AN: It feels like it's been forever since I've posted a new story! Truth be told, I was second-guessing my writing, and was hesitant to post this story, as I don't feel super-confidant with how it turned out.

But now I've decided to just post the story. If people like it, wonderful. If not, oh well, I did my best! Haha. so I can only hope that you, my dear readers, don't hate this too much, and please bear with me, as the first half of the chapter is a bit slow. But it recounts the case, which is integral to the theme of the fic. Thanks for taking the time to read, everyone!

In case you were wondering, this will likely be a two shot.

The case hadn't been easy. It hadn't been quick. It hadn't been simple. But what case is?

The most difficult part of the case, as was with every case of its kind, was that the victim was a child. Though the MCRT was prepared for any crime, and trained to investigate the most gruesome of scenes, nothing could quite dispel the pang of sadness when faced with a life cut too short.

The victim, Jeremiah Cole, was 16. Son of Henry Cole, active politician, and the late Debra Cole, a marine killed in the line of duty.

Eight months prior to the case, Lance Corporal Debra Cole's squad was bombed on the outskirts of a small town. The group had been heading back to base when the attack struck, catching them completely unawares. They were all killed instantly.

Henry Cole, trained by his profession to be calm and collected in the face of every situation, gave a brief speech a few days after his wife's death, expressing his sadness and deep sense of loss. He spoke of the times he and his wife shared—of their engagement, their wedding, their honeymoon, and when they welcomed their son into the world. His eyes went misty as he described their last night together, and how Debra had told him that she loved him, and to take care of Jeremiah—or Jerry, as she called him. Their love was sealed with a passionate kiss and soft whispered words. The kind of sweet nothings which bond a relationship with their intimacy. A family hug followed, the three bodies morphing into one as they embraced. And with a smile and a wave, Debra was off, making her family and her country proud.

Then, Henry promptly concluded the speech with a promise to run for office as intended, despite the difficult circumstances.

Some admired Henry's decision, praising him for his show of courage and determination during such a dark time in his life. Others criticized, believing the choice to be callous and insensitive, not taking the proper time to grieve. But, honestly, who can measure grief? Who can specify the proper time to 'get over' such a tragedy? Who's the say when someone's moved on too soon? These unspoken questions plagued the nation, and the issue was dropped.

And all the while, no one interviewed the 16 year old boy standing behind his father. No one asked him how he felt about his mother's death, his father's campaign, or anything or that matter. So he faded, as did the media as the months wore on.

Until now.

About six and a half months after the media fire died down, it was reported that Jeremiah Cole was missing. Henry kept the case quiet. With his connections, it wasn't terribly difficult. "Just a simple case of a moody teenager blowing off steam," as he said to one police officer a few days after reporting the disappearance.

"When was the last time you saw your son, Mr. Cole?" They asked.

He shrugged and replied, with weariness etched in his eyes, "About…a week ago."

In a series of interviews with Henry, it was revealed that he and his son had gotten into a blow-up argument the night before Jeremiah left.

"Things were said that shouldn't have been, thoughts expressed, words thrown around. Just like any fight with a teenager. I thought he would take off and be back in the middle of the night…but he didn't come back. I had to leave for an overnight campaign meeting the next day, so I left a message on his cell and told the neighbors to watch out for him, and to have him call me when they saw him. The meeting turned into a 3-day affair, so by the time I got back, it had been 4 days since I'd seen Jeremiah. I thought it'd be best to give him more time, but as soon as it passed the weeklong mark, I contacted the authorities."

Because the case was so high-profile, and came from a military family, NCIS was involved in the investigation, despite the fact that no Marines were involved in the crime—if it was a crime at all. They searched high and low for Jeremiah for almost a month, when news came in the worst form possible.

The local PD got a call early in the morning. It was a Sunday. The call came from a homeless man named Jay Signer. He'd been making his weekly rounds around the abandoned bridge a few blocks away, when he spotted something—someone—huddled between the bank and the end of the bridge.

"I thought it was real strange, see, 'cause ain't no one lingerin' 'round there. Tha's off limits to all us. Thought it was strange," he told police.

When asked why the area was 'off limits', Signer went on to describe a sort of dictatorship, in which one man (nicknamed "The King") controlled the 20 mile strip, including the bridge. It was rumored that in order to stay there, even just for a night, one had to pay the King up front. Or else.

