DISCLAIMER: Don't own it... No money is made... Just for fun and enjoyment!

SUMMARY: Sequel to "The SecDef Cheats." Lt. Col Cassidy moves in to NCIS and this will mean for Abby in the long run. McAbby, Drama/Romance/Angst

RATING: T - Adult subject matter, rare mild language, killer smooching.

A/N: Okay, this chapter still ended up being HUGE. I hope it makes up for the length of time it took me to finish this fic. :( It was fun and I hope you all have enjoyed it. Thanks for sticking with me on this one.

REVIEWS: I am always trying to improve my writing, so all constructive criticism is welcome. I would also like to thank you in advance for any reviews you might wish to leave. They really are a great boon to a writer's ego and gives you a huge incentive to live up to your expectations.

Chapter 23

The entire drive to Bethesda, Tim stole looks into the passenger seat. He was fairly certain that even if he was lucky enough to be able to look at Abby everyday for the rest of his life, he would still get the same thrill he was feeling right then. There was just something about Abby that made it impossible for him to be anywhere near her and not look.

Each time his eyes went back to watching the road, Abby noticed that he had a little grin on his face. She had no idea what it was, but she always felt a little giddy when she caught Tim looking at her like that. Many times, she would wear things just so she could insure that he would not be able to resist gawking. Catching him looking was half the fun, because she could guarantee that he would blush and get flustered as soon as she busted him. It never failed to delight her to see that red creeping up his cheeks. Abby thought that it would probably make her very happy if she could do that everyday for the rest of her life.

"Hey Abs… Can you check my PDA for the directions."

Abby reached into the center console and took out Tim's PDA. "What did you need?"

"Ah, am I getting off the Beltway at Rockville Pike?" He pointed at the sign that announced the Naval Hospital exit.

"Nope…" She looked up to see the exit they needed and squealed, "Oh! That one, Old Georgetown Road!"

"Shoot!" McGee made quick work to get onto the off-ramp just in time, and without cutting anyone off.

Abby smirked and said, "Wow, I guess riding with Ziva has taught you some of those offensive driving skills, huh?"

Tim shook his head and asked, "Just tell me which way to turn."

"Right at the bottom of the ramp. And then a left onto Spruce Tree Avenue."

"And then right onto Alta Vista, just past the corner of Alta Vista & Locust?" Tim stole another quick look at her as he merged onto Old Georgetown Road, and smiled shyly as he confirmed his own memory.

"Righty-O, Timmy!"

As Tim changed into the left lane he said, "You know, Abby…nobody else calls me Timmy, right?"

"Really?" Abby was a little surprised to hear that Tony had never used it before, and then she wondered why Tim would bring it up. "Does it bother you?"

"Well… Like now, it's kinda nice." His voice took on a distant quality.

Abby prodded, "But…"

Tim slowed the car, flipped on his turn signal and made it into the turn lane just as the light changed. "I don't know, I guess it just wouldn't be so nice if it was somebody else."

Abby pursed her lips for a moment as she contemplated what McGee had just said. "So, you'd rather I didn't give a certain dark haired special agent incentive to use it against you?" She smiled when she watched the blush rise in his cheeks as they reached the end of the street and Tim had to look her way as he turned right onto the next street.

Trying to change the subject, Tim made mention of the car they were about to drive past. "Oh, look…Ducky's already here."

They found a place to park a few houses down from the Colonel's address. As Tim tried to make it around the front of the car to open Abby's door, she came popping up out of the car. "Did you open the trunk yet?" She started walking to the back of the car and looked over her shoulder to see Tim slump his shoulders for a moment. Seeing him look so dejected stopped her from moving. "What is it?"

He shook his head and started walking to the trunk. She grabbed hold of his elbow and stopped him. "It's nothing… The trunk's open an-" She gave him her sternest look and scrunched her brow tightly together, letting him know that she was not going to budge. "It's nothing… It's just that sometimes I want to do things for you and it's not always easy."

Her eyebrows were still scrunched together when she asked, "Like what things?"

McGee shrugged his shoulders and tried to get out of the conversation, but he knew he was trapped. "Well, it's not quite as cool if I have to ask, but like opening your car door."

