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Title: Stalker
By: nancy
Pairing: Tony/Gibbs
Fandom: NCIS
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Just as Tony and Gibbs come to a new level in their relationship, disaster strikes.


Tony collapsed face first on the bed, groaning. Jethro grinned as he took in the sight, then shrugged out of his shirt and tossed it in the hamper. As Jethro unzipped his pants, Tony turned over and glared at him. Assuming an innocent expression, Jethro asked, "What?"

"That. Sucked." Tony stated, still glaring.

Unable to resist, Jethro corrected, "No, that stunk. Are you sure you got everything off in the shower earlier? Because I'm pretty sure I can still smell that dumpster you went diving into."

"Fuck you, Gibbs."

But Tony was trying not to grin as he said it, so Jethro knew the younger man wasn't really ticked. Not that he was complaining, but it seemed like Tony had complete control of his facial expressions except around him. Stepping out of his pants, he picked them up and tossed them in the hamper as well. Naked except for his boxers, Jethro crossed the distance to the bed and climbed on, straddling Tony in one move. Jethro rested his hands on Tony's stomach and said, "You did good today."

Tony shrugged, obviously pleased, but just as obviously trying to downplay the emotion. "I did okay. But thanks."

Grinning again, Jethro slid his hands under Tony's shirt and said, "I think that such good work deserves a reward."

"I keep asking for a raise, but my boss is a skinflint," Tony teased, smirking.

For that, Jethro pinched a nipple. Tony gasped, instantly arching against him. One of the things that Jethro loved so much about Tony was his responses.

"Jethro!" Tony gasped, swallowing heavily.

Licking his lips in anticipation, Jethro pulled his hands free and lay full length on his lover, stretching his arms above Tony's head. This close, all Jethro really saw was the stubble on Tony's chin and he slid his tongue over the rough scrape of it, moving down to the hollow just underneath and sucking there lightly.

Tony's arms rose, twining with his, and his legs moved apart, offering Jethro full rein. Smiling again his throat, Jethro nibbled there as his hips undulated his hard cock against Tony, the fabric of his pants confining the other man's cock. Rocking slow and easy against him, Jethro decided to get them off just like this. He shifted up again and captured Tony's mouth in a long, wet kiss, thrusting his tongue lazily into his lover's open mouth.

Groaning, Tony's leg hooked over Jethro's hip, urging him to go faster while their tongues swirled together. Jethro could feel it approaching for them both in the tightening of his balls and the way Tony's head fell back, breaking the kiss as he arched against Jethro.

"Oh God, Jethro, please, yeah, oh yeah, right like that oh please..."

Jethro moaned as his cock emptied just after Tony orgasmed, the other man gasping silently as he came. Panting, Jethro didn't move for a few minutes, letting himself recover slowly, nuzzling at Tony's throat again.

Sighing deeply, Tony's arms moved down to surround him and hold him tight. "I know it doesn't usually count after coming, but I love you, Jethro."

Jethro's breath hitched at the admission and he pushed up on his elbows, staring into Tony's eyes to determine the truth of it. Love. People bandied it around a lot and, given his track record, it was stupid to think he could ever really be part of the real thing, but... "I love you."

Eyes widening, Tony asked, almost cautiously, "Are you saying that because it's true, or because you think I want to hear it? Because I'm a big boy, Jethro. You don't have to say it back just because..."

Jethro shut him up with a kiss and then was rolled so the Tony was on top. He laughed, a little breathlessly, forgetting how strong his lover was. Cupping the other man's face, he repeated, "I love you."

Smiling brilliantly, Tony kissed him back and then said, "Good."

"Good? That's it?"

"Yeah. Good."

Jethro snorted at the mischievous look in Tony's eyes and kissed him again. "Get undressed and let's get some sleep."

With a nod, Tony rolled off of him and peeled out of his clothes in record time. Jethro squirmed out of his own boxers and tugged the covers down. He just got settled when Tony jumped on the bed and pushed him out of place. "What?"

"I get to hold you tonight."


"C'mon, Jethro, you held me last night. Fair's fair."

"God, you're a pain in the ass."

Tony smirked. "Not yet. Working on it."

Laughing outright, Jethro gave in and settled chest to chest with Tony. He sighed deeply, relaxing when one of Tony's arms went around him and warm lips pressed to his head. "Night, Tony."

"Mmm. Night, Jethro."

As he drifted into sleep, Jethro counted his blessings that had led the younger man first into his bed, and then into his heart. He knew that he'd be a lesser man without Tony's influence.

* * * *

Tony woke slowly, something warm and wet moving up and down his cock. He groaned in pleasure and then gasped in the same when a slick finger pushed inside him and started moving.

God he loved waking up in Jethro's bed.

Even though they'd been lovers for a few months, they'd only recently gotten around to penetration, thanks to Tony's decided lack of experience. Jethro had claimed to love going slow and doing everything, but it had still embarrassed Tony. Especially now that he knew how fucking incredible it could be.

Two fingers pushing into his hole grabbed his wandering attention and his legs splayed apart of their own volition. "Fuck, Jethro, yes!"

A warm chuckle vibrated over his cock and Tony arched into the sensation, unable not to do so. Everything still felt so new, despite the fact that he'd had plenty of blowjobs over the years. Probably because it hadn't been Jethro doing it, he thought with an insanely goofy grin.

The fingers stretched him slowly, probing and loosening him. He moaned in disappointment when Jethro's mouth left his cock, but that incredibly talented mouth kissed its way up his torso, lingering on his nipples. A moment later, the head of Jethro's cock breached him and he gasped in a mix of pleasure and pain as it invaded him completely. There was still a few minutes needed to get used to his lover's cock inside before the stinging stretch faded to an acceptable level and Jethro waited for him every time.

Pushing onto his elbows, Tony whispered, "Kiss me."

Jethro smiled up and him and complied, relinquishing the nipple for Tony's mouth. The kiss was so gentle and whole-hearted that there was no way that he could doubt the previous night's declarations. He broke off the kiss only to order, "Move, Jethro."

Another soft laugh and, "Bossy bottom," before Jethro began the push-pull motions that never failed to consume Tony.

The kissing resumed, sloppier and harder to go with the increasing force of Jethro's cock inside him. Tony fell back against the mattress, his arms going around his lover's back and clawing at him for more, since his mouth was too full to order it. Jethro complied, as always, and the slap of his balls against Tony's ass became audible. The friction was incredible, Jethro's stomach trapping and rubbing against his cock, and then came the magic moment when lightening exploded and he cried out, losing the kiss.

Tony's feet dug into the mattress, forcing his body to meet Jethro's thrusts into his body for more. His balls were tightening and the panting involuntary as he strained to get closer to Jethro, his nails digging into the bare skin. Jethro's mouth bit and sucked at his throat and chest, stinging accompaniments to the loving torture sending him out of his mind. He was completely unaware of the litany falling from his mouth of, "Oh God, oh God, Oh God..."

And then he couldn't stop himself from going over the edge at a particularly hard thrust from Jethro that struck gold again. Tony shouted, coming hard between them, and jerked against Jethro without thought. His ass clenched down hard on the shaft inside and provoked an identical shout of release from his lover, who humped hard against him as he spilled into Tony, sans condom.

Panting, Tony clung silently to Jethro, not wanting to lose the connection as his lover spurted a few more times deep in his body. The older man was limp in his arms now, sweaty and breathing hard. It was several minutes before Jethro's cock softened and fell from his body and Tony sighed in disappointment when it happened.

Jethro was sound asleep now, collapsed utterly in Tony's arms and he had to smile at the image. The boyish features were slack with sleep, face pressed to Tony's chest. He had to laugh at himself mentally to think that there was a time when he didn't want this. It had snuck up on him, that was for sure. One day Jethro had been Gibbs and Boss, and the next, he'd been Jethro. He even knew when it had happened, too.

He shivered as he remembered the sight of Jethro shot and bleeding. It was something he never wanted to experience again, though logically he knew that there was a better than average chance of it happening, given their occupation. It had taken a lot to get through Jethro's complete focus on the terrorist who'd escaped, but he'd managed it. It helped that Tony knew when to give Jethro his space and when he actually wanted company, despite words to the contrary.

Kissing Jethro's temple, Tony sighed in contentment and closed his eyes. It was Sunday, so they could sleep in. He had to get back to his apartment later to check mail and take care of things there, not to mention do laundry, which was almost becoming a foreign concept with the amount of time he was spending at Jethro's.

* * * *

"Jethro, come on, I have to go! I have...things...apartment. Mail. Laundry. Mega-piles of laundry are screaming for me."

Ignoring the protest, Jethro held out his hand, his hips moving to the Chicago song playing. "Just one dance to help me relive my misspent youth and you're free of me for at least, oh, twelve hours."

Tony snorted, but gave in, taking his hand. The first few times they'd tried this had been a laughing disaster, both men instinctively trying to lead. So they'd divvied it up into favorite groups and eras. And Jethro groaned mentally at himself that there were 'eras' of music that separated them in age. At least he knew it wasn't a midlife crisis, since he'd had male lovers throughout the years.

Humming as they moved to the easy going rhythm, Jethro spun them around the living room with ease, his hands on Tony's back and ass, respectively. Tony laughed as Jethro moved to dip him and they almost fell over, but didn't try to take control of the dance. Jethro loved that he was so adaptable and kissed him for it, then lost all track of dancing as it turned into a standing up make-out session.

But then the song was over and Tony was pulling away, a firm look in his eyes that told Jethro there was no more delay allowed. Sighing, he released Tony and complained, "I never see you enough."

Tony's jaw didn't actually drop open, but the disbelieving expression was clear enough. "You see me all the time."

"Not like this," Jethro countered, rueful. "I want to see you like this all the time."

Freezing in place, Tony thought about his words then asked, "What are we talking about here? Me moving in?"

Not even realizing that that had been what he was saying, but knowing that it sounded perfect, Jethro nodded. He'd had enough with being on his own. For the last time. "Yeah. I want you with me all the time."

