A follow-up to "Frame Up" that actually didn't written until immediately after "Probie," oddly enough. On an unrelated note, the new chapter of Rictus should be up by Friday - - and I offer this little piece as something to tide you over, if you've been waiting.

- - - - -

The adrenaline of the night - - of seeing Chip bound with coils of duct tape, of seeing Tony step out from behind the steel bars of his brief cage - - was still with him, and McGee found himself wandering the halls at a quarter till midnight, trying to stave off sleepiness with lukewarm cups of coffee and the Hershey kisses Abby had left in the drawers of his desk. He felt both jittery and strangely content, not ready to leave, and so he walked like a ghost through the bullpen, trying to take in NCIS at night.

They had shut off most of the lights and the few agents still at their desks were working from the yellowy glow of their own lamps. McGee didn't bother trying to start conversations: they all seemed exhausted and bitter, with bruises under their eyes and empty coffee cups scattered over their desktops. He stayed away.

The evidence garage was locked up for the night and there was no point in wrangling a key out of someone at this hour just so he could go in and admire the treasure trove of bagged and tagged Rolexes and diamond rings - - even the dark cherry Harley that had come in last week that Tony had staked out every day during lunch wasn't worth starting a fight.

The lab wasn't interesting without Abby, autopsy was locked, and he was pretty sure they weren't going to let him into MTAC.

That left the gym. It was always open, anyway, safe and incapable of being contaminated. If he could find the light switch, he could have it to himself: have another chance at studying the climbing wall he had never dared to scale under Tony's supervision. No way was he letting Dinozzo strap him into a harness and hold him against a simulated mountainside - - he was sure enough that Tony wouldn't actually let him fracture his skull in rapid collision with the floor, but that didn't mean that the harness wouldn't be uncomfortably tight in specific places or drop suddenly (if slightly) at random intervals.

He had expected darkness and groping about, but there was already a single light on against the wall, already movement throwing shadows.


Even this far away, he could tell: Tony was working one of the punching bags, the sleek black leather one that had only come in last week. McGee could see the silver chain catching in the single column of light. Tony moved in and out of illumination, his shoulders hunched and his hands drumming steadily against the bag. So he wasn't the only one that found it hard to sleep. McGee smiled and came closer, raising his hand, but Tony only moved further around the bag, showing McGee his back. His tee-shirt was soaked through with sweat, the gray turned charcoal along his spine and shoulder blades.

Even then, stupidly, after all that had happened, he didn't know there was anything wrong. He just said, "You want me to get you a Gatorade or something?" voice light and even a little relieved, because Tony was there and not that many hours ago, there was a chance that he wouldn't be, not ever again.

Tony turned to him and smiled.

There was blood on his face, all down his chin and not dried yet. It was still red, black when he circled back into the darkness, and his teeth were streaked crimson. He had bitten deeply into his lip.

"Hey, Probie. Take your coat off, stay a while."

"You're not wearing any gloves," McGee said finally.

Tony looked down at his wrapped fingers, as if he hadn't realized until now that he had left them so unprotected, with only the strips of cotton to stop his skin and bones from splitting apart. The fabric was already torn and yellowed with effort, fraying at the knuckles. Lines of blood had caught in the rough weave. Working one of the heavier bags without gloves was like forcing your hand into a brick wall, and the new ones yielded even less. McGee wondered if Tony had bitten through his lip in unconscious response to the pain.

"Yeah," Tony said, looking back up and blinking. "No gloves. Look, Ma, no hands." He held them up, showed McGee the sweaty hollows of his hands, the unraveling tape. "I'm bored with this. Come up in the ring with me. I've got spare shorts in the bag."

McGee stared at him, at his soft and worn Ohio State tee and his bloody, too-wide smile.

"I don't think so, Tony. Not tonight."

"Oh, come on," Tony said softly. His eyes were too dark, too unfocused. "I'll go easy on you."

He looked at the bag, at Tony's hands, at Tony's mouth. "No," he said. "You wouldn't."

The smile twisted, hooked up at one end as if someone had latched through Tony's skin and split lip and pulled. Like a fish, caught and drowning on dry land. Lashing out helplessly, flailing - - and Tony picked up his rhythm again, all too quickly, as if he had never even stopped. Circling once, twice, his hands slamming into the hard and slick leather that already glistened with sweat, with spittle, with blood. McGee watch. This wasn't Tony. This was someone more difficultly chiseled, someone more likely to laugh at his own blood hitting the floor then a banana peel fall.

McGee remembered the press of the bars against his own throat, so damned vulnerable, like Tony's hands, like Tony's mouth, and Tony holding him there with warm fingers like steel cables, shaking and already starting to fray.

Step. Turn. Strike. Step. Turn. Strike.

Tony telling him to guard his jaw, to put his hands higher, to never leave himself unprotected.

Tony's own hands drooping now, Tony so exposed that he might have been flayed open.

"Go home, McGee."

Tony turned into the force of the next blow that sent the punching bag spinning. The wraps he had twisted around his hands were dark with sweat now. He worked on the bag with unerring concentration, hitting so quickly that his fists were blurred. He would wreck his hands that way, with no gloves. He would, if he kept it up much longer. And Tony didn't seem ready to stop, not by a long shot.

Prison changes a man.

He thought about Tony sitting alone in that empty cell. Tony, with nothing to do but shred the pepperoni on his cooling slices of pizza. Tony, with no one but his thoughts for company. Knowing that outside of the walls he could no longer leave, his fate was speeding on without him, entirely beyond his reach. And now McGee shut his eyes and listened to the harsh, even rhythm of skin against leather. The bag could split apart at the seams. It was new, untested.

Something would have to give.


"I said go home." He circled the swinging bag. "Unless you changed your mind."

Teeth and flesh and blood and fingerprints. He stood in silence, and waited for Tony's careful footsteps to take him back into the light.