It didn't take her long to fall asleep. I'd known it wouldn't. She was just flat worn out, not to mention drunk as hell. I glanced down at the bottle of bourbon I'd set aside, shaking my head. What the hell was she thinking? It's not that she was drinking. Hell, I've gone on way to many benders myself to condemn anybody else, and I've seen Abs so drunk all she could do was giggle. But bourbon? Abby doesn't drink bourbon. She drinks strange glowy drinks with cutesy names and colors that ought to belong to some toxic chemical in her lab. And not just bourbon, my bourbon, which even I admit is only a few steps above paint thinner. If I had needed one, that was as good a clue as any of just what shape she was in.

I picked up the bourbon and slugged it. It was a damn good thing Mawher was in a cage. If I had been the one to catch up with him, I'd have probably killed him, and I wouldn't have bothered with a gun. At this moment, there's very little I'd like better than beating the bastard to a bloody pulp. Terrorizing anyone is horrible. Terrorizing a woman is inexcusable. But Abby… Abby's mine. And no one messes with my family, especially not my girls.

Hell, yes, it's chauvinistic, and I don't give a damn. Don't think for a minute it means I don't respect them. I'm under the command of the only female director of an armed federal agency, remember, and unlike Mike Franks, I don't think that's a sign of al1 that's wrong in the world. Jenny Sheppard's a damn good agent. I've put my life in her hands more than once and wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Truthfully, respecting them is the whole point. I respect them too much to let anyone hurt them, even themselves.

Abby's still sound asleep, sprawled on her stomach, but every now and then, she sniffles or her breath catches on a half-sob. I'm tempted to carry her up to bed, but I'd rather not wake her. Instead, I just step over and settle the blanket over her and run my hand over her head. I haven't resorted to physical discipline in a long time, at least not beyond a random smack on the back of the head now and then. Oh, I've done it before, just not in years. Not since Jen was a probie, in fact. I chuckled at the memory. She'd been very young, very green, and so damned relentless I was afraid she'd get herself killed—and then one day she very nearly had.

We'd been on a stakeout in Norfolk. It was the middle of summer and so hot in the tiny, airless box of an apartment we were holed up in it felt like we were being boiled alive. We were investigating a drug ring that was purportedly selling on base in conjunction with the local LEOs. We'd had a couple close calls but nothing that would hold up in court. On the fourth day, Jenny got tired of waiting and decided to make a buy herself—alone. She'd been determined to get them, and as she put it 'damn tired of waiting in this hellhole.' The dealer had made her in minutes. Any idiot would have. She was so green she practically glowed. He'd been seconds from putting a bullet in her brain when I caught up with them and put a bullet in his.

Then I gave serious thought to killing her with my bare hands.

"What in the hell were you thinking?" I asked, slamming the apartment door behind me as I followed her in.

"I was thinking we needed to do something to catch the guy," Jen shot back hotly. "That is, after all, our job."

"Not at the expense of your life," I said, furious. I scrubbed a hand over my head, seething. If she were one of my marines, I'd…

"You'd what?" Jenny broke in. "Hell, if I were a man under your command we'd probably be out celebrating right now. It's perfectly fine for a man to break out on his own, but let a woman try to take some initiative…"

It took me a moment to realize I'd spoken the thought aloud. "If you were one of my men, I'd kick your ass into next week for being so goddamned stupid," I fumed, hands fisted from the sheer effort not to break her fool neck.

The little idiot actually had the nerve to take a step forward. "You want to take a swing at me, fine. I'm trained in hand to hand same as you are."

I moved without thinking, sweeping her leg out from under her and putting her on the floor so fast she never saw it coming. I'd never lay hands on a woman in anger, but I had absolutely no qualms about putting her on her ass. "You may be an agent, Jen, but FLETC can't hold a candle to the Corps. Don't tempt me again." I reached out to help her up, but she ignored me and pushed herself up off the floor. "Let's go," I said, making a split second decision and heading for the door. "I'm too angry to deal with you right now, and you need to run off some of that attitude."

