Author's Note: Well, it's been months and months and you guys are still reading and commenting, and I continue to be in a permanent state of flattered. I'm hoping to focus on this story more now - I'm juggling a couple others at the same time, but I've got a good sense of where this is going from here, which is a good thing.
I've bounced back and forth on how to handle the relationship angle. I've heard requests for both sides from readers - ones who like the idea of the coming slash, and ones who wish I'd keep everyone else straight and deal with the idea behind the story without going to happy gay places with everyone. And I've thought pretty seriously about both options. When it comes down to it, though, I'm a slash writer. I love dealing with people in all types of relationships, but I really like the slashy parts best of all. I hope you guys have enough faith in me to know I'm not going to do some half-assed Healing Cocks scenario. If you couldn't tell from Have to Drive, I think slash is better when you have to work for it.
I am willing to listen to futher arguments for either side of this little debate, of course. The story ain't writ yet. :-)
Thanks for everyone who keeps reading and reviewing and keeping this story constantly in my mind through the ridiculous gaps between chapters. And a mad shoutout to both Jady and Emerald1, who were nice enough to let me know about a plagiarist who re-posted this story with a tacked-on ending. They were so quick to call the person out that I didn't even get to see the story for myself, it was already gone. Which was kinda sad - I sort of want to know how it ended. :-D Either way...thanks, you two.
Come see me the minute you're back in the office.
No signature, but it wasn't like Gibbs didn't know who it was from. He dropped the torn paper back on his desk and glanced upwards, but there was no one standing on the stairs or the watching from a flight up.
Gibbs ignored the blinking light on his phone and dropped his pack under the desk where it wouldn't immediately be seen. He glanced back upstairs, but turned without hesitation and went towards the elevator.
He had an agent in an interview room waiting to get questioned, and that was more important than talking to Vance.
Wasn't like he couldn't guess what Vance wanted to chat about, anyway. It just figured that the one time Gibbs wanted him to stay nice and uninformed he was already clued in to what was going on.
Abby would be getting the first boxes of evidence from the crime scene soon, with any luck, and hopefully Duck and Palmer would have Bryar down on their table before Gibbs was done with McGee. By the time Vance got to Gibbs to order him away his team would already be knee-deep in the case.
He went down the stairs instead of the elevator – not avoiding Vance, of course, just wanted the extra few seconds to get his thoughts together – but by the time he was headed down the corridor to the interview rooms he still didn't have as good a handle on what was coming than he usually did.
He had a few priorities in mind, at least: first and foremost, he had to find a way to prove that Bryar's murder had everything to do with Bryar himself. If he could face Vance with some evidence that McGee's proximity to the murder was absolute coincidence, he had a better chance of keeping the case.
As he approached the first interview room he noticed the dark crack in the door beside it – someone was in Observation. Frowning to himself, he went to that door first and pushed it open with a finger, peering inside.
Tony. Sitting there, sipping a cup of coffee and staring through the glass as if he was waiting for something to happen.
Gibbs pushed the door open wider, just enough to get Tony's attention.
Straightening fast, Tony flashed a too-easy smile. "Hey, boss. Just, uh...waiting for you."
Gibbs raised his eyebrows, his frown not easing. He looked over at the glass, looked at the still, pale figure of Tim McGee sitting frozen at the interview table.
He looked back at Tony.
Tony grinned awkwardly. "You didn't tell me to babysit. I didn't know if you'd want me in there or..." He trailed off, which was just as well.
More than one person in his life had commented on Gibbs' tendency towards silence. Tony called him a functional mute. Pick an ex-wife, they'd bitched him out for never wanting to talk. Strong, silent type, he was referred to as by more than one smirking face.
But it wasn't like Gibbs had some fetish for silence. He simply found it a more efficient way to communicate.
Especially in moments like that one, where he only had to meet Tony's eyes and tilt his head a bit and that was all it took to communicate, loud and clear, that he knew Tony was full of shit and Gibbs would be getting back to him about it later.
Tony's grin faded.
Gibbs shook his head and pushed back out of the room, heading next door.
Wasn't a good thing, Tony leaving McGee alone. Tony sitting in silence staring at him through glass like he was some kind of suspect. That wasn't the kind of guy Tony was, and it wasn't the type of team Gibbs had built.
