A/N: Hi! Thanks for stopping in to read my story. There are a few spoilers for "Baltimore," just where a certain item comes into play. I've tried to be as true to the characters and the show as I possibly could, and remain faithful to the canon revealed in that episode especially.

Huge thank you to OughtaKnowBetter, for beta-reading and for suggestions that helped make this story so much more than I thought it could be. Really appreciate the help you gave me.

Disclaimer: Mistakes are mine. NCIS and everything relating to the show are not.

It was a tragedy that never should have happened.

Tony DiNozzo cast an apprehensive glance over the table at Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, searching the other man's features for anything that might give him hope, but the grim expression and small head shake confirmed his worst fears. "There's nothing you can do, huh, Ducky?" he asked softly, trying to put on a brave face.

Ducky sighed, placing a hand on the younger man's shoulder in sympathy. "I am afraid not, Anthony. A pity; I was rather fond of it, myself…"

Abby, who had insisted on calling Ducky in to help her offer Tony moral support, grabbed hold of the medical examiner's free hand and pleaded, "At least offer Tony some comfort, please tell him it didn't suffer long…"

Ducky inclined his head slightly, keeping his expression neutral. "I believe I can safely make that assumption. Its construction was not such to withstand the impact of a 200 pound man's boot coming down upon it." The medical examiner cleared his throat and continued in the same gentle, soothing, slightly hesitant tone, as though his patient had actually once been a living, breathing entity. "'Death' would have been instantaneous."

Abby rubbed Tony's back soothingly and said in a soft voice, "It died a hero, Tony. McGee could be dead right now if it wasn't…if…" She choked on a sob and Tony drew her into his arms, offering her comfort though he could find very little for himself. He'd just as soon be left to his misery, but couldn't deny her the chance to console him when he knew she needed cheering up just as badly after McGee's close call, when she needed to feel as though she had done something to help. Her arms came up around Tony and she squeezed him tightly, pulling away for just a brief moment to lightly swat his shoulder. "I'm supposed to be making you feel better, not the other way around," she whispered in his ear, her pigtail brushing against his cheek. "Don't you know how the whole comforter/comfortee thing is supposed to work?"

"Sorry, Abby. Never did do anything the way it's supposed to be done. Probably wouldn't be me anymore if I did, right?"

Lying scattered across the cold, metal table in Abby's lab was the "victim": Tony's cherished Mighty Mouse stapler, once a shiny little bit of nostalgia and now just broken and twisted pieces of plastic and metal. Where it once had smooth curves was now crushed flat, the shards flaring out like jagged flower petals, edges pale from the strain the light blue plastic had endured before it splintered apart. It went out a hero, but why had its sacrifice been necessary, Tony wondered bitterly. How had a group of fully trained NCIS agents, whose middle names should have been "Vigilance," allowed one man to get the drop on them? And why did one of his possessions have to pay the price for that lack of awareness?

He shrugged, trying hard to maintain a mask of indifference. "It's just a silly little thing, anyway. And it's not like the man who handed to me was anyone worth looking up to now. Why should I let myself get upset over it?" Now, if only he could convince himself that was true…

This time, the swat to his shoulder was harder. "Don't you even think that way, Tony!" Abby chided him. "You loved that thing; I know you did. I'm going to take those pieces and make them into a plaque to hang up here in my lab. It's a hero, and I'm going to honor it as one."

"If I may?" Ducky interjected softly. "I don't believe it is the object itself that had value to you, my dear boy. It is the memories you've associated with it that gave it meaning. I have never heard you speak a bad word about your days in Baltimore, despite the disagreeable situation that forced you to move on. It wouldn't surprise me if you've allowed this item to represent the good times and good people you knew there, rather than the bad; much like a memento of a departed friend reminds you of their life, rather than their death. To be honest, I'd imagine it should mean more to you now, considering the manner of its passing."

