Thanks to Samantha and Sasha for the proof reading and encouragment.

A/N: This is a sequel to my story "Worth Keeping". It is set after "Dead Man Talking", late in the first season. To refresh your memory, the episode deals with NCIS Agent Chris Pacci's death and the case he was investigating. In the course of the investigation, Tony and McGee are on a stakeout when Tony decides to contact the suspect directly. The joke's on him when he finds out the attractive lady subject is actually a man in disguise. This story begins immediately following the end of the episode. There are also a few minor spoilers for "High Seas".

NOTHING TO PROVE

Tony dropped the now-soggy ice bag onto his desk and gingerly felt the lump that was raised on the back of his head.

What a complete and utter disaster this whole case had been, beginning with the death of Chris Pacci, and ending with a beer bottle to the back of the head and a homicidal she-male.

And it wasn't over yet.

Now he had to contend with Ducky's worried fussing, Kate's relentless teasing, and Gibbs' as yet unvoiced anger.

And there was no question Gibbs was angry. Tony knew he had broken a major rule of surveillance, and while Gibbs might have told him 'good job' at the time, he had no doubt that he would hear about it—at length—at some future point.

He just hoped it was sometime far in the future, because right now, his head was killing him.

Right on cue, as if reading his thoughts, Kate spoke up.

"So, Tony, I heard there's a drag show down at the Pink Flamingo tonight. I thought maybe you and me and McGee could check it out, maybe find you a new love interest."

Tony smirked. "Funny, Kate, but sorry, no can do. All I'm going to do tonight is go home and sleep—after I gargle with about a gallon of Listerine." He reached down and grabbed his backpack, wincing as the change in position increased the throbbing in his head.

"Besides, Kate, Tony's coming home with me," came Gibbs' voice from across the squad room.

Tony shot up, feeling his stomach do a slow roll at the motion.

"Uh, gee, thanks for the invite, boss, but it's not necessary. I'm really tired so I'm just going to go home and crash."

"Did that sound like an invitation, DiNozzo? You heard Ducky—you took a hard knock to the head and he wants someone to keep an eye on you—ya' know, kind of like a surveillance operation? Now let's go."

Tony winced at the thinly veiled reference to his earlier 'error in judgment'. If he had harbored any hope at all that his boss might be willing to just let it slide, it was crushed by that one scathing remark.

"Coming, boss," he said unenthusiastically.

Without further comment, he gathered his things and followed Gibbs out, trying for a jaunty and unconcerned air. McGee might have bought the act, but Kate's smug look indicated she knew exactly how much trouble he was in.

Once they were in Gibbs' car, Tony turned to his boss.

"So, on a scale from one to ten, how mad are you?" he asked tentatively.

"You think this is a joke, DiNozzo?" Gibbs demanded, blue eyes flashing.

"No, I know it's not a joke," Tony hastily reassured him. "I'm just trying to get a feel for much trouble I'm in."

Gibbs could sense the genuine vulnerability in his agent's question, making his wonder again about the inconsistencies in discipline he had faced during his childhood.

It was clear that DiNozzo Sr. had never set any kind of clear boundaries for Tony, punishing his son more as a release for his own temper rather than because of any misbehavior on his son's part.

Still, Tony had to know he had screwed up big time with this. Tempering his anger slightly, Gibbs growled, "On a scale from one to ten? Higher than you can count, DiNozzo." Then he paused and looked over at the younger man. "But we'll work it out."

Tony blanched and sunk back in to his seat, not very reassured. He had been in deep shit with his boss plenty since he had joined Gibbs' team two years before, deep enough for Gibbs to have used the paddle on him a few times, but his boss's teasing prediction that he would wear it out from overuse had fortunately never come true.

In fact, it had been quite a while since he had done something that required more than just a head slap or one of Gibbs' other, more creative, punishments, but he had a feeling his streak of good behavior had just come to a screeching halt.

Gibbs said nothing else on the ride home other than to ask Tony what he wanted from the deli he stopped at to get them some dinner. Deciding he was swearing off corned beef for life, Tony ordered a plain turkey sandwich, which he ate without much enthusiasm once they reached Gibbs' home.

When they finished, Gibbs gestured toward the stairs.

"All right Tony, get upstairs to bed. I'll be up in a couple of hours for an alertness check and another round of painkillers."

Tony looked at him incredulously.

"Boss, you've got to be kidding. It's not even 8:30!"

Gibbs turned on him with an angry glare and for a moment Tony winced, expecting a smack. He didn't really think Gibbs would head-slap him with a possible concussion, but that didn't mean other parts of his body were protected from Gibbs' annoyance.

When he spoke, it was in a tone that Tony recognized as one step short of nuclear.

"DiNozzo, just once can you do as you're told without arguing?"

Tony gulped, knowing the ice he was on was growing thinner by the instant.

"But what about what happened today? Aren't we going to talk about it?" he asked plaintively.

Gibbs bit back his annoyance, knowing that Tony hated waiting for punishment. "You're in a lot of trouble, but we're not going to go over it tonight. Tomorrow is time enough to talk about it," he said firmly.

"But what's going to happen?"

Gibbs gave him a level look. "I think you know what to expect by now, Tony. I've let a lot go lately, but not this time. But right now, you need to get some rest and I need you out of my sight while I finish boxing Chris' stuff up to send to his family. This one was too close, and I'm not ready to deal with it right now."

There was no use arguing further after an explanation like that, so Tony grabbed his bag and made his way up to the room he had taken to thinking of as his.

He readied for bed quickly and flopped down in full sulk, glad it wasn't summer time and still light outside. It would have been more than he could bear if he had been sent to bed even before the neighborhood children had to be in for the night.

The fact that his head was throbbing and he was exhausted didn't ease his embarrassment at all, though as far as a Gibbs'-style punishment went, an early bedtime was pretty mild.

Not that he was kidding himself—he knew tomorrow's discussion of him going undercover was not going to be pretty. Deciding there was no point in dwelling on all that his boss might do to him, he rolled over and was asleep in moments.

