Tim howled in pain, helpless to avoid the agonizing blaze of leather. Gibbs's hand was planted firmly in the middle of his back, keeping him pressed against the conference-room table. He knew that he couldn't escape, but he struggled anyway, screaming again when another lash landed hard on his throbbing ass.

'It was just a prank!' he shrieked, tears streaming down his face.

It wasn't fair, he thought. Tony had started it, had been playing pranks on him all week before Gibbs finally took a paddle to him for it. Tim had made a single effort at retaliation, and Gibbs was whipping him!

If he'd ever wanted definite evidence that Tony was their boss's favourite, this was it.

He'd nearly fainted when he saw Gibbs taking the old leather strap out of his bottom drawer. He'd known he'd probably be spanked for altering the iris scanner's database, but he'd been sure Gibbs would use the paddle, like he had done with Tony. It hadn't occurred to him that he would be punished so much more severely than his partner, especially when he had done less to deserve it.

In hindsight, he probably should have expected this to happen. After all, Tony was the boss's pet, the one who reminded him of himself, the one who was indulged when he flirted with witnesses, goofed around in interrogations, and basically acted like a child. Tim rarely stepped out of line, but when he did, he was inevitably punished for it. And even Tony admitted that Gibbs had never used his belt to spank him, like he had so often done with Tim. It should have been obvious that Tony would get off with a few swats with a paddle, but he'd be whipped.

'It was just...' he repeated weakly, knowing it was futile. Gibbs wouldn't consider anything he had done to be in the same category as Tony's antics.

To his surprise, the expected stroke didn't fall. But Gibbs kept his hand planted in the middle of his back, and his voice was stern when he replied.

'It wasn't just a prank, McGee. Tony could have ended up in a cell. Not to mention that your 'prank' would only work if Tony needed access to MTAC for something. Meaning that your 'prank' would keep him from doing his job, quite possibly during an emergency.'

'But Tony...'

'Tony has been a pain in the ass all week. But his jokes have been harmless.'

Of course Gibbs would think that, Tim thought. He opened his mouth to point out that his hair was still tinted blue despite repeated shampooing, but then clamped it shut. A smart-assed comment about DiNozzo was likely to just get him whipped harder.

But Gibbs seemed to know what he was thinking anyway, telling him firmly that no permanent damage had been done before continuing, 'Nothing DiNozzo did needed the Director's intervention, and he didn't create a risk to national security.'

'National... but... Boss, I didn't think...'

'That's right, Tim. You didn't think.'

The pressure on his back suddenly lifted, and Tim glanced over his shoulder to see Gibbs scrubbing his hand over his head in frustration.

'Dammit, McGee, you know better than this. You want to get back at Tony for the crap he pulls, that's one thing. But use that brain of yours, and figure out where the boundaries are. This isn't the first time that one of your so-called 'pranks' has been way over the line.'

'Boss, please... I didn't mean... I just wanted...' Tim sputtered, trying to catch his breath. He hated that he was begging, but he couldn't help himself. He had to admit, though, that his revenge sounded like a much bigger deal than he'd intended it to be, the way Gibbs was describing it.

'You look me in the eye and tell me you don't deserve this, and it'll stop right now.'

Tim whimpered, dismayed. He really didn't want to tell Gibbs to continue whipping him. But he couldn't honestly say he didn't deserve to be punished. He was still annoyed that he and Tony weren't being treated equally, but that wasn't the same thing. The problem wasn't that he didn't deserve to be punished, it was that Tony did, too, and had gotten off more lightly, as usual. But Tim couldn't say that. Reluctantly, he turned his face back towards the table and steeled himself for more pain.

Gibbs didn't say anything, just placed his hand back on Tim's back and brought the strap down hard on his ass. Tim sobbed against the table, not surprised that his boss wasn't going easy on him, despite their conversation. But, to his relief, Gibbs only delivered a few more lashes, and, unlike the only other time he'd experienced the strap, none of them landed on his thighs.

When it was finally over, two hands on his shoulders pulled him to his feet. He held himself stiffly when Gibbs wrapped a comforting arm around him. His resentment at being dealt with more harshly than Tony warred with his instinct to seek out the assurance of his mentor's embrace. After a few seconds, he pulled away, choking out a 'can I go now?' between sobs he couldn't hold in despite his best efforts. He didn't wait for an answer before stumbling blindly through the door and down the hall to the men's room.

He didn't see the look of stunned concern on Gibbs's face as he left.