TWENTY MINUTES LATER:

Gibbs and Ziva wearily entered the bullpen just as Tony and Tim were finishing sorting out what paperwork needed to be replaced. The older man strode slowly over and gazed critically down at what the pair was doing.

"I thought you had these filled out and ready for me to sign, McGee."

"I, uh... I did, but... through no fault of my own and-and completely beyond my control... several of them were, ummm... ruined."

"Do I need to crack DiNozzo in the head?"

"Oh, no, Boss. He had nothing to do with it. It was... another message for me. Everything is down with Abby now."

"Everything?"

Tony finally managed to calm the giggles he'd been suppressing and spoke up.

"The letter opener, the punctured parakeet and the paperwork it leaked all over."

Gibbs threw a glare at Tony then turned back to Tim.

"That all?"

"No. There was an envelope and a letter. It, uh... it said 'Sorry I missed you, but my aim will get better'." Tim reported softly, his gaze on the floor.

"McGee. Eyes up."

"Boss?"

"That's not happening."

"I trust you with my life, Gibbs. I've just... I've never dealt with this, never been through it... I don't get why someone is doing this to *me*. When things don't make sense..."

"Stop, McGee. I'll fix this, but you have to stay calm. Nothing's gonna get any better if the most logical brain on my team melts down. I need you to keep it together. Clear?"

"Clear, Boss. I'm with it... with you."

"Good. The papers can wait while you take a break. Head down to the cafeteria, get a strong cup of coffee and put some thought into who this could be."

"Uhhh... okay. Can... can Tony come with me?"

Gibbs glanced at DiNozzo critically.

"Company, not conversation, Tony." He ordered gruffly.

"Gotcha, boss." The two men headed off, leaving Gibbs and Ziva staring at each other, concern creasing both their brows.

"The message... it would have to have been placed here when we were in the field. Probably not long after we left." She began.

"Which means he missed the kid on purpose."

"It seems as if his purpose is to terrify McGee, not kill him."

"So far. We need to find the bastard and lock him up before he changes his mind."

TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER:

Tony gazed at Tim's dejected form, breathed out heavily and reached across to take his second cup of full strength brew from his trembling hands.

"Tony..."

"Hey, have you looked at your watch?"

"Huh. So it's almost six-thirty. So what? Boss said..."

"I'm pretty sure *he* doesn't know what time it is, either. You're gonna have enough trouble sleeping tonight as it is. You don't need any more of this. No luck straightening things out in your head?"

"No. I just don't get it..."

"It's okay. Time to get you home, get some hot food in you and lock us both in for the night."

"Tony, I told you..."

"We're going to my place. It's twice as big, two bedrooms and every take out menu in D.C. *and* the state of Virginia in the drawer of my phone table."

"Look I understand why you're offering and It's really generous of you... surprisingly generous, actually... but I don't need anybody protecting me."

"Maybe not, but it isn't all to do with you, Probie."

"It isn't?"

"I promised Abby I'd be your personal guardian angel 'till this is over and if I don't deliver, I don't even wanna contemplate what she'll do to me. So... my place, whatever you want for dinner and the knowledge that any sleep you're able to manage, you'll be safe while you get it. Okay?"

"Yeah... okay." Tim finally conceded, rising and looking around nervously.

"I'll call Gibbs and let him know we're heading out. Stick close."

"You don't have to worry, trust me."

A few minutes later their exit was approved and they moved for the elevator down to the parking garage, Tim almost literally on Tony's heels. As they stepped out into the chilly, dark area, DiNozzo's phone sounded off again, his ring-tone resounding through the enormous space.

"Hang on, Probie. Don't wander off, okay? DiNozzo. Yeah... No, I can't... I told him the plan and he... I know. Yeah, I know... okay. Yeah, five minutes. Right. C'mon, kid." Tony replied, striding towards his car

"What happened?"

"Security needs to see me. Something about how the SOB got in to leave that mess on your desk."

"Then what are we doing?"

"I'll be a few minutes. You'll be fine inside 'till I make it back."

"No! I'll go with you. I don't mind..."

"You're exhausted and my car alarm is the best there is. Anybody breathes a half *mile* from the windshield, it'll go off."

"Tony..."

"Tim, relax. There's a security station ten yards away. Just over there. I wouldn't do this if I really thought you were in imminent danger. I may joke around and act the idiot sometimes... but I know this is nothing to kid about. I'm taking your safety seriously. Just get in and I'll lock the car with my remote."