Thanks to the early night, he awoke unusually early the next morning, pleased to find that his headache was gone. He barely remembered Gibbs coming in to check on him during the night and plying him with more painkillers, but he must have answered the standard questions without any trouble. A quick glance at the bedside clock told him he still had some time before he had to get ready for work. He was sure Gibbs was already awake, but he decided to enjoy a few last moments of ease before he faced the lion in his den.

He stretched and let his eyes wander around the room. He loved the cool sage green color as much now as when he had chosen it in the paint store.

Of course, he hadn't exactly been thrilled with the task at the time, since it had stemmed from another of his boss' punishments. It had been just over a year ago, when he had first started dating Michele, and Gibbs had gotten on his case for being late to work twice in one week.

When it had happened a third time, Gibbs had grounded him for an entire week from anything not work related. Tony had been annoyed and embarrassed, but it still beat a notation in his file. The government could be amazingly petty about stuff like that when it came to raise and review time, so he went along with it, though it was hard to come up with convincing reasons why he couldn't see Michele for that whole week.

He supposed he should have been happy to discover early on that she was much too selfish to put up with an NCIS agent's unpredictable schedule, since by the end of that week, she was disgusted with his excuses and refused to see him again, but that hadn't made it any easier to be stuck at his boss's house every evening and on the weekend when they weren't working.

Gibbs' discovered that a bored and unhappy Tony was not fun to live with, so he set him to the task of painting the guest room. Tony would have objected to being used for free labor since that wasn't part of the whole grounding deal, but then Gibbs told him to go ahead and pick out the color scheme, given that he was the only one who used the room anyway.

He had stayed with Gibbs several times since joining NCIS, for different reasons. Sometimes it was because he was being punished, but more often it was for things like a broken water pipe in his apartment or because he was recovering from an injury.

Being told to decorate the guest room as he wished (with Gibbs having refusal rights to anything too outlandish, of course) gave the younger man a sense of belonging that he hadn't had since childhood and he actually ended up enjoying the chore, and putting a lot of thought into choosing the color. His own apartment didn't allow painting, so he took advantage of Gibbs' offer and picked something that really reflected his taste. More than a year later, he was still pleased with it.

With a final stretch and a resigned sigh, he pulled himself out of bed and retrieved one of the clean shirts he kept in the closet for unexpected

over-nights. A quick shower and shave and he was ready to face his boss—at least he hoped he was.

As expected, Gibbs was already awake and sipping coffee in the kitchen.

"Morning, boss," he said as he grabbed his mug from the shelf and poured himself a cup from the more than half-finished pot. Gibbs had obviously been up for a while.

"How's the head, DiNozzo?"

"Fine. Not even a headache."

Tony debated being less than truthful in the hopes of delaying his punishment, but past experience had taught him that lying would only get him into more trouble, and could possibly lead to him being ordered to Bethesda for a CAT scan.

Gibbs nodded. "I figured you'd be fine this morning. You didn't have any trouble answering my questions last night. Let's see how you do with the questions I have for you today."

Tony sank into a chair. He was not looking forward to this.

Gibbs wasted no time beating around the bush.

"Do you mind telling me what on earth possessed you to decide to engage Amanda Reed or Voss, or whoever it was, in conversation, and then get close enough to her for her to invite you out?"

"Boss, I told you—I saw an open shot, and I took it."

"Without clearing it with me first? And without back up?"

"Hey! McGee had my back!" Tony defended himself.

Gibbs gritted his teeth in frustration. "McGee is great with computers, and I'm sure he'll make a terrific field agent one day, but he's still a probie. That's why I had you working with him on a stake out of her—his—apartment. Get it, DiNozzo? A stake out, not an undercover operation."

"Well, I wasn't exactly undercover," Tony hedged.

"Oh, really, Stringfellow? Then what would you call it?"

Tony winced. Gibbs was using his sweetly dangerous voice. This was going to be very bad.

"Not only did you put yourself in danger, you set one rotten example for McGee," Gibbs continued. "As senior field agent, he should be looking to you for how to behave in the field. Not how to go off on your own whenever the mood strikes."

Tony wanted to protest that it hadn't been like that, and that he hadn't been in any real danger, but he knew Gibbs would never buy it. Not after what had happened to Chris Pacci.

And if he was being completely honest with himself, if Voss had gotten any hint that he was with NCIS, or had become suspicious of him for any reason, he could have killed him in the town house before McGee would have been able to do anything. The man—woman—was obviously desperate. Tony might have easily ended up just as dead as Pacci.

He dropped his head. "I'm sorry boss. I let you down."

"Yeah, you did, Tony," Gibbs said, but his voice was more sad than angry. "It was tough enough to sit through Pacci's service yesterday. I don't want to imagine what it would be like to have to get through yours. And you still haven't told me why you did it."

Tony looked up at him, confused. "I told you, it was a clear field so I took the chance."

Gibbs shook his head. "Not good enough, Tony."

"What do you mean, it's not good enough? That's what happened. I don't know what else you're looking for."

Gibbs glared at him. "Then this is going to take awhile," he said ominously.

"Uhm, so what happens now?" Tony asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

"Go get the paddle."

Tony swallowed hard. It was exactly what he'd been expecting, but somehow hearing it out loud made it so much worse. He rose woodenly and made his way down the steps to the basement. Gibbs kept the paddle in a cabinet near his boat. He knelt and pulled the hated thing out of the bottom drawer, wondering why Gibbs had wanted him to retrieve it.

The few times Gibbs had punished him with it, he had given it to him right down here in the basement, bent over the workbench. Though he'd never admit it, the ritual was comforting in its own way, even if he couldn't ever say he liked it.

Once he returned to the kitchen he wordlessly handed the paddle to his boss. Gibbs took it without comment.

"Where do you want me?" Tony asked nervously, wondering how in the world he was going to be able to sit at work after this.

Gibbs didn't reply. He simply took hold of Tony's left arm and turned him sideways, bringing the paddle down hard against the seat of his slacks.

