Title: Undercover, Ch. 13

Rating: K+

Spoilers: A very small one for "The Truth Is Out There"--very small.

A/N: Well, here it is. The much-revised, long-awaited, famously difficult Chapter Thirteen. I actually had the whole thing written out completely a few weeks ago before I got on a revising kick and started amending everything. This is what resulted. At any rate, I know it's been something of a long wait, but I sincerely hope all of you enjoy it. I've missed posting chapters and getting feedback, so this will hopefully be fun for all of us. Please...read it, and then let me know what you think!!


He's very seriously considering murder.

Not just plain old ordinary murder. Something long and drawn-out and excruciatingly painful. He hasn't been this furious in a very long time—in fact, he really can't remember the last time he was this mad. He was seriously pissed off when he came home from a three-month float in the Med to find his first ex-wife playing house with another man. He was equally incensed when his second wife came after him with a seven-iron, and when his third wife clocked him over the head with a baseball bat. And he's not even counting all the bastards and dirtbags that he's chased with grim resolution over the years. But none of them, not a single one, has ever inspired this kind of helpless fury. He really doesn't know what's come over him, hardly recognizes his own face in the harsh mask he sees distorted in the silver doors of the elevator. He can't think anymore, can't categorize his actions in any sort of rational framework or logical paradigm. He's riding on sheer emotion, and it scares the hell out of him.

Finally he turns around, his hand slipping away from the emergency stop to hang uselessly by his side. Quite frankly, even as angry as he is, he'd much rather take on an entire army of machete-wielding Colombian mercenaries than face her at the moment. But it has to be done, and as soon as he sees her face the anger comes flooding back in a wave much stronger and more powerful than before.

She's standing silently in the other corner of the little car, her eyes cool, her chin still lifted defiantly. Something in her stance only fuels his temper until he can literally feel his hands begin to tremble with the effort to not grab both her shoulders and shake her until her teeth rattle. Instead he pulls in a deep breath through his nose and pins her with a glittering stare.

She arches an eyebrow at him, daring him to be the first to speak. He sincerely wishes that he could withstand the challenge. It would give him a great deal of satisfaction, not to mention revenge him in part for the little game she's been playing with him ever since she came in the office this morning. But unfortunately he really can't resist any longer. He's got to say something or burst.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he growls, a little surprised at how harsh his voice sounds, even to him. He knows her too well to expect that she'll flinch, but he does notice the little flicker of emotion deep down in those dark brown eyes. He doesn't allow himself to stop and register that little observation but barrels right on, the words escaping before he can check the sharp-edged diatribe.

"You think that just because you carry a gun and a badge you're impervious to danger? You think that because you're a federal agent you're entitled to play with your life like it's Russian roulette? Well, I've got news for you, Kate."

He leans in closer, catching a whiff of her perfume and immediately squelching his automatic reaction. He cannot think of her as anything but an agent now. He cannot think of her as anything but his agent now. Somehow the distinction is becoming blurred, and he's not sure how to draw the lines in the sand again.

She looks straight at him, not a trace of fear in her eyes, and the corner of her mouth pulls back in what he recognizes as Kate's version of a sneer. Suddenly the urge to shake her violently resurges in full force, and he steps a little closer as if to prove to himself that he is capable of self-control.

"You don't get to make judgment calls just because you've got some half-cocked scheme to expose a murderer by playing the bait. You don't get the luxury of calling the shots. As the senior agent, and your boss, that honor happens to go to me."

He knows he's being a bastard. He knows that pulling rank on her is unreasonable, and—all things considered—unfair. She carried equal responsibility with him on this op, and even though he might be the senior agent, she proved herself more than capable of doing her job, and doing it well. But there is some emotion deeper than anger and more powerful than fear coursing through his veins, and he can't seem to stop the furious words because they are the only thing standing between him and the edge he's rushing toward, headlong.

"I expect you to do your job. I expect you to be sharp and observant and tough, to never give up until you've caught your man, to remember all the rules I've taught you and follow them. I expect you to be the best damn agent on the case whether you feel like it or not. But what I do not expect is for you to pull some brainless stunt like throwing yourself at a murderer hoping you'll catch him red-handed—like you're some damn martyr or something." He huffs out a sharp breath and sets his jaw, trying his dead-level best to stare her down. "You are not usually this stupid, Kate. What the hell happened to you?"

