Intersections and Investigations

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: This series is set in the same universe as the Horses of Different Colors series by James Walkswithwind and Wolfling, which you can find at -- I have, however, written it with the intention that it will still make complete sense to people who haven't read that series.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thank to James Walkswithwind and Wolfling, who let me play in their world. Thanks also to skripka, who discussed Catholicism with me to help me improve Kate's characterization. Recognition also goes out to Aurelia Priscus, who always helps me when I get stuck on plot points. But most of all, I have to thank , who stepped into the breech and betaed a 46,000 word story in less than five days after Real Life made it impossible for my original beta to focus as she needed to. Thank you all!

Tony breezed into the squad room, high on life and ready to take on all comers. He'd finally been released from the hell of physical therapy, he was off desk duty, and last night a little judiciously applied persuasion had secured a promise from Gibbs that they'd head up to Jameson's place come Friday. Neither one of them had been there since before Tony's unfortunate encounter with a couple of rattlesnakes; Gibbs wouldn't let him skip even one therapy session and the stubborn centaur refused to go by himself.

To be honest, Tony was kind of glad Gibbs had stuck around in the city. Sweating his way through rebuilding the muscles that the venom had attacked was bad enough. Doing it knowing he was missing out on a chance to go riding with Gibbs would have been pure torture.

But it's over now, Tony reminded himself. Five days and it'll be just you, Gibbs, and a pair of brushes. He grinned at the thought and slid into his desk chair with an extra flair. He shrugged out of his jacket and turned on his monitor before stretching broadly, folding his arms behind his head, and leaning back in his chair. "Life is good," he announced to the world in general.

"You're in a good mood," Kate commented, rounding the corner and heading to her own desk.

"Any reason I shouldn't be?" Tony asked languidly. "No more desk duty, no more physical therapy..."

"No more loafing at work," Gibbs interjected as he walked by, coffee cup in hand.

"Desk duty is not loafing," Tony said primly, but he straightened up a little and pulled his keyboard into his lap.

"And yet you somehow manage to make it look that way," Gibbs said, dropping into his own chair.

"It's a talent. Makes people underestimate me." Tony opened his e-mail and watched it download. Spam, spam, spam, spam, message from requisitions, spam, spam, message from Abby, message from Abby, message from Abby--God, she must have been bored--spam, spam, who knew, spam, more mysterious mail, spam, spam, spam. And to think, they supposedly had a filter. "At first glance," Tony went on, scanning through the e-mail, "I appear to be a lazy, sex obsessed product of nepotism, but one quickly discovers the razor sharp crack investigator I truly am."

Twin snorts greeted that statement, but it was no less than he'd expected.

McGee hurried in at barely a minute to seven and flopped down behind his desk with an audible sigh of relief.

"Late night, McGee?" Tony inquired.

"I'm not even late," McGee said, putting his things away and flicking on his own monitor.

"Of course! How could I have made such a terrible mistake, thinking maybe you'd actually managed to score." Tony sighed and shook his head theatrically.

"I notice you were early."

"I don't think I like what you're implying," Tony said, arching an eyebrow in challenge.

"I don't think you got any luckier last night than I did," McGee shot back calmly. Tony suppressed a grin. He swore McGee had gotten better at playing the game since he found out there wasn't any substance to it anymore.

Across the aisle, Kate looked faintly...well, constipated. Tony could imagine what she was thinking. Him, Gibbs, getting "lucky". Oh, to be able to play on that...but even if they hadn't been in public Tony wasn't sure what her reaction to a little teasing would be right now, and he couldn't afford to alienate her. So he just smirked at McGee and drawled, "I'll have you know that the ladies enjoy playing Florence Nightingale with me."

"Not playing doctor?"

Tony leered. "Same difference."

"Actually," McGee said, his voice taking on a slightlysuperior. tone, "Florence Nightingale--"

Gibbs's phone rang. He snatched it up off the cradle and barked his name into the receiver. All three junior agents watched silently as he pulled out his notebook and jotted down a couple of things, making attentive noises into the phone every now and then. "Got it," he said finally. "Our ETA is just under an hour." He dropped the phone back into the cradle and opened the drawer holding his gun and badge. "Gear up, people."

Tony was already hooking his weapon onto his belt. "What've we got, Boss?"

"Dead JAG out in Ballston." Gibbs knocked back the last of his coffee and tossed the cup into the can by Tony's desk as he went by.

Tony grabbed his jacket and quickened his step to keep up. "Lawyer or staff?"

"Don't know," Gibbs said. "ID wasn't accessible without disturbing evidence."

The four of them crowded onto the elevator. "I hope it's not a lawyer," Tony said, glancing up at the highlighted floor numbers automatically. "I hate dead lawyers."

"I'm not too fond of dead anyone, DiNozzo," Kate rebuked.

"Well, sure," Tony said. "Except maybe serial killers and terrorists. But dead lawyers are the worst."

"Funny," McGee commented. "Most people joke about dead lawyers."

"Most people don't have to investigate their murders," Tony grumbled.

"I still don't get it."

"Too many suspects, McGee," Gibbs explained.

"If she's a lawyer, we're going to have to look into every case she's won or lost for the past year. And if none of those pan out, we get to go back further." Tony paused as the elevator arrived and they stepped off. "Most people, we only have to look into three or four suspects. A lawyer? We're going to have dozens of options. Dozens."

"Why not just look into cases she won?" McGee asked. After a moment he frowned. "If she's a prosecutor, that is. Lost, if she's a defender."

"Because when you send someone to jail, the perp's family gets pissed off," Tony said as they headed for the truck, "and when you keep someone out of jail, the vic's family gets pissed off. Ditto for if you fail to do either."

"Oh," McGee said, and sighed a little. Tony had to feel for him. McGee might not be a probie anymore, but he was still comparatively new to investigative work. There were things you didn't get a feel for until you'd been through them a few times, and those things didn't tend to crop up all that often.

As they neared the truck, a brief scramble ensued between Tony, Kate, and McGee. This time, Tony and Kate were triumphant, claiming the two passenger seats and leaving McGee to climb into the back. Gibbs ignored the brief commotion, settling behind the wheel and glancing at the fuel gage to make sure the truck was gassed up.

"Although," Tony said, grabbing for the 'oh shit' handle as Gibbs pulled out of the parking lot, "the last lawyer case I worked, it ended up being personal. She was JAG, too. Still had to do a shitload of research, though."

"What, you couldn't pawn it off on the junior agent?" Kate asked, smirking.

Gibbs snorted a short laugh. "Tony was the junior agent," he said. "Just barely off his own probation."

"Oh, come on, Boss," Tony complained. "I was a seasoned detective. That was just a formality."

McGee's face appeared in the little window to the back of the van. "So who was the senior agent?" he asked curiously.

Tony glanced over at Gibbs just in time to see his expression go stony. "Vivian Blackadder," Gibbs said shortly. His tone did not invite further questions.


The vic had been shot in the street out front of her apartment building. The local LEOs had taped off a good-sized perimeter that included the front entrance of the building and a dozen cars parked on the far side of the street. Tony ducked under the tape and glanced back at the crowd of gawkers, wondering which ones were cursing the temporary loss of their vehicles. He couldn't blame them, really; he hated taking the transit to work. But a dead body took priority, so Tony put the unfortunates out of his mind and looked over the crime scene.

The dead JAG was wearing a long, navy blue overcoat. The sleeves had ridden up a bit and the hem was crumpled to one side, displaying bits of her uniform. With no ID, that must have been how the cops had known to contact NCIS. Given that the victim was sprawled face down, the only other detail Tony could take in at a glance was the short cut of her black hair. The color was a little too flat. Probably dyed. A black leather briefcase lay near her left hand, a set of keys near her right.

Tony looked up to see that Gibbs had located the officer currently handling the scene and extended his stride a bit to catch up. "Officer Victor Brown, sir," the man said, nodding politely at Gibbs.

Gibbs nodded back. "I'm Special Agent Gibbs. These are Special Agents DiNozzo," he paused just long enough for McGee and Kate to join them, "Todd, and McGee. What've we got, Officer Brown?"

"Single vic, female, gunshot wound to the chest," Brown said crisply. "Looks to me like a through and through with the exit wound in her back, but you'll want to double check. Body was found by the newspaper guy around a quarter after six this morning. I've got someone checking the last couple of stops on his route, but he's pretty well covered. Still, he's over there with Officer Leeds if you want to talk to him.

"We got an ID from one of the neighbors a minute before you arrived. Pamela Fitzpatrick, lives in 5F. Apparently she has a roommate, one," Brown checked his notes, "Gena Debowski, but the neighbor says Ms. Debowski leaves for work pretty early in the morning and comes home a little after three."

"Point me towards the helpful neighbor?" Gibbs asked, already half turned to survey the watching crowd.

Brown nodded at a young woman--twenty-something, Tony figured--standing next to another uniform. "She's waiting there with Officer Schnell. Name of Kelsey Byrne."

Young, relatively pretty girl, shaken up from losing a neighbor, needing gentle handling... Tony shot Gibbs a blatantly hopeful look. Gibbs, as expected, ignored him completely, instead nodding his thanks at Officer Brown before assigning his subordinates' duties in clipped tones.

"I get no love," Tony muttered as he went to walk the perimeter of the scene. Gibbs shot him an amused look, the kind that most people would chalk up to satisfaction at having thwarted another one of Tony's much-discussed attempts at mixing business and pleasure. And there probably was an element of that in the look, but Tony was pretty sure that most of Gibbs's amusement stemmed from the irony of the comment, given what they'd spent most of yesterday doing.

McGee was probably noting down the license plates of the cars parked along the street in his sketches of the scene, but Tony wrote them down himself anyway. Redundant information was better than missing information and they were along the perimeter. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be much else in the area. The street was asphalt, the path to the front of the building was concrete, and the strip between building and sidewalk was uniformly grassy. Nothing to hold a decent foot impression. Tony took a moment to wish it had snowed recently. He collected some detritus from the gutter, but it was all pretty standard stuff.

It was Kate, working outwards from the body, who hit the jackpot. "I've got a shell casing," she announced, bagging the little bit of brass.

Tony looked up from the evidence bag he was labeling, but Gibbs was still talking to those residents of the building who were lingering at the scene. The Arlington County PD, he knew, would be going through the building, taking statements systematically. "Gibbs is going to want the bullet," Tony said, grimacing. As he watched, there was a slight disturbance in the crowd of people gawking at the crime scene. They parted after a moment, revealing Ducky and Palmer. "On the up side, Ducky's here."

