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Title: Random Ats of Love
By: Valerie
Rating: FRAO
Pairing: Nick / Don, Mac / Danny, Tony / Gibbs
Spoilers: Frame up; Run Silent, Run Deep; All Access
Note: Sequal to Behind the Mask and Looking in a Mirror
Summary: Just when Mac thought that for once everything was peaceful, he gets a call from Washington. Tony has been accused of murder, but will Stella and Sheldon be able to help him? Back in New York, Nick and Don find out that they cannot run away from their past and Danny realizes that neither can he.

*Chapter 1 – Just a normal Sunday* 

+Las Vegas+ 

"Do any of you need anything from New York?" 

Greg froze but managed to hide his shock at Warrick's question. Instead he looked up and saw Warrick stare at him almost provocatively. Green eyes glittered and Greg shook his head. 

"I thought you had given up on that idea." 

Grissom's calm voice came from the door and as if the entrance of their boss had broken a spell, Catherine and Sara spoke at once. 

"You're going to see Nick?" 

Warrick's eyes locked with Greg's as he answered the girls' question. "Yeah, I'm going to see him and no, Gil, I had never given up on the idea. I just need to understand some things."  

That sounded even worse and not thinking about how it would look, Greg got up and pulled Warrick with him as he walked out of the break room and into the next meeting room. Just as he pushed the ‘occupied' button, Warrick grabbed him and pushed him against the wall. His green eyes shone with anger and for a moment Greg was sure that Warrick would hit him, but instead he let him go and Greg almost fell towards one of the chairs. 

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" 

The shout made Greg shake his head once more and angry too, he jumped up. "Shouldn't I ask you that? I mean, what are you trying to do? Do you really want to fuck up Nick's life once again?" 

Warrick snarled at the accusation, but Greg didn't stop now that he finally had the chance to say everything. "He's happy, you know? He's got a job, a home, a promotion... He's got friends who care about him and he's got Don." 

Whatever Warrick had wanted to say, it never made it past his lips. He stood in the middle of the meeting room, his shoulders slumped and his eyes haunted. Greg's heart was heavy, and he got up and gently touched Warrick's arm. "You realized what he means to you, didn't you?" 

Warrick nodded and then, as if in shock, he sat down and stared at his hands. "He was always my best friend... I never knew..." 

The words trailed off and yet hung in the room; Greg sighed as he sat down and looked at Warrick. "He has been with Don for almost a year now; they even live together..." 

Shaking his head Warrick looked up and Greg could see the denial in the green eyes even as Warrick's hands trembled. "Hodges said that he left because of me, you said he loved me." 

Greg nodded, but stopped Warrick before he could say anything else. "He did love you, but he has moved on. He loves Don. Please, Warrick, don't screw this up, ok?"  

Warrick's face was pale, but his eyes were determined as he shook his head. "I can't get just let this go, Greg. I have to know." 

Dread filling his body, Greg nevertheless asked. "What do you have to know?" 

Warrick didn't meet his eyes; instead looked through the glass walls and out onto the busy hallway. His voice was soft, tentative and yet determined. "Who he will choose, if given the choice." 

Warrick left then and Greg sank into a chair, groaning. He was tempted to call Nick, but a glance at his watch told him that it was too early to call his friend on a Saturday morning. A shiver ran through him as he thought of the implications and repercussions of Warrick's visit. 

"Greg, you alright?" 

Eric's voice made him look up and he waved at him. He liked their newest addition, even though new wasn't the right word anymore. Eric had started six months ago and they had become friends and gaming buddies. They had even been diving together, although Eric had grinned at first when they had showed up at the lake and made a comment about the real thing. Still, they had had fun together and with a smile, Greg thought that Eric really had filled the void left by Nick.  

"Is Warrick bothering you?" 

Instead of walking away, Eric had stepped into the room and for a second Greg was annoyed, then though he suddenly realized that Eric had a right to know. "Not me..." 

A smile crossed Eric's face as he shoved a cup of coffee over the table and sat down, too. "Nick." 

Surprised at both the comment and the coffee, Greg nodded. "He wants him back." 

--- 

"What?" 

Gil and Catherine heard the shout and looked at each other. Conrad Ecklie stormed passed them into his office, then stopped as if he had run into a wall and looked at them. 

"Gil, Catherine, in my office now." 

They followed and Catherine could see Gil mentally going through any possible case where they could have screwed up. Seeing him press his lips together, she smiled. Gil had come to the same result; they had worked well and there was nothing Ecklie could criticize.  

"I was just informed from the sheriff that Kelly Gordon, who was released from prison three weeks ago, has left Nevada in violation with her probation." 

She froze at the name and saw how Gil went completely still next to her. 

"Where is she now?" 

Gil spoke with a deadly voice and suddenly Catherine knew before Ecklie even answered and dread made her feel sick. 

"In New York." 

--- 

Washington DC 

Yes, he was a sap. Jethro Gibbs grinned lightly as his hand caressed the sleeping face of his lover. Three months since he had realized that in his desperate mission to make sure he wouldn't hurt Tony, he had exactly done that. Three months since Mac Taylor had forced him to open his eyes and see what was right in front of him. Three months since he had kissed Tony in an empty corridor in the CSI lab of New York. 

"Morning." His voice still sleepy, Tony's eyes were already fully alert. He always woke like that, and Gibbs smiled, knowing that he too woke in the same way from sleepy to alert in seconds. 

"Morning." 

Tony looked at him and pushed himself up on one elbow, his eyes shining with happiness, and Gibbs felt like drowning in them. 

"Why are you smiling, as if you know something I don't?" 

Jethro smiled even wider and with a swift move pulled Tony down and turned them around, so that he had his lover captive under his body. Tony's eyes glittered and Jethro could feel the body against his begin to harden. Deliberately he moved his hips and smiled as Tony groaned. He loved seeing how the hazel eyes turned green when Tony was aroused. Softly he rocked his hips against his lover's and moved his hands down to get rid of their shorts.  

"I smile because I do know something you don't know." 

He groaned as they both were naked and their already slick cocks started rubbing against each other. 

"And what's that?" 

Jethro leaned down to capture Tony's lips. Yet before he kissed him, he smiled and finally answered. "I've already had my first coffee." 

His hands caught their cocks and rubbed hard while his lips devoured Tony's. Tony moaned and cried out as his body shook with release, but his cry was swallowed by Jethro's kiss and only seconds later, Jethro followed his lover over the edge. 

Much later, their bodies were cooling down in the soft breeze from the open window, and Tony looked up. "When did you have coffee?" 

Jethro brushed a stray hair from Tony's forehead and smiled. "When I got up, I wanted to work on the boat, but then I realized I'd rather work on you." 

Tony rolled his eyes. "Now that's a cheap pick-up line if I ever heard one." 

Jethro looked at the drying fluids on their bodies and shrugged. "It worked didn't it?" 

Tony's laughter followed him as he went to the bathroom. He wet a cloth and wiped himself down as the door opened and two arms sneaked around him. Relaxing completely, he lay his head on Tony's shoulder and smiled as he saw their image in the mirror. He looked happy. And yet their morning had not been something special, it was just a normal Sunday morning. But then maybe that was exactly the reason why he was this happy. 

--- 

New York 

"Oh shit!" 

Mac looked up from where he sat reading the Sunday paper and laughed. Danny had somehow managed to get stuck in the door handle or more accurately his jacket had. Of course it didn't help that his lover held a box with bagels in one hand and a tablet with two large coffees in the other. 

"Stop laughing, and help me instead." Danny's growl was serious, but the laughter in his eyes showed Mac that Danny could clearly see the humor in the situation. Mac took the coffees from his hand and while Danny freed himself, Mac reached around his lover and pulled him towards him. 

"Coffee and bagels, you really must love me." 

Danny melted against his body and Mac hardened as the immediate surrender woke images of last night and how wonderful Danny had looked all tied up, sweating, moaning and begging for release. A hand in front of his eyes brought him back and the grin in Danny's face told him that he had been gone for a while. 

"Nice dreams?" 

Instead of an answer, Mac pulled Danny even closer and ground a leg against his lover's body. Danny moaned and Mac felt him harden, too. 

"Nice memories." 

With one hand, he took the bagels from Danny's hand and put them on the cupboard next to the coffee, while his other hand opened their pants. Danny's hand on his stopped him, and looking up he met clear blue grey eyes and a smile in Danny's eyes. 

"Let me." 

Mac's breath caught as Danny slid gracefully onto his knees and swallowed his cock after locking his eyes with Mac's once more. "Oh God!" 

His hands balled to fists, opened again and closed as the incredible heat and sucking brought him to the edge. Mac saw stars but Danny hummed and grasped his hands to put them onto his head. It was an unspoken permission and it broke Mac's last bit of control. He clutched at Danny's head as he started to thrust in and out of Danny's mouth and as he looked down and saw his cock disappear again and again between the red lips, he screamed with release. 

"Protein for breakfast."  

Danny licked his lips and Mac groaned at the erotic sight his partner gave. Sliding down along the wall, Mac reached for Danny, but to his surprise his lover blushed and then grinned. 

"Sorry, you'll have to do with coffee and bagels." 

He got up gracefully and walked over to the couch, throwing Mac a glance. 

"You coming? Coffee's getting cold..." 

Laughing silently, Mac followed his lover to the couch, where they shared the bagels, the coffee and the paper. It was almost scary how normal everything was. How easy... 

--- 

"Hey." 

Nick greeted the other two guys that he and Don were meeting for basketball. He knew one of them, Detective Stabler from SVU, but had not yet met the other. Elliot grinned at him and introduced his friend. 

"Nick Stokes, Don Flack this is Fin Tutuola. He works with me." 

"And gets dragged to basketball on a Sunday morning." 

The dry statement from Fin made him Nick laugh and he exchanged a look with Don. They had met for a game of two with Stabler maybe once or twice since he had ran into them at a crime scene, and although he didn't agree with some of the opinions Stabler had, Nick liked him. Don was a bit more ambivalent, but Nick guessed that a lot of Don's doubts had to do with Elliot working for a special department within the NYPD. 

"Well, let's play." 

Nick and Don had by now almost perfected their game and he loved to play with his lover. They communicated without many words and pretty soon he had a nice advantage over the SVU guys. 

"Nick! On your left!" 

He dribbled once more, then faked a shot and passed the ball over to Don who jumped and almost flew towards the hoop. 

"Yes!" 

They shook hands when Stabler's phone rang and taking a break, Nick watched as Stabler spoke intently. He saw the frustration, the anger and finally guilt that ran over Stabler's face and noticed how he put down his phone and closed his eyes sadly. There was something tired and desperate in the way he pushed himself up, something that tore at Nick's heart, but as he took a step towards Elliot, Fin held him back. 

"Don't, he wouldn't appreciate it." 

Holding Fin's eyes, Nick relaxed but lowered his voice as he still fixed him with his eyes. "Take care of him." 

A quick smile appeared in Fin's eyes, but he nodded seriously. "I will." 

Later that day, Nick and Don were relaxing in their living, Nick with his head pillowed against Don's legs reading something, while Don was watching a hockey game on TV. 

"Shanny's a god." 

Nick smiled but couldn't help pouting a bit. He still couldn't get used to Shanahan being a Ranger. "He belongs to Steve." 

Don stopped whatever he was doing and leaned over to Nick. His eyes glittered with joy and he shook his head. "You're worse than any fangirl, you know that?" 

Laughing, Nick raised his arms and pulled Don towards him. Their lips met and Nick reveled in the smell and tasted of his lover. "No fangirl; if anything, then I am a fanboy." 

Don kissed him again playfully and moved so that he covered Nick completely. Nick saw the love in the blue eyes and relaxed completely against the strong body. 

"My fanboy." 

For a moment Nick only moaned as Don's lips started to move over his jaw down to his neck, and then the words registered. "No, not your fanboy, I'm your lover. After all I want you and not some smelly jersey from you." 

Don growled, but it was all play even as he rolled away and literally sashayed to their bedroom. Right at the door, he turned around and winked. "You want me, you got to catch me." 

Grinning and full of love, Nick pursued his lover to the bed and soon they were a tangled mass of limbs and clothes. Struggling and laughing, they undressed each other and then finally naked, their bodies pressed together. Their breaths caught and Nick felt as if his heart was about to jump out of his chest. He felt so much, so much love, so much passion... He moved and heard Don moan above him and their eyes met, locked and held even as their movements got more and more frantic. Nick saw the moment when Don couldn't hold back anymore and the hot liquid on his body triggered his own release. 

"Love you." 

Don lifted his head and smiled, and then pulled Nick closer towards him. Snuggling against his lover, Nick rested and listened to the beating of Don's heart. His eyes swept over their bedroom, and something in his heart warmed. This really was their home now, these two apartments connected by a door, the furniture and the pictures, but most of all the man next to him. 

He was home and he loved the sound of it. 

--- 

+Las Vegas+ 

Warrick had been staring at his phone for at least ten minutes, had dialed twice but not had the courage to really call. Now though he took a deep breath and called Nick's number. 

"Hello?" 

Nick's voice sent fire straight through Warrick and he only hoped that his voice really sounded as steady as he wished. "Nick, it's Warrick." 

For a moment there was silence and then his friend spoke. "Warrick, great to hear from you. How are you doing?" 

The friendly welcome made him relax, and feeling more confident he started to explain about his planned visit. There was a long silence after he had finished until Nick's voice came through again. "Are you going to come this time or once more just announce yourself?" 

The words felt like a blow, but he knew he deserved them. He had called Nick four times, had announced his visit and then called again to cancel it. It had always been his fault, twice he had had to work, but still he could hear the reproach in Nick's voice. 

"I already got the flight and I really want to see you. It's been ages." 

One year to be precise, one year since Nick had told him that he had accepted a job in New York. 

"Cool, when are you landing?" 

Checking his ticket, he wondered if Nick would pick him up, and as he heard the sigh he knew that Nick would not. 

"Got a meeting with Mac and some lab honchos then; wait a second, can you hang on?" 

Warrick didn't understand what Nick said, but his blood heated as he realized that Nick wasn't alone. Some one was with him, some one was there and it didn't take a genius to know who. Don... 

"Either I or someone is going to pick you up ok?" 

They chatted for a short while, and then said good-bye and once again Warrick was staring at his phone. His mind was made up; he wanted Nick home, home where he belonged. 

Home with him... Home in Vegas... 

--- 

*Chapter 2 – Warrick's visit* 

+New York+ 

Don leaned against the wall while he watched the tourists from Las Vegas and other places walk through the glass door and get their first look of New York. He smiled at the excited scream from a girl. 

"We're in New York!" 

She hugged her friend tightly and Don's eyes followed them as they walked outside and squealed at the sight of the yellow cabs. They got into one and as they drove away, Don prayed silently that they would have a great time in the city. He had seen too many tourists for whom the trip to New York had ended badly and he didn't want to see those two girls on a crime scene. Turning his head back, he smiled again as a tall, lean, dark-skinned man walked through the door. The guy stopped for a moment and Don knew he was looking for Nick. He saw the disappointment on the handsome face and steeled himself before he walked over. "You must be Warrick." 

The guy turned around and Don felt green eyes move over him. The eyes were assessing him and he smiled at his instinctive urge to stand straight. Their eyes met and Don saw many emotions in them, too many actually and he sighed lightly. "Nick's still stuck in his meeting; he called me and asked if I could pick you up. I'm Don." 

Warrick smiled for the first time and extended his hand. "Warrick; it's nice to meet you." 

Don wasn't so sure whether or not Warrick found it nice or was just polite, but he let it slide and grabbed one of Warrick's bags. "My car's over there. It's one of the perks of being with the NYPD; I get a parking space at JFK." 

Warrick laughed at that, but shivered as they walked outside. "You call this summer?" 

Don laughed and shook his head. "No, we call it a mild fall, but I guess compared to the desert, it's cold. Are you ok or do you need anything?" 

"No I'm fine." Warrick shrugged and followed Don to his car. They threw the bags into the trunk and drove away in silence. 

"Do you want the scenic or the fast route?" 

Warrick shrugged again and Don felt the pressure of having to make small talk. He had promised Nick that he would try to get along with his friend; he knew how important Warrick was to Nick, and that was the reason why he made the effort. A smile crossed his face as he remembered how Warrick had been not only the reason for their first argument, but also their first declarations of love. That day was a long time ago though and he wasn't as insecure in their relationship as he had been then. He knew Nick loved him, knew that they were... 

"Doesn't Nick live in Manhattan?" Warrick's question made him frown and shake his head. 

"He never has. The rent there is crazy. There are too many ex-pats in the city whose apartments get paid by their employers. No, normal people live in Queens or Brooklyn." 

Or the Bronx, but that was Aiden and he wasn't sure if she counted as normal; well at least not when it came to her choice of apartments and areas to live in. 

"Cheaper?" 

He nodded. "Cheaper, quieter and more space for yourself..." He saw the look of disbelief on Warrick's face and grinned. "You know, New York is crazy on a good day and if you live on the island, you have no real place to quiet down apart from Central Park and even that is crowded." 

He indicated left and parked the car in front of their house. Nick's car wasn't there yet, or he had used the underground parking. Don helped Warrick get his stuff out of the car and walked up the stairs. "This basically is your apartment for the duration of your stay. I'll give you a key so you're free to come and go as you like." 

Warrick stopped as if he had hit him. "I'm staying at your place?" 

There was a lot of heat behind the words and Don tensed as he heard the jealousy in the smooth voice. Sighing, he closed his eyes and thought silently that he didn't need that kind of attitude from Warrick. Warrick hadn't wanted Nick and Nick had left. Now Nick was with him. As far as Don was concerned[,] that was the end of the story. "Technically yes, in reality no. Come in, I'll show you what I mean." 

They stepped into the apartment and Don felt the tension fall from him. This was his and Nick's home. They had bought it together, had put hard work and quite a few weekends into it, and now it was theirs. A smile crossed his face as he thought of the many hours they had spent building and then enjoying their place. He saw Warrick frown and opened the first door on the left. "Bathroom." 

Then he opened the next door on the right. "Kitchen, although I guess you won't need it." 

Then the next room and Warrick nodded as he looked inside. "Bedroom." 

Finally they had reached the large two-windowed door and Don opened it with a smile. "This is what I meant." 

Warrick walked ahead of him and frowned as he saw the large living room. Unlike the rooms Don had showed him before, this one showed signs of life. There was a newspaper on the couch, an empty bottle of wine and two glasses on the table. DVD's were stacked neatly on a shelf and a large TV screen dominated one of the walls. The other wall was decorated with photographs and Warrick walked over only to tense. Don followed him and smiled.  

"Two apartments from the outside, one on the inside." 

Nodding lightly, Don reminded himself that Warrick was a CSI, so of course he was fast on picking things up. He grabbed the paper and put it aside, before he sank down onto the couch. 

"Pretty much. It used to belong to a divorced couple. The guy wanted to be close to his kids and as he still got along with his wife, they had the door between the flats installed. It's perfect for me and Nick." 

Warrick had sat down on the chair and Don saw that something was bothering him. 

"You want a beer?" 

At Warrick's nod, Don got up and went to the kitchen while pressing the voice mail as he passed it. The first two messages were telemarketers and then Danny's voice came through. 

"Don, Nick? Just wanted to let you know that I got the tickets. You can thank me later. See you!" 

Don smiled. Danny had promised them tickets for the Yankees and it seemed as if he had gotten some. 

"Elliot here, are we on for a game on Sunday? I don't have Don's number, can you ask him, too?" 

Making a note, Don brought the beer back when Nick's voice suddenly resonated through the room. "And there I thought you'd be home by now... Well, I'll talk to myself instead of calling you on your cell phone when you're driving... I'll be back soon, meeting's finally over. Should I pick up some food? Oh and Danny told me he got the tickets and expects us to buy him some drinks. Ok, see you soon. Love you!" 

Don noticed how Warrick had tensed more and more at each message and at Nick's last words he felt Warrick look at him coldly. Shaking the bad feeling he handed him the beer and sat down again. "You have any plans while you're here?" 

He had the sinking feeling that most of Warrick's plans involved Nick, but he didn't say anything as Warrick shrugged. 

"I've never been to New York, so I guess I'll play tourist when Nick is working and spend time with him when he's not." 

Ok, Don tensed slightly. The message had been clear and loud. Nick was the one Warrick wanted to spend time with and not Don. His hand tightened around his bottle, but he managed to calm down and smile understandingly. "Yeah, there's much to see here." 

He suddenly remembered Elliot's voice mail and shot a glance at Warrick. "You play basketball?" 

Warrick nodded, but Don saw that he was confused. 

"Nick and I play ball with some friends in the park on Sundays. We wanted to cancel this Sunday, but if you're keen, you can join us." 

He wasn't prepared for the growl from Warrick and as he looked up he was surprised to see a hard glare leveled at him. 

"No, I'm not keen. Nick doesn't belong here. This is not his home. He's a stranger here, just as I am and he should come home with me. I'm here to take him home." 

For a second Don was speechless; he had feared that Warrick planned something, but he had never expected to be attacked like this. A shiver of fear ran through him, but he repressed it. Nick loved him and he would not leave, Don knew that. But he also knew how important Warrick was to Nick and he didn't want his lover to hurt. Looking at Warrick, he shook his head and was just about to say something, when Nick's voice from the door made him freeze. 

"Actually, I am home. I am more at home here than I ever was in Las Vegas."  

Nick's face was hard as he walked into the room. He came over and without looking at Warrick, he leaned down and brushed his lips over Don's. Don saw the love and anger in the brown eyes and sighed lightly. Nick smiled and shook his head and only then turned towards Warrick. Warrick sat frozen and Don almost felt bad as he saw the anguish in Warrick's eyes. 

"This is my home Warrick." Nick's voice was friendlier and he hugged Warrick tight. Don watched them and felt a sting of jealousy and immediately called himself silly. Still, he relaxed as they separated. 

"I am home, but that doesn't mean that I didn't miss you." 

--- 

Nick saw the light that appeared immediately in Warrick's eyes and he sighed. He knew why Warrick was here. Greg had called him and told him about Warrick's intentions. He hadn't told Don though; it was something he had to deal with alone and he didn't want Don to worry. A wry grin crossed his face as he saw the tense shoulders of his lover; the plan had obviously not worked. Trust Warrick to blow his plans immediately. 

"How did the meeting go?" Don spoke softly and Warrick leaned forward obviously making sure that he didn't miss any of the conversation. 

"It was ok. I still have to get used to it though. And so does Mac." 

"Greg said that you got promoted." 

Warrick smiled at him and Nick couldn't help but smiling back. 

"Yeah, three months ago. It's a challenge, honestly, training two new CSIs, all the admin work and then the normal caseload on top of it. But it's fun." 

He shrugged and saw Don glance at him with a fond smile.  

"He's doing great." There was so much pride in Don's voice that Nick blushed heavily. Don however only shrugged. "You are! Shel and Lindsay are efficient after only three months; your paperwork is done and done well. You're not Mac, but hey, thank god for that! One Mac is enough for New York." 

It was a heartfelt comment, but before Nick could add anything, Don's phone rang. He looked at it and groaned.

"Stella, what can I do for you?" 

Nick watched as Don got up and started strapping on his gun, grabbed his badge and finally took his jacket. "Sorry, love, Stella has a new lead. I'll be back soon, ok?" 

Nick nodded and got up. They kissed briefly and like always when they parted their eyes met for a moment. "Come back." 

Don smiled but Nick saw that he understood. He nodded and his blue eyes were completely serious. "I will." 

Those were more than words. Nick had worked too many cases where a person had walked out of their house and never returned. And so they made the promise every time, knowing that it was not going to stop a bullet, but also knowing that the words had a certain power. Don smiled again and left, Nick however shook his head before he turned around and looked at Warrick. "You know it's great to see you. I missed you." 

It was the truth, but as Warrick straightened Nick suddenly feared that his friend would misunderstand him. 

"Are you happy here?"  

Warrick had never been one to beat around the bush, but neither was Nick and he met the green eyes confidently.

"Yes." 

Their eyes were locked until Warrick turned his head away and shook his head. "I don't understand it. Why did you leave? Why did you never call me, never send a letter? You were just gone... Shit Nick, I felt sometimes as if we'd only rescued you to lose you again." 

Nick wasn't sure what shocked him more, the pain in Warrick's voice or the words he spoke. Something Mac had told him a long time ago flashed through his mind. 

"I realized one day that he hadn't saved me because of me, but because of himself. He couldn't bear being left alone so he risked his life and saved me." 

Nick knew that it was unfair to think of his rescue like this, but still he felt sad. The silence between him and Warrick was tense and so unlike any of the quiet moments they had shared before. In many ways the tension between them was more telling than a thousand words could be, but Nick caved first and looking up he met Warrick's eyes. "I left because everything in Vegas reminded me of that night, because I had lost too much already. I left because I needed a new start." 

It was all true, but still it wasn't the complete truth and he knew that Warrick could feel it, too.  

"Why did you never call?" 

He was close to pointing out that he had made phone calls, just not to Warrick, but with a start Nick realized that Warrick knew. It had probably hurt him the most. "Warrick, when I left Vegas, I wanted to get away from you. I knew I had fallen in love with you and you had just gotten married. I needed to forget you." 

Warrick's face was a frozen, shocked mask. Nick had been deliberately blunt; he needed Warrick to really understand it. He saw how Warrick processed his words, visibly tried to make sense of them until he shook his head. "Why did you never tell me?" 

It was a mixture of a snort and a laugh that escaped Nick as he shrugged. "What? That I wanted you? Warrick, I had seen you with too many beautiful girls to think you were gay or even bi. That I loved you? I never knew until I was in that box and by then it was already too late." 

Nick shivered as he thought of those agonizing hours, of the fear and the pain and the sadness that he had felt when he had been sure he was going to die. He rarely thought about it anymore, but whenever he did, he felt the horror of that night grip him anew and with another shiver he wrapped his arms around himself, silently wishing Don was here. 

"And now?" Warrick's tentative question tore him from his nightmare and he looked at his friend. He knew what Warrick meant, but he didn't know how to answer without hurting him. 

‘You can't. No matter how gentle you are, you will hurt him.' The voice in his head sounded a lot like Mac and Nick knew that it spoke the truth. 

"I love Don." There was no mistaking the love, but also the steel in his voice, but Warrick had never paid much attention at Nick's silent warnings and today was no different. 

"Even if I tell you that I love you? Even if you could choose?" 

Nick swallowed hard. He hadn't expected the rush of emotions that ran through him at those three words. He had wished for Warrick to love him for such a long time, and now he did. There was a part of him that wanted to go over to Warrick, kiss him and tell him that he loved him, too, but there was also another part, a much louder, much larger part in him. He thought of Don and how much he loved him, thought of Don's voice telling him that he was safe, of their bodies entwined in passion. He looked around his home, and knew that this apartment was much more than his; it was their home. 

He understood then, that he unconsciously had made the choice long ago. It had not been a decision of his mind; no, his heart and soul had chosen Don long before they had gotten together. 

"Nick?" Warrick sat down next to him and Nick felt him put a hand on his shoulder. Part of him hurt at what he was going to say, but that part was silenced as he looked up and met Warrick's eyes. 

"I have chosen, Warrick; I did so long ago." 

Warrick jerked his hand back as if he had gotten burnt. "How can you? You never gave me a chance." 

Seeing the grim stubbornness in Warrick's eyes, Nick sighed and contemplated what he should say. His eyes fell onto one of the few pictures that showed him and Don together and suddenly he knew. "You know when I was in the hospital or later at home; I used to wake up screaming. I don't know how many nightmares I had, but I always fell asleep wishing you were there to hold me. I would imagine your arms around me, your voice singing to me..." 

Warrick's pained sigh made him stop talking and he looked intently at his friend. 

"Don't blame yourself; you didn't know did you? Then I moved to New York and everything was so different. New people, new crimes, new methods... I felt damn alone in my first weeks, but then I realized that no matter how hard I tried to keep people at a distance, I just couldn't do it." 

Nick had started to lose himself in his memories and he smiled as he thought of how he and Danny had become friends. 

"I think my first friend here was Danny. You'll meet him one night; he's a great guy. The rest of the team, they are just as wonderful. There's Mac. He's nothing like Grissom; he's much more present, more in your face, but he also cares deeply about us and the city. Stella's just Stella. She's a force of Nature, and believe me, you don't want to cross her way in a bad manner. When I came here, they all just welcomed me into their team, just made room for me. And then there was Don Flack Jr." 

He grinned as he thought of their arguments and discussions. "Don Flack Jr., who didn't want to work with the CSI that had replaced his friend Aiden, who laughed at my credentials and sometimes treated me like an idiot. I couldn't stand him and yet was drawn to him. And then one morning I drove to work and realized that I hadn't thought of your eyes watching over me after that night's nightmare but of Don's." 

Nick's heart hurt at the sadness in Warrick's eyes and tentatively he put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "New York has become my home. I've grown roots here. I never managed to do that in Las Vegas and I don't even know why. Maybe the town itself isn't a place to grow roots; maybe it just wasn't time yet." 

Warrick looked at him closely. "And New York is the town for you?" 

It sounded disbelieving and Nick couldn't blame Warrick, but still it was the truth. 

"Yes. Not Manhattan, although it has its own charm and I love the island. But home is here in Queens." 

Warrick swallowed hard and Nick saw the effort it took his friend to appear calm. "You still dream of it?" 

He thought of the DVD that lay hidden in the safe in their office and thought of Don's words as he had put it there. "You don't have to watch it. Keep it locked somewhere, but don't watch it unless you feel you need to. And if that ever happens, I will watch it with you." 

"Sometimes, maybe once every two months... It really is over for me. I know I made it out." 

Warrick's face was like an open book and Nick squeezed his shoulder. "Let go of it too, Warrick. If you don't, you'll end up being the one suffocating." 

His friend looked up and swallowed hard. "I don't think I can." 

Nick shivered at the depth of despair, but before he could answer, Warrick got up. "It's ok Nick. I just need some time to think." 

He walked towards the connecting doors and Nick hated seeing him so defeated and tired. 

"Warrick?" 

Warrick turned around and looked at Nick. 

"Are we going to be ok?" 

He held his breath as Warrick remained silent. Finally though his friend shrugged and looked at him helplessly. "I can't say." 

Nick nodded sadly. "Sleep well." 

--- 

Mac had watched Nick closely the last couple of days. Ever since he had told him about Warrick's visit, Mac had been worried about him. He remembered one of the first talks he and Nick had had and remembered the sadness that had surrounded Nick like a cloak that night. 

"In the beginning, I mourned for my love, I mourned for the one I loved and lost... Then after a while, I didn't mourn for my lover anymore, I even fell in love again. But I will never stop missing my friend." 

He still wasn't sure whether or not Nick had been talking about Warrick that night, but he knew that there was more to their friendship than met the eye. Danny had not said anything but he watched Nick just as closely, and it only confirmed to Mac that something was up. He was in a defensive mood when he walked into the bar to meet Don, Nick and Warrick. Nick was one of his and anyone who wanted hurt him had better watch out. 

"Drop your gun." 

Stella's voice in his ear made him turn around and growl at her, but as he watched how she looked at Warrick, he had to laugh. "Only if you do it first." 

She shrugged ruefully. "I just always want to protect him; I mean, I know he's capable of doing it himself. But there's just something about Nick..." 

She trailed off and Mac nodded. Yes, there was something about Nick that made Mac want to protect him. Maybe it was the kindness Nick showed everyone around him; maybe it was his constant belief in the good. Mac didn't know what it was, but he knew that the urge was there. He suppressed it and walked over to the table, and Nick jumped up with a smile as he introduced Mac and Stella to Warrick.  

"Warrick, these are Mac and Stella. Mac, Stella, this is Warrick." 

It was weird, how different Warrick was from what Mac had imagined him to be like. He had expected someone like Don, older maybe, or someone like Elliot Stabler. Warrick Brown, however, was neither. He smiled at him and then at Stella, looked at Nick and then once more at Stella and grinned. 

"He's told me a lot about you." 

Stella lifted an eyebrow and Nick glared at Warrick. 

"Only the best, Stella, you know that." 

She laughed and rolled her eyes. "Who wants something?" 

She left for the bar and Nick looked at Mac. 

"Where's Danny?" 

Mac sighed. "Well you should know; you sent him out with the rookies." 

It was a mock complaint and both he and Nick knew it. Mac had been more than surprised when Nick had suggested three days ago that Danny should cover a double homicide in the Bronx together with Lindsay and Sheldon. He hadn't been sure whether it was a good idea, but Nick had just looked at him. 

"Danny's more than capable of leading an investigation and training two rookies." 

It had shamed Mac, that Nick had more faith in Danny than he had, and so he had agreed. Nick had been right though and Danny's lead had been flawless so far; even more, he had even asked for Mac's help once. Mac knew that only a year ago, Danny would have never asked him for help. He would have refused to show weakness before Mac. Love and warmth flooded Mac at the thought of his lover. 

"They'll come later." 

Nick nodded and smiled. 

"How are the new guys?" Warrick sounded genuinely interested and Mac watched him closely as Nick laughed. 

"Sheldon is very easy to work with. We all know him and he's got the look for the little things. He's just not good with irony; last week I caught him making a phone call to his girlfriend and mock scolded him for it, and the next day he handed me some money to pay for the call..." 

Mac laughed at the episode. He had experienced quite a few of his own and knew that Sheldon sometimes was too serious. Right now though he was more interested in Warrick's reaction to Nick's story; he seemed tired, almost sad and Mac saw how he kept a firm distance between himself and Nick. Worry nagged at him as he met Don's eyes. Don shook his head and leaned over quickly. "All's fine." 

Nick turned towards him and frowned. "What?" 

Don grinned lazy. "I said, just give him time and he'll adjust to you guys. Hey, I did." 

Stella had heard the last words and sitting down next to Mac she looked at Don and shook her head. "Yeah, you did, but what about us? We're still traumatized." 

Warrick laughed too, but then got up and excused himself. Mac's eyes followed him and making a quick decision, he followed. He could feel Nick's eyes on his back and knew that Nick would not let this go easily, but he needed to make sure everything was ok. 

Warrick was leaning against the stall as he walked into the bathroom. There was a dark smile on the handsome face and Mac realized that Warrick had expected him. "You've been watching me like a hawk ever since you walked into the bar." 

Mac smiled and remembered too late that Warrick, too, was one of Grissom's CSIs. He was good, no question. "I just don't want you to hurt Nick." 

Warrick shook his head and then fixed Mac again. "Why do you care? It's none of your business." 

Mac growled lightly and Warrick stared at him. "Nick's one of mine. I care about my people." 

For a long time Warrick kept looking at him and then suddenly he unfolded his body and walked over to wash his hands. Mac saw how he looked at him through the mirror and suddenly saw the deep sadness in Warrick's eyes. "I came here to persuade him to come back." 

Mac tensed but Warrick hadn't finished. "And I came prepared to fight for him. I met Don at the airport, saw their apartment, and finally saw Nick with Don... It hurt you know, but I still wanted to fight and then we talked and he told me how he knows that New York is his home. It's hard to believe that; he's from Texas for Christ's sake... but then I started to notice things..." 

Warrick broke off and turned around, his eyes now not meeting Mac's, and suddenly Mac realized how much courage it took for Warrick to speak so honestly with someone who was pretty much a stranger to him. His respect for the guy grew and Warrick's next words confirmed it. "He's happy here. You know? I've never seen him like this in Vegas, not like tonight or like two days ago when I just got up and watched him and Don share a newspaper, chat about something, drink some wine... Of course he was happy in Vegas and we had a great time, but here's he's not only happy, he's grounded..." 

Yes, Mac thought, Warrick must be an exceptional CSI. But he was also human and Mac hurt for him as he saw the deep sadness in the green eyes. "I know now that I lost Nick before I even knew that I loved him." 

Warrick shook his head and rubbed his hands over his face. His eyes suddenly met Mac's again and his smile surprised Mac. "I'm still glad I came, cause I lost a lover, but at least I didn't lose a friend." 

Mac felt ashamed for doubting Warrick, but as if Warrick had read him, he laughed. "Hey, don't feel bad about it, ok? Nick already warned me about you. Let me think, he's called you a force of Nature or wait no... That was Stella." 

The good-humored teasing made Mac relax and they returned to the table together. Nick looked at them and shook his head. "Why does everybody think that they have to protect me?" 

Mac and Warrick responded almost synchronically. "Cause you need it." 

Nick looked at them, then at Stella and finally at Don who grinned and after looking around for a moment, pulled Nick towards him. "Don't sulk, love, they mean well." 

Nick glared at him. "That's exactly what scares me." 

Mac saw how a flash of pain crossed Warrick's eyes but he also saw friendship and something akin to gratitude shine in them as Warrick looked at Don. He relaxed then, because he knew that Nick and Warrick would be alright. 

"God, what a nightmare. Do I get a beer?" Danny's words made him turn around and look into the exhausted face of his lover. Sheldon and Lindsay stood behind Danny and looked just as tired. Mac shared a look with Nick and saw faint amusement in the dark eyes, before Nick got up and smiled at the newcomers. 

"I'll get you one. Sheldon, you too? Lindsay?" 

Sheldon nodded, Lindsay declined. They all sat down around the table; Sheldon and Lindsay grabbed two additional chairs while Danny squeezed next to Mac. They started talking about some aspects of their case and soon a heated discussion about forensics had started. Mac leaned back for a moment and just watched his team. A hand on his shoulder drew him from his meditation and he looked around to meet Stella's knowing eyes. 

"Relax, Mac; all sheep are accounted for... You can relax now." 

Her eyes were teasing, but fond, and Mac felt Danny's hand slip into his as if in response to Stella's comment. He pressed it silently and smiled. "I know." 

--- 

Warrick was silent as they drove away from Nick and Don's apartment. He turned once and looked back at the simple apartment building with the characteristic fire escapes. He was going home and he was going alone. 

On the way from Las Vegas to New York, Warrick had been sure that he would return to Vegas together with Nick, had promised himself that he would not leave without his friend. He had told himself that Nick couldn't be happy. He had wanted to bring him home. 

He knew differently now, Warrick mused as he watched the New York skyline disappear from view. He knew that he couldn't bring Nick home. Nick already was home. 

They had spent the last three days together, Don had been laughing at them as they had told him about their plans and had called them tourists. He had looked at Nick and playfully told him that he should move to the Waldorf for the three days. Nick had only grinned and kissed Don and their plans had been agreed. Warrick and Nick had played tourists. He didn't know whether he had been more fascinated by the grandness of the Empire State Building or disappointed at how small the Statue of Liberty really was. Nick had laughed and told him that it was fitting for Manhattan that the towers of the big business dwarfed the Statue of Liberty. They had done the three-hour Circle Line tour and had walked along the entire Fifth Avenue from its start in downtown up to the final block in Harlem. It had been three great and yet painful days, Warrick had spent more time with Nick than he had in the last two years and it had made him painfully aware of how much he had missed his friend. 

His friend, yes, Warrick nodded silently, he couldn't see Nick as anything else unless he wanted to lose him completely. Their talk on the first evening had felt like a slap in Warrick's face, but he knew that it had been necessary. They had cleared the air and it had made it possible to enjoy their time together. 

"Warrick?" 

Nick's voice brought him back to reality and he was surprised as he realized that they were already at the airport. Nick looked at him and Warrick saw so much in the dark eyes. So many emotions and it made him sad because despite a deep love and friendship, he also saw sadness and fear. It was an instinct to grab Nick's hand and hold it tight. 

"You remember what you asked me the first night?" 

Nick bit his lips as he nodded, and for a moment Warrick wondered how he should say it, but in the end he shrugged and smiled. "We're still best friends." 

Nick relaxed and a smile spread over his face. Warrick answered the smile and felt how a knot in his stomach opened and he could breathe again. "We're better friends than lovers." 

He saw that Nick wanted to say something, but he prevented it by getting out of the car. Nick would have probably pointed out that they didn't know that, but Warrick had to believe in it. It made it easier to let Nick go. Warrick glanced at Nick as they walked towards the check-in counter. It was the right thing to do; Nick was happy here. He was home. 

And maybe if Warrick kept telling himself this, maybe one day it wouldn't hurt so much. "Come to Vegas soon!" 

Nick nodded; they had already looked at possible dates for him to fly over and visit, but as he looked at his friend, Warrick suddenly knew that he had to expand his invitation. "Bring Don." 

He and Nick's lover had formed a very tentative friendship. They would never be best friends, not with Nick standing between them, but they had found a common ground that had made them get along. Warrick smiled at the irony that the same reason that prevented them from becoming friends also prevented them from becoming enemies. They both loved Nick. 

"Greg and Grissom want to meet him and Sara and Cat want to make sure that he's good enough for you." 

Nick groaned at Warrick's comment, but he laughed. "I can't introduce him to my family, so I might as well introduce him to you guys." 

Warrick swallowed hard and unexpectedly he felt himself tear up as he looked at Nick. "Are we still your second family?" 

He saw how Nick looked at him and dimly heard the boarding call for his flight, still he didn't move as he focused his eyes on Nick's. Nick too swallowed hard and before Warrick could react Nick hugged him close. Warrick tensed for a second, before he gave in and rested his head on Nick's shoulder for a moment. 

"You are my family, Rick. You guys never judged me, just accepted who I was. You saved my life. You'll always be my family." 

Once again Warrick swallowed hard against the bittersweet feeling of knowing that he and Nick were still best friends but would never be more. "Promise that you'll call. Don't disappear on us again." 

Nick drew back from his hug and nodded. "I promise." 

His flight was called again and he grabbed his carry-on as Nick held him back. "You've got a phone too." 

He smiled and Warrick smiled too. Nick was right; he hadn't called often either. "See you." 

Warrick hugged Nick once more and smiled sadly as he saw that Nick's eyes had become glassy. Some things never changed, he thought, but as he walked towards the plane and turned back once more to see Nick stand there and watch him, he could feel tears in his eyes, too. 

He was going home alone. Nick already was home. 

One day it would stop hurting. 

It had to. 

--- 

+Washington DC+ 

"Oh good, well, thank God for that!" 

Gibbs frowned at the relieved exclamation. Tony was on the phone with Don, and Gibbs wondered what had happened in New York to make his lover react like this. He was about to call Mac when Tony snickered suddenly. "Yeah, I bet you did. Nothing like good old make up sex, is there?" 

Gibbs grinned at the leer on Tony's face. His lover knew what he was talking about and Gibbs smiled as he remembered some of their more spectacular fights and subsequent make-ups. Slowly he walked over to Tony and pulled him towards his body. He reacted instantly to the closeness and warmth of Tony's body and his hands slowly began to move over Tony's chest, opening a few buttons and he smiled as he heard how Tony's voice quivered a bit. "I'm fine, don't worry. It's just... Gibbs!" 

The last word came out as a strangled moan as Gibbs' fingers skimmed over Tony's nipple, and Gibbs could hear Don laugh through the phone. He didn't understand what the New Yorker said, but Tony's indignant growl told him enough. "You too, see you!" 

As soon as Tony had put the phone down, Gibbs turned him around. Tony was flushed, his shirt open and the sight of the erect nipples peaking out from behind the white cotton made Gibbs tremble with desire. He held back though. "What's up with Don?" 

Tony shrugged and the movement revealed even more of his chest. Gibbs stared at the erotic sight, but forced himself to concentrate on Tony's words instead of his body. "Nick's old crush was visiting. It seems as if he planned on taking Nick home with him, but Nick set him straight. Don tried to sound casual, but he didn't pull it off completely." 

Gibbs could understand Don only too well, and without much thought he pulled Tony close. They fit perfectly and as he felt Tony relax against him, he smiled. "Any old crushes from you that I have to be worried about?" 

Tony shook his head and leaned a bit closer as he started to kiss Gibbs' neck. Gibbs, however, couldn't let it go, now that the topic had come up and he met Tony's eyes. "Really no?" 

He saw anger light up the hazel eyes before Tony tensed and pushed him away. Tony's shoulders were tense; his eyes were half closed and full of anger as he glared at Gibbs. "No, Gibbs, no crushes out there, and if you don't believe me it's your problem. It's not like I would have to ask you, is it? Your crush is our boss and she wants you back." 

He stormed off or would have, had Gibbs not reacted immediately and stopped him. He saw the fear in Tony's eyes and cursed himself for not having seen Tony's insecurity. Jen's advances had become more and more open and Tony had reacted badly every time. Not that Gibbs blamed him for it, but he had thought that Tony's confidence in their relationship had become stronger. He had been wrong apparently. "It doesn't matter. I am with you and no one else." 

Tony locked his eyes with him, and Gibbs knew that his lover had seen the truth in his eyes as Tony relaxed again. "Sorry, Jethro, she's just too much sometimes." 

She was. Gibbs agreed with Tony, but he knew that she was also their boss and they would have to play her game for now. 

"I know, but if I don't play along she starts asking questions." 

Tony sighed. "I know, but that doesn't mean that I have to like it." 

Gibbs pulled Tony down onto the couch with him and moved them so that he was hovering over his lover. "I love you. No one else, do you understand? No others besides you, never, I promise you." 

He held his breath after making his promise until Tony smiled. It was the smile that he had reserved for Gibbs and with their eyes locked, Tony leaned closer and Gibbs moaned lightly in anticipation of the kiss.  

"No other but you, I promise." 

Gibbs shivered at the solemnly spoken words. Tony had made them sound like so much more than a promise. He had made them sound like a commitment. Gibbs smiled as he pulled away, took Tony's hand and walked over to the bedroom. Undressing quickly, they met on the bed and a shiver ran through Gibbs as their bodies touched. A commitment, he thought as their lips met, a commitment only between them and yet it felt so much more potent than any commitment he had ever made to his ex-wives. 

--- 

Gibbs only notices important things. 

Abby's words still stung. But even worse was the fact that she had only stated the truth. Gibbs didn't even know that he existed. It made him angry and hurt his pride, but Chip's rational side was glad. 

Unimportant things got easily overlooked. 

--- 

"You look good." 

Don grinned as Nick glared at him. His lover had a court appearance and wore a dark suit with a white shirt and a silver-grey tie. 

"Everything's perfect, but the tie." 

Nick yelped as Don put his arms around him and covered the grey tie with one of his own. The red-orange pattern stood out like a fire against the white and black of shirt and suit. Don nodded satisfied, but Nick shook his head. "No." 

Grinning, Don looked at Nick and pouted a bit for the effect, but Nick slipped from his arms. 

