Description: When a man is all that stands between a friend and the bad guys, only then can you see all of what that man is... and appreciate fully just how little you knew him in the first place. Tony, through the eyes of the marvelous McGeek.

Warnings: Violence of the interrogation kind, but mainly a lot of outlining, with nothing too graphic.

A/N: So... here's a bit of an unplanned interlude from my ongoing fic 'Nine Lives'. I was in the middle of writing chapter 5 for that one, and this idea popped in my head, refused to leave me alone, drove me to distraction, and away from NL. So finally, when writer's block-induced madness was threatening, I gave in and started writing the fic that refused to be ignored... and this is what came of it: angsty/drama-y whumpage, with a vague hint of plot. My specialty. :P

For those reading 'Nine Lives', I swear, I am going right back to it, now that this annoying bugger's out of the way – I thank you all most sincerely for both your reviews, and your patience! Special shout out for this one to BleakRememberance for lending me back the original idea I had for this thing... although it ended up going in a bit of a different direction than planned before... ah well. Perhaps a sequel to this one to be written? xP

P.S: I'm rediscovering my fondness for Latin titles, so this may well end up being the first of several more to crop up :) Oh, and pardon any butchering of the Latin – my best and only resource is online translation engines :S


Si adversarii saxa, permissum nos ferreum – "If our enemies are made of stone, let us be made of iron." - Unknown Author


Waking up in pain is never a good sign. Waking up in pain, on a cot instead of a bed, in a ten by ten windowless closet that definitely isn't a hospital room, so dizzy the room is spinning on its axis, and with absolutely no memory of how you got there? Well... by way of 'bad signs', this was pretty high ranking in the worst.

McGee shut his eyes again with a quiet moan, being mindful of the headache attempting to further split open his skull and trying to feel if the agony was coming from anywhere besides the focal point on the side of his head. With the way the pain was radiating outwards, racing along nerve endings all the way down through his neck and shoulders, there was little hope of getting anywhere by feel alone – if he was hurt anywhere else, he wasn't at all sure at this point that he'd even notice.

"McGee?" Even whispered, the concerned query voiced somewhere above his head made him flinch and moan again, a hand involuntarily making a sluggish move to press against the origin of the corresponding stab through his head. The attempt was easily thwarted, his arm gently pinned by his side. "Not a good idea – it may hurt right now, but trust me when I say it'd be a hell of a lot worse if you started poking at it, concussed and with your eyes squeezed shut." A pause, and then an audible smirk in what followed. "I thought you were supposed to be the smart one? An MIT Super Geek, and whatnot."

"To-ny...?"

"The one and only." There was a slight shifting on the cot, and McGee noticed only then the warmth of the leg against the top of his head, where Tony sat next to him on what little space remained. Fingertips grazed material that he now felt wrapped snugly over the tops of both ears. "So the deal is they've got our phones, watches, guns and backups, my knife, and even our shoes, and we've been locked in this room for at least a couple hours now. You took a pretty good hit to the head, but looks like the bleeding's finally stopped. You'd better appreciate it, too – that's my favorite tie that's keeping that humongous brain of yours inside your skull where it belongs. It's silk... my dry cleaner's gonna have a stroke."

It was during Tony's surprisingly careful inspection of the couple-hundred-dollar bandage that trickles of his memory floated past his mind's eye, the remembered moments almost outdoing his head in the ache they left behind.

"'M sorry." Something in his tone was enough to earn a teasing but concerned reassurance and a gentle squeeze to his shoulder.

"Hey, not to worry, Mr. Gemsity – your big time mystery novel bucks can buy me a new one. I've even still got the catalog I ordered it from." McGee almost shook his head before stopping and reminding himself that the act might very well make him puke.

"'Ts not that..."

"Oh. Well, it should be."

"Tony... I got us caught..."

"The tie hurts more – it's Armani." Tony was making a joke out of this, and McGee felt the sting of guilt and frustration keenly as he struggled to think of the right words to say to actually get the man to take his apology seriously.

The moments at the crime scene they'd been revisiting, where they'd accidentally stumbled upon the terrorists who'd returned to dig up documents buried in the house's back yard were becoming more vivid by the second, most especially the part where, in the midst of shots being fired, he'd heard a scream from the basement and had without thinking called to Tony for cover and run down to come to the unknown woman's rescue.