Straightening up from his crouch by the gutter, Tony followed Kate over to the truck and stowed his evidence in the back. Together they turned and watched Ducky bend over the body, Palmer hovering a few steps away. "You want the north or south side of the street?" Kate asked after a moment.

"We could wait and let Ducky tell us where the bullet is most likely to be," Tony suggested.

Kate pursed her lips. "She could have turned as she fell. There's no way to be certain that the position of the body has anything to do with the trajectory of the bullet."

"Her ankles aren't crossed and her legs aren't twisted or bent," Tony pointed out. "She probably fell straight down."

"We don't even know if the bullet exited her back, like Officer Brown thought, or if it exited her front," Kate said.

Tony unleashed a smug grin. "Which is why we should wait for Ducky."

Kate let out an exasperated breath. "I have no idea how Gibbs puts up with you."

Leaning back, hands braced on the floor of the truck, Tony quirked his eyebrows a little. "I'm worth it."

"I meant at work, Tony," Kate said, grimacing a little and dropping her eyes.

Tony sighed internally. He'd kept his distance for the past week, giving Kate space, in the hopes that all she needed was time to adapt to the knowledge of both Gibbs's nature and his relationship with Tony. Wishful thinking, Tony told himself regretfully. At this rate, not only was Kate not going to be any good at covering for the two of them, she might actually give them away with her awkwardness. Tony was going to have to talk to her, and he got the feeling it wasn't going to be nearly as painless as his conversation with McGee had been.

"So did I," he said aloud. Dropping the grin, Tony tilted his head, trying to meet her gaze. "Gibbs and I are both pretty good at compartmentalizing, Kate. You never noticed anything before and if we hadn't told you, you wouldn't be reading deeper meanings into anything we say or do now. We're still the same people we were a year ago."

"Somehow knowing I never really knew either of you at all doesn't help." Kate's voice was quiet and she still hadn't looked up. "I'm supposed--"

"DiNozzo! Todd!"

Tony's head snapped around to find Gibbs passing them as he left the watching crowd and made a beeline for Ducky. "Yeah, Boss!"

"You find my bullet?" Gibbs came to a stop just behind Ducky's shoulder, not even looking at his agents as he tendered the question.

Tony exchanged a glance with Kate. "We were just discussing where to start looking," Kate said, lifting her chin.

"Discussing it isn't going to get you any closer to finding it, Agent Todd. You and DiNozzo take the south side of the street. McGee can check the north." Gibbs, meanwhile, kept his attention on the body. "What've we got, Duck?"

Half an ear still on Gibbs and Ducky, Tony turned to the south side of the street. The side with the apartment building and the grass, damn it. That's what you get for trying to take the easy way out, he reminded himself. You'd think I'd know better by now.

"Single gunshot wound to the chest." Ducky's voice drifted toward Tony from behind as he and Kate headed down the concrete path to the front of the apartment building. "Medium caliber bullet. It was a through and through, exiting the young lady's upper back. Lividity suggests she died in this position and, given the size of the blood pool, I expect the bullet did considerable damage. She died before she could bleed out."

There was a pause. Tony strained his ears as he and Kate worked their way from the front doors of the building towards the corners, looking for the bullet. "That's it?" Gibbs asked.

"I'm afraid so, Jethro." Ducky's tone was regretful. "Not every case comes equipped with the fantastic."

Tony snorted to himself. "You wouldn't know it by our track record," he muttered. Quietly.

"Time of death?" Gibbs prompted.

"Her liver temperature is still fairly high and rigor mortis has yet to set in. I'd estimate not more than three hours ago."

Around five a.m. at the earliest. We were called in about seven, after the cops had secured the scene, Tony noted with interest. Though really, in a neighborhood like this one it would have been more unusual if a body sprawled in the middle of the street hadn't been found quickly.

The front of the apartment building, unfortunately, yielded no bullets. Tony turned after he'd reached the corner and glanced first at Kate and then McGee, but both of them just shook their heads. No bullet there either. Tony turned a dejected expression on the expanse of wet, and therefore muddy, grass and reluctantly dropped down to hands and knees to start looking. It was fucking cold, too. "Times like this I wish metal detectors were standard issue in the van," he muttered. If they weren't able to find the bullet on their own they'd go back for the detectors, of course, but Gibbs wasn't the type to waste time retrieving extra equipment just for their convenience. They were here and they had eyes; he'd expect them to find the bullet.

By the time he'd been over a strip of grass two feet wide Tony's slacks were wet through to the knees and the moisture was starting to wick further up his leg. Fingers ruffling the grass, he kept looking, trying to ignore the moments when he swore he could physically feel Gibbs's gaze touch down on him.

Something dull and gray caught his eye. Holding his breath, Tony pried it up, hoping it wasn't another pebble. He brushed the dirt away and sat back on his heels, grinning triumphantly. "I got the bullet, Boss!" Dropping it into an evidence bag, Tony filled out the label with a black marker before climbing to his feet and plucking at his slacks to pull the damp material away from his skin.

Tony crossed the lawn and met Gibbs at the curb. The senior agent took the evidence bag out of Tony's hands and held it up, squinting a little at the bullet within. "Looks like it's in pretty good shape," he said with satisfaction. Kate and McGee joined them as Gibbs turned to regard the crime scene. "The killer was between the vic and the cars. They were facing each other when she was shot, but it doesn't look like she tried to run."

"Someone she knew, maybe?" Tony suggested.

"Or someone with a concealed weapon." Kate walked over to where she'd found the shell casing and looked back at the body. "They were a fair distance apart. Even if she knew her killer, she'd have had at least enough time to turn, once she realized they were serious."

"That shell wasn't very far from the cars," McGee added. "Maybe she was shot from inside one of them?"

"If that was the case, the killer would probably have taken the car with him," Tony pointed out. "But the shell doesn't seem to have been disturbed."

"Check the cars for GSR anyway," Gibbs said briskly. Turning, he considered the front of the apartment building. "McGee. The building probably has security cameras. See if you can get the manager to volunteer the tapes."

"Got it, Boss," McGee acknowledged, heading for the lobby at a brisk walk.

Tony sighed. He and Kate got stuck testing cars to check McGee's theory. Sometimes life just wasn't fair. But he jogged over to the truck to retrieve a handful of swabs without complaint. Gibbs wouldn't tolerate a complaint. Tony split the swabs with Kate on his way back and the two of them got down to business. A gurney rattled by them as they worked, Palmer shepherding it along. Tony paused, glancing over his shoulder as Palmer and Ducky tucked the body into a body bag and lifted it onto the gurney.

It was all very routine. Maybe that's why it seemed to hit so close to home.


It turned out that Lieutenant Pamela Fitzpatrick was a lawyer. Tony managed to contain his groan of dismay when they found out, which, he suspected, was the only reason he was working up her background instead of nagging JAG to release all her case files for the past year. Kate got stuck doing that instead. McGee was down in the lab with Abby, working on the crime scene reconstruction while she processed the evidence they'd delivered.

Tony wasn't quite sure why McGee had to be down there to do the reconstruction, instead of at his desk. Maybe the software was there. Softly, Tony snorted to himself. Yeah, right. More like he prefers the company.

Still, despite any perks McGee might be getting out of the arrangement, it was the best use of the team's resources. Gibbs was a master when it came to managing his people, even if not everyone agreed with his methods. Tony smiled a little to himself as he wondered if that skill was common to every centaur stallion or if it was something particular to Gibbs. It seemed like a necessary attribute for an individual who was born to command and care for a few dozen people. On the other hand, not every male centaur made it as herd stallion.

Tony threw a quick glance at Gibbs. He was intent on his computer screen. Reading, it looked like. Tony knew he'd be tracking down Fitzpatrick's posting and reading up on her coworkers, boss, and roommate. Gibbs's interrogation skills needed a foundation, after all.

Hopefully, he wouldn't get the bit in his teeth over this the way he did over so many of their cases. The weekend was starting to look further and further away; a good night at home would help tide them over.

You're getting domestic, DiNozzo, Tony told himself, shaking his head silently as he focused back on his work. Since when is going home and having a quiet night more appealing than working a murder case? A small smile curled the edge of his mouth. You know when.

Still, for all his thoughts of home and bed and Gibbs, Pamela Fitzpatrick's history was interesting. Tony loved this: following the thread of someone's life and watching it grow into a tapestry.

Except if Fitzpatrick's life was a tapestry, it was one worn distinctly thin in places. Or perhaps it hadn't been woven all that tightly the first time around. There was nothing precisely missing, but Tony wasn't seeing the level of detail he'd come to expect from years of researching backgrounds like this.

He found the names and address of her adoptive parents, but when he tried to find her biological parents he came up even more blank than was usual with adoptions. It was like she'd just been left on someone's doorstep. He found medical records...which showed no history of illness or trauma prior to eighteen years ago, although the usual immunizations did appear. Even after that point her medical records were spotty. It was as if Fitzpatrick had a phobia of doctors, going to them only when forced to.

She had a high school diploma, but was listed as home schooled, which meant that there was none of the documentation a formal high school would have provided. That detail only appeared later, when she'd started college and then law school. Maybe her parents were obsessively controlling, Tony mused. That would explain the thinness of many of the records, and the apparent lack of contact between her and her family now. Fitzpatrick's roommate was listed as her contact, beneficiary, or next of kin on all the paperwork. Without exception.

The thinness of Fitzpatrick's history, and the reason for it, might or might not be pertinent to the investigation, but right now they didn't know anything, which meant everything unusual had to be checked.

Tony blinked, rubbed at his temples, and glanced at his computer's clock. Everything should be checked...after lunch. It was past one o'clock already and he never concentrated well when he was hungry. He leaned back from the screen, rolling his shoulders, and pressed his hands to the top of his desk as he stood. "Boss, I'm going for lunch. You want me to bring you back something?" Gibbs grunted, which Tony took as a yes. "Kate, you coming?"

Kate paused in reading whatever was on her screen and looked across the aisle at him. "You buying?"

That was code for How much do you want me to come along? "Sure," Tony said easily. "But if I'm buying, that means I'm choosing."

Hesitating for a moment, Kate finally pursed her lips, nodded, and grabbed her purse and jacket. "As long as there is something on the menu not exclusively made of grease."

"Hey, it takes a lot of calories to maintain a body like this," Tony said, smirking as they headed for the elevator.

Kate looked over at him and rolled her eyes ostentatiously. "There's a difference between having it and knowing how to use it, DiNozzo. I can put you on the floor more than half the time."

"This body is multipurpose," Tony said, waggling his eyebrows. "I make love and war."