"I about we limit the earth-shattering revelations to one per weekend?" Tony asked, only half-joking.

Jethro didn't want to scare Tony off and easily gave in with, "Sure. Just think about it, okay?"

Clearly troubled, Tony nodded. He smiled a little and observed wryly, "You sure know how to keep the excitement going, Jethro."

Shrugging, Jethro replied, "Something my ex's wouldn't agree with, but I'm glad you think so."

"I do," Tony stated. He leaned in for a quick kiss and said, "I'll see you at work tomorrow. And I will think about it, Jethro. It's just...a little overwhelming, okay?"

Jethro nodded agreement. "I know. Tony?"

Tony stopped at the door and looked back with, "Yeah?"

Not hesitating, Jethro reminded, "I love you."

A brilliant smile spread over Tony's face, along with a flush, and Tony echoed, "I love you. See you tomorrow, Jethro."

Closing the door behind his lover, Jethro sighed and looked around the room. It was so much emptier when Tony wasn't there.

Well. There was always work to do.

* * * *

Immersed in a new computer program that Tony had shown him on Friday morning before the insanity of their last case, Jethro didn't even notice when the time crept past. He was vaguely aware of Kate sitting at her desk talking on the phone, and a growing sense that something was out of place, but nothing stood out until his email alarm called for the nine o'clock meeting.

He looked automatically over at Tony's desk and frowned when he saw it was empty. Standing, he left his office and walked over to Kate's desk.

"And you've rejoined the living," she observed dryly.

Ignoring the comment, Jethro asked, "Where's DiNozzo?"

She shrugged and answered, "Haven't seen him. Why Gibbs, is that a hickey?"

Momentarily diverted, Jethro tugged his shirt back into place and said, "Allergic reaction."

Snorting, Kate replied, "Uh huh."

"He didn't call you?"

"Wasn't my turn to watch him."

Jethro pinned her with a look. "Very funny."

"No, he hasn't called me. He didn't you, either?" Kate questioned.

Jethro shook his head, frowning. "No."

"What about Abby?"

"Why would he call Abby?"

"Just throwing things out there."

Eyes rolling a little, Jethro picked up her phone and dialed Abby's extension.

"Y'allo?" Abby answered.

Jethro shook his head. "I thought we talked about how you were going to answer the phone."

"Damn. I thought you were Kate. Not fair, Gibbs, tricking me like that."

Snorting, Jethro changed the subject with, "Has DiNozzo called you?"

"What, this morning? No. Why?"

"He hasn't checked in or shown up yet," Jethro reported.

There was a pause, then, "That's not like Tony. Even if he's pulled an all-nighter, he always calls."

"I know. Let me know if he does call."

Abby's voice was worried as she answered, "Sure."

"What about your cell?" Kate prompted when he hung up.

Almost hitting himself for not thinking about that, Jethro nodded and pulled it out and saw that it was turned off. Irritated, he said, "I can't believe I forgot to put it on this morning."

Kate smirked a little as she leaned back in her chair. "Oh my God, you're human."

Turning on the phone, ignoring her baiting, he sighed in relief when he saw Tony's cell among the Missed Calls' menu. Grinning a little in relief, Jehtro announced, "He called. Hang on, he left a message."

She nodded and agreed, "See? Nothing to worry about."

Dialing his voicemail, Jethro waited impatiently for the message to come on. Then he paled at Tony's pained shout of, "Jethro! Jethro, help me! Someone's...fuck...get off!" the sound of fists hitting flesh. "Three of them! Son of a bi...white men...masked...fuck! Get off...Jethro!" and then the dial tone.

Instantly worried by Jethro's reaction, Kate stood and leaned over to take the phone from his lax fingers. She brought it to her ear to replay the message.

Fury that someone had taken Tony fought to overwhelm him, but Jethro ruthlessly quashed it down, shoving it tightly into a box to deal with later. He instantly picked up Kate's phone and called Abby.

Kate eyes widened as she heard the message and she breathed, "Oh God!"

"Forensics, Abby speaking."

Meeting Kate's horrified gaze with a hard one of his own, he ordered Abby, "Call the phone company and see if Tony's cell is still in use. If it is, triangulate its position."

"Uh, what?"

"Now Abby."

"Right. Okay. Hang on."

It was a long, tense minute before she answered, "His apartment, he's still there. Gibbs, what's going on?"

"Tony's been kidnapped," Jethro told her. "We'll let you know when we have more information."

Hanging up on her gasp of shock, Jethro dialed the police and informed them of the attack at Tony's apartment and that he was on the way there. When he was done, Jethro took the cell phone back from Kate and the two of them strode from the office.

* * * *

Pain. Lots and lots of pain echoed through most of Tony's body. His head, his chest, his ribs scraped painfully together; even his legs hurt, though he was hoping that didn't mean they were broken. He groaned as he tried to move, only to find that his arms were handcuffed down by his side. He started to panic when he couldn't open his eyes.

"Awake are we, Agent DiNozzo?"

Tony turned blindly towards the man's voice, demanding, "What the fuck is going on!?"

"Take it easy now, we didn't expect you to put up quite such a fuss. If you're worried about your vision, don't. You've simply been blindfolded."

Stupid. Of course he was blindfolded. Though he was pretty sure he could cut himself some slack in that, since he was throbbing in agony most places. A little calmer, he demanded, "What do you want? Why have you kidnapped me?"

"I'm afraid you don't get to know that, Agent DiNozzo. The bait seldom does," the man replied.

Tony struggled against his cuffs, but they were attached to the frame of the cot that he seemed to be lying on. His ankles were bound as well. "Look, what happens when I need to relieve myself?"

"Feel free to let go any time you like, Agent DiNozzo," the man continued pleasantly. "We won't hold it against you."

"You son of a bitch!"

"Now now, no name calling. Enjoy your stay."

A door closed and Tony sagged against the cot for a few moments to try and get the pain under control and take inventory. Broken ribs for sure. Possible concussion and bruised kidneys. Maybe it was just as well he didn't have to relieve himself just then because he was sure it would hurt like a bastard.

Concentrating, Tony listened as hard as he could, trying to figure out where he might be being held. There weren't any obvious noises like the ocean or a train or even heavy traffic. That could mean that the room was really well insulated, or that he was being held in the countryside. Easy enough to do in their area where you only had to go an hour to get in the middle of nowhere.

He sighed, giving that up to check on his restraints. No matter how hard he pulled, which given his condition probably wasn't very hard, there was no give. Not even any hint of giving. Breathing hard, Tony collapsed against the cot again. There was no way that he'd be getting free until someone set him free.

The fear returned at that realization and he thought, C'mon, Jethro, now's a really good time to find me.

* * * *

Finding nothing inside Tony's apartment building or the apartment itself, Jethro and Kate moved outside. They found the cell phone in the alley between the apartment buildings. There were definite signs of a struggle in the knocked over trash cans and spatters of blood on the pavement. Swallowing, Jethro turned to Kate and motioned to the entire alley. "Seal it off."

She nodded and walked towards the cops who were already there in full force.

Kneeling down, Jethro forced himself to calmly take pictures of both the blood and the cell phone, then bagged the phone and tucked it into his pocket. Turning to his case, he pulled out swabs and vials and proceeded to take samples from all the splotches on the cracked pavement.

"Gibbs? The FBI is here," Kate announced from behind.

Surprised, Jethro stood and faced two unfamiliar men, who both held their IDs out for him to view. Looking the older black man in the eyes, taking him to be the one in charge, Jethro asked, "What's the FBI doing here, Agent...?"

"Wills. Agent Mark Wills. And this is a kidnapping," Wills replied, dark eyes calm and his demeanor easygoing.

"It's not your jurisdiction."

"Agent DiNozzo wasn't military, he was a civilian cop, that makes it our jurisdiction."

"He works for NCIS, that puts it into our purview."

"No, it doesn't. That makes you his employer."

Keeping a grip on his temper, Jethro said thinly, "You aren't going to push us out of this investigation, not when it's one of our own who's been taken."

Conciliatory, Wills stepped closer and replied, "I'm not trying to push you out, Agent Gibbs. I want to make sure this young man has the best chance of being found safe and sound. You're emotionally wound tighter than a wire, ready to snap, and that leads to mistakes. I can see that and I've only known you two minutes. The best thing you can do is let us take it over and give us help where we need it; Agent DiNozzo's background."

Jethro knew from the steel beneath the soft tone that the agent wasn't going to give in and had the authority to block him from the investigation altogether. He hated to admit it, but the man was right. Tony worked for NCIS, but he wasn't military and they had no real jurisdiction to pursue this investigation; he'd just muscled in on the cops before anyone could think to deny them access.

He met Kate's gaze, then looked back at Wills and said, "Fine. But you'd better keep us apprised of the investigation."

"I'll do better than that," Wills promised. "I'll go with you back to your office and you can tell me all about Agent DiNozzo's latest cases and potential enemies."

Great. A chaperone. Sourly, he motioned towards the yellow tape and said, "After you."

There was a smile from Agent Wills and a pleasant, "No, after you."


* * * *

"You're going to let them do this?" Kate hissed in the car.

His eyes on the road, Jethro replied thinly, "I don't have a choice."


"For now."

She perked up at his interruption and asked, "You have a plan? Of course you have a plan, you always do."

His lips almost twitched into a smile, but didn't quite reach one. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, but not yet. I'm working on it though."

And it would all start with the cell phone and blood samples that Wills didn't know he'd already taken at the scene. What the FBI Agent didn't know, wouldn't hurt him, after all. And he had more confidence in Abby's ability to quickly process the evidence than some faceless agency drone who had no idea who Tony was or what was at stake.

When they got back to the office, he said, "Take my kit to Abby when Wills isn't looking quite so hard at us. There are three blood samples and Tony's phone. Full workup."

She nodded and they exited the car.

* * * *

Talking about Tony to Agent Wills was an experience that Jethro could definitely have done without. It was riding the razor's edge of showing that he knew Tony well, but not so well as to arouse suspicion that they were more than coworkers and friends. As it was, Wills kept giving him this curious look that told Jethro he wasn't masquerading his tension as well as he needed to. All he could do was hope it was put down to a friend being violently kidnapped.

