"Why are you here, McGee?" Ziva asked as she eased into one of the elegant wooden chairs surrounding her dining room table. According to protocol, she and McGee had cleared her apartment, making sure there were no surprises left for them by an unknown assailant. Even though McGee was relatively sure he was no longer in danger, Ziva was taking no chances with his life.
McGee looked slightly confused. "You asked me to fix your electrical system."
"No, I mean, why are you still alive? Do not take this the wrong way, but if this would have been my mission, I would have not left Tony or you alive."
"Well that's nice to hear," Tim scowled.
"It is the truth, McGee. You two are collateral damage."
"You know what this means, right Ziva?" McGee asked with a grin.
A genuine smile lit up Ziva's face as she pulled two chairs away from the table, arranging them so they were facing each other.
"Campfire," she replied as if it were the most obvious answer in the world.
Ten minutes later, both of them were hunched over with their elbows on their knees, resting their heads in their hands in almost a perfect Thinker pose, as they continued to conjecture why Tony and Tim had been left alive.
"They knew Tony got solid looks at both of them and could identify them if this case ever went to court…"
"And yet, they chose not to kill you. Why?"
"They shot Carson twice execution style then set her on fire," McGee spoke up after a long moment. "Clearly we weren't the targets, just two people in the way of a mission."
"But they had to have known the fire would spread. Even if wanted the two of you to live, they could not guarantee you would wake up before the house collapsed."
"Let's continue to assume we were meant to survive the fire," McGee suggested, "Why? What advantage does that bring?"
"Maybe they were sure they would never be convicted."
"But we got solid looks at both of them, and they both have records. They had to have known we'd identify them."
"I didn't say they were sure they wouldn't be identified, I said they were sure they wouldn't be convicted."
"But they couldn't have known that going into the heist so why take that chance?"
They sat in an uncomfortable silence, trying to figure out what advantage Talbot and Fries gained by leaving Tim and Tony alive.
"This may be unpleasant, but let us assume you were meant to die," Ziva suggested after a moment, watching McGee's face contort into a wince. "Why do I leave the fire to kill you? Why don't I just shoot you as well as Carson?"
McGee paused to consider. "I'm back to the fact that Tony and I weren't the targets, but then why did they bother waiting until she was in custody?"
"Maybe they couldn't locate her."
"Okay, okay," McGee's voice rose as the pieces began fitting together. "Try this on for size. There was more to Petty Officer Jackson's murder, something we haven't found yet and Carson knew about it. She ran to escape Iniguez and his men. I mean, she pretty much disappeared, we wouldn't even have found her if that clerk had not been aspiring to be an FBI agent."
"So they have someone in the law enforcement agency who passed on the information about her protection detail," Ziva surmised. "That would not be surprising for someone with Iniguez' power."
"They waited until she was out of custody and went to take her out."
"To send a message to all those who wanted to talk about Iniguez' work?"
"I don't know, Ziva." McGee groaned, resting his head in his palms. "Right now, I'm just glad I'm alive – whatever the reason, I owe Talbot and Fries a big thank you note, but maybe we should worry less about the "why" and a little more about the "how" as in, how are we going to catch them?"
McGee glanced upwards to see Ziva staring curiously at him.
"I'm sorry, Ziva. That was uncalled for. It's just…all this thinking is making my head hurt."
"I will make us something to eat," she said, getting up from the table. "Then you can fix my electrical system so we can brain freeze without interruption."
Before McGee could correct her, the Israeli had disappeared out of the dining room. He knew it would be polite to offer his help with the food preparation, but he couldn't find the internal strength to raise himself from the table. So he sat, staring at the blank wall, rubbing his eyes viciously, trying to physically force the headache away while pots and pans clattered and crashed together in the other room.
If only Tim had known there was a Winchester rifle pointed at the back of his head and the man fingering the trigger, ready to end his life, maybe he would have followed Ziva into the kitchen, but he remained seated and blissfully unaware.
Then, without warning, darkness spread throughout the room.
"This is what I am talking about, McGee!" Ziva hissed as she reentered the room. She managed to navigate the tight quarters without colliding with any furniture and located a flashlight in the end table.