He didn't think much about Tony could surprise him anymore, but if it actually turned out that Tony was homophobic, willing to treat his own partner like a stranger because of who that partner was shacked up with, Gibbs was going to have to reassess his senior agent.
Gibbs wasn't some kind of bleeding heart. He wasn't particularly liberal in a lot of ways. Wasn't particularly conservative, either - he just didn't care much for social issues period. He was all for live-and-let-live.
But a team didn't turn on each other. That - the team, the partnership, the seven years spent having each others' six - that was stronger than any kind of prejudice. And if it wasn't stronger, something was seriously wrong.
He moved into the interview room, leaving his thoughts out in the hallway and shutting the door behind them.
After a short but too-long pause, McGee looked over. He tensed as he saw Gibbs. "Hey, boss," he said quietly.
"McGee." Gibbs moved around the table and slipped into the waiting chair. He spotted the coffee cup sitting by McGee's arm and almost let himself smile a little when he saw the familiar name of the coffee shop on the side of the cup.
Good. Meant he didn't have to wonder about Ziva the way he was suddenly wondering about Tony.
He sat back in his chair and studied McGee. "Tell me about Nathan Bryar."
McGee reached for the cup, dragging it close to his chest and wrapping both hands around it. His throat worked. "What...um. What do you...?"
"Come on, McGee, you've sat through a thousand of these interviews before. You know the kind of details I need."
McGee frowned at his cup, but drew in a slow breath and raised his eyes up to meet Gibbs' gaze. "Right. Um. He's..." He cleared his throat, shaking his head a little. "All I can think of are the things I don't want you to know."
Gibbs smiled faintly when he saw the blush those words caused. It was oddly easy to lean in and soften his voice a little as he talked McGee through it. "Let's start with the basics. He's a Marine, or was, right?"
"Right." McGee jumped on the direct question fast. "He was discharged a little over a year ago."
"After the injury?"
"No." He flashed a hard little smile that didn't seem to belong on his face, not meeting Gibbs's eyes. "He was still in recovery, on the slow track to being discharged for his injuries when he was..." His eyes flickered. "Someone at the VA in DC reported him when an old...boyfriend..." He couldn't seem to look at Gibbs. "Ended up being dishonorably discharged."
Gibbs' eyebrows raised. "DADT?"
McGee nodded. "Apparently it's worth more than losing normal use of a leg." He stared at his coffee cup. "His CO could've gone either way, at least that's what Nate said. He could've let it lie since he was going to be discharged anyway. But...Nate..."
Gibbs sat back, waited.
McGee looked up for the briefest moment. His eyes landed on Gibbs, then shifted to the mirror behind Gibbs, and then moved right back down to that coffee cup. "Nate said his CO was just homophobic, but Nate had a way of rubbing authority wrong."
McGee gave the thinnest ghost of a smile. "He's...he's the kid of guy who knows exactly what the consequences are but still invites his boyfriend to visit him at the VA and doesn't bother pretending he's a cousin or something. And he's still genuinely outraged when those consequences land."
Gibbs nodded. He knew the type. Dinozzo, when he first showed up on Gibbs' team, had been that type. "Okay. Discharged a year ago. What's he been doing since?"
"Living off disability." McGee shrugged.
"Got any enemies? Anyone who'd want to hurt him?"
"A list full," McGee answered without a pause.
Gibbs studied him, interested in that easy response.
McGee looked up after a moment. "He was pissed about being discharged the way he was. He started campaigning hard against Don't Ask Don't Tell. Gave a few national interviews right after it happened, and now he runs a website for a national protest group."
"Made him pretty unpopular with some folks," Gibbs guessed.
McGee snorted softly. He bent his eyes back to that cup, shaking his head. "I could print out a folder a few inches thick full of emails from patriotic Americans and all the ways they wished Nate dead for speaking up for himself."
"Anything serious?" Gibbs kept his gaze steady when McGee looked up. "You know the difference between the usual nuts and the credible threats."
The silence stretched on, longer than Gibbs would have thought. McGee was still pale, still looked to be in shock. But his brain was usually quicker than that, shock or no shock.