In the second hour of 'background information,' aka, interrogation, Wills got a phone call and excused himself from the conference room they'd preempted. Rubbing his eyes, which were hot and tired from lack of sleep the night before, Jethro allowed himself to think about what was going on, and what might be happening to Tony right then and there. That his lover could already be dead and there would be no charging to the rescue, no putting himself in harm's way to keep Tony safe.

Jethro's throat tightened at the thought and he cleared it savagely, focusing on the fact that they didn't even know if the blood at the scene was even Tony's. The phone rang and Jethro saw it was Kate. Picking it up, he asked, "What?"

"Abby got the results. A partial print on the phone that she's running through VICAP and NCIC and one of the blood samples isn't Tony's," Kate reported in a quiet rush. "How's it going? You need a break?"

Meeting her gaze across the way, Jethro shook his head and replied, "I'm fine. I'll give him points for thoroughness, that's for sure."

"What should I have Abby do?"

"Just what she's - no I said I wasn't going tomorrow night and now it's definitely off," Jethro finished as Wills returned.

"Sorry. Okay, I'll have her keep going with it."

Jethro nodded and agreed. "Good. I'll reschedule another time."

Hanging up, he saw that Wills didn't look very fooled by his performance, but assumed the same innocent expression that had hoodwinked people for thirty-odd years. "Something break?"

"Just some stolen evidence," Wills informed him, sitting back down. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

Jethro maintained the same expression, but adding a little irritation as he replied, "What kind of stolen evidence?"

"I notice that's not a denial."

"It's not a confirmation, either."

The pleasant expression faded to a good degree and Wills snapped, "Hand it over or I swear to God I'll charge you with obstructing justice, Gibbs."

Jethro stared at him for a long moment, then nodded and picked up his phone to dial Abby's extension. "Abby?"

"Yeah? Are they still there?"

"Send up your results, would you?"

"Oh, ah, sure. I'll bring them right up."


He hung up and looked intently at Wills. "So. What do you think is happening?"

"Still in the preliminary stages, of course, but we have a tire print at the scene and with whatever you've been working on, that should get the ball started," Wills answered. He paused, then continued, "What do you think is happening? Who do you think took DiNozzo?"

Jethro sighed and replied, "I wish I knew. Just from the standard criminals that he's put away over the years, the list is a mile long."

"Anything stick out in recent memory?" Wills prompted.

Before Jethro could answer, Abby arrived with a file. He waved her in and she gave Wills a wide berth, handing the file to Jethro. He smiled briefly. "Thanks, Abs. Keep us both updated."

"Sure," she agreed, hightailing it out.

Jethro scanned the file quickly, but it only reported what he'd expected, since Kate had already filled him in. Sliding it across the table, he said, "There haven't been any cases recently that had serious bad blood between Tony and the suspect we put away. Generally, they reserve the hate for me, since I'm the team lead, and that's how I like it."

Wills frowned at that and asked, "Any of these perps threaten you? Think maybe that they'd take DiNozzo to get to you?"

That thought hadn't occurred to Jethro and he went still, considering it. Leaning back in his chair, he admitted, "It's not like Tony and I have a standoff-ish working relationship. I'm on good terms with all my people. But it would make more sense to take Kate, being that she's a woman."

"I don't know. Would you react like this if she was taken?" Wills questioned shrewdly.

Fortunately, Jethro was saved from having to answer by the ringing of his phone. He saw it was Abby and picked it up with, "What is it?"

Abby's voice was strained as she said, "I got a hit off of the partial."

"And?" Jethro demanded.

"It's Tyler Beckwood."

Jethro's stomach dropped at the news, but he managed to reply, "Thanks, Abby."

Feeling a bit stunned at the news that Beckwood was free, it took a couple of seconds to marshal his thoughts enough to face Wills with a composed front. The dark eyes looking back at him were knowing as Jethro announced, "It is about me. Tony was taken by Tyler Beckwood, a man I sent away for life in prison. He murdered three men in an attempt to kidnap a visiting dignitary's daughter for ransom. I say attempt, but really, he succeeded. If we hadn't gotten a description from one of the dying guards, he'd have gotten away, scott free."

"And he blames you."

"I was the lead investigator."

Wills nodded sharply. "Right. I'll issue an APB for him."

"With a warning that he's armed and dangerous," Jethro added. "Because he's violent and smart with no morals or scruples, which is a deadly combination."

Standing, Wills said, "I'll be back when I get things in motion."

Jethro half-smiled, a wry twist of the lips, and replied, "I'll be here."

After Wills was gone, Jethro leaned his elbows on the table and offered a silent scream of rage to the fate that had somehow let Beckwood free. His cell phone rang, startling him, and Jethro pulled it out. A restricted ID showed and he tensed, jumping to his fee and poking his head out of the conference room. "Kate! I need a trace on my cell now!"

She nodded and picked up her own phone as he finally answered his with, "Gibbs."

"Ah, Agent Gibbs. How nice to hear your voice again."

Jethro took a steadying breath at Beckwood's voice and replied, "Can't say the same."

"No, I didn't think you would," Beckwood replied. "And I didn't really call to chat socially. I have something you want, and you have something I want. I suggest a fair trade."

Biting back the sarcastic remark that had almost slipped out, Jethro asked evenly, "What?"


Jethro blinked in surprise, then asked cautiously, "That's it? All you want is me? Should I be flattered?"

There was a short laugh on the other end before Beckwood said, "Definitely."

"You could have taken me any time. Why the ploy? Why take DiNozzo?"

"Actually, I couldn't have. Ask your new bodyguard, Wills. I'll call back tomorrow to make arrangements."

"Wait!" Jethro exclaimed. "How do I know that DiNozzo's even still alive?"

"Hmm...let me're just going to have to trust me."


But it was too late. A dial tone mocked him and he gritted he teeth, wanting to throw it across the room and smash it. He looked over at Kate, who shook her head, scowling. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Jethro took a couple of seconds to compose himself. The adrenaline inside was looking for a way out, but he had to keep his temper until he figured out what the hell was going on.

All he could do was pray that Tony was still alive.


Jethro waited all of three seconds to grab Wills when the agent came back into his office. He shoved the other man against the nearest wall, pinning him there with an arm across the throat as he snarled, "You want to tell me why Beckwood knows all about you and why he called you my bodyguard? He took Tony because he couldn't get to me, you son of a bitch!"

Wills didn't fight, which was just as well because Jethro was barely hanging on to his temper as it was. If he'd fought, the results would probably have been very ugly. Instead, he answered, "He's playing you, Gibbs, so ease off!

Jethro stared at him for a long moment, then growled in frustration and released Wills. "Talk."

"Beckwood escaped from prison two weeks ago. I'm not your bodyguard, I've been trailing him since the escape. We had his family staked out, even though he's not the sentimental sort, and we had his old contacts staked out, too. It wasn't until you called the cops this morning that we knew something was up with you."

"Beckwood escaped and no one thought to warn me about it?" Jethro demanded harshly. "No one thought that I might happen to be in the line of fire? Or that the people in my life might be in danger?"

Wills actually winced at that and replied, "It was an oversight, I can see that now. I'm sorry."

"Sorry doesn't get DiNozzo out of danger," Jethro snapped.

"No, it doesn't. What did he say?"

"That he'll call back tomorrow with specifics, but he's going to exchange Tony for me."

"Not a chance."

"Oh you better believe there's a chance, if it gets DiNozzo to safety. He's not going to pay for your screw up."

They glared at each other until Kate said, "I hear that Gibbs is really accurate when it comes to pissing contests, Agent Wills. You might want to rethink your strategy."

Both men look at her and Kate shrugged, the casual gesture belying the fire in her eyes. "Who's at fault doesn't matter now. Stop the posturing and focus on getting Tony back."

Calming down a little at her simple words, Jethro said, "Any results on the tire print?"

"That's what the call was about," Wills replied, also taking a breath. "It gives us two possibles, but that doesn't narrow it down, since they're both popular models."

The phone rang and Jethro leaned over the desk to pick it up. "Gibbs."

"I got the results back on the blood samples. Two were from Tony, but the third wasn't, and it doesn't match Beckwood's blood type either," Abby reported.

"Thanks, Abby," Jethro said before hanging up. Looking at Kate and Wills, he said, "Blood type at the scene doesn't match Tony or Beckwood. Not surprising, since he put up a fight."

When the phone rang again, Jethro frowned at the outside number, but picked it up. "Agent Gibbs speaking."

"When were you going to tell us that our son had been kidnapped, Agent Gibbs?"

Jethro winced, mentally smacking himself in the forehead, even as he automatically straightened in his seat. As if it would help in dealing with the furious older man on the phone. "Mr. DiNozzo, it just happened a few hours ago and we're doing everything we can to find Tony and get him back safe. We're working closely with the FBI and already have some leads."

"Not closely enough. We just received a ransom demand."

Freezing in place, Jethro repeated, "You got a ransom demand?"

"Yes! For a million dollars. Instructions about the drop to follow tomorrow morning," Mr. DiNozzo exclaimed furiously.

Wow. Jethro had known that Tony's parents had money, but he hadn't realized they were that rich. He hadn't delved into Tony's past, knowing that if the younger man wanted to talk about it, he would some day. Shaking the thought away, he placated, "I'll have the FBI dispatched to your home immediately so if the kidnappers call again, we can get a trace."

Not mollified, the other man said, "You had better recover my son, Gibbs, or your career is finished."

The line was disconnected before Jethro could respond. Grim, he thought, Don't worry, Mr. DiNozzo, if I don't get Tony back, my career won't matter.

To the others he announced, unnecessarily, "The DiNozzo's got a ransom demand."

Wills observed, "A ransom demand and you? Revenge and payment?"

"Makes sense to me," Kate agreed. "He humiliates Gibbs and tries to ruin his career by taking someone on his own staff, and then gets the money he was denied in the first kidnapping."