Tony yelped in surprise. Gibbs had never paddled him like this and never over his clothes before. Unfortunately, the layers of cloth didn't provide nearly as much protection as he had always assumed they would, though at least the embarrassment factor was lessened this way.

Gibbs continued with nine more hard smacks, raising Tony to his toes on a few. Tony was gasping by the time the tenth landed, but he was almost unable to believe it when they suddenly stopped. While the paddling had certainly stung, ten over his clothes was much less than he thought he'd get. Gibbs released his arm and Tony's hands flew back to rub his behind.

"Ahh, are we done now?" he asked, afraid of the answer. It had been unpleasant, but not much more than a child's spanking.

"For now," Gibbs replied, and Tony noticed with growing concern that instead of putting the paddle on the counter, or asking Tony to return it to the basement, he walked over to where his blazer hung over the back of the kitchen chair and tucked it into an inner pocket.

"What does that mean?" Tony asked warily, wondering why Gibbs was putting the paddle into the jacket he was clearly planning to wear to work.

"It means you're going to spend some more time thinking about why you did what you did. If you don't have any better answer for me the next time I ask, it's another ten, only this time we're going to do it right at NCIS."

Tony gaped at him. Gibbs might yell at him and slap him across the back of the head, but surely he wouldn't embarrass him like that in front of his co-workers.

Gibbs easily read the look. "Don't worry, Tony. There are plenty of private places we can go, or we can always use the elevator. That might be the most fitting anyway," he said darkly, remembering Pacci's final resting place.

"But I don't know what you want me to say!" Tony said desperately. The first ten hadn't been too bad, but he had no desire to repeat the experience.

"Then you'd better hope those elevators are sound-proof," Gibbs snapped back. "I mean it, Tony. You're going to get another ten every time you don't give me the answer I'm looking for. It's not a trick question. You just have to think about it."

Tony was a ball of misery by the time they arrived at the office. He had tried as hard as he could to think of what kind of answer Gibbs was waiting for, but he couldn't come up with anything that seemed to remotely make sense. Of course, the residual sting in his butt didn't help his concentration any, especially knowing that more was coming.

Once inside, Gibbs immediately went up to speak to the director, leaving Tony in the squad room. He was slumped dejectedly at his desk when McGee and Kate came in a few minutes later. The suspense of wondering when Gibbs might ask him again for his reasons for yesterday's actions was making him jumpy, and he could only manage a short answer when they asked how he was feeling.

He noticed their exchanged looks, but he was sure they were assuming that Gibbs had really torn a strip off of him and he was sulking. Since that was close enough to the truth, he didn't bother attempting to hide his grouchiness.

With a sigh, he booted up his computer and began working on the report for the day before, hoping something would jar his memory and give him a clue what his boss was looking for. No matter how times he went over the details, nothing sprang to mind.

Gibbs returned a few minutes later and Tony felt his tension increase. If his boss noticed, he said nothing, merely settling down at his own desk to complete his paperwork.

With Gibbs involved in a case-related shooting, the team was on stand-down and that, coupled with the pall of losing Pacci and the lack of Tony's usual banter, left the office much quieter than usual.

When Gibbs barked his name a short time later, Tony startled so much he nearly fell off his chair.

"DiNozzo, go downstairs and see if Ducky has started Voss' autopsy yet. I can't get my service weapon returned until the shooting is cleared by the review board and I don't want it taking any longer than it has to."

"On it, boss," Tony said, relieved to be out of Gibbs' way for a while.

Ducky greeted him warmly when he entered autopsy but when he got a good look at Tony, the older man frowned.

"Is your head still bothering you, Tony? You look a bit peaky, as mother would say. Not exactly a medically correct term, but accurate, none the less."

Tony managed a lukewarm grin. "I'm fine, Ducky. Gibbs just sent me down to find out how long the autopsy might take."

The kindly doctor shook his head in exasperation at Gibbs' impatience.

"I've only come in a few minutes ago. I'll have to see where my new assistant has gotten off to," Ducky replied, heading toward his office.

A body lay on one of the tables, covered by a sheet. Tony assumed it was Voss— or Reed, depending on what parts you were looking at. Tony wandered over to it, half curious and half repelled by the thought of trying to detect some masculine signs he might have missed when he was speaking to the person he thought was Amanda Reed.

Suddenly an idea popped into his head—maybe that was why Gibbs was so angry. His boss might think that Tony was such a ladies' man that he had let 'Amanda's' attractiveness dull his skills as a detective to the point that he'd missed the most pertinent fact of all.

Ducky joined him a moment later, tying his gown and retrieving his instrument tray from the temporary assistant he was working with.

"From what I understand, there were plenty of witnesses to the shooting, so I have no doubt Jethro will be returned to active field duty as soon as humanly possible," he said, drawing on his gloves.

"Let's hope so, Duck," came Gibbs' voice as he entered.

"Ahh, Jethro, I was sure you would be down here sooner or later. I was just about to get started, though I doubt anything I find will be a departure from what we already know."

"Gotta have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed before I can be cleared."

"Well, yes, of course, but in the mean time, you might use your spare time to see to Tony here. I'm afraid he's still looking a bit worse for wear."

Tony opened his mouth to protest, but Gibbs beat him to it. "Don't worry, Ducky. I'm keeping a close eye on him," he said, giving Tony a pointed look.

Tony stared back, trying to study the line of Gibbs' blazer to see if he could detect any sign of the paddle. He didn't see anything, so he hoped that maybe Gibbs had stuck it in his desk drawer when no one was looking.

"All right, Tony let's get out of here and let Ducky get to work. Let me know what you find, Ducky."

"Of course, Jethro," Ducky replied absently, already turning his attention to the body in front of him.

Tony followed Gibbs out of autopsy and onto the elevator, dreading Gibbs' questioning but confident he had at last divined the answer his boss was looking for.

Unsurprisingly, Gibbs flipped the emergency switch to stop the upward motion a moment later. He turned and looked at Tony expectantly.

"I'm guessing you have an answer to my question."