Gibbs regarded the youngest on his team. It wasn't confusion on his face, wasn't anything particularly thoughtful. He wasn't searching for an answer, he just didn't speak whatever that answer was.
"Okay, we'll come back to that. Outside of his protests, is there anyone else you can think of who might want to hurt him?"
"No. No one that I can think of. Most people...they either like Nate or hate him. He's one of those people, you know? But outside of the website and the protests he doesn't really know a lot of people. His family is out west, his friends are mostly casual acquaintances. He's not worth a lot of money."
"Okay, so tell me who did this."
McGee looked up too fast, giving himself away again.
One thing Gibbs had always appreciated about McGee was his sense of honesty. Even then, even having to ask about this whole secret life McGee had kept hidden, there was something inherently honest about the kid.
Must've been pretty damned hard staying so private. Especially considering how nosy some of his teammates could be.
Gibbs saw the answer in those innocent green eyes even as he spoke. "You have some idea, at least a pretty strong theory. So speak up."
McGee studied him. For the first time since Gibbs sat down his gaze stayed steady – he didn't look away or distract himself with the coffee or anything else.
After a moment Gibbs realized that McGee wasn't hesitating to speak up, he was genuinely searching Gibbs for something. Like a lost kid, Gibbs thought suddenly and then couldn't shake the image, who was checking a stranger for a badge before admitting that he was lost.
Wasn't too hard to figure out what he was looking for. Gibbs had his share of secrets, and he knew first hand how complicated it could be when one of those secrets came to light. He wasn't as obvious about it as someone like McGee, of course, but he had found himself studying people in his own life, wondering how their opinions towards him might have changed.
He returned McGee's gaze easily. Wasn't hard to look at the kid as if nothing had changed, especially since nothing really had changed.
McGee's eyes dropped after a minute. "I heard you, you know."
"Back at the apartment." McGee's voice was quiet. "I sat there waiting, knowing you would walk back there and see me and everything would..." He shook his head. "But I heard what you said to that cop. About Nate."
Gibbs smiled grimly. Wasn't his finest hour, maybe – slamming a cop against a wall and bitching at him about the priority that someone's sexual preference ought to have wasn't the most professional behavior in the world.
But he meant it at the time, and he didn't regret it in hindsight.
"Thanks." He really didn't regret it right then, when McGee looked up with a sad ghost of a smile. "For saying it, and meaning it, even without knowing I was there."
Gibbs shrugged. "Truth is truth, regardless of the audience."
McGee sat back, slipping his hands from the coffee cup to the edge of the table. He drew in a breath. "I don't know who killed Nate," he said suddenly, his voice stronger than it had been all day. "But...whoever it is..." He drew in a breath. "They've killed before."
Gibbs frowned. "Opinion?"
McGee shook his head. "Research. They've killed at least four other men."
Gibbs shoulders went back as he straightened in his chair. He studied McGee with sudden sharpness. How the hell did he do research on killers who only struck a few hours ago?
But McGee wasn't done surprising him. "And they aren't done yet. In fact..." He flashed another small smile, as if somehow he could find something amusing in his next words. "There's a really good chance that I'm next on their list."
Before Gibbs could even react to that, the tinny tone of his cell phone rang out.
He should have left with Gibbs. He should have stood up, pushed open the damned door, and met Gibbs in the hallway to go upstairs and raise holy hell together. Gibbs was temperamental enough when he got called away from an interview, but from what Tony could hear of one side of the conversation through Gibbs' phone, Vance wasn't screwing around.
Hell, even just witnessing those two bulls locking horns was worth a trip upstairs.
But he didn't move.
He was shocked. Sure he was. Little doe-eyed Timmy McGee had basically confessed to knowing about and following the cases of four different murder victims that he hadn't told Gibbs about.
McGee didn't get to say much before Gibbs was irritated enough to actually answer his phone. He didn't say why he didn't speak up to Gibbs, or how he knew that the murders were all connected and that Nathan Bryar was killed by the same people.
Those were the things Gibbs would care about.
Tony? All he could think, looking through the glass at his little Probie, was that he apparently didn't know Tim McGee at all. Not even a little bit.