Abby gave him her best sideways, screwed up grin and then the idea hit her. In a flash she was back inside the car, pretending to wait for Tim as though nothing had happened. He shyly smiled and then leaned down to open her door. Abby daintily held out her hand for him and he took it to assist her in getting out of the car. When she stood up and looked into McGee's eyes she could no longer hold up the act and she wrapped her arms around his neck as she said, "You know, you really are cute when you're playing the boyfriend thing."

Tim blushed so hard that time that his ears were glowing red, but it did not stop him from taking advantage of the situation. He placed his hands on her hips and then leaned in to capture her lips in a solid and very satisfying kiss. When they finally released from the lock, Abby was using her hold around his neck to keep herself on her feet. "Oh yeah, definitely gonna have to keep that little game up. The rewards are very nice."

McGee smiled at her remark and finally turned away from her to get the beer out of the cooler in the trunk. From the other side of the trunk lid, Tim called back to Abby, "Hey, Abs…can you grab the gift basket from the backseat, please?"

"Sure thing, Timmy." Abby pulled the colored cellophane gift out of the car and held it up to get a good look at it. Instead of a regular basket, the items were being held inside a decorative rowboat. "McGee! This is soooo cute!"

He tucked one six-pack under his left arm and held the other one by the handle as he closed the trunk lid to see Abby's delight in the gift. "Yeah, I'll have to remember that shop. They did a real nice job, huh?"

"This is really great." She suddenly noticed that Tim was standing next to her and he had his right elbow crooked toward her. She looked down and then back up into his eyes before she understood what he was doing. Abby smiled and laid her hand into the crook of his elbow.

As they walked across the street McGee's car chirped, which surprised Abby. "What's that?"

Tim patted the keys in his pocket and said, "Proximity lock. As soon as the key transmitter gets far enough away, it sends a signal to the computer to lock the doors. Kinda cool, huh?"

"New gadget?"

"Yeah, just installed it last night." Tim blushed at having been caught.

"So, you spent Friday night putting a new gadget in your car instead of going bowling with me?" Abby was not entirely surprised, because the group she bowled with was not exactly Tim's cup of tea. The fact that a couple of them actually think they are real vampires probably had more to do with it than anything else.

"Last time I went with you, it was a disaster. I didn't want you to have a bad time again."

Abby leaned her head onto his shoulder for a moment when she realized he had given her the perfect answer. "Awwww… Well, then I'm glad we both had a good Friday night."

As they walked up to the Colonel's house McGee said, "This is better though. Much better."

They were both smiling when Tim reached up to ring the doorbell. There was a certain amount of scuffle going on behind the door before they finally saw the door handle move. However, they were not prepared for the person who appeared on the other side of that door when it opened. A very confused looking Mrs. Mallard was standing in the doorway.

"You are not my postman… Why are you here?" Before they could answer, Ducky could be heard coming down the hall.

"Mother… I told you to stay in your seat. This is not our house and-…" Ducky stopped when he saw that Abby and McGee were standing there. "Oh, thank goodness. Abigail, Timothy, at least it wasn't anyone else." Ducky turned back to his mother and worked to shepherd her back down the hall. "Now, we need you to come back into the parlour, Mother. And never you mind about that doorbell."

As Tim and Abby came into the door, Tim stopped long enough to close the door behind him before gesturing for Abby to precede him down the hall.

They were stopped when the Colonel appeared from a room to the left side of the hall wiping her hands on a dish towel. "Ducky, was there anyone at the-…" She turned to see Abby standing there with the gift basket outstretched to her. "Well, I guess I know the answer to that question…" She tossed the towel over her shoulder and McGee realized that maybe his Nintendo shirt would not have been too far out of place when he saw the t-shirt the Colonel was wearing. It had the Marine Corps logo on it and said, "There are two types of people in the world… Marines, and those that wish they were."

Before he could say anything about the shirt or even say hello a tall, well built man came bounding down the stairs to their right. "Abby!" The man wrapped her up in a big hug and took hold of the gift basket to keep her from dropping it. "When Gwen told me you were coming I was thrilled. What's this?" The Colonel came to stand beside the man and they both regarded the item in question.