"Yeah, boss, I think I know what you're upset about."

"All right, let's hear it," Gibbs said gruffly.

"Well, I know you think I fool around a lot with women and I guess you're figuring that I was attracted to Amanda and that's why I went over there. And I know I should have figured out that she was actually a 'he' before we got to the bar, but I gotta tell you, there was nothing I could …" he trailed off when he noticed his boss shaking his head.

"Not even close, DiNozzo."

Tony's heart sank. He'd been so sure that was what Gibbs was upset about! He felt his stomach lurch when Gibbs reached into his pocket and retrieved the paddle and then gestured with his finger for him to turn around, but he knew better than to argue.

He grabbed onto the rail and held on tightly. These ten swats were every bit as hard as the ones Gibbs had delivered in his kitchen, and they were landing on already tender skin. He bit his lip to hold in any sound that might escape, relieved that it took only a few seconds for Gibbs to finish.

Tony leaned against the wall of the elevator clenching and un-clenching the muscles in his butt, hoping for some relief from the sting. Since he still had no idea what his boss wanted from him, he knew it was only going to get worse.

Gibbs returned the paddle to his pocket and rested a hand on his senior field agent's shoulder. "Tony, you're still not thinking. I didn't ask you to figure out why I'm angry. The question I asked you was why you decided to go undercover in the first place."

The younger man turned irritably. "I already told you! I had a clear field…"

"No!" Gibbs cut him off sharply. "There was more to it than that and I want you to figure it out. And until you do, you can expect more with the paddle."

He returned the elevator to normal operation and said nothing more until they reached their floor.

Tony ducked out of the elevator and quickly excused himself to the restroom, not wanting to face Kate and McGee just then. He splashed himself with cold water, debating whether to lock himself in a stall so he could take a peek at his butt. He decided not to bother. "Only" twenty smacks over his pants would most likely leave it barely pink, and he didn't want to feel like a wuss.

He finally slunk back to his desk and eased into his chair, gratified that sitting wasn't as painful as he had anticipated. He continued working on his report, trying his hardest to figure out what kind of explanation Gibbs was looking for. Striking up a conversation with a surveillance objective wasn't SOP, but it wasn't unheard of. Of course, it was usually only done with prior approval, and back up in place, but, as Tony had pointed out, McGee was keeping an eye on the situation.

He finished his report a few hours later, no closer to figuring it out.

Kate and McGee had completed their own reports and were exchanging looks across the room, clearly trying to figure out why Tony still seemed so sullen. They both turned to look at Gibbs when he stood, therefore missing Tony's horrified expression when their boss reached his hand into his pocket.

"Kate! McGee! Since we're stuck here until IA clears me, why don't you grab us all some lunch. My treat," he said, removing his wallet and handing over a couple of folded bills.

Tony almost melted in relief.

"Sure, boss," McGee said, surprised at Gibbs' offer. "Any preference on restaurants?"

Kate turned to Tony. "Maybe something from Paddy's since you didn't get to finish last night?" she teased.

Tony scowled. "Just drop it, okay Kate?"

He knew he shouldn't let her baiting get to him since that would only encourage her, but he had no doubts as to why Gibbs was sending her and McGee out of the office. It was time for round three.

The thought did nothing for his appetite, but when he told them not to bother bringing him anything, he got a look from Gibbs that indicated he'd better change his answer, pronto.

He reluctantly ordered a sandwich and then turned back to his work, determined not to acknowledge Gibbs unless he had to. He was feeling more and more resentful of his continued punishment, since he still had no idea what his boss was looking for by way of an answer. Wasn't the whole point of being a federal agent to catch criminals?

He looked up with a mutinous expression when Gibbs stopped in front of his desk a moment later.

"Something you need, boss?" he asked snidely, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

Gibbs raised his eyebrows. "No, but obviously there's something you need. Let's go."

Tony could have kicked himself for getting into a pissing contest he was destined to lose, but it was too late now. He trailed Gibbs down the hall and into an empty interrogation room, not so blinded by anger that he wasn't thankful when he noticed that Gibbs was careful to make sure there was no one in the observation booth.

"I still don't know what you want me to say, so you might as well let me have it!" he snapped once Gibbs had shut and locked the door, throwing all caution to the wind.

"Fine, Tony, if that's what you want," Gibbs said, yanking the paddle out of his pocket and grabbing Tony's arm.

This time, the swats were enough to take his breath away right from the beginning. Gibbs was clearly feeling his own anger and frustration with his subordinate's actions and was making sure Tony knew it with each smack.

Tony's innate stubbornness came out and he attempted to hide his reactions but he couldn't help a few strangled yelps. This group of ten had felt more like fifty. He was pretty sure if he checked in the men's room this time, his ass would be bright red.

Gibbs let go of him abruptly and Tony stumbled against the table. The only sounds in the room were both men breathing heavily, though Tony's breaths were a little more hitched.

"Is that enough? Or do you want your next ten right now?"

Tony shook his head frantically.

"No, boss, not now, please!" he said, all attempts at stoicism forgotten.

Ten more on his already burning butt would guarantee he'd need to stand for the rest of the day.

Gibbs decided not to comment on Tony's sudden change in attitude.

"All right, then get back to work. McGee and Kate will be back with lunch soon and they're already wondering what's up with you today. No point in giving them any more ammunition."

Tony stared at the floor miserably. "Uh, boss, I'm really not hungry. Can't I just... I don't know… go down to records and find some filing or something else I can do standing up?"

Taking pity on the younger man, Gibbs laid a warm hand on the back of his neck. "Tony, this isn't supposed to be an endurance test. I'm not trying to break you. But this is big, and I need you to figure it out."

"I'm trying. I just don't know what you want me to say," Tony replied, irritated to find himself near tears.

"Then try harder, because you're not going back into the field until you do."

The younger man looked up at him in shock. He had no idea his status as a field agent depended on his answer. His anger returning full force, he threw off Gibbs' hand.

"I don't know why you can't just tell me whatever it is I'm supposed to have done! Or maybe you just enjoy living up to that second "B"."