Abby fidgeted in Tony's arms while Ducky spoke and Tony pulled back, glancing down at her. She gave him a teary-eyed smile. "Tony, you know I am totally sorry for your loss, right? I just need to see Timmy, make sure he's okay…"

He nodded and even dredged up a small smile for her. "Yeah, I know, Abs. Go hug the crap out of McGee, then do me a favor and beat the crap out of him for putting us through all this mess."

A woman now on a mission, Abby gave him a mock salute, turned on her heel with a brisk nod and marched out of the lab to hunt down McGee and lavish more attention on him. Taking one last look at the table and its irreparably damaged occupant, Tony turned to follow her to the elevator, fully expecting Ducky to sweep the pieces of the stapler back into its evidence bag and toss it aside once he was gone, since there was nothing anyone could do to fix it. To his surprise, while he was still in earshot he heard the doctor quietly speaking over the table and Tony paused, curious to hear what Ducky was saying to his current patient.

"I am usually not one to speak to inanimate objects, you know," Ducky said in his gentle, cultured tone (and Tony could just picture him leaning with an arm draped companionably over the makeshift autopsy table as he held the one-sided conversation,) "but had it not been for Ziva using you to take down that miscreant, it could very well have been our own Agent McGee lying broken on a table, awaiting my attention in your place. And I believe Tony will forgive me for saying I am most grateful for the role you played in McGee's rescue, for I would much rather be standing here over your remains, than his."

Tony joined Abby in the elevator, waiting until she had slipped out the door and left him on his own before he leaned his head back against the wall and murmured softly, "Yeah, me too, Ducky."

The day had started out normally. Gibbs had gone down to the forensics lab to check on Abby's progress with the trace evidence from their latest case, while dropping off her first caffeine fix of the day. While their boss was away from the bullpen McGee wandered off in the direction of the vending machines for some quick fuel, after doing something with his computer that Tony decided wasn't worth even pretending to understand. He'd never have stayed awake through the thousand-word, geek-speak explanation. Ziva also took a short break, stretching and sauntering over to Tony's desk, pretending interest in what he was doing but really practicing the art of intimidation by slowly invading his personal space. He'd never admit to being intimidated by her, of course…She had just reached the point of too-close-for-comfort where she was literally breathing down his neck when suddenly—

"Nobody move! I mean it! Reach for a weapon and I'll break his neck, I swear I will!"

Tony turned toward the sound of the shouting, and froze at the sight. There was McGee, straining against the beefy arm wrapped around his neck, as its owner dragged him forward. McGee's eyes bulged out, wide and frightened. His hands clawed at the strangling grip. Tony gritted his teeth, hissing softly. How had McGee gotten himself into this mess? Was security downstairs napping? And the real question of the hour…

"Probie, why'd ya have to get caught while Gibbs was out?"

"Didn't…exactly plan it…Di…Nozzo," McGee managed to wheeze.

"Shut up!" the guy screamed, tightening the grip on McGee's throat. McGee cried out, his breaths coming in raspy gasps. Tony's gut clenched, the agent all too aware of how easily the guy could carry out his threat. As easily as he could break one of Director Vance's toothpicks.

Tony kept his eyes trained on McGee's captor's every move. The guy was on edge, the muscles in the arm holding McGee corded and tense, ready to snap McGee's neck at the slightest alarm. The way he jerked McGee around, jumping at the slightest sound and screaming out orders, worried the older agent more than if the guy was cool-headed and taunting them. Tony's finger hovered over the panic button, but he didn't dare press it yet. Couldn't risk more people rushing in on the scene with the man operating on a hair trigger. And Gibbs was due back soon—

What if Gibbs was on his way up right now?

Cautiously sliding his phone out, he shot off a quick text, Intruder in squad room, McGee hostage, praying that his technologically illiterate boss was with someone who could open it for him. He had every faith that Gibbs' gut had already warned him something was off, but couldn't risk their boss walking blindly into the situation. Not with McGee's life at stake.