He's struck a nerve, he can tell, but she's not going to give him the satisfaction of seeing her lash out. Instead she folds her arms across her chest and raises her eyebrows coolly.

"Don't worry, Gibbs," she says with a small smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "I didn't manage to spoil your perfect record."

"What record?" he growls, tired of dancing around playing word-games with her when what he really wants to do is grab her, haul her up close, and either kiss her or shake her. At the moment, he's having trouble deciding which option appeals to him more.

"Your record of having never lost an agent," she says nastily, her voice like dry ice, so freezing cold that it burns. "I'd hate to be the one to ruin that little streak. Who knows—you might not get Agent of the Year again if you lost a team member to some crazy psychopath."

Now she's just deliberately trying to goad him. She knows good and well that he doesn't give a damn about Agent of the Year or any other asinine award that involves public recognition and wearing a tie. But he's beginning to get a handle on what's been the thorn in her side for the last couple of weeks.

"You think that's why I'm chewing you out right now?" he demands furiously. "You think that the only thing I'm worried about is ruining some record? Have you completely lost your mind, Kate?"

She may have been ice-cold and impenetrable a moment ago, but she's rapidly heating up. Her eyes could probably burn holes through sheet metal right now, and he considers himself fortunate that he became inured to a woman's glare a long time ago. Or at least that's what he tells himself.

"You know something, Gibbs?" she spits at him, her cheeks flushed with anger and her breath coming fast and hard. Unbidden, the thought pops into his head that she's incredibly sexy when she's mad. But he stifles that one hard and fast. He can't afford to be distracted when he's fighting with Kate.

She keeps right on going. "I realize I put your life in jeopardy, as well as those of the other agents there that night. I took a chance, and it could have back-fired for all of us. And for that, I'm sorry." Before he can say anything, she holds up a hand. "Yes, I know. Never say you're sorry. But there are times when it just has to be said. If I hadn't gone with Sommers, refused to call for backup, you wouldn't have been sitting tied up in that chair with a gun held to your head, or gotten nearly pounded to a pulp. That was my fault, and I'll take responsibility for it."

He can hardly believe his own ears. He should have realized, he tells himself with an internal grimace. Only Kate would more or less ignore the fact that she was nearly strangled to death and instead focus on the fact that he got a beating which, in his younger days, he would have considered little more than a minor inconvenience. He really doesn't know why he's so surprised.

She sighs heavily and lets her shoulders sag a little.

"Look, maybe I screwed it up. Maybe we could have caught Sommers even if I hadn't gone with him. Maybe we could have reconstructed the other three cases from the evidence we had from the FBI. All I can say is that I had to make a split-second decision. I didn't have time to weigh all the options, didn't have the luxury of making a list of pros and cons. I just went with my gut and hoped like hell that both of us would come out all right. If it had just been me involved, it wouldn't have mattered. But even with both us in danger, somehow we made it." She lifts her shoulders in a slight, puzzled movement, her eyes dark and sincere on his. "We're both here, Gibbs. We're both alive. What more do you want?"

He glares down at her, his chest constricting and his eyes spitting fire as he remembers watching her life slowly ebb away right before his eyes. She had no right, he thinks. No right to take those kind of chances, no right to put herself in that kind of danger. No right to make him sit there helpless and watch as she suffered. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realizes he's being irrational, illogical, and absurd. At this point, he really doesn't care.

"I want you to stop taking stupid risks," he says slowly, each word coldly furious and deliberate, as sharp-edged and lethal as a steel blade. "I want you to think about what could happen before you decide to gamble with your life on the line. I want you to quit running off on a hunch because you think you're invincible. I want—"

He breaks off as she shakes her head, that stubborn line digging itself between her brows again. Exasperated, she crosses her arms in front of her and gives him a speaking glance.

"It's part of the job, Gibbs," she says crisply, the anger in her eyes tempered by a gleam of understanding. "You know that as well as I do."

But he's not buying it. Not from her. Not after what nearly happened in a darkened hotel room a week ago. And she might as well know it now.

"No, it's not," he says tightly, his jaw clenching as his mind torments him with memories of the woman in front of him lying helpless on a cream-carpeted floor. "Choosing to get yourself almost killed is not part of the job, Kate. It never has been."