"Oh! It's a gift for you guys. McGee had it made." Abby turned and smiled broadly at Tim who was completely confused. "Right, sorry… Tim, this is J.T., the Colonel's husband."

The man passed the gift off to his wife and extended his right hand to Tim. "Pleased to formally meet you, McGee… I've heard quite a bit about you from Abby and Ducky, so it's nice to finally meet the man."

"Yes, sir, thank you." Tim was trying to regain his composure with the introduction.

"No ceremony here, young man… It's the only way I get any peace. At least until the end of June." Tim had no idea what that meant, but before he could ask the man noticed that he was carrying beer. "And you just made yourself welcome in this house indefinitely. Anybody showing up with beer is good with me. Let me get those from you and I'll get 'em in the cooler." In a flash the man had taken the beer from McGee and was walking them out to the cooler. That was when he noticed the t-shirt he had on, it was a Navy Corpsman Unit shirt with two very angry looking snakes wrapped around the winged staff of the medical symbol and the phrase, "Above and Beyond the Call of Duty."

Tim finally had something to say, "Are you two having some kind of t-shirt war we should know about?"

The Colonel turned to look at the back of her husband's shirt. "J.T., why are you wearing that?"

From outside on the porch he hollered, "Look down." She looked down at her chest and realized what he was talking about. "If you can wear that, I can wear this." As he came in the room again he stopped just long enough to lean down and kiss her forehead before swiping the towel and heading into the kitchen. The moment his back was turned the Colonel stuck her tongue out at him. "Conduct unbecoming, my dear."

"Whatever… I still outrank you." Tim and Abby watched with amused fascination at the uncharacteristic behavior from the Colonel.

"Five more weeks, Gwen… That's all you got for that one, darlin'. And you don't even get to flaunt it when we meet up with the family this year." He hung out of the doorway to the kitchen to tease his wife. "Plus, the Captain says you're still just another jarhead he's gotta cart over the water."

"Oh, go pump your bilge, sailor." They both winked at each other and the Colonel escorted Abby and McGee into the living room. "Don't worry about us. We've been at it for twenty years and we've been ending up in the same place every night for the nearly eighteen of those."

McGee scrunched up his face into a question and asked, "What about the other two?"

"Well, seein' as I was sixteen when we met, still livin' with my parents in North Carolina, while he was in Annapolis at The Yard, it was pretty much frowned upon that we'd be sleepin' together." The Colonel and Abby were laughing as McGee blushed at her bluntness.

"My mistake." Abby leaned into him to offer Tim a little comfort after his recent embarrassment.

"Sorry 'bout that… But you will find that on party night, that I am something of a first class smart ass."

Another voice from the entryway drew their attention. "It's only those shiny little trinkets they keep givin' her to put on her shoulders that keeps her in line the rest of the time."

Abby and Tim had no time to inquire as to the identity of the young man with the close cropped strawberry blonde hair as the Colonel literally launched across the room into the arms of the man. He laughed at the display and held her up into the air. "Now that's the kinda greetin' a guy could get used to, Sissy."

"Bubba! What are you doin' here?!" The Colonel dropped back to the floor and slapped her brother's chest.

"Well, for some reason every time I make plans to come up here, a certain big sister of mine ships off to parts unknown." Tim watched the Colonel cringe at her brother's accusation. "So, when this really pushy Lieutenant Commander calls my XO and tells him to put my fuzzy butt in a transport on a forty-eight hour emergency duty to Bethesda, I got no choice."

The Colonel looked around the corner to see her husband peeking out from the kitchen. She smiled at him and then turned back to her brother. "What, you couldn't wrangle gettin' Emily and the baby up here, too?"

"What, I'm not good enough for ya?" He laughed at the look he received from his sister. "Well, I would, but seein' as they're down at the shore with Momma and Daddy gettin' spoiled senseless for the next couple months, it woulda been awful hard to tear 'em away. You know how Momma is with her grandkids."

"What do you mean, months?"

