Author's Note: This is the third story in what has become the "Tony & Jess" trilogy. Jess is an original character, a life-long friend of Tony's. There's enough information here to get some background on Jess if you haven't read the other stories. However, if you want more, feel free to read or skim "From California to Peoria in Under Four Hours" and "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished." This particular story takes place after Hiatus and Shalom, but before Escaped, although there's a bit of playing with the timeline. Enjoy!



"Hey Jess, it's Tony," the answering machine message said. "Just wanted to let you know that I'll be working some strange hours for a while … didn't want you to worry if you couldn't reach me. I'll give you a call when things even out again. I'm sure one of us owes the other one dinner. Hey – do me a favor and call Uncle Jack and let him know too. I can't find his number anywhere and I'm swamped. Thanks … love ya."

Jess listened to the message two more times. It had been left nearly two weeks ago.

Jess Kennedy had been working in Washington DC for less than two years – this time anyway; it was her fourth job in the capitol – but she'd known Tony DiNozzo since she was eight and he was nine. They'd lived next door to each other growing up, had gone to school and college together, and had kept in touch ever since. While Tony had been bouncing around between police forces, Jess had been moving from government project to government project. She was an expert in strategic operations, her job taking her all over the world. Jess and Tony had been best friends from the day they met, and were still today. Their relationship was equal parts loving and confrontational. At the heart, they were fiercely loyal to each other and would do pretty much anything for each other.

Jess thought about Tony and their past adventures as she rode the elevator up to his office at NCIS. "This is another fine mess you've gotten me into, Dino," she said to herself as she prepared to enter what she suspected would be a somewhat unwelcoming environment. Things at NCIS had been a little strained since Gibbs 'retired' after the Cape Fear incident, and even more so after he'd left the second time. She didn't know if her showing up with the information she had would be seen as her helping a friend or her sticking her nose into something that she shouldn't be sticking her nose into. She hoped for the former, but suspected it would be the latter.

Ziva and McGee were working on case reports when the elevator opened. Ziva looked at Jess suspiciously. Ziva and Jess had developed a friendly, but distant, relationship. That is, they could stand being in the same room, but if given the chance would pass on the opportunity. McGee liked Jess. She seemed to tone Tony down a little, and she had no problem calling him on things he did or said that were childish or inappropriate. Although McGee had to admit there'd been less of that since Gibbs left. McGee kind of missed the childish and inappropriate things.

Ducky and Abby, just for the record, both liked Jess. Ducky and Jess shared a love of opera and she had accompanied him to the Kennedy Center a couple of times when his mother was too ill to attend a performance. As far as Abby was concerned, Jess was someone who looked out for Tony, so that made her okay in Abby's book.

And Gibbs? Jess and Gibbs had been initially attracted to each other and had dated – well, one date – but that's as far as it had gone. They'd had a good time, and parted as friends, give or take a dented car door.

"Jess, hi," McGee said with a smile as she came around the corner into the bullpen.

"Tony's not here," Ziva said in tone that wasn't unfriendly, but was in that neighborhood. "He's at a conference in Rome."

"I know he's not here," Jess said, carefully. "I actually came to talk to both of you." McGee and Ziva looked at each other and then back at Jess. "Tony's not in Rome."

"Of course he is," McGee said with a smile. "I dropped him at the airport myself. And he called when he got there. That was …" McGee looked at the calendar on his desk. "That was eleven days ago. He should be back day after tomorrow."

"If he's not in Rome, where do you think he is?" Ziva asked, her curiosity piqued, but her suspicions still high.

"Yes, Specialist Kennedy," Director Shepard asked, quietly. No one had noticed her approach the group. "If he's not in Rome, where do you think he is?"

"I don't have a location," Jess said. "That's why I need your help. I know he's in trouble, but without you, I have no hope of finding him." Ziva and McGee traded a glance.

"How can you be so sure?" Jenn asked.