"Don, if I start wearing your ties, we might as well move to Chelsea and make out in the break room. Your ties are one of a kind; I wear one, everyone will notice." 

Don laughed and leaned quickly down to kiss Nick. "Ok, Mr. Distinguished Gentleman, I'm off. Good luck in court and see you." 

Nick smiled and their eyes met for a moment. "I'll come back." 

Their usual promise and Nick smiled tenderly. Don walked out of the house with a smile on his face. He was happy, he had Nick and the sun was out. 

Life was good. 

--- 

*Chapter 3 - Foul play* 
 

+New York+ 

Nick smiled as he looked around the new lab. It was the first time in his career that he had something like a private office. Of course, he was sharing it with Stella, but still he had a desk and a chair. He liked the new lab on the whole a lot better and not only because he had an office; it was brighter than the old one, had larger windows and let more daylight in. Mac hadn't been so happy about the move and constantly grumbled something about living in a fishbowl. He was right to a certain degree. There were a lot of glass walls, but Nick liked the illusion of openness it created. 

It was weird, he suddenly realized. Right after coming back to work in Vegas, the lab and its glass walls had made him feel uncomfortable. Now though, he didn't associate his sunlit office with the terrible box he had been trapped in. It might have something to do with the sun and the fact that he was working days, or it had something to do with being on the twenty-something floor. He shrugged and turned back to his desk. He had three reports to finish. 

"Nick, do you have a second?" 

He looked up and smiled at Lindsay. She was the newest member of their team and he remembered only too well how frightening New York, the lab and Mac had seemed in the beginning. Lindsay was doing well so far; her work was good and her attitude okay. She had adapted amazingly easy to the fast paced life in New York and so he was surprised to see a frown on her face. "Sure, come in." 

She came inside and closed the door behind her. Nick was surprised, but didn't comment as she sat down. He didn't usually close his door; for a moment she was silent, then she looked straight at him. "Nick, what's going on with Danny? Why do you assign me so often with him?" 

Her question surprised him. Danny and Lindsay had had some issues in the beginning, but he had thought that they had worked them out. Lindsay clearly adored Mac, maybe even had a crush on him, and Nick knew that a lot of the tension between her and Danny had come from Danny's insecurity. Still he was confused, cause he was sure that Mac had spoken with Danny and that now everything was ok. 

"Mac often works only partially in a case. He might participate in an interview but not be part of the first crime scene visit, or he's there and doesn't have time to lead an interview. You're still too new on the team to lead an investigation." 

It was true and Nick saw that she understood. She almost seemed relieved as she nodded. "So it has nothing to do with the fact that Sheldon, Mac or Stella don't want to work with him." 

Nick tensed and looked at her almost in shock. "Why would you think that? We all work together on different cases, it's just coincidence that you've had several cases with Danny. Lindsay what is going on?" 

She blushed, but if Nick had learned one thing from Grissom's sometimes dismal management, it was that riddles and jokes never worked. In the end, the truth hurt and most of the time the blunt words were the best way. 

"Lindsay do you have an issue with Danny?" 

This time it was her who looked shocked and wide eyed she shook her head. "No, I actually enjoy working with him. It's just..." 

She trailed off and Nick saw that she suddenly trembled with anger, as she continued. "I had two cops talking to me yesterday, telling me that Danny was bad news and that I should request someone else as a partner. They told me that no one else wanted to work with him and that he'd gotten an officer killed once. I... I just don't know what to believe anymore." 

Nick felt anger rise in him as he listened to her and as she fell silent he fixed her intently. "Danny never got anyone killed. But yes, he was under suspicion for accidentally killing someone during a shoot out." 

She remained silent, and he saw in her eyes the need to understand. She was a part of their team and yet she often had to feel like an outsider. Nick felt for her and silently apologizing to Danny he took a deep breath before he started to speak again. "Danny's family has been linked to organized crime for a long time. His father was involved with the mob, his grandfather was and although there is no proof, it seems pretty clear that his brothers have now taken over the family business. Danny joining the NYPD is an anathema for his family and he pretty much got cast out." 

Nick took a deep breath and felt some of his tension relax when he saw the horror and understanding in Lindsay's eyes. 

"Guilty by association." 

He nodded and smiled as he saw how anger darkened her eyes, then though she looked at him again and fixed him just as intently as he had only minutes ago. 

"They told you the same thing, didn't they?" 

Inwardly he cursed the prejudices that Danny still faced, but he met her eyes calmly as he confirmed her assumption. "They took me aside and told me that I should stay away from him, that someone with my background could only get tainted from too much contact with a Messer... 

He trailed off as one look from Lindsay's eyes reached him. The normally friendly and warm eyes had turned cold and hard. He saw how she pressed her lips together and shook his head. "Don't go playing the knight in shining armor, Danny wouldn't appreciate it." 

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she looked at him stubbornly. Nick held her eyes silently as he didn't give an inch until she sat down. He kept standing though and looked at her with a smile. "Just stick with him and if it ever comes up in a conversation, tell him that you trust him." 

She nodded, and Nick sighed silently. He already knew that he would have to talk with Stella and Mac afterwards, these were the moments when Nick wanted to hit something. He didn't understand how intelligent people could be blinded by a name and he shook his head. "And thanks for coming to me and not blindly believing what they told you." 

Lindsay nodded and walked out of his office without her usual bounce. Nick sighed. Lindsay's integrity had averted a potentially nasty situation, but he knew that Danny's reputation and some cops' attitude would sooner or later come back to haunt them and Nick already dreaded the moment when that happened. Stella's entrance made Nick look up and despite his worries he smiled at her. "You ok?" 

Stella looked concerned as she sat on his desk. Her eyes were warm and held no teasing. Nick shrugged and shook his head. "No, Lindsay just came to me and told me about two cops badmouthing Danny again. Stella, how long is this going to haunt him? When will they finally accept that he's a great CSI and a good person?" 

Stella's smile dimmed and she looked concerned too, still there was a clear command in her eyes as she met Nick's. "You have to talk to Mac." 

He sighed. "I know, but that doesn't mean that I want to." 

---- 

+Washington DC+ 

"Oh no... You know, I don't get these guys. I mean kill and rape them, but why do they have to mutilate the victim? I mean what kind of animal was that?" Tony felt Gibbs' eyes on him as he rambled on. He knew he wasn't making much sense, but he needed to let off some steam and usually talking helped. 

"A stupid one, cause we have a perfect dental print." 

The words and the voice were harsh, but they calmed him like nothing else could. Tony knew that it was pathetic, but he always felt as if Gibbs would be able to make anything right. He smiled at his boss before he turned away to search for the murder weapon or anything that could be related to the crime. 

"It's a good thing not every killer watches those crime shows." 

McGee's comment made him smile, but there was more than a grain of truth in the words. Tony liked the forensic shows, but he was only too aware that some of them were like a manual on how to not behave at a crime scene. He narrowed his eyes and focused on the job as he saw something glinting a bit further away. Lifting it up, he held it against the light and frowned. 

"What is it that you've got?" 

Tony showed it Gibbs and shrugged. "A scalpel; well, at least it's original. It's bloody. Could be the murder weapon and there are some fibers, too." 

He had already bagged them when Gibbs told him to do so and he grinned. "Getting old and slow, boss?" 

The comment earned him a snort and a grin, but Gibbs' eyes told him that he would see tonight how old and slow Gibbs could be if he wanted. Tony shivered with anticipation, but suppressed any lustful thoughts as Ziva joined them. "No one has seen or heard anything. No one knew her, but then she has been dead for a while." 

Tony looked at the dead woman and sighed. It would be a long day. 

"Ok, finish off here and bring her to Ducky and the trace we found goes to Abby. Maybe they can tell us who she is." 

--- 

+New York+ 

"Gil, great to hear from you. Just wait a second." 

Danny grinned as Nick tried to balance his lunch and his phone while talked to Gil Grissom. Don watched him for a moment, then shook his head and took the sandwich from Nick's hand. Exchanging a look with Danny, Don grinned and rolled his eyes towards his lover. Nick smiled and mouthed a thank you towards them before he sat down on the bench. 

"It's quiet, actually. Although, now that I've said it I've probably jinxed us." 

Nick was right, Danny thought. It was quiet, but he wasn't complaining. Quiet for them didn't mean anything to do; it just meant no double or triple shifts. They enjoyed a nice fall and although it wasn't as hot as it had been in summer, the sun was still strong enough at lunch to warm his skin. Danny sighed as he closed his eyes and enjoyed the warm rays on his face. 

"You are? What are you doing there?" 

Danny shared at look with Don at Nick's sudden excitement, but the interest waned as Nick didn't say anything for a long time. 

"Well, I should give you Tony's number; I'm sure he'd show you around." 

Question answered, Danny thought; Gil was in Washington. He frowned at Nick. He was not sure if Gibbs would like it if Nick gave out Tony's number, but Nick laughed and shook his head. "I don't know, but if he is then he's certainly been already. Are you going to come to New York, too?" 

Danny hoped so. He was insanely curious about the famous Gil Grissom. Nick often spoke of him and he always had a fond smile in his eyes. Now though, he nodded understandingly. "No, I understand. You never know when Hodges will blow up the lab or Sara will decide to run amok." 

He grinned again before he exchanged goodbyes and disconnected his phone. Don looked at him and Danny saw the interest in his blue eyes. "He's in Washington?" 

Nick nodded. "He's got some bug conference and came up two days earlier. He wants to go to the Smithsonian." 

Danny laughed and shook his head. "You know, I'd love to meet this guy. He races cockroaches, goes to bug conferences, visits the Smithsonian and is Nick's friend. He really must be a character." 

Nick smiled and nodded. His eyes held a warm glow and Danny saw the true affection for his former supervisor in Nick's face. "He is; he really is." 

--- 

Mac saw Nick waiting in his office as he came back from lunch with Ralph Denton. He smiled as Mac entered, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. Nick looked worried and that in turn worried Mac. 

"Something wrong?" He groaned as he sat down; lunch with Ralph tended to be a heavy affair with loads of food and wine. Nick grinned and waggled his brows. 

"Had a nice lunch?" 

Mac groaned again and shook his head. "I'll never understand how the French can do this everyday. Wine for lunch? It kills me." 

"Lindsay came to see me today." Nick explained in short sentences and his typical way of summarizing everything to the point once more fascinated Mac. He wondered where he had learned it and guessed that it was Grissom's influence. Soon though, Nick's summarizing technique was forgotten and the longer he listened, the more his anger grew. Finally Nick was done and looked at him. "I don't know what to do Mac, I mean, she came to me, but what if she hadn't? What if she had believed those lies? Is there nothing we can do?" 

The questions were very much like Nick. He was very protective of Danny and there had been a time when Mac had been jealous at their close bond. It was long ago though, and Mac was no longer insecure in his relationship with Danny. Danny loved him, but even more Danny had shown him his trust in the most basic of ways. 

A shiver ran through Mac as memories of nights full of passion broke through the somber thoughts and he shook his head. Now wasn't the time for fantasies. "Not unless we want to wake sleeping dogs." 

Nick sighed. "And those are better left alone, aren't they?" 

He seemed to think about something for a while, before he grinned a bit and looked at Mac. It seemed almost as if he had to suppress his laughter. "Stella said that you were complaining about Lindsay's interest in Danny; is that true?" 

Mac knew he was caught. He smiled somewhat sheepishly and shrugged. "She's always around when he's around. I don't like that. He's mine." 

Nick lost the fight against the laughter and chuckling he shook his head. "He knows that, believe me." 

Nick's mirth made him laugh too as he understood his misunderstanding. It was forgivable, he thought; after all Danny was much more attractive than him, wasn't he? He turned serious again as he thought about the cop's accusations and how they would hurt Danny if he ever heard them. Mac hated the fact that Danny didn't seem to be able to throw off his past, but he had learned to live with it, and he would stay at Danny's side no matter what happened. Nick smiled as he told him so and Mac saw that Nick had never expected anything else. Their talk turned to more mundane things when Mac's phone rang. Nick smiled and left the office. Mac grinned as he recognized the number. "Gibbs, it's good to hear from you." 

--- 

+Washington DC+ 

"Have you seen Chip?" 

Ducky shrugged and looked at Abby with an expression of ‘who?' in his face and she sighed. Of course it was good that her assistant was such a non-descript person, but it annoyed the hell out of her when he pulled one of his disappearance acts and no one noticed him. 

What good was an assistant if he wasn't around to assist her? 

Tony had brought her the evidence from their newest case and she had wanted to give some of the analysis to Chip. They still didn't know who the victim was and whether or not it even was a case that fell under NCIS jurisdiction. She growled lightly and shook her head. Chip had been sent from Madame Director, so why had she even expected him to be any good? "Okay, let's take a look at you." 

She had already swabbed the scalpel and started the DNA analysis; now she looked for prints. The superglue disappeared through the hose and she did a little dance around her table as she saw a clear print on the side of the knife. "You really caught a stupid one this time, first he gives us his dentals, then his prints... now all that's missing is a lost passport and we can announce a new winner for the stupidest criminal in the world." 

The database beeped as it found a match and Abby shook her head. This guy really was an idiot. "One click and we've got you." 

Yet the picture that appeared on the screen made her pale and she shook her head as she started the search again. It had just been a freak mistake, it couldn't be. But the image on the screen stayed the same, even as she performed the search for a third time. It wasn't one of his best pictures, Tony had once said, but it was okay for the NCIS database. Abby had never imagined seeing it in connection with a crime. "Shit!" 

Abby looked around the lab before she printed the result and shut down her terminal. Only five minutes ago, she had cursed Chip for being away, now she was glad. Her hand shook as she dialed Gibbs' extension and her voice wasn't steady. "We need to talk." 

Gibbs didn't ask; in fact, he didn't say anything. Abby knew that he had probably never heard her like that. Her urgency worked, and he was in her lab in less than a minute. "What's wrong?" 

She handed him the print out and saw how he shook his head. "This is a joke, is it?" 

Abby shook her head and asked the one question that had kept her hope alive until now. "Was Tony not wearing gloves when he found it?" 

Gibbs looked at her and her last hope died. Tony was a professional. Of course he wore gloves when he processed a crime scene. 

"What else have you found?" His voice demanded an answer, but Abby, too, was a professional and as such she knew that from the moment she had found Tony's print on the murder weapon, she couldn't tell Gibbs anything. His eyes were on her and she saw that he understood, as they hardened. "No Abby, I am not going to hand him over to Fornell or one of the other teams. He was set up. He didn't commit this murder and I'm going to prove it." 

She hated her part in this and once she had found the responsible for the charade, they would feel how much she hated it. But right now, she looked at Gibbs and shook her head. "Gibbs, if push comes to shove and Ducky can establish a time of death, you might have to testify for him. You can't be his alibi and work his case." 

Gibbs shook his head as he pinned her with his look. "There is no case." 

Before Abby could say anything, Gibbs pulled her with him towards the elevator. She knew what he wanted and as soon as the cabin stopped she looked at him. "I can't make it disappear, I can't." 

Gibbs wasn't looking at her as he replied, but the tension in his voice made her shiver and she suddenly understood that he was afraid. "If we give this case to Fornell, Tony gets arrested and we are off the case. I don't want his life in the hands of someone I don't trust..." 

It was a no win situation, she thought. He couldn't work the case, but he didn't trust anyone else to do it either. Seeing how tense he had become, she put a hand on his shoulder in a futile effort to relax him. "Is there anyone you trust with Tony's life?" 

Gibbs was silent for a moment, but as he looked at her again, she was surprised to see a faint smile on his face. "I need you to give me five hours. Hold the print back for five hours, work on identifying the woman and put everything else on hold. Can you give me that?" 

She wanted to, but she needed more than his cryptic words. "Why?" 

He smiled for a second, before he looked at her and Abby froze. She had seen such fear in Gibbs' eyes once before, and it had been when Tony had been infected with the plague. "I'm going to call Mac. I need his help, but it will take them about five hours to get to Washington." 

It went against her beliefs, but then the evidence that she had just found did, too, and Abby nodded. "Five hours, but after that I'll compare Tony's dental records with the imprints and check the fibers. And if they match..." 

Gibbs didn't let her finish, he stopped her without saying anything, but his eyes were cold enough to stop her. "Five hours." 

Abby watched as he reached for the phone as soon as he was out of the elevator and silently she prayed that the guys from New York were as good as their reputation. Someone had set Tony up and whoever it had been; they had known what they did. 

--- 

Sheldon was nervous as he got out of the plane in Washington. He hadn't expected to be the one chosen to go with Stella and had tried to point out, that Danny or Nick would be better qualified but Mac had been firm. 

Danny and Nick are friends with Tony and, I am a friend of Gibbs. We can't work this, but you and Stella can. 

Looking at Stella now, Sheldon realized that she was tense and immediately he tensed to. She smiled at him and shook her head. "Don't worry. Mac knows what he is doing." 

He wasn't so sure. Of course he understood Mac's reasoning about Nick and Danny, but why hadn't he sent Lindsay? She was as new as he was, but at least she had more forensic experience. "Gibbs would not accept Lindsay. You know him, and he sees you as part of our team. He trusts you." 

Stella squeezed his arm and smiled once more warmly. "And so does Mac." 

Sheldon nodded and silently hoped that Stella was right. 

--- 

As Gibbs stepped out of the elevator, Tony knew immediately that something was very wrong. Gibbs was tense and his eyes were ice cold. He flinched as he gaze landed on him and saw how Gibbs seemed to tense even more. "DiNozzo!" 

Oh yes, something was wrong. He grinned at McGee's fearful look and followed Gibbs to the elevator. He couldn't think of any mistakes he had made, so he guessed that Gibbs wanted to blow off some steam by ranting about the director or maybe his lover even wanted to try a different way of blowing off some steam. Tony smiled as he felt his face heat up at the thought. Having sex with Gibbs in the elevator was a secret fantasy of him, but so far he hadn't been able to tempt Jethro. Well maybe today, he thought, but as he looked at Gibbs' face every naughty thought vanished. The cold in Gibbs' eyes had disappeared and had been replaced by fear. 

"Jethro, what's wrong?" 

He reached instinctively for his lover, but Jethro's reaction only worried him more as he was pulled against his body and held close. Tony felt the tremors that ran through Gibbs and his worry grew. 

"Please, tell me, what's wrong?" He spoke softly now, and his hands ran soothingly over Jethro's back while he leaned down and pressed a kiss to Jethro's temple. A shudder went through his lover before Gibbs straightened and looked at him. 

"Abby got a print of the knife you found at the scene. She ran it and got a match." 

Tony waited; he knew that there was more. A normal match would never freak out Gibbs like this and so he looked at his lover waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Whose is it?" 

Jethro looked away for a moment and as he faced Tony again, his eyes were shuttered. "Yours." 

Tony wanted to laugh and tell Gibbs that it had been a good joke, but one look into the blue eyes told him that it hadn't been a joke. His legs felt weak and he stumbled back needing the support of the elevator walls. "It can't be, I always wore gloves when I processed the scene." 

Gibbs didn't answer and slowly Tony understood. "You think that I am the killer?" 

He didn't manage to speak loud, his voice seemed to have died and his hands clutched at the wall almost desperately. "Jethro, you can't honestly think that I would do something like that?" 

It was a plea because Tony knew that if Gibbs believed him, everything would be okay. But what if he didn't believe him? Tony pressed his eyes together; he refused to consider the possibility that his lover thought him capable of murder. 

"No, I don't." 

Gibbs stood close to him and Tony felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. It was as if Gibbs transferred some of his energy and strength over to him, Tony thought as he opened his eyes and looked at his lover. Gibbs was looking at him and right now he didn't hide the love he felt. Tony's hand trembled as he reached out for Gibbs to hold him. He needed the connection right now, needed to be close to his lover. "What now?" 

Gibbs was quiet for a minute before he met Tony's eyes. "Abby gave me five hours. I called Mac and he promised to send Stella and Sheldon up. Once they are here, I can call Fornell." 

Tony understood what Gibbs wasn't saying. He had been in law enforcement long enough to know how the game was played and he nodded slowly. "You want me to turn myself in." 

Gibbs' reaction to his comment was unexpected and Tony jumped as his lover hit the wall with his hand, before he turned around and glared at Tony. "No, I don't want you to turn yourself in. I want you with me. I want you safe... But I can't..." He had almost screamed the first words, but his voice had gotten lower and lower until he whispered the last phrase.  

Tony could feel the erratic beat of Jethro's heart and although he was shocked and scared at being framed for murder, he realized with a shock, that this was much harder on Gibbs. He forced a smile on his face as he looked at Gibbs again. "It's alright Jethro, I'll turn myself in and you'll get me out. I trust you." 

Tony meant every word he said. He trusted Gibbs with his life and he knew that his lover would do anything to get him out of jail. Gibbs, though, didn't even react to his comment, and his eyes were hollow as he looked at Tony. "I can't protect you in there." 

For a moment Tony was confused, but as he understood, he tensed and looking once more into Jethro's eyes, he froze. There was knowledge there that shouldn't be there and it broke his heart as he really understood. He masked his shock though and shrugged. "I guess Fornell will keep me at a holding cell at first. I am sure that you'll get him to extend the twenty-four hours to forty eight.  That should be enough, shouldn't it?" He refused to voice his own fear and as Gibbs looked at him. He tried to tell him with his eyes how much he loved and needed him. Gibbs opened his arms and Tony stepped into them with a sigh, reveling in the closeness, and yet he shivered at the almost desperate way Gibbs was holding onto him. 

"Fornell owes you much; he'll get you the extension." 

Gibbs still held onto him and Tony felt himself relax until he almost melted against his lover. He looked down and met blue eyes. There was still fear lurking in them, but it had lessened considerably and was replaced by a cold determination. Tony leaned down and put his head onto Gibbs' shoulder. "Thanks for trusting me." 

Gibbs' lips brushed his neck and Tony felt his warm breath caress his skin. "I know you." 

--- 

Grissom stood in the queue to get into the museum when his phone rang. For a moment he cursed himself for taking it with him, but the curse turned into a smile as he saw the caller ID. "Nick, you again?" 

As soon as the words were out, he cringed. It sounded as if he didn't want to talk with Nick, but the chuckle he got from New York proved that his friend had understood him. There were some moments when Grissom wished that he could communicate with Sara the way he could with Nick; maybe then she would get that he meant no when he said it. 

"Grissom, I need your help." 

Nick's voice was tight and drawn and it alerted Grissom like nothing else could. "What's wrong?" 

There was some noise in the background, but before Grissom could identify it, Nick spoke again. "Tony is being framed for murder." 

He knew of course who Tony was, but what made Grissom frown was the shock in Nick's voice and the choice of his words. "How do you know that he was framed?" 

Nick groaned, but as he spoke his voice was sharper and colder. "Because I know him, because I know that he couldn't rape and kill someone. Because he is my friend." 

His voice trailed off and Grissom knew that Nick remembered all his lectures about never believing in anything but the evidence. 

People lie, evidence doesn't. 

How many times had he told Nick that? Grissom smiled as he remembered a case long, long ago. It had been one of Nick's first murder cases and their suspect had sworn that he had broken into the house but not killed the woman. Grissom had not believed him, he had looked at the evidence and it had told him that the guy was guilty. Nick however had believed the other man and had gone back to the crime scene. He had searched for about a day, but when he had come back he had had the proof that their suspect wasn't the killer. 

Grissom remembered how he had scolded Nick despite the fact that he had been right and he grinned lightly as Nick's answer came back to him. 

You know Gris, people lie, but sometimes they tell the truth. 

"Gris?" 

Nick's voice drew him back from his musings and he made his decision as he stepped out of the queue. "What do you need from me?" 

He knew already what Nick probably wanted him to do, but he could be wrong and it was his habit to always ask. "Help Tony." 

Nick's voice was calm, but Grissom heard the plea underneath it and it got more pronounced as he continued to speak. "Mac sent Stella and Hawkes and they're great, but I thought that you are in the area and Tony needs all help he can get..." 

This time Grissom was surprised. Not so much about the fact that Mac Taylor had sent two of his people to support Gibbs, but that Nick thought it wasn't enough. "You don't trust Stella?" 

He meant it teasingly, but Nick reacted as if he had meant it seriously. "I trust them Gris, I do, but you're... you're the one who found me. You and not Stella, not Mac and not Sara, you found me. You saved me... It's a different level of trust." 

The soft words floored him. He had known that Nick trusted him, but had never understood to what level that trust went. He swallowed the lump in his throat and walked towards the street where he waved at a cab. "Give me the address." 

But even as he sat in the car, he heard Nick's voice again. 

It's a different level of trust. 

And he had broken it. 

--- 

*Chapter 4 – Fair play* 

+New York+ 

As bad as it sounded, Don hated nothing as much than days without new cases. He should have been glad that no one had gotten killed or raped or kidnapped in New York, but for him it meant going back to the cold cases and they were just frustrating. He yawned and rubbed his neck as he studied the case files his Captain had assigned to him. 

Three dead men in Chinatown seven years ago. Don shook his head. It wasn't impossible, but he knew that cold cases mostly were cold for a reason and they weren't as easy to solve as Lilly Rush and her team made it seem on TV. The men in question had been found dead in a house that didn't even exist anymore and Don was tempted to just brush the dust off the file and put it back. He didn't though; still he wasn't too angry as his phone rang. 

"Detective Flack?" The caller had a friendly voice that somehow sounded familiar, but Don couldn't place him and so he just answered affirmative and waited for the caller to identify himself. 

"I'm Gil Grissom with the Las Vegas Crime Lab. I was Nick's supervisor." 

Now he knew why the voice sounded so familiar, but at the same time, he wondered why Nick's boss would call him. "Nice to hear from you, but if you wanted to speak with Nick, you got the wrong number." 

Grissom knew about Nick and him. Nick had told him in one of his letters and Don didn't have an issue with it. Still he found it weird that Grissom would call him. "I wanted to speak with you." 

Okay, Don grinned. Grissom reminded him of Mac when he wanted to drive him nuts. It always worked, he thought, as he waited. "Something happened and I didn't want Nicky to know. My supervisor will also inform Lieutenant Taylor but knowing about your relationship with Nick, I felt that you need to know, too." 

During the longwinded explanation, Don had felt dread settle in his stomach and his voice was tight as he spoke again. "What happened?" 

Grissom was silent and then sighed audibly. "Kelly Gordon was released about two months ago. None of us were notified until a couple of weeks ago, when it came to our attention that she has left the state in violation with her parole." 

It took only a second for Don to understand who Kelly Gordon was, but as he did, he paled. Grissom paused and Don already knew what he was going to say next. "She's here, isn't she?" 

He spoke low, but still two of his colleagues looked over concerned. He waved them off, but he could see that they weren't completely pacified. 

"We know that she flew to New York last week." 

How the fuck could this happen? Don was tense with a combination of fear and anger. But Grissom wasn't done yet. "There's more. Nick's abduction was not planned by Walter Gordon alone. There was a second person involved." 

Don shook his head as his nice boring day took more and more the form of a nightmare. A second person? Why had Nick never mentioned anything?  

"I never told Nick. I didn't think he could handle it." 

He didn't care about the curious looks as he jumped up and walked over to the meeting room. He still had coverage there but most of all it was semi-private. "You can't be serious. You knew that another person was involved and you never told Nick? Did it ever occur to you that your silence put him in danger? What if Gordon wasn't the mastermind? What if Nick wasn't a random target?" 

Screaming at one of the worlds most renowned forensic investigators might not have been the best idea, but Don simply wanted to punch something or someone, someone whose name was Gil Grissom preferably. How could he have done this? 

"I thought it was the best for Nick." 

Good intentions pave the road to hell. It was something that Don's mom used to say and right now he understood her only too well. "Listen, we'll need everything you have on this Kelly Gordon and a copy of the voice recordings. Send it to Lieutenant Mac Taylor; we'll need it to protect Nick." 

He heard someone writing something down and then Grissom spoke again. He sounded tired and sorry, but right now Don was too angry to feel bad for someone he barely knew. "We'll send you copies of everything. I am sorry, Detective Flack, I am incredibly sorry." 

Once more it sounded honest, but Don only said goodbye and put his phone down. His mind was spinning and his heart told him to call Nick and make sure that he was safe. But another part of him told him that Nick had finally gotten over what happened, and that his lover finally called the abduction an event from the past. Should he really open the wounds again? "You're no better than Grissom." 

Don smiled bitterly. He had judged the Vegas supervisor too fast. Grissom had done what almost every fiber of Don's being told him to do. He had protected Nick from knowing the truth. Don's heart told him to do the same, but his mind told him to speak with Nick and tell him the truth. 

He shivered and reached for the phone with a pained sigh. "Mac, I need to talk to you." 

--- 

Mac knew what Don wanted to talk about. When he had gotten Don's call, he had just gotten off the phone with Assistant Director Conrad Ecklie from Las Vegas. The news he had given Mac made Mac's hands tremble and he could imagine only too well how Don felt. 

It's like Groundhog's Day: I'm stuck in a nightmare and every time I try to get out, something pops up again. 

Danny had told him that once after another allegation about Tanglewood had come up. Mac had understood his lover only too well and he knew that both Nick and Don probably felt the same. 

"Did you get a call from Vegas?" 

Don was pale, but his blue eyes were agitated and Mac nodded. "About Kelly Gordon, yes, but Don it doesn't..." 

He trailed off as Don shook his head. "There's more, Mac. Gil Grissom, Nick's supervisor called me. He told me about Kelly Gordon and then mentioned that Walter Gordon had an accomplice. He wasn't alone when he planned the abduction, there was someone else involved." 

Don had started to pace the office, but Mac was too shocked to say anything. He processed the information and frowned. Why had Nick never mentioned anything? Don's harsh snort made him look up and he saw Don looking at him. "My first thought Mac, and yours, too... Why had Nick never said anything? You know why? Cause Grissom never told Nick; he said he wanted to protect Nick." 

Don stopped pacing and almost fell into one of the visitor's chairs. He shook his head and covered his face with his hand. As he looked up again, Mac saw the conflicting emotion's in his eyes. Mac sighed silently. He knew what was going through Don's mind and he understood the conflict in him only too well. He remained silent and waited for Don to find the words to express what he felt. 

"You know what the worst is? I understand why he did it. There's a part in me that wants to keep silent. Nick has recovered so well; he's over it and I don't want to open the old wounds again. And I know that it is wrong, you know. I know that I have to tell him. I just don't want to hurt him." 

Mac hurt for Don, but he also envied him for the courage. Don would tell Nick, because he knew that his lover was strong enough to weather another storm. Mac wasn't so sure what he would have done. He remembered the night so many months ago, when Sassone's lawyer had threatened him. 

"The night when Sonny's lawyer threatened me, Nick was there. He heard everything. I asked him what I should do and he told me that I had to tell Danny, that it was his life." 

Don nodded, but he was still tense. "I know; it's just so damn hard to know that this will hurt him." 

Mac smiled sadly. He and Don didn't have much in common, but the urge to protect their lovers was strong in both of them. The difference was that Don trusted Nick to be okay, while Mac had had to learn a hard lesson before he understood that Danny was strong enough. He had learned something else too though. "It will hurt Nick, but he has you to help him through." 

Don smiled and it was an odd mixture of sadness and happiness that made his eyes shine. Mac watched as he walked to the window and looked outside. "Why is it so hard to protect those we love?" 

Don's words hit Mac like a blow and he shivered as he stood next to Don and followed his gaze. It was another lesson he had learned and it too had been a painful one. "Because deep down we know that we can't." 

A violent shiver wracked Don's body but his face was serious as he turned back to Mac. "Thanks, Mac." 

He left the room and Mac watched him leave. He remembered something Gibbs had told him and as he thought of Tony and what he was going through right now, he felt another fist squeeze his heart together. 

It's the hardest lesson in love, to know that I can't protect him against everything without losing him. 

--- 

+Washington DC+ 

"I know he's innocent and all I find is evidence that he's done it." 

Stella felt pity for Abby. It had to be a nightmare to be the one to find every single piece of evidence that pointed towards her friend. The feeling of being useless nagged at Stella. They had been able to process the fibers and Abby had matched the bite imprints, but instead of proving Tony's innocence, the evidence had only gotten worse. 

The fibers matched the carpet in Tony's car, and the bite was a perfect match to the dental records they had on Tony's file. Abby looked tired and dejected, and Stella understood her only too well. She remembered the shooting where everything had pointed at Danny, and she knew how the younger lab tech felt. 

Sheldon was with Ducky. They still hadn't been able to determine who she was and when she had died. It was a hard blow for Gibbs, she knew. Without a clear time of death, he was unable to provide Tony with an alibi and as she once more looked at what little evidence they had found, she sighed.  

Her eyes fell onto the man on the other side of the lab. Gil Grissom had walked into the NCIS office about fifteen hours ago and had calmly told them that Nick had asked him to help Tony. He had spoken with Ducky, then with Gibbs, and just like that had taken over the investigation. Stella had been surprised by the intensity around the other man. She had heard of his reputation, had seen the respect in Nick's eyes when he spoke about him, but as he had stood in the middle of the lab, she had wondered whether he would be able to live up to his reputation. She still wasn't sure now, ten hours later; he had a quick grasp of every thing, had understood the problem of the evidence immediately, but like her and Sheldon he hadn't been able to produce a miracle. 

He was even more reclusive than Mac though, and she could easily see how he and Nick had clashed not because of a lack of respect from the younger man, but simply because it was hard to find two people more different than Gil Grissom and Nick Stokes. Right now, he was bent over some crime scene photos and shook his head while he frowned. Looking up he met Stella's eyes and smiled lightly. "Is Dr. Hawkes in the morgue?" 

Grissom didn't wait for Stella's answer; instead, he hurried out of the room and Stella exchanged a look with the lab tech shrugging slightly. They followed Grissom and found him at the morgue with Sheldon. Ducky was there too and threw her a smile while Gibbs didn't even seem to notice them. He stared at the dead woman as if she could tell him who the real killer was. 

"Dr. Hawkes, how long ago was she killed did you say?" 

He was the only one who consequently used everyone's titles and as he now looked at Gibbs, Stella could see that he wasn't happy about his presence. The fact that he didn't say anything proved, that despite Nick claiming otherwise, Gil Grissom had a sense of self-preservation. 

"We can't determine a clear time of death, but she has been dead for about a month." 

Stella watched as Grissom processed the information and then turned towards Gibbs. "Is there a meeting room, we can talk?" 

Surprised at the question, Gibbs looked at Grissom and his eyes were both cold and hopeful. Ducky, however pointed towards the stairs. "First floor." 

Grissom followed Ducky without saying anything, and after exchanging a look with Sheldon and Gibbs, Stella followed them. No one spoke anything until they were in the meeting room and the door was closed behind them. Gibbs leaned against the door almost as if he wanted to prevent anyone from leaving before he said they could. His eyes were once again fixed on Grissom and his voice was impatient as he addressed him. "Why are we here?" 

The CSI looked up and gave him a pacifying smile before he got up and put the crime scene photos onto the table. "To summarize and decide on how to go on further." 

For a moment, Gibbs wanted to oppose, but his and Grissom's eyes met and he nodded slowly. 

"You and your team were called after a female body was found dead in the storage room of a Navy training camp. You collected the evidence right at the scene, which consisted of a scalpel, two latex gloves and some fibers. Furthermore, you had bite marks on the woman's legs. 

Ms. Sciuto processed the evidence and found a fingerprint on the scalpel. The print matched the prints of Agent DiNozzo. Later tests proved that the fibers found at the body were consistent with the carpet from Agent DiNozzo's car and Doctor Hawkes was able to match the teeth imprints to Agent DiNozzo's dental records. So far we have no certain time of death and no identity of the woman. Have I forgotten anything?" 

Listening to the calm listing of evidence against Tony made Stella shiver and she saw how Gibbs had paled. His eyes were shuttered, but she knew the expression from Mac and would have bet a lot of money on the fact that in his soul, Jethro Gibbs was crying out for help. 

"So far the evidence, if we look at it out of context, is damning to Agent DiNozzo, but as I said it's out of context and as such misleading." 

Sheldon and Stella exchanged a look and she shrugged at the confusion in his eyes. 

"First take a look at the victim. We couldn't find her in any databases; she's neither in the state's missing person's database nor in the national database. Dr. Mallard found signs of malnutrition and other typical symptoms of a woman living on the street, yet look at her nails." 

She saw it immediately and as she looked at Grissom, shocked, he smiled tightly. 

"She has manicured nails; her hair has recently been dyed and cut. She used self-tanning lotion, she wears make up. Neither of that works with the evidence we get from the autopsy. If I live on the street, I don't care about my nails or my hair. Whoever she was, she recently got off the street and found a way back to live. So why is no one missing her?" 

An idea made her stomach twist and she shivered. "Unless someone helped her get back onto her feet only to kill her later." 

Grissom's eyes held a smile and absurdly Stella felt proud that she had been able to match his line of thoughts. 

"She was no random target; she was targeted because she was someone who would not be missed and that brings us to my second point. She was killed about a month ago, but her body is pristine. She was stored somewhere, somewhere cold and completely sterile. I looked at the samples from her body, and all I found was first grade infestation from insects. From the evidence based on the  insects activity, she had been killed less than a day ago, and not a month back. She was raped, killed and frozen for a month and then dropped in the storage room for you to find." 

Gibbs had come closer and his voice was tinged with respect as he looked at the photos and spoke silently, intently. "How does that help Tony?" 

Grissom looked up and smiled tightly. "I don't know, but it tells us that she was placed so that you would find her. It tells us that whoever killed her knew exactly that apart from NCIS, no one has access to the personal data from NCIS personnel." 

Abby gasped and shook her head. 

"If the FBI had found the print, it would have come back with no match, because the FBI cannot search the NCIS database. They probably would have gotten a warrant for it, but why should they?" 

Stella had watched Abby closely and had seen the hope and confusion in her eyes and so she wasn't surprised when the lab tech spoke harshly. "It doesn't change anything. I mean, okay, you can fake fingerprints, but it does take a lot of skill and half of the time it doesn't work. But even if you get that right, you can't fake teeth imprints." 

Gibbs tensed again and Stella wondered how much longer he would be able to hide his fear from the rest of the team. 

"Actually you can. It's not easy, but you can fake them. All you need is access to the real data..." He trailed off and Stella could almost see how a light lit up in his eyes. He turned towards Gibbs and fixed the other man. 

"Special Agent Gibbs, about three months ago, I received a phone call from Nick Stokes. We talked about several things, among which he mentioned his friend Tony. He told me that Tony was recovering from a concussion due to a fight with a suspect. Is that information correct?" 

Gibbs nodded, but it was obvious that he had no idea why the answer mattered to Grissom, whose attention had already turned to Ducky. 

"Dr. Mallard, did you examine Agent DiNozzo after the incident?" 

Ducky was looking at Grissom with narrowed eyes, but Stella could see understanding dawn in his eyes. She glanced at Sheldon and was surprised at the small grin in her friend's face. "I checked him out, but I didn't look at his teeth." 

Grissom nodded and for the first time since Stella had seen him walk into the NCIS office, he seemed to relax a bit. 

"Ms. Sciuto, you compared the imprint found on our victim's leg with Agent DiNozzo's records on file, is that correct?" 

Stella looked around the room and saw how Gibbs focused completely onto Grissom. He was still tense and she knew that he was counting the hours they had left, but she could also see hope in the blue eyes as he now looked at Grissom. 

"You did this because the fingerprint found at the scene came back to Agent DiNozzo. Still correct?" 

Abby looked at Grissom with wide eyes, but she nodded in agreement. Stella smiled at the awe she saw in Sheldon's face as he looked at Grissom. 

"I need to see Agent DiNozzo and get a new dental imprint from his teeth." 

Gibbs stared at Grissom, but before he could say anything, Ducky walked back into the room. He looked at Grissom and smiled. "Agent Fornell from the FBI is waiting for you; he said he looks forward to chat with you." 

The grimace on Grissom's face was almost comical, but he masked his discomfort immediately and addressed Sheldon with a friendly smile. "Dr. Hawkes, can you join me? Detective Bonasera, can you find out who has access to Agent DiNozzo's dental and medical records and if there is a log, can you check who accessed them?" 

She nodded mutely and felt the tension in the meeting room as everyone understood what Grissom wasn't saying. They remained silent though, as he looked at Ducky. "Lock the body and the morgue and you Ms. Sciuto close away the evidence and any electronic findings. Agent DiNozzo was set up, and the real killer is much closer than we would like." 

He left without a goodbye and Sheldon almost ran to catch up with him. Stella saw how Gibbs was torn between his need to protect Tony and putting his trust into Grissom as he took a step towards the door as if he wanted to follow them. He stopped himself and stood tense at the door while he looked at Ducky. "Explain." 

Ducky's long-winded stories had amused Stella, but this time his explanations were short and to the point. "Tony got a concussion when the perp banged his head against the stairs. The impact was on the side and strong enough to get a concussion. There is a high probability that his teeth were impacted too. I never checked because the impact is rarely enough to cause pain or warrant reconstruction, but it might have changed his imprints." 

Understanding dawned in Gibbs' eyes at the same time as Stella understood, too. Grissom's comment about the real killer being close flashed through her and she shivered. 

"Whoever set him up made a model of his teeth and used the dental records from the lab. They didn't know about the possible effect of the attack." The sudden hope in Gibbs' voice hurt, especially because the CSI in her couldn't forget about the print and the fibers. But Grissom's comments about how easy it was to fake a print made her remain silent as she walked back with Abby. The lab tech showed her how to get the data information and soon enough, Stella was engrossed in checking the access rights. 

"He's a genius." 

Abby's comment came out of the blue, but Stella didn't have to ask who she was talking about. "Yes, he is." 

About an hour ago, she had wondered whether or not Grissom's reputation was exaggerated. Now she had found out that it wasn't. He might be slightly asocial, but behind the cover of a middle-aged nerd, Grissom hid a mind that was sharper than Mac and Gibbs' combined. 

--- 

Tony was lying on the cot in the holding cell, his hands doubling as a cushion, and he had his eyes closed. He knew that at least at the surface he looked as if he didn't have a care in the world and he smirked as the thought entered his mind. 

It was as far from the truth as it got. 

He was terrified. 

Fornell had come to him and told him about the new evidence against him. It felt to Tony as if he were stuck in a nightmare; they had his prints, his teeth marks and his car's carpet fibers. Tony swallowed the bile that threatened to make him choke. He wasn't going to break down, not here, not in front of all those FBI agents. A shiver ran through him and he pulled his jacket closer together. He was freezing, although it wasn't cold in the room, and he knew enough about the human body to recognize his reaction as a light shock. He had been set up expertly. Tony knew that he had made enemies every single time he had arrested someone or helped to get a killer convicted, but he had always dismissed the angry looks and the threats as something that just came with the job. 

He had never expected that those threats would come back to haunt him like this. Tony jumped up and started to pace in the tiny cell. He hated the feeling of being constricted in his movements and once again he fought the tremors and concentrated on the man he placed all his hope in. 

Jethro would find a way to get him out and prove his innocence. His lover believed in him and Tony knew that he would do anything to make sure that Tony was safe. The thought made him freeze as the scene in the elevator was suddenly in his mind again. 

"I can't protect you in there." 

Jethro's fear had been tangible in that moment and even now as he thought about it, Tony felt terror form in his belly. His lover had not talked about what he feared, but Tony had seen it in his eyes. Jethro feared for Tony's safety around his inmates. Rationally that didn't make sense, as a federal agent he would not be sent to the same prison blocks as the rest of the prisoners, at least not until he was tried and convicted.  

He could easily get sentenced to death. 

Tony shivered and pushed the thought away. He couldn't think about that now. Tony knew that he would break down if he concentrated on the ‘what if' too much. He couldn't risk that, couldn't risk collapsing, not without Jethro there to hold and catch him. 

Why was Jethro so scared? 

His lover had never been in prison. But even as Tony shook his head, he felt coldness spread through his body until he trembled and slid down onto the floor. A comment from Gibbs ran through his mind, some carelessly spoken words during a case. Tony had dismissed it then, but now thinking back, he tensed. 

They have no idea how nice this is compared to some other places in the world. 

Their team had been investigating allegations of abuse of prisoners by other prisoners and guards. Tony had never thought much about the comment, had just assumed that Gibbs was making a joke. Now though the words suddenly held a deeper meaning and Tony pressed his eyes together in despair. 

Had Jethro been a prisoner in another country once? Had his lover experienced first hand what could happen to a man in prison? 

Tony forgot about his own predicament, as his overactive imagination supplied him with pictures of Gibbs being beaten, of his lover bloodied and bruised lying on the floor with other men standing around him. Tony pressed his hands against his eyes. He didn't want to think of Jethro like that, couldn't stand even the idea of someone hurting his lover. As he took a deep breath, he realized that for the first time since Fornell had walked into the NCIS office, he was on the brink of tears. 

He needed to see Jethro, needed to make sure that his partner was alright. 

"Agent DiNozzo." 

Fornell's voice made him tense, but he got himself under control immediately and stretched his legs in a casual pose. He didn't want to look as if he had huddled on the floor in despair, and with a casual grin, he looked up. "Something I can help you with?" 

Fornell didn't believe his casualness, but Tony knew that Tobias Fornell would not use it against him. He wasn't wearing his mask for the FBI agent, but for the rest of the people in the building. "You've got two visitors." 

Not Jethro then, cause Fornell would have announced his lover differently. Gibbs had called Mac for help, so maybe it was him and Danny visiting him.  

"Send them over." 

As if he would or could refuse, Tony rolled his eyes at the formality and got up slowly when he saw two men approach his cell. He recognized the dark skinned guy immediately and grinned. "Sheldon, now there's a relief. They sent the ME for me..." 

He knew of course that Sheldon wasn't working as an ME anymore, still he was sure that Ducky had gotten a mighty kick out of working with the former medical prodigy. Sheldon grinned and shook his head while Tony's attention turned to the second visitor. 

The man was older, maybe around fifty. He was about as tall as Sheldon and had grey hair and bow shaped legs. He looked slender, but had the typical middle age spread around his midsection. Tony wondered who he was, but the confusion and the questions were forgotten when their eyes met. 

Holy cow! Tony almost gasped, he had always thought that Gibbs was intense, had always felt as if Gibbs could see right at the bottom of his soul with one look, but this guy was on another level. He wasn't just intense, he was deep, intelligent and suspicious. Tony smiled almost at the clear look of caution in the blue eyes, but he kept his face neutral while he held the look. 