The momentary pause before Kate's response was painfully awkward. "Particularly accurate given how many of your encounters seem to make the transition. Your car has been egged how many times?"

"Just the once." The elevator dinged its arrival; Tony waited for the occupants to step off before he stepped on. "And that was an exception. A freak occurrence."

"That's not the only freakish thing going on around here," Kate shot back.

This time it was Tony who fumbled the return quip, but at least they were safely ensconced in the elevator. "Sorry," he said after a moment, sighing and reaching out to press the button for the ground floor.

Kate grimaced briefly. "This is why we're going to lunch, isn't it?"

"Aside from being honestly hungry and tired of staring at a computer screen, yeah." Tony shook his head. "I don't know how McGee does it. He even stares at a computer for fun. By all rights, his eyeballs ought to shrivel up and roll out of the sockets."

"That's disgusting, Tony." Kate wrinkled her nose. "Could you get any more graphic?"

"Sure," Tony said easily. "But I thought details on how they shrink and get all white and kind of gummy looking and end up hanging out on his cheeks like--"

"Stop!" Kate held up a hand. "Rhetorical question. Thank you." She shuddered just as the elevator chimed its arrival and the doors slid open.

Tony grinned broadly and followed her out, nodding cheerfully at the confused people who had been waiting. "I'd think after three years of this job you'd have developed a stronger stomach."

"The fact that I can handle the gross details when necessary doesn't mean I want to hear about them when I don't have to," Kate said, shoving her hands into her pockets. "Do we need the car to get to lunch? I don't want to walk too far in this cold."

It was only a little below freezing, but Tony restrained himself from ribbing her about it. "I figured we'd go to that place on the corner. I can have a burger and you can get a salad or something."

Kate nodded her agreement and set off at a brisk pace. Tony jogged a couple of steps to catch up with her and settled into a walk at her shoulder. They were quiet for awhile. It would have been more comfortable if he'd kept the conversation going, but they could trade barbs for hours without really saying anything and for once Tony was resigned to actually talking. But that didn't mean he had to start; he'd already made the first move by asking Kate out to lunch.

"I am trying," Kate said, sighing heavily.

"What's so hard about it?" Tony turned his head to look at her, but she wasn't meeting his eyes. "You never seemed to have much of a problem with gay people when we ran across them in our cases. Well, except when they were the killers."

A wry smile twisted Kate's lips. "It's a lot easier to live and let live when you don't care about the people you're let living. No matter how much you piss me off sometimes, I don't want-- I still worry about you."

"This is why I'm a lapsed Catholic," Tony muttered. He resisted the urge to rub at his forehead, shoving his hands into his pockets instead. "Do you seriously think I'm going to go to Hell for being with Gibbs?"

"I didn't say that," Kate said quickly. "But..." She shrugged helplessly. "All my instincts are telling me that you're making a mistake. That you'd be better off with a woman. I can't help feeling that, no matter how much I try to think it through and tell myself it's better for you to be committed to someone than it is for you to be sleeping around."

"If that's the only argument you've got in favor of my relationship with Gibbs, we really do need to talk," Tony said dryly. "What did Gibbs tell you and McGee, anyway? He only told me that you knew."

They arrived at the restaurant and the conversation was put on hold while they were seated and served drinks. Tony pushed the menu aside, already knowing what he wanted, and let Kate make her choice before he raised a prompting eyebrow.

She sighed and poked at the ice in her diet coke with the straw for a moment. "Just that you were lovers," she said, lowering her voice just a little, "had been for nearly a year, and were exclusive. And that you two got together after you found out about him."

"Pretty much in those words, too, I bet," Tony said, shaking his head. He took a long sip from his own drink, wishing for a moment that the coke were a beer instead. A little alcohol would make this conversation a lot easier to handle. Finally he met Kate's eyes. "Would it help if I told you that this isn't just about sex?" She squirmed uncomfortably, but Tony pressed onward. "Because it isn't. I've never felt like this for anyone before. Not even close."

"But why Gibbs?" Kate asked intently.

Tony shrugged. "Why not Gibbs?"

Dryly, Kate responded, "Second B for bastard?"

"People call him that because he demands the best from everyone around him and doesn't waste time playing nice," Tony said. "And yeah, sometimes it's a little hard to take, but he also gets results like no one else. When our cases are over and done with, aren't you glad he pushed?"

"'You might not like his methods, but you gotta love the results,'" Kate quoted Gibbs. "You two have a lot more in common than it seems, sometimes."

"Answer your own question?"

"No," Kate denied. She pushed a lock of hair behind one ear and leaned forward on the table confidentially. "There's a difference between respecting someone professionally enough to put up with their shit and choosing to spend your down time with them. I just can't see you two in a real relationship."

"Me and Gibbs specifically, or any two men?" Tony asked.

Kate snorted. "Let's stick to you and Gibbs," she said wryly. "Abby is working on the other already."

"So what constitutes a 'real' relationship? Living together?" Tony raised his eyebrows. "Making babies? Holding dinner parties? 'Cause my parents did all of that and I'm not too interested in duplicating their relationship."

"I don't know!" Kate scowled. "I'd know it if I saw it."

"What, you want me to invite you over to Gibbs's place for dinner some time?" Wouldn't that be an interesting night. Not.

"God, no," Kate said fervently. "That would be impossibly weird."

"Then I guess you'll just have to take my word for it that it's a 'real' relationship." Tony paused as their server arrived with lunch and went on as he arranged the toppings on his burger. "We spend most nights together these days. And I'm not talking about sex. Well, not just about sex." Tony had to grin at Kate's expression. "I'm talking about having dinner and watching TV or reading or watching Gibbs work on the boat," he went on. "We've taken weekends off together. We've even been on a couple of honest to God dates." Tony took a bite out of his burger and studied Kate as he chewed. She was staring down at her chicken Caesar salad, poking at the lettuce but not actually consuming it. He swallowed and wiped his mouth quickly. "And none of that helps at all, does it?"

Kate grimaced. "Sorry, no," she said. "I don't know if anything will, except time. I just need to get used to the idea."

"I don't think time alone is going to do it," Tony said reluctantly.

"It's only been a month since I found out, DiNozzo," Kate said, exasperated. "A week since you came back to work. Can't you just let me take this at my own pace?"

Damn it, I didn't want to push. "No. I can't." Kate opened her mouth and Tony shook his head sharply. "Gibbs and I can't afford to be found out, Kate. It's bad enough that you and McGee and Abby and Ducky know. Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. Six? We're gonna need all the help we can get."

"I told Gibbs I wouldn't tell on you." An edge of offense sharpened Kate's voice.

"I didn't say you would," Tony shot back. "But the way you're acting around the two of us, you don't need to."

"All I can do is try, Tony." The line of Kate's jaw was firm. Unyielding. "And I am trying. I'm not like Abby and McGee. This didn't just slot neatly into the way I see the world."

Tony sighed and went back to work on his burger and while he thought. After a moment it occurred to him that this conversation had been oddly one-sided in content. He swallowed and took a long sip of his drink. "So what about Gibbs?"

"What about Gibbs?" Kate said sharply. Defensively.

Tony could feel his eyebrows fly up. "What, did he chew you out or something?" As far as Tony knew, Kate hadn't screwed up badly enough lately to warrant the kind of dressing down that might prompt that reaction.

"No," Kate said shortly. After a moment she sighed and intently stabbed a piece of chicken and a lettuce leaf, chewing with determination.

Tony waited for her to elaborate, but she just kept working at her lunch, apparently not interested in talking. Well, Tony wasn't about to let her get away with that, not after the way he'd all but spilled his guts. "If you don't explain, I'm going to ask Gibbs," he said casually, taking another bite of his burger.

"Oh you are just like a little kid, running to daddy," Kate said, tossing her fork into the bowl with a clatter.

Oh, I shouldn't, I really, really shouldn't,'s just too perfect. "Actually, age play is one thing I'm not into." Tony grinned as Kate sputtered wordlessly. This was definitely an unexpected benefit of being with Gibbs. And to think, he'd always thought that Kate's love life provided the best leverage. "Come on, Kate. Spill."

She glared at him. "It's not your problem."

Tony had to suppress a frown. If I was a woman, she'd have assumed that anything to do with my partner was my business. But then, a relationship with a woman would be a real relationship. "You've got a problem with me being with Gibbs, but you haven't said a word about it from the other side of the fence. If there's a reason for that, it sure as Hell is my problem."

"It's got nothing to do with you," Kate said, picking up her fork and stabbing at the remaining salad with it. "I've got bigger problems when it comes to Gibbs than who he's sleeping with."

Tony blinked. "Bigger problems than whether or not he's going to Hell? Since that's what you seem to think about me."

Kate blew a harsh breath out through her lips before looking up and meeting Tony's eyes reluctantly. "I have to figure out whether or not Gibbs has a soul before I worry about the state of it."

Whether or not...? "What the Hell?" Tony said, not angry, just kind of stunned. "Did you really just say what I think you just said?"

"You've got good ears, Tony," Kate snapped, stabbing her food again but not eating any more of it.

"Yeah, I just can't believe what I heard." Tony shook his head, put his burger down, and wiped off his hands. Somehow it didn't seem right to talk about this while holding onto a half-eaten meal. "Why on Earth wouldn't he have a soul?"

"I thought you were a lapsed Catholic," Kate shot back. "Why do you care?"

"I care that you seriously believe it might be possible that the man I respect above all others is souless," Tony snapped. "Jesus. It doesn't matter what I believe; I know what that means to a Catholic."

Kate dropped her fork and rubbed at her temples. "Then you ought to know why I'm not sure. Tony," she paused and lowered her voice, whispering, "he's not human!"

"Who says that humans have a monopoly on souls?" Tony hissed back. "He's a thinking, reasoning being. What more evidence do you need that he has a soul?"

"I don't know." Kate grimaced in frustration. "They don't exactly cover this sort of thing in Sunday school. As far as I know, centaurs don't even appear in Christian mythology. Surely if they were creatures of God they'd be mentioned somewhere."

Depends on which god you're thinking of, Tony thought wryly. But he didn't say anything--bringing Zeus into this wouldn't help, whether or not Tony believed in him personally. "The Bible isn't exactly an infallible record," Tony pointed out instead. "It was written by men. Centaurs are a pretty private species. And from what Gibbs has told me, until a couple hundred years ago, they pretty much stuck to Greece. And it's not like the Bible accounts for every species on the planet; some of them just weren't known at the time. No one assumes that that means those species aren't part of God's plan."