I could hear her spluttering and arguing behind me, but I ignored her and set out at an easy jog. "That wasn't a suggestion, Agent Sheppard," I called back after a beat. "Move!" I slowed long enough to be sure she was following me then kicked it up a notch. I wasn't all that surprised when Jen caught up with me a few minutes later, she was flushed and panting, but her face was set in grim determination and she was matching me nearly stride for stride.

I shook my head. That was the problem. She was so damned determined to prove herself and to hell with the consequences. What she didn't realize was that she didn't need to prove herself, not to me and not to the director. He, like most everyone at NCIS, knew I suffered no fools. Jenny Sheppard would have never been placed on my team if she hadn't had potential, and she wouldn't have lasted a week if she hadn't been damn good. But if she didn't stop trying to prove herself she was going to get herself killed.

I sighed and glanced over at her. She was feeling it now. I could see it in her eyes. But she was trying her damnedest not to give in, determined to take whatever I dished out even if she ran herself into the ground doing it. Some people, Jenny obviously included, admired and strove for that kind of blind determination, but I knew it could be dangerous. It'd cost me a chunk of my memory and two marriages, and I'd seen it get a lot of Marines killed. I'd been damned if I was going to add a hot head redhead NCIS agent to that list.

I took pity on her then and looped back around toward the apartment, though I never slowed lest she realize I was cutting her slack and start spouting her anything-you-can-do-I can-do mantra at me again. Jenny wasn't my first headstrong green recruit by any means. Between my days as an MP and being accepted for sniper training, I spent a couple years as a TI, training young soldiers. There had been days when I was dealing with so many knucklehead teenagers I'd felt like a high school principal. And contrary to what Jenny seemed to believe, she wasn't the first female agent I'd worked with. I'd even worked with female soldiers. Hell, there'd been female Marines since World War II. She wasn't nearly so much the trailblazer she thought herself to be.

She was, however, the first female—agent or soldier—that I was directly responsible for, and that was my problem. My general method of dealing with a headstrong newbie who had pulled a stupid stunt like Jenny had today would be to take him off privately and take my belt to his ass until I was sure the lesson was burned in his memory, and he wouldn't do a stupid thing like that again. It wasn't exactly Marine Corps sanctioned, but it was common enough among the older COs, including many I had served with, that it didn't really raise any eyebrows either. They thought I was an old fashioned hardass and that was that.

NCIS, however, was entirely different. For all its military connections, it was entirely a civilian agency, and I was sure that whipping an agent and a female one at that, no matter how much she deserved it, would raise more than a few eyebrows. Yet she was hellbent on being treated the same, and there wasn't a doubt in my mind she deserved it as much as any young Marine I'd ever dealt with had. Punishing her like that just didn't set well with me though. For all her equal rights rhetoric, Jenny was a woman, and it went against everything I believed to strike a woman. Still, I was damn tempted to give her what she thought she wanted.

I was still debating the notion when Jenny stumbled in behind me, bent double, gasping for breath, and looking for all the world like she was moments from either passing out or throwing up. Thankfully, she did neither. She just stood there and glared at me.

"What the hell was that about?" she asked furiously after she caught her breath. "Some crazy Marine idea of punishing me. Ok, fine, I get it. I made a stupid move. Now, can we please go home?"

"That wasn't punishment," I said quietly. "That was just what I said. I needed to calm down, and I'd hoped it'd help you burn off some of that attitude. Obviously, that part didn't work. We haven't even begun to talk about punishment...yet."

Jenny sighed and rolled her eyes in a way that reminded me strongly of an obnoxious 12-yr-old. "You want to write me up, fine. You do what you need to do. I'm going home." She made a move to go around me and grab her bag, but I stepped over and blocked her path.

"You really think I should treat you the same?" I asked.

"Of course you should," she said coolly. "I am the same as any of your other agents. I don't expect any special treatment from you, now or ever." With that, she spun on her heel and began packing up our equipment.

All my internal debate disappeared, and I reached for my belt. If she was so damned determined to be treated the same, then by god, I'd treat her the same.