Nick had never spoken about yet another team member and Tony was sure that either Danny or Nick would have mentioned if this guy had joined their team. 

"Agent DiNozzo, I'm Gil Grissom. I am consulting with Detective Bonasera and NCIS in your case." 

Gil Grissom? Gil... oh god... 

Tony had heard plenty about the CSI and entomologist who had been Nick's boss. He had read his papers and even used some of the knowledge he had gained from them on cases, but he had never expected to meet him. How the hell did the supervisor from the Las Vegas graveyard shift get involved in a case in Washington DC? "Don't take this wrong, Dr. Grissom, but how did you get into this? I know Gibbs called Mac, but you?" 

Grissom mustered him for a long time, before he smiled a bit. "I am here for a convention next week and Nick called me. He asked me to help you." 

The rush of gratitude that Tony felt made him almost dizzy and he made a mental note to get Nick a really nice present. Gil Grissom was working with Gibbs to get him out. At any other time, the thought of the two working together would have made him grin, now though he locked his eyes with the older man. "Thanks." 

Grissom smiled curtly and waved at Fornell, who opened the cell and led Tony towards an interrogation room. "We need to get a cast from your teeth." 

Sheldon gave him the mold and Tony followed his instructions as he bit onto the soft substance and gave the mold back. "Why do you need this? I thought Abby had already matched the imprints found." 

He saw how Grissom was torn about whether or not to tell him the truth, but after a moment he smiled lightly. "I suspect that someone made a cast according to the records stored in the database. Nick told me about the incident with a criminal that resulted in a concussion. It is possible that the position of your teeth changed due to the impact. 

Tony felt a thrill of hope going through him, when he felt Grissom's eyes on him again. The blue orbs were clear and intent and once again Tony met the stare without flinching. 

"Did you kill her, Agent DiNozzo?"  

It was the first time someone asked him and Tony blinked, surprised. "No, I didn't." 

Once again Grissom held his eyes before he nodded at the guard. Tony however reached out and stopped the older man. "How's Gibbs?" 

He spoke quieter than usual and Grissom answered in the same low voice. "Tense, demanding, stubborn and convinced that you're innocent." 

A smile stole over Tony's face at the words and the almost perfect description of his lover, but the expression faded as Grissom looked at him once again. "He's also scared to death of losing you." 

Tony stared after the CSI and only shook himself back to reality when the door of his cell closed behind him. Nick had never told Grissom about him and Gibbs, and Tony swallowed hard. 

This man really was good. 

--- 

Fornell had waited for Gil Grissom and his assistant to come back from Tony's cell. He approached them as soon as he saw them and stopped them before they could leave. "Dr. Grissom, do you have a second?" 

He watched as they stopped and talked and then waited as Grissom walked back towards him. Sheldon Hawkes left the office and Fornell saw that Grissom was frowning as he came closer. "How can I help you?" 

It was obvious that he didn't want to help him at all, Fornell thought with a smile. He didn't give in though and pointed at the visitor's chair while he sat down behind his desk. "I was wondering how you got involved in this?" 

Grissom narrowed his eyes for a moment, but just as Fornell wanted to ask again, the other man answered. "A friend asked me to support NCIS with my expertise." 

There was more to that story, and folding his hands, Fornell studied Gil Grissom. He had heard and read a lot about the famous and infamous entomologist and most of what he had read and heard clashed with him being here now. 

"Okay, let me ask differently then. How come a man like you, a man whose reputation is one to never listen to anything but the evidence comes here and disregards all the evidence found?" 

The words hit right on target; Fornell saw how Grissom sat straighter for a moment before he smiled coldly. "Probably for the same reason why you allowed CSI personnel from New York to work this case instead of handing it over to your lab." 

Touché, Fornell acknowledged the answer with a nod and a smile. "Gibbs asked and I owed him a favor." 

Grissom smiled lightly and suddenly Fornell found his eyes caught in the other man's stare. "Nick Stokes used to work for me. He is a friend of Tony and when he heard about what happened, he called and asked me for help." 

Once again, he knew that he was only told part of a story, but then he hadn't told Grissom the complete truth either. It didn't seem to matter though as Grissom leaned a bit forward in his chair and still held his eyes. "And apart from that, we both know exactly that he didn't kill her." 

Surprised at the conviction in Grissom's voice, Fornell shrugged. "Evidence points to him." 

Their eyes met again and Fornell smiled at the intelligence and intensity he saw in the blue depth. "Agent DiNozzo is too smart to leave so much evidence behind." 

--- 

Sheldon was already scanning the new teeth model that they had gotten from Tony when Grissom walked into the lab. The New Yorker was chatting with Abby while he worked and for a moment Grissom stood in the door and watched the two interact. 

Abby, he had already decided, was someone he would love to have in his lab, even though he wasn't sure whether the lab would survive Greg and Abby together. She had a brilliant mind and a broad knowledge that impressed him; her analysis and her technique made him nod in appreciation. He had read one or two of her papers but he had never expected her to be so exuberant, so vibrant. 

Sheldon on the other hand confused Grissom. He didn't doubt that the former ME was on his way to become a top CSI, but there was something odd about him. Grissom couldn't put his finger on it, but sometimes it felt as if he should know Sheldon from somewhere. It was weird, but so many of Sheldon's movements seemed almost too familiar to him. 

"You okay?" 

Detective Bonasera stood next to him and he smiled at her. He had liked her at sight and smiled as he remembered Nick's description of her. 

"She's like a cross between Greg and Warrick, scary as that sounds." 

He had to admit that it was a fairly accurate description, only he would have added that she also had a lot of Catherine's mother hen in her, and she was a great CSI. She smiled as her eyes followed his gaze and landed on Sheldon. "Does he remind you of someone?" 

The surprise he felt, gave way to an understanding smile as he looked at her. "Nick is training him, isn't he?" 

It made sense now, the odd familiarity that he couldn't place. Sheldon had, without noticing it, started to copy some traits from Nick and Grissom grinned a bit. "Well, if he starts calling you ‘y'all', then you have to get worried." 

Stella chuckled fondly. "We've got bets placed on Don slipping and saying it, but of course he knows and is especially careful around us." 

Grissom wanted to answer when he noted a man walking into the lab. "Excuse me sir, but you can't walk in here." 

The stranger wore a white lab coat and frowned at Grissom in response. "I work here." 

Noting the lack of a nametag on the coat, Grissom fixed the bald man coldly. "Not long as I assume from the lack of a name on your coat." 

Abby had turned around during the conversation and walked over with blazing eyes. "Where the hell have you been? I'm flat out with analysis and you just disappeared." 

Then she turned towards Grissom and Stella with a smile while she nodded towards the newcomer. "Chip, my assistant." 

Grissom noted how Stella tensed almost imperceptive and he glanced at her. She studied Chip with intent eyes, before she turned around. "I'll be at Tony's desk checking some leads." 

Chip had followed Abby and Grissom watched him closely. There was something about the other man that made him suspicious. 

"Look Chip, I can't have you work on this, but McGee and Ziva are following up on the dead girl's identity. They have various things to be analyzed, can you check with them?" 

Chip nodded, but Grissom saw how he tensed as he saw Sheldon bent over a microscope. "Who are you?" 

Sheldon looked up from the model he was studying and gave Chip a friendly smile. "Sheldon Hawkes, CSI from New York." 

Chip obviously wanted to say something when Abby turned around with a glare. "Can you make a move? We are working here." 

Chip left the lab and Grissom finally stepped inside and walked over to Abby and Sheldon. "Abby, I had a thought about this print and remembered something. Can I take a look at the knife again?" 

She handed it over to him and Grissom started to dust it in order to make the print visible once more. On the cab ride between the FBI and the NCIS offices, he had thought about Paul Milander and his various masks. The second time they had run into the serial killer, he had left a fingerprint behind. It had been Grissom's print, but unlike in Tony's case it had not been planted to implicate him, but to leave a message. 

The technique they had used back then to prove that it wasn't Grissom's print was useless here, but Grissom remembered Eric talking about a car in Miami. He stopped dusting for a moment and dialed Eric's number. 

"Eric, you told me about this case where the killer planted someone's prints at the crime scene. Do you remember the details?" 

Eric was silent for a moment, and then he apologized. He hadn't worked the case himself, and while he remembered what it was about, he didn't remember all the specific details. "So you can't remember how it was planted?" 

Eric didn't, but he knew who did. Grissom put the phone down when he felt someone watching him. He turned slightly and a shiver ran through him as he saw Chip's eyes shooting daggers at him. He wanted to ask Abby about her assistant, when his phone rang. "Grissom." 

The voice on the other end was familiar and he smiled at Horatio Caine's curt introduction. The Miami CSI came immediately to the point. "Eric told me that you're interested in how a print can be planted?" 

Without giving Horatio any details or names, Grissom gave him a short overview of the case. Horatio didn't comment on it, instead started to explain how their case had worked out. "The DA was an idiot; he'd sent that guy to the chair knowing that he was innocent." 

Even years after it had happened, Grissom could still hear the outrage in Horatio's voice. He smiled at it, but quickly thanked the Lieutenant and disconnected the phone. Horatio's story had confirmed what he had thought and he put the print under the microphone. The relief he felt was almost comical, after all he always proclaimed that he didn't care about guilt or innocence. "The print is a fake." 

He said it calmly, but Abby and Sheldon tensed as if he had exploded a bomb in their midst. They both stared at the print on the large screen. "Do you see this? It's inverted." 

Abby frowned but Grissom saw how Sheldon made the connection. "Someone took a cast from Tony's prints and planted the print from it on the knife." 

Nick had certainly taught this one well. Grissom smiled as he nodded and then looked around for Gibbs. "Where's Agent Gibbs?" 

Abby shrugged. "With Tony, where else?" 

--- 

--- 

*Chapter 5 – Nothing's ever finished* 

+Washington DC+ 

Jethro watched as Tony slid down along the bars until he sat on the floor. His hand reached out and Jethro immediately caught it and pressed it tight. He was aware of the cameras in the hallway and he hated the fact that he couldn't do more, hated the fact that even something as small as holding Tony's hand would look odd. He released it and some part of his soul cried out. 

"I'm not getting out of this, am I?" 

Tony's voice was hoarse as if he had only now understood how grave his situation was. Jethro shivered mentally at the thought of Tony in a prison and he shook his head. "You didn't do anything. We'll get you out." 

Hazel eyes full of defeat stared at him and Jethro wanted nothing more than to see them full of joy again. He wanted to break something, wanted to jump up and do something, but he was unable to help Tony and it drove him nearly out of his mind. 

"I'm the perfect guy for this, aren't I? Playboy reputation and all... What if Grissom can't find anything?" 

Fixing Tony with his eyes, Jethro reached through the bar and head-slapped his lover. It wasn't a hard slap, but Tony straightened immediately and Jethro watched with relief as his eyes cleared and narrowed. "We'll get you out." 

It was a promise and as if Tony had suddenly understood, his eyes widened in shock. He wanted to shake his head, but Jethro glared at him and he swallowed hard.  

"We'll get you out." He wanted to say more, when his phone rang and he picked it up with a frown. "Talk to me." 

Abby's voice was excited, and he could almost see her bouncing up and down in his mind as she told him about Grissom's findings. For a moment the words didn't register in Jethro's mind, but when they did, he didn't dare to believe them and he tensed momentarily. "You're sure?" 

The hope in his voice was audible and Tony immediately looked up, and Jethro's heart broke at the hope in the hazel eyes. He couldn't let Tony down now, and thanking Abby , he rested his head against the bars for a moment and met Tony's eyes slowly. "They proved that the fingerprints and the teeth imprints were faked." 

Tony shivered violently as he understood and Jethro wanted to hold him, but instead he forced himself to walk away from Tony's cell and look for Fornell. He was sure the FBI would let Tony go now. Fornell was already walking towards them as Jethro met him, and the FBI agent smiled and looked at Tony. 

"Agent DiNozzo, I just got word from Dr. Grissom. You are free to go." 

He walked closer and opened the door to the cell, and it was all Jethro could do to not hug Tony then. Fornell looked at Jethro, and Jethro saw the open smile. 

"Make sure he doesn't leave town, okay?" Fornell shook his head with a grin and pointed towards the camera. "It's in repair." 

Jethro nodded and almost afraid that he was dreaming, he watched as the other man walked away without turning back once. Looking at the camera, he smiled at Tony and pulled him close. The moment his lover was in his arms, all his fears and all the tension in his muscles disappeared. Jethro felt as if Tony was melting against him and he shivered with relief at the closeness. 

"I love you." 

Tony trembled at the whispered words and as he looked up, Jethro saw the love in his eyes. "And I you." 

--- 

"What have you found?" 

Stella looked up when she saw McGee stand next to her. She gave him a friendly smile ; she felt for the younger man, but she shook her head. "I'm sorry, Agent McGee, but I can't answer your question." 

His face fell, but before he could say anything, Ziva spoke. Stella tensed automatically because she remembered only too well how Ziva had attacked Nick only a couple of months ago. "McGee, if Detective Bonasera tells you, her findings might not get accepted by Fornell and I've got a lead on the woman. Come on, let's go." 

The reasonable voice and comment from the other woman surprised Stella, and as she glanced at Ziva and their eyes met, she saw concern and honesty in the dark eyes. For a moment, Ziva smiled, before she turned and walked towards the elevator. Stella's eyes followed her surprised and for a moment she wondered whether she should try to talk to Ziva again. 

"Detective Bonasera?" Grissom's voice pulled her from his thoughts and she turned around with a jerk. He smiled at her and she saw that the smile reached his eyes. 

"I just talked to Agent Fornell and told him about our results. He agreed to release Tony on the condition that he doesn't leave Washington." 

Stella sighed deeply and murmured a silent thank you, before she reached for the phone to call Nick, but Grissom's hand on hers stopped her. 

"What have you found? Is it someone from the lab?" 

Shocked at his insight, she nodded slowly. "Tony's file has only been accessed twice in the last three months. Once it was the director's secretary and she only added a recommendation, but the second time it was Chip. He accessed every single file, including Tony's dental records." 

Grissom nodded and she saw that he wasn't surprised, but she wasn't done yet. "I did some background checks on him. He worked for the CSI lab in Peoria ; he manipulated evidence and Tony found out. Chip lost his job and got convicted for manipulation of evidence." 

She had managed to surprise him and Stella was surprised at the thrill that she felt when Grissom's blue eyes looked at her with clear approval. It felt good, she thought, and suddenly remembered something Nick had told her. 

He rarely praised anyone, but when he told me that I'd done a great job, it felt really good. 

Stella had always thought that he had exaggerated and she smiled lightly. Nick had been right ; it felt great. 

"He had access to Tony's files, to his car and to the materials needed to fake both a fingerprints and teeth imprints. He had ability, access and a motive. He's been around for exactly long enough to know that Tony has a reputation as a lady-killer. Anyone would believe that he had a one night stand with a girl and not remember her name or face." 

His mind was a sharp as a knife and Stella nodded slowly as the entire picture started to unfold. She could see it in her mind could almost see how Chip had sat in the lab at night and worked on the false prints and the teeth imprints. A shiver went through her and she shook her head. "Why did he pass the background check?" 

Grissom shrugged and looked as confused as he did. "I have no idea." 

The elevator doors opened and Stella turned around and couldn't help the huge smile on her face when she saw Gibbs and Tony stepping out of it. Gibbs looked drawn, but Tony looked as easy going and carefree as he had looked in New York ; still, as Stella looked closer, she saw the tension in his shoulders and the shadows under his eyes.  

"Tony." 

She got up and reacted instinctively as she walked over and hugged Tony tightly. "Welcome back, Tony." 

He held onto her and she felt how he trembled in her arms. She exchanged a look with Gibbs and saw that he was as pale as Tony was. He too had shadows under his eyes, but his eyes were full of gratitude as he looked at Stella and Grissom. "Thank you." 

Stella saw that Grissom nodded and turned away for a moment. Stella saw that he was tense, but as he turned back from the window, he looked calm. "We know who set Tony up." 

---- 

Jethro tensed at Grissom's words. The older man had spoken slowly almost hesitantly and he knew immediately why. Jethro was not a part of the investigative team and he understood that Grissom would not tell him anything else ; he still asked though. "Who is it?" 

Grissom smiled and shook his head. "You know that I can't tell you." 

A part of Jethro admired Grissom for not giving an inch and meeting his stare with cold blue eyes. For a moment their eyes held, and finally Jethro nodded slowly as he accepted the fact that he had met his match. "Call Fornell." 

Grissom nodded quietly, but before he could reach for his phone, Stella's cell phone rang. She frowned at something and Jethro watched as she picked up and paled. "What's wrong?" 

She shook her head and pressed a button on the phone. Chip's voice came over the loudspeaker and Jethro saw how Grissom tensed. "This is all your fault. How could you tell Gibbs? He got the new guys in and now they have blown my plan. Couldn't you just follow protocol and call the director after detecting DiNozzo's print?"  

Jethro exchanged a look with Tony and wanted to run down into the lab and kill the bastard who had set his lover up. He was frozen though as he listened to Chip's ranting about Tony and how it was all Abby's fault that his plan hadn't worked. 

"Calm down and put the knife down, Chip. You can't take both of us, not without alerting someone. Listen, why don't you let Abby go and we'll talk about everything?" Sheldon Hawkes calm voice resonated through the room and Jethro's respect for the younger CSI rose as he realized that Hawkes had called them and now gave them all the information they needed to take Chip down. 

"Why would I want to talk to you? You're like Tony... you'd rat me out in an instant. No, you'll both..." 

They had all listened almost in trance, but at the scream of pain that sounded through the phone, the trance was broken and Jethro was already reaching for his gun while he sprinted towards the stairs. He wouldn't take the elevator, it took too much time and then there was the risk that Chip might notice. 

"I've got your six." Soft words were murmured in his ear as he stopped at the door that led towards the lab and he quickly looked back and exchanged a glance with Tony. He hadn't expected anything else from his lover and counting to three he opened the door. The scene that he was greeted with made him freeze and fear for the worst. 

Abby was bent over Sheldon and murmurs made Jethro shiver. He glanced around and saw the open door on the left side. "Abby, where's Chip?" 

She pointed towards the door that led towards the morgue and the hallway, while her other hand pressed onto Sheldon's wound. Jethro saw how pale Sheldon had become, and he felt torn between wanting to go after Chip and staying to help Sheldon. For a moment he hesitated, but Stella waved him on. "Go after him, I'll make sure Sheldon's ok." 

Thankful that she had given him free reign, he drew his gun and ran into the direction Chip had fled. He dreaded what he would find in the morgue, but apart from a chair, which had been toppled over, there were no signs of a struggle. Ducky must have been away when Chip had made his run, and Jethro was relieved. He didn't want his oldest friend harmed. The corridor behind the morgue was empty too, but at the end there was an open door and as Jethro walked into the next room, he saw Chip struggling with the locked door that led to the underground parking. Jethro lifted his weapon and called Chip's name. He felt deep satisfaction at the way the other man froze, and as Chip turned around Jethro smiled as he watched the fear grow stronger and stronger with each step he took towards the killer. Finally, he was standing right in front of Chip and held his weapon trained at the other man's head. "Give me a reason, just a simple twitch, and I'll shoot you." 

He wasn't sure whether or not he wished for Chip to move; there was a large part in him that wanted to kill the man who had threatened his lover, but the smarter part of his brain told him that he needed Chip's confession. Tony would only be cleared completely if they had a signed confession of the real killer. Still, he held Chip at gunpoint until he heard footsteps behind him and felt strong, but tender hands on his shoulders. "We got him, Boss." 

Grissom and Stella had followed Tony, and Jethro watched as Stella cuffed Chip while Tony read him his rights. Fornell walked in right as they were finished and nodded at Grissom. "Great job." 

Chip glared at both the CSI and the FBI agent, but before he could say anything, Tony stepped in front of him. Jethro wanted to hold his lover back, but he knew that it would look odd to those who didn't know the truth. He sighed silently as Tony looked at Chip with contempt in his hazel eyes. "Who was she?" 

Chip seemed surprised and frowned. "Who was who?" 

Jethro saw how Tony tensed, but his lover held himself back and simply explained with cold hard eyes. "The woman you killed to get me convicted." 

Chip shrugged carelessly. "No one that matters." 

Tony lunged for him, but having expected the reaction Jethro grabbed him in time and held him back. "Stop it, DiNozzo." 

Tony fought his grip for a moment, but soon gave in and slumped back into his arms. Their eyes met and Jethro saw the terror and despair that lurked in Tony's eyes, and once again he cursed the need for secrecy and silently promised Tony that he would be there for him later. 

"Sorry, Boss." The low words told Jethro that his lover had understood and he released him with a heavy heart. 

"How is Sheldon?" He hadn't really thought about the other man; he had been too focused on capturing Chip than to think about what had happened to Sheldon. Now though he remembered Abby's frantic murmurs and the hand she had pressed onto a bleeding wound. He looked around concerned, but Grissom calmed his fears immediately. "He's alright ; Chip hit his arm and the wound was bleeding heavily, but it was only superficial. Ducky is checking him out right now." 

Fornell looked surprised between Grissom and Chip and questioned Grissom immediately. "What wound?" 

Jethro listened to Grissom's explanation and frowned. Sheldon had stepped in between Chip and Abby when the killer had tried to stab her. Realizing that once again a New Yorker had saved a member of his team, he made a mental note to thank not only Sheldon but also Mac. 

Fornell nodded at the explanation and Jethro watched as he led Chip away. His eyes caught Tony's and he saw the relief in them. 

It was over. 

--- 

Mac was studying the files that the Vegas PD had sent over and the more he read about Nick's case, the sicker he felt. It was one thing to have Nick tell him the story, but it was something completely different to see the evidence of what had happened. He glanced at the box they had dug up, the one where they had found nothing but a dead dog in it and a shudder went through him. He wasn't sure whether or not he would have survived in Nick's place. 

"Mac, are you alright?" Danny's voice pulled him from his morbid thoughts and he looked up to see his lover lean in the door. Danny looked content, he thought, his body relaxed and his green-grey eyes unguarded. Mac smiled and waved him in. Danny had a right to know what had been going on in the last hours. "What's wrong?" 

The joy had disappeared from Danny's eyes and Mac regretted the disappearance. He smiled a bit and decided to give his lover the good news first. "Tony has been cleared. They found the real killer and he confessed to setting Tony up." 

Mac saw the relief in Danny's eyes. His partner had known better than most what Tony had been going through. Mac remembered the relief and gratefulness in Gibbs' voice and he had understood the other Marine only too well. 

"Great! So Stella and Sheldon are on their way back then?" 

Mac nodded, but before he could say anything else, he saw the naughty grin on Danny's face and it made him anticipate Danny's next words. "I bet he and Gibbs have a lot to celebrate tonight." 

Although he didn't want to think about Gibbs and Tony in that way, he couldn't help the image that appeared in front of his eyes. He shook his head and smiled fondly at Danny. "I guess they will, yes." 

Danny grinned again, but he turned serious almost immediately. "So if you got such good news, why the long face before?" 

Trust his lover to go straight to the point. Mac pointed at the files on his desk and sighed. "Nick's case..." 

For a moment Danny frowned in confusion, but as soon as he understood, he paled. "Why do you have them?" 

Sighing again, Mac told Danny about Grissom's phone call to Don and the call that Mac had received from Las Vegas. He saw the changing emotions in Danny's eyes, saw the confusion change into disbelief and then finally into fear and anger. He understood the combination only too well, but he also saw the underlying and yet overpowering emotion that drove Danny. It wasn't fear or anger, it was concern and it was the reason for Danny's next question. "Does Nick know?" 

Checking his watch, Mac shook his head and looked at Danny. "Don is telling him tonight." 

--- 

Danny's mind was reeling as Mac had finished his tale about Kelly Gordon. He didn't know whether he was angry at Grissom or at Gordon, or if he was afraid that something might happen to Nick. The only thing he did know was that the revelation of Grissom's silence was going to hurt Nick. "I'm glad that Don's smarter than Grissom." 

He hadn't meant to speak as harshly, and he winced mentally as Mac flinched. Danny wanted to apologize, but before he could say anything Mac stopped him. "Don came to me for advice, and I told him that I almost lost you because I wanted to keep you safe and didn't want to hurt you..." 

Danny heard the unspoken apology in the softly spoken words and he pushed his concerns about Nick aside and focused on his lover. Mac looked tired and drawn and Danny wanted to comfort him, wanted to make him relax and forget about the real world. A thought crossed his mind and he grinned a bit. "I watched you today." 

For a moment Mac frowned, but the husky quality of Danny's voice didn't go unnoticed and Danny smiled at the shiver that ran through Mac's body. Mac's eyes fixed his and Danny felt himself harden under the dominant look. "When?" 

He held the gaze for a moment longer, before he dropped his eyes in submission and Danny could almost feel Mac's eyes on him as he answered. "When you worked out this morning." 

He knew that he had Mac's full attention and he continued with a soft voice. "You were drenched in sweat, your shirt clinging to your body. I wanted to run my hands all over your body, and I wanted to touch myself while I watched you." 

Mac was out of his chair and standing close to Danny within seconds, and Danny felt a thrill go through him when Mac's hands forced his head up. "Did you touch yourself?" 

Danny had to force himself to meet Mac's eyes and not drop onto his knees. Mac had used the voice he only used when they played, and Danny had developed an almost Pavlovian reaction to it. A shudder went through him as he fought with himself to shake his head and not react in any other way. Mac's answer though made him gasp as his lover grasped his hard cock and caressed it through his pants. "I should make you wear a cock ring during the day." 

The whispered words made Danny tense but his cock obviously liked the idea and Mac smiled and squeezed him once more, before he stepped back and released Danny. "Go home and prepare yourself." 

Danny shivered at the promise in the few words and nodded while he dropped his eyes to the floor. "I will." 

--- 

"We need to talk." 

Nick hated it when Don looked like he did now. Whenever his lover's eyes were this serious, his lips thin lines and his body tense, Nick knew that the ensuing conversation wasn't going to be a pleasant one. He sighed and sat down onto the couch while Don remained standing. He could feel that Don was unsure as to what to tell him and partly concerned, partly confused he looked at him. "What's wrong?" 

Don startled as if the question had woken him from sleep and Nick frowned. His lover's behavior started to worry him. "I got a call from Gil Grissom today." 

Whatever Nick had expected, it certainly hadn't been that. Don sighed and sat down next to him, took his hand into his and met his eyes. Nick wanted to ask what Grissom's call had to do with Don's mood, but his lover had already started to speak again. "He wanted to warn me, tell me that Kelly Gordon has left Nevada and flown to New York." 

For a moment Nick didn't understand, why had Grissom called Don and not himself? Even more, why had he not mentioned anything when they had spoken only hours ago? Grissom had called him to tell him that Tony was safe and had been cleared ; why had he not mentioned Kelly Gordon? The questions only lasted for a minute, then his rational thinking kicked in and wit it came the feeling of betrayal. "He asked you not to tell me, didn't he?" 

Don shook his head, but his eyes told Nick the truth, and yet they also held something deeper and Nick pressed the hand that Don still held as he half demanded, half pleaded his lover to give him an answer. "There's more, isn't there? Please Don, what is it?" 

Don looked tired, sad, but Nick realized with surprise that he also looked angry. "Walter Gordon didn't plan your abduction alone. There was a second person involved." 

Don's words felt like daggers thrown at his soul and Nick shivered even as he shook his head in denial. "It's not possible, he's dead. How do you know?" 

But even as he asked, he understood that Grissom had told Don. Hurt and betrayal made him tense up and he wanted to scream at Don even though he knew that his lover was innocent. "When did Grissom know?" 

Don met his eyes and the understanding and love Nick read in the blue eyes made him calm down a bit. Don's hands pulled him towards his lover and he smiled as he felt the strong body and heard the regular beat of Don's heart. He felt safe. "They knew for a while, but Grissom didn't want to upset you." 

Lifting his head to once again meet Don's eyes, Nick didn't comment on Don's words. Instead he smiled bitterly. "He told you that? I bet he told you also to keep silent. Why did you tell me?" 

Don's eyes widened for a moment, and he lifted his hand to caress Nick's face as he shrugged. "You have a right to know." 

Nick felt love swamp him at the words and he realized that Don also hadn't wanted to tell him, but loved him enough to still do it. "Thanks." 

Don cradled him against his body and Nick felt the concern and fear that had gripped him only minutes ago, give way to a feeling of security and love. Kelly Gordon was in New York, but he wasn't afraid. She couldn't terrify him anymore; the memory of what her father had done didn't have the power to destroy him anymore. Nick was surprised to realize that he didn't feel threatened by her presence, instead he felt safe, safe in Don's arms and safe in the knowledge that he had survived. "Who else knows?" 

He knew Grissom, knew that his former supervisor would never notify only one person and Don's smile confirmed his thinking. "Mac and I guess he will tell Danny." 

Don's eyes were still concerned, and as if he wanted to comfort Nick or maybe explain Grissom's behavior, he started to speak again. "I talked to him after Grissom's phone call. I didn't want to tell you, you know? I was afraid I would hurt you. But Mac told me that I couldn't protect you from life..." 

Nick smiled; he could see Mac say that and he knew that Mac had learned the truth the hard way. "So you told me, because he told you to?" 

Don tensed and shook his head. "No, I always knew that I had to tell you. I didn't want to, but I knew that I had no choice. Mac only pointed out to me that you weren't alone, that I couldn't protect you from hurting, but that I could be there for you when it happened." 

Nick smiled silently and once more felt the safety Don's arms and his love gave him. He nodded silently and lifted his head to kiss Don. "I know, Don, I know. I'm not alone, you're with me." 

The soft words made Don shiver and Nick snuggled closer. He didn't want to think about Grissom's betrayal right now or about Kelly Gordon being in New York. He didn't want to focus on the fact that someone else had been involved in his kidnapping, someone who was still out there maybe waiting for another chance. Right now, he wanted to be close to the man he loved. "I love you." 

The shiver that ran through Don's body as a response to his words told Nick everything about Don's fears and concerns. He kissed the soft skin at Don's neck and smiled at the moan that escaped Don. "Thanks for telling me." 

Don's eyes met his and Nick shivered at the love and fierce protectiveness he saw in them. "Thanks for being there." 

Don's lips found his and the kiss they shared was tender and loving, once more their eyes met and Don promised solemnly. "I'll be there forever." 

--- 

*Chapter 6 – Reconnecting for a night* 

+Washington DC+ 

They hadn't gotten a second alone together since Tony had been released and he ached for a moment with Jethro. He needed just a second to feel his lover's arms around him, to hear him say that everything was over, that it was alright again, that they were safe. But the aftermath was endless and when Fornell left for good, Tony felt drained. He sank into his chair and stared at his gun and his badge. It had been the first thing that Gibbs had done after they had walked back into the NCIS office, and Tony knew the significance of his lover handing him both his gun and his badge back. It had been the tangible proof of Jethro's trust in him. 

He also knew that it was more. The two items represented who he was. They made him an NCIS agent; they made him one of Gibbs' people. 

"Agent DiNozzo, what are you doing here?" 

Hearing the director's sharp voice wasn't his favorite thing in a good day and he certainly hadn't had a good day today, and so he barely looked up. He didn't trust her as far as he could toss her, but he knew that as long as she saw him as a dumbass playboy, he was safe. "I'm finishing my report." 

Her eyes were cold as she fixated on him and pointed towards the elevator. 

"You are suspended until further notice. Your involvement with the killer will be the matter of an internal investigation, and until the investigation is finished I do not want to see you in this building." 

Her words were like a slap in his face, but before Tony could even think of anything to say, Gibbs interrupted their conversation. "There will be no investigation. Tony had nothing to do with Chip. Stop your witch hunt, Jen." 

Jethro wasn't even trying to be polite, and Tony almost held his breath when the director turned towards his lover, but Jethro simply fixed her with a cold glare and continued. "Call it off, Jen, or I'll call them and tell them to make sure they check how it was possible for Chip to get a job here..." 

It was a clear threat and Tony tensed as the implications of what Jethro had said settled in his brain. He hadn't thought that far ahead yet, but now that he did he shivered. His eyes met Jethro's, and he saw the steel hardened determination. "Go home, DiNozzo; you've had a lousy day. Take tomorrow off and relax. I'll see you on Monday in the office." 

They all had had a lousy day, Tony thought. But he didn't say it; instead, he shut down his computer and presented a sloppy salute to Jethro. The look he got from the director made him almost smile, but the fire in Jethro's eyes made him shiver. The blue eyes were burning and the longing and possessiveness in them floored him. "Thanks, Boss, I'll see you." 

He left and got into his car to drive home, but as soon as he sat inside he saw the carpet on the floor, and the reality of what had happened today crashed onto him. Tony clutched the wheel like a lifeline as his body started to tremble. He didn't cry, but the desperate shivering didn't stop and Tony didn't dare start the car. He was in no condition to drive and with an effort he got himself under control enough to get out. His hands were trembling as he reached for his phone and called a cab. 

Tony held on to the frail control on the short ride home. He even managed to chat amicably with the driver, but the mask fell as soon as he had closed the door behind his back. The trembling and shivering started again and this time he didn't hold the tears back. He leaned against the wall until his legs couldn't hold him up anymore, but as he started to slide down along the wall, he was stopped by two strong arms. Tony tensed and froze, but the soft kiss to his temple made him sigh and relax. 

"Shhh... I've got you. I'm here."  

Jethro's voice penetrated the trembling and Tony relaxed slowly. He tried to smile, but it didn't work and he shook his head in defeat. "I'm sorry; I don't know what that was." 

Somehow he expected to see contempt at his breakdown in Jethro's eyes, but to his surprise he saw nothing but love, and once more he realized how deeply Jethro felt for him. He smiled again tentatively and reached out to caress Jethro's face. "You got me out, just like you promised." 

The shudder that ran through Jethro was unexpected, but before Tony could dwell on it, his lover leaned down and captured his lips with his. Tony moaned at the possessiveness in Jethro's kiss and the memory of the last day faded as his body woke and he hardened. "Make love to me." 

Jethro's eyes met his as he smiled and nodded. "I will make you forget." 

--- 

Gibbs was still angry from his confrontation with Sheppard, but all his anger vanished as he opened Tony's door and heard the desperate sobbing. Seeing Tony trembling, seeing his strength give in made him freeze, but as he realized that his lover was about to fall down, he moved over quickly and slid his arms around Tony. Tony tensed, but Gibbs didn't even think about releasing him; instead, he kept Tony pressed against his body and softly kissed Tony's temple. "Shhh... I've got you. I'm here." 

The loving words made Tony relax and Gibbs felt how he relaxed in turn when Tony looked up and met his eyes. "I'm sorry; I don't know what that was." 

The confusion and shame in Tony's eyes made his heart break once more. Did Tony really think that he was going to mock him for his beak down? The realization that Tony did indeed think that hit Gibbs hard, but even harder was the understanding that only a few months ago, Gibbs would have mocked him. He wanted to apologize, wanted to tell Tony that he would never laugh at him, but before he could say anything, Tony's hands caressed his face and Gibbs shivered at the tender caress. 

"You got me out, just like you promised." 

The whispered words woke the memories and the fears that had plagued him during Tony's short stay at the holding cell. It provoked an instant reaction and he pressed Tony against his body. The feeling of his lover in his arms calmed his fears, and as he captured Tony's lips, he had to reign in his possessiveness. 

"Make love to me." 

Gibbs felt Tony tremble in his arms and as their eyes met. He saw the love, but also the fear in the hazel eyes, and he understood that Tony needed to forget. "I will make you forget." 

Tony smiled and Gibbs watched as the clouds of fear and sadness disappeared from his face. They moved towards the bedroom, stopping more than once to kiss and touch, and as they finally reached their destination, they were both breathing hard. Clothes were shed and Gibbs' breath stopped as Tony lay back on the bed and spread his legs. His lover looked so wanton and yet so vulnerable, and Gibbs felt an almost desperate need to claim him as his. 

"Make me yours." 

It was as if Tony had read his mind; the plea mirrored Gibbs' wish, and he sighed deeply as he lowered himself onto the bed. Tony was beautiful with his strong, lean body stretched out on the white sheets, hazel eyes beckoning Gibbs to make his move. He smiled as he ran his hands over Tony's soft skin, and Tony moaned as Gibbs tweaked his nipples. Gibbs was almost painfully aroused himself, not only from Tony's touches or the way he looked, but even more from the knowledge that Tony really was his. 

"Take me, please, don't make me wait." 

The soft words were accompanied by Tony's hands traveling down his spine, and Gibbs moaned as the strong fingers caressed his back. He shifted a bit in order to get the lube and a condom, but Tony had already thought ahead and Gibbs grinned as he felt the lube being spread onto his fingers. Tony once more spread his legs and bared himself in the most vulnerable way. Gibbs shivered at the erotic sigh and carefully prepared his lover. Tony's body opened for him and as always Gibbs felt both humbled and aroused at the feeling of those strong muscles yielding to his touch. Tony cried out and bucked his hips, and his eyes were glassy as he grabbed Gibbs' hand. "Enough, I want to feel you." 

Withdrawing from Tony to pull a condom over his cock produced a whimper, and once again he felt a hand stop him. Looking up, he met Tony's eyes and saw the love in them. "You, Jethro; no rubber, no condom, just you, Jethro." 

Gibbs' heart stopped at the promise behind the words and he nodded slowly. "Just me." 

Sliding into Tony was wonderful ; it was heat and tightness and it made him cry out with bliss and love. He could read every emotion in Tony's face and the primal desire to possess took over as he shoved in hard and simultaneously leaned down to suck at his lover's collarbone. 

"Jethro, oh God..." He heard Tony's scream as he touched the hard cock and started to jerk it in time with his thrusts. There was such a deep longing in him, such a need to have Tony as his forever that he screamed and fought when he felt his body start to tingle and shudder. Tony cried his name again and as Gibbs felt Tony's body clench around him, he was lost. He thrust in once or twice more, before he too started to shake uncontrollably and with a moan he spilled his essence into Tony's body. 

"Oh God..." Tony's eyes were dark as Gibbs opened his own eyes again and his hands traced small circles on Gibbs' back. "I can feel you in me." 

The words woke Gibbs from his post-orgasmic haze and he lifted his head as he watched his lover's sated face. They were still connected and the sated expression told Gibbs all he needed to know. Tony was his. 

--- 

*New York* 

By the time Mac had finished his paperwork and was on his way home, his body was tight with anticipation and arousal. He had instructed Danny to get home and prepare himself for a session, but he hadn't told his lover what to use. Now he wondered how his partner would look when he walked into their bedroom. Mac himself already knew what he wanted from Danny today and he smiled as he felt himself harden further. 

They had started to play with bondage and D/S a couple of months ago at Danny's insistence. His lover had seen the desire to possess and dominate in Mac, and instead of being disgusted with him, he had urged Mac to let it out and trust Danny. Mac had been afraid at first, scared that he would hurt Danny, that he would wake memories of Danny's past, but when he had given into Danny's wish, he had found out that Danny's need to submit to him was as deep as his own need to claim. 

Mac opened the bedroom door and gasped. Danny was kneeling next to the bed, naked; his hands were clasped behind his back and his eyes were hidden by a blindfold. Mac closed the door soundlessly and walked over to the bed so that he could look at Danny. His lover had bound his own cock with a silver cockring and Mac saw how the thick column of flesh was already leaking at the tip. He shivered as he noticed the tense lines in Danny's body and understood the tension as he saw that his lover had inserted a large purple dildo into his body. Mac smiled silently; Danny had indeed prepared himself, but he had obviously not expected Mac to stay as long in the office as Mac had ended up staying. 

Mac saw how the dildo started to vibrate slowly and watched silently as Danny's body jerked helplessly under the sensual assault. Some part of him wanted to watch for a bit longer, but another more eager part yearned to caress the tense body and he moved silently as he undressed. A low moan brought his attention back to Danny and once again he admired his lover before he walked closer and gently moved his hands from his shoulders over his arms to his backside. Danny's reaction was immediate as he exhaled deeply and shuddered. 

"Mac." It wasn't a question, nor was it a plea. It was just a statement, almost as if Danny was acknowledging Mac's ownership over him. 

"You look beautiful, Danny." Mac kneeled down beneath his lover and started to move his hands over Danny's body, caressing the soft muscles and at the same time he made sure that he didn't touch Danny's hot spots. He watched how Danny calmed under the soothing touches and waited until his lover relaxed completely before he pulled the dildo from Danny's body and replaced it with three fingers. Danny cried out at the sudden penetration and Mac watched how even more liquid seeped from his lover's bound cock. "I want you to get onto the bed on your hand and feet, but make sure that you don't remove my fingers." 

Danny shivered, but he moved according to Mac's words, and Mac felt both pride and desire as Danny settled onto the bed without dislodging his fingers. He got onto the bed himself and quickly cuffed Danny so that he could move his hands to the headboard, but not to his own cock. With one hand still buried deep inside Danny, he moved Danny's legs apart with the other and leaned down to lick at the quivering ring of muscles. Danny whimpered and Mac smiled at the near desperate sound. He took another swipe with his tongue, before he removed his fingers. 

"Do you want me?" 

He felt Danny go still on the bed and saw the shudder that ran through him at the question. "Please, Mac, please..." 

Mac hadn't expected the heat that ran through him at the pleading words and he leaned down and bit hard onto the tender skin on Danny's neck. "You're mine." 

Danny shivered and moaned and Mac kissed the abused skin. He took Danny with one hard thrust and reveled in the scream that was torn from his partner. Buried deep inside Danny, he waited for a moment before he kissed Danny's back again. "I'll take care of you." 

Once more he kissed his lover and started to move slowly. "I take care of my own." 

--- 

"You're mine." 

Mac's words as he slid into his body made Danny's head spin. He had no idea how long he had waited for his lover, neither did he know how long Mac had been in the room watching him. He felt the hard flesh inside his body move so deeply in his core that he wanted to cry at how right it felt. 

"Yours." His answer was instinctive and he gave Mac everything. Danny felt how he fell apart under the skillful thrusts, the long hard pushes at his sweetest point. The emotions were almost too much, the pleasure already bordering on pain as Mac's hand closed around his bound cock and caressed it. Danny gritted his teeth, but as Mac's teeth once more nipped at his shoulder blade, his control shattered. "Please, Mac... please, let me.." 

Mac's cry of completion made him trail off with a whimper that was both satisfied and pained. The heat that flooded his body from where they were connected almost brought him to the brink, but when Mac moved and uncuffed him, Danny grew alarmed. 

"Shh... it's alright, turn around." 

Trusting Mac and following his order was an instinctive reaction, and Danny heard the sharp intake of breath when he held his hand up as soon as he was lying on his back. Mac cuffed him again and caressed his face. "Close your eyes." 

Danny felt the blindfold being removed and waited a couple of seconds before he blinkingly opened his eyes. Mac's eyes were warm and loving as he leaned down and kissed one of Danny's nipples. It was like an electric shock when Mac's hand gripped Danny's cock hard. He cried out, but the cry died down to a whimper when the ring was removed. Danny tensed as Mac continued to stroke him while he watched Danny closely. Every nerve in Danny's body screamed for completion, but he didn't dare to come unless Mac told him so. Danny whimpered as the slow torturing strokes continued, and he cried out as he suddenly felt another toy penetrate his loosened hole. It was cold and he yelped, but as he understood he shook his head and grinned despite the desperate pleasure that ripped through him. "Mac?" 

His lover smiled at him as he removed the dildo and shoved it back in within seconds. Danny felt Mac's breath at his ear as he whispered. "It was your idea, Danny, remember? It was you who said that we should have one toy in the fridge, to scare Don..." 

Danny whimpered as his prostate was again stroked and slowly he felt himself losing the control over his body. He tried, trembled and fought when Mac's hand caressed his face gently. 

"You're such a wonderful lover. Come for me, Danny." 

As soon as Mac had spoken his words, Danny gave in and his body was jerking in his bonds. He was shivering and crying out as the pent up emotions and the long awaited pleasure flooded his body. He felt Mac's arms around him, felt a soft warm tongue lapping at his come and then everything went dark. 

As he opened his eyes again, he was under the cover, clean and in Mac's arms. Mac was watching him with loving eyes and Danny smiled. "Thank you." 

He snuggled closer to Mac who chuckled a bit. "I thought you don't snuggle." 

Normally Danny would have argued, but he was too satisfied, too tired to care and so he just shrugged. "Only with you." 

Mac kissed his head. "I love you." 

--- 

Nick was sleeping and the soft noises of his breathing rang though the dark room. Don pulled the slender body closer and took a deep breath. He wanted to breathe Nick in, wanted to be as close to his lover as possible, and with that thought, he pushed himself up on one elbow and looked at Nick. 

His lover's face was bare of emotions and he looked younger and much more vulnerable than during the day. Don's heart stopped for a second as he remembered their love making only hours ago. It had been tender and yet so passionate. Nick had mapped Don's body with his hands and lips had focused completely on his lover and Don had only been able to take what ever Nick gave. Nick always gave everything when they made love. Don had never before had a lover who was this concentrated on his needs and desires. It had changed the way Don made love and Don smiled as his eyes trailed over Nick's sleeping body. It was impossible not to reciprocate, not to give as much as Nick did. 

To hear Nick cry out his name in passion had long ago become Don's favorite sound, and he sought it whenever they were together. They didn't play games. Danny had told him about the scenes he and Mac had done, but Don couldn't imagine wanting that from Nick or Nick wanting it from him. 

It wasn't that they weren't possessive; both of their bodies showed plenty of marks that declared the other's ownership. Don loved seeing the love bites on his body, loved knowing that Nick sported matching bruises, but he didn't have the desire to dominate Nick. 

His lover... They were together for almost a year now. Don's hand caressed Nick's face gently and a wry smile crossed his face as he thought back to their first meeting. 

He had disliked Nick at first, not because of him, but because of what he represented. He had seen Nick as Aiden's replacement and had decided that he would not like him. But when they had shaken hands it had happened: Nick's eyes had met his and he had fallen in love. 

Nick mumbled something in his sleep and a frown marred his peaceful face. Don leaned down, kissing his brow and soothing his partner with loving words. Nick calmed almost instantly, and as always the trust in the simple action made Don fall in love all over. Still watching Nick, he thought back to the case when Nick had broken down and the memory alone made him hold onto Nick tighter. 

