbs’ glare.
And with Sciuto.
That woman scared him, and if she informed him one more time that he didn’t do things the way the sainted Stan Burley did, Tony was going to go off on her. Well, he would, only she scared him. And Gibbs looked at her like she was his ten-year-old daughter still in pig-tails. While she was in pig-tails, she was also in a dog collar, spiked arm bands, gothic clothes and fuck-me fishnets. Tony supported a casual workplace environment, but that was taking it a little too far.
Between Gibbs’ grunts and Scuito’s babbling, Tony wasn’t sure how he was supposed to get work done. Oh, he’d figure it out, he always did, but right now he just wanted some time away from the drama.
Tony had chosen a random direction as he set off from NCIS, but the street looked promising with dozens of small shops pressed in close. There weren’t many tourists here, mostly people in business suits, many of whom set off Tony’s ‘cop’ radar.
Tony chose the first coffee shop he found. He wanted something light and sweet that would get him through this afternoon. Tonight he could go home and mentally review the day as he tried to figure out how to handle the new boss. Today’s goal was to get through the day without pissing him off any worse. Good luck with that.
The bell above the door tinkled as Tony pushed into the shop. Several people were already at the counter and more sat at the tables that filled the left side of the shop. Tony took a step to the side and started studying the menu above the coffee bar. Most of the patrons ignored him, but one in particular kept shooting him odd little looks.
He had spiked brown hair and a face that was more pretty than handsome. Tony had heard that about himself more than once. The guy wore a worn brown leather jacket that definitely didn’t match the normal cop attire, but he might be undercover. He had a way of scanning the room that did suggest cop or soldier… or sailor. Lord, let Tony call all people in the military soldiers even once, and the drama that caused was not even funny. How the hell was he supposed to know that an ex-Marine would get that bent out of shape about being called a soldier?
Tony tried to ignore the man who leaned against the counter where little packets of sugar and plastic spoons and napkins were all lined up. Even if the guy was giving him a ‘come hither’ look, Tony didn’t have the time. Besides, he still felt raw from his last relationship, and he knew himself well enough to avoid this sort. This was the sort of man who offered a quick fuck and then vanished, and Tony was all too good at giving his heart away. He tried his best to come off as the playboy—to “fake it” until he “made it” and stopped falling for the wrong people. He tried hard. And now that he was in a new town, he made a resolve to not let someone else dump him at the fucking altar, and this man with his boyish sex appeal was the sort to do exactly that. No thank you. Tony was not biting.
Tony got into line at the register farthest from the man.
With a wicked smile, the stranger pushed off from the counter and strolled toward Tony. “Well, you’re new.” The man with the impish smile gave Tony a lewd look as he took his place behind Tony in line.
Five years ago, Tony would have been all about returning that kind of attention and enjoying a quick fuck up against a wall. Two years ago, he would have led with his heart and gotten it broken. However, he was a new Tony now. He was cocky. In charge. Confident. And this coffee shop was too damn close to his new job at NCIS.
He gave his admirer a cool glance. “Yeah, I am,” Tony agreed without ratcheting up the sexual heat. Too bad, though. This guy was adorable. He had carefully tousled hair that required hours of effort and a lot of mousse. Tony should know. He fought the urge to reach up and make sure his own hair was in place.
However, Tony’s designer suit reminded him to stay in character—to stay focused on the job. He was Tony DiNozzo, straight playboy who didn’t know how to give his heart away. That’s who Gibbs had hired, and that’s who he was getting. Tony wanted it to work at NCIS, and not only because his resume was starting to look like Swiss cheese with a new job every 18 to 24 months. No, he wanted to learn from Gibbs. Tony always liked to learn from the best, and Gibbs was the best.
The guy eyed him up and down and made a strange face with downturned lips. “Okay. So you’re playing hard to get.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think I’m playing at all.” Tony shrugged, feeling this new Playboy DiNozzo settle over him like a new coat. It didn’t quite fit, but it would. Given time, it would.
“Too bad.” The guy gave Tony a sinful grin . “Because I am. I was hoping for someone to play with me.”
Tony was trying so hard to be good, but he couldn’t pass that up. He couldn’t. He hadn’t worn this new personality of his long enough to keep those old desires tucked away. “Maybe you aren’t good enough to play on the same court with me,” Tony challenged him.
The guy’s smile was bright enough to light the sky. “I knew I was going to like you from the time I saw you walking in the door.” he said, offering his hand. “Dean.”
Tony paused. He was screwing up. The new Tony DiNozzo wouldn’t do this, and for a second, he played with the idea of giving the guy a false identity. But the best cover was the one closest to your own reality, so Tony decided to keep it casual with first names only. “Tony,” he offered.
Dean looked him up and down, and Tony fought to keep his body still under the gaze. “Let me guess. You’re a fed.”
A bolt of panic flashed through Tony. This guy was too insightful, but once Tony decided to play, he didn’t run away because of a little danger. “Hey,” Tony said with mock indignation. “My suit is too fine for a federal employee. This is a Brioni—not your most well-known tailor, but a very fine institution.” Tony smoothed his hands over the lapels of his suit jacket.
“That must suck when you have to get in a dumpster to fish out evidence.” Dean’s smirk was firmly in place, so he was pretty damn sure of himself. Tony couldn’t decide if he liked the arrogance—the confidence that made Tony want to know more about this man—or if he was annoyed. Most people fell for Tony’s misdirection and obfuscations.
“You’re making assumptions,” Tony pointed out, doing his best to redirect his verbal sparring partner before the man could make any more insightful guesses. “I am not some FBI flunky.”
Dean stepped closer. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I am making assumptions. For example, I’m assuming you have handcuffs and a gun under that very nicely tailored coat of yours.” Dean spoke in a near whisper, and now Tony knew he was being fucked with. Worse, he liked the game.
