a/n: In which I experiment with plot! And (more) melodrama!

This is a long action-adventure of an AU story. It features violence, blood, mean Feds, and also really mean bad guys who do really mean bad things. There is gratuitous use of my favorite recurring characters along with the development of a few prominent OC characters. The story takes off at the end of Season 7, disregarding scenes from the last few minutes of "Rule Fifty-One." Tony never went to Mexico to observe Alejandro. Paloma never went to Stillwater to threaten Gibbs' father. In this story, the Evil Reynosa Cartel chooses to go after Gibbs a little more directly.

I've never attempted anything involving a plot before so, you know, this could get messy. Any and all feedback is most appreciated.

Gray Scale

Abby: Well. That's kind of a gray area.

Gibbs: How gray?

Abby: Charcoal.

From "The Truth Is Out There"


Chapter One: Gibbs Is Gone

Ziva had been in many interesting situations.

This really shouldn't count as one of them.

She was sitting at her desk in the Navy Yard—a complex bristling with the sort of security she usually found reassuring. At the moment, she faced down nothing more exciting than a dusty pile of paperwork. And yet she had never, ever felt so hinky.

It was Gibbs. He hadn't said a word the entire morning.

Not a monosyllabic mutter to the team's morning greetings. Not a grunt to the mail delivery lady. Not even a "going for coffee" growl on the way to the break room. Functional mute or not, this was strange.

He looked the same as he always did. Calm. Confident. Dangerous. Just . . . quiet. She studied him closely, but his behavior gave away nothing—nothing more than he wanted it to. But Gibbs was good at that. Gibbs was good at many things, Ziva should know. She'd compiled a dossier on the man for Mossad months before she ever met him.

Now, five years on, her stomach churned with all the growly, defensive hinkiness that a post-Mossad, Gibbs-trained gut could muster, and she was reminded of that dossier. Ironically Ziva never mentioned the one thing Gibbs was best at in that old profile. The reason, simply, was that she hadn't known. Hadn't realized the extent of it at the time. These days she knew better. If she had to pick the one thing Gibbs was best at . . .

It was secrets.

Keeping them, if they were his own. Revealing them, if he happened to want to know what you were hiding. Gibbs, needless to say, did not hide anything. When you knew what to look for it was painfully obvious that the secrets were there. On days like this they were the rhinoceros in the room - the angry one that no one dared to look at.

He must have felt her watching him now. He didn't seem to care.

His refusal to hide just made it all the more impressive, Ziva mused. Secrets. That was his ninja skill, the one honed so sharp you didn't even know it was there. Not unless you knew him like the team knew him. He certainly didn't bother to mask his mood that morning. Gibbs sat at his desk and did paperwork, radiatiating tension all the while like a weathervane quivering in an electrical storm.

At 1030 the elevator doors pinged, whooshed open, and Ziva knew immediately that the threat—whatever the threat was—had arrived.

Tony had the best view of the elevator bay. His face, never a subtle instrument, went still and hard. She turned to assess the situation. The executive consul to the Mexican ambassador and an entourage of aides stepped out of the elevator and swept past their desks. Her stomach stopped flip-flopping just long enough to sink.


Not the kind of enemy she was trained to fight.

The team tracked the pack of politicos as it climbed the stairs to the director's office. They moved swiftly, with an air of money and power, and she knew instantly that they were dangerous. Dark suits and influence, well beyond her control.

Ziva narrowed her eyes as they were greeted on the landing by Director Vance. A shiver of sharks, she thought.

English did have its moments.

Gibbs straightened his shoulders and watched the arrival just like the rest of them. But his face was utterly blank, and when Vance's door snicked shut Gibbs simply returned to his paperwork. No bark at the team to get back to work. No sarcastic comments about the other careers they could pursue once he'd fired them all for lack of focus. Not even a glare.

Ziva and McGee shared a furtive glance. Her senses were literally prickling her skin, insisting that she act to stop whatever was going on in the director's office. But what could she do? Ushering this particular threat out at gunpoint did not seem a viable option. So she went through the motions of updating files while Gibbs methodically cleared every last scrap of paper from his desk. When she next glanced over its surface the hairs on the back of her neck rose. His desk was empty.