They had been in a close underground tunnel. Nick had processed the body when the light had gone out, and by the time Don had gotten his flashlight on, Nick had already been trapped in his memories. Seeing Nick like that, seeing his terror and pain had broken Don's heart, and as he had held Nick close to his body, he had finally admitted that he loved Nick. 

Back then he hadn't known about the ordeal that Nick had gone through, had had no idea that his beloved had endured terrors which he couldn't even imagine. He had gone to Nick that night and they had talked. Nick had told him about his abduction and the burial, and Don had not been able to hide how he felt. 

Nick turned in his sleep and snuggled closer, so that his face was resting against Don's neck. Don smiled at the air that caressed his skin every time Nick exhaled, and he moved his arm so that he could hold his partner. 

They hadn't made love together that night, but they had slept in each other's arms. Don hadn't understood back then what a precious gift a night of undisturbed sleep had been for Nick. He knew now though, and once again he pressed Nick against his body while he finally admitted to himself the real reason for staying awake. 

He was afraid that Nick would have another nightmare. 

Kelly Gordon's journey to New York, Grissom's betrayal of Nick's trust and the revelation that a second person had been involved in the abduction... It was a mix that screamed for a nightmare and Don wanted to be prepared. He wanted Nick to know that he would always be there for him, that he would not leave him or betray him. 

"And I'll always be there for you." 

Nick's answer made Don smile as he watched his lover walk towards Mac and the crime scene. He shook his head at their obvious sappiness and turned towards their witness when squealing tires and Nick's scream made him jerk back again. He was reaching for his weapon and firing at the dark van within seconds, but the car never stopped and the last he saw was Nick's terrified face as two masked men forced him to get into a glass box. Don dropped his weapon and screamed Nick's name in anguish while he ran after the car. He knew what the men would do and he couldn't let it happen. He had promised Nick to keep him safe. 

"Nick... no..." His scream faded into thin air and Don realized that he too was trapped in a box, that he too was buried, and as he turned his head, he froze. Nick's coffin was right next to his, and Don screamed with despair as Nick shivered and their eyes met. 

Nick's dark eyes were so full of terror, but as he saw Don, he tensed and screamed something. Don saw that seeing him had not calmed Nick, but horrified him even more. He wanted to reach out and hold Nick, but the walls between them were solid and as he put his hands at the glass, he watched as Nick put his own hands at the same place. There was no warmth, no touch, nothing but the cold glass and Don was helpless. He could only watch as Nick's body started to convulse, as his lover fought for air and unable to do anything, he cried out in agony. 

--- 

Don's scream woke Nick immediately. He tensed as he felt the shudders that ran through Don and he slowly moved away from his lover in order to be able to wake him. Don's face was a mask of terror and pain, and Nick suddenly understood that the revelations of the day were taking their toll on Don. His heart broke at the shivers that made Don's body tremble, and he reached out to wake and calm him when Don extended his hands in a plea and cried out. "No!" 

Desperate sobs that were Nick's name followed the tortured scream, and Nick captured Don's hand while he caressed Don's face and called his name until the blue eyes opened and his lover looked at him. For a moment Nick feared that Don was still trapped in his nightmare, but the eyes cleared immediately and Don pressed Nick against his body. "Nick." Don spoke his name like a prayer, and Nick shivered as Don repeated the one word over and over again, while his hands moved over Nick's face almost as if he needed to make sure that Nick was real. 

"I'm here, I'm okay, and I won't leave you." His soothing words calmed Don slowly until he looked up and met Nick's eyes. Nick swallowed hard at the mix of love and fear that he saw in the blue depths and slowly he reached out and cupped Don's face. "You were dreaming of me." 

It wasn't a question, it was a statement, but Don nodded nonetheless. They held each other and Nick waited for Don to speak. It was weird how their roles were reversed now, but Nick didn't think about it. All he concentrated on was making sure that Don was okay. 

"I was there. They had me in a box right next to you. I saw you, but I couldn't help you. I watched as your air ran out..." Don's voice broke, but he composed himself and Nick felt sadness and pride at Don's strength and obvious pain. "You died in front of my eyes and I couldn't do anything." 

Nick remained silent, but he took Don's hand and held it against his own chest. He knew that Don could feel the steady beating of his heart and as his lover relaxed, Nick began to speak. "I didn't die. I am here with you. I survived." 

A sudden thought made him smile and he pressed Don's hand that lay still on his chest. "I fought hard that night, but I would fight even more now. I would never give up, because I have to return to you." 

He wasn't sure if his words were helping Don or not, but as he felt the tension leave the strong body next to him, he knew that Don understood. "Kelly Gordon can't scare me anymore." 

Nick felt Don go still. He held his breath when Don's arms moved around him and moaned lightly when Don's lips found his. 

"I am with you, I won't leave." He spoke slowly and as soon as he had finished, Don's lips captured his again. The kiss was tender, but turned more and more passionate by the moment. They both were hard and aching when they separated for some air and their lovemaking was tinged with the memory of Don's nightmare as he clung onto Nick almost desperately, begging with his voice and his body until Nick slid into him and they were whole. 

Nick lay awake afterwards, holding Don and watching his lover until his own body demanded rest. He fell asleep in Don's arms and marveled at how it was possible that he was both holding Don and being held at the same time. 

--- 

Olivia woke confused, not really understanding what had woken her, when the doorbell rang again. She frowned as she got up and cautious as she was, she grabbed her gun before she opened the door. She was prepared for a lot, but not for seeing Elliot standing at her door. He was drenched and pale, his eyes full of shadows and sadness. Her heart went out to him and she pulled him inside without a word. 

"I'm sorry to wake you. I didn't know where to go..." 

Olivia steered him towards the bath where she handed him a towel and told him to get out of the wet clothes. Her mind was racing as she searched for an old pair of sweat pants and an even older t-shirt that her last boyfriend had left behind. Elliot's appearance could only mean one thing; his wife had kicked him out. Olivia had expected something like that to happen soon, but had hoped against all hope that they would find a way back to each other. Elliot loved his family, needed them to function, and Olivia sighed as she waited for her partner to come back into the living room. He walked inside, still pale, but much calmer. 

"She has a lover." His words were like explosives being dropped in the middle of the room, and Olivia stared at him in shock. "She's been accusing me of sleeping with you for months now, but instead she's the one who has an affair." 

Again her heart ached for him, but still she remained silent. There was nothing she could say, but when he met her eyes she saw that he understood her silence. 

"Can I stay here for a night?" 

How could he even ask? She did reach out then and pressed his hand gently. "I have a free room. Be my guest for as long as you need." 

He sagged in relief and she was glad that she could help him at least a bit. A wry smile crossed her face as he walked towards the guest room. She would have to talk with him tomorrow, and she would have to talk with Alex. 

She didn't want them to scare each other in the middle of the night. 

--- 

*Chapter 7 – Past imperfect* 

+New York+ 

"What do you have?" Olivia's words echoed through the hallway and as she walked closer to her destination, she could smell the scent of death and blood in the shabby hotel room. She looked around while a uniformed officer at the door briefed Elliot. Her partner's face was grave as he listened to the officer's description. "White female about thirty possibly younger, no ID on her. She was shot twice in the chest, there are traces of semen present." 

Sharing a look, Elliot and Olivia walked into the bedroom and she sighed at the rumpled sheets and the torn dress their victim wore. The coroner looked up and smiled sadly. "Two shots, one was fatal however I can't tell you more right now..." 

Olivia walked closer and looked at the victim's hands. She noticed the rough skin and the carefully painted nails. No signs of a fight or a struggle, she thought, as she watched Elliot look around the small hotel room. "Raped?" 

The coroner shrugged. "Definitely had sex shortly before her death, but I couldn't say whether if it was rape or rough sex." 

The body was covered and the paramedics carried her away. Olivia's eyes followed her as two members of the CSI team came inside. Not Taylor's guys, she thought, and smiled inwardly at the tiny bit of relief she felt. She liked the people in Taylor's team, but with their very active approach and their top professionalism, she always felt like a slacker when working with them. Elliot had once said it very pointedly. "Working with the Taylor boys and girls is like having a group project with your teacher." 

The young Asian was already taking pictures and she went over to Elliot, when the manager walked into the room. "They said you were looking for me?" 

Olivia introduced herself and started to ask some questions, but before she could even start, the man interrupted her. "All I know is that she registered under the name of Emily Griffins. She checked in about a week ago and paid cash upfront for a month." 

Elliot had appeared in the door, holding what looked like a photo album in his hands. At Olivia's nod, he stepped closer and listened to the rest of the manager's explanation. "Said she had lost her ID and that she was getting a new one. I know I shouldn't have let her stay, but she looked lost and was drenched from the rain, so I told her she could show me later..." 

It probably had had more to do with the cash he'd received than the lost look of the woman, but Olivia kept her mouth shut as Elliot took over. "Did you ever see her with anyone?" 

The receptionist frowned, then shook his head before he frowned again and shrugged. "Never with anyone, but I had Monday and yesterday off. You'd have to ask Jimmy for those days." 

Elliot nodded, but Olivia saw that he was uncharacteristically tense. "Does Jimmy have a last name and an address?" 

They wrote down the address and left the flat in silence. Olivia waited until they were in the car before she turned towards Elliot. "What's wrong?" 

He didn't answer; instead, he handed her the album he had found. Frowning at him, she pulled gloves out and opened the cover. Exchanging a surprised look with Elliot, she felt her partner's tension creep into her body, too. Pager after page of the book was filled with pictures of the same person. Olivia swallowed hard; she knew the man on the photos and so did Elliot. They had worked with him on a couple of cases and Elliot played basketball with him. 

The book was full of pictures of Nick Stokes. 

--- 

Elliot hated cases like this, and as he walked into the office he already dreaded the call he would have to make as soon as possible. First, though, Cragen would want an update and he took the folder with the pictures of Stokes from Olivia and followed Cragen inside. "Called herself Emily Griffins . She was potentially raped and definitely shot. We have no ID on her as the hotel manager let her slip by." 

Cragen made some notes and nodded; Elliot coughed and put the folder onto the desk. "We found that in her room. It seems like she was stalking him." 

Cragen looked at him impatiently. "What else?" 

Elliot pointed towards one of the pictures. "He's a CSI. He works on Taylor's team. His name is Nick Stokes." 

This time Cragen looked as if he had eaten something unpleasant. Elliot knew that Cragen hated cases like this as much as he did, but still his reaction was professional. "Have him come down, maybe he knows her." 

As they left the office, Fin was just walking over to them. "No Emily but Kelly... We got an ID on our victim. Her name is Kelly Gordon; she did some time in Nevada so her prints were on file." 

Olivia looked at Elliot and he sighed before he took one of the pictures from the folder and put it next to Kelly's picture. "Before he came to New York, Nick Stokes worked with the Vegas CSI team." 

Munch studied the picture and looked at Elliot. His eyes were sharp and Elliot could almost see the thoughts running through them. He remained silent though until Munch nodded slowly. "He's either a suspect or..." 

"... a potential victim." Olivia interrupted them and Elliot turned towards her. His blood froze at the drawings that Olivia had only now noticed. They too showed Stokes, but this time he was being tortured by a hooded person. Turning the page, Olivia revealed another painting which showed him trapped in some kind of a coffin and as the next page came up Elliot turned away. He knew and liked Stokes, and to see those sick fantasies made him feel ill. 

"Well, whatever he is, we need to talk to him." Cragen sounded less harsh than before and Elliot reached for the phone to call Nick. 

--- 

"Good to see you again, Olivia. How are you?" Nick noticed the tension in the room and suddenly felt as if all eyes were on him. Frowning slightly, he walked towards Elliot and Fin and greeted them too before he was introduced to John Munch. It was all very friendly, but he felt that something was wrong and frowning once more, he followed Olivia and Elliot towards one of the meeting rooms. "What's going on?" 

Olivia and Elliot shared a look, and then Elliot took a picture from a folder and handed it to him. "Do you know her?" 

Nick looked at the picture and gasped. Yes, he knew her and thanks to her father he would never forget her. For a moment his hand trembled as he fought against the memories. It had been months since he last had had a panic attack, but he could feel the warning signs and closing his eyes he fought the fear and the feeling of being trapped. A hand on his arm made him flinch and he almost jerked back when his eyes met Elliot's. 

"Nick, are you alright?" 

Calming himself, he nodded and then slowly started to speak. "Her name is Kelly Gordon." 

Elliot nodded, but obviously wasn't satisfied and Olivia handed him several pictures of himself. "Why would she stalk you?" 

How had he ever thought that this nightmare could ever end? For a moment Nick stared at the photos of him and wanted to scream. He had moved across the country to get away from everything, had rebuilt his life in a foreign city and still the nightmare had caught up with him. He told himself to calm down, he had known that Kelly Gordon was in New York and it had not scared him. He had felt safe in the knowledge that he had dealt with the nightmares, but now confronted with the reality, he understood that although he had dealt with it, he had not forgotten it. He felt Olivia and Elliot look at him, and he met their eyes with a bitter smile as he began to explain. 

"Her father believed that she was in prison because some CSIs had done sloppy work. It wasn't true; instead it was evidence that the CSIs found which got her convicted. It didn't matter though, because for him we were the one that had put his daughter into prison. She was abused by other prisoners while she was there and he was determined to get revenge and I happened to answer the call that night." 

The silence after his words was almost deafening and as Nick looked up he saw compassion in Stabler's blue eyes and the same emotion in Olivia's dark ones. The fact that the two cops believed him made him breathe a bit easier, but still it was hard to continue speaking. It didn't matter that he had spoken about his ordeal to Mac, Danny or Don; those were his friends. This here was different and it was hard to talk about what had happened. "He abducted me from the scene and buried me alive. I woke up and was imprisoned in a glass coffin. He had left me a tape and my gun..." 

A shiver went through Olivia and Nick smiled sadly. "On the tape he told me that it didn't matter what I did, that no one was going to find me." Nick swallowed hard as he remembered the words and with a slightly shaking voice he repeated them.  

"Hi, CSI guy. You wondering why you're here? Because you followed the evidence. Because that's what CSIs do. So breathe quick, breathe slow, put your gun in your mouth and pull the trigger. Any way you like, you're going to die here." 

Nick shivered and shook his head. "What I didn't know back then was that he had a camera installed. My team could see me..." 

Nick trailed off. Now that he had gotten over what had happened to him, it often felt as if his team had gone through an even worse nightmare. His thoughts went to Warrick and his heart wept at the memory of his best friend. "I lost a bet with a friend and because of that I went to the fake scene. He must have suffered so much..." 

Elliot stopped him and Nick was grateful that he did because he could feel his voice breaking slowly and another shiver went through him. 

"Did Kelly Gordon help your team find you?" 

Nick shook his head. He didn't know exactly what Kelly Gordon had done, but he knew that she had sent his team away. "No, she sent them back." 

--- 

Alex Cabot watched through the two-way mirror as Nick Stokes told Olivia and Elliot about his abduction and subsequent ordeal. He spoke calmly and only the tension in his shoulders and the hands that were balled to fists told her how hard it was for him to keep his composure. "Can you check whether he's telling the truth?" 

Cragen nodded, but at the same time shrugged. "Why would he invent such a story? It sounds like a motive to me, doesn't it?" 

Alex wasn't so sure and without taking her eyes from the scene, she shook her head. "If the father was dead yes, but the daughter doesn't make sense." 

Inside the room Elliot had obviously had similar thoughts as he asked about Walter Gordon. Stokes' answer was slow; pained in the same way as it had been when he had spoken about the camera feed and his friend's suffering. "He'd asked for 2 million ransom money, but when Gil Grissom brought it to him, Gordon blew himself up. The money was just another lure for the team ; he wanted to kill Gil. He never intended for me to be found." 

Olivia was the one who asked the next question and Alex could see that both Olivia and Elliot were affected by Stokes' tale, and she had to admit that it made her shiver too. It wasn't so much what he had endured that rattled her, it was the fact that he was obviously more shaken about the pain it had caused his team and his friends. She noticed how Huang frowned and stared intently at Nick through the window. Confused at the frown she looked at their psychologist. "Is something wrong?"  

Huang shook his head and looked at her. "No, it's just interesting. Mr. Stokes has obviously dealt with what happened to him, but not with the effects it had on the people around him, most likely because the others haven't dealt with it themselves. He is a very strong person, a very independent and strong mind." 

Alex had never heard Huang give such high praise. Her face must have shown her surprise and the psychologist smiled lightly. "Alex, what is the normal reaction you get when you talk to a victim?" 

Thinking about his question, she shrugged. "They want revenge, comfort, someone to tell them that everything will be fine. They want anything, just anything that will make them feel better." 

He nodded at her answer. "And how often do you see a victim talk about the effect his or her suffering will have on his or her environment the other people, their friends?" 

She understood then and nodded slowly. "What you're telling me is that Stokes is pretty much over the abduction and therefore had no reason to want Kelly Gordon dead." 

He nodded slowly and Alex sighed as she listened again to the interview. 

"Did you ever meet Kelly Gordon?" 

Nick nodded to Alex' surprise, but she guessed that there had been some trial or something. His answer though took her aback and showed her how she really didn't know anything about Nick Stokes. 

"After I got released from the hospital, I went to see her in prison. I don't really know why, it... I guess I just wanted to understand..." He rubbed his hand over his face, but his eyes were dry and serious as he continued. "It made no sense then and still doesn't make any now, but I felt like I could help her deal with it by speaking with her. She lost her father because he was an idiot. He tried to get revenge, but by doing so he left her completely alone. I just wanted to help... She didn't want to speak with me and it was too early for me to understand. I left and I never saw her again." 

Huang had been right, Alex suddenly thought as his words about Stokes flittered through her mind. 

"He is a very strong person, a very independent and strong mind." 

"Did you know that she was in New York?" 

Nick nodded and smiled even though he shook his head. "Gil Grissom called Mac after the team in Vegas got informed that she had been released and left the stated in violation of her parole. Mac told me. He actually wanted to get you guys involved, because he feared that she was after me, but I told him not to bother you." 

He was silent for a second and then swallowed hard. "I didn't know until Mac told me, but Walter Gordon wasn't planning my abduction alone. When my old team processed the tape, they found a second voice on it. It couldn't be identified yet. If you need any information, I think Mac has the details, or call Gil Grissom or Conrad Ecklie from CSI Las Vegas..." 

Olivia pressed Nick's hand almost in the same way she did when she talked to an abused child. Alex understood her and she saw that Elliot probably wanted to do the same. There was something about Nick Stokes that made her want to protect him and she knew already that she would hate it, should she have to prosecute him. Elliot was tense as he asked the next question and Alex knew that he hated himself for it. "Where were you last night?" 

Stokes tensed for a moment, but maybe it was just her imagination, because as he spoke again his voice was calm. 

"I was at home watching TV." 

Olivia and Elliot shared a look. 

"Alone?" 

This time he did tense and for a moment, Alex saw him hesitate, but in the end he looked straight at Elliot. "Yes" 

Alex wanted to throw up. She had believed that Nick Stokes was innocent, but now she wasn't so sure anymore. Because he had just lied to them, he had not been alone yesterday night. 

But who had been with him? 

--- 

+Washington DC+ 

Tony knew that people who didn't know him and McGee probably thought they hated each other's guts. The way they worked together was very competitive, and especially in the beginning, Tony's insecurities when faced with McGee's stellar background had caused them to clash more than once. And yet the longer they had worked together, the better they did, and as much as Tony hated to admit it, in the end it had been Kate's death that had made them become what they were now: friends. 

Friends and yet not in the way Tony had become friends with Nick and Danny, not the instant clicking ; instead, the professional respect they had for each other had grown into a liking and into an understanding. 

Tony thought about the fact that he had indeed become friends with McGee while they drove towards their suspects home and argued about what kind of music was 'cool', not that McGee had any idea about cool music, but that didn't matter. Tony loved music and for him it didn't matter whether it was old-school-jazz or hip hop or pop as long as it was real and the performers knew what they did. McGee on the other hand was someone who thought boy bands singing Frank Sinatra songs were cool and trendy and so it was no big surprise that they were in the middle of a heated discussion when Gibbs stopped them abruptly. "One more word about music and you can walk." 

Exchanging a look with McGee, Tony scowled at his boss. "Come on, we have to concentrate on something other than your driving, if we want to survive the ride." 

Tony grinned while he said it, his voice exaggerating the annoyance, but his attempt at making a joke fell flat as Jethro's eyes looked at him coldly. "You're not funny, DiNozzo, and no one is interested in your taste in music." 

Jethro's voice was flat, cold and hard. Tony tensed for a second and hurt flashed through him, but he kept calm and smiled while he searched Jethro's eyes in the mirror. What he saw in them made his smile fade and he averted his eyes. Jethro had not looked amused or loving like he normally did, instead his eyes had been cold and without emotions. Retreating into a more silent mode, Tony pondered what he'd done wrong when Jethro stopped the car in front of a nice looking house. 

"McGee, DiNozzo, you go to the back of the house. Ziva, you're with me." 

Tony and McGee were right at the back when suddenly the door burst open and their suspect came running outside. Raising his weapon, Tony called for the man to freeze only to realize that McGee stood right in the light of fire. "McGee, move!" 

McGee jerked around and dove to the ground, but their suspect was already too far away and Tony cursed loudly. "Son of a bitch!" 

Right then Jethro came running through the house and as the blue eyes fixed on him, Tony could almost feel Jethro's anger. He swallowed hard and inwardly braced himself while he waited for the dressing down he was going to get. Jethro glowered at the retreating figure of their suspect and then turned towards Tony and McGee. 

"It was my mistake, I didn't duck in time." McGee's honest confession made Jethro look at him sharply and Tony groaned silently. 

"We'll get him, Boss ; we'll get him next time." 

He had meant to calm Jethro down, had hoped that his words would cut through the fog of anger that seemed to hang around his lover, but all he managed was to get the glare directed at him. "Really? So, you're saying that you won't screw up next time?" 

The head slap was expected, but the biting words weren't, and for the second time this day Tony tensed. Jethro was once again looking at him with nothing but disapproval and annoyance in his blue eyes, while his voice was cold and hard. Outwardly Tony shrugged easily, but his heart hurt from the unexpected attack. He wanted to ask what he had done wrong, wanted to know what he could do to make Jethro look at him with love again, but the words didn't come out. 

There was a part of Tony that wanted nothing but to run away and hide. He couldn't though, not without annoying Jethro even more and still he was quiet and walked into their office slower than the others giving him a moment of respite. 

"DiNozzo!" Again the sharp voice and before Tony knew what had happened, Jethro had pushed him into an empty meeting room. Tony swallowed hard as he saw the tense lines in his lover's body and silently praying that this wasn't the end, he forced himself to look at Jethro silently. 

"What's wrong with you? You're working sloppy, you're endangering others and now this stunt?" 

The accusation made him stand straighter, and although he didn't know where he found the strength for it, he met Jethro's eyes with a cold look. "There is nothing wrong with me. You're trying to find faults in everything I do. Yes, we made a mistake and yes, the suspect is on the loose because of it, but Gibbs, I couldn't shoot at him with McGee standing between the suspect and me." 

He wanted to say more, but Jethro cut him off sharply. "Stop the excuses; your performance has slipped since Chip and I won't accept that." 

Tony felt something cold grow in his heart and averting his eyes, he looked at the floor for a moment, before he looked at his lover again. "Jethro, what is going on?" 

He hated how insecure his voice sounded, but he was scared, scared that he was about to lose the most important person in his life. Jethro looked at him and for a second, Tony saw pain and fear flare up in the blue eyes before they turned cold again as Jethro shrugged. "You tell me; it's your work that's bad." 

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Tony reached out to stop Jethro from leaving the room, but instead of stopping and indulging his need for contact, Jethro moved away. It hurt more than Tony could have said and as Jethro left the meeting room, Tony was still frozen at his spot with his hand extended offering comfort and love. 

--- 

+New York+ 

"Do they consider you a suspect?" 

Danny saw how Nick sighed and Don cursed loudly. Mac remained silent, but Danny could feel how tense his partner was. Nick had called them after his visit at the SVU's offices and now the four of them were sitting in Don and Nick's living room talking about the murder of Kelly Gordon. 

"I'm not sure. I mean, I guess they do, but there's surely no evidence to tie me to her." 

Surprisingly enough, Nick was the calmest of them. He had taken the news of Kelly's death with more ease than Danny had expected him to, but still Danny could see that something bothered his friend. 

"She had an entire book full of pictures of me." 

Don's hand immediately gripped Nick's leg tighter and Danny smiled as he saw how Nick soothingly caressed Don's arm. At some point in their relationship, Don had become the one needing comfort when Nick's past was mentioned and Danny still marveled at the strength of a bond that managed to hold despite all the strains it had been under. 

"She's been in New York and stalked you?" 

It was the first time that Mac spoke and listening to the clipped tone, Danny sighed. His lover was under a lot of pressure and it didn't help that Mac always felt personally responsible for everything that happened to his anyone in the team. Last night, he had heard Mac get up in the middle of the night and it had been a long time until his partner had returned to their bed. Danny knew that something was bothering Mac, but he had decided to wait until his lover felt ready to talk about it.  

"It's not the New York pictures that worry me, but she also had pictures from Las Vegas." 

He didn't get the implications at first, but when he understood, Danny gasped. "But you left before she was paroled..." 

Nick met his eyes and for the first time in the entire evening, Danny saw fear in his dark eyes as Nick finished his thought. "Which means that someone else took those pictures. 

--- 

+Washington DC+ 

Gibbs sighed as he finally shut down his computer. They had finished the case a while ago and he had sent the team home to recover. He, too, should have gone home a long time ago, but he didn't. Gibbs knew only too well what made him stay in the office, what kept him from his home, from his lover. A shiver ran through him as he thought of Tony and he pressed his hands against his eyes. He had hurt him. 

He had hurt the most precious person in his life. 

And what was even worse, he had done it on purpose. 

--- 

*Chapter 8 – Confessions* 

+New York+ 

Olivia was frustrated. Their case had come to a dead end and the only viable suspect was the one man she was sure that was innocent. 

"We have to talk to Nick again." 

Elliot sounded as reluctant as she felt, and as their eyes met, she saw that his eyes were hard. He held a report in his hand and as she looked at the pages filled with numbers she felt herself tense. 

"She called him several times. The last call was made three hours before she was killed and it lasted thirty seconds. Plus ballistics sent us the report, the weapon was a 9mm, which is the caliber we use." 

Elliot's words were like a slap in her face and she shook her head in distress. Olivia couldn't believe that Nick would kill someone in cold blood and she saw the same disbelief in Elliot's eyes. They were too close, she realized suddenly, too close to the only suspect they had in the case and without looking at Elliot she walked to Cragen's office and knocked. 

"Benson, what's up?" 

She walked inside and closed the door behind Elliot, but despite Cragen's inviting gesture, she remained standing as she sighed. Cragen looked at her and she saw that he already knew what she was going to say. "You want to hand the Gordon case over to Fin and Munch?" 

Exchanging a look with Elliot, she nodded and her partner sighed too. "We're too close, I mean, I play ball with this guy almost every Sunday. I've worked cases with him and I like him. I'm just not unbiased if it comes to investigating him." 

Cragen shook his head, but after a second of silence he pointed towards the two chairs with emphasis. "Sit down and listen to me." 

Surprised at the grave voice of their Captain, Olivia sat down. She could see how tense Elliot suddenly was and wondered what had just happened. Cragen took a deep breath and looked at them intently. "It's never easy to investigate a cop, and it won't be easier for Fin or Much to do so. But that's what we're here for, that's our job and you know that too." 

Olivia felt herself starting to get angry, but before she could say anything, Elliot jumped up and agitatedly started to pace Cragen's office. "It's our job to protect the victims, but who is the real victim in this case? Captain, it's not Gordon, it's Nick. Can you imagine what she would have done to him? Can you even begin to imagine what he was going through during that stunt Gordon's father pulled off?" 

Her partner's violent outburst surprised her more than she cared to admit. She had known that Elliot and Nick had formed a tentative friendship after the bad start they had had, but she hadn't known that this tentative friendship had changed into something stronger. It didn't surprise her though, Nick had a good eye for people and she was sure that he had seen through Elliot's tough man act and detected the loneliness he hid underneath it. 

"No, I can't and I won't, and neither will you when you call him in and ask him again to give you an alibi and his gun." 

Olivia sighed and nodded slowly. She got up and followed Elliot out of Cragen's office. For a long time, they both were silent, but finally Elliot looked at her. 

"Let's go and talk to him." 

--- 

+Washington DC+ 

Ducky didn't know what had happened between Tony and Gibbs, but he was caught in the fall out as much as everyone else in the team. The tension was incredible and even Ziva seemed to have a hard time to cope with Gibbs' biting remarks and scathing words. Ducky waited for three days hoping that the two men would find their way back to each other, but when the security guard told him that Tony had slept at his desk and not returned home for the second night in a row, he had enough. He waited until Gibbs was in the morgue and Palmer was somewhere else. Gibbs was in his usual grumpy mood and his comments towards McGee were barely tolerable. Looking at the younger agent, Ducky shook his head and glared at Gibbs. 

"Shut up!" 

His words were spoken calmly, but something in his eyes must have told Gibbs that he was serious and the clear warning in them was threateningly enough for Gibbs to fall silent. Ducky didn't think that it would last though and so he pulled Gibbs towards the elevator and pushed him into the car. "We're having a meeting, Tim, just go back to your desk." 

If McGee was shocked, then he hid it well and with Gibbs still in shock over Ducky's actions Ducky seized the opportunity and pushed the button for the second floor only to stop the car in the middle just like Gibbs did all the time, when he wanted to speak with someone in private. "What the fuck do you want Ducky?" 

Gibbs was leaning against the wall and for the first time since his and Tony's argument, Ducky really looked at him. He looked terrible and his anger faded slowly. "What has happened Gibbs?" 

He saw how Gibbs wanted to avoid the question, but knowing his friend as well as he did, he didn't let him, instead he spoke again. "Tony has not gone home for two nights in a row. He's been working and sleeping at his desk. He has barely eaten anything. Is this what you want, Jethro? Do you want to break him?" 

Shocked eyes met his and Ducky reeled as he saw the pain and fear in Gibbs' blue eyes. 

"No, I didn't... I just wanted..." 

The sight of Gibbs struggling for words should have made Ducky laugh, and yet it made him want to cry. He suddenly understood what had gone wrong between Tony and Gibbs and he wanted to scream. Gibbs had many wounds on his soul and one of those wounds had been reopened when Tony had been arrested. Ducky wanted to slap Gibbs for his stupidity and at the same time he felt deeply for the younger man and slowly he put a comforting hand on Gibbs' shoulder. "He's safe, Jethro, you got him out and he's not a pawn in someone's game. He loves you and you've hurt him deeply." 

The sudden tension in Gibbs told Ducky that he had guessed right. Blue eyes searched his and a shiver ran through Gibbs' body. "I see him in my dreams. I see them dragging him to the table and then..." 

Shivers wracked the strong body and Ducky hugged him tight. Once again he cursed the events and the men who had wounded Gibbs like this, but his voice was nothing but calm as he soothed him quietly. 

"So you pushed him away, but the dreams didn't disappear, did they? They are your past, Jethro, but Tony is your present and your future. Don't let them destroy what you have, don't let your memories destroy your love and your lover..." 

He trailed off when Gibbs tensed. Anguish and anger was in the blue eyes as Gibbs understood that once again his nightmares had almost destroyed the most important person in his life. Ducky met his gaze and smiled when Gibbs nodded silently, before he was hugged fiercely.  

"Thanks for making me see." 

Ducky sighed as he pushed the button and the elevator began to move again. He hoped that Gibbs could salvage his relationship with Tony, but having seen the bleak and desperate look in Tony's eyes, he wasn't so sure about it. 

"Don't hurt him again." 

Gibbs shivered and Ducky realized that he had sounded more threatening than advising, but meeting Gibbs' eyes he saw, that the other man had understood. 

"I won't." 

--- 

"DiNozzo, can we talk?" 

Tony looked up. Gibbs' voice had been unusually even and calm, completely different as it had been in the last three days. Tony had stopped counting how often his heart had been broken since that terrible confrontation that had left him standing alone and broken in the meeting room. Gibbs had been relentless and the fact that he had ridden Ziva and McGee just as hard had not really been a consolation. 

"Please." 

The last word was spoken so quietly that no one but Tony would have heard it. He stared at his boss and tensed as he saw the desperation in the blue eyes and almost against his will, he got up and followed Gibbs towards the elevator. He felt McGee's eyes on his back and wondered what the younger agent was thinking, but dismissed any questions and focused on Gibbs instead. His boss was silently watching him and Tony shivered as he felt the blue eyes on him with a quiet intensity. 

"I am an asshole." 

Shocked at the admission, Tony looked at Gibbs and swallowed hard. He could easily read between the lines and heard the apology that Gibbs hadn't uttered. Still he didn't understand and tired of games and exhausted with lack of sleep, he shook his head. "Why Jethro? Why was I suddenly not good enough anymore?" 

Before he could finish the sentence Gibbs was at his side and held him close. The heat of the familiar body was welcome and at the same time not. Tony wanted to lean against Gibbs, but he wasn't sure if he could trust him not to push him away again. Gibbs' voice was muffled as he spoke against Tony's neck and the words made Tony tense. "You didn't do anything wrong. I was... stupid and scared. What happened to you, it... it woke old memories." 

‘Look at the evidence and don't let your feelings blind you.' His inner voice sounded like Ducky and Tony sighed as he looked closer at his boss and lover. Gibbs held him almost desperately and Tony tensed. He had felt that something was wrong with Gibbs ever since the incident with Chip. Something had happened with Gibbs during those few hours when Tony had been in the holding cell. Tony shivered as he recalled Gibbs' desperate words in the elevator. 

"No, I don't want you to turn yourself in. I want you with me, I want you safe... But I can't..." 

The words had shaken him then and they still managed to send a shiver down his spine, especially when he remembered the resigned whisper his lover had given as they had stood together in the elevator. 

"I can't protect you in there." 

He had tried to avoid thinking about the implications for the simple reason that he was not ready to deal with the thought of Gibbs in a POW camp. He had watched his lover, hoped against hope that the tension would disappear again, that the memories would vanish, but they hadn't. "Why didn't you tell me?" 

His voice was shaking lightly and once again looking at Gibbs, Tony wanted to scream at himself. It was obvious that his partner was hurting and thinking back to the last couple of days, Tony suddenly saw all the little sights and points that he had missed. 

"I didn't know what to say." The quiet admission made Tony shiver with sadness and this time it was him who held Gibbs close, who tried to protect him from whatever was hurting him. 

"So you pushed me away." The quiet words made Gibbs pull back and Tony sighed at the sudden tension in his body. "Why didn't you trust me?" 

He hadn't wanted to say the words, but now they hung in the air and it seemed to Tony as if they were burdening the thin bond between him and Gibbs almost to the point of breaking it. Gibbs shivered violently, before he turned away from Tony. "I trust you, Tony, but I..." 

When Gibbs trailed off, Tony realized that this was the wrong place and the wrong time to talk. He looked at the tense body of his lover and carefully put a hand on his shoulder. He could feel Gibbs flinch at the touch and his heart hurt at the instinctive reaction. He wanted to hold Gibbs, hold him and never let him go, but they were at work and with a soft smile, he pulled Gibbs towards himself. 

"Come around tonight, come to my place and let's talk. Don't hide from me, please?" 

Tony wasn't sure if he had made a mistake when Gibbs pulled out of his arms, but when his lover turned around and their eyes met, he smiled at the open love he saw there. Gibbs lifted a hand and cupped his face making Tony purr with relief. "Forgive me?" 

He had, Tony realized with a start, he had forgiven Gibbs the moment he had seen past his own hurt and noticed the desperation in his partner. He smiled and mimicked Gibbs' gesture by cupping Gibbs' face with his own hand. Gibbs leaned into the caress and Tony smiled again. "I love you." 

Their eyes met again and Tony held Gibbs' with his own gaze. "But we do need to talk." 

--- 

+New York+ 

Nick laughed at Lindsay's groan and held his hand out to help her getting back onto the road. They were working on a car accident that looked just weird enough to be suspicious and they both were covered with mud from the soggy field in which the car had ended up on the side of the road. 

"Hey, brown looks good on you, don't worry." 

She glared at him and flicked a bit of the dirt at him. He ducked it easily and gathered his kit when he saw Elliot and Olivia walk towards him. His good mood evaporated into thin air as he saw their serious faces and looking at Lindsay, he tossed her the car keys. "Go ahead back to the lab, I have a feeling that they want to talk with me." 

Seeing her concerned look, he shrugged and calmed her with a smile. "Don't worry, nothing bad, I'll be in the lab soon." 

Still though her eyes were serious as she watched the two detectives come closer and then turned towards Nick. There was a certain anxiety in her blue eyes, and as she spoke Nick understood why. "Do you want me to call Mac? Or Don?" 

The last had been said almost tentatively, and he smiled again to show that he wasn't angry at her. "No, it's fine, don't worry." 

They would have to talk about the last comment, but with Elliot and Olivia practically within hearing distance he didn't want to talk about his relationship with Don. Elliot was a friend, but he also was a cop and Nick didn't want to test the detective's loyalties when push came to shove. Lindsay seemed to have gotten the silent warning and smiled friendly at Olivia and Elliot, before telling him again that she would wait for him in the lab. Nick smiled at the barely hidden hint for the other cops and watched as she drove away. "I hope she doesn't get lost." 

Olivia looked at him confused and with a shrug he grinned at her. "Lindsay's quite new and she's from Montana, so New York can be a bit frightening for her." 

Olivia smiled at that comment, but Nick saw how she turned serious immediately and he sighed lightly. "What do you need to know?" 

Elliot had come to stand next to him and Nick suddenly felt anxious. What had they found? He wasn't involved in Kelly Gordon's murder, but he couldn't afford them to dig deeper into his alibi. Elliot handed him a sheet of paper and Nick sighed as he saw that it was a request for his weapon. He removed the gun from his holster and handed it over.  

"You'll need my spare gun too, I guess. I have it in my locker at the lab." 

Elliot nodded and put the gun into a brown evidence bag. 

"Where have you been on the night of Kelly Gordon's murder?" Olivia's question made him tense, before he turned around and looked at her. 

"I told you already that I was at home." 

She fixed him with her eyes, and then shook her head. "We pulled her phone records. She called your home number three hours before she was killed. If you were home and talked to her, why didn't you tell us?" 

Confused and now openly worried, Nick shook his head. 

"I never talked to her, but I had gotten some prank phone calls lately, so I had all my calls diverted to my mailbox. I check it regularly, but there was nothing on it just a lot of static noise." 

Olivia shook her head and looked at him calmly. "Nick we know you were not telling the truth, when you told us about your whereabouts that night. Hell, I'm no profiler or psychologist, but even I could see that. Why don't you tell us the truth?"  

His mind was reeling at the unspoken accusation and he looked at Olivia and Elliot with an open pleading in his eyes. 

"I was at home. I didn't lie to you on that account, but, I wasn't alone." He saw how they both perked up and shook his head. "I can't tell you who it was. I am sorry." He would never out Don like this, would never endanger his partner and as long as the detectives had no solid evidence against him, he was sure that he would get away with not telling them who had been with him during Kelly Gordon's murder. 

"Was it her?" 

Shocked and slightly repulsed, he shook his head, his answer instinctive and immediate. "No." 

Elliot looked at him strangely and suddenly Nick feared that the detective suspected something. He wanted to ask them to believe him, but he had been an investigator for too long and even though both Elliot and Olivia knew him, they were first and foremost cops and they had to do their job. 

"We need an alibi, Nick, you know that. Give us a name." 

Closing his eyes for a moment, Nick composed himself and shook his head. 

"Sorry, I can't give you one." 

--- 

Don was surprised when he saw Lindsay walking into the precinct and over towards his desk. So far he rarely had worked with her, but from what Danny and Nick told him, she was a good addition to the team and that was enough for him. Now though she looked concerned and her eyes were clouded. He frowned as she nodded towards a meeting room, but he followed her nevertheless. 

"What's going on?" 

She looked at the table for a moment, before she met his eyes and sighed. "I was working a scene with Nick, when two SVU detectives showed up. They asked for his gun." 

It was as if she had slapped him. Don tensed as a shiver of fear ran through him and he remembered Nick's easy dismissal of the case last night. Looking at Lindsay again, he saw how she was gauging his reaction and as he didn't say anything she spoke again. "He didn't tell me to come to you. He would do anything to protect you. Don, look, all I know that we're talking about murder, and I think they think Nick did it. But if he was with you during the time of the killing, then he won't give you up." 

Her insight was frightening, but at the same time, Don was glad for her clear and honest words. She was right, of course, Nick would never out Don to the police and meeting Lindsay's eyes again, he nodded slowly. 

"Thanks for telling me." 

She smiled and walked towards the door, when he called her back. "When did you know? What gave us away?" 

He wanted to know if they were this obvious and some part of his mind wondered whether or not his colleagues knew too. She laughed easily and shrugged. "Nothing in particular actually, you're much more discreet than Mac and Danny, but I'm used to look beneath the surface. And I guess, I've seen you several time in social settings and you're easier around each other then." 

She hesitated for a moment, and then walked over to him. Don saw that she was still smiling as she grasped his shoulder in a surprisingly strong grip. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone." 

Don hadn't actually thought that far, but as she said it, he still felt relieved and smiled at her. "Thanks and if you ever need me to set up a date someone on the force, let me know." 

Her eyes shot daggers at him and he grinned when she muttered something that sounded like ‘moron' before she left. His grin faltered as he looked at the closed door and the reality of what she had told him crashed onto him. 

Nick was a suspect in a murder case and he was Nick's alibi. In many ways the entire scenario was his worst nightmare, but at the same time he also felt completely calm. Don had long ago decided that one day not too far along in the future he would have to come out or would be outed by someone. It seemed as if the day had arrived. Swallowing hard, he reached for the phone on the table and dialed the number of his captain. He needed to talk and to confess. 

--- 

"Stabler, I need to talk to you." 

Elliot was surprised to see Don Flack sitting at his desk as he returned from lunch. The tall dark haired detective was not a common sight in the SVU offices, but Elliot had an idea why he was here. He looked at Olivia and saw her follow them to one of the empty interrogation rooms. Flack looked up when she walked inside and joined them and Elliot wondered if the other detective would protest her presence. He didn't, instead he smiled at her and waited before she too had sat down. 

"Nick Stokes didn't kill Kelly Gordon." 

Flack came right to the point and his voice was as strong and determined as it had always been, still Elliot saw the small tremors that ran through his body and made his hand tremble lightly as he straightened his tie. Olivia was silent and so it was up to him to question Flack. 

"Why do you know?" 

For a second there was silence, then Flack swallowed and looking up met Elliot's eyes straight on. "I was with him that night." 

Confused now, Elliot shook his head and looked at Olivia. He could see that she was tense, almost as if she had understood something he didn't and frowning lightly, he turned his concentration back to Flack. "Nick told us that he was with someone, but he refused to tell us who. If it was you, why would he do that?" 

Flack still looked at him and a quick smile played over his face, before he turned serious again and averted his eyes. Something kept nagging at Elliot's mind and he gasped as he understood what Flack hadn't told him. 

"Because you really were with him that night, weren't you?" 

Olivia tensed once again and as their eyes met, Elliot saw wariness in them. It angered him to see her wary of him. He had kept her secret, and had never ever made a comment about her relationship with Alex, so why would she be wary of his reaction to Flack's confession?  

Because it's one thing to accept a relationship between two women, but a completely different pair of shoes if it comes to two men that are colleagues of you, the mental voice in his mind sounded annoyingly like Olivia herself and he almost glared at her, when Flack spoke again. 

"We're together. Our flats have connecting doors; he was at home all night." 

Flack's voice was calm, composed and yet, Elliot saw that he was tense too, visibly bracing himself for the fall out of his admission and again Elliot felt angry at the immediate assumption that he would reject Flack now. Deciding to surprise both his partner and the cop opposite him, he smiled and shook his head. "I should have known from the way the two of you played together. No way, you'd be able to beat me and Fin so easily without some specific connection between you." 

Surprised Flack looked at him and grinned relieved. He turned serious immediately though and sighed. "Look, I'll testify if I need to, but if you have another way to prove he's innocent, I'd prefer to keep our talk secret. I don't fancy finding myself without back up in the middle of a hot situation." 

It was a reasonable request and Elliot nodded. Olivia spoke then for the first time and her voice was soothing and friendly. "We'll make sure that it remains private, don't worry." 

Flack nodded, then sighed again and pulled a large file from his briefcase. "Nick's file from Las Vegas, I'm not sure how much he told you, but the lab in Vegas is sure that Gordon wasn't planning all of this on his own. Maybe Kelly and her father's old associate paired up..." 

Taking the large file, Elliot saw that a CD was included in the stack and taking it out, he looked at it confused. Flack paled and reached for it. "That doesn't belong in there, I'm sorry." 

He was tempted to not give it back, but seeing the pain in Flack's eyes he decided against it and handed it over. Curious though, he couldn't help asking what it was. Pain flashed through the blue eyes once more as Flack answered almost silently. "The video feed from Nick's box, it was part of the file that CSI Vegas sent over. You don't need to see it to understand the case and it's not a nice sight. Nick didn't know that there was a feed and it shows him..." 

Flack's voice trembled slightly, before he gathered himself again and looked at the disc once more. "He was dying and recorded messages to those he left behind..." 

He didn't say anything else and it wasn't necessary. Elliot knew already that he would never want to see someone he considered a friend in such a situation. Looking at Flack again, he suddenly frowned as he understood something else. "He doesn't know you're here, does he?" 

A tiny smile played around Flack's lips and the same smile lit up his eyes, before he shook his head. "No and if you're not going to say anything, he never will." 

Olivia looked at him and Elliot saw the plea in her eyes. He wanted to tell Flack that they understood better than he could imagine, but it wasn't his place to tell him about Olivia and Alex. So he just nodded slowly. "Unless we need your formal statement, you were never here." 

Relief made the tension in the tall body evaporate and Flack smiled openly before he got up and looked at Elliot again. "You and Fin up for a game on Sunday?" 

It was a normal question and yet Elliot heard the unspoken test behind it. Flack trusted him not to tell anyone, but now he was checking whether Elliot really didn't have a problem with him and Nick. Smiling openly, Elliot shrugged. "Sure why not?" 