“DiNozzo.” Gibbs’ flat voice made Tony whirl around. Shit. Gibbs. Of course his new boss would walk in while Tony flirted his ass off with a man… a younger man. Fuck.
“Boss. Hey, I was getting coffee.” Tony pasted on a big plastic smile.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow without speaking, not that Gibbs was a fount of conversation under the best of circumstance.
“Yeah, he was getting coffee,” Dean chimed in. Tony cringed. Gibbs really wasn’t going to react well to this smart-ass getting in the middle. Nope, Tony had already figured out that the secret to Gibbs was shutting up and fixing whatever you’d screwed up. Of course, shutting up wasn’t all that easy for Tony. And honestly, Tony couldn’t figure out why Gibbs adored Sciuto when the woman never shut up.
Gibbs looked at Tony and then turned his attention to Dean. “He looked like he was about to get something else.”
Tony cleared his throat and tried to redirect Gibbs’ ire back to himself. “Um, no boss, I was just… introducing myself to the locals.” Yeah, as lies went, that one sucked. Gibbs didn’t even bother to answer.
Unfortunately, Dean seemed immune to Gibbs’ stare. “And as one of the locals, I was very interested in having Tony introduce himself.”
Gibbs’ eyebrows went up more. Instead of fleeing for his life, Dean’s smirk got wider. This guy was seriously short a few brain cells because Gibbs was not the man to annoy. As the king of annoying others, Tony had already decided to tone it down around the man, but Dean didn’t even bat an eye.
Dean laughed. “Chill out, Dad. You’re going to get eyestrain,” Dean said before he gave Tony a slow, sensual wink and headed for the door. He even touched Gibbs on the arm as he passed, his hand lingering on Gibbs’ arm, and Gibbs gave Dean that same indulgent smile he always offered Sciuto.
Tony found himself trapped inside the word “dad.” Gibbs was Dean’s dad. Tony had been hitting on Dean. Therefore Tony had been hitting on the son of Gibbs. Or the son of Gibbs was hitting on him. Oh god, this was one of the levels of hell. He’d had a plan… the plan. He was Tony DiNozzo, heterosexual playboy extraordinaire who didn’t know how to give his heart to anyone. What the hell had happened to his plan?
“I—” Tony stopped. What was the correct response when caught flirting with your boss’s son? He saw an unemployment line in his near future. “You… um…”
Gibbs’ warm smile vanished the second Dean left the shop. Now Gibbs considered Tony with that implacable expression Tony had learned to dread. “You have three minutes to get your coffee. We have a body.”
Tony opened his mouth to say something, to apologize, to claim temporary insanity, but before his brain could organize syllables into words, Gibbs had turned and vanished. Abandoning his quest for coffee in favor of trying to save his job, Tony chased after Gibbs ten seconds after the man left.
Outside, Gibbs was in the car, and Tony slid into the passenger side and grabbed for the seatbelt. Riding with Gibbs gave a man a new appreciation for the genius who invented them. And after that scene, Tony expected worse driving than usual. “So,” Tony said slowly as Gibbs quickly accelerated away from the curb. Gibbs barely glanced over.
Tony cleared his throat and tried to plan his way through this conversation. Given how his last plan had gone, he wasn’t sure about the wisdom in that, though. “I didn’t know you had kids,” Tony finally blurted out.
One grunt. That’s all. Just one grunt. Tony was so screwed.
“Boss, I really didn’t mean to… I mean… he’s your son. I would never—”
“Did he look like he needed saving?” Gibbs demanded, cutting Tony off. Tony opened his mouth and then closed it again without answering. What was he supposed to say?
This was so much worse than when he’d been caught dating the daughter of one of the other precinct captains. Tony had managed to step on the military’s homophobia and his boss’s need to protect family all at once. And what was he supposed to say? Yes, Dean needed saving implied Tony was doing something wrong. No, Dean didn’t need saving implied that Tony wanted to let that bit of flirting continue, and given where the conversation had been headed, Tony really did not want to imply that.
Gibbs eventually saved Tony from answering by pointing out, “Dean can take care of himself. He wouldn’t be my son if he couldn’t.”
“That’s true,” Tony agreed. Dean had stood toe to toe with Gibbs, so he definitely didn’t get intimidated easily. “So you aren’t…” Tony let his voice trail off.
A red light forced Gibbs to stop and now he could look over at Tony. “Oh, if you do anything to hurt him, I will eviscerate you and hide the body where no one will ever find you. However, I know my son well enough to know that you’ll never have the chance. Dean is more than able to take care of himself.” Gibbs smiled, and it was a cold, dangerous expression that Tony hoped to never see again. “Oh trust me. You’d be amazed at how well he can take care of himself.” Chuckling like he’d made a joke, Gibbs turned his attention back to the road, and when the light turned green, he floored the accelerator.
Tony grabbed for the suicide handle on his side. Yeah, he was screwed. He just wasn’t sure what sort of screwed. Not yet, anyway. Maybe if he was really lucky, Dean would disappear into the background and Gibbs would let it slide. The problem was that Tony found himself wondering about the man behind that smirk.
The drive was unmercifully long and silent, and as they pulled up beside a park full of police, Tony still wasn’t sure he had a job after today. This was a particularly spectacular screw up on his part. However, a body meant that someone deserved justice and until Gibbs actually fired him, Tony would do his best to bring justice for the victim.
Gibbs slammed on the brake inches from a sign, and Tony’s seatbelt locked up for a second as the motion threw him forward. By the time Tony had gotten his seatbelt unbuckled, Gibbs was out of the car and striding across the park.
It’d been a cold and wet spring, and some of the trees hadn’t yet decided to bloom, giving the park an ugly bareness, even if the green grass and spring flowers had made their appearance. This felt like the scene of a murder. Of course the yellow tape everywhere helped with that impression.