Gibbs knew Tony was emotionally wrung out, but there was no way he was going to talk to him like that. Getting within inches of his face, Gibbs growled,

"Keep it up, and you'll see exactly how big a bastard I can be."

Tony had no doubt it was not an empty threat. Deciding a little space was what he needed right now he turned toward the door.

"I'm going down to see Abby to get her final report on the evidence she has on Voss," he said with a steadiness he didn't feel, praying Gibbs wouldn't object. Abby's always soothing combination of teasing and affection was just what he needed.

Sensing that Tony had been pushed as far as he could for right now, Gibbs stepped back and let him leave.

"You've got a half hour. Then I want you back in the squad room. And don't think I've forgotten about lunch. You'd better find your appetite while you're down in the lab."

Tony just nodded and left, deciding he'd better take the longest way possible to the lab. Abby knew him well, and she would be seriously freaked if she saw him in his current state. Since he had joined NCIS she had become closer to him than a sister, and while he might trust Kate, and eventually maybe even McGee, to watch his back, it was Abby he trusted with his heart.

She was in front of her computer when he came in a few minutes later, but turned and lunged at him as soon as she heard his approach.

"Tony! I've been so worried about you!" she said, hugging him tightly.

"Abs, I just saw you last night," he said, gently extricating himself from her chokehold.

"Yeah, but that was just for a minute when Ducky was checking you over, and before you had to go home with Gibbs. Kate told me about it," she said with a sympathetic wince. "Was he really mad?"

There was no point or reason in lying to Abby. "Yeah, Abs, about as mad as I ever seen him," Tony answered morosely. "And he's not over it yet."

"You scared him, Tony" she said softly. "Going off on your own like that right after we found Chris—what were you thinking?"

Abby's question so closely mirrored Gibbs' that Tony cringed.

"That's what Gibbs wants to know," he said glumly. "And I don't have an answer for him. And until I do, I'm not going to be out of the doghouse." ('Or the woodshed', he thought to himself sourly.)

Abby knew how much Tony looked up to their boss and how close the younger man had become to him. While she was unaware that Gibbs physically punished Tony, she knew their boss kept a close eye on him, providing Tony with a refuge and security that had been sorely lacking in his childhood.

His distress over having Gibbs angry with him was something could relate to. She couldn't bear it the few times Gibbs had been annoyed with her and she would have done anything to get back into his good graces. Knowing there was little else she could do, she gave him another hug and then filled him in on a few more details from the case.

Tony returned to the squad room within the prescribed time, feeling marginally better. He sat down carefully at his desk and unwrapped the sandwich Kate had placed there. He felt his boss' eyes on him as he took a few bites, washing them down with the iced tea they'd also picked up.

A few minutes later, the representative from IA called McGee upstairs for his interview about yesterday's events and the shooting. The poor kid looked positively green at the idea of appearing before a review board and answering questions that could possibly put Gibbs in a negative light, though anyone who had witnessed the shooting could tell it had been entirely justified.

Fortunately, the interview must have been perfunctory at best, because McGee returned in well under an hour, looking wrung out but much relieved.

They called Kate next and she also headed upstairs, not looking nearly as nervous as McGee had. Her interview was also brief and she was back in the squad room a short time later, leaving only Tony and Gibbs to give their statements.

She was just about to resume her seat when Gibbs surprised them for the second time that day by telling Kate and McGee to knock off early. He knew Kate had been forced to reschedule several times with her boyfriend over the past few days and McGee was still on loan from Norfolk, so with no cases pending, there seemed little point in keeping them in the office.

Since an early day was as rare as a snowstorm in June, Kate wasted no time gathering her things to leave, with McGee close behind. She paused a moment at Tony's desk, feeling guilty for the way she had been teasing him. He was obviously still upset about the case, and while he could be incredibly annoying, he was also her partner and she didn't like seeing him so down.

"Cheer up, Tony. After your interview, Gibbs will probably send you home too, and then you can hook up with one of your endless stream of stunning young women and forget this whole mess."

Tony knew she was trying to be helpful, but since he seriously doubted Gibbs was going to let him go anywhere after his interview, it wasn't much comfort. Still, he appreciated the effort, so he managed a weak grin.

"I don't know, after a debacle like this one, it might take two or three. Don't suppose any of your sorority sisters are in town?" he teased, making the effort to play along.

"Like I'd ever let you near any of them, DiNozzo."

"Can't blame a guy for trying, Katie. After all, a friend in need and all that…," he said, wagging his eyebrows playfully.

"In your dreams, Tony."

"You know, I'm sure I can find something for you to do here if you'd rather stick around, Kate," Gibbs barked, and without a further word, Kate grabbed her purse and waved a quick goodbye.

Once Kate and McGee were gone, Tony returned to his barely touched lunch, hoping he'd be called for his interview before he had to finish it. For once, luck was on his side. His summons came a moment later, and he headed up to the conference room without a glance at his boss. He had been through these quite a few times, and while they were never fun, at least he had no doubts about what he was going to say.

As he readied himself to knock, Director Morrow suddenly appeared at his side.

"I wanted to commend you for your actions yesterday, Agent DiNozzo. Gibbs tells me that you showed a great deal of courage and resourcefulness in tracking down Agent Pacci's killer."

Tony tried to hide his surprise. "Thank you, sir," he replied, wondering why Gibbs would have praised his actions to the director when he was so angry about them.

"I must admit, I had my doubts when I heard that he had you confront the suspect directly, but if I've learned anything from observing Agent Gibbs in the field, it's that he puts the best people he has into position and then lets them do what they do best. Not always orthodox, but effective."

"That's true, sir," Tony agreed, though he was even more confused by the director's words. It seemed as though Gibbs had taken responsibility for Tony talking to Amanda.

"I only hope the review board doesn't complicate matters," the director continued. "Sometimes they can be amazingly stiff-necked about procedure. I'd hate for Gibbs to have a black mark in his file over this, but then I suppose one more really wouldn't matter at this point in his career."