Picking up her fork again, Kate seemed to think about that as she made a dent in her lunch. Tony forced himself to be quiet and wait for her to think. "I wish it was that easy," she said, not looking up from her salad. "Like you said, centaurs are thinking, reasoning beings. That's a little more important than accounting for every species of lemur. I can't just assume that something that important was overlooked, because then what else got overlooked? It could break down a big chunk of the foundation of my faith and I'm not ready for that, Tony. I have to assume that there's some other explanation.

"I just-- I haven't got a framework for making sense of this. And frankly," she looked up at him, "I don't understand how you can be so calm about the whole thing."

Tony wished he could tell her he'd just had more time to get used to it, but even the first time he'd seen Gibbs change he'd hadn't been this thrown off by the discovery. He finished off his burger while he organized his thoughts. "I don't know what to tell you," Tony said finally, taking a sip of his drink. "Maybe the difference was in the circumstances. I had a chance to just look my fill, to touch him and make it real." Tony paused, remembering the moment when he'd laid hands on Gibbs for the first time. The fine grain of his coat, the heat of him under Tony's palm, the way his skin had twitched, the flush in his face... "And then he kissed me and I had more important things to worry about," Tony said, smirking.

"I thought you two got together after you found out?" Kate asked, brow wrinkling.

"We did," Tony confirmed. He grinned suddenly. "By a couple of days. That was our first kiss. Gibbs kicked me out about ten seconds later."

Kate still looked confused. "So, more important things were...?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "Getting a repeat of that kiss, to start."

"That took precedence over dealing with the fact that the man isn't human?"

Resisting the urge to thump his head against the table was a minor triumph. "Yeah, Kate, it did. Maybe you didn't have a chance to absorb this when you saw him change, but Gibbs is still very much himself in centaur shape. Hell, sometimes I think he's more himself, if only because he stops holding back." Tony stopped himself there, just. Dominance was another thing this conversation didn't need to get into. "The most important thing about Gibbs changing in front of me was the fact that he'd let me into a pretty serious part of his personal life."

Kate didn't answer, instead intently forking up the last fragments of her chicken Caesar salad. Tony made himself wait, scarfing down French fries to stop himself from filling the silence with more commentary. It wasn't until Kate polished off the last of her food and sat back in her seat, her drink held between her hands, that she spoke again. "Do you think Gibbs would change for me? Just to give me a calm moment to sort of...absorb things?"

Would he? Tony doubted it, but it was worth asking. "I'll ask him," he said, shrugging. "But don't hold your breath."

"When it comes to Gibbs?" Kate smiled ruefully. "Never."


Tony was stepping off the elevator before he remembered that he'd meant to bring back lunch for Gibbs. Sure, the man hadn't said he wanted food, but he'd probably be expecting it anyway. Wincing in anticipation, Tony turned the corner into their aisle of desks and opened his mouth to deliver God knew what excuse.

"DiNozzo!" Gibbs barked, standing and donning gun and jacket. "Get your gear."

Blinking, Tony closed his mouth and scooped his gun up out of its desk drawer. "What's up, Boss?"

"Interviews," Gibbs said shortly. "Kate!" Her head snapped up attentively even as she sank back into her chair. "You'll have those files by the time we get back."

Kate grimaced but nodded. "Of course."

Then Gibbs was off again and Tony was trailing along behind him. "We interviewing co-workers or neighbors?" he asked as they stepped into the elevator.

"Roommate," Gibbs said. "The PD called to say they'd finished with her. She should be getting home just as we get there."

Knowing the way Gibbs drove, Tony suspected they'd get there first. But then, Tony was pretty sure that was part of the plan. She'd be less guarded in her own home, more likely to let something slip, if there was something to let slip. And while Gibbs worked on that, he could be taking a look around. Silently, Tony cursed himself for not studying a photo of Gena Debowski when he'd started working up Pamela Fitzpatrick's background. It would have been nice to know who she was when she showed up.

The crime scene tape was still up around most of the street out front of the building, but now that the body had been taken away the gawkers had dwindled to the occasional pedestrian rubber-necking as they went by. Gibbs and Tony flashed their ID at the cop who was keeping an eye on the scene and headed into the apartment complex.

Gibbs paused in the lobby and pulled out his cell phone. Glancing at his watch, Tony could see it was exactly three o'clock. Gibbs dialed, waited, phone to his ear, and nodded in satisfaction after a moment. He flipped the cell shut without speaking. "Ms. Debowski isn't home yet," he announced. "We'll meet her here."

Tony bobbed his head agreeably and took the time to look around the lobby while he waited. It was a pretty nice building, although not really high end. The front doors were glass. A dark gray, ribbed runner led straight from the front doors to the elevator at the back of the lobby, presumably to reduce wear on the rest of the carpet, which was pale blue with dark purple flecks. The walls were painted a pale gray. Most of the right hand wall was taken up by a bank of stainless steel mailboxes. Tony did a quick count of rows and columns and came up with a total of forty-eight apartments. The elevator had eight floor indicators, which worked out to six apartments per floor. That meant that 5F--Pamela Fitzpatrick and Gena Debowski's home--was an end apartment.

The left-hand side of the lobby featured several nondescript art prints and a door with a brass plaque that read "Building Manager". Gibbs didn't even give the manager's office a glance. Maybe he'd already talked to the man that morning. Depending on what Ms. Debowski said, Tony figured they might be knocking on that door on their way out.

It was ten past three and Tony had been reduced to staring at the art prints by the time he spotted a shift in Gibbs's body language. Taking a couple of steps to put him back at Gibbs's side, Tony followed his gaze to find a woman in a long, pale lavender rain jacket pausing half way through the glass doors. She was partially turned, looking back at the crime scene even as she stepped into building.

She didn't pause to extend the look, though, just continued on through the front door, turning toward Gibbs and Tony as she let it go to thump shut behind her. Seeing them watching her, the pain in her expression took on a wary edge.

"Ms. Debowski?" Gibbs inquired.

"Yes?" She turned and almost casually reached out to lay one hand on the front door handle behind her. Tony could feel his body tensing, his heartbeat picking up, preparing for a chase.

"I'm Special Agent Gibbs, this is Special Agent DiNozzo. We're with NCIS." He paused.

"NCIS?" Ms. Debowski asked, filling in her part of the script perfectly on cue.

"Naval Criminal Investigative Service." Gibbs explained without any apparent annoyance and displayed his badge for her. Tony followed suit. "We'd like a word with you in private."

"Naval Criminal..." She trailed off and glanced back at the crime scene that currently dominated the front of the building. Her shoulders slowly slumped and she hung her head for a long moment. When she looked up again she took her hand off the door and turned to face them squarely. She swallowed visibly before speaking. "We can talk in my apartment."

Gibbs nodded and turned, gesturing for her to precede him to the elevator. She nodded, as if to herself, and strode down the runner. Tony followed her and Gibbs. They rode up to the fifth floor and turned right down the hallway. 5F was, as Tony had expected, an end apartment.

Ms. Debowski pushed the apartment door open and hung her purse and jacket on a pair of hooks by the door. Her keys went on a smaller hook just outside of the kitchen area. From there she took a couple of steps into the living area, stopped, and turned, her arms wrapped around herself, elbows clasped in either hand.

Tony could see now that she'd been wearing a blue and red waitress's uniform under the coat. Nothing fancy. "Rosie's" was embroidered on a breast pocket. Diner, Tony concluded silently.

Ms. Debowski waited until they'd stepped into the living area with her before speaking, as if it wouldn't be polite to chat in the short hallway. "This is about Pam," she said, voice breaking just a little.

"Yes," Gibbs said neutrally.

Her hands fluttered a little aimlessly. "I've... I've been at the police station," she said weakly. "I had to leave work early to...see Pam. Give a statement. I thought... Why can't that be the end of it?"

"This is a murder investigation, Ms. Debowski," Gibbs said flatly. Harsh, but her reactions would tell them more than her words.

A small, pathetic noise escaped Gena. She put a hand up to her mouth as if to still it and a pair of tears broke free and ran down her cheeks. "You don't think...," she said, hand trembling in front of her mouth. She took a visible breath. "I'm sorry, I know you have to talk to everyone she knew. " Her hand dropped and she laced her fingers together, clinging to herself. "You know, when the police told me," she ducked her head, "I wished she'd been the suspect, not the...the victim. At least then she'd still here. Is that wrong of me?"

"It's understandable." Gibbs's voice was infinitely gentler now. It was obvious that Gena hadn't killed her roommate. "I'm sorry, but we need to ask you some questions. Maybe have a look around."

"Of course," Gena said. She raised a hand and wiped at her eyes. Her mascara smeared. "Damn it," she cursed softly, looking at the black streak on her hand. She looked up and smiled sheepishly, eyes still watery. "I must look horrible. Pam always tells me I ought to buy--" She broke off. "Oh God. Please, I just need to--" She turned and fled, presumably to the bathroom, without finishing the sentence.

Tony paused to make sure she wasn't going to return quickly and cast a glance at Gibbs. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Depends on what you're thinking, doesn't it?" Gibbs returned, raising an eyebrow.

"I'm thinking that that was kind of an extreme reaction for a roommate."

Gibbs smiled and shook his head a little. Tony shrugged internally. Okay, so maybe they were really close friends as well as roommates, but he generally had good instincts about these things. He'd see what he found in the bedrooms.

While they were waiting for Gena to return Tony explored the kitchen. Almost all the counter space was taken, crowded with appliances: a food processor, a toaster, two slow cookers, an electric frying pan, a George Foreman grill, and a coffee maker. All things designed to make cooking and meals easier or faster. The fridge and freezer were smallish. There were a few photos tacked to the freezer door: a group picture that looked like Gena with her family and several pictures of the two roommates somewhere that looked tropical. Their arms were linked and they grinned at the camera so broadly it must have hurt.

Strangely enough, there also seemed to be a picture of Fitzpatrick with her family. Tony would have thought that someone who hadn't been in touch with her parents for years wouldn't be too inclined to keep their picture around. Maybe the older couple were friends or mentors and not her parents at all.

At the sound of footsteps Tony returned to the living room. Gena seemed calmer now. She'd wiped off all of her make up and her skin was a little pink from scrubbing. Still, her eyes were puffy from crying and she kept taking steadying breaths.

"You wanted to ask some questions," she managed after a moment.

"That's right," Gibbs nodded. "Do you mind if Agent DiNozzo looks around while we talk?"

Gena looked over and met Tony's gaze. "Go ahead," she said, tucking a lock of hair behind one ear. "No secrets here." Tony got the strangest feeling that she'd been about to add something to that comment, but just nodded and started looking over the living room, half an ear trained on Gibbs and Gena.