Only Jethro was suddenly wondering if Tony hadn't been a random victim. Thinking out loud, Jethro said, "Beckwood's only been out for two weeks. Long enough to do background checks on you and DiNozzo, sure, but if he was doing this just to get at me, then he'd have gone for Kate."

A slender eyebrow arched as Kate questioned, "Oh?"

Apologetic, Jethro admitted, "You're a woman and you're still relatively new to the team. I'm still in a kind of 'protective mode' when it comes to you. No, I know you can take care of yourself, Kate, and I'm sorry, but it's the truth. And Beckwood knows me well enough to know that."

"So you're a bonus. He gets paid and he gets you. It's a happy chance," Wills guessed.

"Except Beckwood doesn't believe in chance, happy or otherwise," Jethro said slowly, staring at the phone. Standing abruptly, he continued, "I'm going back to Tony's apartment to take a closer look. Kate, see if anyone visited Beckwood at Leavenworth over the last year, who sent him mail, or called him, or who he called. Anyone he had contact with on a regular basis, even other prisoners. Wills..."

Snorting, Wills finished, "I'll arrange the unit to go to the DiNozzo's residence and meet you at DiNozzo's apartment."

"Thanks," Jethro replied, sincere. It didn't mean that Wills was giving up the lead permanently, he knew that, but for now, he was stepping down.

Not that Jethro anticipated giving it back, but what Wills didn't know...

* * * *

Gentle fingers moved a cool, damp cloth over Tony's forehead, waking him from restless dreams. He remembered where he was and flinched away from the touch, exclaiming, "Get away!"

"Ssh, it's okay. I won't hurt you."

Shocked at the woman's voice, Tony couldn't speak at first. When he found his voice, he asked, "Are you all right, ma'am? They haven't hurt you, have they?"

"So gallant," she whispered, a smile in her voice. "No, no one's hurt me. I'm afraid I can't take off the cuffs or the blindfold, they warned me against it."

Soft hands brushed across his face and he couldn't help flinching away. He flushed a little in embarrassment. "Sorry."

"It's okay," she replied, starting to clean his face again.

Relaxing a little under her ministrations, Tony replied, "What happened? Do you know who has us?"

"I don't remember anything, I'm afraid. One minute I was walking to my apartment and the next, something struck me, here. When I woke, I was on the floor in this room."

"How long have you been here?"

"I don't know. A few hours? I don't wear a watch."

He couldn't see the woman, but there had to be a connection. Kidnappers didn't just grab two people off the street for no reason. Well, not gangs of kidnappers working together anyhow. Random psychos were another story. Frowning, he questioned, "Where do you live?"

"Why? Planning on asking me out later?" she quipped.

The frown shifted into a grin and, trying to put her at ease, he replied, "Probably, but for now, I'm just trying to find a connection between us. A reason why we'd have both been taken."

She dipped the cloth in the bowl of water and wiped it down his throat, stopping at his collar bone. "Do you mind if I clean you off here, too?"

A little uncomfortable, but knowing he'd feel better with the stink of the fight off him, Tony answered, "Uh, no, it's okay."

Unbuttoning his shirt, she rinsed the cloth then silently wiped down his chest, stopping at his abdomen. "You look really bruised. Someone did a job on you. How do you feel?"

"Really bruised," he answered, wryly. "A few someones did a job on me. I'm clearer than before though, so that's a good thing."

She nodded and rebuttoned his shirt, then set aside the bowl and cloth on the floor. "So. Now what do we do?"

Tony realized that she hadn't answered his question and so repeated, "Where do you live?"

"Oh, I live in..."

The door opened with a bang and he heard heavy footsteps and gruff orders to get away from him. The woman screamed and struggled, but they dragged her out of the room. Tony added to the noise by struggling and shouting to let her go, but he was ignored. When the door closed again, he groaned at the renewed pain in his midriff and collapsed against the mattress.

There isn't anything you can do. You're more helpless than she is, because at least she can try to fight back, he thought to himself.

Despite knowing all of that, Tony still blamed himself for not doing more.

* * * *

Looking carefully around the apartment, Jethro found nothing out of place. Well, nothing out of place for how Tony lived anyhow. A faint grin surfaced at the barely controlled chaos of books and papers all over the coffee table and counters in the kitchen. It was neater than the last time he'd been, but then, Tony had said that he'd been planning to do laundry when he got back to the apartment.

The police hadn't done any damage, thankfully, in the brief time they'd been there. If Wills' people had gone over anything, there was no sign of it. He frowned and made a note to talk with Wills about that later.

He sat on the couch and pulled on his gloves before looking through the papers and books on the table. It was mostly just newspapers and fieldwork related books and magazines. Tony wasn't kidding when he said that he liked to keep on top of the latest in technology, not from the science mags that Jethro found in the kitchen.

The dishes were all washed and put away, something that set off warning bells in his mind. Tony washed his dishes, but he generally kept them in the strainer for easy access. It was possible that he could have been in a total cleaning mode, but if so, why weren't the papers and books neatly stacked where they belonged? Jethro made a mental note to have someone bag them and check for fingerprints and DNA.

From there, he wandered into the bedroom. Seeing the neatly made bed set off more internal alarms because he knew from personal experience that Tony never made it. Ever. He was always in too much of a rush to bother, something that they'd already butted heads about when Tony was staying over at Jethro's place. He was only just now drilling it into Tony's head that making the bed was part of getting ready for the day. It was half-and-half that Tony would feel like doing it in the freedom of his own place.

Shifting his gaze from the bed to the nightstand, Jethro stiffened and strode over to the small wooden table. On it, was a small glass vase with a large, blood-red rose.

"Find something?"

Jumping a little at Wills' voice, Jethro nodded and said, "Someone's been here. Someone washed Tony's dishes, and made his bed and put this flower here. We need to have everything here dusted for prints. Everything."

"How do you know he just doesn't have a girlfriend?" Wills pointed out.

Jaw clenching, Jethro answered, "Because a girlfriend would know that he hates roses, thanks to being lost in a maze of them as a kid."

Wills' eyebrows rose, whether at the news itself or the fact that Jethro knew it, he didn't know, but all the black agent said was, "I'll get my people back here."

"My lab's closer and faster," Jethro stated, pulling out his cell.

Thankfully, Wills didn't argue, so Jethro had Abby put a team together to come down to Tony's apartment. She was far more subdued than usual, but he didn't have time to reassure her that Tony would be all right. If this wasn't a kidnapping for money, it was far less likely that Tony would escape unharmed. A fact that would drive Jethro crazy, if he let it.

When he hung up, Wills observed, "So you're here a lot."

"What?" Jethro replied absently as he bagged the flower and vase.

"The security guard knows you. Says that you're here a couple of times a week. Every week."

Careful to keep his voice steady and dismissive, wanting Tony to have a career when all this was over, Jethro answered, "Tony's car is perpetually in the shop. It's a classic."

"I know that my boss wouldn't be giving me lifts to work."

"DiNozzo and I are friends. Everyone knows that."


There was nothing Jethro could say to that, so he held up the bagged flower and vase, saying, "This puts a different light on everything."

Wills nodded. "If he was being stalked, then whoever was doing it knows that you're here often. Maybe even knows that DiNozzo is over at your place sometimes?"

Jethro's lips twisted, but that was the only confirmation he gave.

"So the best shot of getting at DiNozzo is to hire muscle to kidnap him. And then, to throw the investigation off track..."

"Make it seem like this isn't about Tony at all," Jethro finished. "But if the stalker knows this much about him, and about me, then why the cleaning routine? She's obviously intelligent enough to know that we'd check for prints and DNA."

"Obsessive compulsive?" Wills suggested.

Jethro shrugged. "Unbalanced, at the least."

"Of course, there's nothing to say that we'll find anything. For all we know, she's an OC who's smart enough to wear gloves."


Both men fell silent, then Wills said, "I'm going to go back over the security tapes and see if the doorman notices anyone out of place. Or if there are any new women who moved into the building recently who've been hanging around DiNozzo."

Jethro nodded. "I'll wait for the lab techs. Meet up back at NCIS?"

"Sounds like a plan."

Watching him go, Jethro had to admit that he was glad for the other man's assistance...and his discretion.

* * * *

Staring blankly into his coffee, Jethro was trying not to let things get to him, but not doing very well. He'd known that Tony had filled a hole inside, the younger man's humor and enthusiasm chipping away at his cynicism and patent disbelief in his fellow man. He just hadn't realized how big the hole was until now. No, not true. He had realized it on a subconscious level. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have asked Tony to live with him, despite the myriad problems inherent in such a living arrangement.

The thought that Tony would never come back to him was too much to bear. His throat closed and his heart accelerated like it was on its way to a heart attack. Breathing harshly, Jethro set the coffee on the conference table and leaned over, putting his head almost between his knees. His hands gripped the side of his head as he tried to block out thoughts of what could be happening to Tony.

Images of torture, rape, death...every possible scenario that he'd seen happen to others over the years. Once the stalker found out that Tony didn't and wouldn't give in, and Jethro knew he wouldn't, the man or woman would snap. And when that happened, Tony's bubble of 'safety,' would be gone. With the fantasy shredded and no chance of having Tony the way he or she wanted, it opened up all kinds of nasty possibilities.

The fact was that if they didn't find Tony within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, it was entirely likely that they never would. Not alive anyhow.

"No!" he gasped, fingers digging harder into his skull and his eyes squeezed shut.

Life without Tony wasn't something he could imagine, not anymore. Never seeing or touching his lover again, never telling him how much he was loved, it wasn't something that Jethro could think about without agony running through him. He gasped again, struggling to bring himself under control.

This was why he didn't get involved. This was why he'd had three marriages. This was the reason he kept everything locked down as much as possible. Cutting humor and sarcasm were his shields and weapons and he used them well. He had maintained a distance from everyone except Ducky, and that was only because the other man had known him for years. Having someone stitch you up after your wife bashed you in the head with a baseball bat tended to dispel barriers.