Why not indeed? It was a good question, but the blinding smile he got from Flack told him that the other man knew only too well how most of their colleagues would have reacted to Flack's statement. Elliot smiled as his eyes followed Flack leaving the office. He turned towards Olivia and looked at her frowning. "How long did you know?" 

"When I saw him sitting here, I had a feeling, when he told us that Nick isn't the killer, I knew." She grinned first and then laughed at his surprise. "I'm a lesbian and not a clairvoyant, Elliot, and your gaydar really isn't worth shit. You better work on that..." 

--- 

+Washington DC+ 

We do need to talk. 

Tony's promise was still ringing through his ears. Gibbs was smart enough to realize that although the words had been gentle and although Tony had forgiven him for his treatment, the short sentence was also an ultimatum. He couldn't carry on like this and Tony knew it. His lover gave him a second chance and Gibbs knew only too well that second chances were few and far in between. 

He hated to talk, he wasn't good at it. But he loved Tony and for him, he would try. 

He stopped in a bakery on his way to Tony's flat and bought chocolate cake knowing only too well how much Tony liked it. He wanted to show Tony how sorry he was and the only way he could think about was by bringing him home his preferred cake. There was something about owning a key to his lover's apartment, that made Gibbs smile every time he used it. Tony was, despite his reputation, a very private man and the mere fact that he had given Gibbs a key proved the depth of his love. Gibbs stood in front of the door when he suddenly flashed back to the night right after Tony had been framed. 

"You Jethro; no rubber, no condom, just you, Jethro." Gibbs' heart had stopped at the promise behind the words and he had nodded slowly. "Just me." 

That night had been one of the rawest and yet realest experiences he had ever shared with another person. He had felt open and vulnerable and yet at the same time he had known without a doubt that Tony was his. The power Tony gave him, had at both scared and humbled him, but the longer he had thought about it, the more his fear had pushed away his love and in the end he had pushed Tony aside. 

He could have lost him. It was that last thought that made him walk into the apartment with purpose. He searched for Tony and found him standing in the kitchen where he was stirring something that smelled really nice. Gibbs smiled a bit; it had been quite a surprise for him when he had found out that Tony could cook. Then though his throat tightened at the hurt he had caused his lover and without conscious thought, he walked over and held his partner close. 

"Hi you." He hadn't realized how much he had missed the strength of Tony's body, how much he had come to lean onto his lover. Tony turned around and smiled gently. 

"Hey, are you hungry?" 

His stomach grumbled at the question and Tony grinned before he turned back to stirring the soup. He took it from the stove and set it on the table and the entire thing was so normal, so homey, that Gibbs' heart ached even more. He had hurt Tony and yet his lover was here, cooking for him, sharing his warmth and his love. Their eyes met and Tony smiled again. 

"You said that we need to talk." Gibbs hated how harsh his voice sounded, but Tony didn't even flinch. Instead he shook his head and continued eating in silence. Gibbs sighed. He wanted to get this done and over, wanted to get back to where they had been before, but Tony's hand on his made him look up and he tensed at the fear he saw in Tony's hazel eyes. The emotion was like a kick in his gut and he swallowed hard at Tony's sighed. "Whatever you're going to tell me, it won't change that I love you, but it won't be nice either. So let's eat and then talk ok?" He heard the plea that Tony didn't voice, heard the plea for a moment of respite before the talk and he nodded slowly. "After dinner." 

Tony nodded again and they ate in silence. Gibbs was tense, but the warm food, the rich taste of the soup, the fresh bread and the love in Tony's eyes every time their gazes met, made him relax and calm down far more than he had ever expected. In hindsight he understood Tony's thinking, understood that he was much better prepared to talk now than he had before or during dinner. Finally they cleared the table and Tony got two wine glasses out and brought a bottle of red wine to the table. Gibbs followed his lover and nodded towards the wine. 

"I thought you wanted to talk?" 

Tony grinned and shrugged at the same time. "We will, but some discussions are easier in the company of some good red wine." He sat down and held his hand out to Gibbs. 

"What happened to you?" Tony's hand was still in his and he saw the genuine concern and love in the hazel eyes and wanted to remember this moment. For a moment he reached out and caressed Tony's face before he swallowed hard and started to speak slowly. 

"We were out on a mission, I can't tell you what we were doing or even where, but it was a long time ago. We were two teams, my own and another one. I had been given the overall lead..." He trailed off as the years disappeared and he was once again in that god forsaken jungle in South America and heard himself argue with his CO. "My team was trained, but the other guys they were so young, so incredibly young and so green. I told my CO, that I wanted them to stay behind, but he didn't listen." 

Tony's hands slipped out of his and he felt the cold like a slap when they returned warm and confident and pulled him towards Tony's body. Gibbs went willingly and as he let himself be held, he continued to speak slowly. "It was supposed to be a simple reconnaissance mission, but the weather changed and suddenly we were trapped on the wrong side of the river." He could feel Tony's soothing caresses and yet he remembered so clearly how damp and heavy the air had been, all his memories were so clear, so vivid and he shivered. "The bastards knew it and played with us. By the time they openly attacked us, we were exhausted, had not slept for three days and had run out of food and water. They captured us, took us to their camp and took turns in interrogating us." 

Again he fell silent, but Tony simply carried on with the petting as if he was a large cat. His lover's body was relaxed and calm, but there was a tension in the arms holding him. Tony knew that Gibbs had not told him everything yet. "They tried to break us, but none of us did. They tortured us, deprived us of food and sleep and in all the sessions there was this one guy. He never questioned, never tortured, he just watched us. One night I was brought in for another session and he was there. He looked at me and told me that I was a man who would never betray his country, a man who couldn't be broken by pain. And he smiled and ordered the guards to bring one of my men into the cell..." 

Tony gasped and Gibbs heard the whispered curse. He felt Tony's arms tighten around him and he knew that his lover had already figured out what had happened. Still he had to tell him, had to say the words and damn himself. He had to lay it all out in the open and let Tony decide if he still trusted him. Fear not unlike the one he'd felt back in that cell made him tense, but Tony's arms were holding him and he found his voice again. "They brought Ralph; he was the youngest of the group. The guy made him strip... and then he ordered his men to..." His voice failed him again, the memory of the screams and the pain in Ralph's eyes made him tremble and he felt the answering tremble go through his lover. "They made me watch everything, made sure that he was facing me all the time..." 

"He didn't blame you." Tony's voice was hoarse and raw, but at the same time it was full of confidence and strength. Gibbs tensed and tried to withdraw from the warm arms, but Tony didn't let him, instead he held on even tighter. "Jethro, he might have been young and almost a boy, but he had made your team, he was Special Ops. He was a man and he knew that it wasn't your fault. You weren't the one who tortured him..." 

He couldn't take it anymore and breaking free, Gibbs crossed the room and stared out of the window. "If it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have been raped. If I weren't so possessive, so protective of my men, he wouldn't have died..." It was dark outside, but all he saw was Ralph, the plea in his eyes, the despair when he'd realized that Gibbs couldn't help him and the moment when the eyes had broken. A hand on his shoulder made him jerk back and he turned around to see Tony look at him. He answered the look with one of his own as he sighed. "I led them into this mission and I can live with the outcome. But I couldn't live with the knowledge that I let something like this happen to you. I wouldn't survive it my love would be the reason for you to get hurt." 

Tony didn't respond, instead, he walked closer and cupped Gibbs' face with his hand. Hazel eyes locked with blue ones and Gibbs shivered at the intensity in them. When had he become the weak one in their relationship and why didn't it bother him more? He had no time to ponder the question when Tony moved even closer and placed a tender and chaste kiss on his lips. "You won't, because if this were to happen today, you wouldn't take Ralph with you, you would ignore your CO and trust your gut." 

The truth of Tony's words made him tense and as their eyes met again, Tony smiled slowly before he put his hand on Gibbs' heart. "Trust me and trust us, but most of all trust yourself." 

No one had ever told him that and under normal circumstances, Gibbs would have scoffed at Tony's words and some part of him rebelled at them, but at the same time he felt as if an old wound was mended. He looked at Tony and felt like an idiot as he saw love and the devotion in his eyes. How had he ever thought that he could push Tony away, how had he ever believed one moment that he could go on without having him in his live? 

"I love you." He spoke slowly and saw how Tony's eyes lit up. "I'm a bastard and an idiot. I know I hurt you and I'm glad you gave me another chance. I'm..." He bit his lips and then sighed. "I'm sorry." 

Tony looked steadily at him for a long time and then he nodded before he averted his eyes. "When you told me those things in the meeting room, it hurt, Jethro, and when you walked away without even looking at me, I... I just wanted to curl up and cry. You've got a lot of power over me..."Tony trailed off and met his eyes again. "... power to hurt me deeply if not fatally. If something like this happens again, talk to me, promise?" 

The words were like another kick in his gut and Gibbs swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, before he pulled Tony towards him once again. "I promise." 

--- 

*New York* 

Nick sighed as he stared out into the darkness. Don was still working on a case with Mac and the apartment was almost eerily silent. Normally he had no problems with the quietness, instead he reveled in it, but today it made him edgy and a shiver went through him. His eyes fell on the phone in his hands. He had picked it up a while ago and still he wasn't able to make the call. He was afraid. 

"Idiot." His mumbled curse seemed to echo loud in the empty flat and he shook his head as he once again dialed Gil's number. Gil..., Grissom... his former boss and the one person he had trusted above all. Gil who had saved his life more than once, Gil who had gotten him out of the box that should have become his coffin. He had trusted him. 

And Gil had lied to him. 

They needed to talk. He knew that Gil would never call him, that the older man would never mention the rift between them and so it was up to Nick to make the first step. He knew that and yet he didn't want to call. 

It would make the betrayal so real. 

Another shiver ran through him as his eyes fell on a piece of paper. It had a name and a number on it and Nick knew that it was another call he needed to make. But unlike the call to Gil it was a call he wanted to make. He reached for his phone again, dialed and his heart rate sped up as he sat down and waited for the person to pick up the phone. 

--- 

*Washington DC* 

Ziva didn't recognize the number on the display and for a moment, she wondered if she should pick up. Her curiosity got the better of her, or if she was honest it was not only her curiosity and but also her boredom. 

"Who's this?" Her question was met with a chuckle on the other end of the line and for a second she tensed. She knew the voice and swallowed heavily as she spoke the name. "Nick?" He was the last person she'd expected to hear from and as he didn't answer, she tried again. "You're Nick aren't you?" 

"Yes, I am." His answer was tentative as if he knew that she didn't want to speak with him, but then before she could say anything he continued to speak. "How are you?" 

There was a genuine concern behind the question and Ziva felt herself starting to tremble. She remembered what she had done to Nick, remembered her attack and his reaction and it didn't match with the call and the question and her first reaction was to attack again. "Why do you care?" 

She heard him sigh and she wondered whether he would hang up on her. He didn't instead he answered and with few words managed to shake her world. "Because you were hurt like I was, because I have someone to talk to and you don't, because I want to help." 

Ziva collapsed into her chair at his last words and shivered. Her past always hovered at the edge of her consciousness, her fear of being obsolete and discarded was always a part of her and she feared what she would discover about herself, should she accept Nick's offer. 

"You don't have to say anything, Ziva, I just wanted to let you know that I am there if you need to talk." His voice was calm and yet she heard the slight tremble in it right before he hung up. She stared at her phone without seeing it as her mind took her back to the nights when she had been forced to be daddy's good girl, the things she had done as an agent and she shivered again before she straightened and reached for the phone and dialed. 

Nick answered so fast that she guessed he had waited for her call, but the surprise in his voice when he recognized her was honest. Her father had molded her into the perfect agent, but over the last year she had come to realize that although she might have become a model agent, she hated the person she had turned into. 

Once again Ziva wondered whether or not it was the right decision, but remembering her attack on Nick, she steeled herself "Can we talk?" 

--- 
 

*Chapter 9 – Loose ends tied* 

*New York* 

Olivia sighed as she walked into the SVU office. It had been another long day. The investigation into Kelly Gordon's death was going nowhere. It wasn't even that they were hitting dead ends; it was more that they had nothing. No one apart from Nick Stokes and the CSI team seemed to have known her. They had talked to the other manager of the hotel and he had confirmed that Kelly Gordon had had a visitor, but his description of the man was so generic that it fit half of New York's male population. 

It was frustrating and annoying, but it also meant that the only person they had as a potential suspect was Nick and that scared her more than she would ever admit. It wasn't because she thought that Don had lied to her and Elliot; it was because she knew that he hadn't. 

"Don't worry, we'll keep them safe." Elliot's words were softly spoken and she smiled wanly at her partner. He had gotten very good at reading her mood and she knew that he could read the tension in her body. Looking at him, she wanted to respond and tell him that they couldn't keep Nick and Don safe if they were outed, when Munch and Fin walked towards them. Munch held a large file in his hands and his eyes were serious as he looked at them. 

"We've got something." His voice was grave and Olivia tensed as she saw the grim look on Fin's face. The two men walked ahead towards Cragen's office and exchanging a worried look, Elliot and Olivia followed. Inside the Captain's office, Munch tossed the file onto the table and started to speak. "We tried to talk to Jimmy Slater, but didn't find him in his apartment. We talked to the landlady who told us that he hasn't been home for five days and the hotel manager told us that he quit the day after Kelly Gordon's murder." 

Fin took over from his partner and Olivia felt herself relax slowly as she realized that they finally had a second suspect. "We ran his name through the database and came up empty for New York, then we ran it across the US and got a hit." Munch continued the tale and his eyes were hard as he pointed to the file. "Jimmy Slater got convicted for breaking in and stealing in three cases in the state of Nevada. He spent two years in prison, got out January 2005." 

"It all goes back to Vegas, doesn't it?" Elliot's comment made Munch smile without humor before he nodded and once again pointed to the file. "I called an old friend of mine with the PD in Vegas, and he faxed me Slater's file. Now I give you three guesses on who was the lead CSI in his case..." 

"Nick Stokes." Elliot's voice was hard and Olivia felt all blood leave her face as she connected the dots and remembered what Nick had told her and Elliot when they had questioned him about Kelly Gordon. "I didn't know until Mac told me, but Walter Gordon wasn't planning my abduction alone. When my old team processed the tape, they found a second voice on it. It couldn't be identified yet." 

Elliot had obviously made the same connections as he looked at Cragen. "Stokes told us that his old team found evidence that Gordon hadn't planned his abduction alone, that there had been a second person plotting with him. He told us that this second person was never found. What if it is Slater; what if he wanted revenge on Stokes for getting him convicted?" 

Cragen nodded slowly, but then he shook his head. "I can see where you coming from, but where does Kelly Gordon fit in? And why was she killed?"  

His questions were valid ones and Olivia sighed. She didn't have an answer, but Elliot spoke again. "Maybe she didn't agree with his plans or maybe her plans didn't match his... Maybe he was just angry that she drew attention to them when she left Nevada..." 

For a long time there was silence in the room, before Cragen sighed and reached for the phone. "I have to call Taylor and let him know. Stokes might need police protection as long as Slater is still out there." He looked at Olivia and Elliot, then his eyes moved onto Fin and Munch. "You guys, find this Slater. I want him off the street and get a copy of that voice recording from Vegas." 

--- 

"The fire started in the kitchen, so we need to find the source there." 

Mac's voice was calm, confident, and Don smiled as he saw Lindsay frown. Although new, she certainly had what Danny called the "two essential b's": brains and balls. She had no qualms about speaking up against Mac or Stella and her insight into crime scenes was good and proved that often instinct was just as important as experience. She proved him right as she shook her head. "Mac, the kitchen can't be the origin." 

Her quiet words made Mac turn around and look at her almost surprised. He clearly hadn't expected to get an opposition from the youngest member of their team. Still, he smiled as he looked questioningly, and without words challenged her to prove her point. She smiled again and pointed towards the light bulb. "You see how the glass has been deformed? If the fire had started in the kitchen, then it would never have reached the heat to create such a formation of the glass." 

Don nodded as he looked at the evidence that Lindsay had found, but he kept silent and watched as Mac's eyes followed Lindsay's explanations, and he finally nodded too. His smile was approving as he started to push away the debris and Lindsay visibly relaxed. Don nodded at her as she looked at him and gave her the thumbs up sign. She had done well and had adapted to the big city much easier than most of them had thought possible. He wanted to make a comment when his phone rang and he stepped outside to take the call. 

"Don? It's Stabler here. Listen, we need to talk." Stabler's voice was serious and Don felt his heart stop for a moment. Right now there was only one reason for the SVU detective to call him and that was Kelly Gordon's case. He swallowed hard against the lump of fear, and was glad that he managed to keep his voice calm as he asked for details. Stabler, however, didn't seem too eager to go into details on the phone. "Can we meet at Bryant Park?" 

"Sure, when?" Again he managed to keep the trembling out of his voice, but as he saw Mac's concerned look, he knew that the same couldn't be said for his hand. His friend didn't ask though and once again Don marveled at the way Mac managed to separate business and personal. Stabler told him the time, and as he put the phone back into his coat, Mac was already standing next to him. 

"I need to talk with Stabler. Can you do without me for 30 minutes?" Mac nodded at his question, but before he could say anything, his phone rang, too, and he frowned.  

Don watched as Mac answered and felt the knot in his stomach tighten as he heard the name of the person that had called Mac. "Captain Cragen, how can I help you?" 

Don felt the tremor that ran through him and it made him almost run to Bryant Park. He was out of breath by the time he arrived at the green oasis in the middle of Manhattan, but he didn't notice as Stabler walked up next to him and led them to one of the few empty benches.  

"We have a new lead." Stabler didn't bother with formalities and Don felt the fear in his heart lessen. He had been sure that Stabler had called to tell him that Nick was about to be arrested. Looking at the other detective, he noticed the tense lines in Stabler's face and frowned. "So if Nick's off the hook, why are you so tense?" 

Instead of answering, Stabler handed him a large file. Don flipped through it and froze as he came to the drawings they had found in Kelly Gordon's hotel room. The images were too terrible to look and shaking his head in denial, he stared at Stabler, asking for an explanation without saying anything. 

"We found those in Gordon's room. First we thought that she was the one who drew them, but now we think that her killer did. We also think that he was her father's accomplice."  

Don felt cold hatred grow in his heart as he realized that the man who had killed Kelly Gordon and stalked Nick was still out there. He knew that his voice portrayed some of that hatred as he fixed Stabler hard. "Who is it?" 

Stabler shook his head and looked at Don with an understanding smile. "If I tell you, you'll take Taylor and Messer and hunt him down. And believe me, it would be a shame if I had to arrest the best CSI guys that New York has had in over a decade because they decided that a bit of self justice was in order." 

Don managed to smile ruefully, but at the same time he didn't break his hard stare. "Promise me that you'll find the bastard and that you'll make him pay." 

He spoke slowly and saw how Stabler's eyes widened in alarm for a moment. Don was very much aware that he had a reputation of being an easygoing guy. He knew that some of his colleagues thought him to be not intense enough when it came to interrogating a suspect. In truth he was probably more intense than most cops, but he also knew that he couldn't let that side of himself out, especially not if he was working with Mac.  

Stabler stared at him for another minute before he nodded and got up. His arm rested lightly on Don's as their eyes met again. "Cragen called Taylor, saying that he wants Nick to get police protection. I would suggest you volunteer for that job; after all you know him and you work with him a lot." 

There was a hint of a smile in Stabler's eyes and Don couldn't help but respond to the gentle teasing in the other man's words. He had been wary about Stabler's reaction and was glad that their relationship had not suffered with him disclosing his real relationship with Nick. "I'll talk to my Captain." 

Stabler turned around at Don's words and once again fixed him with an intense stare. "No matter what Don, don't let Nick out of your sight until we've got this guy. And I'm not saying this as your friend, I'm saying this as an SVU detective, because if he really drew these pictures, then Nick is in danger." 

Any amusement or relief that had cursed through Don's blood right before vanished at Stabler's serious expression and words. He swallowed hard as fear made him tense again and nodded. "I'll watch over him." He spoke the words like a vow and that was exactly how he felt about them. He would keep Nick safe at all costs. 

--- 

*Washington DC* 

"I need a couple of days off." Ziva saw how Gibbs frowned at her words, but instead of the scathing comment she had expected, he looked at her closely. For a moment she felt as if she were under the microscope before he nodded curtly. "Take your cell phone with you; if something comes up, we'll call." 

She was faintly surprised that he didn't ask anything else, but as she sat down at her desk, she felt Tony's eyes on her. Their relationship had improved since the incident with Chip and although she wouldn't call him a friend, she now knew that he was someone she could trust. Maybe that was the reason why she answered honestly as he asked her where she was going to go. "New York." 

For a second the room was eerily silent, and then Tony swallowed hard. Ziva saw how he exchanged a look with Gibbs and saw the look of shock in McGee's face. Tony swallowed once again and fixed her with a hard look. "Just make sure you don't run into Mac Taylor." 

Mac Taylor... Ziva shivered as she remembered the look of contempt that she had seen in the New Yorker's eyes after she had attacked Nick. Her eyes met Gibbs' and she saw the threat in the blue orbs. Right after New York, he had taken her to the gym and talked to her. Ziva felt another shiver go through her body as she remembered the talk. 

"Don't misunderstand me, Ziva; if I say I cut you lose, I mean it. There will be no protection from NCIS and no more lies from me." 

Gibbs' look told her that he too remembered the threat, and sighing, she suddenly realized that she couldn't start new without saying goodbye to the past. For a moment her training and the ingrained distrust kicked in, but she shoved it aside together with her fear and pride as she looked up and met Gibbs' eyes straight on before moving to Tony's as she addressed them both. "Can we talk for a moment?" 

Again Tony and Gibbs exchanged a look before both men got up and in synch walked towards the elevator. Ziva followed them and as soon as the elevator stopped at Gibbs request, she felt two sets of eyes rest on her. 

"I wanted to apologize. I tried to break your team up and I endangered Tony with my doing so. It wasn't all my idea, but that doesn't matter; I agreed to be part of the plan and for that I am sorry." 

Tony's eyes had narrowed and she felt like an insect under the microscope as he studied her. "Why the change of heart?" 

She heard no distrust in his voice only curiosity and once again she marveled at the difference of this team to her old world before she answered. "Because I've realized that I'm turning into my father and that is the least that I want." 

Her words had slipped out before she could censor them and she tensed as she waited for the fall out. There was none, instead Tony laughed almost delighted and crossed the small space to hug her. "Well, I can completely understand that feeling." She remembered some of Tony's stories about his father and felt a surprising kinship with the other man. He released her and met her eyes with a smile.  

"Welcome to the team." Gibbs hadn't said anything during the conversation, but as his eyes met hers, Ziva noticed the warmth in them and she knew that she was forgiven. He hadn't forgotten, but he had forgiven her. He pressed the button and as they reached the normal floor they all exited with a smile.  

Tony and Gibbs were once again walking ahead and with a start Ziva noticed the harmony of their movements, the way they looked complete together. She shook her head at her stupidity. She had thought that she could replace Tony, and by replacing him ensuring her place in this team. She had thought that she could become for Gibbs what Tony was for him. She had been a fool, she knew now, because she had finally understood that without Tony there was no Gibbs. 

She grabbed her bag and left the office to catch the flight to New York. A shiver of dread ran through her at the thought of the next few days. It would be hard to talk about what had happened, but at least she wouldn't be alone. 

--- 

*New York* 

Nick felt Don's eyes on him as Mac briefed him about the SVU's findings. He knew that his lover wanted to know if he was alright and although it surprised him, Nick actually felt ok. The unknown threat wasn't unknown anymore, the mysterious second man had a name and a face and a history... a history... 

"Oh god..." Shivers suddenly wracked his body as understanding hit him. Don was instantly at his side and grateful he leaned into his lover. For a moment he concentrated on the feeling of safety he always got when he was in Don's arms before he looked up and met Mac's eyes. 

"I wasn't a random target, was I? Gordon didn't care who he put in that box, but Slater wanted me." A shiver ran through his body and again he felt Don's arms tighten around him. He knew that his thoughts were irrational, knew that there was no way he wasn't a random target and still he felt a completely different chill at the thought that there was even the slightest chance he had been the real target. He could feel the tension in his lover's muscles when a soft and yet strong voice from the side suddenly spoke. "He won't get you." 

Nick tensed as he realized that Mac's office had become crowded. Stella and Sheldon stood next to Mac and Danny, looking at him with concern and care while Lindsay, who had spoken, stood in the door and simply smiled. The entire team was looking at him, and for a moment he wanted to move out of Don's arms, but with a quick tightening of his hug, his lover made sure that he stayed put. Slowly Nick looked from Mac's blue eyes to Sheldon and Stella and finally over to Lindsay and Danny. He saw nothing but concern, nothing but friendliness and friendship in the faces of his colleagues. A shiver once again wracked his body and he swallowed hard. 

"He has to go through us to get to you." Lindsay spoke again and this time her eyes were hard and there was something in the blue depths that made him shiver. Stella's look was just as fierce and Nick suddenly smiled. 

"Thanks guys, really, thanks." He wanted to say more, but he didn't find the right words. Struggling to say something, he was saved by the proverbial bell when Mac's phone rang. He sighed in relief and smiled when Don leaned in and nuzzled his neck before he moved his lips to Nick's ear. 

"Are you alright with them knowing?" Nick heard the apprehension in Don's voice, but was surprised to notice that Don was worried about his reaction and not the potential repercussions it could have on them. Slipping out of his partner's arms, he turned and nodded as their eyes met. Don relaxed and Nick wanted to kiss him, but decided to keep himself in check. The office had glass walls after all. 

"Nick..." There was something in Mac's voice that made Nick look up sharply and with a frown he noticed that Mac's hand trembled as he put his cell phone down. "That was Cragen. Slater has just turned himself in. He wants to speak with you." 

--- 

Alex narrowed her eyes as she looked at Elliot. "He just walked in here and told you that he wanted to confess to the murder of Kelly Gordon?" 

Elliot's face showed the same surprise and confusion that she felt, but he still nodded and the looked through the window at the thin, pale man who sat quietly in his chair. Something just nagged at the back of his head that this was wrong, that he had make a mistake when he had called Taylor to send Nick over. And yet whenever he wanted to call Nick and tell him to stay back, he reminded himself of the fact that his friend was a trained investigator and that Elliot would do more harm if he tried to shield him too excessively. 

The silence between him and Alex stretched and suddenly he realized that she was waiting for an answer and he smiled a bit ruefully. "Sorry, I kind of spaced out." She smiled and shook her head, but before she could say anything, Elliot continued immediately. "He walked into the office, put the weapon on Fin's desk and told us he'd shot Kelly Gordon. Then he said that he wanted to speak with Nick and hasn't said a word since." 

Silently he wished for Huang to come and tell him about the guy, but the psychologist was at an FBI conference and was probably listening to some discussion about the twisted minds he had to deal with every day. Elliot shivered; he didn't envy Huang, although he guessed that the FBI factor didn't stress the other man as much as it would stress Elliot. 

"I think I made a mistake when I called Nick." Alex looked at him surprised and Elliot was equally surprised that he had voiced his thoughts.  

For a moment her eyes warmed and she put a comforting hand on his arm. "You did the right thing; he has to face Slater, and at least here he's safe." 

She had wanted to comfort him, but somehow it didn't work. 

--- 

Don watched through the two-way mirror as Nick sat down in front of Jim Slater. He saw the tension in his lover's shoulders and wished that he could be with him, wished that he could ease some of Nick's burden. He couldn't though, and once again, Don cursed the fact that he was once again forced to watch as Nick's world fell apart, that he was once again useless, that once again all he could do was pick up the pieces and hold onto Nick afterwards. 

"You're good for him." Olivia's words were gentle and still Don tensed before he realized that they were alone. He relaxed then and smiled, but his eyes didn't move away from Nick and he swallowed hard as his partner began to speak on the other side of the glass. 

"You wanted to see me." Nick's voice was devoid of any emotions and Don had to restrain himself before he got into the room and dragged Nick out. He didn't want his partner in this room, didn't want him in proximity of the other man, and to be unable to help made him want to howl with frustration. 

"I didn't know." Jim Slater's voice was trembling and Don looked up, surprised. He saw how Olivia stepped closer to the window and felt her tension as she stood next to him. Slater had not once looked at Stabler or Cabot; his eyes were completely focused on Nick as he continued. "I didn't know that she wanted to hurt you. I would have never agreed for her to stay with me; you have to believe me." 

Nick tilted his head to the side and looked at Slater as if he were an interesting piece of evidence. For a moment there was silence in the room and then Nick spoke again calmly. "Why don't you tell us everything from the beginning? Were you an accomplice of Walter Gordon?" 

Slater tensed and shook his head frantically. "No! I promise you, I had no idea." 

Stabler growled and forced Slater to look at him. "Stop the bullshit and look at me. Did or did you not help Walter Gordon abduct Nick Stokes?" 

Don held his breath as Slater turned towards Stabler and straightened up. The criminal's entire posture changed as he took a deep breath. 

"I wasn't involved. I knew Walter and I knew that he had a grudge against the CSI unit, but I had no idea that he was planning anything like this. I left Vegas in April 2005, you can check with my parole officer and I never heard of Gordon until Kelly called me out of the blue and told me that she wanted to start new in New York. I told her that she could crash at the hotel I worked for and she came." Slater shrugged and once again turned towards Nick. 

"Look man, I have no reason to hate you; you saved my ass, man." Don saw how Nick tensed and shook his head; was Slater messing with Nick? Before he could say anything to Olivia, Slater spoke again. "You worked my case, do you remember?" 

Nick smiled faintly and shook his head. "Sorry, Mr. Slater, I know what you were convicted off, but I don't remember the details." 

"I had broken into a house and found a dead body. When the cops arrived they called you and all you found were my prints. I told you back then that I had nothing to do with the murder and you believed in me." Slater's voice was intent as he continued. "Your boss told you to leave it and that you should concentrate on the evidence; he told you in front of me that he was sure I was lying and yet you looked deeper, you believed in my innocence. You saved my life." 

Don felt Olivia's eyes on him and he smiled faintly as their eyes met. She wanted to say something, but before she could get a word out, Slater spoke again. "When Kelly suddenly spoke of making you pay, I was horrified. I hadn't even known you were in New York. I... I couldn't let her harm you." 

The sincerity in Slater's voice took Don aback and he shivered a bit as he understood that nothing was as it had seemed. He should be glad about it, but he couldn't help waiting for the other shoe to drop and a glance at Nick told him that his partner felt the same way. Nick was still very, very tense, and the way he fixated on Slater spoke volumes of the emotions that had to be racing through Nick. Finally Nick took a deep breath and shook his head. "Why did you kill her?" 

His question made both Don and Slater tense, before the latter shrugged. "She told me what she wanted to do to you and when I told her that I wouldn't let her do it, she laughed." 

Don felt Olivia's hand on his shoulder and realized that he had moved towards the door without consciously planning to. He had seen how Nick had shivered once at the thought of being at the mercy of Kelly Gordon, and it had been enough to send his protective instincts into overdrive. He smiled ruefully at Olivia's look and turned back to the window. 

"I told her I would call the cops. She ripped her dress and said that if I called the cops, she'd tell them I'd raped her. I lost it and shot her." 

Slater stared at Nick with eyes that were seeking forgiveness, and Don felt sick as he thought of what had to be going through his lover's mind. 

"I couldn't let her hurt you." Slater reached out to touch Nick's hand, but Nick withdrew so fast that he almost fell off the chair. His voice trembled as he got up and looked at Slater. "Don't seek forgiveness from me. I proved that you were not a killer back in Vegas, but now you are and there is nothing I can and will do for you." 

Don's heart ached at the pain he heard in his lover's voice, but at the same time he was proud of Nick when the other man looked at Stabler. "Book him, okay?" 

Nick left the room and Don was next to him in an instant. He wanted to hold Nick when he saw the pain in the dark eyes, but just as he reached out DA Cabot appeared in the room. She looked at Nick and smiled sadly. 

"I'm sorry that you had to go through all that." Her voice was friendly and Nick smiled a bit as he took the offered hand. 

"Not your fault." Their eyes met and Don felt something pass between the blond attorney and his lover. There was an understanding that he didn't get and it made him antsy, but then Nick turned towards him and Don forgot all about Cabot. Nick's eyes were guarded but he could still see the pain in them and with a nod to the two women in the room, he gently took Nick's arm and steered him out of the tiny room, walked through the SVU office without noticing or greeting anyone and just kept walking until they were inside the car. Only there, behind the tinted windows, in the safety of the darkness did Nick break down and Don held him as he trembled with aftershock. "I'm here."  

Nick calmed at the soft words and took a deep breath before he nodded. "I know, you were always there; no matter how many times I've broken down, you were there. I love you, Don; love you for being there, for being you." Nick's hand reached out and caressed Don's face. Don felt the words that Nick had spoken warming him to his core, making him melt and fall in love once again. 

"Mac gave us the rest of the day off. What do you say that we get out of New York?" 

Nick looked up at the suggestion and shook his head. "It sounds good, but right now, I need to be in your arms in our home." 

Our home... Don's heart was beating fast as he drove towards their apartment, their home. He felt as if he were bursting with love and taking one hand from the steering wheel he grabbed Nick's hand and held it tight. "Let's go home." 

--- 

Danny hated the fact that he couldn't do anything to help Nick and Don, and he pressed his lips together in annoyance as he watched them leave the office to head over to SVU. He knew that he had his hands balled into fists, but he didn't notice how his nails pressed into his skin until Mac gently pried them apart. "Stop it, you'll hurt yourself." 

His lover's voice was gentle and tender and as he turned around Danny saw the concern in Mac's blue eyes. Danny smiled and wanted to reach out and smooth the lines of exhaustion he saw in Mac's face. He held back though, because although no one on the team had an issue with Don and Nick, he wasn't so sure if they would feel the same about him and Mac. So he just squeezed the hand that held his and tried to convey his love through the simple gesture. 

"Are you ok, Mac?" Danny still held Mac's hand and so he could feel how his lover tensed at the question, before he removed his hand from Danny's and turned away. The rejection hurt Danny like a slap in his face, but he swallowed the pain and walked around the table so that he could face Mac again. His lover's face was shuttered and his eyes were hard, but that alone was enough to alert Danny. Since they had become lovers, Mac had opened up to him and Danny had learned to read Mac. Now Mac was hiding from him and although it hurt Danny, the concern he felt was stronger and he grabbed Mac's hands gently. 

"Mac, please talk to me. I know you aren't sleeping anymore. You have nightmares again and I just don't think that this is about Nick. Please, love, tell me what is going on." He saw how Mac's eyes hardened for a moment, before his lover sighed and sat down slowly. Mac was still holding onto his hand and Danny leaned against the desk casually knowing that their entwined hands were hidden from someone walking by and looking inside. 

"Sonny is out." 

Three words that made Danny freeze. He stared at Mac and saw the mixture of anger and fear in the blue eyes and suddenly he knew that Mac was afraid for him. He understood why, and the thought of Sonny being back out on the streets did indeed make his blood run cold, but at the same time he knew that he was stronger now, that he had friends who believed in him and with that thought, he pressed Mac's hand tightly. "I won't let him hurt you."  

Mac tensed completely at those words and Danny smiled. He knew that he had surprised Mac with his comment, but as Mac looked at him, he held his gaze until Mac nodded slowly. "I have your back and you have mine. We're in this together, Danny, together."  

Danny wanted to lean in and kiss Mac, but he didn't dare and so he just pressed his lover's hand again. "Got to get back to the lab." Mac smiled at him and Danny noted with relief that the tension in the strong body had lessened. He turned towards the door when Mac spoke again. 

"Danny? Thanks!" 

He smiled all the way down to the lab and it was only Lindsay's look that made him aware of the silly smile that still graced his face. He sobered up quickly and nodded at her, but although she glared at him, her eyes were kind and Danny nodded mentally. 

He had friends here, not only Nick and Don, but Stella and Lindsay and Sheldon, too. These people would not just roll over because Sonny was after him; they would stick with him and fight. He wasn't alone anymore. 

And he had Mac, Mac who knew the truth of his involvement with Sonny and who still loved him. 

Danny wasn't the weak kid without friends anymore and if Sonny tried to mess with his life, he would get a nasty surprise. 

--- 

Sonny had had someone watching Danny for over a month. The guys had reported to him about Danny's movements and his activities, but Sonny still believed in the old saying that trust was good, but control was better. He trusted those he had sent to spy at Danny, but he wanted to know for sure what was going on between his slut and the CSI lieutenant before he made his move. 

Seeing the two men walk out of the office building he felt rage curl through him at the way they stood too close and he wanted to kill Taylor on the spot for touching his property. But Sonny hadn't become who he was without brains and as he watched the men drive away, he smiled cruelly. As satisfying as it would be to kill Taylor in front of Danny, he wanted more. 

The man had not only stolen Danny from him, but he had humiliated him in front of his gang and Sonny would make sure that he got his revenge. Oh, he would kill Taylor for sure, but first he wanted the man to suffer. 

Sonny grabbed his phone and called a friend. It was time to set his plan in motion. 

--- 
 

*Chapter 10 – And the world keeps turning* 

*Washington DC* 

Tony paced the living room while he listened to Don on the other end of the line. He had to move, had to do something to get the agitation out of his system. Don had told him again and again that Nick was fine, that they were just glad it was finally over, but still he wanted to punch something. Nick had been there for him when he had been accused of murder; hell, Nick had sent him Gil Grissom and what had Tony done when Nick had needed him? 

He hadn't even known. Growling lightly, he told Don in no uncertain terms that in the future he and Gibbs were to be informed about things like that, but instead of getting angry, Don only laughed. "You spend too much time with Gibbs; you already growl like him." 

The comment made him smile fondly, almost proudly, but the warm feeling disappeared as Don continued to speak. "We got your girlfriend arriving soon." 

Girlfriend? What the heck was Don talking about? Tony frowned when he heard a chuckle through the line and Don explained easily. "Ziva is coming to visit us. Nick called her..." 

For a second, Tony was speechless. He remembered what had happened in New York and he couldn't believe that after all that Ziva had done, Nick would not only call her, but actually invite her to visit him and Don. He imagined Don's reaction when he had found out and grinned. "Must have been great make up sex." 

Don laughed at that, but didn't disagree and Tony shook his head. "Well, if she's a pain, you have my permission to kick her butt." 

It didn't come out as vicious as he would have said it only days ago, and with frown he realized that he actually felt not contempt towards Ziva anymore. Her apology and her admission that she had issues with her family had helped him to forgive her, and it felt right because she was a teammate and he implicitly trusted her because Gibbs had selected her for this team. 

"So when are you and Nick going to come down for a weekend?" Tony had invited them a couple of times, but with their jobs being as they were, they hadn't been able to make it a deal.  

Don groaned and laughed. "Nick wants us to go to Vegas for a visit. I get to meet the family..." 

The mentioning of Vegas made Tony think of Gil Grissom and he smiled fondly. The older man had left a lasting impression on him, not only because he had found the evidence that proved Tony's innocence, but also because he had stood up to Gibbs in a way few others ever had. 

"Maybe we should join you and make it a road trip." He had meant it as a joke, but as soon as he had said it, it sounded like a great idea and Don's answer was immediate.  

"Why not? Ask Danny and Mac and have a gay weekend in Sin City..." 

Tony laughed at the comment and they chatted for a while about anything and nothing before Don told him that he had to leave. They promised each other another call soon, and when Tony put the phone down, he stood at the window and looked outside for a moment. The news that Don had just given him was still dancing through his mind, and with a shiver he walked towards the basement. He needed to be around Jethro right now. 

As soon as he entered the room, he felt at peace and taking a deep breath, Tony sat down on the stairs and watched his lover sand the boat. He loved the calm between them, loved the easiness that had settled after the ups and downs they had had in the last couple of weeks. They had the weekend off, no calls, nothing. It was rare to have this kind of freedom and Tony was already wondering what to do. Neither he nor Jethro had actually talked about it and only weeks ago that would have scared him. He would have second guessed himself on whether or not Jethro wanted to spend time with him. Those thoughts were in the past now and maybe that was the one positive outcome of all the mess they had gone through with Chip. 

Their relationship had changed since Jethro had broken down in Tony's arms and had told him about his fear and his nightmares. Tony knew that his lover had been afraid of the aftermath, that Jethro had feared Tony would not respect him anymore. It was still beyond Tony's understanding how Jethro could even think that, but it proved that not only Tony but Jethro too had his scars and fears. Tony shook his head sadly and yet lovingly while his eyes rested on his lover's strong hands. A shiver ran through him as he watched how Jethro touched the wood, how he handled it strongly and yet almost tenderly. 

"Are you going to help or are you just going to sit here and watch?" Jethro's words were gruff, but as he looked up, his eyes were soft and warm. Tony smiled and stretched before he walked down and leaned against the boat. "You really think me helping you is a good idea?"  

Jethro grinned at the comment and slowly backed Tony towards the wall. Tony swallowed as he saw the love and lust in the blue eyes and a moan escaped him as Jethro's lips ghosted over his. He reached out to draw his lover towards him, but Jethro captured his hands and pressed them above Tony's head against the wall. Tony's breath caught then and he strained with his body against Jethro. "Please..."  

Jethro's eyes flared up at the soft word that had escaped Tony and he smiled before he leaned down to nibble at Tony's lips. "You are so beautiful." 

Tony swallowed against the rush of desire that had him it its grip making him tremble and shiver under the soft touches. Damn it, he had never reacted to a lover in the way he reacted to Jethro's touches, and one look in the blue eyes told him that Jethro knew and reveled in the knowledge. Again his lover leaned down and this time the strong hands opened his shirt, and Tony sighed as he finally felt Jethro's hands on his naked skin. 

"I need you." The whisper made Jethro smile and he leaned down to capture one of Tony's nipples. Tony whimpered at the tender assault to his senses and he shivered when his lover withdrew. "Please Jethro, I need you." 

Jethro smiled and once again captured Tony's lips. Tony moaned again, but at the same time he twisted them so that he was the one covering Jethro and for a second Jethro just gaped at him. Tony smiled even as shivers raced through his body. It was incredibly arousing to see Jethro surrender to him, to feel him accept that Tony was in charge even if it was only for a second, and with another smile, Tony ran his hand over Jethro's chest opening the buttons and exposing Jethro's body to his eyes. "Love you." 

Jethro shivered as Tony's lips followed the hairy trail downwards and he couldn't suppress a moan when Tony nibbled at his hipbone. Tony looked up and saw that Jethro had his eyes closed and was moaning in pleasure. He loved this, loved to see Jethro giving himself over to the emotions and with a graceful move, Tony slid onto his knees. 

"I want you." The words were whispered while he opened Jethro's pants and slowly lowered them until Jethro was naked in front of him. Their eyes met and Tony smiled once again before he swallowed Jethro's cock. He heard the moan that was wrenched from his lover, but he didn't look up as his senses were overwhelmed by the scent and taste of his partner. Quickly he freed his own cock and started stroking it in times with Jehtro's thrusts and the feeling was so good that he moaned hard before he started to hum against the hard flesh between his lips. Jethro thrust once, twice before he cried out. Tony trembled as his mouth was flooded with the proof of Jethro's release and he swallowed eagerly even as he felt his partner's release trigger his own. 

For a moment the world had blackened out, but when he looked up again he felt Jethro's eyes on him. "Love you." 

Tony smiled at the warmth in the blue eyes and then grinned. "Hey, if you ever need help with the boat again, let me know." 

--- 

*New York* 

She stood on the stage and recited the poem, and as she looked down into the audience, she saw that he was here. Her heart stopped, but her father smiled and waved at her, and for a second she was the happiest girl on earth. He rarely was proud of her and the fact that she had made him smile was making her want to sing of joy; instead she composed herself and solemnly finished the poem, but when she looked at her father again, he was gone. 

Ziva woke with a racing heart and pressed her eyes together against the tears that threatened to fall. She had no idea where those dreams suddenly came from, and with an annoyed sigh she turned around trying to find a more comfortable position in her bed. The sight of the night sky took her aback for a moment and she realized that she had forgotten where she was. She wasn't in her own flat, she was in New York and the room she slept in, was Nick and Don's guest room. She had arrived this evening and had been honestly surprised to find not only Nick but Don welcoming her. Now she lay in the comfortable bed and couldn't sleep. Quietly she got up and walked towards the living room. Nick had told her to feel at home, and she did so as she now sat down and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room. 

She had no idea how long she was sitting there when suddenly someone sat down next to her. Ziva couldn't help tensing but when the person next to her didn't speak or move, she relaxed slowly and turned around. Don's face was hidden in the shadows and all she could see of him was a dark, lean frame when he suddenly spoke. "You alright?" 

Ziva smiled sadly and shrugged. "I guess I am. I'm not sure." 

Don didn't answer, just sat next to her silently. Ziva wondered what he was doing out here when he could have been in bed sleeping next to Nick. She was about to ask when Don suddenly spoke again. "I know that you're not here to hurt Nick because you didn't consciously choose him; you just attacked the weakest in our group. But I warn you, if you do anything to hurt him, you'll answer to me." 

The fierce protectiveness that resonated through Don's words made Ziva smile wanly. She had never had someone who would stand up for her like that. Sighing silently, she turned away and looked out of the window. "Nick was the first person to care about what happened to me as a kid. When he called and asked if I wanted to talk, I... I wanted to refuse, but I couldn't. I have lived with the pain for too long." 

Why was she telling Don this? What was it about these men that they broke through her defenses so easily? She shivered when Don's hand squeezed her shoulder. "I can't even begin to understand, Ziva, just as I can't understand what Nick went through." 

She tried to see what he was thinking but still his face was hidden in the dark. He was quiet and so she picked up the conversation. "Why are you awake?" 

Don rubbed a hand over his face and she recognized the gesture as one of exhaustion and weariness even before his words confirmed it. "I never knew that by loving someone as deep as I love Nick, I would inherit his nightmares. I know that I should have never read the report of his abduction, but I did and now when I am stressed I dream of it, dream of him being there and me being unable to do anything." 

A shiver ran through his body and this time it was Ziva who put a hand on Don's shoulder, trying to give him some comfort. "He's alive and with you. And although you weren't there when it happened, you were the one who made him step out of the box completely." 

Don tensed at the last words and shook his head. "It was him, nothing of that was me." 

Ziva smiled and shook her head. It was perverse, but seeing Don battling with emotions made her feel better, made her feel less like a freak and gently she tried to make him see what she meant. "Nick came to New York to live, to forget what happened, and you were the reason why he found the strength to move on." 