Tony's swears and yells to "get your ass back upstairs and wait for back-up" had fallen on deaf ears as he raced blindly, foolhardily down the stairs. The near-complete darkness of the dirt-floored cellar had had him blinking rapidly, trying to get his eyes to adjust faster as he moved towards a slumped figure in the corner, gun half raised, senses scrambling to seek out the threat. The sound behind him registered half a second too late, as he whirled around, finger moving to the trigger, just in time for a punishing blow that whitened his vision as he crumpled to the floor, barely conscious.

Over the ringing in his ears, he distantly heard Tony yell his name, his vision clearing just enough for slitted eyes to see the senior field agent practically vault down the basement stairs, gun aimed steadily at the tall figure standing just in front of him, holding what looked like a hammer. The last thing he remembered was a torrent of other feet stomping down the stairs, orders being yelled in a mixture of broken English and Russian before he was swept away in silence.

He'd made the worst of newbie mistakes; in that one minute, hearing the fear in that scream, he'd forgotten his protocols, his training, even his most basic common sense and had run unguarded and unprepared into an attack.

And there weren't words enough to describe the terror he now felt at the very real possibility that he was to be responsible for getting himself and a team member killed... slowly.

He shuddered violently. "Tony. I -"

"-reacted on instinct, to a sound that would've had any decent human being doing the exact same thing," Tony interrupted smoothly, sounding almost casual about it. McGee bristled, frustration peeking.

"Would you just listen? I need to say that I'm s-"

"No, you listen," Tony snapped, before continuing quieter once more at McGee's bodily flinch. "Did you screw up? Yes. Do you deserve to get crucified for it? Hell no. Around your age and your level of field experience, I made the exact same judgment call on a case with a missing kid; my partner took a bullet to the shoulder, and I got my ass kicked, but we came out on top. Difference between that, and this? I got lucky then... we didn't today. Not your fault. So shut up."

Never in the year since they'd first started working together on a permanent basis had McGee ever heard Tony speak so candidly, never mind referencing himself in his defense, and it was enough to shock him into a silence broken only by the quiet sounds of their breaths filling the closed air of their concrete cell.

When the sound of approaching footsteps reached them, McGee felt his stomach clench in anxiety and anticipation – this was it, the beginning of a situation he'd never thought he'd ever have to prepare himself for. In desperation, he recalled what he'd once read of a Marine's experiences with interrogation at the hands of the enemy: "Your only choice is to disconnect yourself from the pain – remove yourself from the situation, experience it from an outsider's perspective. This way, you trick your mind into thinking that it's out of your hands – you can't slip up, you can't start saying anything and everything to get that pain to stop... because you're not really there."

Of course, McGee tried not to think of the fact that that Marine had had years of training, and military hardening to allow him to do all that, whereas McGee... well, he could hack a computer system in under a minute. Great.

Just as he was bracing himself for sitting up, because the last thing he wanted was to let their captors see him looking so helpless, Tony was squeezing his shoulder again, and he was whispering urgently. "Listen very carefully: when they come in, you keep your eyes shut, and your breathing shallow – you don't make a sound, and you don't move one goddamned inch."

"But-"

"Here's your first chance at undercover work, Probie – you play half-dead, and I handle the Russian stooges. You're to consider that an order from your immediate superior. Understood?"

McGee wasn't given time to answer or object before keys were rattling at the door, and it swung open as Tony rose to his feet and stood protectively in front of the cot. As per his instructions, he kept still despite the resulting pain of voices at normal volume and kept his eyes shut – and it really wasn't hard to breath shallow and shaky as he listened, baffled and fearful, to Tony putting himself purposely in the line of fire.

"You are FBI?"

"Close, but no cigar. Try again." A sharp smacking sound, followed immediately by a grunt and something, likely blood, being spat on the ground almost broke McGee's facade. But Tony, the unshakeable idiot, persisted. "Guess you were never a fan of 20 Questions, huh?"

"You are federal agents. Your exact title means nothing to me. Your investigation does."

"It hurts that we can't even get the proper recognition from our terrorists. I keep saying we need to work more on PR – you know, post fliers, have bake sales..." Though expecting it this time, it certainly didn't make it a bit easier to hear Tony being struck again, this time staggering a little and needing to brace himself against the cot's edge. He spat again, and it was a moment before he straightened once more, stepping away from the cot.

"You will tell me the exact details of the investigation – evidence collected, interviews conducted, and warrants pending."