But Tony...Tony had blasted through all his defenses with those wide, smiling eyes and his open heart. His persistent disregard for Jethro's personal space and the patent admiration had been potent, almost intoxicating for Jethro. He'd met his match in a lot of ways, the other man's sheer stubbornness being forefront in his arsenal against Jethro's unwillingness to let him in.

It had been a lot like Chinese water torture, only louder.

A half-laugh, half-sob escaped at the thought and his fingers dug in harder, the physical pain cutting through the mental and emotional anguish. Drawing in a shuddery breath, Jethro blanked his mind, forcing all of those images into a tiny box and locking them down tight. It wasn't a pretty technique for getting his mind on the job, but it worked.

Pulling his hands away, Jethro sat up, quelling the need to throw-up. It took him a few more minutes, but finally, he was presentable. Taking a deep breath, he released it slowly, eyes closed at he concentrated on the nothingness. He took another one and expelled it forcefully, grabbing his coffee and striding to the door, the scowl on his face a mask for the pain he'd just gone through.

The pain still lingering malignantly under the surface, waiting for a chance to strike.

* * * *

Kate looked up as Gibbs came into the office area, coffee in hand. Frowning, she realized that something was different, but couldn't place what.

"What've you got?" he asked, leaning against her desk.

Forcing her attention back to the monitor, she replied, "Ah, prison records for the last two years. He had only three visits in 2002, and all three were his lawyer. Reason given was for updating family records like wills and such."

"All three times?"


"Go on."

"October through December of 2003, he had six visits from a woman who claimed to be his sister, and she's been there twice monthly this year."

"He doesn't have one."


Thoughtful, Gibbs took a sip of the coffee, grimaced and set it down. "Do we have a picture of this non-sister?"

Kate brought up the attachment and the grainy security photo showed a young white woman with light brown hair, slender and pretty in a vague kind of way. "I talked to the guard on duty the last time she was there and he said that she was there for the duration of visiting hours and they seemed really in deep, conversation-wise."

Staring intently at the picture, Gibbs said, "I want to know who that is and I want to know yesterday, Kate."

She nodded and was about to reply when Wills approached, a large file in hand. Arching an eyebrow at him, she greeted, "Presents?"

Wills snorted and said, "Background file on Beckwood. Thought you'd want to get up to speed."

"We do have those here you know," Gibbs pointed out, a fine edge to his voice.

"Not with the goodies that I've got. We had him in our sights a lot longer than you did, Gibbs, so we've got more on him."

Gibbs held out his hand and the file was placed in it.

"Wait, who's that?" Wills demanded, leaning closer to Kate's monitor.

"Someone claiming to be Beckwood's sister," Kate answered.

Grinning fiercely, Wills said, "We have our stalker, ladies and gentlemen. Sarah Malloni. Moved into DiNozzo's apartment building five months ago. Apparently he stopped someone from mugging her and has been hard to get rid of ever since. At least according to the doorman."

Gibbs frowned. "He never said anything to me, us. Did he, Kate?"

Kate shook her head and agreed, "Not a word."

"Good Samaritan," Wills commented. "In any case, the doorman said that Ms. Malloni waits for DiNozzo to return to his apartment just about every night and, though polite, he has told her several times that he's involved with someone. Or, he was polite until a couple of weeks ago. The doorman said that two weeks ago Thursday, DiNozzo completely lost it and yelled at her until she was in tears and ran off. DiNozzo started to go after her, probably to apologize, but the doorman stopped him and reminded him that that was what he wanted, for her to leave him alone."

Focused on the picture on the screen, Gibbs said, "And since she didn't get what she wanted one way, she went after him another. This is enough to subpoena her financial records and get a warrant for her apartment."

"Which you don't have jurisdiction to do, so I will," Wills replied.

Gibbs' eyes rolled a little but he only stated, "We'll meet you there."

It was after the two men had left, Wills to get his warrant and Gibbs to his desk to make a call that Kate realized what was different about her boss. It was like a switch had been flipped. The emotions were gone. He was looking at this like it was any other case, concerned, but not involved.

She sighed. This definitely didn't bode well for their relationship once Tony came back.


Sarah Malloni's apartment was filled with clutter. There were books and newspapers and clothing all over the place and Jethro immediately felt stifled the moment he walked inside. There was a cloying, sweet smell in the air that irritated his nose and he sneezed. Waiting to see if there would be another sneeze, he scanned the apartment again, taking in greater detail the second time: nick-knacks and dishes scattered amidst the books; most of the books romance novels; photography magazines.

Stepping further into the apartment, Jethro headed for the next room, which turned out to be the kitchen. It was just as filled with junk as the living room and he began to feel sorry for the apartment complex cleaning crew when the apartment reverted to their control. Leaving the kitchen for the short hall which led to two bedrooms and a bathroom, Jethro opened the first door he came to.


Jethro felt ill as he scanned the walls that were, sure enough, filled with candids of Tony. Hand to his stomach, forcing the emotions away, he took a few breaths to calm down and get back to that void where he could work properly. He recognized a lot of the places that Tony was, some of them crime scenes, some of them in the park where they both went to relax and jog sometimes.

He definitely recognized the hand that was inevitably on Tony's body; either the shoulder, or arm, or hip, or back, even though he'd been personally cut out of all of the pictures.

"Oh my God," Kate exclaimed from behind. "This is insane."

Quirking an eyebrow at her, Jethro pointed out, "Look at the source."

"You ah, you want me to go through things in here?" she volunteered.

Jethro hesitated, then shook his head. "I want you to start cataloguing things in the rest of the apartment. We need to know as much about this woman as possible. Where she is in her mania."

Nodding, Kate said, "Wills just called me. Said that he got the financial records and is going over them with a fine-toothed comb."

Extra-fine, given the other man's tendency for thoroughness, Jethro mused. Aloud, he replied, "Thanks. Let me know if you find anything."

"You too," she replied before leaving.

Set with the daunting task of going through all the photos on the walls and everything else in the room, Jethro put his kit on the floor and got to work.

* * * *

Despite the fact that Tony still couldn't see, he knew that the world was spinning viciously. Instead of fighting the cuffs, he was holding onto them for dear life, positive that if he didn't, he would fly off the cot and bounce around.

The nausea wasn't helping matters either.

"I see that you aren't terribly used to drugs, Agent DiNozzo."

Tony flinched away from the voice that was suddenly at his ear. He hadn't heard the door open or anyone come in, let alone someone crouching down right beside him.

"It won't be long now, so don't worry."

"Long for what?" Tony managed to gasp.

"You're a very determined man, aren't you?"

Hoping that talking would both steady his insides and make something important slip from his kidnapper, Tony replied, "No more than most."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that at all. You'd have to be in order to get Gibbs' attention, let alone keep it. And keep it, you have. One of the main reasons that you're here in the first place."

"So...this is about Gibbs?" Tony asked.

"No, not really. He's the bonus. My personal bonus."

Even in his current state, the hatred in the man's voice was unmistakable. "Don't touch him!"

A soft laugh graced the air between them and his captor replied, "And what are you going to do about it, Agent DiNozzo?"

Tony stayed silent, knowing there was nothing he could do and hating it.

"That's what I thought."

Pain sliced along his midriff and Tony inhaled sharply. The flat of a blade slid along his stomach and the man continued, "Such a perfect canvas. There's a lot I can do to you that doesn't involve permanent damage and I think I'll take advantage of that loophole."

Panic flared and Tony struggled against the cuffs, uselessly, of course. He froze when the sharp edge pressed into his throat.

"Now now, I don't think that moving around like that is a good idea when there's a knife nearby. I suggest you stay very, very still unless you'd like to lose some important parts of your anatomy. Parts that I'm sure Gibbs would be very unhappy to lose."

The nausea returned in full force, but Tony kept a lid on it, breathing harsh and shallow as the knife slid down his throat to cut just under his collarbone in a long, even slice.

"Do you know, I spent a lot of time developing this particular skill? It's very necessary to know how to extract information from someone without having them pass out from pain or blood loss. Shallow nicks, long cuts, but never deep ones. Never anything that would permanently impair the ability to divulge information."

A little desperate, the knife marking him between words, Tony exclaimed, "But you haven't even asked me anything!"

"Yes, I know. And isn't that a shame for you?"

* * * *

Three hours and four coffees later, Jethro left the picture/trophy room, everything inside neatly and thoroughly catalogued for evidence. Bone weary, a headache throbbing in the base of his skull, he joined Kate in the living room where she and several other agents were still sifting through and logging things.

"Wills call?" he questioned.

"About fifteen minutes ago. He's on his way here to help," Kate answered. "Everything done in there?"

Nodding, Jethro said, "Bagged and tagged. I see you've gotten a good way along out here."

Kate glanced around the half-bare room and replied, "Thank God. This woman is giving me the creeps and I've never even met her. How are you doing?"

Furious. Scared. Ready to explode.

Jethro bit back all those answers and shrugged. "Fine."

"Fine? Gibbs, come on. I know this is bugging the crap out of you."

"Then why'd you ask?"


Thankfully, Wills arrived just then and Gibbs cut her off by walking away. He was pretty sure he could actually hear her teeth grinding as he did.

"Three large payments to an unnamed Cayman account," Wills informed him without preamble. "Totaling seven hundred fifty thousand dollars."

Jethro laughed, a short, ugly sound. "So $1.75 million, with the payment from the DiNozzo family. That's the exact amount he'd asked for the diplomat's daughter."

"At least he's consistent," Kate interjected, joining them.

Consistently merciless and cruel, came unbidden to Jethro's mind. It had been seventeen hours since Tony's call and there was no telling what his lov...what the other man was going through. Shaking his head, Jethro said, "Anything else unusual? Where'd she get the money in the first place?"

Wills held out a file, which Jethro took, and said, "Partially from an inheritance, but mostly from her own work. Seems that Ms. Malloni is a renowned photographer and her work brings in a lot of money. She's always been considered eccentric and on the edge."

"Well now she's gone over it," Jethro stated, grim.