Curled up beneath the cover of the bridge, frozen in position, was the thin, frail frame of Jeremiah Cole, already stiff as a board, having been dead for days. His dusty brown hair was straggled and unkempt, hanging low over his closed eyelids. His clothes were torn and filthy, pulled tightly around him as a thin shield against the elements.

As soon as death was declared, Gibbs's team was put on the case and the investigation began. Upon initial examination of the body, Ducky said it was more-than-likely death due to exposure, and perhaps malnutrition. An autopsy would reveal all.

In the meantime, Gibbs and the team interrogated the homeless man, Jay Signer, to help them find the King. Signer was scared, and easily cracked. They had a name and address within the hour.

Speeding to the apartment complex in typical Gibbs fashion, they found the King. But, unsurprisingly, he ran. So they did what they always do, and they chased.

Tony was the first to catch up with the man, taking him down with a swift tackle, reminiscent of his college days. But he wasn't banking on the guy falling right next to a pipe. And he definitely wasn't ready for the blinding blow to the abdomen that the chunk of lead delivered.

The King was swift in his movements, striking Tony twice more in the chest before being taken down by Gibbs. He fell like a sack of potatoes. Yeah, a bullet to the kneecap will do that to a guy.

In typical DiNozzo fashion, Tony brushed himself off and grinned, ignoring the searing pain in his chest. And in typical Gibbs fashion, he forced Tony to see Ducky. No breaks, just some deep-as-hell bruising.

So they went on with the case.

Despite his insistence that he'd never seen Jeremiah, they brought the King in for questioning. After less than an hour, the guy had admitted to scamming Jeremiah and many other homeless people out of their money. But that just made him a scumbag, nothing more, nothing less.

By this point, Ducky had declared the death non-homicidal. So the King was released, pending further investigation on the scheme he was running.

"It's really quite dreadful," Ducky said. "The poor boy's been dead at least 4 days. Mixture of dehydration, malnutrition, exhaustion, and exposure, I'm afraid. Must've been a terribly unpleasant end."

They all shook their heads sadly, swearing under their breath, cursing the one fiend that they couldn't bring to justice—Fate.

And so the case ended, having never been a true case to begin with.

The next step was usually the hardest. They had to inform the family of their findings. In this case, the only person they had to talk to was the father, Henry Cole. It was unfortunately their job to tell the man that his son had suffered a senseless death, with no one to blame and nothing to avenge.

Gibbs sat him down and the team looked on as the news was told.

No tears were shed as Henry Cole listened to Gibbs. No sobs were heard, no revelations reached, no breakdowns occurred at all. When Gibbs was finished speaking, Henry simply nodded and shook Gibbs's hand.

"Thank you for the work you and your team put in. I appreciate the effort, and will be sure to credit you when I address the public."

And then he stood and walked away, ending the anti-climactic moment and calmly departing.

The baffled team shrugged it off as shock, expecting the backlash to come later for the poor man. How wrong they were.

That night, they turned on the TV in the bullpen to watch Cole's address to the public. Their faces slackened with each passing moment as the man's words wafted through the speakers and through the small area.

"I deeply appreciate the prayers and well-wishes from all my supporters, and also the hard work by the NCIS Agents who investigated my son's death. Jeremiah was a wonderful child, and will be sorely missed by all who knew him. I take comfort in the fact that he is now with his mother, in a place where I can only hope to join them one day. Jeremiah was intelligent, passionate, and a truly good person, whom we can only aspire to be like.

"And I wish to assure everyone that, despite these difficult circumstances, I will be finishing my campaign and running in this year's election. I believe it's what my wife and son would want, and hope you'll continue to support me throughout this election. Remember, 'At the Poll, Vote For Cole'! Thank you everyone. God Bless."

The bullpen was silent as the team watched Cole step away from the podium and wave to the crowd of people. McGee numbly turned off the TV, mumbling disbelievingly.

"How could he…It was as if he wasn't even talking about his own son! Like nothing even happened…How…"

Ziva was shell-shocked as well, fueled by rage. "If I was anywhere near that disgusting pig right now, they would have to scrape him off of the pavement."

As the team ranted and cursed Cole, Tony sighed and stood wearily. "I'm gonna hit the head," he said quietly. The team hardly acknowledged he'd spoken, and continued their angry discussion. So Tony left and returned within a few minutes, no one even realizing he'd gone. When he returned to the bullpen, the conversation had died down, and everyone was at their desks.

An hour or so later, Gibbs told them all to go home and get some rest. To take tomorrow off. But they all knew he just wanted them to rid their minds of the saddening case.