"...And you will have your boys drop my partner off on a hospital's doorstep – of course I'll need proof that he got there safely, before I spill the beans." A gun was cocked, the sound even sharper than normal in the small space.

"You are in no position to make requests, Agent. You will tell me what I wish to know, or I will put a bullet in his head."

"Pretty sure the hammer you hit him with might have saved you the trouble; he won't wake up, and his breathing's getting worse by the hour. For all I know, you put him in a coma. All the same, you do that, and I'll really have no reason to talk. His safety is a strong bargaining chip – you kill him, you take away the only thing I have to lose; he'll be dead, and you'll get jack shit from me." There was a moment of silence, a rustle of cloth, and then Tony laughed, a chilling sound devoid of all humor, with a flat tone to match. "You can put a bullet in me if you'd like – as long as you keep him here, I've got a pretty high tolerance for pain."

The answer given was even worse. "We will see."

A silent gesture must have been made then, because two sets of boots stomped forward at that, and the sounds of the struggle that followed allowed him to picture it clearly as Tony was hauled out of the room. The door was slammed and locked behind them, and only when the sounds faded off down the hall did McGee dare open his eyes.

The sight of the splotches of blood on the floor and the knowledge of the consequences of his actions that Tony insisted on facing for him sat like leaden weights in his chest, making him wish he really was in a coma instead of being awake to know exactly what was coming.

He closed his eyes again, and did the only thing he could do: wait.


It felt like hours, and might well have been, before he heard the sounds of boots returning and was careful to keep up his act as the door was opened, something was tossed inside, and the door was shut and locked again, the boots taking their leave. His eyes were open the second the door closed, and he shot up into a sitting position at the sight of Tony pushing himself up from a heap on the ground, arms shaking, face down-turned.

"Tony?" McGee tried to stand, and fell back, breathing hard. He groaned as vertigo and nausea hit him full force, but held himself up out of sheer will.

Without looking up, Tony answered, surprisingly steady considering the tremors in his limbs.

"I'm fine Probie – stay put. I just need a second."

Knowing it was pointless to argue the DiNozzo definition of 'fine', McGee waited anxiously for Tony to move, and was only slightly relieved when at last the older man managed to raise slowly to stand on his own two feet. He was unable to hold in a sharp gasp as he took in Tony's appearance: lip badly split, bleeding and swollen from those first hits, the entire right side of his face now deeply bruised to match. What skin of his forearms that was visible was now spotted with more slowly darkening bruises, while his clothes, consisting of dress shirt and pants, were filthy and covered in smudges that he just knew were boot marks. When he moved to join McGee on the cot, he shuffled slowly, arm cradling his right side, and for all his stoicism, he couldn't hide a grimace, even with how carefully he lowered himself down to sit at the end of the cot.

In spite of it all, his lip especially, Tony managed a half grin and a flippant tone.

"The bell's been rung for Round One... I like to think it was a draw. I got in a couple of pretty good hits in between the walloping, if I do say so myself."

As much as he wanted to be mad at the cavalier attitude to a situation that, in his opinion, called for a little raw panic, McGee couldn't help but huff a laugh and play along for the moment, glad for the spark of normalcy in the familiar territory of their usual banter. "Let me guess: 'I should see the other guy'?"

"You got it. I even gave one of them a black eye."

"To match that side of your face?"

"Below the belt, Probie."

"I've learned from the best."

"I'm going to choose to see that as a compliment."

McGee hesitated, then decided to say to hell with the strong front act. Tony might usually be a pigheaded jerk, but this wasn't their usual day, and Tony was probably saving his life with every hit he took that McGee, with his head wound, didn't have to, so he owed it to him to overlook the casual, and show his genuine concern. "How are you Tony? Really."

Apparently he was alone on the honesty frontier, and Tony only smiled again, settling gingerly back against the wall with his arm still wrapped around his right side. He could've been at the office filing paperwork, for the easy calm he exuded. There was something to be said for his ability to keep it up, but then Tony did always enjoy throwing the curve balls that he never saw coming. So he should've... expected this?

"Peachy keen, Probester. Might have to skip yoga for the next couple of weeks, but it's nothing that a few pizzas and a nice long massage from the lovely Natasha can't fix. Now lie down before you pass out. And don't forget – you're playing the role of the coma patient, a character who, as a general rule, is usually horizontal. Do you even watch TV?"