Now Tony felt a jolt of unease. It had never occurred to him that Gibbs might be in trouble for Tony's decision to connect with Amanda Reed.

"No, I guess it wouldn't," Tony said weakly.

"Well, no point in worrying about it now. I'm just glad that Commander Voss didn't get away with it. Good luck in there, Agent DiNozzo," the director said, nodding toward the door.

"Thank you, Sir," Tony replied automatically but his mind was churning.

The director excused himself a moment later and Tony shook off his daze, but he entered the conference room feeling a good deal more anxious than he had just minutes before.

After the preliminary questions establishing his identity and other pertinent facts for the record, the board then asked him to describe the events as they happened. Having heard most of the information before, they only interrupted him occasionally to ask for clarification or further details.

Once they had completed that portion of the interview, the head of panel began their more probing questions.

"Agent DiNozzo, is it common for Agent Gibbs to send you into a possibly dangerous situation with only a temporary probationary officer for back up?"

It was clear from their question that they were also under the impression that Gibbs had been the one to order Tony to contact Amanda Reed directly. He didn't know whether Kate and McGee had indicated that or if the review board just assumed it since Gibbs was the team leader, but he wasn't about to let his boss take any blame for his actions.

One of Tony's greatest gifts as an undercover agent was his ability to talk around a subject without giving anything important away, so he was determined to answer their question without lying or putting Gibbs in a bad light.

"Agent Gibbs has always taught his team members to be flexible and to anticipate. When we first began the surveillance of the target, she was a person of interest and nothing more. It wasn't until more evidence came to light that we realized that Amanda Reed was actually our murder suspect, Commander Voss."

"Yet by the time you received that information, you were already with the suspect in a public area," another member of the panel added.

"That's true, but Agent McGee was no more than several yards away, providing back up, and Agent Todd and Agent Gibbs arrived almost immediately," Tony quickly pointed out, though he couldn't help but notice the irony of defending his actions while trying not to squirm on a still sore butt.

Yet another of the panel members spoke up at that point.

"Still, it would have been perhaps in the best interest of public safety if you and your team had waited to confront Commander Voss in a more isolated location."

Tony was getting distinctly uncomfortable now, and it had nothing to do with the pain in his rear end. Seeing his actions dissected in the cold light of a review panel made him realize how reckless his actions had been. No wonder Gibbs was furious with him.

All he wanted to do now was finish this interview and talk to his boss, so he answered as quickly and succinctly as he could.

"When you confront a suspect, you don't always have the luxury of the ideal circumstances. We had the situation well under control and while we couldn't have anticipated Voss' decision to challenge Agent Gibbs after being told to surrender, the suspect was the only casualty."

To his great relief, most of the review board members were nodding, having obviously already come to the same conclusion that Gibbs had acted appropriately to defend himself and the rest of the patrons at the pub. After a few more token questions, the panel wrapped up the interview.

"Well, thank you for your time, Agent DiNozzo. We'll review the facts you presented, but it seems that everything is in order. We will be speaking to Agent Gibbs next and if we have any further questions, we'll contact you, but I'm confident that Agent Gibbs will be returned to the field immediately."

Tony couldn't wait to get back to the squad room, so he left as quickly as possible. Gibbs was still sitting at his desk, shuffling through endless piles of paper, but he looked up when Tony rushed over and stopped in front of his desk.

"Problem, DiNozzo?"

"I need to talk to you, boss," the younger man said urgently.

Gibbs' eyes narrowed at his agent's clear agitation. "They give you a hard time in your interview?" he demanded, and Tony felt a flush of warmth that, even angry, Gibbs' first thought was to protect him.

"No, nothing like that. It's just that…well… I just want to say I'm sorry about yesterday."

Gibbs sat back in his chair. "You already apologized, DiNozzo. What you haven't done is give me the answer that I'm looking for."

Tony's shoulders slumped. "I know I haven't, boss, but I promise it's not for lack of trying. But the director said you took the responsibility for my screw-up yesterday, and the review board seemed like they were trying to blame you, too. I just want you to know that I understand that this is all my fault and I know I deserve to be punished."

"Don't worry, you will be, but first I need that answer."

Tony stared at him, a horrible realization growing. He leaned forward and dropped his voice.

"Uh, boss, what exactly do you mean by 'I will be'? In case you've forgotten, you've been punishing me all day."

"Only for not answering my question, DiNozzo. We haven't even started on the rest of the mistakes you made yesterday."

The little bit of lunch Tony had managed to eat was now threatening to make a come-back. Surely Gibbs didn't mean he was planning on even more punishment?

Gibbs noticed his expression.

"Go home, Tony. I'll be tied up for the rest of the day, but I want you to meet me back at my house around six. And bring dinner—something you'll eat," he added sternly.

Tony looked at his watch, surprised to find it was barely after three. This day had already seemed like it had been a month long and it wasn't over yet.

"Great. I have just enough time to stop at Sears and see if they sell cast iron underpants," he groused.

Gibbs smiled slightly at Tony's irrepressible humor. "And risk damaging your first woodworking project?" he teased.

Tony scowled back, unable to laugh when it was his butt in the line of fire.

"Go, Tony. We'll talk about this more at home."

Tony was happy to leave the building for the day, even if he was facing more of the same back at Gibbs' place. Funny how he'd starting thinking of his boss' place as home—more so than he ever thought of the house he grew up in on Long Island.

Tony drove toward his apartment, deeply appreciating the cushioning of his leather car seats. While the paddlings he had received throughout the day had each been painful in their own right, their cumulative effect was really uncomfortable.

If he didn't figure out what Gibbs wanted him to say soon, he was afraid that the old adage about not being able to sit down for a week was going to come true.

Once in his apartment, he quickly changed into his softest sweats and then puttered around, taking care of some bills and a few other small chores, but his mind kept returning to Gibbs' question. He stewed about it until it was time to leave but he was still no closer to an answer.

He briefly debated not going, and letting his boss deal with his infractions through official channels, but he almost immediately rejected that thought.