He winced at her question and said, "Ya caught that, huh? Yeah, so, I'm headed back out for some field testin' on that stuff I'm not supposed to talk about, that I shouldn't even know is ready for testin' and that you have no idea what I'm talkin' about." She shook her head at the familiar lack of content conversation. "Kinda why that pushy Doc put in to get me up here for a couple days."

"What kind of duty assignment did he drum up to get you here?"

"Transporting this Corpsman to the bosses doorstep." From the hallway emerged another man, with dark hair and eyes and a slight build.

"Danny? Danny Todd! When did you get back?!" The Colonel proceeded to wrap the man up in a big hug.

"I just got back this week. Janie and the kids haven't even gotten back from the folks yet. When my old boss found out where I was, he made a few calls. Seems this boss of mine has some connections pretty high up the chain." Danny looked back toward the kitchen as J.T. walked back out wiping his hands on a dish towel.

"Yeah, well, I figured this was the only way I was gettin' out of the doghouse on that whole poker cruise deal." He dropped his hands onto his wife's shoulders.

The Colonel reached over with her left hand and patted his hand on her right shoulder as she said, "Keep dreamin' sailor." She looked around and finally remembered her manners. "Oh, I'm sorry… I should introduce everybody." She turned and laid a hand on the first man's arm. "Brian, over there on the sofa is Dr. Mallard and his mother." She leaned over to whisper in his ear, "They're hoping Simon comes tonight."

"Nice to meet you, Dr. Mallard, Ma'am… You'll be happy to know I saw Simon in a holding pattern, looking for a place to land that behemoth of his." Brian nodded at them.

"Which one did he bring?" J.T. asked.

"You're talkin' to the wrong Baldwin, man… All I know about cars is that they have four wheels and seats, and if you don't put gas in 'em, you ain't goin' anywhere." He laughed at the question.

Dan cut in, "I think it's the Bentley, the silver one."

The Colonel nodded and then returned to her introductions. "And over here we have Abby Sciuto and Tim McGee."

Brian nods in their direction before Gwen continues, "And this is my baby brother Brian, who I never get to see and is hiding my new baby niece away from me for fear I'll spoil her rotten."

"I blame it all on Emily. She's convinced you're gonna have Megan dressin' in the blues before the kid can walk."

"BDU's, yes, but I haven't been able to find the blues in a onesie yet." She gave her brother a little shove for his joke.

Her husband took up the mantle "And this fine lookin', dark haired sailor is my old swabby, Corpsman Lieutenant Dan Todd. But, do not call him Danny… There aren't many that can get away with that one, and both of 'em could kick his ass."

"Look who's talking, nancy-boy… I seem to recall that someone in this room is deathly afraid of his wife doing just that." J.T. and Brian both looked at each other and then raised one hand in the air and pointed the other one at Dan.

He laughed at the display and then shrugged, "Alright, I'm in, too… On both accounts."

"I'd have to agree with that one, too. I've been afraid of your wife since Katie was born. Janie's threat scared me, and I'm not even married to her." Brian slapped the man on the back.

"You… I'm an OB and she scared the tar outta me." All three men laughed at their exchange.

Gwen looked over and saw the confused look on Abby's face. "Is there something wrong, Abby?"

Abby shook off the feeling and said, "Oh, sorry… It's just he looks really familiar."

Dan stepped forward and then shook his head as he looked back at Gwen. "You've got to be kidding me?! Abby… THE Abby?! Man, I should've spotted you right off! Katie'd told me so much about you, I feel almost like we're old friends."

Abby's face went instantly wide with shock. "Oh my God! You're Kate's Danny?!" She was no longer held back by the rules of propriety as she launched forward and wrapped him up into a serious hug. "I was so upset when they said you weren't gonna make it to the funeral."

"Yeah, well, according to Patrick you put on quite a show. I'm still sorry I missed it, but I was ankle deep in a huge mess at the time, and I just couldn't get away. Believe me, I caught some serious grief from the folks and my wife on that one." Dan turned to face McGee, his arm still wrapped around Abby's back. "And this has GOT to be McGee." He held his hand out for McGee. "Katie told me all kinds of nice things about you. Said you were probably the sweetest kid she ever worked with, and one of the smartest." He turned back to Abby and whispered, "And I guess she was right about you two, as well, huh?"