"Okay, Ziva," McGee muttered as he got up from the table, wincing as the movement aggravated his headache. "I'll take a look."
Damn, Talbot swore as he lost sight of McGee in the darkness. Of all the days for there to be a problem with the power grid!
He waited patiently for the lights to come back on, for even a man with his skill could not take out a target through a crack in the blinds without night vision goggles. He shifted positions frequently, trying to regain a lock on his target, for over an hour without any success. When he glanced back up at the Pretty Pretty Princess clock, the day had long since faded away and the night was making it increasingly difficult to see his hand three feet in front of his face.
Sighing heavily, he pulled a walkie talkie from his pocket.
"Boss, we've got a problem."
"That was the one phrase I specifically stated I wanted never to hear again," a cultured voice rang over the static.
"I've lost sight of the target," Talbot muttered quietly.
"You idiot! You were not following the plan!"
"I'm sorry boss," Talbot whined, "How was I supposed to know they would have a power outage?"
"You need to fix this Talbot. Our window of opportunity is closing quickly. We need to see results within the next twenty-four hours!"
"What do you want me to do, boss?"
There was a long silence on the line. "Use your imagination."
"Yes, sir," Talbot declared as the line clicked off. He lovingly stripped his rifle and carefully placed the pieces into his carrying case before wiping his fingerprints off the window ledge.
He left the way he had come, through the front door, leaving no trace of his presence in the home.
A feral grin crossed his features as he slipped into the pedestrian traffic, just another person walking home from work. He had always liked his plan better: it was substantially more fun than his boss's and it guaranteed that neither McGee nor DiNozzo would ever be returning home.
Gibbs exited the NCIS elevator onto the bottom floor, nodding once at the security guard who manned the metal detector.
It had come to the hour when he could no longer read the information that was flashing on his monitor. Abby had danced into the room, pulled the plug on his desk lamp and threatened to burn down his newest boat unless he had showered, caught a few hours of sleep, and grabbed something to eat. Then, she had sealed the deal by making him pinky-promise he would abide by the aforementioned conditions.
And deep within Gibbs knew the scientist was right. He was of no use to DiNozzo and McGee if he couldn't be alert enough to hone in on a small detail that would reveal a viable clue. Before he tended to his own health though, he had made plans to stop by DiNozzo's apartment on the way home to ensure that Sacks was watching his agent very closely as well as seeing how DiNozzo was holding up before returning to NCIS, showered in the decontamination wing and caught 40 on one of Ducky's empty autopsy tables or on Abby's futon. The last choice was becoming the most viable option since it ensured he wouldn't be receiving a phone call in half an hour asking if he was asleep yet.
Static cracked over the police scanner as Gibbs made his way to the exit. "That's negative, Dispatch. No backup needed. Repeat, no backup needed. Just some kid claiming a federal witness was shot."
"Not a teenager. A federal agent, actually."
"NCIS. Name's DiNosio or something like that."
Gibbs spun around and snatched the receiver from the guard's belt, ignoring his cries of protest.
"Status of Special Agent DiNozzo," Gibbs demanded.
"Who wants to know?" the suave cop asked suspiciously.
"His boss," Gibbs responded, glaring into the handset.
"Cool your jets, pops," the suave cop replied, nonplussed by Gibbs' demanding tone. "DiNosy's fine. Not injured in the slightest," he added with a hearty guffaw.
"Address!" Gibbs grabbed a notepad from the security guard's breast pocket and scrawled down the location before chucking both the notepad and the handset back at the night guard.
As he accelerated away from the NCIS lot, he pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed Ziva.
"DiNozzo's in trouble," he snapped as he swerved to avoid a slow-moving pickup.
"Red Line terminal. Leave McGee at NCIS with Abby," Gibbs ordered before slamming the phone shut and flooring the sedan.
Gibbs' blood ran cold as he pulled up to the scene to find none other than DiNozzo sitting in the back of an ambulance, wrapped tightly in an emergency blanket as if the fabric was the only thing keeping him safe. Metro cops milled around, taping off the gaping hole in the empty storefront.