He caught Ziva's attention, his eyes flicking downward toward his half-open desk drawer. He'd placed his Sig in there that morning and if Ziva could get her hands on the gun then maybe she could get a clear shot at the man. She nodded, the movement barely noticeable. Tony took it to mean she understood what he wanted her to do.

Taking a deep breath, he waited until the man was facing his way, then he stood up from his seat.

"I said, don't move! Do you want him to die?" McGee's captor screeched, yanking McGee around in front of him to face the potential threat.

McGee moaned, raising his eyes heavenward. Tony smiled at him reassuringly. Take it easy, McGee. Not gonna let you get yourself killed on my watch. You know what Gibbs would do to me if I did?

"Look, I'm unarmed, here," Tony said quickly as he edged around his desk, holding out his hands to show they were empty. "I'm not Keanu Reeves and he's not Jeff Daniels. Not planning on shooting the hostage to get to you." It was a delicate balance Tony was striving for, between being annoying enough to distract the man from noticing Ziva's actions, without provoking him into killing his hostage.

"You know, if you kill him, there's nothing keeping us from taking you out. You look like you're smart enough to know, a dead hostage—not the greatest bargaining chip. We're all in agreement, right? You don't want McGee dead. I don't want McGee dead. McGee doesn't want McGee dead. At least I'm assuming the last one's true…so if you kill him you make all three of us unhappy. Not to mention, McGee gets dead, and then our boss Gibbs gets real unhappy, and then you get dead. Gibbs was born with a sniper scope stuck to his eye. He'll hunt you down. And seriously, do you really want the smell of sawdust to be the last warning you get, right before the back of your head explodes? So what do you say? Let my Probie go?"

While Tony kept the intruder's focus on himself, Ziva held her position, one hand on the back of Tony's chair where it had been all along. Her other hand crept quietly through the drawer he'd indicated. A tiny, triumphant smile flickered across the face of the former Mossad officer and she caught his eye as she revealed her find, her hand not holding the gun like he'd expected, but his Mighty Mouse stapler.

Tony's eyes widened. Ziva's smile…widened. Trust me, she mouthed and her fingers curled tightly around the luckless stapler, perfectly sized for her palm. She braced herself against his chair, her body alert, her face set in watchful determination.

"McGee!" she shouted.

The guy's head whipped around at the shout. Ziva's arm flashed forward, hurling the tiny stapler at McGee's captor. It streaked through the air like the cartoon mouse himself, striking McHumanShield's captor on the side of the head. Stunned by the attack, he staggered back. His grip on the captive agent loosened slightly.

McGee rammed his elbow into his assailant's gut. Jerking free, he grabbed the man's arm and threw his weight backwards, slamming him back into the nearest desk. They crashed into the computer, sending monitor and keyboard flying to the floor. File folders spilled out over the floor, papers flying throughout the bullpen. Those cold cases would be fun to solve…

Rolling off the desk, struggling agent in his grip, the assailant stumbled, his boot—and full weight—coming down on Tony's stapler with a sickening crunch. It skidded out from under his foot, throwing him off balance. The stapler flew across the room and smashed against the Most Wanted wall, gouging a hole through the eye of one of the terrorists' photos and giving him a rakish pirate look. Arms and legs flailing, the intruder fell to the floor with a pained grunt. His foot caught McGee in the back of the leg, dragging the agent down heavily on top of him. McGee recovered first, the formerly captive agent now pinning his assailant to the ground.

Weapons drawn, Tony, Ziva and the other agents in the room ran forward to help McGee subdue the guy while he was down. Someone shoved a pair of handcuffs into McGee's hands and he took great pleasure in snapping them onto his captor's wrists. "You have the right to remain silent. Know what that means, dirtbag? Means you're the one who has to shut up now…" Was Probie channeling Eastwood now? McGee was not ordinarily an intimidating man, but Tony had to admit the sneer in McGee's voice and the hard glint in the junior agent's eyes made him a little nervous. He'd only admit it to himself, though, never to McGee.