They all watched as Abby actually blushed from whatever Dan had said, and then moved back to stand next to McGee. Tim looked over at her as she grabbed his arm and held onto it. "Yeah, you could say that," was the only response she gave.

"Alright, I hate to break up this little reunion, but I got meat to grill, people." The Colonel's husband appeared at the kitchen doorway with a large metal tray over his head, wearing an apron that read: Sailors Have Depth (Charges).

The Colonel immediately started laughing when she saw the apron. "Baby, where'd you get that?!"

As he rounded the corner he smirked and shot a look back to his brother-in-law, "Ask Brian."

"Please don't encourage him." She slapped her brother's arm with her comment.

"Hey, somebody's gotta be on his side in this thing. You Jarheads kinda have us outnumbered at the moment."

"And getting worse by the moment." They all turned to see one Jethro Gibbs walking cautiously into the front door. "Sorry, but there is a gentleman out here who insisted I walk rig-"

A small, white-haired man with the thickest, proper Southern accent known to mankind came pushing through the doorway. "Gwendolyn, my dear, I found these miscreants on your front lawn and judgin' by their hair cuts, I naturally assumed they belonged inside. I hope I was not mistaken, child." He walked straight to the Colonel and took her hand in his before pressing a quick kiss on the top of it. "You are looking as delightful as eva, child, you must tell me your secret of eva-lastin' youth."

"Thank you, Simon, I do appreciate the compliment, but I swear there's no secret beyond genetics." Abby and McGee looked at each other, as if to confirm what they had just seen. Smiling, they knew they had just witnessed the Colonel blushing for the first time.

"Well, then it simply confirms my long held suspicion that good breedin' is the cornerstone to civilization." He continued to pat the Colonel's hand as he made an ancient attempt at winking through all of the wrinkles on his face.

"Simon, I have something of a surprise for you. We have some new guests for you to meet." The Colonel wrapped her hand around the back of the tiny elderly man's arm as they walked into the sitting area. "Dr. Simon Ashworth the Third, let me introduce you to Dr. Donald Mallard and his m-"

"My dear, what sin have you committed to have been banned to such a place as this? My sin is the quest of knowledge, but you are far too fair a soul to have such an egregious mark on your slate." The Colonel simply stood back and let the old guy do his thing. Simon had been a part of her life ever since her days at George Washington University and made the foolish mistake of taking one of his undergraduate literature classes for fun. He was well into his eighties and still teaching, as well as driving. Simon was a bit eccentric, but always entertaining. After talking to Ducky about his mother, she knew the two would be able to spend the entire evening talking away and finally give poor Ducky the respite he so desperately needed.

As she stepped back toward her other guests, Ducky took her arm and whispered, "Thank you. From the depths of my soul, thank so very much."

She leaned over and whispered back, "Once a month, and after this you can probably just drop her off, if you have…other plans."

The smiles shared by Ducky and the Colonel as they returned to others gave Abby another reason to be happy. She loved seeing her friends enjoying themselves, and this was proving to be just such an occasion.

The Colonel suddenly remembered her manners again and asked, "Oh Gunny! I still need to introdu-"

"Already taken care of, Colonel." McGee was quick to let her know that he had already done the honors. "I got through to everybody, except the little guy that pushed Gibbs and the Director into the house."

"Which I was more than happy to explain about… Nobody told me you found a friend for the old geezer." Brian nudged his sister with his remark.

Ducky decided it was his turn to speak up, "Actually, the Colonel and I were discussing our mutual difficulties with certain aging members of our lives, and the idea of introducing them was born of a bit of desperation, I believe."

"Oh man… That has got to be Ducky!" Dan exclaimed after hearing Ducky's explanation.

The older man looked Dan over and scratched at his chin a moment before answering, "And judging from the cut of your chin and the angle of your eyes, I would have to say that your sister was right; you do bear a striking resemblance to her. And yet, would still make a horrendous woman."