The furniture was IKEA, but it was decent stuff and it all matched. The color scheme of the apartment was lavender and dark gray, from the drapes to the furniture to the carpet.

"Can you think of any reason someone might want to hurt Pam?" Gibbs was asking.

Gena laughed, as if at a joke, but it was thin. "Pam was a lawyer. But...well, her cases didn't usually go to trial. Pam wasn't really high profile. When she did end up on a trial case, she rarely made the arguments. She was a part of a team and that part of it usually fell to other lawyers."

"Did she have a problem with that?" Gibbs asked.

Two doors opened off the living room; one was open and the other was closed. Tony stepped through the open door and into a bedroom. It was a good-sized room, for an apartment. The bed was pushed up against the wall underneath the window. A desk and several sets of bookshelves lined the other walls. He leaned over and began poking through the papers on the desk, keeping half an ear on the conversation in the other room.

"No. Pam likes...liked flying under the radar. She wanted to do a good job. She was proud of what she did. She always said she could do without the stress of making the trial arguments. She was a wreck when, rarely, that job fell to her; staying up all night, spending hours getting dressed, practicing the arguments on me..." Gena trailed off.

Everything on the desk belonged to Pamela Fitzpatrick. Most of it was work related, but there were a few post-it notes with reminders on them like 'laundry' and 'dinner, Thurs, 6pm'. There was no computer on the desk, but there was a printer and a roughly square space free of paper. Tony poked his head back into the living room. He caught Gibbs's eye for a moment, then looked to Gena. "Ms. Debowski," he said, "did Pam have a computer?"

"Yeah," she replied. "A laptop. She takes...took it to work in the mornings and brought it home at night."

Damn. It would have been a much better lead if someone had taken it. Still could have been, he supposed, but he thought it was more likely that it had been in the briefcase Kate had bagged at the scene. "Thanks," he said aloud and ducked back into the bedroom.

"How were things at work for her lately?" Gibbs went on. "Did she mention anything about stressful cases or arguments? Anything could be important, no matter how small."

The two bookshelves immediately next to the desk were all legal reference. Some of the titles alone made Tony's eyes cross. The rest were all fiction, the books in alphabetical order by author. It was quite a mix, from what Tony recognized. Historical fiction, mysteries, romance, some fantasy, a little science fiction. No horror that Tony could see. No gaps in the shelves, either. There was a neat stack of books on the floor next to the door. Tony had to shake his head at the thought of running out of shelf space.

There was a small freestanding wardrobe at the end of the bed. Opening it, Tony found pressed uniforms and carefully polished shoes lined up in rows. There was no casual clothing at all. Not even underwear.

Tony closed the closet door thoughtfully and turned around to take another overall look at the room before he moved on. The bed was neatly made. The open blinds let sunlight into the room. It spilled over the bed but, thanks to the angle, didn't reach the computer. There was no bedside table, but the desk was close enough that Tony supposed it could double as one.

Listening with half an ear to Gibbs's questions--how were things at work for Pam? did she have trouble with her co-workers? had she seemed upset by anything in particular recently? did she seem worried?--Tony went back into the living room and opened the closed door. There was a pause in the flow of words behind him, but when he glanced over his shoulder at Gena she just shrugged and waved for him to go in.

It was another bedroom, smaller than the first. The queen size bed made it seem even smaller than that. There was no desk and no bookshelves, though there was an ancient beanbag chair in one corner and a reading lamp bent over it. Two dressers took most of the rest of the space, leaving just a narrow aisle between them and the bed. That piece of furniture was unmade. Clothing was draped everywhere. It looked like someone had gotten dressed in a hurry.

Tony picked his way around the clothing to the bedside table. Notepad, pens, pencils, hair accessories--the first drawer was full of all sorts of odds and ends. The second drawer, when he pulled it out, held two vibrators, a magic egg with a variety of sleeves, and a small bottle of lube. He couldn't help a grin and a shake of his head.

Tony's examinations of the room's closet and the bathroom just off the front hallway were cursory. He'd already found what he was looking for.

Back in the living room Gibbs had perched on the edge of the couch. Gena was seated awkwardly in an armchair. She looked like she wanted to curl up in it, but her uniform skirt wouldn't allow it.

Seating himself next to Gibbs on the couch, Tony waited until she finished her sentence before interjecting his own question: "Gena. How long have you and Pam been together?"

She froze for an instant. "We've been roommates for three years now," she said after the moment had passed. Watching closely, Tony could see the tightness around her eyes, the slight glitter of tears threatening to spill again.

"You know that's not what I meant," he said quietly. "That isn't a bedroom." He lifted his chin towards the first room he'd examined. "That's an office."

"Just like a man to think that if two women are close, they have to be sleeping together," Gena said, one corner of her mouth turned up into something that wasn't really a smile. Tony could see the tension in her jaw.

As it turned out, so could Gibbs. "Ms. Debowski," he said firmly. "If you and Lieutenant Fitzpatrick were lovers, that could be the motive for her murder."

Gena's hand flew up to her mouth at the word, but a choked sound still escaped. She swallowed, then took a deep breath behind her hand before lowering it again. "We weren't--" She broke off.

"Under the circumstances," Gibbs said, very softly, "I don't think Pam would mind."

Gena rubbed at her eyes, smearing away tears before they could fall again. "I don't... We... That can't have been why," she said finally, looking down at her hands. "We were so careful. We were good at keeping secrets. I don't think anyone knew for sure."

Tony felt a tiny thread of tension ease somewhere deep inside at her words. He'd been right. They were lovers.

Like he and Gibbs were.

This could be me. Tony knew he was nodding in the right places and looking attentive, because Gena wasn't giving him any strange looks, but he couldn't really hear a word either she or Gibbs were saying. If we aren't careful enough, this could be me. How careful is careful enough? Gena thought they were okay and look at her now.

You always knew what you were getting into, Tony reminded himself. You've been a cop long enough to know what the risks are. You can't freeze up every time it gets thrown in your face.

Gibbs was standing. Tony did the same, then followed Gibbs out the door and down in the elevator and into the car. Gibbs slid the key into the ignition but didn't start the car right away, instead turning his head to give Tony a look. "Tony."

Tony grimaced. "Sorry, boss," he said quickly. "Won't happen again."

Gibbs turned the key, the engine coughed to life, and they pulled out into the street. "This isn't the first case like this we've worked."

"It's the first case exactly like this we've worked since you and I hooked up," Tony pointed out.

For a long moment Gibbs was silent. "So it is," he said eventually. He shot Tony a sidelong glance. "That going to be a problem?"

Tony waved the question off. "Like I said, it won't happen again." He wished he could say he was just surprised, but he'd had his suspicions from the moment they broke the news to Gena. And it wasn't like he wasn't aware of the potential consequences of his relationship with Gibbs, but looking those consequences in the eye had been harder than he'd expected.

Shifting in the seat a little, Tony leaned against the window and watched Gibbs as he drove, reminding himself why he was taking the risk Gena Debowski had.

"So where're we headed now?" he asked after a long moment, reaching out to turn up the heat in the car. The cold December weather was seeping in through the window glass.

"To interview Fitzpatrick's co-workers. Find out if--"

"--they had any idea about her relationship with her 'roommate'," Tony finished. "Does this mean we have to interview the JAG again?"

Gibbs shot him an amused glance. "You've worked with plenty of Navy lawyers in the past four years, Tony. And it'll be a different JAG; Admiral Chegwidden has retired."

"Somehow, I don't think the new one will be any friendlier when he realizes that his people are our prime suspects," Tony argued. "Again."

"We exonerated Rabb," Gibbs pointed out.

"You exonerated Rabb," Tony muttered. Gibbs just smiled.

As expected, neither the JAG nor his people were particularly pleased to see them, despite the fact that many of the personnel who had worked there nearly five years ago had since retired or been reassigned. But in spite of their displeasure, they cooperated fully and willingly.

Unfortunately, none of them had anything to say that helped at all in the investigation. Every one of them had expressed surprise at learning of Fitzpatrick's relationship with her roommate and Tony was pretty confident that they were being honest. Even if that seemed an unnatural state for a lawyer.

Nor were Fitzpatrick's current cases anything special, according to the JAG. They'd all have to be interviewed again once Kate had completed her research into Fitzpatrick's caseload, but at the moment they were running out of leads fast.

"We've got a dead lesbian military lawyer," Tony said as he and Gibbs stepped off the elevator and into the mostly dark squad room. Kate and McGee were nowhere to be seen. "You'd think our problem would be too many suspects, not a total lack of them."

"It's early yet. We haven't even got the forensics back." Gibbs picked up his telephone and dialed.

Tony checked the time. 5:38pm. "Everyone's probably gone home, Boss."

Gibbs grunted and dropped the receiver into the cradle. He checked his own watch and paused for a long time. Long enough for Tony to begin to wonder if he was going to call the rest of the team back in, but eventually he started gathering his things in preparation for going home. Tony let out a silent breath of relief and went to his own desk to follow suit.

They left together, went to their separate cars, and drove to their separate homes. Tony walked in through his front door, dropped his car keys on his kitchen table, and made his way back to his bedroom, where he changed into black jeans and a near-metallic blue shirt. He rolled up the sleeves of the shirt before slipping into a black leather jacket, stuffing his wallet into his back pocket, and calling a cab. He winked at one of his neighbors on his way down the stairs.

The cab took him to a popular club. He paid the cover charge, wormed his way through the crowd to the bar, and bought a bottle of water. He finished it, forcing himself not to hurry, before he pushed through the crowd to the back door, where he slipped out again. Tony paused in the alley behind the club before turning to the left and setting out briskly. Six blocks later he ducked into a restaurant and had the host call him a cab. It dropped him off three blocks from Gibbs's home. He walked the rest of the way.

Up until this afternoon, he'd thought the precautions were excessive.

Despite all his care, Tony paused at the back door of Gibbs's home and knocked, waiting for a moment before turning the knob and letting himself in. If someone ever did catch just the tail end of this journey, it would be a lot easier to justify a polite, announced visit than it would be to explain why he had the right to just walk in like it was his own home.

Tony smelled the food before he got to the kitchen. Blue cheese and horseradish and steak and the warm scent of butter and the sharper scent of salad dressing. Tony's stomach growled as he stepped into the kitchen behind Gibbs.

"Next time we're going to your place," Gibbs said without turning around. "And you're cooking."

Grinning, Tony walked up close to Gibbs and peered over his shoulder. He was frying potatoes in butter. "I can live with that." The blue cheese and horseradish sauce was sitting on an element on low heat and the salad was on a counter, already drenched in dressing. "Steaks in the oven?"