Jess looked around at the skeptical faces. "He left me a message," she said. Director Shepard started to speak, but Jess cut her off. "Nothing compromising," Jess said quickly. She pulled a small cassette player out of her bag and played the message back.

"And from this, you know that Tony's in trouble?" Ziva said. "He sounds fine. And it was left the same day he left for the seminar. Even Tony couldn't get into trouble that quickly!"

"You don't understand," Jess said, feeling the intense scrutiny she was getting from the Director. "Tony and I have this … code …"

"Why does this not surprise me?" Ziva said, sighing and plopping down in her chair.

"Ziva, please," Jenn said. Then, to Jess, "Go on …"

"When he would leave on undercover assignments, he'd always leave me a message. Never with any details – just letting me know. That way, if something went wrong, he could be sure that there was someone who could run up a red flag."

Jenn raised an eyebrow.

"He'd gotten trapped once," Jess said, "in Pittsburgh. An 'unofficial' assignment that was way off the grid. He got out of it on his own, but just barely. After that, he always left a message so that someone would know to look for him if he didn't contact anyone after a certain amount of time."

"So, 'Uncle Jack' is who?" Director Shepard asked.

"'Uncle' means that he's 'undercover without back-up'." The Director raised an eyebrow again.

"'Aunt' is regular undercover; 'uncle' is no back-up," Jess explained.

"Go on," Jenn said.

"'Jack' means that he should be off comm for ten days – J … tenth letter," Jess continued. "If I didn't hear from him on the tenth day after he left the message that meant that I needed to start asking questions. Today is day eleven."

There was silence as everyone looked at Director Shepard. Jess was just about to speak again when Jenn cut her off.

"I appreciate your concern, Miss Kennedy, and I applaud your loyalty," Director Shepard said, in a friendly, but no-nonsense tone. "But this is a simple misunderstanding. Agent DiNozzo is in Italy and he's just fine. I spoke with him this morning. In fact, now that you mention it, he did say to tell you that he was sorry he'd been out of touch. He specifically said to tell you not to worry." Then she smiled at Jess – it was one of those smiles that looked good on the surface, but had nothing behind it.

"You're not a very good liar, Director," Jess said, not backing down.

Jenn's demeanor changed instantly. "Agent DiNozzo is fine, Specialist Kennedy. I suggest you go back to the Pentagon and do your job. We are fully capable of doing ours." With that, she turned and headed back to MTAC.

Nearly 300 miles away, Tony was sitting in a pick-up truck on a wooded road in northern Pennsylvania. Outside the truck were two men who, at present, were trying to determine his fate. Inside the truck was a third man, who was aiming a gun at him and daring him to try and escape. Tony's hands had been tied to the grab-handle above the window (thankfully, a position he was used to being in after so many car trips with Gibbs and Ziva behind the wheel), and his mouth was taped shut (with duct tape, of course … it was going to hurt like hell when they pulled it off). As he sat and waited, he mentally head-smacked himself for being stupid enough to get caught. Then he ran over the mission in his head.

He'd been canvassing a wooded area just inside Allegheny National Forest, trying to ferret out a ring of Marines and Navy personnel who were dealing in home-made meth. A brigadier general's son – a promising cadet and an excellent marksman – had been found dead from an overdose three weeks earlier. He'd spent the afternoon on a sniper shooting spree that had killed four innocent civilians and paralyzed a fifth, and then he had OD'd, killing himself. The general wanted the meth lab found and destroyed and any military personnel involved punished, preferably shot without court-martial. And he wanted it done NOW.

The case had first come to light a couple of days after Ziva came back and Gibbs left for the second time. Because of the nature of the crime and the levels of the people involved, it was agreed by all agencies that a team of three would be sent in – one each from Naval Intelligence, Marine MP and NCIS. Tony's cover was as a dishonorably discharged petty officer who still had good contacts within the military establishment. It was an easy gig and a decent plan. Tony had played the roll of 'dishonorably discharged drug dealer' before, so his paperwork and cover story didn't need much tweaking. Plus, the mission got him out of the office, which was a good thing since there are only so many 'you're not Gibbs' stares and comments one guy can take in a week.