Wills stared at him for a long moment. "I think you need to take a break. Beckwood isn't due to call for another eight hours."

"I'm fine."

"That wasn't a request."

Jethro wanted to balk, but he didn't want Wills to take the case back. Not that he thought the black man would leave him in the cold, the other man couldn't really, not with Beckwood dealing directly with him. But Wills could make things very difficult for him. Glowering, Jethro nodded curtly and said to Kate, "You want a lift back to the office?"

"No, I'll catch one with Wills," she replied.


With a scowl, Jethro left the apartment and stalked to the elevator. He got all the way there when he couldn't stop his feet from bypassing it to go to Tony's apartment.

Letting himself in with his key, Jethro sighed deeply and walked to the bedroom. He wanted nothing more than to bury himself in Tony, to crawl under the covers and fill himself with his lov...with the other man's scent.

Forcing those thoughts away, Jethro stopped short at the doorway into the bedroom. Standing at the dresser, neatly folding the clothes inside a drawer as if it were the most natural thing in the world, was Sarah Malloni.

It was a tossup as to who was more surprised.

She tried to bolt past him, but Jethro grabbed her arm and swung her against the wall, not caring that she banged hard against it. Twisting her arm behind her, Jethro hissed into her ear, "Where is he!?"

When she remained silent, he pushed the arm up further and repeated, "Where. Is. Tony!?"

"I'll never tell you, you sick pervert! If not for you, my Tony wouldn't be in this kind of trouble. He'd be at my side."

Tightening his grip, causing her to whimper, he demanded, "What kind of trouble? Beckwood got out of control, didn't he? He's cut you out of the deal. You were going to get Tony and he was going to get me, plus money, but he changed the rules. Didn't he!?"

She cried out in pain when he pushed the arm up further, but didn't answer.

"Gibbs! Let her go!"

Snapping out of the violent haze at Kate's horrified exclamation, Jethro instantly released the woman and stepped back. He watched as Kate hurried forward and moved Sarah to the bed, still clutching one of Tony's shirts. "I'm so sorry for Agent Gibbs' behavior, Ms. Malloni. He'll be reprimanded, I promise."

Glaring at him, Sarah snapped venomously, "This is all your fault!"

Jethro kept his mouth shut, settling against the wall, arms crossed over his chest to keep himself from strangling the information out of her.

"Ms. Malloni, please, if you know where they're holding Tony, you have to let us rescue him," Kate implored. "Think of the awful things that Beckwood will do to Tony, now that you're not there to protect him. You don't want Tony to die, do you?"

Sarah looked at Kate, uncertain.

Pressing the advantage, Kate continued persuasively, "Tony's an innocent victim here, and so are you. If you tell me where he is, then we can get him so the two of you can work things out. Isn't that what you want? To be with Tony? I can help you get that."

The uncertainty grew as Sarah stared at the shirt in her hands, but she still didn't say anything.

"Sarah, honey, Tony needs help and you're the only one who can do that," Kate said softly. "You can be the one to save the day, here. Without you, Tony's going to die, you know that, right? That's why you're here? To try and feel close to him? I know Tony pretty well, and I know that you're exactly the kind of woman that he can't help falling for. But if you don't tell me where he is, then he'll never have the chance to love you the way you love him."

"I-it's a warehouse. He's in the basement of a warehouse in Ricksen, it's on Twelfth Street, number 450."

"And how many men does Beckwood have helping him?"

"Five. But, they have a lot of guns and someone's always outside the door to Tony's cell."

"Thank you, Sarah," Kate said, pulling her to her feet and turning her around. "I have to handcuff you now, but I'm going to make sure that you get treated well, okay?"

Sarah nodded, defeat permeating her slumped shoulders.

Jethro didn't stay to watch, he took off to find Wills.

* * * *

Jethro had had several loud and very definitive words for Wills when he'd been told to sit out Tony's rescue. Words that would make a sailor blush, but Wills didn't budge. He'd informed Jethro that he could wait in the van with himself and Kate, or he could wait at NCIS in handcuffs.

And even though he hated to admit it, really, really hated to admit it, Jethro knew that Wills was right to do that. He was about ready to snap and going anywhere with a gun in his hand would lead to unnecessary bloodshed. The moment that he spotted any of the kidnappers, there would be a bullet hole between the eyes, put there without remorse by Jethro.

So he waited outside of the warehouse with Wills and Kate and an ambulance that was there, just in case. They were about half a block from the building, not wanting to give Beckwood any idea that he was about to be taken down. It was almost two in the morning and the industrial warehouse area was deserted, which only helped make sure no one got caught in the crossfire.

Tensing when he heard the echo of gunfire, Jethro had all he could do to stay put and keep a calm mask. It seemed like forever before the team leader reported, "All secure. We have DiNozzo. Send in the paramedics."

Jethro felt faint and swayed a little before grabbing the van seat to steady himself. Paramedics were needed. Tony was injured. Tony could be badly injured.

He was out the door a split second later, Kate and Wills right behind him. Running flat out down the street, he reached the building just as the ambulance pulled up and the paramedics hopped out. Running inside, Jethro looked around frantically and saw one of the team standing at a door that looked to lead to stairs. He ran there and then downstairs a flight before reaching another team member and another door.

"Sir, you should wait for the paramedics..."

But Jethro blew past him into the tiny room where Tony was being cut free from handcuffs that were attached to a thin, metal cot by a pair of pliers. His chest and abs were littered with cuts and gashes of all lengths and depths. His face was bruised with both eyes swollen shut. There were massive and dark bruises in the rib areas. More slices adorned his arms and legs, as if someone had decided to aerate Tony's body.

"Oh my God," he whispered.

Tony turned towards him and whispered, "Jethro?"

But Jethro couldn't move. He couldn't make his feet cross the four feet that separated them, rooted to the spot by equal parts horror and fear and relief and rage.

The paramedics arrived just then and instantly went to Tony's side. He heard them talking about blood loss and shock, about possible eye damage and internal injuries, but couldn't really make sense of it. A gentle hand on his arm drew him aside and Jethro looked at Kate, still speechless, to see her own horrified expression.

When Tony was transferred to a stretcher and wheeled out of the room, Jethro saw how much blood had soaked into the thin mattress. His knees gave out just in time for him to lose his stomach and he threw up, adding to the disgusting stench. A gentle, firm hand rubbed up and down his back as everything he'd eaten for what seemed like the last week came up. Shuddering, wiping the bile from his mouth with the back of his hand, Jethro dragged himself away from Kate's comforting hand and the mess he'd made on the floor.

For a long moment he just stayed there on his hands and knees, staring at the cold pavement of a floor. He stared at his hands as though they belonged to someone else and wondered that they had ever touched Tony's unmarked body. Wondered if he'd ever be able to touch Tony again. If he could let himself do so, undeserving and incompetent as he was.

"Gibbs, come on, we should get to the hospital," Kate said quietly.

He took a deep breath and released it, sitting back on his haunches as he brought himself under control. A few moments later, Jethro stood and walked out of that room, never wanting to see it again in his life.

* * * *

Gibbs looked about as pale as the linoleum floor that he was pacing, but not nearly as steady. Sighing, Kate went back to not-reading her magazine as they waited to hear from the doctor about Tony. Wills was still back at the warehouse doing cleanup and had brought Beckwood back to the FBI office. She'd never forget when Beckwood had called out to Gibbs, "Hey Gibbs, I prettied him up for you!"

Mostly because she'd seen Gibbs' hand on the butt of his pistol and had been wondering if she'd be fast enough to grab his gun-hand before it landed a bullet between Beckwood's eyes. She was pretty sure that she wasn't that fast.

Tony had been admitted to surgery an hour before, thanks to a punctured lung that needed to be repaired, and internal but unspecified bleeding from his beatings. Beatings. Plural. Kate's eyes closed and she thought about what Tony had gone through, now that she knew for sure. It was the first time that someone she called friend had been exposed to that kind of brutality and she wasn't sure how to handle it.

Enforced visits to the shrink were not going to be necessary this time, she'd be making her own damn appointments come the morning.

"Agent Gibbs?"

Kate dropped the magazine and stood, striding over to Gibbs, who was standing stock still in the middle of the hall as the doctor approached. The doctor was in his forties with a reassuringly competent air to him.

"Your friend is going to be fine," the doctor announced. "He suffered a great deal of blood loss and, as you know, his lung was punctured, but we were able to repair it without any trouble. There was a slice along his hamstring, but not too deep, so we're hopeful that will heal without too much trauma. We won't know about his eyes until the swelling goes down, unfortunately, there could be permanent vision loss. But that's the only bad news. He'll be laid up for a few months healing from the major injuries, but with therapy, he should be almost as good as new by the time he's done."

Relief threatened to turn Kate's knees to jell-o and she grinned, exclaimed, "Thanks, Doctor! When can we see him?"

"Actually, he's still under from the anesthesia, but you can see him now, if you want. Only for a few minutes, though, since it's not visiting hours. He'll be in room 408 in about ten minutes."

Gibbs finally smiled at the doctor, though it was clearly forced. "Thank you, Doctor."

The man nodded and headed back the way he'd come.

Kate was practically dancing in place as she said, "Come on, let's get upstairs."

"No, I'm going home," Gibbs answered.

Shocked, Kate repeated, "Home?"

"Yeah. Home."

Still stunned, Kate watched as Gibbs walked towards the exit, baffled about what had just happened.

* * * *

Jethro made it all the way to the hospital parking lot before staggering to a halt. Permanent vision loss. Repaired lungs. Therapy. And that was just the physical list. There was no telling what kind of terrorizing that Tony had gone through. No telling what kind of therapy he would need to get through what had been done to him.

And all because Jethro had fallen in love with him. All because that bitch had researched the best way to get rid of Gibbs and throw them off the scent at the same time.

There was no way that he could face Tony again. No chance that he could look the other man in the eyes knowing how badly he'd let Tony down. The future loomed out in front of him, empty and alone, but Jethro knew it was only what he deserved.