DiNozzo looked terrible. His face was unnaturally pale still and judging by the way his clothes hung loosely on his frame, he had lost more than a few pounds during his hospital stay. Light stubble peppered his jawline, which only served to sharply contrast his sheet-white complexion. What were you doing here, Tony? Gibbs thought as he observed his Senior Field Agent. And where the hell is Keenan?
His agent was half-heartedly engaged in conversation with a blond EMT, and since he wasn't in a gurney, Gibbs hoped his agent wasn't hiding a deeper, more serious injury. He slammed the car door closed and stormed over to the ambulance.
Without addressing DiNozzo, he turned to the EMT who was hovering just outside the ambulance door. "He okay?"
"He is fine," Tony replied quickly before the peppy EMT could open her mouth.
Gibbs turned his gaze to the Italian who unhappily leaned back against the side of the ambulance in surrender.
"He popped a few of his stitches — we already sewed him back up though. In a few days, he should be as good as new," the bubbly technician elaborated.
"We should hope so," Tony muttered.
"What the hell were you doing here?" Gibbs demanded, having discerned that for the moment at least, his agent had received no serious injuries.
"Keenan called. Said he had important information about the Jackson case. Told me to come alone," Tony recited without any emotion or enthusiasm.
"And you did?"
"Well, ye-ah. I'm here, aren't I?" Tony recoiled slightly as Gibbs fixed him with a signature glare. "I didn't want to inconvenience you in case he was lying," he mumbled softly.
"Tony." Gibbs' heart nearly broke at his agent's words. "I'd rather be here than figuring out how I'm gonna get my boat out of the basement."
A small smile crossed Tony's face. "He dragged me into the store and was about to tell me something when shots were fired. We took cover, and I pulled my gun, but the shooter was gone. Never got a look at him. Keenan was hit in the left shoulder. I fixed him up as best I could then went to call for help."
"Where is Keenan now?" Gibbs coached, seeing his agent was hesitant to continue.
"Whaddya mean you 'dunno'?"
"When I got back he was gone. I couldn't have been gone for more than a few minutes, but…" Tony trailed off, not knowing quite how to finish his statement.
Gibbs turned to the EMT. "What's he not telling me?"
The EMT sighed heavily. "There's no sign there was anyone else in that alley. Not now or in the past few days."
Concerned that Tony's condition was worse than he had previously thought, Gibbs reached over and placed his hand on the side of DiNozzo's face, gently lifting his upper eyelid and checking for a reaction, just as he had done with McGee earlier. Tony's pupils didn't react as fast as he would have liked, but there were no signs of concussion. If his team kept this selfless behavior up, Gibbs would be forced to enact a new rule about self-preservation, one that superseded all the rest.
Surprised by his boss' gesture, Tony was unprepared to shift before his boss made a second diagnosis. He vainly pulled away, but not before Gibbs caught a whiff of alcohol on Tony's breath.
"Have you been drinking?" Gibbs asked, suspicion creeping into his tone.
Tony waved his boss away. "That's not important! I didn't make this all up! Keenan was here!"
"You were drink—" Gibbs stopped as the EMT placed her hand on his shoulder, her gaze telling him that this was neither the time nor the place for this argument.
"You were drinking while on painkillers?" Gibbs hissed, his voice lower, feeling anger seeping into his veins at his agent's blatant disregard for his own personal health. He forced himself to breath, knowing his anger stemmed from deep concern for his Senior Field Agent as well as his inability to keep his own emotions at bay when one of his agents was injured.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the NCIS van arrive on scene and concerned agents and medical examiners pile from its interior. He spared a moment to wonder why McGee, Ducky and Palmer were also here, especially when he had given Ziva specific instructions to leave the younger agent at NCIS Headquarters, but his query was cut short when his second-in-command spoke up again.
"Not on painkillers."
"You're not on painkillers?" Gibbs asked incredulously.
"Didn't need 'em," Tony replied quietly, not wanting to further upset his boss.
Gibbs stared at his agent for a long moment, trying to keep his rage under control. Tony may have been blaming himself for Carson's death, but that was no reason to be stupid with his own health. He had almost died that day as well, but that little fact hadn't seemed to register with his agent. All DiNozzo cared about was the other people around him, and while that quality was commendable, it was about time he got a new worldview, one where he was just as important, if not more so, than those he protected on a daily basis.