Don went completely still under her hands and then slowly turned around and looked at her. For the first time since the surreal conversation had started she could see his face and she was blown away by the pain and love she saw in the blue eyes. "Thank you..." 

He fell silent for a moment and then covered her hand with his before he spoke again. "I told you that I hurt you if you hurt him, I'm sorry for that. And if you ever need a friend, you got two right in this apartment." 

The simple words made her throat hurt and she nodded jerkily. Don nodded too, and once more squeezed her shoulder before he got up and walked towards his and Nick's bedroom. She waited for another five minutes and then returned to her room. Her head was spinning from the talk she had had with Don. His offer to be her friend had surprised her, and with a shiver she realized that she felt safer here in this room than she had ever felt in her family's home. 

--- 

Danny woke slowly and instinctively reached out for Mac. The space next to him was empty and cold, and he sighed as he got up. He had woken up like this the last couple of nights, ever since Mac's revelation about Sonny being out, and sighing into the darkness, he got up and walked into the living room. "Love, don't you want to tell me what you fear?" 

Mac tensed and he didn't turn around; instead, he shook his head before he leaned his forehead against the window. "I just can't sleep." 

He spoke slowly, quietly and Danny sighed as he noticed the tension in Mac's shoulders, the tight reign his lover had over his control right now. He walked closer to Mac and carefully slid his arms around Mac's body. He held his lover in a loose hug, knowing that he couldn't force Mac to accept his comfort and help. Danny could count on one hand the nights and moments when Mac had surrendered control to him. Mac was a leader, a protector and it was against his instincts to show weakness, and yet, he was human too. Danny hated seeing his lover like he saw him now, tired and exhausted and yet not able to relax, not able to relinquish his control. 

"I'm here Mac, I've got you." Danny whispered softly while he pulled Mac towards his body, and with a sigh that sounded more like a sob, Mac finally gave up and leaned against Danny. The complete surrender Danny felt in the body that leaned heavily against his own made him fall in love with Mac all over again. Gently he pulled Mac even closer and kissed the strong muscles in his neck. "I've got you." 

Mac didn't resist as Danny led him back to the bedroom. He had prepared the room before and now it was still dark but the light of one single candle painted shadows and figures on the wall. The flame was swaying in the breeze as they walked into the room, and it painted shadows on the walls, in the same moment obscuring and enlightening the stone carved sculptures.  

"Lie down, Mac, lie down and concentrate on my hands." Mac shivered slightly as he removed his top and lay down on the bed. Danny saw how much trust it took his lover to surrender his control and body to him, and the fact that Mac trusted him this much made him swallow hard. 

"I will never hurt you." A quick smile appeared on Mac's face, but just as it had appeared it vanished, and Mac closed his eyes, concentrating on Danny's voice and touch.

Music floated through the room and the soft tunes of Mozart's Requiem seemed to dance with the candlelight. It was an atmosphere of peace and harmony that dominated the room, and Mac shivered for a moment before he accepted the offer of peace and love, and almost visibly, his body relaxed. Danny got on the bed slowly while he warmed the massage oil in his hands and gently watched his lover for a moment before he warned Mac softly, "I'm going to touch you now, Mac, but I won't hurt you." 

With closed eyes Danny let his hands trail over Mac's back, let the body speak to him and felt the tension in the muscles. He knew that Mac had gone way too long again and applying some more pressure, he worked at the knots. Mac groaned, but he didn't tense up and Danny lightened the touch for a moment. "You ok?" 

Mac nodded, but Danny felt that he had barely scratched at the surface of Mac's tension, and murmuring gentle, loving words, he leaned down and followed his hands with his lips kissing a gentle trail over the tense muscles. This time it was a moan that escaped Mac, and Danny calmed him gently when a shudder ran through Mac's body and a desperate sigh followed.  

"Mac?" Keeping his voice gentle, Danny nevertheless didn't stop his caresses, knowing that right now the only way to get through Mac's defenses was love and tenderness. "I'm here. I love you; I've got you." 

Another sigh shook Mac and it turned into a sob when Danny kissed Mac's shoulder blade. "I can't lose you." 

Danny's heart stopped for a second at the desperate words, but he kept his kisses light and tender. Mac had tensed, but as if those words had opened a floodgate, the words suddenly seemed to pour out. "I can't lose you, Danny. I love you too much. I couldn't bear another loss. Please, promise me that you'll stay." 

Feeling the pain behind the words echoed in his own heart, Danny rolled Mac towards his side and held him close. "You can't lose me. I'm here, Mac, and I will not leave." 

Although neither of them mentioned it, Sonny's name was hanging in the middle of the room, and closing his eyes, Danny braced himself mentally before he spoke again. "Sonny doesn't have any power over me anymore. He can't hurt me anymore." 

Mac had tensed when Danny mentioned Sonny, but Danny didn't let his lover dwell on the hated name; instead, he gently continued to speak. "Do you remember what you told me on our first night? You told me that I was a fighter; you told me that in the end I won. You have to believe in me now, love, believe in me and in us." 

Danny spoke gently but at the same time very intently and Mac turned in his arms. Their eyes met, and for a second Danny was mesmerized by the love and fear he could see in Mac's gaze. Once again he reached out and this time caressed Mac's face. "I love you." 

Mac smiled slowly and just as slowly, Danny could feel him relax completely in his arms. Any tension from before vanished and Mac practically melted in his arms. Leaning down to capture Mac's lips in a gentle kiss, Danny smiled. "You're safe in my arms." 

And as if that last statement had been all that Mac needed, he smiled sleepily and only seconds later, Danny felt the deep relaxation and heard the slow breaths that indicated that his lover was indeed asleep. 

--- 

Mac woke slowly and immediately felt the effect of having slept deeply. His body was relaxed and the almost permanent headache was gone. He took a deep breath and instinctively pulled Danny closer to him. The care and tenderness that his lover had shown him last night had taken his breath away, and now it made him almost hurt with love. 

He leaned up on one elbow and watched Danny sleep with his face turned towards him, breathing even and calm. Mac's heart stopped for a second when he noticed his dog tags resting just above Danny's heart. He had given them to his lover in the very beginning of their relationship, and he still remembered what he had told Danny that day in his office. "Whenever you believe that you're not good enough for me, I want you to look at them and remember that I would have been proud to have you in my squad, that I am proud to have you on my team and that I am eternally grateful to be in your heart." 

Danny had worn the tags every day since then and whenever he saw his tags on Danny's skin, Mac felt the impact like a punch in the gut. None of his feelings had changed since that day; instead, they had grown and now he couldn't imagine a life without Danny in it. He sighed as he noticed the time on the clock next to the bed, before he leaned down and gently kissed Danny awake. 

"How are you?"  

The concern in Danny's eyes and voice made Mac's heart tighten again and he captured the questioning lips in a fierce kiss. Danny was panting by the time Mac let him go and Mac smiled lightly. "I'm fine again, and thanks to you I slept all night." 

Danny smiled widely, and pulled Mac closer. "What about a little reward for me?" 

Mac chuckled and leaned closer, moving so that he covered Danny's body with his own and immediately felt his cock harden when it came in contact with Danny's erection. He shuddered and pulled at Danny's shorts while he got his own pants off at the same time and then they were pressed together from head to toe, and the feeling of Danny's naked body next to his was enough to make Mac gasp with desire. 

"I need you." The words were out before he could censor them and Danny tensed for a second, before he turned them so that he was on top. 

"You sure?"  

Mac smiled at Danny's question, knowing that he rarely ever gave up control and that Danny could probably count on one hand the times where Mac had let him take him. The fact that it always came together with those nights when he broke down was not lost on Mac, and with a shiver he reached for the lube on the table next to the bed. "Please, Danny." 

He didn't have to say anything else; Danny knew. He was the only lover Mac had ever had who had been able to feel when Mac needed to be strong and dominant and when he needed to release all fear and tension, when he needed to give up his control and lean on someone. 

One finger teased his entrance and instinctively he spread his legs wider, eager for the touch. Danny moaned at the sight and Mac echoed the sentiment, as he was prepared carefully and gently, until nothing existed but the feelings that Danny had created for him. 

"Take me, please, Danny, I need you." 

Danny didn't make him wait; instead, Mac felt the slow slide of his partner's cock into his body and a deep sense of wholeness engulfed him. Looking up, he met Danny's eyes, and keeping them locked, they started moving slowly at first and then faster and faster until Mac's world exploded in fireworks of colors and stars. 

"Can't we play hooky?" Danny grinned down at him and Mac smiled gently.  

Mac would have loved nothing more than to spend the day with Danny in bed, but his sense of duty was way too strong and with a wry grin he got out of bed. "Join me in the shower?" 

--- 

Nick looked covertly at Ziva. She had been with them for five days now, but still they hadn't talked about any of her issues and he wasn't sure if he should bring the topic up or not. He knew that in the end it was up to her whether she could trust him enough to open up or not, and he also knew that he would never have had the courage to speak to a complete stranger. 

A depreciating smile crossed his face as he thought of how Catherine had almost had to pry his secret out of him and how he had fought before he had told Don. Or no, he shook his head, he hadn't actually told Don; Don had figured it out himself. His lover had never said much, but after what Danny had revealed about Sonny's abuse, Don had simply looked at Nick and squeezed Nick's shoulder. 

"My father was never really around when I was little." Ziva's voice sounded distant and when Nick looked up, he saw that her face was a blank mask. He didn't answer; he just waited for her to continue speaking. "He was always focused on Ari; he never cared much for a girl." 

She hesitated for a second and then sighed. "One day when I was five, he came home with some friends and he told me to be a good little girl..."  

Nick was right beside her when her voice broke and he gently guided her to sit down. Ziva was tense and Nick made sure not to crowd her when he sat down on the couch next to her. Her hands trembled when she ran them over her face. 

"I had no idea what he meant, and when the first of them took me to my bedroom... I didn't know, Nick, I just wanted to please my daddy." 

Again a shiver wracked her body and Nick slowly put a hand on her shoulder. She tensed for a second, but then relaxed and smiled at him. Nick saw that it was a shaky smile and he once more squeezed her shoulder. "You couldn't know, Ziva; you were a kid, just a kid. He and those men are the one who are at fault. You know that it wasn't your fault." 

He saw that she struggled to believe him and he understood her only too well. He had been there too, had wondered in sleepless nights what he had done to draw the babysitter's attention towards him. It never got easier, but Nick guessed that for Ziva it was even harder. "It wasn't only once, was it?" 

Ziva shook her head and her answer was but a whisper. "Whenever it was over, he would tell me how proud he was and how I was helping him so much more than Ari was." 

Nick hoped that he would never meet Ziva's father. He knew only too well that he would likely do something he'd regret later. How could a man use his own daughter in that way? Nick had been in law enforcement for many years and he had seen the worst, and still it shocked him every time he came across child abuse. 

"Ziva, it wasn't your mistake. It wasn't your fault." He kept repeating the words over and over again until she looked up and met his eyes. 

"Why are you helping me?" 

He noticed her attempt to change the topic and knowing only too well that she wasn't ready to tell him more, he shrugged and answered seriously and calmly. "I was there, Ziva. I was abused, but it was a stranger and it happened once. I can't imagine what I would have done had it been a member of my family, had it continued over years..." 

Nick trailed off and looked down. He wanted to help Ziva, but he had no idea how. Feeling bad, he wanted to apologize, then her hand on his made him look up. She was smiling through tears and for the first time since he had met her almost six months ago, he saw that her smile was reaching her eyes. 

"You're a good man, Nick, don't ever doubt that." She got up and walked towards the window. "I'll go for a walk; I need to clear my head." 

Their eyes met and Nick nodded slowly, and although he knew that she was well versed in combat, he couldn't help warning her. "Watch yourself out there, okay?" 

She smiled and nodded. 

"I will, don't worry." 

--- 

Danny smiled as he walked towards Mac's apartment. He had pretty much moved in a while ago, although he still kept his own place. He got his mail delivered there, had it as an official address, but he had rarely been there in the last couple of weeks. Mac's place was bigger and more like a home than Danny's, and of course Mac had the wonderful new bed that he and Danny had purchased only a couple of weeks ago. 

It had been Mac's way of telling Danny that although they couldn't live officially together, he wanted his lover with him. Danny understood both feelings completely. He knew that the way Nick and Don lived together was ideal, but he also knew that sooner or later someone would find out about them being an item. He dreaded the moment when Don was outed, but at the same time believed that his friend had enough friends in the force that he could come out of it unscathed. 

It would be completely different, if Danny were outed. 

Danny had no illusions about the backing he had with the normal police force; for many of the cops, he was a Messer and therefore nothing more than scum. In a way, he knew that even the fact that he was in a gay relationship would probably not be able to make his image worse; it was already that bad, but it wasn't him he was scared about. 

It was Mac. 

Mac who had the stellar reputation, the complete and unwavering support of almost every single police officer. Mac whose determination and professionalism had won over even the most critical officers. Danny shuddered as he thought of the reaction of the Corps. Maybe he was painting it too black, maybe there would be some support... Danny shook his head at the morbid thoughts and walked faster. So far only a selected few knew about his and Mac's relationship, and they all were people he trusted with his life. They were going to be fine, they were fine already. 

A grin crossed his face as he walked towards the building, already wondering how he should surprise Mac tonight. They hadn't played for a while and Danny shivered in anticipation as he decided to wait for his lover in a very suggestive and very submissive position. 

"Messer." 

Danny was jerked out of his musings at the harsh voice. He wanted to run towards the building as he recognized it, but seeing that he was surrounded, he turned towards the speaker and looked at him coldly. "Sonny. I heard they let you out; how much did your old man pay?" 

Sonny sneered at him and slowly walked closer. Danny's heart clenched in fear, but he stood his ground and outwardly calm looked at the other man. "What do you want?" 

He was proud that his voice never wavered. When he had been sixteen, Sonny had been the one who held all the power; now at 32, Danny felt that he could stand his ground against the other man.  

Sonny, however, just looked at him and sneered again. "I want you, Messer. I want you back where you belong and that's under me, screaming and crying out when I take you again and make you mine." 

A long time ago, the words would have made Danny tremble with fear; now they only fuelled his anger, and with blazing eyes he challenged Sonny heatedly. "And you don't think that you can take me on on your own, so you had to bring, what, six friends? You're a coward, Sonny, nothing but a weak coward." 

Danny saw the hatred in Sonny's eyes, and for a second he had to force himself not to flinch. Sonny, though, had himself under control immediately and quietly looked at him with coldness. "You will be mine tonight; I will fuck you on the doorstep of your lover's home, and when he comes home he will find you. What do you think will he feel when he sees you bleeding and used? Will he still love you? I think he will recognize you as the whore you are and throw you out and then you'll come back to me..." 

The words made him tremble with fear, but not because he believed Sonny. He knew that Mac would never throw him out, would never stop loving him, but Danny also knew that Mac would never forgive himself for not being there. 

"I couldn't save Claire; I wasn't there when she needed me. I won't make the same mistake with you." Mac's words flittered through his mind and he felt despair grow in him, but with the despair grew his anger and his will to fight until he was almost vibrating with coiled tension. He knew that he had no chance to fight them, but he had to try, not for himself, not for his ego, but for Mac. He had to try and prevent them from hurting Mac. 

"I was never with you, you bastard; you forced me, you raped me. And hell will freeze over before I would ever be with you." Danny saw how Sonny's eyes darkened with rage and he prepared himself for the blow when Sonny laughed cruelly. 

"I'll look forward to having you in bed. You'll be even more fun to break now..." He stepped back and waved his hand and despite the situation he was in, Danny couldn't help laughing bitterly. Of course Sonny wasn't going to attack him, of course he wouldn't dirty his hands. 

And then all thoughts left as he concentrated on fighting back, ducked the first blow to his head only to gasp when another thug hit him right in the stomach. Pain spread out quickly, but Danny had been training with Mac for almost a year now and even longer with Flack and he had learned how to fight. 

Sonny and his thugs were visibly surprised by the resistance they encountered and from the corner of his eyes, Danny saw how Sonny walked closer and his fear grew when he noticed the baseball bat that Sonny held in his hands. 

"I killed a boy with this bat, you know? And it was your lover who thought he'd gotten me behind bars for it; how do you think will he feel if he realizes that the very same bat was used to beat you into a pulp?" 

Danny shivered and struggled against the hands that held him, fought them when they pinned him down and screamed for help when he sensed Sonny walk up next to him. Hatred and lust was mixed in Sonny's eyes and Danny tensed when he saw how the other man raised the bat. 

--- 

*Chapter 11 – Guardian Angel* 

Nick heard Danny's scream, and without thinking twice broke into a run. The tone of Danny's voice had made his blood run cold, but as he dashed around the corner and saw a dark haired man stand over Danny with a baseball bat raised, Nick's fear turned into anger. 

"Lower the bat and turn around with your hands raised slowly." He was amazed how he managed to keep his voice calm when he was almost shaking with rage inside. Nick watched as the dark haired man turned around and slowly looked at him before he grinned.  

"What are you going to do, are you going to shoot me?"  

Nick smiled coldly while he walked closer. He fixed the other man with his eyes and saw the moment when the mocking disappeared from the dark eyes and real fear took residence in them. 

"Lower your bat and step back from Danny, or yes, I will shoot you." Speaking these words, he lowered his weapon and trained it spot on at the middle of the thug's body. Looking up, he met the now frightened eyes and saw how the other man shivered for a second before he lowered the baseball bat and tossed it aside. Nick wanted to say something, when Danny slowly got up and looked at the thug. 

"Get the hell out of here, Sonny, get the hell out of my life." Danny's voice was pained, but Nick heard the venom in the words and it made him shiver. Still, he didn't show any emotions and silently watched as the seven men got into two cars and drove off. 

As soon as they were gone, Nick once again almost ran over to Danny, who was swaying, and caught his friend before he collapsed. "Danny, you need to go to a doctor." 

But Danny shook his head in vehemence. "No doctor, no police and most of all, no Mac!" 

For a second, Nick thought he had heard wrong, but as Danny remained silent, he looked up and found Danny's eyes trained on him. There was such a fear and despair in the grey-green eyes that Nick's heart ached for his friend and still he shook his head slowly. "What do you mean, no Mac?" 

Danny handed him the key and slowly Nick got him into the apartment. It was only after he had collapsed on the couch that Danny finally spoke again and this time, he grabbed Nick by the hand while he pleaded again. "Don't tell Mac, Nick, please, don't tell Mac." 

Nick sat down next to Danny and once again shook his head. "Why Danny? Why don't you want Mac to know that seven guys attacked you? Why did you send them away instead of arresting them?" 

Danny was silent for a long time, long enough for Nick to become worried about his injuries, but just as he reached for his cell phone, Danny's hands stopped him. "That was Sonny Sassone." 

It took Nick a moment to place the name and he sighed when he had. Sonny Sassone... Danny had told him about the mobster boss, the head of the Tanglewood boys. But Danny had told him even more, had told him about the abuse he had endured at Sassone's hands when he had been barely a teenager, and Nick's heart clenched at the thought of what Danny had gone through. "So if he was here, why can't you tell Mac?"  

Danny shook his head at Nick's question and his eyes darkened in fear. "The last time Sonny appeared, it nearly broke the friendship Mac and I had. You know how he treated me when you started. I can't lose him, Nick, and if I tell him about Sonny's visit, then I will lose him." 

There was so much fear in Danny's voice that Nick couldn't help but sigh and press Danny's hand tightly. "Mac loves you, Danny; he will not leave you. He trusts you and you know that." 

Danny shook his head, tried to get up and moaned slightly before he fell back. "I know he does, but he would feel responsible. He would feel as if he had not been here when I needed him." 

Nick sighed and yet he couldn't help but smiling. He understood Danny's reasoning, knew that Mac would feel guilty indeed, but he also knew that it would be much worse, if Mac found out from some other source. Once again, he reached for Danny's hand. "You have to tell him, Danny. Think about it; how would you react, if the roles were reversed? What would you think if you had Stella tell you about Mac being beaten up? How would you feel?" 

He could see that he made an impact on Danny, but he also realized that it was a moot point, because Mac would soon be home and there was no way Danny could hide what happened. Carefully as not to jostle the bruised body, Nick tried to move Danny so that he was more comfortable.  

"I would hate him." Danny's voice was quiet, almost defeated and Nick knew that he had gotten his point across. Danny glared at him, but it was a weak, sad glare as he relented. "I'll tell him." 

Leaning down, Nick kissed Danny's forehead gently. "He loves you, Danny; don't be afraid." 

His words had no effect on his friend, and he sighed as he saw the exhaustion in the pale features. "I'll get you another pain killer and then I'll stay with you until Mac comes home." 

Danny tried to protest, but there was no way in hell that Nick would leave him alone. He knew that Sassone wasn't done with Danny and he feared that the thug would try to get to his friend while Danny was still weak from the attack. 

Nick watched as Danny slowly fell asleep from the effect of the painkillers and the exhaustion, and silently he wondered how he should tell Mac. 

--- 

Mac frowned as Nick opened the door to Danny's apartment. "What's wrong?" 

Nick's face was a hard, cold mask and Mac tensed as he recognized the expression as one Nick sometimes wore during unpleasant cases. Fear curled in his belly and he pushed Nick aside in an almost frantic search for Danny. When he saw him sleeping on the couch, Mac stopped dead. Relief hit him, but it was short-lived when he saw the bruises that marred Danny's face. 

"What happened to him?" Mac didn't notice how threatening his voice had become or how he almost towered over Nick, but he realized it immediately when the younger man stepped back. He swallowed hard and looked a bit ruefully at Nick before he kneeled down next to Danny. His hand shook as he reached out and caressed Danny's face. 

"Danny?" At Mac's words, Danny visibly tensed and slowly opened his eyes. Mac saw the fear in his lover's eyes and felt an answering emotion starting to grow in him. "Love, what happened?" 

Danny's eyes darted towards Nick, and Mac noticed the silent communication that went on between the two men. It seemed that Nick was telling Danny something, and as if on cue, Danny sighed, before he met Mac's eyes again. "Sonny and his friends were waiting for me when I came home." 

Nick relaxed visibly and it dawned Mac that Danny would not have told him the truth had Nick not been right next to him. Smiling thankfully at Nick, he met Nick's understanding eyes. Nick smiled too before he told them that he would go home. Mac wished him a nice evening, but he forgot about his friend the moment he turned his attention back to Danny. Remorse filled him as he noticed the dark bruises on Danny's stomach, and swallowing hard, he leaned down and gently kissed Danny's hands. 

"I'm sorry." Danny's voice was small and Mac could hear the fear in the slight tremor that accompanied the three words. He wanted to pull his lover in his arms, hold him close, but he was afraid of hurting Danny and so he just pressed his hand tightly. 

"No, Danny, don't be sorry. You didn't do anything wrong. Please, what happened?" Mac felt the shiver that ran through Danny, before he began to talk. Listening to Danny's words was painful, but Mac had already known that. What he hadn't expected was the hatred that rose in him, the surge of violence whenever he looked at Danny. He wanted to kill Sonny for what he had done to his lover, but he buried those feelings deep inside himself.  

"I'm sorry."  

Once again Danny's words made him shiver and this time Mac gave into the urge and pulled his lover close. His touches were tender and caring as he lifted Danny up and carried him over to their bedroom. Once there, he put Danny down and quickly undressed himself before he lay down next to his lover. Danny was looking at him with sadness in his eyes and Mac sighed. 

"I love you, Danny, I love you more than life. You know that, don't you?" Mac saw that there was still a sliver of fear in Danny's eyes and it made him want to curse himself. It was Mac's own stupidity when confronted with Danny's past that had nurtured his lover's insecurities, and now all he could do was hope that he had enough time to make Danny see that he would never leave him. 

He undressed his partner tenderly and started to cover the bruises in balm. His heart hurt at the pain he saw in Danny's eyes, and once again he wished to meet Sonny somewhere in a dark alley and yet he knew that he couldn't. It would mean that he lowered himself down to Sonny's level and he would never do that to Danny. Finally he covered Danny with a blanket and lay down next to him. Danny moaned lightly when Mac pulled him towards his body, but he didn't complain and soon enough Mac heard the even breaths that indicated Danny's sleep. 

He wouldn't sleep tonight; he would stay awake and watch over his lover. 

Protect him. 

--- 

Don watched Nick carefully while his lover tossed some broccoli and other vegetables into a wok and started to cook them. Something had happened since they had last seen each other, something bad, and Don frowned lightly. Why was Nick not talking to him? 

"What's wrong?" Nick turned around at Don's words and Don flinched as he saw the burning anger in the dark eyes. Nick's anger wasn't directed at him though, and Don relaxed slowly. Nick shook his head, but then he sighed heavily. 

"Danny was attacked by Sassone." 

Of all the things Don had expected to hear, this was not one of them. Danny had been attacked? The words hit Don like a slap in his face and he almost dreaded the answer when he looked at Nick. "How is he?" 

Nick shrugged and shook his head. "He's pretty beat up and battered, but he's ok. It's his state of mind that worries me. The first thing he told me when I dragged him into his apartment, was that I was not to tell Mac." 

Don felt Nick's tension and he sighed. Nick might not understand, but Don did. Nick had not been there when the Tanglewood boys had first reappeared in Danny's life, but Don had and he had seen the fallout, had seen how Mac had completely withdrawn from Danny, and he understood Danny's fear. 

"Nick, when Mac and Sonny met the first time, he implicated Danny as a member of the Tanglewood boys. Mac... he had been a good friend to Danny before, but after that interview he changed. He became introvert again, suspicious of anything Danny did and it broke their friendship. I guess Danny is just afraid." 

Don trailed off remembering those months when their team had been at its breaking point and in the end had indeed broken. Aiden had left the team and Nick had joined. It had changed them all and yet he understood Danny. "And you know how afraid he is that his real past with Sassone will come out." 

Nick tensed in his arms and growled low. "Sassone should be behind bars for what he did to Danny. And yet he's..." He trailed off slowly, and Don looked at Nick, concerned. His lover was tired and sad, and Don instinctively moved over to pull him close. He wanted to say something, but Nick beat him to it and as he spoke again, his voice held both sadness and annoyance. "He didn't want to tell Mac, because he was afraid that Mac would feel guilty. He was afraid that Mac would leave him because he couldn't protect him." 

Oh yes, Don could understand that only too well to. He could understand it because he knew how he would feel if he came home to find Nick beaten up, battered and bruised by an old enemy. But Don also knew that Mac would never leave. He would feel guilty yes, he would hurt for Danny but he would not leave him. "Mac would never leave Danny, he loves him. He needs him." 

Nick relaxed a bit against Don's body and sighed again. "It's just pissin' me off that Sassone gets away with it. I mean, Danny is refusing to press charges and he got away with murdering this boy. We try everything to make this city safe and yet we fail to even protect our own." 

Don held him tight and silently wondered how Nick could still hold onto his innocence, his belief in what they did despite all that he had seen and had lived through. It was one of the many things that made Don love him and silently he tried to communicate his love and his assurance through his touch. 

They stood in the kitchen for a long time until their stomachs growled and Nick grinned at his lover. "Hungry?" 

Nodding, Don grabbed plates and cutlery before he walked out of the kitchen. He set the table and looked into the living room to find Ziva; she wasn't there, but right as he was about to ask Nick, she walked through the door. She looked better, Don thought silently, less strained, less haggard, and once again he was awed by Nick's kindness. Ziva smiled at him and Nick as they sat down. "I thought, if I can borrow your kitchen, I would like to cook for you and your team on Saturday. I have to get back on Sunday, but I wanted to say thank you to all of you. If you would like that, I mean." 

Don and Nick shared a quick smile. "Food is always appreciated, Ziva, don't worry." 

--- 

Ziva hadn't wanted to listen to Don and Nick's conversation. All she had wanted was a glass of water after a hard work out, but then she had felt the tension in the kitchen and had slowed down. For a moment she had been afraid that Don and Nick were arguing and that she might be the reason, but when she had stepped back, she had caught Nick's next words. 

"Danny was attacked by Sassone." 

The anger that rose in her at those words surprised her. She wasn't one to get involved, wasn't someone who made friends and cared about them. Her life had taught her not to get attached, not to care and yet it had only taken five days with the New York team to change that. 

Ziva saw Nick and Don as her friends, saw even Danny and Mac as friends, although she knew that Mac surely didn't share the sentiment. It didn't matter though, she realized. Friendship was something that was there whether or not it was returned. Care and concern were emotions that had nothing to do with the cold logic she had learned before and it made her feel good that she could feel. 

Right now, though, she was seething. The longer she listened, the more she put one and one together and the information she had read in Danny's file suddenly appeared in a completely different light. The realization was like a punch in the gut and only fuelled the rage she felt. At the same time it calmed her, and she slowly walked back to her room where she grabbed her phone and dialed a number. 

--- 

*Washington* 

Gibbs wasn't good in listening to others, and he certainly didn't see himself as someone who could comfort people well, but he was good in letting someone rant and vent, or at least he was good at it if he liked the person. Listening to Mac however was hard, harder than he had ever thought because he could understand his friend only too well, understood the rage and helplessness that Mac felt. 

"I wish I could do something, anything..." With those words Mac fell silent and Gibbs heard the fear underneath the frustration. 

"You are, you're there for him." His words sounded empty to him and the deep sigh from the other end proved that he had been right with this thought.  

Mac remained silent for a moment, then just as Gibbs was about to ask if he was still on the other line, Mac spoke again. "Not when it counts, I wasn't there, Jethro, and if Nick hadn't shown up, then Danny..." 

This time the despair in Mac's voice made Gibbs shiver. He knew what it was that Mac didn't want to say, knew that just the thought of Danny being raped or beaten to death was enough to make Mac see red.  

"Do you remember what you told me, when Tony was arrested? That I need to believe that he has a guardian angel who can be there when I can't?" Mac didn't answer Gibbs' question, but still Gibbs continued quietly. "I can only tell you the same now. Believe that Danny has a guardian angel, that there is someone watching out for him when you can't be there. Can you believe that?" 

"No." Mac's answer was flat and cold. Gibbs smiled despite the answer though, because he too didn't want to believe in some divine intervention when it came to the security of his lover and yet, he had learned that he had no other choice. 

"You can't always protect him and all you can do is trust him to be strong enough to come to you and ask for help."  

Mac's laugh was hard, bitter and his next words were just as bitter. "I trust him, Jethro, it's the others that I don't trust." 

Gibbs shivered at the despair in Mac's voice and as they said good-bye, he spoke silently and intently. "Mac, I know what your heart tells you to do, but don't go there, don't do it. Because it won't solve anything." 

Mac didn't answer, but Gibbs hoped that his friend had understood. Gibbs had gone the road of vengeance once and it had proved that violence was not the answer to a threat. And yet, he understood that Mac was ready and prepared to do anything to protect those he loved. Sighing again, he looked at his phone for a long time, before he dialed Stella's number. 

"Jethro, how are you?" Stella sounded surprised to hear him, but the longer he spoke, the more he could hear understanding coloring her voice.  

"I will look out for them, don't worry." She spoke strongly and clearly, but then her voice turned colder. "And you must understand one thing, Jethro, Mac would never resort to violence. I know him, Jethro, and he is too conscious of what he's capable of, what he could unleash inside his soul if he ever went down that road." 

Maybe she was right, Gibbs thought, maybe Mac had such a tight reign over his emotions that he would be able to contain his hatred, but whereas Stella understood Mac the CSI, Gibbs understood Mac the Marine. 

"Just watch him, ok?"  

She thanked him for the heads up and promised to let him know if something happened. Gibbs sat down in his chair and felt the aftereffects of the news make him tremble. How would he feel, if Tony had been attacked like this? 

The thought made him shiver even more and he got up quickly and walked over towards the bedroom. Tony was asleep already and with a fond smile, Gibbs looked at his partner. Tony looked younger when asleep, more vulnerable and Gibbs' hand trembled as he reached out to caress Tony's face. If it weren't for Mac, Tony wouldn't be here, wouldn't be sleeping in his bed. Mac had opened his eyes, had shown him that it was possible to have a relationship with Tony. He owed Mac, but he also considered the other man a real friend. 

He wanted to help him and it almost killed him that he couldn't. 

--- 

*New York* 

Mac watched Danny sleep. He saw every emotion on the beloved face, saw how pain marred the relaxed features when Danny moved, saw how his lover reached out for him, saw the tension and he noticed the moment when Danny's sleep turned into a nightmare. 

Danny whimpered and started to move faster. Danny's hands were clenching to fists and Mac immediately leaned down to soothe his lover. He touched Danny gently and felt his heart break when Danny screamed with fear. "Danny, please wake up. You're safe here. You're with me." 

For a long time, Mac held his breath while Danny struggled against his arms, fought against the tender caresses and cried against the loving words. Finally though, Danny opened his eyes and immediately stopped fighting. His pupils were large in the darkness of the room, giving him the look of a frightened animal. He stared at Mac with his face frozen in terror for seconds before he crumbled against his lover. "Hold me, please." 

He didn't have to ask twice and Mac gently cradled the bruised body against his own, holding Danny close, telling him how much he loved him, how proud he was to be Danny's lover and how he would do anything to protect him. Danny slowly relaxed against him, and Mac heard the deep breaths, which indicated that the nightmare had passed. It was only then that he himself dared to relax. He wanted to go out and hunt Sonny down and make him pay. 

Mac knew that he could do it, knew that he still was good enough to sneak up to the bastard and slit his throat without leaving a trace of himself behind. 

But he was not that kind of person. 

He fought everyday on the streets for justice and he would not succumb to his own violent urges. Mac again caressed Danny gently and felt a shiver running through him at the sudden realization of how close he had come to losing his partner. 

Fear made him catch his breath and he made a mental note to thank Nick for saving Danny. Mac took a deep breath and pulled Danny closer towards himself. He couldn't lose him. 

--- 

It was a damn shame that the Texan had interrupted him, Sonny mused as he lay on the bed. He had sent his latest plaything away after taking him hard and yet Sonny didn't feel satisfied. Tonight, he had wanted to sink into Danny's body, had wanted to hear him scream and cry out, but as they said patience was a virtue and when he would finally possess Danny again, it would be all the sweeter for the wait he had had. 

Sonny smiled darkly as he imagined how Taylor had freaked out when he'd seen Danny. Despite what he had told Danny, Sonny knew that Taylor would never break it off with Danny, and boy, he could surely understand the CSI. Danny had the sweetest ass Sonny had ever had and he had seen how Taylor looked at Danny, had seen the possessive look in Taylor's eyes. 

No, Taylor would never send Danny away, which meant that Sonny had to make sure Taylor was occupied differently before he made another move on Danny. 

Next time, he would not fail; next time Danny would be his. 

--- 

*Las Vegas* 

Grissom stared at the phone for a long time before he dialed Nick's number. He hadn't spoken to his friend since he had made the call to Don Flack. Grissom knew that Nick felt betrayed, and logically he understood why, but how should he have told Nick? 

What should he had told him? 

When? 

They had become friends and had spoken about everything, had had great conversations about anything under the sun; should he have just interrupted such a talk and told Nick that there had been a second person involved? 

Maybe he should have, Grissom mused silently while he listened to the dialing tone. Maybe he should have told Nick and yet, he couldn't forget the sight of Nick in the throws of the terror as he had seen him on the camera feed. The image of Nick reaching out for the gun, prepared to kill himself was burned under his eyelids and whenever Nick closed his eyes, he saw it. With a shiver, Grissom remembered and with a groan, he turned away.  

I found closure. Nick's words rang through him and with a shiver Grissom realized that he hadn't. He still dreamed of Nick sometimes and it hurt to see him like this. It was the deeper reason why he had never told his friend, but he knew that he was close to losing Nick because of his fear now and that scared him more than the memory of Nick in the greenish grave. 

"Grissom, how are you?" Nick's voice was cold and Grissom tensed. He had heard Nick speak in the same kind of voice when he had interrogated suspects and it brought home once again how much he had hurt his friend. Taking a deep breath, Grissom prepared to do something he hadn't done in a long time: apologize. 

"I've let you down, Nick, and I wanted to say that I'm sorry." It hadn't been easy to say and after he had spoken those few words, he waited tensely for Nick's verdict. His friend was silent for a long time before Grissom heard him sigh.  

"Do you even know what you're apologizing for, Gil?" Nick spoke softer than before and this time his voice sounded almost paternal.  

Grissom smiled lightly as he recognized the same interrogation technique that he had taught Nick. "I wanted to protect you, but I forgot that you are stronger than I give you credit for. I wanted to keep you safe and have endangered you instead. Nick, I never wanted to hurt you, but whenever I..." He trailed off, suddenly unsure how to explain, before he spoke again quietly. "Whenever I think of that night or something related, I just want to make sure you're not hurt... Just want to protect you." 

And he had done a great job, hadn't he? His method of protection had almost gotten Nick accused of murder, but before he could berate himself even more, Nick spoke again. "Gris, you have to let go of that night. You have to forget and move on." 

All the cold had vanished and in its place was an intense care that made Grissom shiver. "I know, but I don't know how." He was surprised that he had been able to admit this so freely, but then he had never been able to hold back in his and Nick's phone calls. Again Nick was silent for a moment, before Grissom heard another sigh.  

"I left before you all got closure, didn't I? I left before I was healthy again and all you have is the image of me broken and desperate stuck in your mind." 

He was speechless by the insight and yet Grissom knew that he shouldn't be. Nick had always been good at reading people, and yes, he was right about leaving before they had found closure. Grissom wasn't thinking when he spoke again. "We know that you're alright; it just makes it hard because we don't really know." 

Nick laughed a bit but he sobered quickly. "Tony suggested a road trip to Vegas, and I think it's a good idea. Maybe if you see me, if you meet Don, then it will finally be over." 

--- 

*New York* 

There had been a time, when the dark corners of the world had been Ziva's home and when she had felt more comfortable dealing with the shadows that inhabited them than in dealing with real people. It wasn't her world anymore, she had left this world when she had joined NCIS. She would never return to the shadow world of espionage and secrets, but she also knew that no one really ever left this world behind. She would never return, but she would also never be completely free. 

It had never bothered her, because she had always known this, and yet she had once promised herself to never contact this world again. The fact that she had now broken her own promise should have made her feel bad, but instead, she felt good. She was glad for the contacts she had made and for the first time, she felt as if she could use them for something vital. Whenever she had talked to the others before, she had had a purpose and an objective given to her by someone, and often she hadn't known the complete picture. This time it was different, this time she was talking to them because she wanted to, because she had something worth protecting.  

She had heard the despair in Nick's voice and had understood what he hadn't said. It had made her feel protective over Danny and Mac and Ziva knew that they could use a little help. A little help from a friend who had hurt them once and now was desperate to make it up to them. 

She walked slowly towards the house, knowing that the two operatives that accompanied her were right behind her, watching every step. She had been surprised at the willingness of her contacts to join her, but when she had read the intel provided to her, she had understood. Sonny was involved in more than just the average gang and mob activities, had spread his business outside of New York and was on the way to become a major force in certain trades. She wasn't sure if the mobster had an idea about what he was getting into. But she didn't spare many thoughts about it. It was her luck that Sonny's business touched the shady world of her former life and she wouldn't question it. 

Ziva moved through the darkness like a shadow and crouched down while she waited for her colleagues. They joined her soon after, and quietly she explained what she was about to do. She could see the smiles on the men's faces before their usual stoic expression settled in again. Together they turned towards the garden and looked over towards Sonny's residence. At the first glance the house looked empty, but a closer look at the back of the house, showed the light in two rooms and slowly they walked towards the backdoor. One of her colleagues quickly opened the backdoor with his set of tools and moved back towards his position. Ziva knew that she had about thirty seconds before the alarm would go off, and as soon as the door was open, she walked inside and drew her weapon. 

--- 

Sonny thought he had heard someone inside, but with a shake of his head he dismissed the thought. Looking back to the TV, he felt annoyance at the game when a female voice suddenly interrupted his thoughts. "Get up and walk over here." 

She was pretty and Sonny almost laughed, but then he saw her eyes, and one look into those cold hard pools made him get up and walk towards her. She waved him over to the security setting and smiled lightly. "Enter the code; I don't want the police here and neither do you." 

Her quiet intensity made him feel uncomfortable, the calmness in her voice as she spoke of the police however brought an even stronger feeling of wrongness with it. Who was this woman? 

Sonny punched the code in and turned around with a sneer; no matter how calm and confident she appeared, she was after all still nothing but a bitch and he would show her who the boss was. "What do you want, Lady?" 

A quick smile crossed over her face as she continued to look at him coldly. "You've been messing in our business. Arms dealing? That's too big for a small time crook like you. You're in over your head, Sonny Sassone." 

He had expected a lot, but her words caught him off guard and he narrowed his eyes in anger. "What the fuck are you talking about?" 

She was next to him in a second and Sonny swallowed hard as he felt the cold steel of her gun pressed against his temple. "I'm talking about the three shipments you received two weeks ago and about the five you're expecting to receive next week. I'm talking about smuggling weapons in and out of the US, I'm talking about dealing with terrorists." 

Sonny froze at her words and shook his head. He didn't deal with arms, never had, but even as he tried to deny it, a tiny voice in his head told him that she might be right. "I don't deal with weapons and certainly not with terrorists." 

The slap came without warning and was strong enough for him to stumble and fall. Her eyes narrowed, she looked at him. "Then tell me, what was in the fifteen boxes you received from the Grand Cayman two weeks ago?" 

How could she know about the shipment? Sonny swallowed hard and looked at her defiantly. "Fake electronics ware, Chinese software and DVDs, but certainly no weapons." 

Her lips curled to a smile as she tossed him some pictures. He caught them out of reflex and automatically looked at them. For a moment, he felt as if his heart had stopped, and feeling numb, he stared at range of guns and grenades that lay in the boxes labeled with his cover company. He had never ordered this and looking at the woman in front of him, Sonny understood that he had indeed gotten into something that was over his head. "I never ordered or did this." 

It sounded so weak, but to his surprise the woman nodded. "I know." Her eyes fixed him coldly. "But my superiors don't and unless I tell them, you will be the one they'll target." 

She wanted something from him, Sonny realized, and feeling some the tension in his body lessened. If it was about money or business contacts, he would be able to get out. He was good in making deals, very good. "What do you want?" 

"Keep your hands off Danny Messer." He had expected her to ask for anything but that, and both surprised and shocked, he looked at her. "All this just so you can tell me that I am not allowed to touch Danny? You don't understand; he's mine, he's always been mine and he'll be mine again as soon as I get Taylor." 

He could see how she tensed at his words, and in the moment of distraction he grabbed the knife from its hiding place and jumped up. She still had a gun, but he had a weapon too now and it made him feel better, more powerful as he advanced her slowly. "Still feeling like ordering me around? I'll show you your place, bitch." 

Glass splintered behind him and he tensed as he felt more than saw a bullet fly past his head. Frozen, he stared at her and saw her mocking smile. "You didn't really think that I've come alone, did you?" 

He had thought that, if he was honest, and she must have read it in his face as she laughed coldly before she looked outside. "Keep your hands off Danny and you won't see me again; hurt him or come close to him or Taylor and you'll wish the bullet had been meant for your head." 

Sonny looked at her and grinned. "Danny is worth a little trouble, so what if you kill me when I take him? Maybe I just like living dangerously." 

The smile that crossed her face made him swallow hard. "I never said that I'll kill you, Sonny, but I know that you'll beg for death when I take you to your new home." 

Again that cold, hard and slightly insane smile before she shrugged lightly. "You shouldn't hang out with terrorists, Sonny; it's just not a healthy habit." 

Sonny knew what she was implying and he looked at her stealthily "You can't prove that I had any contacts with terrorists. You can't even prove that I knew about the weapons, because I didn't know." 

"No, you're right, I can't prove it and you probably never had any contacts. It's a pity really, that no one will believe you, isn't it?" When she looked at him this time, Sonny found he could actually feel the guns pointed at him from his own garden. She turned around and walked towards the glass door. Opening it, she turned once more towards him. "Stay away from Messer and Taylor." 

She walked through the door as if she had just paid him a friendly visit and disappeared into the darkness. For a second, Sonny was tempted to follow her, but one look at the shattered glass window was enough to persuade him to stay inside. 

Fuming with rage, he sat down and looked at the pictures of Danny that he had looked at all evening. 

"Bitch." He hissed as he started to tear up every single photo. "Don't even think you scared me." 

And yet she had scared him, not only with her implied threats, but even more with the picture that she had put on the table in an almost mocking gesture. Sonny stared at the weapons and swallowed again. Rage and anger consumed him as the realization that he had been betrayed started to settle in. Forget Danny and Taylor, forget the woman and her James Bond routine, he had more urgent problems. 

Sonny's eyes were blazing and his hand was trembling as he reached for the phone to call his second in command. He had a traitor to find. 

--- 

Stella fumed as she opened the door of her apartment. She hated office politics and with Mac taking off in order to look after Danny, it had been her and Nick going to the monthly staff meeting. She had barely kept herself in check, when one of the heads had started griping about the lab's rising costs and how it was a waste of money to keep expensive lab rats when in the end the criminals were getting free because of procedural problems. 

It had been Nick who had held her back and then stood up to defend the lab. Only he hadn't defended it, instead he had calmly laid out the facts and figures in a PowerPoint presentation, had explained the expenditures and the increases while at the same time making it very clear, that none of the procedural errors had ever happened in the lab. At the end of the eight minutes presentation, Stella had noticed how Ralph, Mac's boss, had looked at Nick with a fond smile while the critics had looked peeved. 

She herself had been surprised by Nick's political aptness, but at a comment from her, he had only smiled bitterly. "If you have a father who's a Supreme Court judge and a mother who's a state attorney, you learn a lot about politics." 

Nick had changed the topic afterwards and Stella had gotten the hint that he didn't want to talk about his family. She knew that they weren't close, but other than the odd and very rare comment about them, she never heard Nick talk about them. Family, it seemed was something of a taboo topic in the office with Danny's troubled family, Nick's estranged, and her nonexistent one. Right now, though, she was home and she smiled as she smelled the delicious scents coming from the kitchen. 

"You're spoiling me." Frankie turned around at her words and smiled at her. He looked good in the white t-shirt and the stubble in the face and Stella was surprised by the love she felt. His hug was tight and she gratefully leaned against him. 

"You are a woman who deserves to be spoiled, because you never spoil yourself." He kissed her gently before he turned back to the food and arranged the Thai curry on the plates. He handed her a bottle of wine and led her over to the living room. Stella gasped a bit as she saw the candles and the flowers.  