In answer, Gibbs stood back from the stove a little, leaving Tony room to retrieve the broiler pan and its two steaks. Two plates were already laid out, so he transferred the steaks and set the broiler pan in the sink, cursing softly as his forearm brushed against the hot metal.

Gibbs shook discs of fried potato onto each plate while Tony ran cool water over the burnt patch of his arm. "How're you doing?" Gibbs asked eventually, moving the plates and the salad bowl to the kitchen table.

"I'm fine," Tony said, examining his arm. "I don't think it's even going to blister."

"Tony." Tony looked up to find Gibbs leaning against the kitchen counter, watching him seriously. "That's not what I meant. Today was your first day back in the field."

Tony rolled his eyes. "And all I did was pick up evidence and talk to a few people," he reminded Gibbs. "I've had more physically demanding days grocery shopping."

Gibbs snorted and pushed off the counter, heading back towards the table. "That mean you're not hungry?"

Quickly patting his arm dry, Tony crossed the room and slid into his place at the table. "I didn't say that." He started in on the steak intently. Gibbs was actually a pretty good cook, although he didn't have an extensive repertoire.

"We're going to have to interview Ms. Debowski's coworkers, too," Gibbs commented after they'd had a moment to quiet their stomachs.

Tony nodded, swallowing quickly. Homophobes weren't exclusive to the military, after all. It was entirely possible someone thought they were 'saving' Gena by taking her lover out of the equation. And then there was the old classic, jealousy. "I'm pretty sure Rosie's is a diner," he said aloud. "Probably the greasy spoon type, and if Gena works an eight hour shift and gets home at three, it's probably an all night place. I'll check it out in the morning."

"After we get the forensics back," Gibbs corrected.

Shrugging, Tony took another bite of steak before replying. "I can't imagine they'll help much. We didn't find much at the scene aside from the body and the bullet." He raised the hand holding his fork to stop Gibbs's comment. "I know, I know. It's the stuff we can't see that's most important."

"I wasn't going to say anything," Gibbs said mildly. A sudden glint came into his eyes. "To you, anyway."

Tony eyed him warily. "You wouldn't."

"You sure about that?"

"Gibbs, Abby would skin me alive if she knew I'd said something like that," Tony said plaintively. "Have mercy."

"Then you shouldn't have said it," Gibbs said, shaking his head slowly.

"Sure I can't persuade you to silence?" Tony leered at him.

Gibbs laughed. "Like I wouldn't be getting 'persuaded' anyway?"

"Well, yeah," Tony said easily, "but I could throw in a little something special."

"I've seen all your tricks, DiNozzo. You really think you can still surprise me?" Gibbs challenged.

Tony grinned, thinking of the last present he'd brought to bed with them. "I surprised you last time, didn't I?"

Gibbs's eyes went dark. "Maybe," he allowed. "But I surprised you right back."

Tony couldn't look away from Gibbs's gaze. A flicker of heat ignited low in his belly. "Does that mean you're going to throw me to the wolves?" he managed.

"I think Abby is more of a black widow than a wolf," Gibbs responded lightly, and the moment faded.

Tony quirked an eyebrow. "So I'm safe as long as I don't sleep with her?"

"You sleep with her and Abby isn't the one you'll have to worry about," Gibbs said dryly.

"There is something vaguely bizarre about the fact that I like it when you get all possessive," Tony commented, lips turning up at the corners. "I used to hate it when someone would get clingy after we'd gone to bed."

"You never used to plan on sticking around, either."

Tony snorted. "There's more to it than that." He dropped his eyes to the table. There was something about the fierceness with which Gibbs held onto him--both literally and metaphorically speaking--that let something inside of Tony relax. Gibbs had tapped into that, to a degree, even before they'd become lovers. No one else had even come close, and Tony had been looking.

"Tony," Gibbs said quietly. Tony looked up and found the centaur leaning forward over the table. "There's nothing wrong with enjoying being wanted. With enjoying being mine."

"I didn't say it was wrong. Just bizarre." Tony shrugged and pushed his food around his plate a little. "You don't think it's strange that a commitment-phobe like me would want to be owned?"

"No." Gibbs paused. "Tony, giving yourself up like you do for me isn't an easy thing for humans. Most aren't comfortable with it at all. Most of those who are don't let go as thoroughly as you have for me. So no, I don't find it the least bit strange that you would need to go through so many people before you found someone you could trust with that part of yourself."

Oh. "Put that way, it makes sense," Tony said sheepishly. He thought suddenly of his conversation with Kate. "At least, it does to me."


Tony nodded. "I've been avoiding the dominance thing, but she's still having some issues."

"Why do I suspect that's an understatement?" Gibbs said dryly. "She decided whether or not I have a soul yet?"

"She's still working on it." Tony hesitated. "Gibbs, she asked me to ask you... I think it might help if she had a chance to have a really good look at you in centaur shape. The first time...well I don't really remember, but I'm betting there wasn't much time for her to even absorb what she saw."

Gibbs scowled. "I'm not interested in putting myself on display."

"Yeah, I know," Tony sighed. "To be honest, I'm not too hot on the idea myself. But if it'll help her deal, I think it's worth it."

Gibbs shot him a curious glance. "So what's your problem with showing me off?"

Tony blushed. Then he blushed harder at the knowledge that he was blushing. "It's not important." Gibbs just raised an eyebrow. Tony shrugged awkwardly. "I kind of like having that to myself."

Gibbs sat back in his chair, setting fork and knife down on his now-empty plate. "You get a lot more than that to yourself."

Tony set down his own utensils and scrubbed a hand through his hair before pushing back his chair and standing. "Yeah, I know," he said, gathering up the dishes from the table. It didn't mean he didn't want to hold every one of the bits of Gibbs that were his alone.

The dishes piled in the sink, Tony turned and found Gibbs standing behind him, watching silently. "C'mere," Gibbs said when he saw Tony was done for the moment, holding out one hand. Tony took his hand and let himself be drawn into a soft, slow kiss. A little too soft. Tony curled one hand around Gibbs's neck and deepened the kiss insistently. Gibbs didn't seem to mind, judging by the way he sucked heavily on Tony's tongue. Tony grinned--internally, given that his lips were otherwise occupied. Okay, Gibbs. I can take a hint.

Pulling back from the kiss, Tony took Gibbs by the hand and hauled him into the bedroom. "Something on your mind?" Gibbs asked, a laugh lurking in his voice as Tony intently unbuttoned his dress shirt.

Tony grinned and pushed the shirt off of Gibbs's shoulders. "Maybe," he said, tugging Gibbs's undershirt up. Gibbs raised his arms cooperatively and Tony pulled the shirt off over Gibbs's head and sighed happily at the skin his action bared. He spread his hands over Gibbs's chest, palming the firm muscles and rubbing his thumbs teasingly over Gibbs's nipples. Gibbs caught his breath in a thoroughly satisfying way at that caress. Tony grinned and met Gibbs's gaze before pushing him gently back towards the bed.

Gibbs yielded easily, backing up until his calves hit the bed and climbing up onto it when Tony kept advancing. Tony crawled up after him, kneeling astride Gibbs's legs, and went to work on his belt buckle. Stripping off Gibbs's pants and underwear in one go, Tony slid back off of the bed to toss them aside and dispose of Gibbs's socks.

Standing at the end of the bed, he paused a moment to drink in the sight of Gibbs sprawled naked on top of the comforter. The centaur was completely unselfconscious in a way that not even people who were honestly proud of their bodies could manage. Tony loved that Gibbs could just lie there and let Tony look at him and not squirm uncomfortably or pose prettily.

The smooth chest, the salt and pepper hair scattered around the rest of his body, the lean strength of arms and legs, the slight softness creeping into his belly, the nest of curls and the cock rising thickly from it... Tony's own dick hardened in response. God, but Gibbs was incredible.

"You're not going to get very far if you don't get naked yourself," Gibbs said dryly.

Tony flashed him a grin. "Depends on what I'm planning, doesn't it?" But he quickly discarded his clothes and joined Gibbs on the bed, settling down on top of him and claiming his mouth for another slow, heavy kiss.

Eyes closed, Tony lost himself in the warmth of skin pressed against him, in the slick movement of Gibbs's mouth against his. He undulated slightly, moving just enough to feel the slide of skin on skin.

After a moment warm, broad hands settled on Tony's back, slowly drifting down to stroke his ass, then sliding up to palm the muscles of his shoulderblades before repeating the motion. Tony hummed happily into their kiss and nibbled on Gibbs's lip for a moment before touching Gibbs's tongue with his own and drawing it back into his mouth. Gibbs lifted his head a little, pressing the kiss deeper. Tony cradled the back of Gibbs's head in his palm, taking some of the strain off his neck, and kissed back hard.

Gibbs moaned, pushing his hips up to rub his cock insistently into the crease between Tony's thigh and groin. Tony ignored the implied request, instead pulling back from Gibbs's mouth and tucking his face into the curve of Gibbs's neck, nibbling at his throat.

Gibbs's hands migrated up to Tony's shoulders, massaging them unconsciously as Tony slowly worked his way down Gibbs's throat to lick, slow and soft, at the line of his sternum. Tony rested his forehead against Gibbs's chest for a moment, enjoying the heaviness of Gibbs's touch. He had great hands.

"You keep doing what you're doing," Tony said, a little roughly, sliding down to sprawl between Gibbs's thighs, "and I'll keep doing what I'm doing." And then he bent and let the head of Gibbs's cock slide between his lips.

Gibbs groaned and his hands briefly tightened almost painfully on Tony's shoulders, but he didn't stop rubbing. Chuckling internally, Tony rubbed his tongue over the slick head of Gibbs's cock in reward. The somewhat bitter taste exploded across his tastebuds. Tony's mouth watered even as he slowly relaxed and took more of Gibbs's shaft into his mouth.

Swallowing convulsively, Tony drank in the sound of Gibbs's harsh pants and sucked a little harder, feeling his cheeks hollow out. The hot flesh of Gibbs's cock rested against his tongue, heavy and solid. Tony had to struggle not to grind against the sheets.

Gibbs's hands were drifting from his shoulders to stroke at the base of Tony's neck, ruffling the short hairs there. Tony let out a muffled moan and shivered. Apparently taking this as encouragement, Gibbs slid his hands into Tony's hair, fingers playing over his scalp.

Tony's cock throbbed heavily where it lay trapped between his belly and the bed. His jaw was starting to ache and his lips were stretched tight, but Tony moaned eagerly. More. He sucked a breath in through his nose and relaxed, taking Gibbs in deep, burying his nose in the coarse curls at the base of Gibbs's cock. The scent of musk overwhelmed Tony. He whimpered helplessly and swallowed hard.