He and Gibbs had come a long way in the past two years, and it wouldn't feel right. In truth, he liked that Gibbs had taken a special interest in him, and took the time to make sure Tony learned from his mistakes. He only wished the lessons weren't always so unpleasant.

By the time Gibbs got home, Tony had the pizza keeping warm in the oven and the table set. He'd be happy to just grab a slice to eat over the sink, but Gibbs always insisted that they eat like civilized people when they actually got the chance and Tony wasn't about to argue with him.

Gibbs came into the kitchen as soon as he changed, rolling his eyes at Tony's choice for dinner.

"You know, DiNozzo, there are other things in the world worth eating," he said, helping himself to a slice from the box.

"Yeah, I know, but you said to pick something I'd eat, and right now, pizza is about all I can manage," the younger man said despondently.

His boss set his pizza down, frowning. "Tony, I know that today has been hard on you, but I meant it when I said I'm not trying to break you. We're going to get through this."

Tony didn't seem consoled. He picked at his pizza without interest until Gibbs finally shoved his chair back in exasperation.

"All right. I wanted to give you some time to eat, but I think we'd better get this sorted out right now. Stick the pizza back in the oven. This may take a while," Gibbs said, exiting the kitchen.

Tony nervously complied, following Gibbs into the living room and taking the seat opposite him, glancing around nervously for the paddle.

"So, how did your interview go, boss?" he asked, kicking himself for being so wrapped up in his own problems that he hadn't thought to ask before.

"It was fine, DiNozzo. I've been conditionally cleared and the team should return to active status tomorrow. At least some of us will," he said pointedly.

Tony's frustration boiled over and he jumped back to his feet, pacing angrily. "Look, I still don't know what the hell you want me to say," he said, waving his arms in his agitation. "I've been thinking about it all day and I just can't figure it out, so if you're serious about keeping me out of the field until I do, I might as well resign right now."

"Keep up the attitude and I just might let you!" Gibbs replied sharply.

Tony's mouth fell open in surprise and dismay and he slumped back into the chair, unable to speak.

"Well it's not like you need me anymore anyway," he finally muttered under his breath, but Gibbs' sharp ears picked up every word.

"What was that, DiNozzo?" he demanded.

The younger man shook his head, the thought too painful to repeat. "Nothing, boss."

"Oh, no, Tony, it's not nothing. In fact, maybe now we're finally getting somewhere."

Tony stared at Gibbs, shocked and hurt. "You mean you really don't need me anymore?"

Gibbs gave an exasperated sigh. "I swear, DiNozzo, I should paddle you again right now for asking a question like that. Of course I need you! I wouldn't have you on my team if I didn't. And you need to get that through that thick head of yours before you try any more stupid stunts like you did yesterday."

Tony was so surprised by what Gibbs was implying he didn't even register the threat to his rear end. "You think I went after Amanda because I was what…insecure? That's ridiculous!"

"Is it?"

"Well, yeah, I mean, that's just crazy," Tony sputtered.

"No crazier than you thinking you can be replaced by a former secret service agent or an MIT whiz kid. Or being threatened by the relationship I had with my previous senior agent."

Tony blushed and stared at his feet, embarrassed that Gibbs was aware of how envious he had been of Stan Burley.

"Oh, yeah, Tony, I knew," Gibbs said, reading his agent's look. "I just thought you finally got over it."

"I did. I mean, not that there was really anything to get over," Tony hastily backpedaled. "And I'm not jealous of Kate and definitely not of McGee!" he insisted, dimly aware that he was probably protesting too much.

"Then why the crap yesterday? Admit it, you were showing off. You wanted to show McGee what a great agent you were by going off on your own and playing the maverick."

Tony's first instinct was to laugh out loud at the absurdity of Gibbs' assumptions, but he found he couldn't. When he thought about it, he realized that Gibbs was right. In fact, the only fallacy in Gibbs' statement was that it was McGee he wanted to impress.

There was no doubt that Amanda Reed hadbeen attractive, but Tony realized he would never have taken such a chance with an operation if he hadn't wanted to prove to Gibbs that his undercover skills were just as necessary to the team as Kate's high powered connections or McGee's amazing computer prowess.

The awareness hit him like a thunderbolt after eluding him all day.

He swallowed hard. "Oh, God, boss, I'm sorry. I behaved like an ass. I wanted you to be proud of me and instead I could have screwed up everything and let Voss get away."

"Get away? Do you really think that's all I was concerned about? Tony, you put yourself in a position where Voss could have killed you yesterday, and no one would have been able to reach you in time. And for what? To prove to me that you're good at what you do?"

Gibbs was bellowing now, and Tony cringed, knowing he deserved every word of censure. Gibbs noticed his reaction and took a deep breath to calm himself.

When he spoke again, his voice was more modulated and he took care to make sure Tony was looking right at him

"I will say this once and only once. You are an excellent agent and I am proud to have you on my team. If that ever changes, you'll be the first to know."

"How can you still say that after what I did?" Tony demanded.

"Because I know you learn from your mistakes, and I think it's a pretty safe bet you won't be pulling a stunt like that again."

"No, boss, never," Tony said fervently.

"No, I don't think you will. Especially after you've been punished for it."

"More punishment?" Tony couldn't help but whine.

"Don't you think you've earned it?"

Tony hated questions like that. Of course he deserved it, but that didn't mean he had to like the idea.

"Yeah, I deserve it," he admitted grudgingly. "Knew I should have made that stop at Sears," he muttered. "So where do you want me?"

Gibbs gave him a long and measuring look that had Tony shifting uneasily.

"It seems to me that you were behaving less like an NCIS agent and more like a petulant brat who didn't want anyone else to take the star spot on the team. And my father firmly believed that if you act like a child, you should be treated like one."

Tony gulped, not liking the sound of that. Somehow he didn't think Gibbs was simply going to send him to bed without his supper.

He watched nervously as his boss rose and retrieved the paddle from where he had laid it on the bookcase and then resumed his seat and crooked his finger in Tony's direction.

