Posted with gratitude to everyone who has been waiting for this chapter. Thank you for keeping up with this story. My apologies for not keeping up with you. I'm seriously run down, and I've been running on fumes for months, but this story will be continuing as I am able to make updates. Thank you all.

:-)

Bren


Chapter 18

Tim and Ziva don't get back to the Yard for another three long, desperate hours, and Gibbs' eye seems to be focused on Tony the entire time. Normally, Tony's pretty sure he'd be basking under Boss' watchful gaze, but just now, he can't keep his mind away from Tim and the way Tony'd touched him yesterday and the fear that, despite his partner's assurances, Tony really had gone too far.

It's not that Tony imagines his partner might lie to him—Tim's just not capable of insincerity. It's just that Tony absolutely cannot figure a scenario where reaching for Tim like he did wasn't completely inappropriate to their relationship.

When Tony's partners finally step off the elevator and back onto their floor again, he spies them trading grins and pokes. Ziva catches Tim with a couple of jabs to his flank, which Tim readily returns, but then Ziva gets him once, hard, right in the belly, and Tim winces even as he grins all the wider. Tony shakes his head fiercely and squints his eyes at the oddity of the invasion into Tim's space. Weirder still, though, is the fact that Tim not only allows the trespass, but seems to encourage it as well. And, well, okay, Tim often gets physical with Tony in mock fights or real ones, and of course the back of Probie's head is fair game for anyone on the team, but otherwise, Tim usually has a little invisible bubble-wrap-like deflector coating about him that most people realize they can't broach and so they rarely even bother to try.

Ziva gleefully dares to wiggle her poking finger a little more against Tim's side—right above his belt—and that's seriously not fair because Tim is wickedly ticklish around the waist, which Ziva obviously knows! Tony's eyes narrow as he wonders how long ago she figured it out and whether she's employed this tactic before. Immediately, Tony decides Ziva couldn't have learned about Tim's soft spot from him because Tony practically never tickles Tim in public, partly…er, okay—mostly—because it always seems more than a little gay to tickle another man to the point of giggling, but also because it's a part of the guy code that you never tell other people your best buddy's weak spots. Not when you can effectively exploit them yourself, anyway.

Of course, Ziva's the one exploiting Tim's not-so-soft underbelly at the moment. Tony's jaw clenches along with his fingers to see Tim grinning because of those probing fingers. Tony narrows his eyes when Tim playfully smacks away Ziva's hands like he usually does to Tony's.

"So how did the interview go, McRed-Light?" the words spill out of Tony's mouth before he really registers them in his mind.

Immediately, Tim's chin tilts Tony's way. The grin on Probie's face remains staunchly in place when he questions, "Huh?" with brow furrowed.

Tony's shoulders relax ever so slightly. Tim can be completely oblivious at times. Then Tony zooms his gaze in on Ziva, feeling one brow lift in inquiry as he does. "Well?" he demands of Ziva.

Ziva rolls her eyes at him, sets her backpack behind her desk, and turns her attention to Gibbs, answering the query as if Boss had been the one asking. "Metro charged our potential witness, a Leo Martin, with breaking and entering. We tried multiple times, but he would not speak to us without his lawyer, who, in turn, would not allow Mr. Martin to speak at all, despite the fact that we mentioned—on several occasions—that we were not investigating him for a crime."

"It got us thinking, Boss," Tim's response dovetails exactly with the cadence of Ziva's voice, and once again, Tony feels his back straighten in concern. "We backburnered the Treski case from Norfolk last week because even though the pattern seemed to fit with several such thefts at bases across the country," Tim lets his pack fall from his shoulder to his desk as he talks, "it seemed like only low profile items were taken from the NEX, which didn't really make sense considering how fluid the criminal operations were executed, but—"

Tim trails off and Ziva takes over, "What if the thefts we know about from the Naval Exchange were simply a smoke-mask—"

"Smokescreen," Tim seamlessly corrects.

"Yes, yes!" Ziva snaps her fingers on both hands—including the evil belly-poking finger—and then points towards McGee. "A smokescreen," Ziva rounds her desk and walks towards Tim, who is walking right back to her. Tony comes out from behind his desk and meets the two of them in the middle, squinting at them both without prejudice. "And the perpetrators were after a larger target," Ziva finishes.