Gibbs gasped, his hips jerking as he struggled not to move, and moaned long and low as he came, spilling his seed down Tony's throat.

It was all Tony could do not to come himself with Gibbs's hands hard on his head and the taste of Gibbs in his mouth and the scent of him, thick and rich, in his nose. But he clung to control until he could crawl back up Gibbs's body and kiss him again, hard and almost desperate with hunger.

Gibbs kissed back just as aggressively, his hands cupping Tony's head and holding their mouths together as they all but devoured each other. Moaning into the kiss, Tony rubbed his aching cock against Gibbs's belly. Even with the slickness of pre-come, the friction of flesh against flesh only added to the hot, tight knot of need that made Tony pant and gasp into Gibbs's mouth. Shuddering, Tony ground hard against Gibbs and strained towards completion.

One of Gibbs's hands left Tony's head, though he didn't let up on the kiss at all. For a moment Tony thought he would worm that hand in between them and grip Tony's cock. But instead Gibbs palmed the curve of Tony's ass and pulled his hips even harder against his belly.

His lips slipping from Gibbs's, Tony pressed their cheeks together and thrust roughly against Gibbs. He sobbed as he came. Come slicked both of their bellies and waves of heat and release and lassitude washed through Tony. He gave into it, sprawled bonelessly over Gibbs.

Eventually Tony pulled himself together a little more, though he still wasn't in any mood to move. Gibbs's fingers slid through his hair again. "You don't have to share anything if you don't want to," he said softly.

"Doesn't seem fair to Kate," Tony muttered, curling himself a little closer about Gibbs.

"She'll figure it out. If it takes her a little longer than it might otherwise, then it takes a little longer."

"I'm not sure we can afford the time," Tony said reluctantly. "We're pushing it already, Gibbs. We're gonna need her to help cover for us soon."

Gibbs's touch was calming. "Soon. Not right this moment."

Tony sighed. "I know you're fine with letting them work through this on their own," he said, focusing his gaze on his hand where it lay on Gibbs's chest, "but I want to squeeze as much out of the time we've got as I can. Kate and McGee can help with that, but only if they're on board with us."

"Hey." Gibbs covered Tony's hand with his own and gave it a slight squeeze. "This doesn't mean any less to me than it does to you. But we've got a little time, and I know you've got them taken care of."

Tony wished he felt as confident as Gibbs sounded.


Tony was the last one into the office the next morning, thanks to the necessity of going home to change and grab his car. He had a few things at Gibbs's place, scattered throughout the drawers of Gibbs's own clothing, but there was no point in using them when he had to go home for his car anyway.

The boxes clustered around Kate's desk revealed that Fitzpatrick's files had finally been cleared and had arrived from JAG. McGee seemed to be helping her with them; he had a similar box open in front of him.

Tony put his things away and moved around to perch on the outside edge of his desk. "Heard from Abby?" he asked, watching Kate retrieve a thick file from one of the boxes.

"No." Kate said. She glared at him briefly and thrust the file in his direction. "You could--"

The phone on Gibbs's desk rang. Tony, Kate, and McGee all automatically turned towards him, pausing in what they'd they been doing. "Gibbs," he barked. A moment passed. "Be right there, Abs."

Tony grinned. Saved by forensics results. He waited until Gibbs had passed between them, but he couldn't resist sticking his tongue out at Kate. Just for a moment. He had just enough time to register her eye roll before the head smack landed. "Hey!" Tony rubbed his head and threw a token scowl at Gibbs.

"Concentrate, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, not even looking back on his way to the elevator.

Making a face at Kate's smirk, Tony followed after Gibbs. The four of them crowded into the elevator and rode down to Abby's lab. She was already wincing when they got there. Not a good sign, Tony thought, sighing internally.

"What've you got, Abs?" Gibbs asked briskly.

"Not a whole lot," she confessed apologetically. "This was a really generic murder. I can tell you that, based on my reconstruction with a consult from Ducky, she was headed towards the cars when she was shot."

"The license plate of the blue Volkswagen came back in Fitzpatrick's name," McGee interjected.

"And whoever killed her was definitely between her and the row of cars," Abby went on. She hit a key on her computer and a reconstruction came up on the plasma, illustrating her words. "Standing, not in one of the cars, according to the bullet trajectory. Besides, all those swabs you took came up negative for GSR."

Tony caught McGee's eye and shrugged. It hadn't been such a bad theory. Worth checking, anyway.

"Anything on the bullet?" Gibbs asked, frowning at Abby's reconstruction.

"Traces of blood, grass, and dirt." She shrugged. "Just what you'd expect."

Gibbs grunted, still studying the reconstruction. "Which one of these was Fitzpatrick's car?" he asked after a moment.

"Second from the right, Boss," McGee said quickly.

A clatter of keys and the outline was highlighted. "The shell casings aren't between Fitzpatrick and her car," Gibbs observed.

Abby glanced at the plasma. "Nope," she said cheerfully. "That mean something?"

"Maybe," Gibbs said. "Kate, McGee, head back up to those files. They're our best bet for the moment." He turned, strode over to the elevator, and hit the down button.

In the absence of any other directions Tony shrugged and followed Gibbs down to autopsy. Ducky was studying a set of X-rays. He looked up as the doors slid closed behind Tony, his face lightening. "Ah, Jethro, Tony, I was just about to call you."

"Tell me you've got something, Duck," Gibbs said, coming to a stop next to Pamela Fitzpatrick's body. Face up, she wasn't bad looking, although her features were a little sharper than Tony preferred in a woman.

"Just a confirmation of the cause of death and some evidence of a surgical procedure that most likely is unrelated to your investigation," Ducky said regretfully. "I imagine Abby has already told you about the bullet. All I can add on that front is that it glanced off a rib and passed through the heart before exiting just to the side of her shoulder blade."

"And this surgical procedure you mentioned?" Gibbs prompted.

"Ah, yes," Ducky said. "This young woman has had a total hysterectomy and a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy." Catching sight of Tony's blank look--Gibbs was just waiting--Ducky clarified, "Removal of both ovaries and both fallopian tubes."

"That unusual in a woman her age?" Gibbs asked. Fitzpatrick was 38.

"Hysterectomies are the second most common major surgery performed on women," Ducky said. "So not particularly. A bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy is somewhat more unusual. Given the severity of the procedure and the side-effects, however, her condition must have been serious for her to resort to the surgical solution."

Tony frowned. There hadn't been anything like that in her medical records as far as he could remember. "What kind of condition?"

"Hmmm. There are a number that might be responsible, but cancer and endometriosis are the most likely culprits for removal of ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the entire uterus." Ducky waved a hand. "Her medical records will tell us for sure."

Gibbs cast Tony a frown. "You didn't think that might be pertinent background information?"

"Hey, I checked her medical records," Tony said defensively. "There was nothing in there about cancer or endomit-meet-- Whatever."

Ducky frowned. "This is a rather involved procedure involving six to eight weeks recovery time. I can't imagine she had the operation and came through it safely anywhere other than a hospital, which means that there ought to be records."

Tony spread his hands. "I'll look again, but I'm telling you, I didn't find any sign of it."

"Why on Earth would someone want to conceal such a procedure?" Ducky asked, puzzled. "There's no stigma attached."

"I think we'd better figure that out," Gibbs said, but he looked almost distracted. Like he was thinking about something else. Tony narrowed his eyes but waited until they'd bid Ducky goodbye and left autopsy before calling Gibbs on it.

"You've got an idea about this hysterectomy thing," he said after the elevator doors closed behind them.

Gibbs shot him a brief glance. "I do," he allowed. "But I'm hoping I'm wrong."

Tony sighed. "You failed sharing in kindergarten, didn't you?"

"I didn't go to kindergarten," Gibbs said blandly. "Or public grade school."

Which made sense, although Tony had never thought of it before. Centaurs generally didn't mix with most of the human population until they were fostered out, if they were stallions. He wondered for the first time what happened to the women. Gibbs had never mentioned fostering female centaurs, but Tony couldn't imagine they were any less protected. "This explains so much," was all he said aloud.

The head smack was just a formality, it was so light.

Back in the squad room Tony pulled up the background he'd put together and double checked it, but, as he'd thought, there was nothing in it about either medical procedure Ducky had mentioned. Tony started digging deeper, looking for any hint of when Fitzpatrick might have had the operation, but couldn't find so much as a two week leave either from JAG or from the schooling she'd done beforehand. When Tony looked up to inform Gibbs, he found his boss staring at his computer screen with a stony expression.

Must have been right about whatever it was he didn't want to be right about. "Boss?" Tony called across the aisle. "You find something?"

"Aren't you supposed to be interviewing Gena Debowski's coworkers?" Gibbs shot back, not even looking away from his computer screen.

Tony blinked. "Yeah, but--"

"Then why are you still here?" Gibbs snapped.

"I'm going, I'm going," Tony said, standing and donning jacket and holster. He just barely managed to bite back the phrase 'hold your horses.' Now, he suspected, was definitely not the time.


Sure enough, Rosie's was a greasy spoon, but it was a more or less clean one. Tony showed his badge to the woman behind the counter. "Gena working today?"

The woman shook her head. "Took personal leave. Said her roommate had died suddenly. You here about that?"

"Yeah," Tony said, tucking his badge away. "You her supervisor?"

The woman nodded. "Can't tell you much about her, though. She's in on time every night and out as soon as her shift's over. Never volunteers to pick up overtime first, though she'll take it if we need her. The regulars like her. They leave her bigger tips than the rest of the servers, but we pool them, so it works out." Gena's supervisor shrugged. "She kept her private life private, you know?"

"She had good reason to," said a voice from behind Tony. He turned to find a woman in a Rosie's uniform standing behind him with a coffee pot in one hand. Her mouth had a sour tilt to it. "Can't imagine she'd be proud of what she was doing with that 'roommate' of hers." Tony could actually hear the quotes.

"That's loose talk and you know it, Susan," the supervisor said sharply.

Susan rolled her eyes. "You've seen them here sometimes. If you think they're just roommates, you're blind." She turned more completely to Tony and leaned forward confidentially, propping the hand that wasn't holding the coffee pot up on her hip. "They met here, you know."

"Really?" Tony said, hoping he sounded inviting.

"Really. The roommate came in for coffee one night around two a.m., back when Gena worked the overnight shift." Susan sniffed. "I don't know who those two think they're fooling with the way they touch each other. Anyone could tell there's something wrong with them."