She gives him a shrewd look. "You know better than that, Gibbs. We all choose to put everything on the line when necessary. That doesn't change just because the circumstances become more risky."

He looks at her, really looks at her for the first time since he dragged her over to the elevator and pushed the down button untold minutes ago. She looks back up at him, her brown eyes dark and intent, her mouth tight with frustration and temper, the heavy bruises still forming an obscene necklace around her slender throat. He knows she doesn't understand why he's so angry, that she has no idea why he's insisting that she be more careful, take less risks. How could she, when he is only just understanding why himself?

Foundering, drowning in the rising tide of emotions that are rapidly overtaking his mind, he turns away and plants one hand on the wall of the elevator, closing his eyes to blot out the image of her earnest face turned candidly up to his, He can't fight it anymore, the guilt and the fear and the overwhelming hatred of his own impotence in the face of her almost certain death. He can't run any more, can't hide from it, can no longer deny it, even in the depths of his own mind. She's more to him than just an agent, always has been more if he's going to be completely honest with himself. He cares for her in a way he hasn't cared for a woman in nearly twenty years, and the very idea has him wanting to run for the nearest exit like the hounds of hell are nipping at his heels. And the thought that he almost lost her is driving him insane.

He swallows hard, trying desperately to find some way to make sense of his jumbled thoughts, his careening emotions. Somehow he very much fears that he's never going to be able to make sense of anything again, not while Kate is standing in front of him with the marks of a madman's fingers on her throat and her eyes swirling with questions to which he still doesn't have the answers. But even if he can't rationalize the chaotic state of his mind, he still realizes one thing: after all they've been through, after all he's said and all he's failed to say, at the very least he owes it to both of them to acknowledge the truth.

And so he turns around to face her, his head bent as he stares at the floor between his shoes. Slowly he dredges up the courage to raise his chin and meet her eyes, huge and dark and bewildered at his strange behavior. As she looks at him, he can almost see her mind spinning, trying to make sense of the past ten minutes or so. He doesn't blame her for being confused. He doesn't know what the hell is going on either. But he opens his mouth anyway and takes one step closer to that terrifyingly slippery edge he's been teetering on since the day they shook hands on Air Force One.

She just finished telling him that as agents, sometimes they have to put everything on the line, that that doesn't change when the stakes suddenly grow higher. He knows she was talking about the case, not their personal lives, their private feelings. But whether she realizes it or not, he is. And he hopes like hell that this time, the gamble will pay off.

"Sometimes it does, Kate," he says, his eyes boring into hers as he edges a little closer, deliberately crowding into her personal space. "Sometimes it does."


She's never seen him quite this angry before.

She's never seen him quite this illogical before either, come to think of it. In fact, she's thinking about giving him a good slap to the back of the head, just to force him to start making sense. First he throws a temper tantrum in the bullpen, embarrassing both of them in front of their friends and colleagues, then he hauls her off to the elevator without so much as a by-your-leave, and now he seems to be undecided as to whether he wants to yell at her for endangering her life or establish his status as the alpha male of the team. So far, he's doing a really great job of both.

She knows perfectly well that letting herself serve as a human target for a serial killer may not be the most safety-conscious thing she's ever done. She realizes that she put the team, and especially Gibbs, in danger. She's been thinking about that ever since she woke up in the hospital to concerned faces and too-bright lights. And during the week she was forced to spend recuperating at home, she had plenty of time to consider all the ramifications of what she will now admit was perhaps not such a brilliant plan.

But she will not concede the fact that she has as much right as any other agent to put herself in danger if the job calls for it. She didn't accept this position without understanding exactly the sacrifices it entailed, and she has no intention of letting Gibbs ride rough-shod over her simply because she happens to be the only female agent on his team. She's well aware that Gibbs is of an older generation, one that automatically, almost instinctively sees women as something to be protected, not acknowledged as equals. And even though he's never cut her any slack because of her gender before, she understands that somewhere along the line that protective instinct transferred itself to her. Some stubborn little corner of her heart is irrationally warmed by the realization. But her brain is warning her that letting Gibbs define her position on the team by his instinctive fear for her safety is going to prove disastrous for all concerned.