The next time they came for Tony, he restated that he would say nothing until McGee was released into a hospital's care, was once again hit for his troubles, and was forced out of the room, though with less of a struggle this time, which only served to prove the severity of the last beating despite Tony's refusal to acknowledge it out loud.

This time, when Tony was returned after even longer than before, it took longer still for him to fight his way to his feet and to stagger unsteadily back to his place on the cot. After this session, his right eye was now swollen shut, the left side of his face had collected a few bruises of its own, and it looked as though a few fingers from his left hand were unnaturally bent, though McGee couldn't tell for sure how many when Tony wasted no time in using a tear in his shirt tail to rip off a strip of the shirt to wrap the limb as tightly as he could stand, biting down on his shirt collar to keep silent. When he was done, it was business as usual, though McGee found it hard to look at him directly as he spoke carefully, but enthusiastically, about what actors the men interrogating him resembled, the movies that their celebrity doubles had stared in, and all the varied and innovative insults with which he insulted their mothers when asked about the case.

Eventually Tony took the time to really study his near-silent audience, though McGee didn't realize it until he spoke again after a pause in his monologuing, his voice suddenly very serious, and unyieldingly firm.

"They're coming Tim. They'll find us."

McGee did look at him then, mostly because of the rare use of his given name, and saw not only complete belief in what he'd said, but also an incredible, steely determination – to survive to see it happen, to make sure McGee survived to then too, to give not an inch of ground in the face of pain Tim shuddered to even imagine... all of the above. There was a silent strength there that McGee couldn't believe he'd never noticed before, and he felt almost ashamed to have let himself get caught up in hating the Jock and the Joker Tony wore as seasoned coats.

The man he was looking at now was neither of those things – he was a federal agent, a protector, and probably the bravest person McGee had ever known.

He only wished he'd been allowed to know all this before these facets of his true personality conspired to make him believe that wrongfully martyring himself on McGee's behalf was a good idea. He was nearly entirely convinced that head injury or not, taking the hits himself would be far less painful than enduring Tony's return each time they decided they were through with hurting him for a short while.

Tony, being the Tony McGee now saw that he was, didn't let the moment linger, instead jumping back into goofy, exaggerated storytelling like a switch had been flicked.

McGee didn't let himself look away from the bruised, animated features again.


Even without the watch that had been taken from his wrist between that house and this cell, McGee could feel just how much longer it was before they returned this third time, and he convinced himself that he felt braver than he did when at last the telling rattle of keys sounded at the door. This time, however, when the guards dropped him inside and left, Tony didn't get up. Fear ripped through him and rose with the bile in the back of his throat as he forced himself from the cot, unable to stand and walk but willing to crawl, stopping to heave dizzyingly on the way.

When at last he reached Tony's side, he realized with no small amount of trepidation that he was soaked and dripping ice cold water, his body shivering tremulously. He thought at first it was merely the water responsible, then he carefully and laboriously turned him over, and had to bite his own fist to keep in the agonized wail that fought to break loose, managing to downgrade it to a whimper.

With his shirt still half unbuttoned, McGee could see the bruises from round one and two, the pale skin beneath the damage making the results of round three starkly obvious: burns were scattered over his abdomen, burns which, his over helpful brain supplied, were the textbook marks left by rough adaptations of shock therapy devices, with water used as a conductor – electrocution.

Beatings. Electrocution.

He was being tortured.

The long-delayed revelation was enough for McGee to lurch off to the side to heave again until there was nothing left to expel, after which he used every ounce of energy he had left to push through the encroaching unconsciousness to drag Tony, who was by some miracle still half-conscious himself, back to the ground beside the cot. Wishing tearfully that he had the strength to make the man more comfortable, McGee lifted himself back onto the cot to lay down in his previous position, ever aware of the act that Tony had forced him into to keep him out of harm's way... and to put himself directly into it.

He almost missed the whisper when it came, as soft as it was: "They'll find us... Tim... they'll find us."

His head was pounding mercilessly, his stomach twisting and churning, his vision dimming, but still he made himself look down at his teammate, and, despite the shivering, the bruises and the burns, found himself confronted with that same unshakeable determination. McGee had never until this moment realized just how rare and difficult that was to have, not until this moment, when he saw it so clearly in one who was suffering on his behalf, able only to wish that he could find it within himself.

He had time enough only to lay back before unconsciousness dragged him under.