The only problem with the plan was that they'd never found the meth lab. The other guys had been returned to their units. But for Tony, the mission had become less about saving a brigadier general's reputation than it was about finding out why the intel they'd been given wasn't leading them anywhere. Tony had insisted on staying on the assignment even after it became clear that it was far more difficult than originally thought. He'd had to argue with the Director to get permission to continue.

"Look," he'd said. "There's a lab out there – we know that. These guys are good. They probably have hooks into the system all the way up. That's how they know that we're looking for them. Let me do this under the radar. Go on the record saying that you've closed the investigation. Let that info run all the way to the top. And then send me back out. That's the only way to figure out what's going on."

"It'll be too dangerous," the Director had said. "I won't be able to give you any cover or back-up."

"I've got my cover," Tony reminded her. "And if it goes the way it should, I won't need any back-up."

"And if it doesn't?" the Director said, eyebrow raised.

"Then it won't matter," said Tony.

The two of them stared each other down for 15 seconds as Director Shepard ran scenarios through her head. Tony was just about to try another tactic when she spoke.

"Okay," the Director said. "Ten days. No more. If you haven't located what we need by then, you come back in. Period. Your team will be told that you're at a training seminar in Rome. If anything goes bad, you're on your own. Understood?" She watched his expression.

"Understood," Tony said, a slight grin pulling at his mouth.

"I'm serious, Tony," Jenn said, standing to emphasize the point. "This mission has been officially called off, which means there's no support, budgetary or otherwise."

Tony grinned. "See you in ten days."

He'd gone home, left a message for Jess, and then called McGee for a ride to the airport. Not only did Tony have McGee drop him off at the International Terminal at BWI, he'd shipped a suitcase of clothes and toiletries to the NCIS team in Spain. Two days after Tony was supposed to be in Italy, the Rota team would call NCIS in DC to tell them that Agent DiNozzo's luggage had been sent to 'Rota' instead of 'Rome' and they were shipping it to Italy. McGee or Ziva would leave a message for Tony at his hotel in Rome, and the cover would be solid. McGee and Ziva would be certain Tony was in Italy – plus they'd be able to laugh about him not having his luggage for the first few days. The guys in Spain would think Tony was an idiot for shipping his stuff to the wrong place, but it's not as though he'd ever be assigned to the Rota team.

The plane Tony got on that day had taken him to Bradford, Pennsylvania, not Rome (which, Tony noted, made for a much shorter and more enjoyable flight, considering the agency's penchant for not allowing anyone to fly first class). Tony had spent the next several days running down all of the leads that they'd collected on the task force. Most of them were nothing, but the ones that were actual intel all pointed to the same place. Allegheny National Forest. He'd bought some gear – he suddenly wondered if it was tax-deductible as an un-reimbursed business expense – camped out for a week, and explored every inch of the target area. Each lead he'd been able to discredit got him closer to the truth, and just yesterday he'd managed to find a small Quonset hut-style building that was almost at the center of the Forest. It was hidden by the trees and nearly inaccessible unless you had some heavy-duty wheels or were willing to do some major trekking. He'd marked the route and returned today, hoping to get a look inside before he headed back to DC.

Unfortunately, when he got back to the hut, he ran into three men – the three men who were now deciding his fate. He'd feigned confusion, telling them that he'd been hiking in the woods and had gotten off the path. But they'd run his ID, which marked him as a military guy who had been dishonorably discharged and had a penchant for dirty ops. They'd decided that Tony was working for a competitor and no amount of his formidable charm or undercover acting talents could convince them otherwise.

And that was how, eleven days after he started, Tony found himself captured, bound and gagged, cursing his luck and hoping someone would come looking. The worst part was that he never got to see inside the hut. He'd be really pissed if it wasn't a meth lab.