Tony got out and the coronor’s truck pulled in behind them. Gerald offered a quick nod, but Tony trotted after Gibbs.
“… exactly how we found him,” the local cop was saying. Gibbs didn’t even acknowledge having heard. He studied the horizon with such detail that it was easy to believe he’d once been one of the Marine’s top snipers.
“How’d you know he was one of ours?” Tony asked as he looked past the local cops to the body lying beside a park bench. One arm was bent at a grotesque angle, but Tony couldn’t see any uniform and the body was face down which meant the dog tags were probably under the body.
Gibbs flicked Tony a quick look before focusing on the cop.
“Military issue shoes,” the cop said. “After I saw that, I lifted the body enough to spot the dog tags and I called you guys.”
“Good eye,” Gibbs said. Tony blinked in shock. That’s all it took to get a ‘good eye’? Tony had killed himself for a ‘good’ anything, and so far he mostly got head slaps.
“The scene’s all yours Agent Gibbs.” The cop gave a nod and called out to the others standing around. “Let’s clear out. NCIS has the scene.” Without much comment, the local DC cops headed for their cars.
“Huh. I thought they’d fight for jurisdiction,” Tony commented as he followed Gibbs under the yellow tape.
“They know better,” Gibbs commented before headed straight for the body. Tony was on the verge of making a smart-alec comment about every sane being in the universe knowing better than to fight with Gibbs, but Gibbs offered a curt, “Find out where Lieutenant Liber is stationed.”
“On it, boss,” Tony said as he started to turn back to the car.
“After you sketch and get pictures,” Gibbs said. “I’ll bag and tag.” Which translated meant that Gibbs didn’t yet trust Tony to know what was important enough to bag. Yep, this day was going wonderfully.
“Oh my. What do we have here?” Ducky asked as he crossed over the grass, clucking with his tongue as Tony headed back to the car for the camera.
“Ducky, we haven’t processed that piece of ground,” Tony pointed out.
“Yes, we have. There’s nothing there,” Gibbs contradicted him. “We have a body, Duck.”
Tony ducked his head at the rebuke and headed for the car at a good trot. At least Gibbs was curt with everyone, not just him. Ducky didn’t take it personally as he crouched down next to Liber, leaving Gerald to prepare the body bag and stretcher.
“Now Jethro, don’t ask me the impossible as soon as I arrive,” Ducky was saying as Tony returned. Taking Gibbs’ word that the most direct trail was clear, Tony started working the scene clockwise. He would get general area shots first, and then get close ups of any debris Gibbs’ tagged later.
“I need to know time and cause of death.”
“And the young lieutenant is quiet torn up. I cannot answer either of those definitely until we get back to autopsy. The answer does not change if you growl at me more, Jethro. Young Lieutenant Liber died between 1 am and 4 am, and I have no idea which of these various wounds proved fatal.”
Tony glanced down, and the carnage was enough to make his stomach churn. Hell. He’d seen a lot of bodies, but the lieutenant looked like someone had taken a dull chainsaw to much of his upper body. His left shoulder up to his neck looked like raw meat and his left side was completely torn open. Tony was pretty sure he was seeing internal organs through the slices.
“What does that sort of damage?” Tony asked.
Gibbs gave him one indecipherable look and started walking the scene with the numbered markers for collecting evidence.
“That is a good question,” Ducky said. “Something dull inflicted many of these wounds, although a sharp knife was involved for part of the process.” Ducky used a gloved finger to gently probe one of the deep slices. “Human beings have a shocking disregard for their fellow human beings. Gerald, I have learned as much as I can here. Help me place him in the bag.”
“Yes, doctor,” Gerald agreed.
“Gerald, do tend to the hands and feet first. Those require bagging.”
“I left the bags in the truck, doctor. I’ll go get those.” Gerald headed back for the truck.
Tony felt a sympathetic pang. Working under Gibbs or Ducky was hard because the older men never seemed to make mistakes. Tony started photographing the various angles and measuring off distances to add into his sketch of the crime scene. He just wasn’t sure this was their crime scene.
Ducky stood and seemed to take a long time staring at their body.
“What’s wrong, Ducky?” Tony asked, knowing full well that he was risking a full-blown story. While Ducky’s stories might run a little long, Tony really appreciated the fact that one person on the team always had a warm smile for him. The stories were worth the price.
“The poor man had a rather brutal end,” Ducky said sadly.
Tony looked around at the scene. Grass was ripped out of the ground, a sapling had been broken at the base and the small decorative fence around it scattered, and the ground had divots from where rocks had been before someone picked them up and started lobbing them. “Yeah, but where’s the blood?” Tony asked.
“Not as unusual as you might think,” Ducky commented. “We rarely discover how such blood goes missing, but in one remarkable case Jethro and I worked, it turned out there was a truck parked in the middle of the fight. The death blow came in the back of the truck, and the victim bled out in it. Afterwards, the criminal tossed the poor midshipman out like so much garbage. While Jethro found the truck, the perpetrator had taken bleach to the vehicle, so Abby and I could only testify that a large quantity of blood had been in the bed of the truck. We were unable to get genetic testing on any of it due to the degrading effects of bleach.”
Tony let the words flow over him.
“My boy, you do see quite distracted. I know we haven’t known each other long, but if there is something troubling you…”
“Got them,” Gerald said, returning with the special bags used over victims’ hands and feet to prevent evidence from falling off.
“Excellent, yes, quite so. Do get our lieutenant prepared for travel,” Ducky said. Tony worked his way to the north, anxious to avoid any discussion of what might be troubling him. Unfortunately, Ducky followed, leaving Gerald to do the heavy lifting.