When next he came to, it was to a terrible migraine, a bought of dry heaving, and the sluggishly horrified realization that their captors had already taken Tony to and returned him from round four. He couldn't begin to guess how long he'd been unconscious for (though it had to have been for some time, with how stiff and cold he was), nor could he bring himself to worry about what that was a sign of, content to simply acknowledge that the sign was probably another bad one.

All that he could focus on was the form curled loosely, head angled away, on the floor next to the far end of the cot, the soles of his now bare feet nauseatingly bruised, the thin, smeared trail of blood droplets telling of Tony having dragged himself back to that spot after his most recent return. The idea of him being alone in that condition was gut-wrenching to say the least, and he was struggling to see if he was still breathing when the sound of keys rattling at the door filled him with a cold dread. Without knowing why he was still bothering to, McGee lay back and closed his eyes, trying his best to suppress the threatening tears as he waited to hear them take Tony away again, probably for the last time.

There was a sharp gasp that he thought at first had come from Tony, until it was followed by a single word, spoken in a stunned, familiar voice.

"McGee?"

His breath lodged itself in his throat as he opened his eyes and beheld what was too good to be anything outside of a figment of his imagination. He blinked, hard enough to renew the pounding in his head with yet more vigor, and looked again – the image before him hadn't changed. In fact, it'd grown a few steps closer.

"...Boss?" His own voice was like a searing wave crashing over his head, but he didn't care. Because there Gibbs stood, gun drawn and half raised, face painted with fear, shock, and fury all in one... and all of him very much real. His quiet return was all that was needed to snap Gibbs out of his stupor and he quickly holstered his weapon, activating his comm just long enough to bark out an order for the paramedics standing by to get their asses down there before starting towards the head of the cot.

Neither of them saw it coming.

One moment, Tony lay immobile, maybe dying, at the foot of the cot. Then, without any warning outside of a guttural snarl, McGee watched as Gibbs landed roughly on the flat of his back, Tony sprawled across him, pinning him to the ground beneath his weight, a bruised forearm pressed tightly against his throat. The look on his face... Tim had never before looked on Tony as dangerous, had never been afraid for anyone because of Tony... but now he was for Gibbs, afraid of what Tony might do, before he could realize exactly who it was that was under his fist.

"Don't touch him, you son of a-"

"Tony!"

The cry drew a sharp look from Tony, who, in looking at McGee and fully registering his frantic tone, then looked back down at the man pinned beneath him, who was holding himself very still with his hands spread out at his sides, waiting silently for realization to dawn. When it did, Tony blinked owlishly down at him before slowly backing off to sit with his battered feet settled carefully in front of him. McGee watched Gibbs' expression turn worryingly furious once more as the Marine studied first his feet, then the rest of his sad state with icy eyes and clenched fists.

With the storm visibly brewing as it was, McGee couldn't help but think that if any of their Russian terrorists had survived the initial raid, they just might meet an unfortunately fatal 'accident' en route to booking. Thinking of all that they'd inflicted, he couldn't bring himself to protest it, or even to feel anything but a grim satisfaction that the bastards would get what they deserved... which was a thought McGee had never believed he could ever have. But then, he was discovering a lot of impossible things to suddenly be possible, as of late, most especially to do with one Tony DiNozzo.

"Gibbs," Tony breathed, almost but not quite a question. Gibbs answered anyway.

"Yeah." At that point, Kate had entered the room much like Gibbs had: in full tack gear, gun at the ready, and horror leaving her frozen just inside the door, until...

"Kate," Tony whispered, eyes flickering down to stare at the floor. Gibbs edged closer, his hands still out at his sides as a precaution though it was clear by the look on his face that it was taking a lot to keep his distance right then.

"Here too, Tony," she said quietly, holstering her gun and regarding him and McGee with wide, heartbroken eyes. "God..."

"Both here. 'Ts over then..." Tony nodded, swaying, and said, almost to himself, "Good."

When he fell to the side, eyes rolling back in his head, Gibbs was the closest, slowing his decent to the floor as fear took the place of the storm for now and he bellowed again for the paramedics, who thankfully, for their own sakes as well as his and Tony's, had just made it down through the trap door in the farm house and through the somewhat maze of a bunker to the cell which, according to Kate, had held them for two days.

Funny. McGee couldn't decide whether it had felt longer, or shorter than that...

He was still trying to decide when his own set of paramedics reached him, and at that point he decided he was tired enough that it really didn't matter, and started to close his eyes.