They ate almost in silence, enjoying the fact that they didn't have to fill the quiet with words, and Stella could feel herself relax completely. The stress and worry of the last couple of days finally melted away, and when Frankie pulled her towards the couch and into his arms, she sighed silently. "I'm glad you're here." 

Frankie smiled and leaned down to kiss her gently before he got up and left the room for a moment. When he returned he was carrying a large wrapped box. "I have a present for you. It's a sculpture; I made it thinking of you." 

Touched and surprised, Stella opened the box and carefully lifted the sculpture out of it. It was beautiful, a sculpture of a woman's bust, split open to reveal a pure white face. Looking at it, Stella could feel a shiver run through it at the sight of the brightness and vulnerability of the face. She turned towards Frankie with shining eyes. "It's wonderful." 

"It's called Aresanob. It means soul of a woman." 

Stella leaned back into Frankie's arms, feeling safe as he held her while they both looked at the sculpture.  

"You're tired, aren't you?"  

Frankie's words were gentle and soon enough, Stella was lying in his arms, falling almost asleep when something trickled her mind, something about the name of the sculpture made her pause, but the thought disappeared before she could get a hold onto it and with a sigh she fell asleep. 

--- 
 

*Chapter 12 – Feeling safe* 

*Washington DC* 

Tony eyed Ziva carefully before he attacked. She defended herself and immediately went into a counterattack, but unlike the previous two times, Tony had mentally prepared himself for it and smoothly evaded her lunge. He sidestepped her kick and moved quickly to intercept and at the same time stop her attack. She reacted with a side kick which he caught and turned away only to launch his own advance. His move caught her unaware and taking advantage of it, Tony moved to the side and within seconds had her pinned onto her back. 

"Well done, DiNozzo." Jethro' voice made them both turn around and for a moment, Tony couldn't hide the smile on his face at the obvious pride in Jethro' eyes. Ziva laughed and shook her head. 

"When did you learn those moves?" Tony smiled, but his smile faded as he remembered when and why he had learned to fight as dirty as possible. "When I was with the force in Peoria. I had more spare time there and learning some good self defense just seemed like a good idea." 

He could feel Jethro' eyes on his back and knew immediately that his comment would garner some questions later tonight. Well, it couldn't be helped, Tony shrugged mentally, Jethro and he had not been together for a long time and there still were some secrets that he wanted to keep away from his partner. This was not one of them and so he smiled at Jethro promising him with his eyes that he would explain later. Jethro nodded and disappeared while Tony and Ziva walked towards the cool down area. 

"So, how was New York?" Ziva shrugged and looked pensive at Tony's question. She stretched her back and remained in the position for a couple of seconds without saying anything. Tony too began his usual cool down routine when she spoke suddenly. "It was weird, you know. I still don't understand why Nick would want to help me..." 

She trailed off and Tony smiled lightly. He too didn't understand really, but he had learned one thing over the past months since he had met Nick. "He's one of the nicest people in the world. If he feels like he can help you, he will." 

Ziva nodded and grinned for a moment before she bend down and pressed her upper body against her legs. Tony couldn't help but ogle her butt only to get a glare from her. "Stop that, or I'll kick your ass again." 

Her words made him grin and he shook his head with an obvious and fake leer. "You know you can't take me." 

For a moment she stared at him with a challenge and then grinned before she turned away. "No, cause that's Gibbs' job." 

She disappeared in the women's changing room and Tony was left alone in the practice area staring at her back with a dumbfound expression. He had had no idea that she knew and with a shiver he wondered what it meant for him and Gibbs. The reality of what had happened slowly caught up with him and he raced towards the men's changing room, showered and was out and waiting in front of the women's door in a matter of minutes. When Ziva walked outside, he tried to go for a casual pose, but gave up when she frowned at him. "What's wrong Tony?" 

What was wrong? How could she even ask this? Tony shook his head and sighed before he looked at her again. "Just tell me what you are going to do about this and when, ok? Cause if you go to the director, then at least give me the chance to tell Gibbs, please." 

Her eyes widened and Tony saw how she tensed for a moment, before she reached out and clasped his shoulder. "No Tony, you don't understand. I won't tell anyone. I know that Gibbs doesn't favor you, so why would I go to the director?" 

Surprised at her easy acceptance, Tony looked at her and shrugged. "Maybe because we're to guys and because Gibbs is in the Marines." 

"So?" Ziva's reaction was an answering shrug, before she shook her head. "I will never understand why the US military doesn't accept gays in the military. We have many gays and lesbians serving in Israel and they do so with just the same pride and strength as everybody else." 

Her words made Tony stare at her and she smiled almost sadly. "When your country is under a constant threat of annihilation the way my country is, you don't care about the sexual orientation of someone who can defend your border. You are just glad that they are defending it." 

Ziva had rarely ever spoken about her own country and Tony saw that there was a longing in her face even as she turned away from him. His question was instant and spontaneous. "Do you miss home?" 

She tensed and as she looked at him again, her eyes were hard. "This is my home now, Tony, not Israel." 

Shocked at her statement, Tony took a step back and stared at her when she visibly steeled herself and forced a smile on her face. "Look Tony, there's a reason I left, let's just keep it at that ok?" 

He wanted to know more, but her face was closed off and her eyes were cold, so he remained silent, but at the same time promised himself to call Nick. Maybe his friend could help him solve the mystery. 

--- 

*New York* 

There was blood everywhere. Elliot and Olivia exchanged a horrified look as they walked into the elegantly furnished flat. There were blood smears on the walls, blood drops on the floor from the kitchen to the bath room and a huge pool of blood around the victim in the living room. The young woman had once been pretty, but now after someone had not only stabbed her multiple times but also destroyed her face with something heavy, she was hardly recognizable. 

"Damn." Olivia's curse reached Elliot's ears and he nodded silently. He hated moments like this and even after all those years, he hadn't gotten used to walk into someone's privacy and see it so cruelly invaded. Looking at his friend, he nodded and agreed with her. "Yeah." 

"Hey guys." Elliot turned around at the sound of Nick Stokes' voice and he saw how Nick looked at their victim with sad eyes before he swallowed hard. "Someone really did a number on her." 

Elliot nodded, but was distracted when Stella Bonasera walked into the room. He had worked with her before and liked her no nonsense attitude as well as her keen sense of wrong and right, still he felt a lot more self conscious around her than around Nick or anyone else of the department. Stella Bonasera was probably the most beautiful woman he had ever met, but even as the thought entered Elliot's mind, he pushed it away with force. It wasn't the right time to think about a woman's beauty not with another woman laying dead right in front of them. 

"Lydia Epsom-Manner. Thirty three years old, stock broker at Goldman Sachs. Her colleagues reported her missing when she didn't appear at work on Monday, her landlord found her." 

Nick nodded absently at Olivia's resume and Elliot watched as he looked around. "Must have been good at her job, just look at all the art work in her flat." 

Elliot followed Nick's gaze and shrugged after taking a look at the various photographs. The images were beautiful, but he wasn't an art lover or connoisseur and had no idea what the pictures were worth. Nick on the other hand whistled silently after taking a closer look. "These are original Peter Lik's. They go for a hell of a lot of money. All I got are the books..." 

Nick shrugged and turned towards Stella, Elliot saw how they exchanged a look and he could see the silent communication that went on between the two of them. He had watched them work before and seeing them like this made him understand some of the rumors about them being an item. He knew of course that this wasn't the case, knew that Nick was committed to a very deep relationship with Don, but there was a connection between Stella and Nick that made Elliot wish for a moment he were anywhere but here. 

"I'll take the living room. " Nick's words broke the spell around Elliot and he quickly left the room, but not quickly enough for Olivia. He felt her eyes on his back as he walked over towards the bedroom. Elliot sighed as he accepted the fact that he would be grilled with questions tonight not only by a one, but two women that made their living by interrogating suspects. 

The bedroom was devoid of blood although it too bore signs of a struggle. Elliot watched as Stella processed it and looked around when his gaze fell onto a statue that stood in one of the corners. It was a beautiful piece of a woman standing with her hands above her head holding a bird. The woman and the main figure had been crafted from a dark almost black stone while the bird was white pure marble. It gave a fascinating contrast and intrigued he walked closer. 

"Detective, you're walking in my crime scene." Stella's words were friendly but held a slight reproach that made Elliot freeze. "Sorry, I wasn't thinking." 

She smiled friendly and shook her head. "No, it's ok, I processed everything over there, just didn't want you to wander any further." 

Stella walked up next to him and looked at the statue. "Nice piece, isn't it?" 

Elliot nodded and bend down to read the name of the artist. There was however no name instead there was a small plaque which read ‘Samperonnem'. "Samperonnem, do you have any idea who the artist is?" 

Stella shrugged and frowned. "No, but I know someone I can ask. Just let me check with him ok?" 

She walked out of the room and Elliot heard her talk quietly to someone on the phone. Him, he thought and was surprised by the disappointment and stab of hurt that flashed through him. He pushed it aside and looked at the statue again. 

"It's an anagram." Nick's voice from the bedroom door interrupted his study and Elliot turned towards his friend. "What do you mean by this?" 

Nick walked fully into the room and pulled out his notepad writing down the name of their victim and the name of the statue. "She was called Epsom-Manner. Now compare the name and the statue's name. Samperonnem is an anagram for Epsom-Manner." 

Elliot stared at Nick in awe. "Wow, how did you find this out so fast?" 

Nick grinned. "As a kid, I loved anagrams and once you've trained your mind to see the words in a sequence of letters, you see them easily." 

Staring at the statue again, Elliot looked at Nick. "So our victim was the artist?" 

Nick shrugged and nodded. "Maybe that or she knew them." 

--- 

Stella frowned when her call to Frankie went straight through to voice mail, but knowing her man, he was probably busy with his art. She smiled a bit before she left a message to call her back because she needed her help with a case. 

Olivia joined her just as she put her phone away and Stella smiled at the other detective. She liked Olivia, liked her straight forward way, the determination and discipline she used to work those often horrid cases. "We're pretty much done here, so we'll wait for your results. Can you give us a call?" 

Stella nodded her assent at Olivia's words, knowing that she and Nick would spend some more time in the flat. "We'll call, but it's going to take some time, there is a lot to process here." 

Olivia looked around and Stella saw the slight wince as their eyes met again and she couldn't help but nod, it would be a long day for her and Nick. 

Stabler walked out of the bedroom and joined Olivia. Stella could feel his eyes on her and like always it made her want to brush her hair out of her face, but she repressed the impulse and instead wished them a nicer day and promised to call as the two detectives got ready to leave. 

Sighing she looked at the mess in the hallway and went over to retrieve her kit. She worked slowly, diligently, because she knew that Lydia deserved answers and the only way they were going to get them was through a thorough processing.  

--- 

*Washington DC* 

Gibbs looked down at the dead body and sighed before he started to issue orders. "Ziva, you take pictures. McGee, DiNozzo, I want you to canvass the neighborhood maybe someone saw something. And DiNozzo, call Ducky, he doesn't need to come out here." 

No, he thought as he looked down at Sergeant Smith. There was no ME needed to determine what had killed the soldier. The first responding officers had pulled him out of the pond and there was foam around his mouth which proved that he had died by drowning. Still despite having his hands and feet tied together with a string, the dead man still looked deceptively peaceful and Gibbs shook his head before he turned towards the young woman who stood next to an officer. "My condolences, Mrs. Smith." 

The victim's wife shook his hand before she turned away to compose herself. "He just wanted to defend his family and they... they even laughed while he drowned." 

Anger gripped Gibbs hard at the senseless death of a good soldier. He wanted so say something else, but before he got to ask Smith's wife a question, she spoke again. "He was serving in Afghanistan, you know, and I was so scared that he wouldn't come back to me. And then he is back and this happens. Why, Agent Gibbs, why?" 

He didn't know, couldn't answer her and once more he felt out of his debts, but before his lack of word became obvious, Tony was there and calmly put a hand on the woman's shoulder. "We don't know why, Mrs. Smith, but we will make sure that you get some answers, I promise you that. Now why don't we go back inside and you sit down a bit?" 

Gibbs watched how Tony led the woman away and marveled at the innate gentleness his lover displayed. It was something he had noticed many times and before they had become lovers, he had made fun of Tony because of it. He didn't feel like it, but for appearances sake he still slapped Tony's head when he came back and barked at him. "Done flirting?" 

Tony grinned at him, but sobered quickly. "Give me some credit, boss, she has just lost her husband. I'm not that much of a leech." 

He sounded put off, but the relaxed stance told Gibbs that Tony knew Gibbs wasn't serious. It annoyed him to pretend, went against Gibbs' nature, but he knew the consequences and any annoyance was shoved aside when he looked over to the pool. 

"Bastards." Tony looked up and when their eyes met, Gibbs saw the same anger and determination burning in Tony's hazel eyes than Gibbs felt. They would get whoever had done this to Sergeant Smith and they would give closure to his wife. 

"Let's get to work and get them." Tony nodded curtly and went back to searching the perimeter for any evidence the killers might have left behind. 

Gibbs went back to Mrs. Smith and kindly started to ask her questions of what had happened. She had calmed down obviously and talked to him with a quiet, almost indifferent voice. Gibbs knew that it was a distancing mechanism and his heart ached for the young woman who had lost her husband to such a violent death. 

"Can you tell me exactly what has happened?"  

She looked at him and nodded slowly before she started to narrated the gruesome story. "We wanted to have a nice evening, you know, just some relaxing time and I told Jack that I would run to the store and see if they had some of the cake he liked so much. When I came back, I saw that the door was open and there was a strange car in the drive way. I thought he'd gotten a visitor, but then I heard the laughter in the back and that's when I saw them. They... "Her voice broke and Gibbs carefully put a hand on hers to calm her. She looked up and swallowed hard. "They laughed, Agent Gibbs, I could see how they stood there and laughed..." 

Again her voice broke, before she continued. "I screamed and they came up to me. I was sure that they would kill me too, but one of them looked at me and hit me and then everything was dark." 

Why hadn't they killed her? The question was obvious in her eyes, but it was also something Gibbs wondered about. He didn't think that she was involved with the killers, but maybe the killers were involved with her without her knowing it. "Jack just wanted to forget the war, you know, he's said that he'd seen things he never wanted to see and he just wanted to forget... And now, he's dead..." 

There was nothing Gibbs could say to her but promise her once again that they would do anything to find who had killed her husband. 

--- 

*New York* 

"Mac, I'm fine!" Danny glared at his partner, but Mac didn't even blink. For a moment, Danny still glared before his eyes softened and he reached out to caress Mac's face. "I'm alright, Mac, I've been given the go ahead for work again. I'm fine." 

He knew that Mac was scared of letting him back into the field and somehow he could understand his lover, but on the other hand Mac needed to understand, that Danny was capable of taking care of himself. Mac leaned into Danny's hand and Danny felt his heart constrict at the gesture. Ever since Sonny's attack, Mac had become overprotective, treating Danny as if he were made of glass. Danny had loved the care while he was sick, but now that he was healthy again, he wanted his Mac back. Smiling slightly, he leaned against Mac's body and slipped his hand underneath Mac's suit jacket. He knew that the way they stood no one would be able to see that he ran his fingers along Mac's spine with a gentle almost teasing motion. 

"What are you doing Danny?" Mac hissed, but the way his body melted against Danny's told him that although Mac might protest, he still enjoyed being this close to Danny. It was then when a daring thought crossed Danny's mind and with a quick glance at the watch, he decided that it was late enough in the day that he could risk it. 

"I need you tonight, Mac." It was in the way he said it, that had Mac tense, but Danny didn't give him any time to protest. "It has been so long and with Sonny..." 

He shuddered at the thought of Sonny's threats and disentangled himself from Mac to meet his partner's eyes. Mac's eyes were dark with memories but also full of guilt. Danny knew that Mac still felt guilty for not being there when Sonny had attacked him and he wanted to rid his lover from this guilt. 

"I need to know I'm yours." The words were whispered, but they had the desired effect and Mac's eyes darkened until they almost seemed black with sudden arousal. Danny watched as Mac swallowed hard and visibly restrained himself from grabbing Danny. For a moment he just stood there and panted silently before he got himself under control again and looked at Danny. The promise in his eyes made Danny shiver. 

"You will, tonight." 

--- 

*Washington DC* 

Tony had been able to push Ziva's revelation aside as long as they had been out at the crime scene. He had concentrated on doing his job, talking to people and searching for clues as to who might have killed Sergeant Smith. It had been almost routine to lose himself in work, but now as he sat in the office alone, he could feel the tension returning. 

Ziva knew. 

She wasn't the only one of course, Abby knew and Tony guessed that Ducky at least had a suspicion, Mac, Nick and the others knew and then of course there was Tom Morrow. Their old director had been informed by Jethro himself in order to protect them. Tony had been fine with them knowing, because he knew them well enough to trust them. Ziva was another issue. 

Could he trust her? 

It wasn't that Tony was terrified of being outed himself. If she were to spill their secret to the director, Tony would resign, but he was confident that he would find another job. He was good in what he did, had become a fine investigator and just the fact that he had worked for Jethro for such a long time would make it easy to find another job. No, it wasn't his own fate that worried Tony. It was Jethro. 

Jethro was after all still a Marine, was still part of an institution which sent men to prison because they were gay and although, Tony doubted that this would happen to Jethro, he knew his partner well enough to know that a dishonorable discharge would hurt Jethro deeply. Jethro was a Marine through and through, he lived the code and the principles. Tony remembered the awe he had felt when he had met Ernie Jost and how Jethro had fought for the other man. Jethro was a good man and Tony had known that even before he had fallen in love with him. 

Taking a deep breath, Tony silently vowed that he would protect Jethro, but even as he thought it, it made him smile. Jethro seemed to be the most unlikely man to need protection and yet. Tony had seen him vulnerable and it made him want to get up and go home to his lover, made him want to walk into Jethro's house and hold him close. 

"Anthony, what are you still doing here?" Surprised at hearing a familiar, yet unexpected voice Tony looked up to see Ducky stand next to his desk. He smiled at the ME and pointed towards the files he was reading. 

"I'm trying to get an overview of the Smith's circle of friends. We were wondering why she wasn't harmed, but even she seems honest. So I thought that maybe she's had someone admiring her from afar." 

Ducky nodded gravely and handed him the autopsy report. "No surprises there, he drowned. Terrible way to die, they say it's one of the most painful deaths at all." 

Swallowing hard, Tony tired to push aside the memory of suffocating. During the plague he had sometimes felt as if he couldn't get enough air, as if he were drowning in his own body and despite the recovery he had made, the memory still haunted him. 

"But your answer doesn't explain why you are still here." Tony sighed at Ducky's quiet words and looked down at the files. "I just feel like I have to do something, you know." 

Ducky remained silent until Tony looked up and met his eyes. He saw the gentle kindness in Ducky's eyes and swallowed hard. "You're becoming more and more like Jethro, Anthony, and that is not necessarily a good thing." 

It was both flattering and insulting to be likened to Jethro, but with Ducky, Tony knew that the older man wanted to make a point. Ducky had been a friend of Jethro's for a long time and had probably seen him at his lowest. Tony wasn't sure where he ranked on Ducky's list, but he was sure that there was some kind of paternal care that now shone in Ducky's eyes. 

"You've won, Ducky, I'll go home." 

Tony shut his computer down and packed his things while Ducky just stood there and watched him. "Are you going home too?" 

Ducky shook his head and to Tony's surprise he could see a blush coloring Ducky's face. "I'll be meeting a friend." 

Some part of Tony wanted to pry and ask for details, but the uncharacteristic shyness in Ducky's behavior made him remain silent until they reached their cars. "Have fun, Ducky, and don't do anything I wouldn't do." 

Ducky laughed at that, but as Tony got into his car, Ducky turned around again. "Say hi to Jethro." 

--- 

*New York* 

Mac could feel the nervous energy that seemed to thrum through Danny and he knew that it was his promise in the afternoon that had Danny on the edge. Smiling inwardly he watched his partner and slowly pulled him towards his body. Danny relaxed immediately against him before he turned around and snuggled even closer.  

"Should I go and prepare myself?" The words never failed to make Mac tense with desire, but today he shook his head. "No Danny, I will do that myself." 

Confused, Danny looked at Mac and Mac saw the moment of insecurity that passed through the grey-green eyes before they went carefully blank. Sighing lightly he smiled at Danny and leaned down to capture Danny's lips in a tender kiss. Danny opened up immediately and Mac was flooded with the taste of his lover, a taste he was addicted to. When they broke apart, Danny was flushed and breathing harder and Mac smiled again. "I promised to make you mine, promised that after tonight you know again that you're mine and I don't need toys or restraints for that." 

Danny shivered at the words and Mac slowly got up lifting Danny up with him. For a moment his lover frowned at him, but then he let Mac carry him towards their bedroom. Mac lay Danny in the middle of the bed and slowly started to undress him with tender hands until Danny was naked and trembling in front of him. The sight took Mac's breath away and he moaned lightly. "You are so beautiful." 

Reaching out to caress the soft skin, Mac's hand followed every muscle in Danny's body as he traced first along the collar bone then along both arms down to each finger and as he felt Danny starting to shiver, he followed his hands with his lips.  

"Mac, please." Danny's voice was strained as he pleaded with his lover and Mac looked up from his task of caressing the left hip bone only to find Danny look at him almost desperately. "If you continue this, then I won't be able to hold on." 

Mac understood what Danny wanted, but it wasn't what Mac wanted, not tonight at least. Tonight was about love and belonging and not about domination and possession and Mac would make sure that at the end of the night, Danny would understand the difference too. Removing his hands from Danny's body he moved over the naked man until their eyes were at the same level and with a sigh, Danny pushed against Mac's still clothed groin. 

"You don't have to hold on, Danny, I told you, tonight is all about you, about you being mine. I want you to hold nothing back, I want you to come if you need to and not when I say it." He saw the surprise and wonder in Danny's eyes and smiled when Danny swallowed hard. 

"This is new, isn't it? It's a new version of the game." Danny's voice was tentative and Mac smiled gently. "It's not a game, Danny, not like the others. This is real." 

And with those words, he leaned down to kiss Danny  passionately almost bruising his lips while his left hand found Danny's cock and started to stroke him rhythmically. Danny gasped into the kiss, and moaned against Mac's lips as his body started to tremble and shake and Mac felt the warmth of Danny's release flow over his hand. 

He gentled his kiss, carefully removed himself from Danny's body and quickly undressed before he lay down next to his lover. Danny watched him with a sated look in his eyes, but behind the drowsiness that came with the climax there was a slight wariness as to what Mac had planned next. Mac smiled reassuringly and reached for the massage oil that Danny kept in their nightstand. 

"Turn over, Danny." Danny followed Mac's command immediately, and Mac had to close his eyes for a second at the implied trust of Danny's action. He gathered his control and spread a little oil over Danny's back. "Relax, love, just relax." 

He felt Danny shiver once as his hand's touched Danny's back and waited patiently for Danny to do as told before he started to knead the tense muscles, caressing the skin as he went, sprinkling kisses in between his touches until Danny was so relaxed that he almost melted into Mac's touch. Smiling with love, Mac leaned down and traced Danny's spine with his lips, following each vertebrae with his tongue until he reached Danny's butt. 

"Mac?" Danny's voice was hoarse, but at the same time questioning as Mac's tongue slipped into the crack and further down. Rimming was something that Mac had only done in their scenes and even then he had only done it on rare occasions, but today he wanted Danny to feel more than he had ever felt with him, more than he had ever felt with anyone and with a hungry groan Mac started to kiss Danny's most private area. 

--- 

Don looked up from the game he was watching when Nick walked into their shared apartment and he smiled as Nick bent down to give him a quick kiss. 

"You're early. After what Stabler told me, I'd have guessed you get stuck in the lab forever." Nick shrugged out of his jacket, removed the holster and put gun, badge and mobile phone on the cupboard before he sat down next to Don. "We logged the evidence, and got the analysis running, so there's nothing for us to do right now. This is the real world not some cop show, you know." 

Don grinned at Nick's comment, knowing only too well how annoyed Nick got when he accidentally stumbled over one of the popular forensic crime shows in which a DNA analysis took never longer than three hours and a mass spectrometer search was done in a matter of minutes. It wasn't that Nick didn't get the concept of altered universes, he just hated how the movie reality made his life harder. "I tell them that an analysis takes ten hours and all they tell me is that in ‘CSU Chicago' they only need a couple of minutes." 

"Mom brought some lasagna over, do you want some?" Nick looked up and smiled brightly at the prospect of home made lasagna. Don grinned and went to the kitchen to put the lasagna in the oven. Setting the time, he watched the food for a moment before he returned into the living room and sat down next to his partner. "So you have any leads yet?"  

Nick shook his head and shrugged. "Nothing really. The neighbor said that the victim had a boyfriend, but she didn't know more than that he has dark curly hair and is tall, which fits probably half of all men in New York. We might get something from DNA though, she fought hard, so maybe we get lucky." 

Don could see that Nick had something on his mind though and so he prompted his partner with a nudge of his elbow. "What is it?" 

Again he received a shrug from Nick and a deep sigh before Nick continued to speak. "Something about this whole case bothers me, you know, I just feel like I'm not seeing something that I should see. It's like there is evidence right in front of me, but I don't see it because it's masked so well." 

Nick sighed and leaned closer to Don. Don loved those moments when they were domestic together, loved the support and strength that he got from this relationship and he knew that Nick felt the same. "Talk me through it, maybe you'll see it." 

They had done this before and often it had given them a new insight and knowing this Nick started to speak. "The victim is well off financially, she worked as a consultant for large banks and had several large projects going. At work, her colleagues say that she's single, her neighbor says that she had a boyfriend. She was beaten post mortem, raped and then stabbed, but we haven't found the murder weapon yet. She fought, but there was no sign of forced entry..." 

Nick took a deep breath and Don waited for him to continue. "We got a vague description of the boyfriend as being tall, muscular and dark haired. We got several DNA samples which are being analyzed as we speak and lifted about half a dozen prints but nothing in CODIS." 

Don felt the tension in Nick and questioned his lover quietly. "What is it that confuses you?" 

"She had this statue in her bedroom that was obviously wiped clean. I mean it was literally spotless, we tested it and there was not even a trace of dust on it. I think she was beaten with it, but why? I mean he killed her in the living room, so why use this statue to beat her?" 

Nick trailed off as cheers erupted from the TV and for the couple minutes they didn't talk while they watched the game. During the short commercial break Nick sighed. "I just have a bad feeling about this. I don't know, it's just something in my gut that tells me there's more." 

Don pulled his lover closer and shrugged. "You'll find him, I know." 

Nick nodded and grinned as another goal against the Rangers fell. Don groaned and at the end of the game the New York team had lost to the Dallas Stars in a rather spectacular fashion. Don simply shook his head while Nick grinned.  

"Don't even start." Nick's grin widened, but he obeyed and remained silent. Don growled and went to check on the food with a muttered curse. "Bloody Texan." 

"I heard that, you know." Nick was leaning against the kitchen door and mirth sparkled in his eyes. Don sighed and shrugged. "We'll beat you in the playoffs." 

Nick who had grabbed plates and cutlery and started setting the table laughed surprised. "Which playoffs?" 

--- 

Danny felt Mac's arms around him, felt his partner's strong body against his own and he sighed content. He was exhausted and tired, but at the same time it was as if pure love and happiness was running through his veins and with another sigh, he turned his head to find Mac watching him with loving eyes. 

"You ok?" Danny smiled at Mac's question and reached out to caress Mac's face gently. "Never been better." 

It was an honest statement, because Danny really had never felt like this. Mac had made love to him all night and in all variations proving Danny again and again that he was Mac's. Danny smiled again and pulled Mac towards him for a kiss. 

"You know I never knew I could feel like this for anyone." Not this intense, Danny thought, not this much without being scared about the consequences. Rationally he should be scared, because Mac meant so much to him, but Mac had shown him tonight that this was no one way street. 

"I love you, Mac." Danny felt how Mac's breath stopped for a moment at his silently spoken words and he smiled. "You are my one." 

--- 

*Washington DC* 

Gibbs hated the nights he spent alone in his house. He knew that they couldn't be together all the time, knew that it was necessary for their safety to be apart and spend time at their houses, but while he rationally understood all that, he still hated it with a passion. He had never really realized how silent his house was when Tony wasn't in it, but now that it had been filled with his partner's laughter and presence, the silence was deafening. 

Sighing he turned on the TV only to see yet another Christmas commercial and he growled. He wasn't a Christmas person, had spent most of the holidays in the office since Shannon and Kelly had been killed. The thought gave him pause and with a start he realized that he didn't want to work this year. Instead he wanted to spend the time with Tony, wanted to shower him with the love he felt and really have time for him. 

He would have to ask Tony about his schedule for the holidays and he had to find a gift for his lover. Surprised at the unusual thoughts, Gibbs turned the TV off and sat down on his couch. What could he possibly give Tony? For a moment, Gibbs sighed, he had never been good in figuring out gifts, his ex-wives had usually complained about a gift missing either emotional or material value. He didn't want to disappoint Tony, wanted to give him something that showed how much Gibbs cared for him. 

"Jethro?" Tony's voice came from the corridor and Gibbs smiled as the house felt brighter with his lover in it.  

"Living room." At Gibbs' answer Tony walked into the room and plopped down next to Gibbs. Gibbs looked at his lover and saw the tiredness around the eyes, saw the exhaustion and felt tenderness rise in him. Gently he reached out and caressed Tony's face.  "Glad you came over." 

Tony leaned against the caress and Gibbs pulled him slowly towards his body. He sighed when Tony rested against him and continued the gentle caresses while he watched the expressive face of his lover. "What's wrong?" 

Gibbs knew that something was bothering Tony, that something had been bothering Tony for the entire day now, but they hadn't had a quiet minute to talk and so he wanted to the truth now. "Ziva knows." 

"I know." Gibbs felt Tony tense against him and held Tony tighter. "Listen to me, Tony, she won't tell. I talked to her and I know she talked to Nick as well. She's not homophobic and she considers you her friend." 

The body in his arms was still tense and Gibbs sighed. "She won't hurt us, Tony, I promise." 

A shudder went through Tony before he relaxed. "I'm just afraid of losing you." 

Gibbs heard the fear in Tony's voice and his heart ached with love. Gently he picked Tony's hand and kissed his wrist. "You won't lose me." 

Tony shuddered from a completely different emotion and Gibbs saw how his partner's eyes darkened with arousal. Suddenly an idea for a gift popped in his head and he smiled before he leaned down and kissed the slender wrist again. "I'd cuff you to me, before I lose you." 

This time Tony laughed and looking up, Gibbs saw Tony's eyes sparkle with mirth. "I'd love to see you try." 

The slight challenge in the words woke Gibbs' competitive instincts and he smiled darkly as he remembered a talk he'd had with Mac not too long ago. They had somehow touched the topic of their lovers and how the two younger men had a tendency of getting into trouble. Mac had laughed and told him that he simply tied Danny to the bed, if he got himself in too much trouble. Gibbs had laughed but something in Mac's tone had intrigued him and after another ten minutes of conversation Gibbs had finally found the courage to ask. 

"Mac, you and Danny... are you playing with it?" Mac had chuckled darkly, but hadn't let Gibbs off the hook. "Playing with what?" Gibbs had groaned and sighed. "Dominance and you know..." 

Again Mac had laughed, but then he had become serious as he had continued. "We don't play, Jethro, because it's more for both of us. We both need the release those scenes give us. I need to know that Danny is mine and ready to submit to me and Danny needs to know that he belongs to me." 

Ever since that talk, Gibbs had thought about it, had thought about Tony and himself, but he hadn't brought it up not because he was afraid of Tony's reaction, but because he wasn't sure what he wanted. Sure the possessive part of his soul wanted Tony to submit but there was another part in him that wanted to submit to Tony and that confused Gibbs more than he wanted. So until he had figured it out, he would remain silent about his wishes and desires. 

"Jethro?" Tony's eyes had changed and his partner looked concerned. "You still with me?" 

Recovering immediately, Jethro smiled at Tony. "Yeah, I was just thinking that a nice hot shower would be great." 

Tony purred at the thought and got up. "Great idea, love, do you mind if I join you?" 

--- 

*New York* 

Stella smiled at Frankie when he walked into the living room with two red wine glasses. "Just what I need after today." 

He looked at her concerned and she could see how he tried to gauge her mood. The fact that he knew her that well to be able to tell whether or not a case had rattled her, made her smile and gave her a feeling of comfort. It was nice to have a partner who knew her so well, someone who accepted who she was and what she did. "Do you want to talk about it?" 

She leaned against him and shook her head. "Not really, no. It's just not a nice case." 

Frankie sighed and pulled her closer. "I checked the name you gave me. No one in the artist scene has ever heard it. So it's either pseudonym or a really unknown artist." 

Stella nodded. "I almost guessed so, it's a weird name, you know. If it had been a known artist, I would have remembered. Thanks to you, I'm getting quite savvy in New York's art scene." 

He smiled, but didn't comment on the fact that she had already been in the scene before she had met him, it was how they had gotten together after all. Stella sighed and reached for her wine glass. "I hate cases like this, you know? They just make me feel vulnerable." 

Frankie's arms around her tightened and she noted once more the strength of the muscles as she let him support her weight. "You're safe with me, Stella, you're safe here. No one will harm you as long as you're with me." 

She smiled and wanted to tell him, that she didn't need a knight in shining armor. But she remained silent, because right now on this evening, she did need one. 

--- 

*Chapter 13 – Falling apart* 

*Washington DC* 

Tony watched with a cold smile as Gibbs interrogated Sergeant Smith's CO. They had found the stolen property in a dealer's warehouse. The dealer had identified the CO as the seller of the paintings and the jewelry. During a search of the CO's house, they had found the tape that had been used to tie Smith up. Finally, Abby had proven that the same microorganisms that lived in the pond where Smith had drowned were also found on the CO's uniform. 

They had their killer, but what they didn't have yet was a motive. Tony had no doubt though, that very soon they would have that too. There weren't many men that could withstand Gibbs' look long enough and Tony doubted that the CO was one of them. 

"How long do you think?" McGee's question made Tony smile, and meeting his colleagues' eyes he shrugged casually. "Not even five minutes." 

McGee shook his head, but then suddenly looked at Tony with a grin. "And how long until you would break?" 

The thought of being interrogated by Gibbs in a more private setting sent a bolt of arousal through Tony that surprised him and at the same time made him grin. He had never really ventured into the domain of discipline or role plays, but if what Danny told him was true and the spike of lust at the thought of Gibbs in interrogator mood was an indication, it was something he probably needed to explore. 

"Me? Hell, I'd last not even five minutes, cause unlike him in there, I know what Gibbs is capable of." McGee grinned, but Tony's smile faded as he turned back to watch his partner interrogate the suspect. He had only been half joking, because he did know what Gibbs was capable of, not in the ways of torture or interrogation, but Tony knew that Gibbs held a completely different kind of power over him, one that made it almost impossible to lie to him. 

He pushed the frightening thought away and focused on the good times he had experienced with his partner. Jethro loved him and would never hurt him on purpose. A shudder ran through Tony at the thought and the memories it woke, before he concentrated again on the man in front of him. 

--- 

*New York* 

"What's up with you and Bonasera?" Elliot hat been waiting for Olivia's questions ever since she had caught him looking at Stella. He had actually even gone as far as preparing an answer, but it hadn't helped because right now he was at a loss. Olivia smiled and gently put a hand onto his arm. They were on their way to the crime lab and Elliot was both dreading and looking forward to see Stella.  

"Nothing's up, I'm just... I don't really know, she's something, you know." It sounded lame to his ears but Olivia seemed to understand him as she nodded. 

"Ask her out." She suddenly said after a minute of silence. "Once we're done with this case, ask her out." 

The simple suggestion made Elliot swallow hard. He hadn't dated for longer than he cared to think about it. It had always been Maureen and when she had left him only a couple of months ago, he had been devastated.  

"I can't ask her out. I'm not even divorced yet." The word divorce still tasted bitter in his mouth. Marriage was supposed to last forever, was supposed to be a oath for lifetime and not finish in tears after twenty-something years. Born and raised a catholic Elliot had abandoned many of the Church's rigid teachings, but he had always believed in the sacredness of marriage. Had believed, he thought sarcastically, had believed in it until his own wife had told him to leave his house. 

"Elliot?" Olivia's voice drew him back from his musings into reality and he smiled sheepishly at her as he realized that she had stopped the car and was waiting next to his door for him to get out. For a moment, she looked at him concerned. "Are you going to be ok?" 

She had every right to ask after she had nursed him through the first couple of weeks and even though he had his own flat now, he still spent most of the time in her's. 

"I'll be fine. Sometimes it just hits me again." He trailed off as he stepped into the elevator and they rode up the the crime lab's floor in silence. 

The new rooms were much brighter than the almost tomb like atmosphere in the old building and Elliot liked the new building a lot, despite that though he got tenser by the minute as he followed Olivia towards Stella's office. 

The door was open as they approached and Elliot could hear Stella's laughter followed by Taylor's dark chuckle. There was something knowing, almost intimate in the sound that made Elliot flinch. He had always assumed that Taylor and Stella were friends, but now as Taylor walked out of the office, his eyes seemed to have a special glow and for the first time since Elliot worked with Taylor, he could see a real smile on the other man's face. 

"Detectives." Taylor's greeting was friendly, but curt and as Elliot and Olivia entered Stella's office, poked his head back into it too. "You'll keep me informed, Stella, will you?" 

Stella nodded. "Either Nick or me will keep you in the loop." 

Watching her watching Taylor leave, Elliot could see the fond smile that played on Stella's face and he felt ridiculous for being jealous. She smiled once more, and turned towards Olivia and Elliot. 

"Hey, thanks for coming over. I'll call Nick. He's still somewhere with Sid." She leaned over towards the phone, but somehow her eyes met Elliot's and although the look wasn't longer than a second or two, the effect it had on Elliot was amazing. He felt a shiver running through his body and the intensity of his feelings shook him to his core. Swallowing hard, he felt Olivia's eyes on him. 

"You're doomed." She whispered and as much as he wanted. Elliot couldn't deny, that she was right. 

--- 

Nick had seen Mac leave his and Stella's office with a smile on his face and meeting him in the hallway, he teased him with a gentle smile. "Danny is going to be jealous if you leave Stella's office with such a smile everyday. " 

Mac looked surprised for a moment, before he laughed. "Maybe, but today is a special occasion." 

He showed Nick two tickets and Nick whistled silently as he saw that they were tickets for a Rangers game. "I thought the Saturday game was sold out?" 

Now Mac grinned like a cat who's eaten the canary. "Stella's got connections." 

Laughing, Nick shook his head and cautioned Mac. "Don't tell Don, else you might get mugged in a dark alley." 

Chuckling too, Mac walked on and Nick continued towards his office, when his cell phone rang. "Nick, Stella here. Detectives Benson and Stabler are here. Can you spare a minute?" 

Stella sounded slightly breathless, something that happened quite often when Elliot was concerned and Nick made a mental note the question her after the detectives had left. First though, he had a job to do. "I'm on my way." 

He was almost at the door. Walking into the room he greeted Olivia and Elliot, before he lifted up two sheets. "Good news or bad news first?" 

Olivia shrugged and guessed. "We have no match?" 

Sighing lightly, Nick nodded. "We are looking for a man though, that much we know, but CODIS didn't come back with a hit and neither did any of the other databases." 

He looked at Stella who shook her head. "Nothing from my side either." 

Nick could feel Elliot look at him and saw how his friend frowned a bit.. "So which part was the good news? That we're looking for a man?" 

Grinning at the dark humor of his friend, Nick nodded. "That and we have a DNA sample, so if you give us something to compare it with, then we can match it." 

Olivia frowned too, but remained silent, while Elliot recounted their findings. "She lived a stable wealthy life, liked art, you were right about the photographer by the way, but none of her friends at work really seem to know her. They told us long stories about how she was managing her job, how she was dealing with the stress and everything, but they didn't even know where she lived. There was one friend though, who told us that Lydia has been dating someone in the last couple of months, however according to Lydia, it had to remain a secret." 

"Married man?" Stella's guess was met with a shrug as Elliot continued. "I asked her if she had a feeling that this mystery lover was abusing Lydia, but her friend insisted that Lydia was capable of protecting herself." 

Nick sighed and the uneasiness that he had felt all through this case intensified. He still couldn't put a finger on it, but he felt as if he was missing something vitally important. 

"I asked a friend about the statue, but he has never heard of the artist." Stella's words drew Nick from his musings and he shook his head. "I don't think that Samperonnem is an artist's name. It's an anagram for Epsom-Manner, so I think who ever gave her the art work custom made it for her." 

Having discussed the case with Don at him, Nick had thought a lot about the statue and the name and looking at Stella he handed her a photo of the piece. "Can you ask Frankie if he recognizes the style? There has to be a connection between the statue and the killer. He wouldn't have used it to beat her so badly, if it didn't have a special value for him." 

"Frankie?" Elliot's voice was tight and Nick looked at his friend in surprise. "Who's Frankie?" 

Stella had tensed too and Nick felt almost trapped between her and Elliot as he looked between Stella and Elliot finally meeting Olivia's concerned eyes. Stella broke the tension before it became too obvious by taking the picture and smiling lightly. "He's my boyfriend. He's an artist." 

Elliot's eyes flickered away from Stella and for a moment, Nick saw both jealousy and pain appear in the expressive blue eyes. Both emotions vanished as fast as they had appeared, but those few moments had been enough to clue Nick in. Elliot had a serious crush on Stella. 

"Well maybe he can help us." Olivia's voice broke the silence and after only a few more moments of small talk, both SVU detectives left the office. Nick watched them leave, before he turned towards Stella. "What's up between you and Elliot?" 

When he didn't get a reply, he looked closer at Stella and grew more concerned as he saw her closed off look. "Stella, are you ok?" 

She shrugged, but it was more a gesture of helplessness than indifference. 

"I don't know Nick. I love Frankie, I really do, but when I see Elliot there is just so much chemistry. It's like I'm suddenly a teenager again." 

Seeing that she was truly troubled, Nick sat down and met Stella's eyes with his own. "Stella, do you love Frankie or are you in love with him?" 

For a moment, she was silent, then she sighed heavily. "See that's the problem, because I don't know anymore." 

--- 

*Washington DC* 

"Envy and greed, two of the deadly sins..." Tony didn't smile at Ducky's words as the two of them watched the second interrogation of Sergeant Smith's CO. He knew that after a night in prison and the evidence they had found, it would only be a matter of minutes until the other man confessed. 

Envy and greed, Tony mused, Ducky was right. Envy had been the reason for the murder, while greed had proved to be the killer's downfall. Tony and Ziva had tracked down some of the stolen paintings and the shady dealer had been only too willing to cut a deal. 

"You wanted the life Sergeant Smith had, didn't you? You wanted the wife, the success at the stock market, the house, but you couldn't get it. You were his CO, but he was better in every aspect of life. So you killed him." Jethro's voice was ice cold, but Tony heard more than just the voice of the stern NCIS agent. He knew that the case had been hard for Jethro, knew that Mrs. Smith's grief had reminded him of his own lost family. A while ago, it would have made Tony sad and insecure, but after all the things that he and Jethro had shared, he knew that while Shannon and Kelly would always be a part of Jethro, so would he. 

Envy and greed... Still listening to the interrogation, Tony's attention nevertheless wandered off to the email he had gotten this morning. His father's secretary had sent him an invitation to the family's traditional Christmas celebration. He was supposed to arrive on Christmas' Eve with a suitable partner or not come at all. 

Tony wanted to laugh, but deep inside it hurt. His family would never accept Jethro as a suitable partner and unless Tony agreed to conform to their wishes, he was not welcome. They had never accepted any of Tony's choices as suitable be it his choice to become a cop or his choice in partners. The yearly email was all the contact he still had with his family and while he had no problem with it during the year, come Christmas he could feel the old wound hurting again. 

"Tony?" Jethro's voice brought him out of his reverie and with a start Tony realized that the interrogation had finished a while ago. 

"Sorry, I was lost in thoughts." Jethro waved Tony's apology aside. Tony expected to be told off and was completely surprised when his lover gently caressed his hand and looked at him concerned. 

"What's wrong?" Tony wanted to laugh and deny that anything was wrong, but Jethro's eyes were too intense and suddenly feeling incredibly sad, Tony swallowed hard. 

"Tell me that I'm working this Christmas, please? At least then I can tell myself that's why I'm not welcome at my parents' Christmas party." 

Jethro's eyes had turned colder with each word and as Tony fell silent, he met steel blue eyes as Jethro fixed him with his eyes. "No Tony, you're not working. You're spending Christmas with me." 

There was such a fierce gentleness and love in Jethro's words that Tony felt his heart ache with love, but before he could say anything, Jethro continued. "I spent every Christmas since Shannon and Kelly's death either working or alone. I don't want to do that this year, not when I finally found someone to celebrate Christmas with." 

No matter how often Tony told himself that Jethro loved him, there was nevertheless always the reminder of the lost family in the back of his mind. Today though Jethro had put him on the same level as his lost wife and daughter and the impact of the simple words made Tony reel. Swallowing hard, Tony looked at Jethro with love. "I'm not working then." 

Jethro grinned and gently swatted him on the back of his head. "No, you won't. Now please go and finish the report, ok?" 

--- 

Gibbs waited until Tony had left the observation room before he balled his hand into a fist and slammed it against the wall. He felt powerless, helpless and he hated the feeling. Tony's face as Gibbs had walked into the room danced in front of his eyes and a deep shiver ran through Gibbs at the memory. 

Tony had looked lost and sad, not desperate though, it had more been like he was revisiting an old, painful memory, a wound that had never really closed and still festered inside him. The expression in Tony's face had reminded Gibbs of himself whenever he allowed himself to think of Kelly and Shannon. 

He had wanted to hug Tony in that moment, but Gibbs had been only too aware that already too many people knew about their relationship and every stolen moment at work was an additional risk. When Tony had spoke about his family, Gibbs had remembered the other times, Tony had talked about his father or mother and like in those instants Gibbs had wanted to meet these people just once. He wanted to tell them what an excellent agent Tony was, wanted to tell them how many lives their son had already saved, but even more he wanted to tell them that despite the terrible role model Tony had had, he had become a wonderful man. 