With that depressing thought in mind, he started walking towards his car again.


Tony knew he was in a hospital the moment he woke up. Aside from his own injuries over the years, he'd had plenty of long hours visiting coworkers who'd been hurt in the line of duty. The beeping of monitors and the hiss of oxygen told him that he'd been more seriously hurt than he'd thought at the time. A shiver ran through him at the thought of his kidnapper and tormentor, even though logically, he knew that the man had either been captured or killed in his rescued.

He was really hoping for the killed option.

It took a few tries to focus his vision, but when he did, blinking away the nasty crud in his eyes, Tony was surprised to find Jethro nowhere in the room. He wasn't in ICU, though he did have the private room to himself. Thinking that he'd just stepped out for coffee, Tony waited...and waited some more.

Realizing that his lover just wasn't there hurt more than he'd thought anything could. Tony took a few minutes to compose himself before reaching for the call button. Before he finished the motion, though, the door opened and a doctor entered.

The older man smiled at him and greeted, "Glad to have you back with us, Agent DiNozzo. How are you feeling?"

"Like I was run over by a Mack truck," Tony rasped.

The smile increased as the doctor replied, "I bet. The good news is that you're going to be fine."

"How long was I under?"

"Well, after the surgery, you were kept sedated to give your eyes a chance to heal."

Tony was frightened by the statement, his eyes had always been perfect, better than perfect really, and exclaimed, "My eyes!?"

"They're fine, Agent DiNozzo, we just didn't want to take any chances," the doctor assured him hastily. "It took a few days for the swelling to go down enough to tell that there hadn't been any permanent damage. It's been six days since your surgery and I'm pleased to say that with some therapy, you're going to be back to normal. It'll take some time, but you'll be fine."

The racing of Tony's heart slowed with the man's confidence and he sighed in relief. "Have you seen Agent Gibbs? Is he here?"

Frowning, the doctor answered, "I don't believe I've seen him since I told him that you were going to be fine, just after the surgery. Let me see...Kate and her friend Abby have been here every day, they should be arriving in just a little while, as a matter of fact. I know they'll be thrilled to see you wide awake and talking. And your parents, of course, have been in to see you as often as they can, they were camped out by your side for the first forty-eight hours. And I believe I've seen an English gentleman here with a young black man, though I can't remember their names, I'm afraid. You have quite a number of people who care about you."

Tony was still lost in hurt at the knowledge that Jethro hadn't been to the hospital once since his surgery six days ago and almost missed the rundown about everyone else. The first couple of days after, he could understand, there would've been mop-up and all kinds of paperwork. But for six whole days? Realizing that the doctor was staring at him expectantly, Tony said, "It'll be good to see them, too. So, what are we looking at for a timeline here?"

The doctor rambled on about 'wait and see,' and therapy evaluations, and possible pneumonia complications from his injured lung, but Tony finally cornered him into admitting that it would be at least a month before he could leave the hospital, and after that, he would need someone to help him in his apartment.

"Tony!" Abby squealed from the door, interrupting them.

Grinning when she accidentally pushed the doctor out of her way in her rush to the bed, Tony exclaimed, "Careful there, Abs, don't damage the doc!"

She offered an abashed wave to the doctor, who smiled at her and said, "I'll be back to check on you later, Agent DiNozzo. Enjoy your visit, but don't tired him out, young lady."

"I'll make sure we don't," Kate said, passing him on her way into the room.

Abby planted herself on the bed while Kate dragged the chair over. Smiling at them both, Tony greeted, "Hey. So what'd I miss? How'd you find me?"

Grimacing, Kate answered, "Your admirer Sarah Malloni. She told us where you were being held and FBI went in with a tactical unit to get you out."

"Sarah...from my building Sarah?" Tony exclaimed.

Abby gently poked him in the shoulder and replied, "Yeah, and if you ever don't tell us you have a stalker again, I will personally make sure that Ducky lectures you for hours on the subject of personal safety."

Still astonished, Tony explained, "I didn't think, I mean, she was really stalking me? I thought I was being paranoid."

"You should've seen the pictures the woman had of you. A lot of them were with a telephoto, but there were some regular shots too," Kate confirmed. "Very creepy and disturbing. Gibbs nearly passed out when we found the room."

Which was exactly the opening that he did and didn't want to take. Hesitant, he asked, "Was he hurt? Um, getting me out I mean? The doctor said that he, he hadn't been around."

Abby and Kate exchanged a look, then Kate said, "Gibbs is fine. He's at the office."

More pain stabbed him right in the heart. Swallowing it down, Tony forced a smile and brushed it off with, "Well someone needs to hold down the fort if you two are out on the streets."

"Speaking of Ducky," Abby said, apropos of nothing. "He said to give you his best and that he and Gerald will be by tomorrow if they have a chance. There's some kind of inspection going on, so they're swamped. Who knew that the morgue needed inspections?"

"Hey Abby? Can you grab me a drink? I left mine in the car and I'm dying of thirst," Kate asked.

Abby nodded, smiling brightly, and kissed Tony's cheek before climbing off the bed and leaving the room.

Tony half-smiled and observed, "Not as subtle as usual, Kate."

Shrugging, Kate took Abby's place on the bed. "I haven't been in a subtle mood lately. I know it's none of my business, and I know I give you shit about a lot of things, but I have to say that Gibbs is a complete asshole for how he's been the last week. I still can't believe that he hasn't been by to see you even once! Tony, you deserve so much better than him!"

The pain threatened to overwhelm him at her quietly furious declaration and Tony barely held on to his emotions. He should've known that Kate would know about them without being told, she wasn't stupid after all. Drawing in a shaky breath, he managed a watery smile as he answered, "Maybe, but I don't want better than him. I just...I just want him, Kate, you know? And I th-thought that I had him, for a, a little while anyhow. But...I guess I don't."

"Oh Tony, I'm sorry," Kate murmured, rubbing his shoulder. "I shouldn't be laying this on you right now. Will it make you feel better if I beat him up? Because I can, you know."

A laugh burst out of Tony, immediately followed by a groan of pain as his ribs protested. Giving her a genuine smile, Tony said simply, "Thank you."

Abby returned right then with a soda and exclaimed, "Can you believe that there was only all diet drinks to choose from? It's like a conspiracy or something to make you think you're fat when you're not. Well, if you're not, because, you know, there are fat people in hospitals. Hey, you think maybe the distributors are in cahoots with the fashion mags? Because I can totally see that."

Feeling a little better, even with the gaping hole where his heart used to be, Tony grinned and settled back to listen as Kate and Abby went over the merits of the new theory.

* * * *

The days were fine. Jethro kept busy during the days. He had plenty of work to do that kept him focused and took up his time and attention. Kate wasn't speaking to him except in a work context, but he was actually pretty happy about that. Her damning silence wasn't very easy to take, but he was damn sure it was easier than the words she could hurtle at him like the sharpest of knives.

He became obsessive about learning new technology, even more so than before. Online classes filled the early evening hours to stave off going home to an empty house. Every so often, he would turn towards Tony's desk to make a sarcastic remark about the other students' stupidity, only to remember that Tony was in the hospital. It took a while to get back into the groove of the class when that happened, but it was better than having to spend the entire night alone at home.

Once home, Jethro forced himself to eat something, even though he didn't taste any of what he cooked or heated up in the microwave. When he finished cleaning or doing other mundane household tasks, he spent most of the rest of the night working on his boat, or researching things online to improve his skills. Or both.

It wasn't until about midnight or one a.m. that he had nothing else to do except go to sleep in an empty bed. And it was around midnight or one a.m. that he couldn't stop himself from taking a shower, getting changed, and driving down to see Tony.

Jethro easily avoided the nurses on their rounds. He had watched the first night to see what their schedule was for visiting Tony and simply entered the room when they weren't there. Hiding out in the bathroom wasn't exactly dignified, but he'd ducked into it a couple of times when unexpected footsteps had sounded outside the room. That was the good thing about visiting then, it was very quiet and he could hear people coming.

Sitting on the bed a week after Tony's surgery, Jethro immediately noticed that the bandages had been taken off the other man's eyes and sighed in relief. It looked like Tony's vision was safe, that he'd be able to see all right. His fingers brushed the bangs off Tony's forehead and he apologized quietly, "Sorry I wasn't here last night, but it was either crash at home or pass out at work. I guess I can't go on and on for three hours of sleep a night anymore. Getting old."

He paused to take Tony's hand, bringing it up and pressing it to his lips and sighing deeply as he held it to his cheek. Lowering it to his thigh, Jethro gently rubbed the palm and continued, "They'll probably bring you out of it tomorrow, if the bandages are gone now, so this'll be my last visit. I wish I wasn't such a coward, but I can't risk you like that again, Tony, I'm sorry. I can't face you being hurt or...or killed, because of me. Ah hell, I don't even know if I could survive you at all, even if it had nothing to do with me. And I know we talked about this the other night, but I wanted to say it again in case it didn't sink in the first time.

"I'm hoping some small part of you hears this and knows that I still love you. I always will. I want so bad to just crawl into bed with you and hold you and fall asleep like that, but I can't. I know you'll forgive me one day, but I doubt I'll ever forgive myself for what's happened to you," Jethro finished.

He leaned down and rested his head on Tony's shoulder, one of the few places he knew wasn't injured. Even through the antiseptic hospital smell, when he was this close to Tony, he could smell his lover and it brought him comfort in ways that nothing else could. Sighing deeply, he whispered, "Just five minutes, that's all I need, then I'll leave."

"Take as long as you want."

Jethro froze in place at Tony's soft words and then a heavy hand rested on the back of his head keeping him there as fingers stroked through his hair.

Tony continued, "They brought me out of it this morning. Surprised Kate didn't say anything."

"She's not speaking to me," Jethro explained, still not moving.

"Ah. Yeah, she's pretty ticked at you for not visiting me. But then, so was I, before I knew you were sneaking in to see me...Jethro, look at me."

