Gibbs pushed open the conference room door.

He wasn't unsympathetic. He could understand Tim's desire to look out for his little sister. Hell, he probably would do the same thing himself, in his place.

He couldn't just ignore the fact that his agent had disobeyed a direct order, on top of violating a handful of regs. And it would be far better for Tim, if he could tell the Director that he'd already dealt with the matter, should she ever find out.

His sympathy explained the ruler in his hand, however. Unlike the old wooden one that Ducky kept around, which Gibbs had used to great effect on a number of occasions, this one was thin, lightweight plastic. It would sting a bit, but it wouldn't cause the kind of lasting discomfort that his spankings usually did. He wouldn't let Tim off entirely, but he had no problem going easy on him.

The opening door interrupted McGee mid-pace. The younger man spun around, visibly anxious about his impending punishment and just as obviously embarrassed at having been caught doing something he'd already been warned about.

'Boss, I'm sor...'

At first, Gibbs thought that Tim had cut off his apology because he knew how he felt about them.

After a moment, he realized that his agent's eyes were fixed fearfully on the ruler in his hand. Tim staggered backwards a couple of steps until he bumped into the edge of the table. Then, incredibly, he fled to the far side of the room, putting the large table between them.

'Tim?' he inquired, completely dumbfounded by the younger man's reaction.

'Please... not... not the ruler...'

Gibbs looked down at the strip of plastic in his hand.

'Tim, this is...'

'Boss, please... can't you just use your belt?'

Gibbs just stared at him in astonishment.

Tim apparently interpreted his silence as disagreement, rather than shock.

'I... uh... I know I... I really let you down this time, but...'

Gibbs finally recovered his voice.

'Tim... hey... it's ok...'

He tossed the ruler onto the table and took a slow step around the table. To his dismay, McGee retreated farther into a corner. Gibbs froze.

'Tim, what's wrong?' he asked, keeping his voice soft. McGee didn't reply, but his eyes darted to the ruler before coming to rest on the floor near his feet. 'Why does the ruler scare you so much?' he prompted gently.

'Tony... uh... Tony said that rulers... uh...'

I guess they've been comparing notes, Gibbs thought, careful to keep his amusement off his face. However humorous he found the idea of the two agents swapping stories about being punished, Tim was genuinely distressed and deserved to be taken seriously, not laughed at by his boss.

'Tim, it's not...'

'...and he says the plastic ones are the worst...'

And Tony has apparently been pulling his leg.

'...I mean... worse than a belt, even! Like, an 8! And a belt is only a 7, and...'

And apparently I need to have a little chat with my senior field agent!

'Tim, calm down. Think about it. It's not solid enough to...'

'I know! That's what I thought, but when Tony was filling in the gaps in my spreadsheet for me, he...'

Gibbs had caught sight of Tim's spanking spreadsheet, briefly, but hadn't entirely believed that he was actually keeping a written record of his spankings. Apparently, he was. And, even more bizarrely, had shared it with his partner.

No wonder Tony has been jerking his chain.

'...he said the plastic ruler was almost as bad as the strap...'

Right. Time to put an end to this.

'...I mean, I thought it was strange, but he's the one who...'

'Tim, I've never used this on DiNozzo.'

'But... but then... how... I mean why would he...'

'He was obviously having a little fun with you, Tim.'

'Oh.'

Tim was quiet for a moment. He looked, if anything, more distraught now.

'Uh... does that mean... I mean... those other things... the liquorice, and the chopsticks...'

'Liquorice?!'

Gibbs knew that even his Marine training wasn't enough to keep his reaction to that one off his face.

'Oh. Uh... I can't believe I fell for...'

Tim trailed off, looking a bit sheepish in the face of Gibbs's incredulity. But he wasn't silent for very long, his need for answers winning out over his embarrassment.

'What about a switch? He said... was that...'

Gibbs managed, only with difficulty, not to flinch. Tony's effort to avoid repeating that experience had nearly destroyed their relationship, and Gibbs still had not revisited the issue with him.

'No, that one I did use on him. And yes, a switch hurts like hell. But that's only an option for serious offences, Tim...'

'You mean like disobeying you? Like just now...'

'Tim, relax. I came in here planning to go easy on you...'

'You were?! But I...'

'You were looking out for your sister, Tim. I think that counts as mitigating circumstances.'

Tim was quiet again, staring at the floor and shuffling his feet. It wasn't difficult to know what he was thinking.

'Look, Tim... take a minute, then get back to work. I'm not going to just ignore this. So, yes, I am still going to punish you. But it can wait...'

'No,' Tim mumbled, so quietly that Gibbs almost didn't hear him. 'Can we just get it over with?'

'Ok,' he replied gently. He'd wanted to give him a chance to calm down, but he understood McGee's desire not to spend the rest of the day waiting for a spanking. Gibbs cast a quick look around the room. Catching sight of a stack of Newsweeks, he grabbed the top issue and started to roll it into a tight tube.