Tony gave up any pretense of work to stare at Gibbs outright. A pencil twirled in his long fingers, knocking rhythmically, irritatingly against his desk, until Gibbs lifted his eyes and returned Tony's stare with his own. The pencil stilled and the seconds drew out and Gibbs just sat there, watching his senior agent in a bullpen that was suddenly much too quiet.

Tony leaned back in his chair and grinned, as if he could beat back the strangeness with the force of his smile. "Have a good weekend, Boss?"

"Yeah. I did."

Tony's grin faded a bit, wilting under the force of Gibbs' calm attention. He tilted his head toward the director's office. "Everything alright?"

"Everything is fine, Tony," Gibbs said. Abruptly he stood and walked toward the head.

Ziva and McGee watched Gibbs stride toward the mens' room from the corners of their eyes, until the moment he'd disappeared behind the door. Then they leaned forward and growled. "What is going on?"

"How should I know?" Tony hunched his shoulders. "He called me Tony. That's never good."

McGee twisted in his chair to look up at the balcony. When he spoke his voice came out in that high-strung, computer-geek way that meant he was worried. "Any idea why the entire Mexican embassy is in Vance's office?"

No one answered him.

"They're here because of the boss, aren't they?"

Tony didn't say anything, but he gave Tim a look. A Gibbs look.

"Right," Tim said. "I'm really not a fan of Gibbs and, you know . . ." He trailed off for a moment. "Mexico. They shouldn't get together or interact in any way. Whenever Gibbs goes south of the border it's like someone threw matter and antimatter into a blender - "

"Yeah," Tony broke him off. "No idea what you're talking about, McGee."

"Doom," McGee said helpfully. "Catastrophe. Apocalyptic - "

"Agreed." Ziva leaned in, murmuring hurriedly, glancing between the men's room door and the director's office. "Something bad is going up."

Tony nodded. "Something is up with Gibbs. Probably the same thing going down in Vance's office."

Ziva frowned. "Going down, yes. That actually makes sense."

"Vance knows. Knew, I bet. And Gibbs knows, obviously. We - " Tony's pencil whirled, whacked harder into the desk. They'd just got him back from Dean and Bell and the Reynosas. From that whole damn mess! "-We, as usual, have not gotten the full sit-rep."

The mens' room door swung open and Gibbs reappeared.

Not ten minutes later the elevator doors pinged again. Ziva looked up from her report in time to see her partner's face fall, and then set into a loose arrangement that meant he was ready to start throwing punches. She whirled and watched five armed guards step away from the elevator. They were not guards she knew.

She turned back toward Gibbs, but movement outside the director's office caught her eye. The door swung open and the consul and his aides emerged, descending the stairs en masse.

Tony, Ziva and Tim rose to their feet as Vance and the lawyers came to a halt beside the security guards. Right next to Tony's desk.

An awkward pause, and then -

"Director, good morning!" Tony's grin was big and cheery, a Dinozzo special. "Looks like you've been busy today. And who are these fine folks?" His eyes drifted to a woman standing just behind the director's shoulder. She had red lipstick and long black hair. The smile took on just a hint of sincerity. "Hi there."

"None of your concern, Agent Dinozzo." Vance's eyes were fixed on Gibbs.

Ziva watched her mentor place his hands on his desk and push himself slowly to his feet. But his pace was brisk as usual when he walked around the desk and stood before the director. The two leaders considered each other for a long moment—proud mirrors, one of the other. Finally Vance nodded and moved aside.

Tony's eyes darted between them. "Boss?"

Gibbs paused then to look at Tony. "It's alright, Dinozzo." Voice quiet, so calm it bordered on gentle.

Tony stiffened.

"Focus on the job." Gibbs gestured at the paperwork scattered across his desk. He hesitated for a second, as if he might explain.

The agents leaned in.

"It's your lead now," Gibbs said finally. Then he stepped past Vance and walked easily toward the elevator, the phalanx of guards and officials moving with him. They crowded in and the doors pinged shut, and it was done. Gibbs was gone.