Was that his problem? Was that why seeing McGee in that bedroom covered in another man's blood had shaken him up so badly that he hadn't gotten a grip yet? Was he overreacting to the idea that Tim had lied about this huge part of his life?
Was it the girls Tim had been interested in – or faked interest in – through the years? How many were lies told to fit in? How much more had Tim been lying about?
He covered up a bestselling novel, an apparently serious relationship with a fucking guy, and now he was hiding a whole series of murders for God only knew what reason.
Tony thought he knew Tim. He thought he had a good grip on his naïve, innocent, stammering little Probie.
He thought Tim was practically incapable of lying.
He sighed to himself, watching Tim through the glass as his more rational side argued that he really had to get off his ass and get upstairs. There was a murder to solve – though by the sound of Vance's call summoning Gibbs it might not be their case for long – and really, sitting there watching the guy was just creepy when he didn't have a reason for it.
He really needed to get up. Just stop bitching about things in his own head, and get in there and check on his Probie, or get upstairs and help Gibbs fight for this murder.
He was almost there, just about ready to shake himself of his strange disconnected feeling and get off his ass to go work, when the door behind McGee opened again and a pale and unhappy Abby Sciuto stormed into the interview room.
Four men dead.
Gibbs couldn't shake that thought as he stormed up the stairwell and shoved through the door into the MCRT offices. He took the stairs leading up to Vance's office two at a time, all the time focusing only on that one thing.
Four men, dead. Five now, if Bryar was really killed by the same people. And whoever it was wasn't done yet.
Gibbs had a hell of a lot of sympathy for what McGee was going through after that morning, but some things were bigger than sympathy. Some things were more important than closets.
Vance was in the outer office with his secretary when Gibbs strode in, and without a word or a second look at Gibbs the director turned on his heel and moved through the door to the inner office.
Given how loud Vance had been on the phone, it was something of a surprise when he moved back behind his desk and sat down, and simply glared up at Gibbs for a long moment without speaking.
Gibbs stood practically at attention, eyes on Vance but his thoughts back in the interview room, where he was sure as hell going back to when this ended.
Five men dead. What could McGee possibly say to justify staying silent about that?
Vance spoke finally, his voice low and flat. "You and your priorities give me migraines, Gibbs."
Gibbs looked back at him, impassive.
"You put your people above the interests of NCIS. You always have."
Gibbs didn't bother arguing the point – he was actually pretty proud of that fact.
Vance shook his head, leaning in to grab a toothpick from the cup that sat at his desk. "Pisses me off, you know that? You and your Marine bullshit, and me having to come in after you and play the bureaucratic bastard."
Still didn't require an answer. Gibbs sure as hell didn't force Vance into the Director position, he wasn't about to apologize for the duties involved.
"Tell me why you should keep this case."
That did surprise Gibbs. He studied Vance for a moment, wondering if this was a legitimate question or if Vance was going to order them away no matter what Gibbs said.
Vance waited, eyebrows raised. He gestured after a moment, as Gibbs failed to speak. "I spend a good hour or two a day cleaning up your messes. Half the time SecNav calls me, it's because of some guideline you and your people have broken, or some higher-ups you've pissed off. So you do the heavy lifting this time, Gibbs – tell me what to say when I'm asked why we're breaking about a dozen rules to let you work on this case."
Gibbs met his eyes. "It doesn't have anything to do with McGee."
"You're certain of that."
He nodded, sharp. "This wasn't a warning to my agent, or a mistaken hit meant for McGee. It's got nothing to do with him. It's coincidence he was there when it happened."
"Coincidence." Vance raised a single eyebrow, sitting back in his chair and working at the toothpick clenched in his mouth. "I checked with HR. He lives there, he didn't just happen to wander in one evening."
"And we're gonna have to deal with that," Gibbs acknowledged. "I'm not saying McGee isn't going to be part of it, I'm saying that Bryar was killed because of Bryar, not McGee." Gibbs hesitated, debating going on to tell Vance about other apparently linked murders.
But no. He needed to hash that out with McGee first.
Vance studied him. "If that changes, Gibbs. If you find out more than you know now..."
Gibbs met his eyes. "I won't fight giving the case to another team."
"Fine. I want updates. Daily, you hear me?"