"So I started looking up other possible objectives," Tim jumps in again, pulling his phone from his back pocket. "And according to the sketches from the crime scene," Tim taps his cell where Tony knows Tim always sends the details of their most immediate cases, "the bulk of the thefts in each NEX clustered around its money transferring location within the store."

"We will have to check each location," Ziva chimes in, "But McGee believes the perpetrators," she squints and looks over to Tim, satisfied smile on her face, "are diverting wire transfers to fraudulently accrue interest."

Boss leans back in his chair, and Tony leans into the space Tim and Ms. Pokey Fingers seem to be sharing. "So bank fraud?" Boss simplifies it.

Tim squints measuringly, and his eyes go skyward for half a second before landing back on Gibbs. "Wire transfer fraud, yes," Tim refines Boss' suggestion, "though it might more accurately be called a kiting scheme."

Gibbs halfway angles his head away but keeps his gaze square on Tim. "Kiting?" Boss demands an explanation.

Tim scratches his chin, then opens the hand wide at face level, for emphasis. "Basically using money that isn't really there to earn interest on your account."

Gibbs shakes his head and keeps his eyes on Tim. "Wire transfer is supposed to be quick," Gibbs points out, his words seeming oddly cautious. "People are going to notice if their money doesn't get where it's going."

Tony looks Tim's way just in time to catch Tim's brows raised in satisfaction as his ready answer follows, "Not if the money's only diverted for a few seconds."

Tony taps Tim's bicep, letting his fingers fall as casually as he can down Tim's arm. He gains his partner's attention right away. "How can you earn interest on money that's barely in your account?" Tony asks.

Tim brings not one, but both hands up to chest level to explain, "Money is constantly shifting in and out of an account like this, but you can't think of it as the same money shifting in and out," Tim shuffles his hands back and forth like basketball players on opposing teams. "You have to think about it holistically, and if you've got," Tim shrugs but the motion contradicts the thrum of excitement building in Probie's tone, "say a conservative hundred million dollars moving through your account every day, then interest adds up pretty quickly."

"A hundred million dollars is conservative?" Tony's almost startled at the amount, and he leans into Tim in his surprise.

"How would they be doing this?" Boss questions in that weirdly hesitant tone before Tim can answer, drawing Tim's eyes back to him and away from Tony.

"If we're right and the kiting is occurring," Tim allows, "Then, considering the role of the NEX thefts, I'd say they're probably using hardware onsite to redirect the cash during the transfer before the money gets to its intended location," Tim concludes with a quick but solid glance back towards Tony. "There's more risk involved in discovery that way, and schemes with a hardware base don't usually garner as much revenue as a result, but the fraud is easier to accomplish for someone who's not as proficient at hacking." Tim turns up his nose ever so slightly at his own words. He can be such a snob about the strangest things.

Tony clears his throat, fighting a smile as he does, "Okay, there's just one thing I don't understand," he leads and feels his teams' eyes dart back towards him. "Did you figure all that out with your phone?"

Behind Tim, Gibbs rises and rounds his desk, rolling his eyes at Tony as he goes, but Tim gives Tony the smirk he was going for and offers a raised eyebrow besides. A spark of connection flutters between them, and Tony tries hard to keep his eyes away from the one-sided curl of Tim's mouth. He bites his lip to help maintain his focus, and notes when Tim's eyes drop to catch the motion. Tim's gaze shoots back up almost immediately to find Tony's returning stare. Tony's not sure what Tim finds in his eye, but it makes Tim smile that fond grin that he tends to point Tony's way more often than he's pointed it towards anybody else lately. Tony feels a familiar warmth bloom from his chest to somewhere below his belt, and he finds that he has to grin right back.

"First thing in the morning," Boss orders Tim, "I want you checking out the NEX in Norfolk to confirm your theory. If you find what you think we will, we'll pull agents from the field offices to check the other locations." Boss concludes his edict by literally patting Tim on the back, and Tony would be horrifically jealous except for the fact that it seems obvious that this was an incredible connection Tim made, and if it pans out, it could mean saving, well…somebody—Tony's not exactly sure who—millions of dollars.

Ziva nods in agreement, basking in the glow of Gibbs' praise, even if it's not totally directed towards her.