Deep down inside she also has a niggling feeling that some of this probably has to do with what happened between the two of them during their week-long stay at the hotel. She'd be the first to admit that the lines between personal and professional got a little blurred…all right, perhaps more than a little. Kissing your boss good morning when the two of you are wrapped around each other in bed probably would be considered crossing that line, as well as ogling him in the exercise room, dancing far too close to him at a public gala, and all-but-propositioning him at the bar. Though she refuses to take all the blame for that part of it. Gibbs was doing plenty of looking—and more—of his own, and she knows full well that the chemistry between them was far from one-sided. But those coldly horrifying moments when both their lives were in danger changed something, set off a chain reaction that neither of them seems able to stop.

Because ever since then he's been a different person. She barely remembers what it felt like to have him talk to her, laugh with her, send her those heatedly suggestive looks that made goosebumps of hidden pleasure race up and down her skin. Since the night of the attack he's been cold, angry, distant in a way she's never seen before, and she hates to acknowledge how much it hurts. She can't figure out any reason for it, except that perhaps he blames her for the way things fell apart, and the thought uppermost in her mind at the moment is that he will never forgive her for ruining his op.

The idea that he may be personally concerned for her has occurred to her during the last two interminable weeks, but at this point it's nothing more than laughable. After that fuzzily remembered call from the hospital she didn't hear anything from him at all, other than a perfunctory visit in the company of McGee and DiNozzo…and even then he hovered in the doorway and said little more than the requisite platitudes before leaving as soon as humanly possible. And now, the first time she's seen him in over two weeks, the first time she's had a chance to explain what happened and try to make amends, he's behaving like a dog growling over a disappointingly substandard bone. She doesn't know what's wrong with him, doesn't know how to fix the situation when she doesn't even know what the situation is. All she knows at the moment is that somehow or another she has to try.

So she takes a deep breath and decides to attempt to reason with him. It can't hurt, she thinks to herself. She's already tried yelling at him, and that's only gotten her a stinging tirade and a position boxed into the corner of a stopped elevator. Clearly a change of tactics might be in order.

"Gibbs," she says patiently, willing herself to stay calm. "Just because you were the senior agent and in charge of the op doesn't mean that you're responsible for what happened. Neither of us is to blame here."

He stops short, stiffening in front of her with daggers shooting from those bright blue eyes. She knows he hates it when she uses her profiling skills on him. But perhaps if he faces up to the guilt that he's obviously carting around like a child with a favorite blanket, they can get this tension between them out and go on with life.

He doesn't seem very amenable to the suggestion.

"We are not discussing who is to blame for what here, Kate," he rumbles irritably, sounded very much like the wounded bear she called him over a year ago. "We are discussing your potentially life-threatening habit of deliberately inserting yourself into dangerous situations. Which is going to stop. Right now."

All right, perhaps the calm reasoning tactic is not going to work after all. She can practically feel little wisps of steam starting to curl out of her ears. But with great effort she manages to keep her voice restrained and both hands curled loosely at her sides.

"Gibbs, I know that you're the senior agent and the boss here."

"Damn straight I am," he interjects domineeringly.

"Right," she says, gritting her teeth until her jaw cracks. "But I am going to have to draw the line at you interfering with my performance on the job because of some overdeveloped protective instinct. It's chauvinistic and rude and just plain insulting. Besides the fact that it interferes with the work. You're a better agent than that, Gibbs."

He's staring at her as if he's never seen her before in his life.

"Overdeveloped protective instinct?" he repeats slowly, sounding like a slightly defective parrot. She conquers the urge to role her eyes and settles for a tolerant smile instead.

"Yes, Gibbs. I realize that seeing your colleague almost get strangled to death right in front of you was probably difficult to handle. But you really can't just go on this way—"

She stops mid-sentence, staring blankly at the strange look on his face. She's seen him mad, she's seen him weary, she's seen him furious and disappointed and even desperate sometimes—but she's never seen him look quite like this. He looks like a man on the verge of doing something crazy, and all of a sudden she feels the bite of nervousness jump into her throat as he moves forward to box her completely in.

"Dammit, Kate, what am I supposed to do?" he whispers heatedly into her face, his eyes raking over her with a possessive glare so hot she feels a little singed. "I had to sit there, tied to that damn chair, and see you almost get killed by some sick bastard who thought it was fun to listen to me beg for your life while I watched you die. What do you want me to be? Happy?"