"I'm not that tired."

"McGee, for God's sake..."

"Okay, okay. Just hurry." Tim grumbled, sliding into the passenger's seat, closing the door and intently watching Tony punch a key on the remote.

"I swear." Tony assured him raising his voice a little to be heard. Turning, he jogged to the station and hailed the guard.

"Can I help you Agent DiNozzo?"

"I was told security wanted to speak to me."

"No, sir. Nobody upstairs alerted me. Let me check. Hmmm. Nope. Sorry."

"What the hell... Oh God. Follow me!"

"What's wrong?"

"Run, damn it!"

When they reached the car, the front passenger door was wide open and McGee was nowhere in sight. "Hell... hell, hell, hell."

"Sir..."

"Call upstairs. Get Agent Gibbs and our team down here. Tell him... tell him..."

"Tell him what?"

"God... tell him I screwed the pooch."

"DiNozzo!"

"Boss, I was right over at the guard station, just a few yards away, gone less than five minutes. He was locked inside my car!"

"Why the hell did you leave him alone at all?"

"Security called... I thought it was security. They said they needed to talk about how somebody got in to do that to Tim's desk... it must've been the suspect... "

"Tony..."

"Damn it, he should've been fine! I could see the car... but I never turned around. Why didn't I turn around?"

"Tony, quit! We need to focus on finding him, now."

"Yeah... I didn't mean... I promised him *and* Abby nothing would happen. She'll slaughter me..."

"Not if we get him back in one piece. Right?" Gibbs insisted, gripping Tony's chin fiercely so the younger man couldn't turn his gaze down.

"Right... right, boss."

"Better. Have you looked at the car?"

"Some. I can't see anything wrong or broken. It's almost like...like he opened the door himself. That has to be why the alarm didn't go off. But he was so scared, he wouldn't do that..."

"Not to save his own ass." Gibbs posited.

"You're saying... shit. The guy threatened Abby..."

"Or you."

"No... don't think so. McGee wouldn't throw in the towel over my existence either." Tony murmured. Gibbs thought about forcing him to repeat the nearly inaudible words, but knew he didn't have time. Instead he rallied Abby, Tony and Ziva to gather what evidence they could, make all possible speed back to their respective work areas and begin to process it.

In the darkness of an occupied parking spot some distance away, tucked on the far side of an SUV, McGee shivered and stared into the face of his captor, who smiled grimly and pressed the end of his gun barrel a little more firmly into the center of Tim's forehead. Next he leaned in and whispered into the young agent's ear.

"Good. You just keep quiet and stay perfectly still until they all leave. After that, it won't take long, I promise. First... I tell you who I am. Then you go the way of that poor little bird... bleeding out all over everything in sight. Nobody knows you're here. Nobody's coming to save you."

As the image of the innocent animal on his desk flared into life in his memory, McGee's eyes slammed shut and he grimaced. "That's right. You just keep thinking about that. I left you that for a reason... 'cause that's the way you left *him*. You and that traitorous so-called *partner* of his." the man pressed against him spat. "I'll find a way to get to his people eventually. I just figured I'd do you first... knew you'd be easy to scare, easy to separate from the herd... easy to kill."

To distract himself from the panic swiftly taking over every muscle and every nerve in his body, McGee sent his mind racing back over the previous twenty-four hours of his life, frantic to memorize his last encounter with each member of the team, the people that meant the most to him. He lived alone, had no love life to speak of, never saw his parents and was treated to visits from his sister only when she needed cash or was in desperate trouble. The people he worked with and for were the closest thing he had to family and their faces and voices were what he wanted to take with him if he was, indeed, facing his last moments.

Abruptly, the conversation he and Tony'd had before the other man walked away blazed into life in Tim's head and wouldn't leave, no matter how he pushed at it. Later, he would reflect that it almost took him too long to figure out why it was so persistent. Praying that the SUV's owner was as conscientious as DiNozzo, Tim took a deep breath and a huge risk, let his eyes roll back and slumped against the tire that had been holding him up. As he went with the flow of the pretend seizure, he made sure his flailing hand struck the bumper of the vehicle. The shrill bleating that immediately assaulted his ears also sent his heart soaring and his kidnapper running for his life.

"Go check it out, DiNozzo."

"Already gone, boss. Whoops, so is somebody else..."