Gibbs relaxed the slightest bit. "I hear you." He turned and headed for the door.
"McGee has no part of this."
Gibbs reached for the knob, but hesitated. He glanced back at Vance.
"He's due some vacation time. See that he takes it." Vance met his eyes, grim. "Either that or I'll reassign his ass until this investigation is wrapped up. Your choice."
"Ziva wasn't wrong."
Tony couldn't help but watch as Abby faced McGee down through the glass of the interview room. It was a little sickening, like watching a car accident in progress, but his determination to get up and get on with his job had frozen as fast as it appeared.
Tim just slumped where he sat, his hands drawn down to his lap and his pale face bent.
Abby shut the door slowly behind her and moved in, until Tony couldn't see her pale, unhappy face anymore. "I just assumed she had to be wrong. Some metaphor she misunderstood, some English idiom she doesn't...but she's right. Isn't she?"
Tim drew in a breath. "Right about what?" he asked, though his voice was dull and inflectionless as he asked the question he already knew the answer to.
"You know about what," Abby said back instantly. "About who the latest guest on Ducky's table is."
Tim shook his head, but Tony didn't think it was denial of her words.
He looked tired. Defeated. When he didn't answer her Tony had the feeling it was because he simply didn't have the energy to summon the words.
That right there, more than anything, that made Tony's chest twist all of the sudden. He frowned over Abby's shoulder, studying the slump in McGee's shoulders and the misery etched all over his face.
Tony wondered, for the first time, if McGee had actually loved this guy.
Abby didn't sit, but she leaned in and lay her palms on the table. "You never told me," she said slowly.
Tim looked up then, his eyes bright. He studied her, silent but looking almost desperate.
Tony couldn't see what was in her face, but her voice didn't seem particularly warm.
"About any of it," she went on. "You didn't tell me you moved. You didn't tell me you..." She drew in a breath. "Is it...what? Are you...?"
Tim swallowed. "What?" His voice was a creak.
"You know what!" Abby pushed off the table and folded her arms, her shoulders tight as she stared at Tim as if he really were a suspect and she was playing Gibbs' role. "Did you lie to me?"
"Ever! Is...was everything we...come on, Timmy, stop making me do everything here!" She started pacing suddenly, whirling into motion. "I don't want to..I'm not some kind of creep, Tim. I'm not prejudiced. I'm like the least prejudiced person in the universe. But come on!"
"I don't know what you want me to say."
"Tell me you're not gay. Tell me I wasn't just some beard for you so you could fit in with your new agent buddies upstairs."
McGee winced. He watched her moving but only for a minute. His eyes went behind her to the mirror, though he didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular.
"It's more complicated than that," he said finally, quiet after her increasingly loud words.
"No, McGee, it's not complicated at all. It's simple – either you're gay and you were lying to me from the first day we met, or you're bisexual and you hid it from me the whole time we were together. Or you're straight and this guy was just..." She threw her hands in the air, halting her pace on the far side of the table, and turning on her heel to face him. "So which one is it?"
"I'm...just..." McGee shook his head, eyes on the table again. "Abby, I'm sorry. I just..."
"What? Come on, Tim."
He hesitated, drawing in a breath. "I was always one thing," he said to his coffee cup, "and then suddenly I met someone who...made me something else. But not...I think just that one person. I think I just...it's not a gender thing. I just met someone I could love without that even mattering."
God, it was horrible listening to him talk. The words pushed their way out like ground glass, and his hands were starting to shake again as badly as they had when Tony first saw him that morning.
Tony's chest gave another aching twist, and he frowned at his Probie through the glass.
This guy was barely cold in Ducky's locker. Just hours ago McGee had woke up thinking it was just another day, and found the person he was living with mutilated and murdered.
Maybe Tony felt betrayed in some way, deceived. But Jesus, what was more important?
He stood up suddenly.
"-telling me that this one guy was just so amazing that he turned you gay." Abby couldn't have sounded less convinced. "I'm all for not being confined by labels, Tim, but-"
"I wasn't talking about Nate," McGee answered.
Tony approached the glass, frowning at McGee.
Abby hesitated. "What?"