“As I was saying,” Ducky said as he followed Tony’s steps precisely. The man knew his way around a crime scene. “If you have some problem troubling you, I find that speaking of it is a sure way to exorcise the demons that haunt you.”
Tony pressed the button so his tape measure snapped back into the casing. “Only my coming case of unemployment,” he said.
Ducky chuckled. “I assure you that Gibbs is unlikely to fire you. Believe it or not, he has warmed to you faster than to any of his other seconds. He only appears gruff.” Ducky patted him on the arm.
“And I only appeared to be flirting with his son,” Tony pointed out. “And in my defense, I didn’t know Gibbs had kids.”
“Oh.” Ducky took a step back. “Given that Sam is heads over heels in love with his young co-ed, I assume you mean Dean.”
“Gibbs has two sons?” Tony found that mildly shocking. It was hard to image Gibbs getting married at all, much less staying married long enough to father two children. From the research Tony did, the man seemed to be a confirmed bachelor, and nothing in the official records had mentioned sons.
“Indeed. He adopted both not long after joining NCIS. Dean has caused more trouble than you can imagine. One Halloween, Dean decided to prove that ghosts were real. The young scallywag broke into NCIS using his father’s credentials and set up an entire mystical trap in my morgue. When I came in the next morning, I was quite startled to find occult symbols drawn on every surface and both Dean and Sam fast asleep on one of the morgue tables. The story Dean made up… the boy has a creative mind that could serve him well in a career such as the arts.” Ducky shook his head and laughed fondly. “I doubt anyone but Jethro could have handled those two, and they really were quite good for him.”
Tony rubbed a hand over his face, but when Gibbs glanced over from the far side of the crime scene, Tony grabbed his camera and started taking shots. Several featured Gerald moving the body onto the black plastic of the body bag, so they were of relatively little investigative use, but doing something was better than having Gibbs accuse him of slacking off. “Well, I don’t think getting caught hitting on the boss’s son is a great career move,” Tony whispered.
Ducky patted him on the arm. “I suspect Gibbs is less concerned than you might think. He’s well acquainted with Dean’s penchant for practical jokes. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if young Dean saw a picture of you in some file and set out to annoy his father by luring you into a date. It would be very in keeping with his love for trouble.” Ducky shook his head. “Every gray hair on his father’s head came from one of Dean’s infamous pranks. I’m afraid even Director Morrow has been subjected to one or two of them.”
Tony wasn’t sure what to think about that, but the stab of disappointment surprised him. He didn’t want to think of Dean treating him like some pawn to push around in some game with his father. And boy was he messed up in the head if he was upset about flirting with Dean and even more upset at the thought that the flirting wasn’t real.
“You’d better have the scene sketched,” Gibbs warned as he walked past.
“On it, boss,” Tony sang out cheerfully. Ducky shook his head, a small smile still on his face before he headed back to the lieutenant.
“I believe those two shall be just fine,” Ducky said far more loudly than really necessary. “They will find who did this to you, lieutenant.” Crouching next to the body, Ducky offered that reassurance and a pat on the arm before he zipped up the body bag. While not as obviously strange as Sciuto, Ducky certainly had his quirks. Gerald didn’t even blink as his boss had a conversation with a dead and mutilated lieutenant.
The whole conversation about families shelved for now, Tony focused on doing the best sketch he’d ever done in his life. As he worked, he kept taking pictures, ignoring the itch on the back of his neck where he could almost feel someone watching. If Gibbs was watching and trying to make up his mind about whether or not to fire Tony, then it was time for Tony to put on a new mask—one of pure efficiency. He could be the best damn second in the world. He just needed time to prove it. Hopefully Ducky was right and Gibbs would chalk that mess in the coffee shop up to one more of Dean’s pranks.
Tony tried really hard to avoid thinking about how much Dean sounded like the sort of man he would like to know. Nope, efficient Tony thought about work and nothing else.
Tony arched his back and stretched. It seemed like very vertebrae in his back popped. If he thought he’d worked hard as a cop, he’d clearly underestimated how hard a human being could work. Well, he had wanted a job that didn’t let him get bored. NCIS fit the bill on that front.
“You’d better have some answers,” Gibbs said as he strode past Tony’s desk.
“Of course, boss. You know I wouldn’t—” Tony closed his mouth when Gibbs turned to glare at him. Swiveling his computer screen around so Gibbs could see it, Tony started pulling up details. “Lieutenant Charles Liber spent three years on USS Carl Vinson and transferred five months ago to the White House Communications Agency, and they seem very unwilling to say what the lieutenant might have been working on. In general, the Agency—” Tony didn’t get to finish because Gibbs started walking away. “Get down to Abby and get the trace results,” Gibbs called over his shoulder as he headed for the stairs up to the big boss’s office.
“Aww, boss.” Tony thought he complained soft enough to avoid being heard, but Gibbs reached the first landing on the stairs and looked down at him.
“You have to learn to play nice at some point, DiNozzo.” With that, he trotted up the rest of the stairs.
For a second, Tony just stared after the man. “Did Gibbs just smile? Was that a smile?” Tony asked a passing agent. The woman gave him an odd look and started walking faster, but that was fine. If Gibbs was telling Tony to learn how to play nice with coworkers, that meant Tony still had a job. Tony’s smile faded as he realized that also meant he had to get test results from Sciuto. The last time he’d been in her lab, she’d offered to test out a piece of evidence on him. Considering that the evidence was a knife and that he was only 90 percent sure she was kidding, he wasn’t looking forward to going back.
Tony made a quick detour to get a Caf-Pow before showing up in the crazy woman’s lab. Even with that ammunition, he felt the first knots of unease the second he heard her pounding music. He couldn’t be the sainted Stan, and he wasn’t sure how to get the woman to stop holding that against him. However, Gibbs had told him to play nice, so he pasted a plastic smile on his face and headed into her domain.