"Stop." I meant it as an order, and we both knew it, but she ignored me as if she hadn't heard. "Now, Agent Sheppard." She hesitated then and finally stopped. She was pissed, but she wasn't crazy enough to disobey a direct order, and we both knew that's what it was.

"Fine," she said, turning slowly, "I stopped. Are you--" At the sight of the belt in my hand she froze, eyes widening in shock. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Treating you the same," I said simply. "If any of my men had pulled the stunt you did today, I'd have whipped them in a heartbeat, and you're right, there's no reason to treat you different just because you're a woman."

She drew in a sharp breath and took a step backward. "No," she said firmly. "There is no way I'm letting you beat me."

"Never had any intention of beating you," I told her.

Her eyes flicked briefly down to the belt then back up at me. "Really?" she said dryly, clearly doubtful.

"Really," I replied. "There's a world of difference between a spanking and a beating." Jenny knew the difference too. I could see it in her eyes. "I think you know that."

She didn't answer, just glared at me. "Whatever you call it, you're not hitting me."

I shrugged. "Ok."

"Ok?" Jenny repeated, shock written all over her face.

I nodded. "You're the one who said I should treat you the same, but I won't force you. That would be a beating, and I do not beat women. I can handle this through official channels. You should know though that if I do that your career will take a hit. A reprimand this serious, this early in your career will leave a mark."

That got her attention. Her eyes widened and her attitude deflated. She was torn now. I could see the conflict written in every line of her body. She absolutely did not want me to punish her, and in all honesty, I couldn't blame her. A whipping hurt, plain and simple.

At the same time, she valued her career, greatly, and the idea of having it damaged shook her deeply. Not to mention that it galled her to think I'd treat her differently. Part of her wanted to prove that she could take anything a man could, even if what they were taking wasn't something she wanted. Slowly, I began to thread my belt back through the loops, waiting.

"Wait," she said hesitantly. I paused. I hadn't even made it through the third loop. "If I let you…um…handle this, it stays off the record."

I nodded. "It never leaves this room. Once it's over, it's over for good."

"Just a spanking," she said quietly, blushing furiously and stumbling over the word, "nothing more?"

"Of course not," I replied. Though I understood the motive behind the question, I was more than a little offended that she felt the need to ask it. Surely she realized I'd never hurt her. Sure this wouldn't be pleasant, but I'd never dream of really hurting her, and god help anyone else who tried.

She took a deep breath and seemed to gather herself together. "Ok."

I raised an eyebrow. "Ok what?"

She shot me an exasperated look. "Ok, I'll do it."

"Do what?" I knew perfectly well what she meant, but I needed her to say it aloud.

"Come on, Gibbs," she said, clearly frustrated. I leaned back against the wall and waited, leveling her with a pointed look. After a long, tense moment, she gave an exaggerated huff and said, "I'll let you handle it."

I nodded, sliding my belt back off and folding it over in my hand. Then, I gestured with it toward the folding table we'd been using as a desk. One end was cluttered with surveillance equipment, but we'd kept the other clear to have working and eating space. "Bend over the table."

Jen froze, eyes flaring wide like a deer caught in headlights. "No, wait, maybe…"

"No," I said firmly, stepping up to catch her by the elbow and propel her forward. "You made your decision. Right now, you only have one choice. You either do as you're told, or you make things worse, and trust me when I tell you, you do not want worse."

That seemed to take the wind out of her sails. She moved quickly into position with the efficiency of someone familiar with the process. So, I thought wryly, she's been here before. Either her parents or one of those fancy schools she went to had been traditional enough to use the old ways too.

I put my free hand on her back and took a deep breath. Now that the time had come, I was more than a little nervous myself. I'd never punished a woman before, and the last thing I wanted to do was screw up and really hurt her. Steeling myself, I raised the belt and brought it down hard on her ass. Jenny gasped and made a small choked sound. I let out the breath I didn't realized I'd been holding and did it again. And again. By the third, she could no longer hold back her cries, and by the sixth, she was crying openly. By the tenth and last, all fight was gone, she simply went limp and sobbed.