Reluctantly, Jethro lifted from Tony's shoulder and looked at the other man. There was a pinched, pained expression on the younger man's face as they stared at each other. He saw so much in those eyes: pain, forgiveness, anger, and love. All of it whirled in Tony's expressive gaze and Jethro's breath caught as he tried to keep his own emotions down.

Shaking his head as a tear slipped out, Tony ordered softly, "Don't you ever do that to me again, Jethro. Don't you ever let me think you don't love me, unless you don't. I can take just about anything else, but not that."

"Tony, I can't...this happened because of me," Jethro replied, speaking steadily through sheer force of will.

"Bullshit! That is such crap and you'd know it if you weren't so fucking egotistical sometimes!" Tony snapped, punching Jethro's shoulder. "This happened because I was nice to a lunatic who decided she wanted to play house without my consent. She used you to get to me, yeah, but none of this would have happened if I'd had the common sense God had given me and just told someone about her."

Surprised by the barrage, Jethro didn't answer, absently rubbing the dull throb where Tony had socked him.

Tony ran out of steam after the outburst and sagged back against the pillows. Eyes closed, Tony whispered, "I don't want to lose you, Jethro, but I won't force you to stick around, either. If you don't want to be here, th-then you shouldn't be. It's your decision, Boss, always has been."

Could he do this? Could he really just get up and walk away? Jethro knew that that was exactly what Tony was giving him the option to do. That he was even expecting it to happen. His mind flashed back to finding Tony on the cot, bleeding and broken and blind, and nausea rose swiftly. How could he consider staying when something like that could happen again? He had so many enemies and if he stayed with Tony, the younger man would be in constant danger, even more so than from just the job itself.

Without even realizing it, he was on his feet. Tony's eyes remained closed and his head turned away from Jethro, accepting the decision, even as he hesitated to leave.

"Just go. Please."

The whisper was barely audible, but it put Jethro's feet in motion and he left. When the door swung softly shut behind him, he stopped, breathing as hard as if he'd run a marathon, his heart pounding in his chest and his throat tight. Everything inside was screaming to turn around, to get back to Tony's side, but fear held him back.

And that was when Jethro really stopped and admitted that the problem was fear. Fear of Tony being hurt and killed. Fear of Tony being tormented or tortured again.

Fear of Tony...

Jehtro's eyes widened when the knowledge struck him out of the blue. He wasn't just afraid that something would happen to Tony, he was afraid of Tony. Afraid of the power that Tony had over him, now that he'd let the younger man so deep inside. He was scared shitless that he'd be left a ruined shell because Tony would leave him one day down the road. It was the same trap he'd fallen into with all of his wives, among other things. The deep down insecurity that he'd be left alone, so why not make sure it happened on his terms?

"You stupid asshole," he muttered, barely resisting the very strong urge to bash his head against the wall.

Instead, he turned around and walked back into the hospital room to find Tony curled into a ball on his side, shaking as he cried into a pillow, muffling the heartrending sounds into it. Rushing to the bed, Jethro could only think of the damage that Tony was doing to his internal injuries and exclaimed, "Tony, come on, straighten out, you're going to hurt yourself!"

Tony jumped in reaction to his voice and his tear-stained face lifted from the pillow to stare at him in shock. "What're you doing here? Get out! You don't want to be here, so leave!"

"Tony, no, listen to me! Please, give me a chance to explain, but first, you're going to hurt yourself, please move?" Jethro begged, hand on Tony's back.

For a long, suspicious moment, Tony didn't move. He did let Jethro arrange him into a safer position, staying silent. Jethro felt like a worm on a hook, but didn't back down, making sure all the tubes and pads were still in place despite the younger man's jostling. When that was set, Jethro sighed shakily, seeing just how much pain he'd caused, and feeling the guilt that went with it. Because he'd given in to fear.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jethro said, "I'm sorry. I was scared."

"You said that," Tony muttered, not meeting his eyes.

Jethro shook his head and clarified, "Of you, Tony. I was scared of you."

Incredulous, Tony looked at him and demanded, "What the hell for?"

"It sounds stupid, I know, but I was afraid you were going to leave me and I guess I just figured that I'd do it first. I didn't even know that's what I was doing, not until it hit me in the hall, just now."

Tony was completely silent, staring at him without any expression for a few minutes as he digested the explanation. Just as Jethro was starting to think he should get a doctor, a pillow slammed into his face and Tony shouted, "You asshole! You fucking bastard! What were you thinking!?"

"What is going on in here!"

They both turned towards the new voice in surprise, finding a nurse glaring at them from the door.

"What are you doing here? You need to leave right now, or I'll call security!" she exclaimed.

"No, wait, it's okay," Tony interrupted. "Please, I was just upset, don't make him go, okay?"

"Visiting hours..."

Jethro stood and asked, "Please, just for ten more minutes. It's vital we clear something up right now and then I promise I'll leave."

She stared at him suspiciously, but finally nodded. Wagging a finger at him, she repeated, "Ten minutes. And I'm timing you."

Making an X over his heart, Jethro agreed, "Ten minutes."

When she was gone, Jethro turned back to the bed, more than a little afraid of what would happen next.

"You know, I've heard a lot of really dumb excuses in my time, I've probably made up a good portion of them, too, but what you just told me..." Tony's voice faded and he sighed. "It's not stupid, Jethro. I can understand why you'd feel that way from what you've told me about your past relationships, but you gotta know that I'm not like that. I love you and would do anything to stay at your side. Anything. Every day I'm with you it's a bonus, scoring big, you know?"

Swallowing against the tightness in his throat, Jethro sat on the bed and took Tony's hand again. "I don't know, Tony, because no one's ever said that to me before. Not even you."

A bit rueful, Tony observed, "Score one for dumbass masculine pride. I'm saying it now, Jethro...I love you. Every day with you, shows me what life is supposed to be like, even when you're being a jerk to me, because you're the jerk I love."

Laughing softly, aching with relief that he might come out of this with his heart intact, Jethro said, "That's very, very good to know, Tony. It really is. And, you know I do love you, right?"

"So you said when you thought I was unconscious," Tony replied, hesitant.

Jethro shook his head. "So I said the day before this nightmare started, remember?"

"It's not going to be pretty, you know. Hell, I'm not going to be pretty anymore," Tony whispered, his eyes flickering away.

Leaning in, Jethro kissed him, slow and deep, feeling them reconnecting with the sharing of their breaths and the lazy twining of their tongues. When he pulled back, he stared deep into the big, dark eyes and whispered, "You weren't all that pretty to begin with."

Tony laughed, an honest, open sound and punched him again, eyes twinkling. "Thanks a lot, Boss."

Smiling, feeling like he might never stop, Jethro cupped Tony's face and stated, "You're what matters, Tony, I don't care what you look like as long as you're healthy and happy."

Echoing the smile, Tony announced, "You're a sap."

Jethro arched an eyebrow at him. "No one will believe you if you say that I said that, so don't even bother."

"Time's up, gentlemen."

Sighing, Jethro leaned in for another kiss and then stood, brushing the hair from Tony's forehead. "I'll see you tomorrow. Get some sleep."

"I think I can, now," Tony admitted, smiling tiredly.

Jethro nodded to the nurse as he passed by and offered her a smile.

She followed him a few paces and informed him, "We were worried when you didn't show up last night, you know."

Jethro groaned.

* * * *

"I've got it!" Tony huffed, glaring at his lover.

Holding up his hands, Jethro backed off and let Tony walk unassisted to the sofa in his living room. The last three weeks had been, alternatively, horrendously slow and incredibly fast. There were the days when Tony was in so much pain from therapy that he could barely move without crying and there were the days he had so much energy that he could barely stop talking and bouncing around in the hospital bed. Usually an energetic Tony corresponded to the nights that Jethro got the least amount of sleep because he was up worrying about the next day of scheduled pain and therapy.

Once he explained things to Kate, she helped take a lot of his duties at work, clearing his schedule of the administrative duties that came with the territory. She only occasionally gave him grief and he was of the suspicious mind that she was waiting to swoop on both of them when Tony was back to full strength. Abby, on the other hand, had no problems teasing him about being 'off the market for good' and 'mid-life crisis.' Ducky was just as bad but, thankfully, Gerald kept him in line for the most part.

It had been decided that Tony would stay at Jethro's house while finishing his recovery and when he couldn't be there because of an investigation, an aide would be around to help. Officially, it was only a friend helping out an injured friend, since regulations forbid romantic partners from working together. And hey, if Tony forgot to change his address once he was better, they were both pretty sure that no one in personnel would notice or care.

Arms crossed over his chest, Jethro watched as Tony leaned heavily on the cane to walk to the sofa. It was a painful thing to witness, the younger man's previous grace and strength completely gone, thanks to the hamstring injury. Beckwood had done a lot of damage with that knife of his and the extent of it hadn't been discovered until Tony had started therapy. They'd had to go back in and do surgery on the leg in an attempt to fix it.

When Tony collapsed onto the sofa, Jethro asked mildly, "Happy?"

Panting a little, his face tight with pain, Tony replied, "Thrilled. Now get me a bucket so I can throw up in peace."

Jethro shook his head in fond exasperation and walked over to him, sitting on the couch and pulling Tony to him. His lover slid down and lay over his lap, eyes closing as Jethro rubbed his fingers through the thick hair. Kissing the temple, Jethro observed, "Rough day."

"Sucked," Tony agreed. But then a smile surfaced and he continued, "But I'm home now."

"You're home now," Jethro agreed, still massaging Tony's scalp.

Humming in contentment, Tony mumbled, "Just going to take a little rest."

"Pull your legs up."

They arranged him so that he was stretched out altogether, instead of half-on, half-off. Jethro knew that Tony was about to fall asleep from the exertion of being up and about all day and he didn't want any additional strained muscles. As it was, he was about to follow Tony into dreamland, the gentle massage soothing Jethro as much as his lover.

It was going to be a long haul, but he knew they'd make it now that the hard stuff was out of the way. Now that Tony had kicked his heart into shape, along with kicking his ass into line. Smiling briefly, Jethro yawned and settled in for the night.