“What did you say to Dean?” she demanded the second Tony walked in the room. Tony froze, not prepared for this particular line of attack.
“Gibbs’ son?” Tony asked, not entirely sure he was following her logic. Sciuto sometimes took some strange verbal detours.
She gave him an exasperated look and hit the button to turn her music off. “How many Deans do you know?”
Tony shrugged. “Dean Martin, James Dean, Dean Jones of Love Bug fame, the classic actor Dean Jagger who made his breakthrough playing Brigham Young in the 1940 classic. He won an Academy Award for Twelve O’Clock High.”
Sciuto crossed her arms over her chest. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because you asked how many Deans I know?” Tony guessed. The more complicated answer was that he definitely didn’t want to talk about Dean Gibbs, not with Sciuto. Tony needed a little time to sort his own feelings, and Sciuto seemed like the sort to stir feelings up.
“Are you trying to be annoying?”
“It’s pretty much a side effect,” Tony said with his most charming smile. Sciuto didn’t look all that charmed. “And why are you asking what I said to Dean Gibbs?”
“Dean Winchester,” Sciuto corrected him. That surprised Tony. It had seemed like Gibbs and Dean were close. They had a certain comfort with each other that Tony associated with affection—not that he and his own father shared a whole lot of affection. Tony had assumed Dean would take his adoptive father’s name, but obviously not. “And I’m asking because he likes you. What did you say?” Sciuto narrowed her eyes like she was trying to stare down a perp.
“Mostly, I didn’t say anything. I stood there with my mouth open as he hit on me,” Tony admitted.
Sciuto’s arms dropped to hang at her sides, and her mouth fell open. “He hit on you?” she demanded, her voice getting high. Tony was starting to take this personally.
“People do occasionally hit on me. I’m attractive.”
“Only in a superficial male model for watches sort of way,” she said dismissively, and Tony had no idea whether to take that as an insult or a compliment.
When Tony couldn’t figure out a response, he returned to their original conversation. “Ducky seems to think the whole thing is some plan to annoy Gibbs.” Tony ignored the little twinge of disappointment he felt at that.
“It’s not,” Sciuto said firmly. “When he wants to annoy Gibbs, he doesn’t drag other people into it. Well, no one except Sam, and siblings don’t count. So it’s not a joke.”
The flash of hope scared Tony. If he got his hopes up, he was going to ruin his life. No way did he want to get involved with some prankster, especially not when that prankster was the boss’s son. There was stupid and then there was too stupid for words. Besides, Tony was usually the goofy one in any relationship. No way did he want to date someone who had Dean’s reputation. “Then why did he hit on me?” Tony demanded angrily. He didn’t want to have this conversation, and he suspected he was taking that out on Scuito.
Scuito gave him the evil eye. “I don’t know, because you’re annoying.”
“So is Dean.”
In a surprising turn of events, Sciuto took a step back and seemed to think about that for a second. “Well that’s true.” She eyed Tony again, but this time, it was a more speculative look that made Tony even more uncomfortable. “Huh. You and Dean.” Her gaze drifted up and down Tony’s body.
“Oh no,” Tony rushed to correct her, “there’s a me and there’s a Dean, there’s not a me and Dean. And unless you have some results, there may not be a me at NCIS at all. Gibbs sent me down here for results, not unfounded speculation. What did you find with the trace from Ducky?”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Gibbs knows you’re going to take a long time.”
“He does? He seems like a ‘get it done fast’ sort of guy.”
“He sent you to me. He knew I would find out what was going on with Dean.” She gave him a sharp, wicked smile. “So, do you like him?”
Deciding to go with intentional misunderstanding, Tony asked, “Gibbs? As a boss?” He shrugged. “Sure. And I’d like to keep from getting fired. So, the trace?”
That earned him a heavy sigh. “Dean. Do you like Dean?”
“I talked to him for thirty seconds.”
“And what about that trace?” Tony tried again. When he’d heard that NCIS had their own forensics specialist, Tony had been so excited. In the police department, he packed up a sample along with the paperwork and sent it off to some lab downtown. If he was lucky, results wandered back to him three weeks later. The idea of being able to take the elevator down to talk to his very own forensics specialist had been like some detective’s wet dream. Only this was less dreamlike and more nightmarish. He just wanted his results.
“Now you’re trying to be annoying,” she accused him in an exasperated tone.
“I can be annoying without trying. Look. I don’t know Dean. I talked to him for thirty seconds, and I don’t have any strong feelings.”
She smiled at him, which was vaguely terrifying. “But that’s okay, because you like Dean, and Dean doesn’t like just anyone, you know.”
“Dr. Sciuto,” Tony said with a sigh.
“Oh please. I do not want you calling me doctor anything. Do you know what kinds of people like to be called doctor?”
“Doctors?” Tony guessed.
“See… you don’t know everything. Stuffy people like to be called doctor. Call me Abby.”
“Abby?” He had definitely fallen down the rabbit hole.
“It’s my name.” She gave him a bright smile, like they were friends, like she hadn’t spent the last four days telling him in detail every single way that Stan had done every single thing better than Tony. Tony opened his mouth and closed it, not even sure he knew how to participate in this particular conversation. Before he could sort out his thoughts, one of the machines chimed. “There!” Abby sang out happily.
“Major Mass Spec.”
Tony blinked. “What?”
“Major Mass Spec has our answer.” Abby danced over to the large machine and started petting it like it was some puppy. “It’s my new baby. I had to beg the director, and I promised to take care of him and feed him and clean up after him. That’s a good Major Mass Spec.”
The woman was insane. Certifiably insane. Tony was starting to wonder if he shouldn’t warn someone that she seemed genuinely unbalanced. “Dr….” Tony stopped when he got the hairy eyeball look. “Abby,” he tried again, “what did the test find?”