"Agent McGee... Tim, stay with us now, don't go to sleep just yet. I need you to keep your eyes open..." Vaguely, he felt fingers brushing at the material wrapped around his head, and managed to get out one request before ignoring the medic's orders and gladly going to sleep.

"The... tie... dry cleaner's. It's Armani."


It had been two days since he'd woken up with dulled pain, in a slightly bigger and well lit closet that was definitely a hospital room, dizzy enough to throw up in the basin Ducky had waiting, and with a surprisingly clear memory of the rescue, and the two days preceding it.

According to the pathologist, there were in fact no survivors of the men that had held them captive, though he wouldn't say whether they were all killed during the raid, and the day that he and Tony had spent unconscious in the hospital had been passed in relative peace... relative, meaning that Kate, while not vocally terrified, had spent the day camped in the waiting room while the both of them were in intensive care, with no visitors permitted, actually threatening to shoot the intern that called her from NCIS headquarters to try and explain why tack gear needed to be checked in and accounted for on the same day of its use.

And also meaning that Gibbs passed the time, to quote Ducky, "Roaming the halls, growling very much like a wounded bear, whenever a young sir or misses was foolish enough to attempt to calm him."

When he'd asked about each of their respective conditions, the elderly doctor had fallen silent for a moment, a look of incredible sadness filling his eyes.

"Anthony and yourself were very lucky to survive, young Timothy – you were both quite near to reaching the proverbial 'point of no return', when Gibbs and Kaitlin recovered you from that bunker," he'd said, sounding and looking suddenly much older at the prospect of what might have been.

He'd proceeded to tell him that the hammer he'd been hit with had actually caused a minor skull fracture... or rather, a fracture that would have been minor, had it been dealt with promptly. As such, two days of internal bleeding in his skull had left him in need of immediate action to relieve the pressure caused by the bleeding as well as swelling, though thankfully they'd managed the task with a drug regimen, rather than the need to perform brain surgery... which, understandably, he was ecstatic to hear.

Of course, Tony's list of injuries, and related complications, turned out to be much longer, ranging from stitches in his lip, and internal bleeding from the beatings with intermingling broken bones, to infections from the electrical burns and the fractures inflicted on the soles of his feet by what Ducky, scowling deeply, deemed to have been a metal pipe.

The descriptions continued on for so long that Tim accidentally dozed off a few times in between, only for Ducky to put an end to it by smiling understandingly and summing it up in two rather fittingly simple, and simultaneously comforting words: "He'll live."

McGee's answer brought a quiet pride, for both the young men, to dull the sadness in Ducky's eyes: "Thanks to Tony... so will I."

And now, these two days since waking up, McGee had himself wheeled over to Tony's room in the ICU by one of the nurses and was left next to the bed for his allotted fifteen minutes. He was asleep at first and McGee hesitated to wake him, but fate it seemed would not delay their first conversation since their rescue, and Tony began to cough, first quietly in his sleep, then in a full-blown spree that quickly woke him and left him gasping and half curled on his side. McGee filled the glass on the bedside table with water from the ready pitcher, holding the cup's straw to his lips until he'd drunk enough and tiredly waved him off.

When it seemed Tony would not be the first to speak, McGee tried to think of what to open with, tried to figure out exactly how to voice all that was rolling around in his head. In the end, and in the face of Tony's already waning wakefulness, he settled on something that encompassed his lingering shock and confusion: "How did you do it? Why?"

At that, Tony looked him right in the eye, still fresh enough from their ordeal and pumped up with enough pain meds to leave the Jock and the Joker at the door, and to answer with complete honesty. "You were hurt, I could keep them from doing worse. That was all I needed." A solemn smile reached his lips, edging them carefully up around the stitches, and he gave a slight shrug. "It was you or me – easy call. And I'd do it again in a second."

McGee felt at once humbled and very undeserving of such a gesture, but rather than protest the enigmatic nature, he promised himself that he would spend his time at NCIS learning from it, and offered a sincere and heartfelt, "Thank you."

Tony smiled again, eyes fluttering shut as he murmured, "Any time, McGee."

For a long time after Tony had fallen back to sleep, he simply sat there, staring at this man who'd been a stranger to him twice since they'd first met the previous year, but was now, for the first time, a friend. A deep respect for this Tony DiNozzo, whom he'd now met in earnest, burned in his chest and carved out a permanent niche.

Of course, he would need be very careful to keep it hidden from view, lest the Joker in Tony take notice and make any part of him regret it.