A wonderful man, he would spend Christmas with. Unexpectedly Gibbs felt a thrill go through him at the though of celebrating the holiday with Tony. He grinned as he thought of the hours they could spend together, of the joy they would give to each other. A smile played on his face, when he suddenly froze. He had just had a perfect idea for a gift. 

--- 

*New York* 

Something Nick had said during the meeting with Stabler and Benson kept returning to Stella's mind. "Samperonnem is an anagram. The piece was made for her." 

It wasn't that she didn't believe Nick, no it was something different and as the day quieted down, she sat down on her desk and looked at the piece of art once more. It surely was a beautiful piece, but something about the style and material used mad her freeze and reach for a pen. Slowly she wrote down her name and then the word ‘Aresanob' before she started to cross out the letters. 

Her breath hitched as she stared at the result of her experiment: the letters matched. 

Still staring at the nine letters, she felt a shiver crawl over her spine. Trembling she got up and walked towards the door just when Nick entered the room. 

"What's going on?" Seeing the concern in Nick's eyes, Stella forced a smile on her face and shrugged. "I just realized that I have an appointment with Frankie. Can you cover for me?" 

Nick narrowed his eyes and looked at her closely. "Sure, I'll cover, but are you alright?" 

Again Stella forced a smile on her face and nodded. "Everything is perfect, I just really need a PDA to sort my dates out." 

For a moment, she could see how Nick hesitated and she cursed the fact that her friend was such a good investigator. Then though he relaxed and smiled back. "Run off and have fun. I'll call if we have some news." 

Breathing with relief, Stella walked to the car. Once inside she tried to calm her racing thoughts. Was she reading too much into a simple riddle? Was she seeing ghosts? Why hadn't she told Nick? 

The answer to the last question was simple. Stella didn't want to make an issue out of something that maybe was nothing. The names could be nothing but a coincidence and taking a deep breath, Stella decided to talk with Frankie first. 

She knew that her decision might be a dangerous one, but she figured even if Frankie had killed Lydia,, she, Stella was trained to deal with criminals and she felt that she was able to deal with him, no matter what. 

--- 

Danny and Lindsay were working on their case which was a breaking and entering in a jewelry store when Don walked in to ask them about their progress. Seeing the rumpled suit, messed up hair and claw mark on the right cheek, Danny grinned. "Did you have a heart to heart with our suspect?" 

Growling, Don glared at his friend. "Well while you sat in your heated office and looked into books and computers, I tried to arrest your prime suspect which involved a lot of running around and a nice little street fight."  

Smiling at her colleagues bantering, Lindsay looked up from her microscope. "You won, I hope." 

Puffing his chest with an exaggerated show of pride, Don nodded. "Of course, how can you even ask?" 

Danny grinned too, but he turned serious again, when he projected something onto the large screen. "Results from the hair and fibers that we found..." 

The banter and grin in Don's eyes disappeared immediately and he looked at the screen too. "What do they say?" 

Pointing at a couple of figures, Danny smiled thinly. "That we've got the right man." 

Don nodded with satisfaction. "At least all the running was worth it." 

Lindsay laughed. "Hey, if nothing Nick will enjoy the increased stamina." 

Don gulped and looked as if he wanted to say something, but words obviously failed him and so he just blushed, turned and left. 

--- 

*Washington DC* 

Gibbs felt quite weird as he walked up to the Cartier shop. He had never visited a shop this posh unless if he was here in an official function and he had certainly never bought anything. 

He had thought about the perfect gift for Tony for a lot more than he cared to admit, but then by chance he had seen an article in a paper. The article had been about the love bracelet from Cartier and it had detailed how this line had existed since the seventies and how even now couples still bought the bracelet and its matching key. The idea behind the bracelet, the history as a symbol of love and the warmth that he felt at the thought of wearing something that tied him to Tony and Tony to him... all those things had convinced him that the bracelet was the perfect gift. 

Now all he had to do was work up the courage to buy it. 

"Can I help you sir?" The assistant was friendly in a professional way and showed him an example of the bracelets in gold. He looked at them and immediately knew that he wanted something less flashy to which she suggested the platinum bracelet.  

Telling him that she would have to order it from New York, she assured him that it would be ready for Christmas. Gibbs was almost giddy as he left the store thirty minutes later with the knowledge that he had found the perfect gift for his lover. 

--- 

New York 

Nick was tired after a fruitless day in the lab. He would have preferred a double or triple shift to the dullness of a day getting nowhere and staring at computers. Of course he knew that days like today happened and sometimes he even welcomed them, because they gave him time to catch up with his administrative duties, but at the same time he hated it if a case stalled like the murder of Lydia Epsom Manner did. 

He was about to shut down his computer, when Adam almost ran into his office. The lab tech looked excited and before Nick could say anything, Adam already spoke. "You have to see this, you won't believe what I found on the victim's laptop." 

Following Adam, Nick smiled at the other man's enthusiasm, but when he looked at the folders on the computer, he couldn't see anything special. Adam grinned. "There didn't seem to be anything special on it, but then I looked at the deleted items. Now we all know that the completely erase something from a computer, you almost have to reformat the hard drive and that's actually what she has done. She's missed something though and that's the cache of the web browser. I looked at the last visited sites and found this site." 

He clicked on a web address and Nick swallowed hard as he read it. "www.samperonnem.com, Adam that's the name of the piece of art she was beaten with." 

Adam nodded and opened the link. The webpage that opened at the request was clearly pornographic and promised to show real life action with real woman. Frowning Nick motioned for Adam to click on one of the free samples and gasped as he recognized the woman in the film. "That's our victim." 

Adam looked up and without even asking pulled his credit card to fill in an application form. Nick stopped him horrified. "You can't buy access to a sex site on the lab's computer." 

Looking at Nick, Adam shrugged. "If you go through the official channels, it's gonna take you at least two days, do you want to wait this long?" 

Thinking for a moment, Nick shrugged and taking it as a no, Adam keyed in the necessary details and accessed the site. "That's a pretty professional operation, well set up and everything. Do you think, she worked for them?" 

Nick shook his head as he remembered what Elliot had told him in the meeting this morning. "No, she had no other income than from her job and investments. Maybe she didn't know she was being filmed?" 

Nick shuddered as he remembered Nigel Crane and the seemingly endless tapes that his stalker had made of him. Nick had been shocked to realize how deeply his privacy had been invaded by the other man and the thought that Lydia Epsom had been violated like this made him want to vomit. Wasn't it enough that she had been brutally beaten and then stabbed to death? Did her killer exploit her even after her death? 

"Nick, this was clearly filmed secretly. See how she obviously waits for someone?" 

Adam's voice brought Nick back to the reality and to Lydia Epsom waiting for her lover wearing sexy underwear. The scenery was almost painfully intimate and Adam had a look of distaste in his eyes as they met Nick's. "What kind of a bastard does this?" 

Nick wanted to answer, but before he could say anything a man appeared on the screen and everything inside Nick froze. He knew the man, knew the face and the gentle laughter. Cold dread began to flow through his veins as he looked at Adam. "Call Mac, Danny and Stabler and Benson, tell them to come to the lab immediately." 

Adam looked at him confused. "Do you know him?" 

Nick was almost out of the lab when he heard the questions and he already had his phone out to call Stella. Yes, he thought in an answer to Adam's question, yes, he knew the man in the film. He had spoken to him a couple of times and had actually liked him. Looking at Adam he swallowed hard. "It's Stella's boyfriend." 

Stella wasn't answering her phone and by the time Nick reached his office, he concern had risen to panic. He dialed Don's number when his eyes fell onto the note pad on Stella's table. The phone slipped from his hand as he understood. It was Stella's surname that was written on the note pad next to an anagram of her name and remembering how distracted Stella had been right before she had left, Nick shivered. 

She had seen the connection between the man she loved and the killer she hunted and instead of telling Nick, she had decided to face the man she loved alone. Nick's legs gave in as he stared at the letters in front of him. 

"Nick?" Don's voice came through the phone and Nick quickly grabbed it. "Don, where are you?" 

From the moment of silence on the other side, Nick knew that Don had picked up on his panic. "At home, why?" 

"Frankie is probably Lydia Epsom's killer. And Stella is with him right now." Don was silent for a moment, but when he spoke again, his voice was cold. "I'm closest to her home. I'll drive over and check on her. Can you give me Frankie's address once you have it?" 

Nick's heart was beating hard when he said good bye to his lover and his voice was serious as he silently told him. "Be careful, please." 

--- 

*Chapter 14 – Shattered into pieces* 

New York 

Don forced himself not to drive too fast, not to drive too reckless. Everything in him was tense and all he could concentrate on was Nick's words over and over again. "Frankie is Lydia Epsom's killer. And Stella is with him right now." 

Just the thought of Stella being in danger made Don want to press his foot down onto the gas, but rationally he knew that he couldn't help her if he had an accident and he controlled the fear and anxiety while he drove towards her house. He didn't know what he would find and the insecurity was worse than anything else.  

Finding a parking spot in Stella's street was almost impossible, and today was no different than any other day with one exception, normally Don would drive around and search for a spot, today though he simply stopped the car in front of her house and not bothering with any explanation to the concierge, he ran towards the stairs. Stella lived on the sixth floor and he knew that he was faster running up the six flights of stairs than if he waited for the elevator. He could feel his heart pounding in his ears and by the time he was on the fifth floor, he was breathing hard and almost slowed down when he heard the shot. 

For a moment, everything in Don froze. Rationally he knew that he should call the police now, that he should stop his mad dash up to Stella's flat, but right now he wasn't acting rationally because all he knew was that one of his best friends was in the company of a killer and that someone had shot a gun. 

Be careful, please. Nick's voice suddenly broke through his mind and without wanting too, Don slowed down, stopped and took a deep, calming breath. He couldn't help Stella if he acted like an out of control cop banging at her door and threatening everyone with his gun. Focusing again, Don took another deep breath before he reached for his mobile phone and called dispatch. 

"Detective Flack, I'm at ... looking for a suspect. Shots have been fired inside suspect's flat, requesting back up please." 

For a moment he heard nothing but static noise, then he got an answer. "Back up is already on its way, should be at your position in five minutes, please wait for back up until you proceed." 

Pressing his lips together, Don stared at the door in front of him. He couldn't wait another five minutes, but he knew police procedures too well to argue with the cop on the other side of the line. "Ok, just tell them to hurry. The suspect might have one of us as a hostage." 

He heard the quickly indrawn breath on the other line and as the woman answered her voice was tighter. "I'll pass that along. You wait for back up, will you?" 

Don flipped his phone closed without an answer, and looked again at the closed door. He didn't know if behind this thin looking door his best friend was fighting for her life, he didn't know if Stella was already dead and he had come too late. All he knew was that, those five minutes would be the longest in his life. Swallowing hard, Don opened his phone again. He had to call Nick. 

--- 

Mac had listened to Nick without interrupting him, he had looked at the video and the pictures of Lydia Epsom's crime scene and he still hadn't said anything. Danny had watched his partner, had seen how he had visibly withdrawn, had tried to get a mental barrier between the case he saw and the feelings he had for Stella, but Danny had also seen that none of Mac's techniques had worked. Mac was deeply afraid, or even more accurate; Mac was terrified of losing Stella. 

When Don called and told them about the shot he had heard, Danny saw how Mac stopped breathing for the shortest moment and although his own fear was almost making him forget rational thoughts, Danny pushed it back and quietly put his hand on Mac's shoulder. Mac's reaction was immediate as he turned around and glared at Danny. "What do you want?" 

Gently Danny took the crime scene pictures from Mac's hand and shook his head. "We don't have to look at those pictures, Mac, we know what they say. Right now we can't do anything here." 

For a moment, Mac glared at Danny, before he sighed. "I can't just wait." 

"No, we can't." Nick's voice was tight and looking at his friend Danny noticed how Nick's face was pale with worry and fear and suddenly he understood that Nick was not only afraid for Stella but also for Don. Looking at Nick he frowned lightly. "What do you want to do?" 

Nick shrugged. "Drive out there, and don't tell me that it will be all over when we arrive. It's our job to make sure he will put behind bars." 

Looking between Mac and Nick, Danny noticed for the first time that his best friend and his partner had some very similar character traits and one of them was the urge to protect those they believed to be a part of their family. He thought about arguing, telling them both that it made no sense, because they wouldn't be allowed to work the case anyway, but one look at either of the men told Danny that right now they weren't exactly up to understand a reasonable argument and pasting a grin on his face, Danny grabbed Mac's key. "Ok, but I'll drive." 

--- 

When Elliot answered his phone and suddenly paled, Olivia knew that something bad had happened. She had only seen this expression of horror and fear once and it had been on the day when a madman had threatened his family. Heart beating fast, she waited for him to end the call and say something, but instead he clicked the phone shut, indicated right and stopped the car at the side of the road. 

"Elliot?" Her tentative question made him shiver and turn towards her. 

"Nick called. They found the killer." He spoke in a hurried and almost pressed way and again Olivia wondered what Nick had said exactly. She didn't have to wonder for much longer though as Elliot continued harshly. "It's Stella's boyfriend and she's with him right now." 

For a moment, Olivia was sure that she had misheard, but when the realization set in, she shivered and looked at Elliot in shock. "Then why are we stopping here?" 

Elliot closed his eyes for a moment and when he looked at her, she almost gasped with the fear and pain that lurked in the blue depths; he shivered a bit and then shook his head. "I can't drive." 

Olivia knew how much the simple admission had cost Elliot and without saying anything, she simply got out of the car and traded places with him. Indicating she waited until a car stopped and let them join the long line of cars. It felt like forever until they had finally left the busy streets of Manhattan and drove to the quieter suburb where Stella lived. Elliot hadn't spoken a word and Olivia wanted nothing more than tell him it would be alright only she couldn't. She had worked too many crime scenes to know that nothing was all right. 

"I'm scared." The three words felt like an explosion in the car and with a shiver Olivia looked at her friend. Elliot's face was drawn and she spared a second to touch his hand. "I know." 

He smiled darkly despite his fear as he shook his head.  

"I hated the guy without even knowing him, just because he was Stella's boyfriend..." For a moment he stopped talking and looked at Olivia. "If there is a chance of me shooting him, make sure I don't." 

The admission in his voice made Olivia tense, but again she could understand the sentiment and remembered only too well how close to shooting someone she had come when Alex had been threatened. Love was a powerful emotion and at times like this a dangerous one. 

--- 

Don looked up sharply when he saw Detective Maka and four armed officers quickly run up the stairs. She gave him a hard look and shook her head. "Stay back Don, I don't want you in there until we've cleared the scene." 

Incredulous he looked at her and growled silently. "I won't wait here while Stella might die in there." 

He turned away from Kaile who gently grabbed his arm. "Don, you're too close." 

Her words only fuelled his anger and narrowing his eyes he fixed her coldly. "And you aren't? For goodness sake, Kaile we all are too close, no matter who you send in there." 

She swallowed hard and with a sigh gave in. "Ok, but you stay behind me and don't even think of touching him ok?" 

Smiling evilly Don nodded. He wouldn't touch the bastard, but he knew that the rest of the team was not going to treat Frankie with kid gloves. 

"NYPD, open up!" Kaile's voice rang through the empty corridor, but even as Don tensed and waited for some noise, something, anything, all they got was complete silence. Sharing a look with Don, Kaile nodded at one of the officer and indicated that he should break the door. 

It took three attempts and every second seemed to last an hour in Don's opinion but finally the door yielded with a loud smash and immediately he followed Kaile. The silence of the apartment scared him and he had to reign in the urge to walk past Kaile and search for Stella. 

"Detectives..." The officer's voice held shock and fear and the emotions made Don tense even more. He exchanged a look with Kaile and followed the voice only to freeze in the door at the sight of Stella lying in a pool of blood next to Frankie. 

--- 

Mac walked into the apartment and immediately smelled the scent of gunpowder and blood. It made him walk faster while at the same time some voice inside his head screamed at him to stop and not go any further. If he didn't see what happened, then it hadn't happened, had it? 

It was a child's reaction to a traumatic event and Mac silently scolded himself for the coward's reaction. He turned around the corner and saw Stella lying on the floor, saw Don rush towards her and immediately reached out to stop him. "Don't disturb the evidence." 

Don stared at him shocked and almost growled. "This isn't evidence, it's Stella." 

Mac felt the accusation like a blow to his stomach, but before he could reply anything, he felt a gentle hand on his back and looking up his eyes met Danny's. "The paramedics are here." 

He let go of Don and watched as Don immediately moved only to be held back by Nick. Nick who didn't say a word, just looked at Don and Mac could see that in the one look, Nick said enough to calm Don down. With a shiver Mac turned towards Stella's motionless body and deep inside himself he felt a cold beginning to spread. She was too pale, to still and instinctively he searched for Danny. He didn't care that they were a secret, didn't care that Danny and he were not supposed to hold hands, he needed to touch his lover right now, needed to know that despite the darkness he felt around him, there was still something good in his life. 

"She's alive." The paramedic's words slowly cleared the fog that had started to could Mac's mind and suddenly he was aware of how silent the room had become, how every person had almost frozen until the verdict had come in. Stella was alive. The relief Mac felt, made his knees buckle for a second and once again, he felt Danny's hand on his back stabilizing him, giving him strength. He spared a second the silently thank his partner, before he looked at the paramedic. "What's her condition?"  

The paramedic shrugged and looked a bit helpless. "She has lost a lot of blood from her head wound, but it's a shallow wound at least from what I can see and there's intensive bruising at her neck. I think he tried to strangle her." 

The words made Mac shiver, but at the same time brought his attention back to the room and the crime scene. He looked around and saw the two bloody footprints that led to the door. He frowned and followed the path with his eyes when Nick suddenly called him over. "Mac, you have to see this." 

Following Nick's voice he walked through the corridor and opened the bathroom door. For a second he felt as if he had stepped into a horror movie. There was blood everywhere, but what shocked him even more was the person in the bath tub. It was Frankie, Stella's boyfriend and he was dead. Shot three times from what Mac could see and with a sickening feeling Mac exchanged a look with Nick. 

The shock he felt was mirrored in Nick's eyes coupled with the knowledge that with the discovery of her boyfriend shot dead, Stella had just become a murder suspect. 

--- 

The first thing Stella noticed was the pain and for a long time there was nothing else. It was like a dark veil surrounding her, muting all sounds and all other feelings. She couldn't even say where the pain originated from, couldn't pinpoint the source, the reason. 

It frightened her and with a groan she tried to open her eyes, tried to move only to feel that her body was restrained by something. Panic set in immediately and she tried to get free from whoever was holding her. Stella had no idea who was holding her down, but she knew instinctively that she was in danger, knew that she had to fight for her life. She tried to scream, when a hand touched her arm and a soft voice spoke to her. 

"Shh, it's ok, you're safe. It's ok Stella." 

Stella knew the voice and it calmed her that she wasn't alone. Slowly she stopped moving, listened to the gentle words spoken in that familiar soothing voice. In the back of her mind she searched for a face to go with the voice, but her mind was clouded by the pain and the lure of the darkness was strong, the lure of forgetting, of just giving into the nothing that beckoned her. And yet there was that voice again. 

"We're all here for you. You're not alone, Stella, you're safe." Safe... the word trickled through the sea of pain and she nodded in the darkness.  

"Safe..." She wasn't aware that she had spoken until a hand gently moved over her face. The lure of the darkness was stronger now than before but the voice pulled her back from it once again. "Yes, Stella, you're safe. Nothing will happen to you, I'm here now." 

Again the caress and the voice made her feel secure and with a sigh she wanted to open her eyes, wanted to see who was caring so much for her. She knew the person that she was sure of, but her mind was clouded by the pain and even as she fought against the darkness, she could feel herself loosing. It was so alluring just to give in and float away. 

--- 

Nick was sitting at Stella's bed and watched over her sleeping body when the realization hit him, that this was how his own team had watched over him after he had been found. He wasn't sure why he knew or how because he had no clear memories of the first couple of days in the hospital, but he was sure that in the first hours, he had never been alone. 

Now, sitting next to Stella, waiting for her to wake up, he had flashes of voices of people talking to him and pleading with him to wake up. Nick shivered and pushed the memories aside as he noticed how Stella suddenly moved. He saw the frown that marred her face and carefully touched her hair, caressed her gently while he spoke to her. 

"It's ok, Stella, you're safe." He felt her tense, before she opened her eyes and sighing with relief, Nick looked at her. "Hey, welcome back." 

She smiled at his words before she frowned and blinked. "Where am I?" 

Knowing how frightening it was to wake up in a strange place with no real recollection as to what had happened, Nick kept the light touches going while he smiled at her. "You're at the hospital." 

It took a second for her to digest that and Nick could almost see how her mind tried together the pieces of what had happened. He ached for her. Nick remembered only too well how it was to hover between this line of reality and dream an how surreal everything seemed in the first moment. Most of all though, he knew how crushing the moment was when everything came back and the memory of the past events returned. He waited for the recognition in her eyes, but all he saw was confusion. "Why am I at the hospital?" 

Dread slowly rose in Nick's gut at the question, but he pushed it down as he explained gently. "You were injured on a case, Stella, do you remember?" 

Her eyes searched him and Nick saw the fear in them even as she slowly shook her head. "No, I don't remember anything." 

--- 

*Washington DC* 

"What? Damn it Mac, you don't get a break, do you?" Gibbs cursed lightly as he saw how Tony's head snapped up at his words. His partner looked at him with fear in his eyes, but Gibbs shook his head indicating that he would explain later. Tony simply nodded and turned back to the book he had been browsing in. It had been a quiet evening for them when out of the blue Mac had called and told him about Stella. 

Gibbs listened to Mac's explanations, but he heard more than just the words Mac spoke. He knew Mac better than most, because in many ways Mac ticked like him and Gibbs understood that Mac was both terrified and angry that someone had dared to threaten a person he considered his family. 

"She's a suspect, can you believe it?" There was so much outrage behind the words that Gibbs sighed and cautiously tried to reason with his friend. "Mac, you're a CSI, you know that she is a suspect, she has to be after all that happened." 

Mac was silent on the other end of the phone and Gibbs sighed. "You're team is the best unit I've ever met, Mac, you'll find the truth." 

"I'm not sure I want to know it." Mac's words were so soft, that Gibbs could barely understand it, but when he did, he swallowed hard. "I understand that Mac, but in the end, the truth is what we search whether we want to know or not." 

It wasn't a very comforting thought and yet it seemed to help Mac at least a bit. "I know, thanks for reminding me though." 

The words ended the phone call and turning around, Gibbs felt Tony's eyes rest on him again. "What's going on in New York?" 

He explained what Mac had told him and he could immediately see how Tony paled. Stella had been one of the investigators responsible for clearing Tony of the murder charges and Gibbs knew that his lover still felt deeply grateful for her help. "How is she?" 

"Mac said that she's not remembering anything. She had a concussion and is severely bruised, but there are no further injuries." Gibbs knew what Tony wanted to know and sighing deeply, he shook his head. "She wasn't sexually assaulted or at least Mac didn't say anything about it." 

"And now she's a suspect." Tony's voice was full of memories and Gibbs immediately reached out to soothe his partner. Tony leaned against him and looked up with a smile. "Thanks, Jethro." 

"They'll find the truth." Gibbs heard himself say and he saw how Tony sighed. "I know, but it doesn't make the wait easier for Stella." 

Gibbs nodded and wondered if there was anything he could do to help his friends in NY, but as if Tony had read his mind, he shook his head. "We're stuck here, Jethro, we can't do anything." 

Unfortunately Tony was right with his assessment; they were stuck with their own case and the paperwork. Pulling Tony closer to him, Gibbs sighed. "Mac said that we should come and visit them after the holidays, I think that might be a great idea." 

Tony nodded and turned around with a slight twinkling in his eyes. "And don't forget about the road trip to Vegas, we promised Grissom that we'd join Nick." 

Groaning Gibbs remembered the conversation he'd had with Grissom on that subject, he wasn't a fan of big group holidays and yet. "Who's going?" 

"Mac, Danny, Nick and Don and us." Gibbs knew that Tony could see his mental cringe and promptly Tony laughed. "Come on, it will be great, you and Mac can be the grown up adults with Grissom while Nick, Don and I go out." 

Sudden possessiveness gripped Gibbs and looked at his lover intently. "You won't go anywhere without me." 

Tony's eyes grew soft as he reached up and caressed Gibbs' face. "You know that I won't." 

And it was the truth, Gibbs thought not without surprise. He knew without a doubt that Tony was his and that even should he go out with Nick or Don, he would always return to Gibbs. He smiled and pulled Tony's head towards his for a soft kiss. "Yes, I know." 

--- 

*New York* 

"Am I a murderer?" Stella's question made Mac stiffen and close his eyes for a moment before he calmed himself and turned towards her. The fear and confusion in her eyes made him want to cry, but instead he sat down next to her bed and took one of her hands. 

"No, Stella, you're not." His words were honest and came straight from the heart, but they weren't supported by evidence and as Stella looked at him, Mac knew that she knew too. "But if it weren't me, you'd think I'm a killer." 

Shaking his head, Mac looked down for a moment, before their eyes met again. "Stella, we know that Frankie killed Lydia Epsom-Manner and from what the evidence tells us so far, he tried to kill you. You might have killed him, but I don't think it was a murder." 

Her face was still paler than normal and her eyes were incredibly dark against the paleness of her complexion as she swallowed hard. "But you don't have any evidence and I don't remember." 

"You will remember, Stella, just give yourself time and Nick and Danny are working as hard as they can to find the truth." A knock at the door made him look up and he smiled as he saw Elliot Stabler stand in the door. He wanted to greet the other man, when Stabler's eyes fell onto the bed and Mac saw how he tensed as he noticed that Mac was still holding Stella's hand. 

"Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb." Stabler's voice was clipped and before either Mac or Stella could say anything, he turned and left the room again. Mac's eyes followed him before he looked at Stella and saw the obvious disappointment in her eyes. Smiling a bit at the thought of playing match maker, he pressed her hand quickly. 

"Idiot." Her eyes flared a bit, but before she could say anything, Mac leaned down and kissed her forehead. "I'll run and bring him back, ok?" 

Stella blushed a bit. "You don't have to..." 

Mac interrupted her immediately. "Yes, I have to, because if I don't talk to him right now, the entire NYPD will think that we're an item and I don't think Danny would like that." 

She smiled faintly and clutched his hand again. "Thanks Mac, thanks for being a friend." 

Mac swallowed hard and gently brushed a lock from her face. "We'll find the truth, Stella, I promise you." 

She nodded slowly and he could feel her eyes on him as he left the room and quickly followed into the same direction that Stabler had taken. If he was lucky, he'd catch Stabler before he left the hospital, else he would have to drive to the SVU's offices. 

"Stabler." Calling the other man's name, Mac walked faster until he was next to Stabler who turned towards him with cold eyes "What do you want?" 

Sighing at the words and the hard voice, Mac shook his head and steered Stabler towards the cafeteria. "Look, why don't we sit down?" 

Once they had a coffee, Stabler leaned back and looked at Mac with cold eyes. "What's this about, Taylor? You want to warn me off Stella? Don't worry, I got the message!" 

For a moment, Mac debated with himself, before thinking of what Don had told him about Elliot Stabler and after a second he made his decision. "Elliot, I'm not interested in Stella. I know that what you saw looked as if we were more than friends, but I promise you we're not." 

Stabler remained silent and Mac smiled lightly. "Stella is a good friend of mine, and I want to see her happy. She's just had one of the worst experiences that anyone can have and I was there for her as a friend nothing more." 

Looking down, Stabler shook his head. "You don't have to explain anything, it's not like I have..." 

He trailed off when Mac put a hand over his and Mac could see the surprise in Stabler's eyes at the gesture. "You have a right, Elliot, cause I know that you care about her and I know that she cares about you." 

--- 

"You have a right, Elliot, cause I know that you care about her and I know that she cares about you." 

Taylor's words made Elliot tense and he shivered. When had he become so transparent, but more important why did Taylor bother with this. Elliot felt confused and out of his depth and he reacted in the only way he knew, with anger. "What the fuck are you talking about?" 

Taylor smiled gently and looked away for a moment, before he met Elliot's eyes straight on. "I'm talking about the fact that Stella needs all our help right now to survive and that I count on you to support her and to be there for her." 

The sincerity behind the words hit Elliot like a punch in the gut and suddenly he saw the fear and exhaustion in Taylor's eyes and he knew that the other man had not slept since Nick had found out the truth about Stella's boyfriend. But he also saw only concern and friendship in the blue eyes and no deeper feelings; still he had to be sure. "So you're not in love with her." 

Only as he spoke the words, did he realize how private the question was and immediately felt bad about asking. "Sorry, it's not my business." 

Taylor smiled almost wistfully as he looked into his coffee. "No, it's not your business, but I'll tell you anyway. I'm not in love with her. Stella is like a sister to me nothing more and nothing less." 

Their eyes met and Elliot could read the warning in Taylor's eyes. He knew that in his way, Taylor had just given him his approval, but at the same time he had implicitly warned him against hurting Stella, and Elliot couldn't help admiring the other man for the way he had handled the conversation. 

"I think, I'll go and see her then."  

He got up, while Taylor remained where he was and as Elliot turned around to wave good-bye, he saw that Taylor looked at his phone. For a moment, he frowned, and then suddenly a true and bright smile crossed Taylor's face. It was an expression that Elliot had never seen on Taylor and it made him wonder, who had sent the message. 

Taylor and the message occupied his thoughts until he reached the floor where Stella's room was, but as soon as he stood outside the room and looked at the closed door, all thoughts about Taylor vanished and he could feel himself tense. 

Right behind that door was the woman who had stolen his heart, the woman who had almost been killed by a madman and the realization that he could have lost her so easily made him swallow hard. Elliot knocked and when Stella answered, he suddenly noticed that he was shaking and sternly told himself to get a hold on himself. He had an image to preserve after all. 

--- 

Nick was bent over some trace evidence when Don walked into the room and sighed. Danny had called him and told him to get Nick out of the lab before he collapsed, but seeing the intensity that exuded from Nick, Don knew that he would have to find good arguments to persuade Nick to go home. 

"Hey there." Nick looked up startled and Don sighed as he noticed the dark circles under Nick's eyes. Quickly looking around the lab, he stepped closer to his partner and gently put a hand on his shoulder. "You look exhausted." 

Nick jerked away from his grip and Don sighed mentally at the frown that marred his partner's face. "I have to finish this analysis."  

Nick's eyes challenged Don to contradict him and bracing himself for a fight, Don shook his head. "Nick, you have been up for almost 48 hours, you need to go home and sleep. We both need to go home and sleep." 

Nick shrugged coldly. "I'm not holding you back, am I?" 

He had expected the answer, but hadn't expected it to hurt so much and for a moment, Don wanted to leave and let Nick continue, but he saw how Nick's hands trembled slightly as he reached for the evidence and making a quick decision pulled Nick towards him. "You need sleep, Nick, if you stay here, you'll just gonna screw up." 

Don had not wanted to sound so harsh, but Nick's words had hurt him and some part of him wanted to hurt Nick back. Nick twisted away from him and glared at him. "I can do my job, ok? Don't tell me what I can do and what I can't." 

Shaking his head, Don reached out once more to calm Nick down, but Nick simply moved away. Hurt made Don's throat tighten and he wanted to say something, when suddenly Mac's voice came from the door. "Nick, go home and sleep, ok?" 

Nick looked between Mac and Don and shook his head in anger. "What's going on with you? Don't you care about Stella?" 

It wasn't so much the words that made Don pale as the obvious contempt in Nick's eyes as his lover looked at him. It hurt that Nick would look at him like this and shaking his head sadly, Don turned around. "I'll see you." 

--- 

It was only when Don walked away, that Nick realized what he had just done and mortified at his behavior, he shot Mac an apologetic look and followed Don. "Don?" 

His partner stopped, but didn't turn around and Nick knew that he had hurt Don. Quickly he walked up next to Don and gently took Don's hand. "Sorry, I didn't want to hurt you. I'm just frustrated and..." 

He trailed off, when Don simply put a finger on his lips. There was so much love in Don's eyes, and yet so much pain. Nick wanted to cry out as he saw how deeply he had hurt Don with his careless words. Still Don smiled lightly and accepted his apology. "I know Nick. It's ok. Just let's go home and sleep ok?" 

There was still pain in Don's voice, but Nick was only too aware that they were still in the lab and so he followed Don without saying anything. He wanted to slap himself for hurting his partner, and watching Don silently as they drove home, he promised himself that he would make sure that Don knew he loved him before they fell asleep tonight. 

--- 

Lindsay looked at the crime scene model that she had generated on the computer. She had taken all the data from Stella's flat plus all the things she knew from the analysis that Nick had run and had fed it into the program. 

The outcome was a possible way of how everything had gone down. She swallowed hard as the scene unfolded in front of her and more than once she wanted to look away, wanted to avoid seeing how Stella had suffered and how she had almost died at the hands of the man she had loved. 

"Bastard." Her words were full of hate and she didn't expect any reaction to them. She was alone in the lab, it was late and so she jumped when a voice behind her agreed. "Stupid bastard." 

The grumpy voice made her smile despite the grave situation and she turned around. "Sid, what are you still doing here?" 

Sid was still wearing his usual ME outfit and he held a sheet in his hands. "I thought I'd deliver this personally to Mac, after all I rarely get to enjoy an autopsy as much as I did this one."  

Lindsay had never really heard that tone in Sid's voice and it made her shiver. The ME was not someone she wanted as an enemy, she decided.  

"What did you find?" She moved her chair so that Sid could sit down next to her and together they watched the model again. Lindsay saw how Sid winced as the computer-generated figure was slapped and he looked at her. "It's different when it's someone you know, isn't it?" 

She nodded, but didn't comment until the model had run through. Sid looked at her and then back at the computer. "How accurate is this?" 

She smiled a bit and shrugged. "As accurate as any recreation of events are, but it's based on evidence and those facts are facts. As soon as Stella remembers what happened, we'll compare her story to the model and can fill in the last few gaps." 

Sid nodded, and gently patted her shoulder. "You know, when you joined us, I had my doubts. But, you're great girl." 

The unexpected compliment made her swallow hard, it wasn't that she felt unwelcome in the group, but she knew that Danny, Don, Mac, Stella and Nick had a special bond and more than once she had felt like an outsider. Sid's words soothed an ache that she never really acknowledged and she smiled at him, "Thanks."  

He grinned back and got up. "And now, you go home and sleep. Cause you know I don't want you on my table." 

Shaking her head with a smile, Lindsay shut the computer down and grabbed her coat. Sid waited for her at the door and together they walked towards the elevator. It was only then that Sid looked at her again. 

"I'm not a cop, but is she going to get in trouble for shooting him?" Lindsay wondered if Sid was a mind reader, because she had asked herself the same question. Shrugging, she looked at him and shook her head. 

"I don't think so, but I can't say for sure." His face was concerned and instinctively she reached out and clasped his shoulder. "Don't worry too much, Sid, everything will work out.  

She wasn't sure why she said it, but what she had seen and what she knew of Stella made her certain even though the evidence wasn't there yet. "Stella will be fine. It was self defense." 

---- 

Nick held Don close. He was dead tired, but he couldn't sleep. 

When they had come home, they had gone straight to bed. The knowledge that he had hurt his lover still weighed hard on Nick. He hadn't thought when he had spoken, had been so deep in his work that he had just not thought... 

Damn you, he thought.  

Don was sleeping, he knew, because he had been watching his partner for the last hour. It seemed to Nick that even in sleep, Don looked sad and whether it was true or just an imagination of his guilty conscience, it pained Nick to see Don like this. 

"I never wanted to hurt you." The whispered words sounded ridiculously loud in the silence of their bedroom and Nick instinctively moved closer to Don. "I love you so much." 

It was the truth, the god's honest truth, Nick thought. He had never loved anyone the way he loved Don. It wasn't just passion and love; it was more than that. It was a deep sense of belonging; it was... 

Strong arms moved around him and Nick let himself be pulled towards Don's warm body. The closeness was soothing like a balm and as he looked at his partner, he saw that Don's eyes were open. Carefully he reached out and caressed Don's face. "I'm sorry." 

A smile ghosted over Don's face and he captured Nick's hand, kissed the fingers gently and pulled Nick even closer. "I know, you didn't mean it. And yes, it hurt, but it's ok." 

Nick swallowed and shook his head. "No it's not, I hurt you and I am sorry." 

For a moment, Don was silent before he looked at Nick with a smile. "Well, you know what? You can invite me for a nice dinner to make up for it." 

The words brought a smile to Nick's face and as he looked in Don's eyes he saw that they were free of pain and sadness and a knot unraveled in his chest. Pressing his face close to Don's chest, Nick inhaled deeply and kissed Don's neck. "I love you." 

Don lifted Nick's face and kissed him lightly. "I love you too." 

Nick shifted a bit so that he was still in Don's arms, but didn't crowd his partner too much and entwined as they were he fell asleep. 

--- 

Stella woke with a scream. For a moment she was confused where she was, but before panic could set in, she felt soft hands on her face and a soft voice told her that everything was ok. It was the same voice that had comforted her before and with a sigh she relaxed again. 

"You're safe." She sighed and shook her head before she opened her eyes and smiled at Elliot. "I know." 

He seemed surprised to see her awake and for a second she expected him to leave. The thought sent a tendril of fear through her and instinctively she reached out for him. "Stay, please." 

Elliot looked surprised, but he sat down and gently grasped her hand. "I don't want to disturb you." 

Shaking her head, Stella looked at him. "You don't, you really don't." 

Feeling tired again, she closed her eyes but continued to speak. "I remember you, you were here before. I felt safe." 

He pressed her hand and she could hear him swallow hard before he spoke again. "You are safe, Stella, you made it out." 

Something in his voice made Stella tense, but before he should ask, memories assaulted her and she cried out as images and feelings suddenly overwhelmed her. She saw herself fighting against Frankie, heard his laughter and felt the pain as he slapped her. His hands held her down and no matter how much she struggled against him; he was stronger than she was. She'd screamed and pleaded with him but in his eyes she'd seen her own death. 

"Stella, look at me. Listen to me, it's ok, it's over." Elliot's voice penetrated the images and slowly she realized that it was him who tried to calm her and restrain her. She stopped moving and looked at him. He was pale, but despite the concern she saw in his eyes, his voice was firm. "You're safe. It's ok, you fought and you won." 

The truth of his words made her calm down and she swallowed hard. "Yes, I did." 

Slowly he released her hands and looked at her critically. "You remembered, didn't you?" 

The images were still close and with a shiver Stella pushed them aside, but at his question she nodded. "Yes, I remember. I killed him." 

--- 

*Chapter 15 – Healing* 

*New York* 

Stella took a deep breath. It was a clear, crisp winter day and the air was fresh and cold. After the week she had spent in the hospital, the fresh air felt like heaven and for a moment, she just stood in the middle of the deserted path. Central Park seemed empty and for the first time since she had remembered what had happened to her, Stella felt calm. Here in the middle of the city she loved and protected, here in the calm center of New York, she found her own center and it made her feel good for the first time in over a week. Then her thoughts turned to the hearing to be held that afternoon and a shiver ran through her. 

"I'm afraid." Her words seemed to evaporate in the cold air. She watched as two squirrels raced over the snow-covered plain and wished she could just run away from the questions and inquiries. 

"You don't have to be afraid." The gently voice next to her drew her from her thoughts and she looked at the man next to her. Ducky's eyes were honest and open as he smiled. "You did what you had to do and everyone knows that." 

The steadfast conviction in his voice made her swallow hard and she shivered. He gently put a hand on her shoulder. "Your team has all that they need to clear you. There is nothing you could have done, Stella." 

It was the truth and yet, she had killed a man. The thought made her tense. "I killed him." 

Ducky nodded slowly. "Yes, you did." 

The simply words made her swallow, but before she could say anything, he continued gently. "And if you hadn't killed him, he would have killed you. You fought and you survived. He didn't. It's not your fault that he died. Don't let anyone tell you that it is." 

Again he spoke with such a conviction, that Stella couldn't help but believe him and impulsively, she turned around and hugged him tight. "Thanks Ducky."  

He looked a bit surprised, but the fond smile never wavered. "What are you thanking me for, Stella?" 

His voice was gentle, his English so correct that it made her feel like smiling again and as they slowly continued to walk along the windy path, she looked him once more. 

"For coming up from Washington, for being here for me, for never asking anything from me, for everything, I guess." Ducky smiled at her words and didn't respond for a long time. Stella had gotten used to the moments of silence as much as she had gotten used to the long-winded explanations and tales in the past few days. Ducky always seemed to know when she needed silence and when she needed to talk. 

He had appeared at Lindsay's door four days ago. Stella had opened the door and he had simply looked at her and shaken his head. "My dear, you look like you need some real English tea." 

She had not known what to say, and without any fuss he had made some tea and then had sat down with her and simply looked at her. "Did you know that the first person to bring tea to England was..." 

Looking back, Stella realized that Ducky had never ever requested anything from her, he had simply been there in a way that none of her friends could have been. She told him so and Ducky nodded slowly. "They are too close, they are too involved. I'm older and as much as I like you, I'm not as close as Nick or Mac is." 

He was right, but it was something else too. "You know, you're everything I always wished in a father." 

Ducky stopped as if she had hit him and for a moment Stella wondered whether she had made a mistake, but when her eyes met his, she saw nothing but joy in his eyes. He smiled and gently patted her cheek. "I would be honored to be your honorary father, Stella." 

Swallowing the tears down, Stella hugged Ducky once more. She was healing, she thought, as they continued the walk through the park. She had endured a horrible ordeal, but she was healing. She had friends that supported her and counted on her and now it seemed as if she had found a family too. 

--- 

Mac walked out of the hearing smiling and the rest of his team immediately surrounded him. He could see the concern in their faces, and with one word he dispelled any tension. "Cleared." 

There was an almost collective gasp of relief. Walking back to his office Mac briefed the team about Stella's hearing. "She testified about what happened, and honestly, they didn't press her too hard. It was good that I could lay out the evidence first, this way they had no reason to question her testimony." 

Once they had all reached Mac's office, he sighed and shook his head. "Stella will be out for another three days, but she wants to come back on Monday. So, just don't make a fuss about her, just treat her as always." 

He wasn't sure yet whether he would be able to do so, whether he would ever be able to forget how she had been lying on the floor with blood pooling around her head, but just like the others he would have to make the effort for Stella. 

"We'll be as normal as possible." Sheldon's words were calm, but Mac saw that there was a smile on Sheldon's face and with a sigh, he grinned back. "I'm just saying don't coddle her, ok?" 

Now they all laughed. "Mac, you're the mother hen, not us." 

Glaring at his team, Mac disappeared into the office and sank down into his chair. It hadn't been easy, he thought wearily, hadn't been easy to talk about the terrible findings in Stella's flat in a detached manner. He had wanted to scream at the hearing committee to just look at the evidence and look at Stella, but he had managed to remain cool and calm. 

Now though he felt the effect of it and shivered heavily. In the last couple of months, he had almost lost Danny, had lived through Gibbs' horror of having Tony accused of murder and now he had almost lost Stella. He was tired, he thought, and another shiver ran through his body. Tired and burned out. All he wanted was to crawl into bed with Danny and sleep, but looking at the stack of papers on his desk, Mac knew that it would be late before he could even think of going home tonight. 

"Mac?" He hadn't heard Danny enter and startled, he looked at the younger man who stood right next to him. Danny's eyes were concerned as he looked at Mac and Mac immediately felt love rush through him. Throughout the ordeal with Stella, Danny had been there right next to him. His lover had never pushed him away and had endured Mac's moods and grumpiness. Slowly Mac got up and closed the blinds on the glass walls of his office.  

Turning towards Danny, he pulled his partner into his arms and held him close. "I love you." 

Surprise and love shone in Danny's eyes as he leaned against Mac and Mac sighed blissfully. "You're always there for me, aren't you?" 

It was something that the past few days and weeks had shown him; Danny was his partner in everything, stood by him and supported him while at the same time accepting Mac's help if he needed it. Danny smiled at Mac's words and gently caressed Mac's face. 

"Of course, I am, Mac. I love you." 

Sighing again, Mac looked at the stack of papers on his desk, before he turned away from Danny and put the papers in his drawer. He didn't want to work tonight, and as his eyes met Danny's he almost smiled at the approval he saw in his partner's eyes. 

"I need you tonight." Something in the way Danny said it, made Mac tense and look closer at his lover. Danny was tired too, Mac suddenly realized, tired and exhausted and he was right. They needed each other tonight. 

"You'll have me." It was a promise. 

--- 

Nick and Don were snuggled on the couch. Stella watched them with a fond smile and felt herself relax at the peaceful image they presented. 

She hadn't wanted to stay with the couple, had insisted that she could very well live in a hotel room or stay at Lindsay's until she had found a new apartment, but Nick had been insistent. 

"Let us spoil you for once, Stella, we almost lost you." Nick's words had persuaded her in the end. Before she had felt selfish to impose herself on Don and Nick, but after Nick's plea, she had understood that Nick wanted her to stay for his own peace of mind too.  

"You look good together." Nick smiled lazily at her comment while Don simply pulled Nick closer to him and grinned. "Feels good too." 

She didn't doubt it, but unlike with other couples seeing Don and Nick together didn't make her feel envious. Maybe it was because she knew what they had gone through together, or maybe she simply wanted them to be happy. 

"I have an appointment tomorrow to look at another apartment." This time Nick frowned at her. "You don't have to hurry, you can stay here as long as you want." 

He meant it, Stella knew that, but she wanted her own space again and with a smile she shook her head. "I know, but I want to host my famous Christmas party at my own place and that means that I need a flat fast." 

For moment Nick simply looked at her, then he smiled. "Can't wait for your party." 

Neither could she Stella realized, and with a deep sigh she took her wine glass and leaned back in her comfortable chair. A new year, she thought, soon there would be a new year and what better time was there to start a new life? 

--- 

She had almost died. The knowledge that he could have lost Stella to a madman was something that hit Elliot from time to time out of the blue and in those moments, he felt like throwing up. 

He hadn't seen her since the day her memory had come back in the hospital. He hadn't dared. 

She wasn't ready for his emotions and if Elliot was honest, then neither was he. Elliot was aware that he had only just begun to adjust to single life and he hadn't expected to fall in love again so fast. The fact that he had fallen both scared and relieved him. Still, he decided, he would be a friend to Stella no matter what, and should more come out of it he would be ready. 

--- 

The End