Tony gave chase and Gibbs detoured to check out the alarm. He found McGee curled up on his side on the concrete, hands wrapped around his head as he shook and fought for breath. Crouching down, Gibbs employed words rather than touch as a first attempt to get his attention, understanding that getting hands on would only scare the young agent more.

"McGee. It's okay, we've got you. Tim, look at me. You're safe."

"B-Boss?"

"Yeah. Tony went after the guy who did this. We'll get him. It's over... c'mon, sit up. That's it. Easy..."

Moments later Tony stumbled back into view with the struggling, cursing suspect in tow.

"No1 He has to die! He's a murderer! How can you protect a freaking killer! You know what he did!"

Gibbs rose and took custody of the man, dragging him a few feet away to where several security personnel waited. The moment Tim saw Tony, he was also up on his feet and pulling his colleague into a fierce hug.

"God, he said he'd kill you... said he still had the rifle and this time... this time..."

Tony forced down his confusion and shoved away the awkwardness of the situation and marginally returned the embrace.

"Easy, kid... easy. You're okay, now..."

Slowly, McGee calmed and pulled back.

"I don't even... wait. Maybe I do. He might have something to do with the cop I... with the shooting. Did he say anything?"

"Couldn't shut him up. He's the guy's nephew. His father got him so twisted up about the whole thing, he felt like he was the only one who could get justice for his uncle."

Tim's expression grew dark and brooding and Tony stepped toward him, trying to think of what more he could say to comfort and reassure the younger man, but just then a scowling woman ran up with a set of keys outstretched to silence the alarm and the other two were both directed away from somber mental paths by the task of explaining that her car was actually never in danger of being stolen.

It was several minutes before they were able to extricate themselves, but Gibbs was still waiting when they arrived back at Tony's car. Noting his supervisor's standard formidable expression, McGee sighed inwardly with fatigue and frustration, but not a trace showed on the surface.

"I know. I'm heading up to start my report now, boss..."

"The hell you are. What was the plan for tonight, DiNozzo?"

"Take out and lock down at my apartment. But..."

"Stick to that. I don't wanna see either of you for the next 4orty-eight hours, got it?"

"Yeah... okay. Your wish and all that, boss." Tony agreed. "C'mon, probie. Let's head out before he decides otherwise, huh? If I can get you in my car again in this lifetime."

TWO HOURS LATER: TONY'S APARTMENT

"Timmy..." Abby nudged, looking from a nearly full container of Chinese food back to her close friend and colleague. "... you're not eating. You have to try."

"Hmmm? Oh... sorry. Not really hungry. Just... still shaken up, I guess."

"Yeah. It takes a while to feel safe again. But you will."

"It's not that. I feel safe enough with both of you here. It's just... it's knowing that what I did damaged somebody so much. The bullet I fired destroyed a cop, that kid and maybe his entire family..."

Tony wiped his hands thoroughly on a napkin then reached out and gripped Tim's chin, forcing the younger man to meet his intent gaze.

"You listening, McGee? Paying attention?"

"Yes, Tony." Tim conceded rolling his eyes slightly. Tony tapped him lightly in the back of the head and repeated himself patiently.

"I didn't ask if you were humoring me, now did I? I asked... if you were listening."

"Okay. I am."

"We don't know that you did anything other than your job. Truth is, we'll never know. It. Doesn't. Matter. I've had some pretty bad days, kid. You've been there for some of the worst. Like I told you... I'm still here. Once Gibbs chose you, you were in. If you plan on fighting him on that, give me a big heads-up so I can get a couple miles away."

"But..."

Abby cut him off by taking over the chin hold.

"Stop right there, McGee, unless you want me to kick *your* butt from here to the Navy Yard and back! We're a family, for better or worse,'till death do us part, get it? Family doesn't throw you away like a-a half-black, smelly, gross banana peel the minute you make a mistake!"

Tony grimaced, stared at the food on his fork and dropped the utensil back into the carton he'd been eating out of.

"Way to turn a phrase, Abs. Suddenly I'm not so hungry either." He mumbled, setting the carton aside and addressing Tim once more. "Look, Probie... the point is that the past is the past. No matter what happened or didn't... you get the full benefit and absolutely no doubt. Okay?"

"Yeah... okay. Thanks you guys."

"All in a night's work." Abby assured him with a sweet smile and a brief kiss on the cheek. "Now get eating before Tony's appetite comes back, or there won't be any left."

"Hey!"

END.