"I never dated a woman until I met you. I never wanted to." Tim stared at the table, unnaturally still. "And the few I've dated since were...wishful thinking. I thought if I could love you as much as I did, maybe I could find another woman who..." He looked up, his eyes pale green and glittering in the dim interview room lighting. "He didn't change me into something different, Abs. You did."
She stared at him for a long moment, mouth opening and closing again.
"I didn't lie to you about us. I didn't even lie about past relationships, except to change a few pronouns."
"If that's true why didn't you just tell me?"
"Because." Tim drew in a breath, still meeting her eyes though it seemed like it took some effort. "For the first time in my life I was normal. And you...yeah, out of everyone in the universe you probably would have accepted me for what I was, but come on. You were buckling under my neediness back when I was just calling you every night. What would you have done if I told you that I was counting on you to make me the son my dad always wished he'd had?"
Abby shook her head, but didn't answer. Her shoulders slumped a little, the anger seeming to drain out at least a little bit.
Tony was so intent studying her, and studying the pale but steady look on McGee's face, that he missed the sound of the door opening behind him.
"Is this fun for you, or what?" Gibbs' voice made him jump.
Tony wheeled around. He hesitated, but realized suddenly that yeah, what he was standing there watching was a really fucking private moment that neither of the people in the next room would have wanted him around for.
Luckily even as he realized that he realized that he was done watching. He was done being frozen, and it was thanks to Abby.
He moved suddenly, walking past Gibbs without answering. He headed for the next door over.
He only glanced back at Gibbs, not stopping. "I know I'm a little slow sometimes, boss. But I usually catch up."
Gibbs raised his eyebrows, but followed Tony without trying to stop him.
Tony pushed the door to the interview room open.
McGee's face swung around to him, his eyes widening in surprise when he saw Tony there. Wariness made his shoulders stiffen.
Tony noticed that but looked around for Abby without comment. She was still standing at the end of the table, still frowning with betrayal even if her anger had softened.
Tony met her eyes and pointed to the door. "Get out."
Her eyes opened wide. "What?"
"Out." He didn't even try for tact. "Someone's dead, Abs. Hours ago, not even fucking cold yet. This isn't the time or the place for whatever it is you're here to say."
She gaped at him, looking suddenly over his shoulder as Gibbs' softer footsteps brought him in behind Tony.
Gibbs didn't speak, but whatever she saw on his face made her face seem to lose even more color.
She looked over at McGee, and maybe for the first time she actually saw him there, pale and shaking with pain etched in his face.
She drew in a breath. "Timmy, I-"
"Abby." Gibbs' voice was quiet. "Go on, you've got evidence waiting."
McGee didn't look up at anyone, and after just a moment Abby tensed and marched past Tony and Gibbs and out the door to the interview room.
She'd be back, Tony knew. Not back down to interview, maybe, but she would be back to talk to McGee sometime before the day was out. Abby had a temper that flared up extra-hot when she thought someone was deceiving her in some way. But she was also a truly kind person, and she usually regretted it when she let her temper flare up.
And yeah, someone was dead. Someone who, like it or not, was really close to McGee. If bitching him out for going out with some guy was allowed at all, it sure as hell wasn't allowed this soon.
Just like standing back and feeling betrayed and trying to hold McGee at a distance because of his own stupid uncomfortable feelings wasn't allowed either.
Tony moved to the table as Gibbs shut the door after Abby. He slipped one of the spare chairs over to the table right beside McGee and sat down, leaning back, trying for casual. He'd have to talk to McGee a little later, to hash out all the crap in his head that needed sorting out. But for now...
For now he was still Tim's partner, and he still had his back. It took him too damned long to remember that, but like he told Gibbs, he just had to catch up. Just had to stop being slow.
McGee looked at him sideways, the tension still in his shoulders.
Tony flashed a grin, leaning over to nudge his arm just to solidify in Tim's head that Tony was there beside him. Not facing him down, but at his side.
Tim relaxed a little, but his brow didn't unknit from its wary furrow.
Gibbs took his seat across from McGee again. He looked across at Tim and Tony, and maybe it was wishful thinking but Tony thought he almost saw something approving in his boss's face.
But if he did it was there and gone in a flash, and his gravity returned an instant later.
"Okay, Tim. Start talking."