“Peaks.” Abby pulled out a paper and showed him exactly that. Peaks. Printed on paper.
“Bromide. Specifically brominated flame retardant.”
Tony waited for the other shoe to drop, but Sciuto just looked at him. “Which is used where?” he finally asked.
“Pretty much everywhere. Well, everywhere commercial, anyway. It gets used anywhere that they need fast fire suppression like plastics production, textile factories, and even here at NCIS. And whoever touched our lieutenant touched a lot of brominated flame retardant. A lot of it.”
Tony felt that nervous tension he always got in his gut when he had a good lead. It was the same feeling he used to get before a game. “That means our bad guy has been somewhere that a building burned down.”
Abby nodded, her pigtails bobbing. “Or where they’ve had a fire anyway.”
Tony looked at her. She was smiling at him. Honestly smiling. Tony prided himself in reading people, and all the distrust and resentment she had radiated earlier had vanished. This woman acted genuinely pleased to have helped him. “Thanks Abby.” Tony said. He tried to communicate just how much he appreciated not only the results but the sudden thaw on the personal front. He didn’t like getting frozen out.
She shrugged. “I still think you’re annoying.” Her smile made it clear she didn’t mind all that much.
“Most of my friends do.”
“Maybe you will be a good fit for Dean. I’m going to reserve judgment on that, though.”
“You’re assuming that I would date a man.”
“You would.” She seemed incredibly confident about that.
“Excuse me?” Tony nearly got indignant about her acting like she knew him; however, he didn’t want to bring back the scary-Abby.
“No stuttering or flailing at the thought of a man hitting on you. That means you’re at least open to a relationship, and that’s a huge point in your favor so don’t screw up by trying to deny it. You’re still on probationary status with me, mister.” She poked a finger at him and then turned away and flipped her music back on. Tony had definitely been dismissed.
Rather than push his luck with scary-lady, Tony left. At least he had some results to report back to Gibbs. After the scare with Dean Winchester, Tony realized that he wanted this job. He wanted it deeply and passionately, and that meant two things. He was going to impress Gibbs and avoid Dean.
Tony was so deep into his research that he didn’t notice Gibbs until the man leaned close enough that Tony could smell him. Whirling around in his chair, he found Gibbs sitting on the edge of Tony’s desk. Gibbs had to lean back to avoid a collision as Tony zipped around in his chair.
“Don’t sneak up on me,” Tony snapped. Gibbs eyebrows went up, but he didn’t comment. Tony barely contained a groan. He’d yelled at the boss—the cranky boss who Tony wanted to impress. Tony felt the heat rise in his face, and he turned back to his computer.
“Don’t apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”
“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with John Wayne. Good movie, boss.”
“It’s rule six, DiNozzo.”
Tony turned. “What are rules one through five?”
“I’ll let you know if you break them.” Tony almost laughed, but he caught himself when he realized Gibbs looked serious. “What do you have?” Gibbs asked.
Focusing back on his computer, Tony sighed. “A lot of not much.”
“Fire reports?” Gibbs leaned closer to the computer.
“Abby found commercial fire suppressant that had been transferred to the lieutenant. My gut says that we’re looking for a burned building or a prankster who set off a fire extinguisher for a joke. Honestly, the guy who sprays a room with fire extinguisher does not seem like the sort of guy who would murder and mutilate a human being. So, I’m following my gut and seeing if something jumps out at me,” Tony said, gesturing toward the list of buildings where the fire department had been called out. “I have six commercial buildings that have been abandoned after fires where the report says that someone attempted to put the fire out on the scene before the department arrived.”
“So these are possible locations,” Gibbs said.
Tony nodded. “If the building is abandoned, no one would be around to clean up the mess. However, even if I’m right, that only means that our suspect walked through one of these six locations before killing our lieutenant.” Tony wanted to ask if Gibbs had found out anything about the White House Communications Agency, but he still wasn’t sure how to read his new boss. The man had a poker face that would make a professional player weep in envy, and Tony was biting his tongue to avoid nervous babbling.
“It’s too late to head out now. We can check out the sites tomorrow,” Gibbs said as he headed for his own desk.
Tony was surprised. Gibbs struck him as a man who didn’t let a lead go cold. “We could hit a couple of them tonight, boss.”
Gibbs took his weapon out of his desk drawer and holstered it. “We’ve had a long day, and it’s dark. We need light if we’re going to poke around dangerous sites like those.”
“We’ll end up falling through a rotted floor and breaking our necks,” Gibbs said firmly. “Go home, DiNozzo.” Gibbs grabbed a file off his desk. “Print that off and drop it on my desk before you go.”
“I could email you.”
“You could, but I wouldn’t read it,” Gibbs said as he headed for the stairs. He hadn’t put on his coat, so he wasn’t leaving yet, and Tony had the uneasy feeling that he was being left out. In Baltimore, he’d ignored the little twinges that sometimes hit him when he’d worked with Danny. If his partner had occasionally wanted privacy for a call or if he’d taken off for lunch, that didn’t mean anything. The man had a right to a little privacy.
And look how well that turned out. Danny had been laundering money and had come within an inch of letting a murderer go to hide his involvement. Tony watched Gibbs trot back up those stairs. He didn’t think Gibbs would ever do anything like that. He didn’t.
He just couldn’t figure out what else was going on. When Gibbs had brought him to NCIS, he’d told Tony that he wouldn’t waste good, and that Tony was good. But now he seemed to be shutting Tony out.
Feeling more and more uncomfortable about the whole situation, Tony printed out two copies of the fire report. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” Tony muttered as he dropped the first copy on Gibbs’ desk. If Gibbs wanted to shut Tony down, then he could give a good reason or deal with it when Tony followed the leads on his own. Besides, the odds of the suspect still being on scene in an abandoned building were next to nothing.