'Uh, Boss?' Tim asked, confused.

'I'm not going to use something that has you so freaked out, Tim.'

'But...'

'Come on,' he told him firmly, gesturing towards the table, the instruction to bend over clear. This was already hard enough for Tim. Even the normalcy of following orders wouldn't make it that much easier for him, but it was the best that Gibbs could offer.

'Boss, I want you to... I mean, I don't want... uh... if you don't use... uh... the ruler, I... uh...'

Gibbs looked at him in disbelief. Apparently McGee wasn't finished surprising him today. He understood, even if Tim was finding it impossible to put into words.

'You're afraid that, if you don't deal with it now, you'll never be able to.'

'Uh... yeah.'

He hesitated for a long moment, weighing Tim's concern about magnifying his fears by not facing them, against his own instinct to find another option. Finally, realising that Tim would probably obsess over the belief that he didn't think he could handle it, he nodded.

'Ok.'

For a moment, it looked like Tim was going to start hyperventilating again. But, with visible effort, he took a deep breath and leaned forward over the table. Gibbs squeezed his shoulder fondly, staggered by the amount of trust Tim was showing him right now, and extraordinarily proud of him.

He retrieved the ruler and a moment later rested one hand lightly on Tim's back, more as assurance than as restraint. He felt Tim tense under his hand.

He considered asking Tim if he was sure he wanted to do this. But, he decided, it would probably just be harder on the younger man if he had to explicitly agree to it a second time. He raised his hand and brought the ruler down sharply on his ass.

Tim jerked and gasped for air. Gibbs gave him a moment, smiling when Tim visibly relaxed at the realisation that it really wasn't as bad as he'd feared. He patted his back gently before giving him another stinging swat. Tim whimpered softly and buried his head in his arms, clearly settling in to take the spanking. Gibbs quickly delivered a half-dozen more strokes, then dropped the ruler and pulled Tim upright. He folded the younger man into his arms.

Tim sobbed against his shoulder, reacting more to his emotions and the adrenaline than to the physical pain of the mild spanking. Gibbs held him gently and let him cry.

With a final sniffle, Tim finally extracted himself from his boss's arms and stepped back, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand.

'Sorry, Boss.'

Gibbs raised one eyebrow.

'Tim...'

'No, I mean... uh... I should have trusted you. That... uh... you'd...'

'I won't give you more than you can handle, Tim. You might not like how I respond when you screw up, but you'll always be safe with me.'

'I know, Boss. And I'll try not to freak out like that again. But... uh...'

'It's ok, Tim. We'll get through it.'

McGee nodded, but he still looked unsure of himself.

'What is it, Tim?' he probed gently.

'I'm just... uh... I'm not sure I can... uh... that is, if it wasn't... uh... Tony...'

Gibbs reached out and tipped Tim's chin up, hoping that the eye contact would steady him. McGee paused and took a shaky breath before continuing.

'I trust you, Boss. And if you think I deserve it, then I'll take it. Even if... even if it's the strap, or a switch, or the riding crop...'

Tim trailed off and let his eyes fall to the ground again. Gibbs was too stunned to reply.

He thinks I'd spank him with a riding crop?! he thought, appalled just by the prospect. And he's planning to let me?

'Tim, look at me,' he ordered, when he'd recovered his voice. 'Didn't I just tell you I wouldn't do anything to harm you?'

'Yeah, Boss,' Tim answered without hesitation, nodding seriously. 'That's why...'

'Then why the hell would you think I'd use a riding crop...' Gibbs almost yelled, struggling to contain his anger when he saw Tim's eyes grow wide.

'Because if you thought...'

The realisation that Tim trusted him enough to accept any punishment he'd impose, that the younger man believed that the fact that he would do it was reason enough to think it was alright, hit him like a ton of bricks.

'Tim, I am not going to take a riding crop to you!'

He expected Tim to look relieved by the vehement pronouncement, but, if anything, he looked more self-conscious.

'I know I'm not as tough as Tony is, but...'

Gibbs suddenly understood where this was coming from.

'Tim, did Tony tell you that I...'

Tim's nodding made it unnecessary to continue the question. He put his hands on his shoulders, resisting the temptation to shake some sense into him.

'Tim, listen to me. I won't use a riding crop. Not with you, and not with Tony. Do you understand me?'

'But, Tony...'

'I don't know what Tony thought he was doing, screwing with you like that...'

Tim's eyes grew wide as he finally caught up with the conversation.

'I'm going to kill him...'

Gibbs smiled grimly, relieved that the risk of Tim having a full-blown panic attack seemed to have passed. Reaching behind him, he cuffed him lightly on the back of the head.

'Don't believe everything Tony tells you,' he chided gently. And you're not the only one who has something to say to DiNozzo...