"Easy there, McActionHero." Tony helped him back up, looking the junior agent over critically. McGee was still breathing heavily but he had a big grin on his face, no doubt pleased with himself for taking down his captor. Relieved that McGee seemed to have escaped relatively unharmed, Tony reached an arm around his Probie's shoulder…and whacked him upside the head.

"Hey!" McGee cried, glaring at the older agent. "What was that for?"

"For letting yourself get caught in our own building! Probie, how could you let that happen? You know what kind of crap we're gonna take from the Feebies if they hear about this little incident over at the Hoover building?" He stared McGee down for a moment, before grinning slightly. "At least we didn't have to call in the FBI to come to your rescue…now that woulda really been humiliating. You did okay, McGee. Guess all that stuff I taught you over the years paid off, eh?"

"If you say so, Tony." McGee sounded unconvinced.

Since Gibbs hadn't arrived yet Tony took charge, grabbing the intruder's arm and yanking the downed man to his feet. Even cuffed and somewhat dazed, the intruder tried to break loose and lunge at McGee but Tony held him back, saying reprovingly, "Now, if you're not gonna play nice with our Timmy, you're not gonna be invited to come over and visit anymore…" His grin grew wider at the low growl he got in response. Dragging the intruder over to the newly arrived security personnel, Tony shoved him into their hands with a pleasant, "Just in time, guys. Our new friend here wanted a guided tour of the NCIS building. Why don't you boys show him down to our lovely interrogation room one?"

Leaving Security to do their jobs and take the prisoner down to interrogation, Tony could finally turn his attention to searching the room for his stapler. It was one of the few things he'd kept from his days as Detective Anthony DiNozzo of Baltimore PD, won in the annual pool competition against the rest of the Baltimore police force all those years ago. Now every time he used it he was reminded of his fellow officers from that city, most of them honest, dedicated men and women he was proud to know, even if it hurt to remember his old partner as a dirty cop. Maybe it wasn't too damaged. Maybe it could still be fixed. A little superglue, some touch-up paint, it wouldn't be perfect but…no.

Tony's heart sank at the pitiful sight. Wedged in a corner of one of the cubicles, kicked aside in all the chaos, his stapler lay, cracked in half and the metal part housing the staples flattened. The heavy plastic had not been sturdy enough to hold up against the intruder's size thirteen work boots. The base had broken away entirely from the top half of the stapler, bent staples spilled out around the mangled remains. White lines edged the fragments and webbed over the few slightly more intact pieces, where the stressed plastic had bowed inward before yielding under the weight that crushed it. From the crunched top part, the heroic image of the cartoon mouse still grinned as though it was off to save the day, even with its body twisted nearly in half. Tony could have cried.

Over the noise and the flurry of activity in the bullpen, penetrating even the haze in Tony's mind, a commanding voice boomed out, "I leave you people alone for five minutes, and you wreck the squad room?"

Gibbs had returned.

The worst part of the whole ordeal was that none of his fellow agents truly understood the nature of his loss.

Ziva's response, "It was just a toy, Tony. You should be thankful it has finally served a useful purpose," provided Tony with very little comfort.

"Not toy. Collectible," he hissed indignantly, but she pretended not to understand the distinction.

"Would it have been worth McGee's life?" Ziva challenged, unrepentant. She sat perched on the edge of Tony's desk, casually rolling one of the spent staples between her thumb and forefinger.

Tony glared at her, a little hurt by the question. Did she even have to ask? Of course Probie's life was more important than a cartoon stapler, but that wasn't the point! There was history attached to that little bit of plastic, and she didn't seem willing to see that an object he'd had since before Gibbs and NCIS came into his life might just hold a little sentimental value for him.

"Why didn't you just go for the gun? It was in there, too," Tony muttered.