"Over here, Tony," Gibbs said, and the younger man realized with growing horror that his boss was indicating the position over his knee.

He could feel his face flame with embarrassment. "Gibbs! You don't mean…I mean, that's for kids."

The older man looked at him steadily. "Now, Tony."

"Boss, please, not like that," he said desperately, but Gibbs was unmoved.

Realizing he had little chance of changing his boss's mind, Tony stood and forced himself to move the few feet toward his boss. He paused, hoping that Gibbs' would see that the logistics of getting him into such a position would be impractical. The older man merely moved further back against the cushions, providing more space for Tony to lie down.

With jerky and awkward movements, he forced himself to lower his body over Gibbs' waiting knee, resting most of his weight on the couch. He was very grateful he hadn't managed more than a few bites of pizza or it would now be decorating the carpet.

When he felt Gibbs grab hold of his sweats and tug them down, he couldn't choke back a whimper. His boss usually made him bare his butt, but this situation was so much more intimate than lowering his pants himself and leaning over the workbench.

Gibbs gave his shoulder a squeeze, understanding his distress. "I'm not going to take the chance of bruising you, Tony. You've already gotten the paddle a few times today," he said softly.

"You don't have to remind me, boss" Tony replied in a strangled voice. He hid his burning face in his folded arms; sure he would never live this moment down as long as he lived.

Tony's backside was pink but not marked, so Gibbs pulled the younger man more tightly against his body and then picked up the paddle and smacked it smartly against the bare skin. He knew Tony had already endured a fair amount during the day, but he was determined that this was one lesson he was not going to need to repeat.

Tony jumped in shock. He had been so consumed with sheer mortification from his juvenile position that he had given no thought to the actual punishment. The smack wasn't as hard as it could have been, but his ass was already so sore it didn't need to be.

Gibbs noticed Tony's reaction and making a sudden decision, laid the paddle to the side and then resumed the spanking with his hand. The younger man immediately noticed the change and turned to look at him with wide eyes.

"What are you doing!?" Gibbs' hand wasn't as hard as the wood, but Tony was too dismayed to be grateful.

"I make the rules here, Tony, that's why I'm the boss." Gibbs continued bringing his hand down firmly until Tony was ready to leap from his lap, dignity be damned.

To his great relief the punishment didn't last long, but by the time Gibbs quit, Tony had been reduced to helpless tears. Gibbs said nothing, merely releasing his grip on Tony's waist and leaning back so the younger man could yank up his pants and rise.

Tony refused to rub at the throbbing, having suffered enough humiliation for one night, instead shifting from foot to foot trying to alleviate the sting.

He ran a hand over his heated face and then glared at Gibbs accusingly.

"You spanked me!" he complained and Gibbs bit back a smile at his outraged tone.

"Yes, I did. I told you I didn't want to leave any bruising."

"But you've never….I mean, not like that…"

"No, I haven't, but I thought the circumstances warranted it. I told you, if you act like a child, you'll get treated like one. Besides, I thought I was doing you a favor by not using the paddle."

Considering how sore his ass was anyway, Tony didn't think the 'favor' had been worth the embarrassment of having his boss punish him like a five year old, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Now, do you think you finally have the message that I won't tolerate any more grandstanding?"

Feeling thoroughly defeated, Tony replied, "Yes sir."

Gibbs didn't bother to correct him, knowing that the younger man often reverted to his military school training when he was stressed.

"Good. Because if we ever have to visit this issue again, it will be with my belt."

Tony shuddered at the thought. The paddle was bad enough; what kind of impression would a belt make?

"So what now, boss?" he asked with as much courage as he could muster, knowing there was more punishment coming. Gibbs had told him as much in the office.

Gibbs sighed. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this for you, Tony; this was serious. You really deserve a reprimand in your file for your actions yesterday, but since the review board has already accepted the outcome, it's in both of our best interests if I don't stir that pot again. But you can consider yourself on a very short leash for the foreseeable future."

Tony nodded, expecting as much, though he wondered uneasily what Gibbs meant by a "short leash".

"You will also be taking care of all the traditional 'probie' tasks when we're called out on a case, whether McGee or another temporary agent is with us or not. And I won't tolerate any whining about it," Gibbs continued.

At this, Tony's shoulders sunk so low Gibbs was afraid he was in danger of toppling over, but to his credit, there was not one word of protest.

"I understand, boss," he said dejectedly, already dreading Kate's teasing.

"One more thing, Tony. In your spare time, I want you to pull up and review all of our old cases."

Tony looked up in shock. He understood the other punishments, even if he didn't like them, but had no idea where Gibbs was going with this one.

"All of them? But why? What I am I looking for?"

Gibbs caught his eye and the younger man could see that the anger in his boss' face was gone.

"Because I want you to take a good hard look at all the ways you've assisted me and this team in solving the cases we've had over the last two years," he said quietly. "I want you to list every contribution you've made, every connection you've followed, and every contact you've called that led to a case being closed, and some lowlife being put away. Maybe that will help convince you how much this team needs you."

Gibbs stood then and put his hands on Tony's shoulders, staring intently into the younger man's eyes. "And how much I need you, Tony."

Tony swallowed over the sudden lump in his throat. Gibbs was not a demonstrative man and usually only showed open affection with Abby, but Tony could read the warmth behind the words.

"I don't think I'll be forgetting that message any time soon, boss," Tony said, finally giving in to his urge to soothe his stinging butt.

"Good. Because I meant what I said about the belt. No more showing off. I expect better from my senior field agent." With a final squeeze, he released Tony's shoulders. "Now, are you ready to get back to that pizza?"

Tony winced and his eyes flashed hopefully toward the couch, not anxious to try sitting at the moment.

Gibbs noticed and laughed. "All right, we can skip eating at the table tonight. After all, what's the use of being the boss if you can't break your own rules once in a while?"

Tony sank gratefully down on the couch. "Thanks, boss. I promise I won't let you down again."

Gibbs looked at him seriously. "I know you won't, Tony. You just need to remember, you have nothing to prove to me.

THE END
October 2008