Shocked, stunned, she can't even summon up the energy to think, much less reply. He's so close she can feel the heat from his body soaking through her clothes, and suddenly she's overwhelmed with an avalanche of memories from their week together…all the moments when he stood just this close, when his arms were around her and his heartbeat resounded next to hers. Fighting the urge to pull him closer, tug his head down and stop his mouth with hers, she tilts her head back and closes her eyes in a helpless effort at resistance.

She's jolted out of her trance as his fist thuds loudly against the elevator wall, the sound causing her to jump in sudden alarm. As her eyes fly open, she sees the glint of absolute determination in his eyes, recognizes danger in the razor-thin line of his mouth. And as his hands flatten slowly on the wall behind her, she realizes that he no longer looks like someone on the verge of something crazy. Unless she's very much mistaken, he just went over the edge.

Clenching his jaw, he mutters something that sounds remarkably like "Ah, hell," between his teeth, and then he moves in for the kill. Suddenly his arms are around her, pinning her securely to the wall, and his mouth is moving swiftly over hers, his lips wild and hot and demanding as he drags sensation after sensation out of her bewildered body. She stands there, unable to move, for what seems to be hours, while the world spins and stars fall and the man she's wanted for nearly two years kisses her as she's never been kissed before—not even by him.

Finally, when both of them are breathless and panting from a combination of lack of oxygen and overwhelming desire, he raises his head, pulls back a little, and looks away, tension seeping into his big body as he realizes what they've just done. Slowly he turns his head and reluctantly meets her eyes, and what she sees there astounds her. His words and his gestures and his body language may have been expressing anger, but his eyes are filled with fear…fear and helpless desire and another emotion that she can't quite put a finger on, but that has her stomach quivering with giddy swirls of butterflies and her heart pounding with hope. Speechless, astonished, she reaches up to touch his cheek carefully, relishing the warmth of his rough skin against her hand. He sucks in a sharp breath at their sudden contact, his face a mask of blank confusion. Riding on the sudden upswell of emotion that has her throat tightening and her chest aching, she takes one last look in his eyes, stands up on tiptoe, and curls both arms around his neck before pressing a brief, tender kiss to the corner of his mouth.

She can feel him finally break then, every feeling he can't explain and every word he can't make himself say pouring out in a riptide of wildly desperate emotion. She can feel his control snap even before his arms vise around her, one calloused hand cupping the back of her head tightly against his chest. His other arm wraps around her back, pressing her closer to him as a shudder runs through his frame.

He buries his face in her hair while his heartbeat thuds against her, breathing in her scent deeply as he murmurs something low in his throat. Somehow she hears it, even though his voice is nothing but a hoarse whisper.

"Katie," he mutters into her hair, his fingers sliding through the silky strands as he presses his lips gently to the top of her head. "Katie."

Standing there, wrapped in his arms and savoring the warmth she's missed for entirely too long, she can't help but remember his voice breaking over those exact same words when she lay curled up on the floor, thinking she was dying. It may be foolish and romantic and absurd, but she can't help but be touched by the memory. And not foolishly at all, she's glad that those were not the last words she ever heard in this life. They both made it out okay, she thinks as gratitude wells up inside her. They're both going to be fine. And unless his vice-like grip and unexpectedly tender voice are lying to her, things are about to get a whole lot better.

After a long moment she pulls away just a little, enough to look at him straight-on. All of a sudden she realizes what he can't bring himself to tell her, understands the raw feeling that's swirling so clearly in those conflicted blue eyes. Suddenly she knows why his voice was so tender when she called from the hospital on the night of the attack, why he could no longer listen to the details of the case that Tony and McGee were discussing so avidly, why he hauled her out of the bullpen without so much as a word of warning and why they're standing there in an elevator, arms around each other and hearts still pounding from a stolen kiss. Suddenly it finally dawns on her what he meant earlier, when he all but spat at her that he couldn't stand sitting there and watching her get hurt. She understands everything, and as her mind wraps around the idea, warmth spreads insidiously through her chest and she can't stop the delighted smile that is beginning to curve her lips.

He stares at her in confusion, frowning a little as he tries to figure her out. Finally he huffs out a soft breath and opens his mouth, no doubt to try to explain what's going on in his famously enigmatic mind and why both arms are still clamped around her like he's never going to let go. Forestalling him, she shakes her head a little and places her fingers gently over his lips, refusing to let him speak.