Ziva rolled her eyes as though the answer was obvious. She explained in a slow, patient tone, "There was too much of a chance that I would hit McGee if the assailant had moved as I was aiming. If I had hit McGee with your toy, it would not have injured him as badly as if I would have shot him, and his captor still should have been distracted enough by the attack that he would have let down his guard and given us the opportunity to take him down. It was the choice that offered the best outcome for the situation."

McGee groaned, rubbing his still-sore neck. "Thanks for your concern for my safety, Ziva," he muttered.

"You are quite welcome, McGee."

McGee, at least, took a little more pity on Tony and his destroyed property. "Look at it this way, Tony. At least it was lost in the line of duty," he offered with a hand clapped on Tony's shoulder and he seemed to be at least semi-sincere, but then, the stapler had been sacrificed to save his life. Tony figured that was probably the reason the junior agent even sounded vaguely sympathetic for the loss.

Ziva smirked. "Perhaps we should award it a medal for valor in battle, yes?"

Gibbs' "Get a real stapler, DiNozzo," said in passing as he strode by Tony's desk, was just downright cold. Granted, Tony wasn't expecting tears (Gibbs probably didn't even cry when Ol' Yeller died) but a little consideration for a man's personal property would have been nice…

Tony waited until the others left to collect up the remains, resisting the urge to observe a moment of silence. "Well, there you went to save the day," he sighed, gathering up the shattered pieces and taking them down to see if Abby or Ducky could do anything to save it, but knowing already that it was a lost cause.

Tony gave the utilitarian stapler a harder pounding than needed, cursing as the staple bent outward instead of in, just knowing that the office tool was mocking him. Grey and professional, not even the smiley face skull sticker Abby had stuck to its top could liven up the boring metal surface. (When he had first gotten the replacement she suggested giving it a more personalized design, to make it his own. He suggested tossing it in a vat of metal-eating acid. She liked his idea better and wrote him up a list of highly corrosive substances to consider for the job.) He sighed as he dug the ruined staple out of his report, and purposely tried to avoid looking over at a certain area of the room. Even six weeks later, he still found his gaze drifting to the spot on the floor that marked where his old stapler had met its tragic end. This drab stand-in could never replace what he had lost.

"Hey, DiNozzo!" Tony glanced up just in time to see Gibbs toss a small package in his direction. Caught off guard, he fumbled with it before getting a better grip, and set it down on his desk. He stared at it for a few moments, wondering who would be sending him a package before picking it back up and turning it over in his hands, debating whether he should hold it close to his ear to check for ticking, settling instead on giving it a cautious shake. When that course of action yielded no answers, Tony looked up at Gibbs for an explanation, but all he got was an impatient head jerk and a patented glare, Gibbs' version of encouraging him to open the box.

Puzzled, he obeyed the unspoken order and pushed aside the packing material to find a small, brightly colored toy stapler, with the image of a cartoon mouse emblazoned on the top. "Uh, Boss? What's this for?" he asked in confusion. He certainly hadn't sent for a new stapler. With as many cases as they had worked in those past weeks, he hadn't had a chance to seek out a suitable replacement. He'd barely had the time to requisition the ordinary one that now defiled his desktop.

Gibbs sighed with exaggerated patience. "Yours got broke to save McGee. We got it replaced."

"You really didn't have to, you know? I mean; I'm sure I could have eventually hunted down another…" Tony winced as the head-slap cut off his words instantly. "Thank you, Boss?"

"Now, you gonna stop playing with your new toy and get some work done anytime soon, or you just want to dump it back in its box and toss the rest of the junk from your desk in there to keep it company?" Which in Gibbs-speak translated to "you're welcome."

"On it, Boss." Tony stared at the little stapler in his palm for a moment more, entirely too pleased to pay much attention to the threat of unemployment. It was just a small thing, really, but it brought a wide grin to Tony's face, a grin he immediately wiped away as he turned to do as Gibbs said. He was so warmed by the simple gesture that he didn't even bother to mention his original stapler had had Mighty Mouse on it, not Mickey.

Thanks again for reading my story! I'd love to hear what you thought of it.