But Tim's brow squinches, even as Gibbs lets his approving grip linger on Tim's shoulder. "Wait, no, Boss!" Tim protests. "We have to take care of this now!" Tim vehemently shakes his head. If he shook any harder, he'd flip Gibbs' favoring hand right off his shoulder. "The easiest and most unobtrusive way to set up a scheme like this is to push the funds through the bank that it originated in, which, in this case, would be the Navy Federal Credit Union." Tim leans towards Gibbs as he explains. "If this is going on, then they're stealing a massive amount of money from Navy Federal!"

Oh, from Navy Federal, Tony nods. That makes sense, but wait, "So why's it so urgent that we pull it in tonight when the affected locations are already closed or closing?" Tony tilts his head towards the TV belting ZNN, the time in the corner of the screen clearly showing that it's nearly half-past six, so it'd be after nine by the time they could even get to Norfolk. "No more wire transfers until tomorrow, and if we're talking about electronically ripping off a bank, then nobody's life is at immediate risk, right?" Tony tilts his head as he questions. "So why are we going tonight?" Tony wants to know why Tim's got that burning need underlying his tone.

Tim shakes his head and twists to face Tony more fully. "It's a credit union, not a bank. A bank's losses affect its customers second-hand, meaning any problems in its management will be reflected in loan rates and bank fees after the fact or in anticipation of a future problem," Tim explains, "but a credit union is owned by every single person who invests in it, which means everyone with so much as a checking or savings account in the credit union will be directly and immediately affected by a major theft like this has the potential to be."

Tony squints, like he figures Ziva, and maybe even Boss, beside him are, too.

"Meaning what?" Boss demands.

Tim licks his lips and starts again, "Navy Federal provides for sailors' mortgages and retirements, not to mention their ability to buy a car or send their kids to college!" Tim shakes his head. "We're talking about millions of people losing their dreams for the future—plans that they've invested in!" Probie has both palms open as he explains. "The more time we give them, the less likely we'll find direct evidence of their activities, and the less likely we'll be able to track down the money!"

Tim's shoulders collapse like he's losing his steam. "That is," Tim nearly stutters, "I mean it's possible that none of this is even happening. There may not be a kiting scheme in place at all," Tim allows, stretching an awkward hand behind his neck as he does. "It just seems highly suspect that all of the Navy Exchange thefts were centrally located around the money transfer areas even though no actual cash was stolen."

Boss nods, eyes still on McGee, with both his hands now dormant at his sides. "It is highly suspect," Boss agrees, making Tim immediately straighten back up, as if Boss agreeing with his instincts makes them feel more valid, which…okay is always true for Tony, too, and probably anyone who has ever spent so much as half a second on Gibbs' team. "Check it out," Boss orders.

Tim seems to reinflate, a pleased grin spans his features at the approval, and Probie immediately turns to share it with Tony. Tony grins right back at him, inordinately pleased with the offering and, okay, also the fact that Tim seems more in sync with Boss than he has in a while.

Tony's fighting the urge to smack Tim with a high five when he spies Boss' discerning eye working him over like he's got Tony in interrogation with no water and only bright lights for company. Tony barely manages not to wince at the scrutiny.

"Take Tony," Boss demands a second later even though Ziva's been working this angle with Tim all day, and Tim'll have to spend the entire drive down to Norfolk just getting Tony up to speed.

Ziva straightens her shoulders and abruptly shuts her jaw at being shut out. Within seconds, Ziva opens her mouth back up, Boss' name no doubt on her tongue, but Gibbs interrupts her before she can even start.

"Did I stutter?" Gibbs exclaims, ridiculously, because the world would probably end before Gibbs might be insecure enough to do so. "Go!" he doesn't have to yell because he's Gibbs.

Tim immediately sets into motion, grabbing his pack and checking the car keys before jetting down the hallway, and Tony certainly doesn't need to be told twice. He practically dives for his gun and throws his go-bag in the air, catching it right away as he scurries after Tim. He looks back at Ziva behind him, even though Lot's wife should have learned that lesson well enough for them all—never look back on the face of destruction. He finds Ziva glaring at him, mouth open with hurt since this lead rightfully belongs to her with Tim.

Tony winces because it's not right or fair for Ziva to be cut out like this, but Tony's still enormously grateful to Gibbs for forcing Tim to switch partners because Tony's been kind of dying to see him again since he watched Tim's worried eyes disappear into the elevator hours ago. Even now as they're scurrying for the door side by side, Tony's still trying to figure out where he stands with Tim. The thing is though, even with so much still up in the air between them, this is the most Tony's felt like himself all day.