McGee had plans to go out with a girl. Carrie, her name was. She was average height, with long, light brown hair and baby blue eyes. McGee liked her a lot. After a few dates, they'd realized how much they had in common, and now went out nearly every night. This night was no different. They would go to the movies, out to dinner, and by the end of the evening, the case would be forgotten to the Probie.

Shaking off thoughts of her younger sister, forever frozen in time, Ziva's mind wandered to thoughts of her guns, and how desperately they needed cleaning. She would settle in, pour a glass of wine, put on some classic music, and use her supplies to make her weapons spotless. She would cleanse every inch of her armory, and with it, her tainted psyche.

McGee and Ziva stood and walked to the elevator. They stepped through the doors together, beginning a casual conversation to shake off the dark mood. For them, shaking off the lingering distaste of the case wouldn't take a herculean effort.

Tony wished it could be that easy for him.

. . .

Barely registering the departing of his friends, Tony remained seated, bent over his desk in concentration.

"You deaf, DiNozzo?" Gibbs said sharply, glare dulled by weariness. The skittish flicking of Tony's hazel eyes didn't escape Gibbs's notice. Nor did the faint tremble in the fingers. He knew the case hit Tony harder than the rest. He just didn't know why. But he'd find out.

"Sorry, Boss just finishing up some paperwork." Tony's voice was ragged, with a note of sadness etched into the tone. Gibbs wanted it to go away, hating the lack of life in the words. No one should sound like that. Especially not this man.

"It can wait. Go home, DiNozzo."

And just like a loyal Golden Retriever, he does. As he always has. As he always will. With a heavy sigh that engulfed the bullpen in unexplainable sorrow, Tony picked up his pack and stood from his chair. Under Gibbs's scrutiny, Tony couldn't suppress the wince as a sharp needle shot up his ribs. But his face remained stony. No excuse or sarcastic comment accompanied the flash of pain. And that scared Gibbs. It was as if Tony didn't even care. His usual façade of deception and distraction kept attention off his injuries. But the façade was gone.

His back-up defenses were still in place, though. Thin, but firm walls over his hazel eyes kept outsiders ignorant of the storm raging inside, every crashing wave and destructive wind. But little did anybody know, it was no longer a storm. It was an oil spill. The poison of the past and present was seeping in, polluting Tony's ocean. Killing it.

But no one knew that. Even Gibbs. The all-knowing, omnipresent, hard-ass-with-a-soft-side boss, just stood there, watching Tony's back disappear behind the closing elevator doors. And for the life of him, he can't remember when this happened. When exactly had he become so oblivious to his agent's inner thoughts? DiNozzo had always kept a tight lid on his thoughts and feelings. Everyone knew that. Emotions were, in his eyes, a liability. Better to create a persona and live by it. Wipe away the Anthony, paint on the Tony. Destroy the Junior, project the DiNozzo. No matter how much hate was carried with that name…

But Gibbs had a knack for seeing through the smoke and mirrors. Through the years, he'd cleared the air and smashed the glass, leaving behind the pieces of Tony DiNozzo, revealing the Anthony. Exposing the Junior. And it wasn't a sight even Gibbs had been prepared for. But he never let on. He never drew attention to the darkness in the depths of the hazel. He never mentioned the wistful gazes when Tony thought he was unobserved. He simply watched. And learned.

But now, when the persona was withering and the mask cracking, Gibbs couldn't seem to pinpoint exactly when he'd stopped looking. Exactly when he'd stopped seeing. DiNozzo could never be considered an open book, but Gibbs prided himself in his ability to at least sneak a peek at the font. Not anymore. He knew something was bothering Tony throughout the case, but the recoil that was facing the man now…for once, Leroy Jethro Gibbs was at a loss.

In his experience, however, not all that was lost was gone forever. It could be recovered. Perhaps not in the same way as it had been. But something was always better than nothing. He'd lost his family to a terrible man, only to create a new family with the people who'd gained his respect, trust, and—if he was being totally honest with himself—love. The family was an unconventional one, but the components were there, and their presence had gotten Gibbs through more hard times than he could ever imagine.

But it seemed he didn't know his family as well as he thought he did.

With a frustrated sigh, Gibbs grabbed his stuff off his desk and pushed the elevator button. He'd find out what had his agent in such a state. And if possible, he would fix it. Because as team leader, Gibbs needed support his team. And as Tony's family, Gibbs needed to be there to catch him if—or more likely, when—he fell.