They all laughed as Dan cringed with Ducky's words, knowing his sister's sense of humor had once again been unleashed on him, even from the grave. "Yeah, but the pictures really clenched it." Hearing Gwen remind him about the evidence of his amazing lack of feminine attractiveness only made him cringe even more.

Before anymore could be said, J.T. poked his head in through the back door and hollered, "Gwenny, leave Dan alone, and come on out here and give me a hand."

"Yeah! What he said." Dan tried to make it sound more forceful than it had, and Gwen nudged his shoulder as she made her way to the back door.

Gibbs decided to join in the conversation as more than an observer, hoping it would cause Jennifer to do the same. "So, Dan… How long are you gonna be stateside?"

"Oh, well, I've actually gotten transferred to a training unit for the time being. The wife is threatening to have me drawn and quartered if I take off again any time soon." Dan explained his reasons.

Abby decided to also join in, "Is she the one I met at the funeral, with the boys?"

Dan nodded and smiled as he answered, ""That's the one… Actually, we had a little girl last year. In fact, she was pregnant at the funeral, barely."

"Yeah, that's the real reason she told him he's done goin' overseas… Every time he takes off, she ends up pregnant." Brian kidded his friend.

That was when J.T. had re-entered the room on his way into the kitchen. "Oh, you told them about the baby?"

Dan was met with the shocked look of his friend and the others gathered around. "Thanks, Boss."

J.T. stopped, cringed as he turned back to everyone and shrugged, "Oops?"

"She's not?" Dan's face told Brian all he needed to know, "Oh my God, she is… You need to tie a knot in that thing, man."

J.T. held up his hands when they looked back at him and said, "Hey… Don't even look at me for that one. I only deal with the results of your little going away presents. I'm strictly an effects man, you need somebody else for the cause."

When he came back out of the kitchen, J.T. had noticed that everyone was still standing near the entryway. "Hey, I kicked off the heater out there for those of you with thin blood, and there's a heck of a lot more room to sit out there around the table."

They all migrated slowly to the table on the deck out back. As they conversed a few more people joined the group. Abby and McGee were regaled with tales of the Colonel's childhood on the shores of North Carolina, about their crazy Aunt Corny, and about the time she managed to knock out the UNC boxing champ while home on leave from the Academy. McGee realized that Ziva was probably getting the only workout she had gotten since coming to NCIS, but that she was also most likely regretting it.

The Colonel's husband had brought out some amazing hot wings and everyone was just finishing them up when Jennifer Sheppard noticed the Colonel was still inside. She grabbed a couple of plates and her glass and headed inside with a plan. For the duration of her visit, she and the Colonel had not spoken at all. She felt as though there was still a marked distance between them and she knew it was going to have to be her move to change that.

Jethro had come by her place a little early to have a chat. She finally understood what had been going on at NCIS and with the SecDef, and she knew that she had crossed a line. Jen had felt threatened by the Colonel and what she thought she stood for, and in feeling that way, she had lashed out at the woman. She had lashed out without actually getting all of the facts. Jethro had told her that he was disappointed in her, because he thought he had trained her better than to be manipulated by such a ridiculous bastard as the SecDef. And she knew he was right, but somewhere down the line she had forgotten those lessons, somewhere in her own avarice for power and prestige.

As she walked into the kitchen, she watched as the Colonel poured a heaping basket of steamed vegetables into a pair of large bowls. She had to stifle the chuckle at the realization that the woman was an accomplished military officer, a respected member of the intelligence community, a documented genius and a happy homemaker all wrapped up into one.

"I heard that." The Colonel never turned from the stove as she spoke. "It's why I have these little parties, really. So, I can use all that stuff my mother and grandmother taught me growing up."

"Well, I can honestly say, it's been a fantastic evening already. Those wings were amazing." Jen tried her hand at small talk, hoping to get her nerve up before jumping in with both feet.

"Oh, those are J.T.'s and he'll be very happy to hear you liked them."

"Happy to hear what?" J.T. sailed into the room and swept up the bowls of vegetables.

"Director Sheppard likes your wings, honey."