I kept my hand on her back, rubbing in a way I hoped was comforting. I could feel her body tremble with the force of her tears, and it tore at my heart to know I had caused her this pain. At the same time, I knew without question if it took this to keep her from getting herself killed, I'd do it again without the slightest hesitation.

Abby shifted in her sleep, drawing me back to the present. I'd said much the same to her earlier, and I meant it. I didn't take using this kind of punishment lightly. I've only done it a few times in all the years I've been at NCIS, and only with Jen. Until now, she was the only person I've had a relationship with that was deep enough and strong enough to handle it, and even with her, it was different. I only ever used it when she was a probie. Later, when we became partners—and lovers, I thought with a small smile at the memory—the dynamic simply wasn't there. It was all too complicated. And even the few times I did spank Jen, it was far different from what happened tonight with Abby. With Jen, it was much the same as with my Marines. She was a trainee, and I was her CO. With Abby, it couldn't have been more different.

From the moment I laid eyes on Abby Scuito, she brought out a fierce protectiveness in me. Not, though many have speculated, that of a lover, or even like the bounds forged in combat, she brought out feelings in me I thought long dead, feelings I thought I'd buried in the ground with my only child. Though Abby was hardly an innocent, there was something so open and childlike about her, that I felt drawn to her with the nearly overwhelming need of a father to protect his child.

Abby had lost her own father just a few years before coming to NCIS and seemed to need it as much as I did. Though we've never talked about it, over the years we've evolved easily into our current relationship of easy affection and gentle teasing. I've known for years that she, much like Kelly, looked to me as the one who could fix anything, and she makes me want to be able to do that for her.

But I can't fix things if she hides them from me. I'd told her it was over, and I meant it, but it galled me to think she'd hid it from me for so long. And then when I found out she'd opened the damn door at McGee's… I won't lie. When they told me that, there was a part of me that wanted to throttle her. What the hell was she thinking? Still, that wasn't why I spanked her. Although I doubt even Abby would believe me, given that I made that crack about smacking like DiNozzo months ago, before I came down here tonight, the thought of spanking her hadn't entered my mind. At least not beyond those random thoughts of being ready to throttle her.

I, of all people, understand how suspicious that sounds, but the truth is the threat was meant to be half joking and completely empty, something along the lines of, "Don't make me come in there…" No one's ever quite clear why not or what happens if they do, but everyone knows it's not good and no one wants to find out. Abby was being obnoxious, bouncing around with that damn camera, and I was betting on the fact that the threat alone would be enough. I never actually planned on carrying it through.

Don't get me wrong I fully intended on having quite a few stern words for Abby when this was all over, but never more than that. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have needed more than that, but, thanks to that damn Mawher bastard, nothing about these past few days has been normal.

It was her guilt that finally made me decide she needed more, the stubborn insistence that it was all her fault and the fact that she was clearly doing a damn good job of beating herself black and blue inside. She looked up at me with those wide eyes, filled with tears, looking like nothing so much as a scared little girl, and I just reacted, falling into the role of a father in a way I thought I'd forgotten.

She needed me to fix it, not Mawher—he was already caught, but her own emotional turmoil. She screwed up. She knew she screwed up, and she needed someone to hold her accountable and in doing so, give her permission to forgive herself. She didn't need the formal sanctions of her boss. That would have just devastated her more. No, she needed the private, but far more personal, consequences of her family.

I couldn't help but smile at that. Ducky would be amused. Lately, in private, Ducky has taken to referring to my team as my 'kids.' I usually remind him that they're all adults, but at moments like this, late and alone, I have to admit that's a pretty accurate description of how I feel sometimes. Abby's felt like my daughter for years now, and the other three act like bickering siblings most of the time. I glance over at Abby, shuffling in her sleep, and hope I never need to go down this road with the others. McGee would die from sheer panic, and Ziva would likely hand me my balls on a plate for even trying. Even so, I know deep down if I had to I'd do it. They're my family, and I'll do whatever it takes.