"It's okay, Gibbs," she says quietly, her eyes shining up at him in the dim bluish light of the stalled car. "You don't have to say it."

He looks at her in utter disbelief, and her smile spreads irresistibly, her dimples winking up him and her eyes filled with laughter. Slowly, gradually, his lips begin to turn up in response as her words sink in and slip past his guard. His hands slide down with slow deliberation to grasp her hips and hers slip down to rest lightly on his shoulders. She sees his eyes flash with sudden, wicked humour, and in his face she sees once again the old Gibbs she knows both so little and so well. There is one difference, though, and she'd bet everything she's got on this change being here to stay.

He leans in close again, his breath brushing her cheek and his warmth infiltrating her clothing as he whispers seductively in her ear.

"Do you remember that dance we had about a week ago, Katie? A waltz, as I seem to recall?"

She represses the urge to snort. Of course she remembers. Who could possibly forget? But she has no intention of letting him know that his low-voiced words have made her knees start shaking like a leaf and her stomach knot with nerves. So she settles for a brief nod and a non-committal "Mm-hmm."

She can feel his grin, the one she's seen only a handful of times but that has always left her breathless, flash across his face. He slips one hand from her hip to the small of her back, holding her a little closer as his lips keep weaving tangled patterns of desperation and desire in her hazy brain.

"And do you happen to remember the conversation we were having during that dance?" he asks slyly, his thumb making tiny circles on the smooth material of her jacket. She can't help but be carried back in time to that moment, when he held her just this close and whispered to her in just this way. She has a sneaky suspicion that that was his objective in the first place.

"A conversation about what, Gibbs?" she asks innocently, playing it safe. He chuckles deep in his chest, the sound sending little shivers up her spine, and presses a quick kiss to her temple.

"Oh, I have a feeling you remember, Katie, but I'll jog your memory anyway."

She pulls back a bit and gives him a snarky smile.

"Gee, thanks, Gibbs," she says sarcastically. He only grins in response.

"Yeah," he drawls smugly. "Well—I seem to recall a little something about a mutual lack of satisfaction. You remember that?"

She raises an eyebrow wordlessly, stunned at how quickly he's moving, amazed at how bold he's suddenly become. She's seen him take risky ventures before, but only on the job. This is the first time she's ever seen him have the guts to take their continual flirtation to the next level. (And she's not counting all those moments during the op. Undercover ops where two agents are playing husband and wife are off-limits, she tells herself sternly.) But after a minute, she nods in reply.

"Uh-huh… I do sort of remember something about that," she says mischievously, deliberately toying with him. He gives her a pointed glance, then takes the plunge.

"You still unsatisfied, Katie?" he asks her directly, which has the rather dramatic effect of driving all the breath from her lungs in a soft whoosh of air. She stares up at him for a long moment, wondering what exactly he's asking her, how far he's willing to go. Then she finally decides that it hardly matters anymore. She's too far in to step back now. She cares for him too deeply, has let him come to matter to her too much. The only course left to her is to go forward. And with the burden of the decision lifted from her shoulders, she suddenly feels much lighter, like a balloon that has popped loose from its string and is drifting up toward the clouds. Riding on that giddy happiness, she moves her hands down to smooth his lapels, smiling at him with just a touch of suggestion in her eyes. He lifts an eyebrow and watches her step a little closer, deliberately shortening the space between them.

"You know what, Gibbs?" she asks teasingly. "I am unsatisfied. Extremely unsatisfied. But fortunately, I think I know what to do about it."

The corner of his mouth lifts a little and she can see a distinct gleam in his eyes. Despite her sudden nervousness, she forges on anyway.

"You see, I've got this recipe for rigatoni alla napoletana that I got from my sister, and the whole evening to spend eating it…all alone. Now don't you think that's a little unsatisfying?"

He's starting to look remarkably like a cat that's just stolen a saucerful of cream, but this is going right where she wants it to and she really doesn't mind. He brings one hand up to play with the button on her lapel, gently worrying the little object back and forth with his rough fingers.

"Oh, yeah, Kate," he says softly. "Very unsatisfying. What were you gonna do about fixing that?"