Gibbs was standing on the balcony talking to Director Morrow, and Tony surreptitiously slipped the second copy into his sleeve as he headed for his desk. Holstering his weapon, he called up to Gibbs. “I’m off, boss.”
Gibbs offered a quick nod, and Tony took that as permission.
The NCIS issued cell phone actually managed to find more than two bars of service as Tony drove around town trying to figure out where the first address was. Not only was DC a new area, but the first building seemed to be in a part of town where street signs were either vandalized or missing. Cursing the dark and some people’s habit of defacing signs, Tony finally pulled to the curb behind a fork in the road sign that someone had used black spray paint to turn into a giant phallic symbol.
Grabbing his cheat sheet of radio calls, Tony called his location in to dispatch. As he signed off, he looked at his notebook page with all the important NCIS radio codes transcribed in small neat handwriting, and he flipped to the next page. Counting down five lines, he wrote: Never Apologize.
“It’d be nice if you’d tell me the others,” Tony muttered to himself. Then again, he knew what Gibbs was like when he’d signed on. The man had barged into Tony’s investigation without even a courtesy call for local law enforcement, and he’d had the nerve to figure out that Tony’s partner was guilty after knowing him less than whole week. Almost two years—that’s how long Tony had known Danny. That’s how long it took him to figure out Danny was dirty, and it took Gibbs less than a week. That galled him.
But as much as Gibbs annoyed Tony, and he did, Tony wanted to learn how the man did it. Tony knew he was a good investigator, but he wasn’t a great one. Gibbs could teach him to be great. The problem was Tony wouldn’t learn much if Gibbs sidelined him.
“Time to make the donuts,” Tony told himself firmly as he faced the first abandoned building. Turning on his flashlight, he swept the front of the old factory where chunks of blackened wood and fast food garbage with bright red and yellow logos created a weird landscape.
Two hours later, Tony was ready to call himself a fool as he parked in front of his third building. The good news was that Tony had cleared those buildings. As Tony walked, his shoes scuffed the dust and soot that had settled onto the floors, so Tony was fairly sure that their perp hadn’t gone through those sites. However, as Tony called dispatch with his location, Tony was starting to worry. He worried that his lead was worthless. He worried that Gibbs would check with dispatch and figure out that Tony had ignored his orders. He worried that he really might fall through some fire-rotted floor. The way his night was going, the odds were pretty good.
This place was an old meat packing plant. Tony swept his flashlight over the blackened brick walls, and a shiver went up his spine.
“Too many horror movies,” Tony told himself as he headed for the front door where a padlock held plywood over the doors. Tony had pulled out his lockpicks before he noticed that the lock dangled from one side of the chain. The door wasn’t locked.
Shoving his picks in his pocket, Tony pulled out his weapon and aimed it at the door. A kid might have gotten the lock off. This could be a coincidence. The problem was that Tony didn’t believe in coincidence. He also didn’t believe in going into a potential crime scene without backup.
Tony eased his way away from the door, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.
“Another of you.” Tony whirled to find a man with a small, sharp face looking at him. Whoever this guy was, he was definitely not firing on all cylinders. He had his head cocked to one side, and he had the alien body language of an escapee from the insane asylum.
“Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, NCIS. Step back,” Tony said, raising his weapon. The beam from the flashlight made the man’s eyes seem to flicker yellow and he cocked his head to the opposite side as he looked Tony up and down.
“A failed protector. Where were you?”
Tony decided to try talking the guy down. “When? I just moved to DC. New city, new sights, new people. I’m all about meeting new people. So who are you?”
“You let her die,” the man said, completely ignoring Tony’s words. This was definitely not good.
“I have never let anyone die. I try to protect everyone.”
“Trying isn’t enough.” Before Tony could come up with a response, the man moved with inhuman speed, knocking Tony onto his back. The flashlight spun off into the darkness sending the beam off in dizzying circles. Tony fired, but the man’s weight pressed the gun down so it hit somewhere in the perp’s gut, and it didn’t seem to slow him down. Drugs would explain that.
Tony drove his hand up under the guy’s chin hard, and it sounded like the bastard growled, and then Tony saw something flash in front of his face, and it looked suspiciously like a werewolf costume with long claws. Something hot burned into Tony’s side, and then the blast of a shotgun nearly deafened Tony.
Fear gave Tony the strength to shove the guy off, and Tony scrambled backwards, toward the burned building. It took his common sense a second or two to realize that he hadn’t spotted the gunman. Putting his back to a brick wall, Tony scanned the area. His flashlight cast a cone of light and the crazy guy stood at the edge of it, swaying from side to side. A spear of light from a flashlight came through the open door. Tony pointed his weapon that way even though the shooter seemed to be on the same side. Appearances could be deceptive.
Tony blinked as his brain tried to process what he was seeing. Dean Winchester fired off another shot from his shotgun, pumping a new round into the chamber before he stopped and gave Tony a wink.
“Dean!” came an entirely too familiar voice.
The crazy guy screamed and started running forward. Dean fired again, but the guy barely paused. Sidestepping to a point near Tony, Gibbs came out of the door. Dean kept his flashlight on charging crazy guy, and Gibbs brought his hand up, flicking it out so that something glimmered in the low light, and then a heavy thunk suggested something hit the perp. Gibbs came out and scanned the area.
“DiNozzo, don’t point a weapon at my son.”
Tony’s brain restarted, and he realized he still had his gun pointed at Dean. Feeling that odd disconnect that usually meant he was trapped inside a dream, Tony lowered his weapon.
“Check the area.” Tony thought Gibbs meant him, but Dean leaped down from the stairs and started trotting off to the north, and when Tony tried to follow, Gibbs reached out and caught Tony’s arm.
“Hold on there.”