"Ah, good… My Daddy taught me how to make those, so I'm always proud that somebody likes 'em." He hollered over his shoulder as he left the room, "Hurry up with that stuff, baby, the short ribs are already done."

"Okay, comin' right up." Jen watched as they moved in concert to complete their tasks and realized that they truly did appear to have a great working relationship. She had made a few calls to people she knew at the Pentagon and Bethesda, and every single report had been the same; brilliant, friendly and caring people that had the kind of relationship everyone dreams about.

"Can I help with anything?" Jen dropped her dishes into the sink and proceeded to wash her hands.

Just then, a timer went off and the Colonel said, "Ah, yeah… Can you grab the rest of those biscuits out of the oven and drop them into that last basket with the towel, please?"

"I think I can handle that… Where's the hot pad?"

"Right over your head." Jen looked up in the direction she had pointed out and found a pair of oven mitts fixed with magnets to the exhaust hood over the stove.

"That's a unique way to do that." Jen took one of them down and pulled the tray of biscuits out of the oven.

"Saves me from havin' to dig for them when J.T. has stuffed them in the back of a drawer, after he's been huntin' for somethin' else."

Jen chuckled, understanding that even perfection had its quirks. "I ah, wanted to thank you for inviting me tonight."

"Havin' a good time?"

"Yeah, but it's more than that." She paused as she carefully dumped the biscuits into the bowl. "I was actually surprised that you-"

"Hey, you got anything else ready to go, Sis?" Brian had poked his head into the kitchen at just that moment, delaying the confession that was struggling to come out.

"Ah, yeah, grab those baskets with the biscuits and if-"

"Got anything for me, Country Girl?" The face of J.T.'s astoundingly feminine surgical nurse appeared from around the corner.

"The first thing you gotta do, Frank, is clean that stuff off your face." Jen turned to see that the man who had arrived last was practically covered in the sauce from the wings.

"You better believe they wouldn't like to hear about my getting your husband's sauce on my face at the hospital." The man bumped his hip into the Colonel as he proceeded to clean his face at the kitchen sink.

"That's only because they'd be jealous… Everybody loves J.T.'s wings." The pregnant pause she inserted into the delivery was just enough to let Jen know that she was in on the joke. "Now, take those bowls of potato salad out and quit being a flirt."

When the man had left the kitchen, the Colonel turned back to Jen and said, "Sorry about him… He lives to shock people when he's out of uniform. Which is really funny if you've ever seen him in surgery; I don't think there's a straighter guy when he's working with J.T. on a tough case. He's the best surgical nurse in the entire gyno wing."

"Not a problem… He really seems to care about you and your husband. Told us all a nice story about the two of you working with that family shelter in the city." Jen did her best to alleviate any fears about her having any trouble with the atmosphere at the party. "It's really been a fantastic night. I haven't had this much fun at a dinner party in years."

"My mother'd be pleased to hear that." Jen watched as the Colonel seemed to relax a little more.

Deciding that if she was ever going to get through this, she needed to make it quick. "So, I was really surprised you wanted me to join you this evening… After everything that's been said."

"There is one thing you should know, Director Shep-"

"Please, I noticed that no one is using titles or formal names here, so please… Call me Jen."

"Okay… There is one thing you should know about me, Jen." She paused and then turned to look at the Director before handing her a large bowl of barbequed beans and saying, "I don't hold grudges against people for doin' their jobs. Besides, it's not like I didn't know how you'd react when the SecDef started playin' his game. After all, I wrote the book on you that got you the job in the first place."

"You what?" Jen was standing there with a bowl full of beans and a very shocked expression.

"You didn't think you got the job for your sparkling personality, did you? They asked me to profile the ten best candidates for the job, and Director Morrow chose from that list. When he asked me who'd best fit the job and could handle Gibbs while still watching his back, I told him there was only one person on that list with enough brass balls to live up to the task." The Colonel grabbed up the last bowl of food and left the Director completely speechless with her parting words as she walked out of the kitchen. "And I told him it would take the Gunny at least six months just to get his bearings again, 'cause he'd have to get used to havin' the hots for his boss."