She smiles at him, laying everything she's got on the line once again. But this time, she has no fears that this is going to end badly. She doesn't see how it can.

"Well, I was hoping you might have some ideas about that," she says challengingly, knowing full well what she's inviting. The only thing she's worried about right now is whether or not the casserole dish she has can feed two.

He smiles right back, looking more relaxed than she's ever seen him before. Suddenly she has a quick vision of him showing up her front doorstep tonight, casually dressed in jeans and an old T-shirt, a bottle of wine in his hand and his eyes bright with laughter as his lips unerringly find hers. The image makes her smile widen and her cheeks flush as hope, finally loosed, breaks free and bubbles over.

"I think I might be able to help you there," he says, voice gravelly and eyes steady on hers. "Say, about seven o'clock or so?"

"Sounds good to me," she says, smiling at him with her heart in her eyes and a bright confidence shining from the smug curve of her lips. Slowly, begrudgingly, she lets him go, reluctant to see this moment end. They need to get back to work, despite their thrumming pulses and throbbing hearts, and they both know it. With equal reluctance in every line of his body, he moves away from her and lifts the lever, starting them moving again. Oddly detached, she watches the little light on the panel above move from the fourth floor down to the third, the second, the first, and then to autopsy. She supposes they're going down to visit Ducky, but really can't bring herself to be too curious about the whys and wherefores. She just wants to hold him again, and is unaccountably frustrated at having to pretend for hours yet that they're nothing more than agents working on the same team, professionals through and through.

But even as she tells herself that the lines between personal affairs and work have been redrawn, even as she reminds herself of all the reasons they can't afford to be caught, she can't help that giddy happiness bubbling up inside her again like a kettle boiling over. She's waited so long for this, dreamed so many fruitless dreams, spent so many sleepless nights agonizing over a man she never thought could be hers. It may have taken them a while to get there, but they're finally on the right track, she thinks delightedly. And it's going to be such a good ride.

Riding on that upsurge of sudden joy, she impulsively moves into him and hooks both arms around his neck, drawing him close for a quick, laughing kiss.

"What was that for?" he asks her teasingly, a glint of amusement entering his eyes even as his arms slide around to hold her closer. She grins cheerfully and ruffles his hair with one hand.

"Oh, just because," she says, unable to keep the happiness from her voice. She supposes it doesn't much matter—after all, he's the reason for it being there in the first place. Looking at her, he grins back and shakes his head.

"I can tell you're gonna be trouble, Agent Todd," he mutters darkly, his arm banding a little tighter around her waist so that she can feel the words vibrating in his chest. "Just because—is that any kind of answer for an NCIS special agent to give?"

Teasing him right back, she smiles coyly and bats her eyes in a dead-on imitation of a ditzy femme fatale.

"Maybe I'll come up with a better one tonight," she whispers seductively in his ear, and gets the pure satisfaction of watching him flush with a combination of anticipation and frustrated desire.

"Maybe you will," he whispers back, right before he ducks his head and captures her mouth with his again, destroying any stray rational thought she might have had left. The heat of the moment entangles them, enveloping them so completely that she doesn't even notice the warning ding of the elevator signaling that they've arrived at their desired floor. In fact, she hardly registers that she's wrapped around him like sumac on an oak until she hears an undignified snort not two feet away and happens to glance up.

At the sight of Gerald standing there, one hand at his mouth to stifle his helpless chuckles, she immediately nudges Gibbs and untangles herself as quickly as possible. It's too late, though, because Gerald has already motioned to Ducky and the stocky British M.E. is hurrying over as fast as his legs will carry him. Arriving beside his assistant, he takes one look at the two agents before him—flushed, rumpled, and clearly embarrassed—tucks his tongue in his cheek, and slowly shakes his head.

"Oh, my," Ducky mutters under his breath, almost as though he doesn't even realize he's saying anything at all. As Gibbs and Kate stay frozen in the elevator doorway, unable to speak or even move, he continues to wag his head sadly at the pair of them, only the little gleam of unholy glee in his eyes threatening to give him away.

And then, with one last shake of the head, he takes Gerald's sleeve and drags the still-snickering assistant back through the door leading to autopsy, still clucking like a hen with two misbehaving chicks. Through the closing doors, they hear his voice floating faintly back to them, carrying a faint note of mingled delight and consternation as he waddles off.

"Oh, my."