“We have to call this in.” Tony reached for his phone, but Gibbs plucked it out of his hand. Blinking, Tony tried to figure out what the hell was going on. They had a perp down. They needed a bus. They needed backup. They needed a really good story for why Gibbs’ son had shown up on scene for an NCIS shooting.
“No, we don’t,” Gibbs said firmly.
“Tony, look at him,” Gibbs said, gesturing toward the body. Tony looked at the perp and then Gibbs and back. Sighing, Gibbs went over and picked up Tony’s fallen flashlight. He directed it at the body, and Tony sucked in a started breath as the body’s open eyes flashed brilliant yellow. That was not normal. Neither were the hands.
Moving closer to the body, Tony crouched down to touch the long claws that came out of the fingers. Turning the hand over, he could see that they grew out of the actual finger. They weren’t applied to the hands like a costume.
“That’s impossible.” Tony tugged at a claw, but it didn’t detach.
“We’re clear,” Dean said as he trotted up to them.
Tony stood. “Clear? Nothing’s clear.”
Gibbs grunted as he started going through the perps’s pockets. He couldn’t do that until Ducky cleared the body, but then again, they hadn’t’ called Ducky, so that wasn’t going to happen. Tony had definitely fallen down a rabbit hole.
“It’s a kitsune,” Dean offered.
“A kit what?” Tony finally holstered his weapon.
“A kitsune. They’re monsters.”
“Monsters,” Tony echoed. Dean’s joke was wearing thin.
“What did he say to you, DiNozzo?” Gibbs stood up and shoved something from the dead guy’s pocket into his own pocket. No gloves, no evidence bags, no pictures. This was definitely not the way to handle a crime scene.
“He called me a failed protector… said that I let someone die.”
“Crap.” Gibbs rubbed a hand over his face and reached down to pull a knife out of the guy’s chest. “Never go anywhere without a knife, Tony. You could have shot the guy a hundred times and not stopped him.”
Tony blinked, not really able to process that thought, but when he looked down, he could see two red blotches from bullet wounds. They guy hadn’t been wearing a vest. He had injuries, but they hadn’t even slowed him. The thought of injuries made Tony aware of the pinpricks of pain all over his body. He rubbed his one arm.
“Don’t worry, it’s rocksalt,” Dean offered. “It’ll sting for a while, but as long as you aren’t a ghost, it won’t do much harm.”
“Tell your brother that,” Gibbs said dryly.
Dean leaned closer and shared a conspiratorial whisper with Tony. “If you shoot a snoopy little brother in the ass, it will make for a vicious looking rash.”
Gibbs turned to grace Dean with a cold glare, but Tony was stuck on one word.
Dean grinned at him. “Ghosts… kitsune… vampires and werewolves… you know, monsters.”
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” Tony pinched his arm.
“I don’t know. Do you dream of me?” Dean gave a wiggle of his eyebrows and his ass.
“Your father is right there.” Horror was quickly making Tony wonder if he could get his old job in Baltimore back. Working around backstabbing partners and cheating fiancées had to be better than this.
“Dad, do you think he dreams of me?” Dean asked cheerfully, which was feeling disturbing considering the burned out building and dead body. This was definitely not the right place for cheerful.
“Knock it off, Dean. And don’t call kitsune monsters. They’re creatures who can turn into monsters under certain circumstances.” Gibbs gave Dean a silent glower of warning so intense that made Tony want to apologize, and he hadn’t done anything wrong. Gibbs had a scary dad-glare. Then Gibbs turned his attention to Tony.
“DiNozzo, I didn’t mean for you to find this out. I thought you’d be at home unpacking.”
Tony blinked as his brain slowly reengaged. “Wait. You thought I’d be at home, so you were hunting this thing alone? You knew there was a monster out here, and you didn’t take backup?”
“What am I? Chopped liver?” Dean demanded.
“Oh god. You took your son. You knew there was a monster out here, and you took your son as backup.” Tony felt ill.
Dean punched Tony’s arm. “Hey, I was hunting before Dad found out that monsters even existed. I’m adopted.”
“I’m in hell,” Tony whispered.
“You’re in D.C.,” Gibbs corrected him. “Let’s get you back to the house and get some bourbon in you before the shock sets in too much.”
A weak laugh slipped out of Tony. “Too late.”
“You’re young. You’ll recover,” Gibbs said without much sympathy. “Dean, do you want to help with Tony or take care of the body?”
“I’ll take Tony.” Dean leaned close. “Any time I can avoid body duty, I’m all for it,” he whispered.
Tony’s gut sank as he realized the logical conclusion to this scene. Gibbs was covering up the shooting. He was hiding the body. “I can’t…” Tony stopped, not sure how to end the thought.
“I have it, DiNozzo. Get back to the house. Dean, grab DiNozzo’s keys, and I’ll drive his car.”
Dean gave a little eyebrow wiggle before he reached for Tony’s pocket, but Tony took a step back.
“I’m not leaving you to clean this up.”
Gibbs gave him an amused look. “It’s not my first body, DiNozzo. I’m fine.”
Tony took a deep breath. He truly did not want to get into a pissing match with Gibbs, but he was not going to roll over for another dirty partner. “First, I’m your partner. I’m not leaving you.” Tony set his jaw as he faced off against Gibbs. “You may be the senior partner, but it’s my job to have your six.” Gibbs looked mildly surprised. “Second, unless you start explaining right now, I’m calling dispatch and having them send a unit to clear the scene since we were both involved in the shooting.” Tony waited as Gibbs stared at him, and the longer the silence went, the more he was afraid that he had just truly fucked up. He just didn’t know whether he’d fucked up a job or fucked up and put his life in danger because he was suddenly very aware of just how isolated he was in this industrial area of town with only Gibbs and Gibbs’ son as witnesses.