The nurse was right, though. Given Tony's current condition, this was neither the time nor place for an intervention. That didn't mean his agent was getting off the hook easy, though. Tony was coming over to Gibbs' house, where he would be taking at least one, maybe two cold showers, and chugging a gallon of coffee until he was coherent enough to answer a few serious questions about his decisions for the last few days.
"Let's go, DiNozzo," Gibbs gently grasped Tony's bicep and began helping him out of the ambulance.
"No!" Tony ripped his arm out of Gibbs' grasp, grabbing the side of the ambulance as the world tilted dangerously and a strong tingling sensation radiated through his torso and into his limbs.
As he regained his equilibrium, he felt Gibbs place an arm on his shoulder, but he shrugged his boss away. "You need to look at the scene! Keenan was here, boss, I swear!"
"Let's just get you home, DiNozzo."
"If you believe me, then why the hell aren't you doing anything about it? Was it because you know I screwed up the other day? Is that it?"
If Gibbs had been an emotional man, his mouth just might have dropped open, but being the functional mute that he was, Gibbs continued to stare evenly at his second-in-command, his face deceptively blank, while his mind raced to comprehend the leap in logic Tony had just taken.
"You didn't screw up, Tony."
"Then why aren't you taking charge of this crime scene?"
"You're hurt, DiNozzo. Right now that's my priority."
"I'm not hurt!"
This was getting ridiculous. The man who was shot only three days ago was parading around trying to protect his team, when he really should be thinking of his own health. He was spiraling out of control, coming out here without backup, drinking after being shot, and who knows what else. His actions were only going to get him killed and Gibbs was not going to stand by while Tony destroyed his life. DiNozzo needed an intervention, and if Gibbs needed to be a bastard to do it, so be it.
"You mean to tell me, this—" Gibbs reached out and patted Tony's side, with a touch more force than absolutely necessary, not enough to cause any damage but enough to drag his agent back to reality, "doesn't hurt?"
Fire lanced through Tony's side, but he kept his face impassive. He shrugged off the thick emergency blanket, pushed away from the ambulance and parked himself across from his boss, arms crossed defiantly and jaw set.
"Not a bit," he gritted through clenched teeth.
"Oh, so you're fine then. Ready to come back to work tomorrow?"
"Jethro," Ducky placed his hand on the Lead Agent's bicep. "This is not the—"
"Its fine, Ducky," Tony interrupted. "Gibbs has something to say to me, he's more than welcome…Now's as good a time as any," he added with a slight shoulder shrug, trying to impart to Gibbs he had more important places to be.
What the hell was wrong with him? Gibbs was here, being nice to him. He should be glad, for the time being, and just go with it. Why was he intentionally baiting his boss? Did he want Gibbs to be angry with him? And yet, though Tony knew he was acting strangely, he felt powerless to change his demeanor.
"So what, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked, mild irritation laced in his tone. "You feel fine, but you stay home, drinking beer while a murderer's on the loose?"
"What the hell are you implying?" Tony hissed, involuntarily clenching his fists at his sides.
"I'm not implying anything," Gibbs took a step back in mock surrender. "I'm just confused how a guy too sick to work can run around the city endangering his life."
Tony's expression hardened. "Rule 18."
"Rule 15," Gibbs returned, sticking his nose so close to Tony's that they were practically touching.
"And just who did you want me to ask?" Tony bristled, his tone dripping with disdain.
"Me! McGee! Ziva! Sacks!"
"Oh Sacks?" Tony let out a humorless laugh. "The guy who arrested me for murder? Multiple times? That's rich, Gibbs."
"He's the best in the FBI!" Gibbs deflected, struggling to control the argument before this turned into a situation they were both going to regret. Tony had always been one who pushed back with momentum enough to match Gibbs' own when the Lead Agent was living up to his reputation, but tonight, even the Gibbs' gut couldn't have predicted that Tony was going to wear his heart on his sleeve for all to see. It was very uncharacteristic for the former cop and Gibbs was left wondering for the second time tonight if there was something else wrong with his agent.
"Hate to see the worst," Tony returned.
"It's better than going off alone!"
Tony really couldn't explain what happened next, but something within him snapped. Rage like he had never known before coursed through his veins to the point where he was almost literally seeing red. Gibbs did crazy shit like this all the time and he had never questioned his boss once; each time he'd allowed his boss to leave without any idea where he was going or if he'd ever return. Now, he, Tony DiNozzo, former cop, and all-around good guy,wanted to help out a witness to ensure that Iniguez went away for life and his boss had the gall to reprimand him…no, not today.
"Oh really Gibbs?" Tony's expression changed and his face took on one of feigned innocence. "Like you called someone when you went to visit Ari at that restaurant?"
"Careful, DiNozzo," Gibbs growled but Tony continued as if his boss hadn't spoken.
"Like when Maddie was being held for ransom? Like when any one of your old Marine buddies call?" With each example, his voice increased in volume until he was practically shouting at his mentor who stood merely inches away.
"Tony—" Ziva cut in, blinking in surprise at her partner's harsh words.
"Back off, Ziva," Tony snapped.
"Stand down! Both of you!" Ducky intervened, stepping between the two arguing men and shooting each a pointed look. "This—"
"Like when you went to Mexico to avenge your family's death?" Tony spat at his boss over Ducky's shoulder.
Gibbs opened and closed his mouth once or twice before his anger waned enough for him to speak. Tony may have been injured, but he had gone too far; he'd brought Shannon and Kelly into the disagreement. Tony knew there was a damn good reason he'd dealt with the situation by himself and, now, he had crossed the unthinkable line. That was insubordination at its finest, so while the father in Gibbs knew that this may not have been the best place for the reprimand, the Marine was screaming that this needed to be dealt with. After what Tony had just said, this was not going to end well regardless of how hard Gibbs tried to keep it civil.
"What's this all about DiNozzo? Wish you'd were lying in Autopsy instead of Carson so you wouldn't have to deal with her death?" Gibbs seethed, practically spitting with fury.
At what point would Tony finally realize that he was important, that people needed him around? Didn't he know that people didn't talk about his time on the Seahawk for a reason?
"Guess what? It didn't happen — ya didn't die. Now you can deal with it and find her killer, or stay home wallowing in pity. People die; we move on. That's how it works."
Tony sidestepped the elderly ME and stood in Gibbs' personal space, his eyes flashing. "You're. A. Bastard."
"And how's that working out for you?"
"Great…until some big city detective tried to follow in my footsteps."
Gibbs regretted the words the moment they left his mouth, knowing he had gone too far.
Tony stepped back, his face contorted in a wince, Gibbs' words striking him as physically as a slap to the face. He tightened his fists until his knuckles turned white, struggling to keep himself from striking the man he trusted on a daily basis with his life.
Gibbs stood in silence, watching the emotions play across his agent's face, watching as Tony just stood silently, shaking his head in regret as if he somehow knew a day like this would come, watching the fist move slightly forward before Tony pulled it back.
Tony may have spoken out in anger, but Gibbs had reciprocated, ending up saying a sentence he truly didn't mean. The only way forward was to convince DiNozzo he was at fault.
"Sure, sure," Tony drawled sarcastically. "The truth finally comes out! Yeah, 'it's good job Tony', 'you're irreplaceable DiNozzo', 'you're doing a helluva job Anthony' a few select times, but now I know how you really feel! How does it feel having that off your chest after all these years Gibbs? Do you feel relieved? The charade is over, the man behind the curtain has been revealed!"
"Tony," McGee piped up.
"Shut it, McGee," Tony snarled.
"That's not what I—" Gibbs began again.
"Don't, Gibbs. Tell you what? You want me off your team? Wish granted," Tony fumed. "I'll be out of your hair," he paused, putting his hand to his chin in a melodramatic contemplation, "or what's left of it—as soon as Iniguez gets the needle."
"Save it for someone who still cares what you think," Tony finished softly, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Tony, that wasn't what I meant," Gibbs spoke quickly in order to fit his sentence into one of Tony's breaks.
"Sure it wasn't," Tony replied, deep hurt prevalent in his green eyes. "But that doesn't change the outcome. I'm still retiring from NCIS. Consider this my two weeks notice."
With that, he stomped away, leaving Metro, the EMTs, and his former team staring slack-jawed at his retreating figure.