Tony clenched his jaw until it ached and forced himself to keep listening as Susan poured out a flood of vitriol laced gossip. By the time she was done he was so furious his stomach was roiling. He exited the diner with relief and sat for a moment in his car, trying to calm down.

If Gibbs sent me out here for no good reason, Tony thought, turning the key in the ignition, he owes me one. Hell, he owes me several.

Susan had such a complete and utter lack of regard for Lieutenant Fitzpatrick that Tony could easily imagine her blowing the lawyer away, but he couldn't think of any reason why she'd bother. Certainly not to 'protect' Gena. Plus, from what he'd seen, Susan might be mean spirited, but she was also lazy. Besides which, she got far too much satisfaction out of raising herself up by putting Gena down to want to do away with that twisted ego boost.

The rest of the staff, from the short order cook to the bus boy, had echoed their supervisor's words. They knew Fitzpatrick only as Gena's roommate who sometimes came in for a coffee or to pick Gena up.

Back at NCIS, Tony found Kate and McGee missing, presumably interviewing Fitzpatrick's coworkers about some of the cases she'd been working. Gibbs was nowhere to be found, not in the squad room or Abby's lab or down in Autopsy or in MTAC. He could be in the Director's office, but Tony didn't think so. This wasn't a high profile case.

He was working his way back through Fitzpatrick's background again--something about her social security number was bothering him--when a barked, "DiNozzo!" brought his head up and he found Gibbs standing impatiently next to the elevators. Grabbing his jacket, just in case, Tony scooted obediently into the elevator with Gibbs. He was less than surprised when Gibbs stopped it.

"I take it you were right about whatever it was you didn't want to be right about," Tony said.

"Yeah." Gibbs scowled for a moment. "Pamela Fitzpatrick was a centaur."

Tony blinked, stunned. A centaur? "I thought you could just...tell about that."

"When they're alive, DiNozzo," Gibbs said dryly. "A dead centaur doesn't produce recognizable pheromones. Given the removal of her ovaries, I might not have been able to tell even before she died."

"Wait a second," Tony said, remembering what had started Gibbs in this direction. "Why would a female centaur have all her parts taken out? I mean, you did say that you had an idea about that."

Gibbs sighed. "A mare almost has to have all her 'parts taken out' if she wants to leave the herd," he explained. "It helps them control the obedience instinct and it stops them from going into season every year. There are a handful who've managed without the operation, but most mares need that extra edge of control. On top of that, when they come into season...," Gibbs pursed his lips. "If a mare comes into season and there isn't a stallion around to take of her, she could get extremely sick. Sick enough to be at risk of dying. If a mare insists on leaving, it's safer for her to have the operation. Virtually all of them choose to err on the side of caution."

"Does that happen often?" Tony asked, fascinated. He supposed it ought to have been obvious that a herd stallion would have...well, a whole herd to rule over. But somehow it hadn't occurred to Tony what that meant for the herd. He'd been concentrating on figuring out what it meant to the stallion.

"Not often, no. A stallion knows his whole life that he's going to have to leave the herd he was born into, but the mares take the opposite for granted. The herd is everything to them. They aren't even in the system--no birth certificates or social security numbers or anything like that. Everything that has to be official goes through the herd stallion." Gibbs shook his head, though Tony wasn't sure if it was in disbelief or disapproval or something else. "Leaving the herd would have been a serious effort of will and determination for Pamela."

Tony hesitated. The situation Gibbs described had some disturbing parallels in human culture. "If the herd stallion wasn't too happy with her leaving," he said carefully, "could that be why--"

"No!" Gibbs glared at Tony. "If Brian didn't want Pamela to leave the herd, she wouldn't have been able to leave. He'd have had to use his resources to give her a history, an identity, money to get her started. Not to mention the operation."

"Hey, don't bite my head off, Boss," Tony said. "I had to ask. You know I had to ask."

"I know," Gibbs said, but he didn't sound like he cared.

If he jumped down my throat over that, he's just going to love this, Tony thought, steeling himself. "You also have to know that the situation you're describing sounds an awful lot like abuse. The inability to leave, the control..."

"I treat you the same way a herd stallion treats his herd," Gibbs said coldly. "Do you feel abused?"

Tony set his jaw. "You know I don't. But you don't control every part of my life, either." Gibbs raised an eyebrow and Tony flushed. "I still get a choice," he argued. "I still make independent decisions."

"And so do the mares in a centaur herd," Gibbs returned. "There isn't some neat human equivalent you can use to sort this out, Tony. We can pass, but when you get right down to it centaurs think differently."

"And what happens if we find out that the reason Pamela Fitzpatrick was killed had something to do with what she was?" Tony asked, raising his eyebrows. "Just bury it? If we even can bury it; that hysterectomy is in Ducky's report and I can't exactly fabricate medical records for Fitzpatrick even if I was convinced I should."

"We don't know that's why she was killed."

"So what, we're just going to assume that the fact that she wasn't human had nothing to do with her murder?" Tony asked incredulously.

"Of course not," Gibbs snarled. "I just spent the last hour and a half on a payphone arguing for permission to visit the herd. I'll question them and we'll hope that Fitzpatrick's nature was one hell of a coincidence, because if it wasn't I don't know how the fuck I'm going to cover this up."

Tony raised his hands. "Hold up a second. Did you say permission? Since when do we ask permission to question someone?"

"Since that someone is the local herd stallion," Gibbs said tightly. "If I went out there unannounced, Brian would assume I wanted control of the herd. I doubt I'd have time to convince him otherwise before he challenged me."

Tony blanched. "Right. Okay. But there's no way you're going out there without me."

"I'm not taking you with me," Gibbs said flatly.

"Why the hell not?" Tony demanded.

"I'm not taking you into another stallion's territory."

Realization dawned, but Tony didn't let it show in his face, lest Gibbs think it was some sort of concession. Instead he met the unyielding blue gaze and summoned up all the stubbornness at his disposal. "And I'm not letting you go into another stallion's territory without someone to remind you why you're there and what you have to come back to."

Gibbs's expression eased a fraction. "I'm not going to abandon you for the herd, Tony. I made my decision."

Maybe. But you've never been faced with what you lost, either. "I'm going with you or neither of us are going at all," Tony insisted. "If I have to follow you, I will." For a long moment they just glared at each other. "Would you let me go into a dangerous situation alone?" Tony finally asked quietly.

Gibbs let out a harsh breath. "Not knowingly."

"Then don't ask me to do it."

"Brian is expecting me," Gibbs said, reaching out and flicking the stop switch. The elevator slid back into motion. "We'd better get going."


The 'local' herd, the herd that Gibbs had been born into and subsequently been forced to leave, was in West Virginia. The drive there was tense and quiet. Gibbs wasn't the least bit inclined toward conversation and Tony was pretty sure he'd used up every ounce of good will he'd accumulated just convincing Gibbs to bring him along. The moment when he could push was long past.

There was no boundary marker to warn Tony that their long drive was coming to an end, that they'd come to the herd's land. One moment the government sedan was rattling painfully down a dirt road for which it had definitely not been designed, accompanied only by a cloud of dust, and the next Tony glanced out the window and found a young boy with red hair and freckles and the gangly legs of a colt running alongside, his tail streaming out behind him.

Tony blinked, turning and looking as the car left the boy behind rather more slowly than he would have expected. He could just make out another centaur galloping up to the youngster in their wake. Settling back into his seat, Tony took a quick look at Gibbs and found his gaze fixed firmly ahead of them. Tony wished he dared reach out, remind Gibbs of what he had, but who knew how the centaur would react to a gesture like that right now?

Eventually a sprawling ranch house resolved itself in the distance. Gibbs slowed, letting the dust cloud settle, and stopped the car a good distance away from the house. They sat in the car for a long moment, looking through the windshield at the figure standing just in front of the steps that led up to a porch that wrapped around the house.

Tony waited until Gibbs had opened his door and stepped out of the car before he followed suit, quickly walking around the back of the vehicle to stand behind Gibbs's shoulder.

"You stay behind me," Gibbs said quietly. His voice was as hard as steel, leaving no room for argument.

"Yes, Boss," Tony murmured, eyes fixed on the centaur that stood waiting for them.

Gibbs took a couple of steps forward, but froze into stillness at the sudden sound of pounding hooves. Tony glanced to the side just in time to see a mare go flying past them, the red-haired boy caught up in her arms. She circled around the back of the ranch house without even glancing over her shoulder.

When the dust had settled, Gibbs finished his approach, though he stopped a good six feet away from the stallion that waited for them. "Brian," Gibbs greeted him.

"Gibbs," the other centaur responded. He had to look down a little at them from his current shape, but he didn't seem inclined to change. Maybe he was making a point--this was the herd's territory. His territory. Or maybe he was ready for a challenge. "I told you you could come. I didn't say anything about a human."

"Tony is mine," Gibbs said coolly.

"You're pushing your limits already, Gibbs. Push me too hard and you'll regret it." The statement should have come across arrogant and threatening. There was certainly a threat inherent in it. But Tony could hear an edge of warning, too. Brian didn't want to make an issue of this.

But he will if he feels he has to, Tony knew. He hadn't thought it was possible for anyone to come across as intense, as powerful as Gibbs in centaur form, but Brian was every bit Gibbs's equal, from the gray-threaded brown hair on his head to the tip of his matching tail. Studying him closer, Tony saw something that made his stomach go cold. Crescent shaped scars, marked by white hairs rather than brown or gray, showed on Brian's coat in several places. Stallions fight to the death for control of the herd. This centaur had held onto his herd for thirty years.

"Would you rather I backed off and let some other team come out here and question you?" Gibbs asked. "All of you."

Tony concealed a wince and wished that Gibbs could back down. Just a little. But he wouldn't. He couldn't. Not this time. Not while he literally stood between Brian and Tony. Now you think of that, Tony berated himself. Just a fucking liability.

Brian's jaw hardened and his tail twitched, his eyes raking over Gibbs assessingly. But in that look his gaze caught on Tony, hovering behind Gibbs's shoulder. Tony froze and forced himself not to drop his eyes, not for someone other than Gibbs, but under the weight of Brian's regard he couldn't help shuffling forward a quarter step to press physically against Gibbs.

Gibbs didn't so much as tilt his head, but he reached back and wrapped his hand around Tony's wrist and squeezed a little. Brian's gaze flickered downward, taking in the small movement. Tony let out a silent breath as the focus of the centaur's attention shifted.

When he looked up, Brian was visibly calmer. He even relaxed enough to shift his weight and cock one leg like a human forced to stand too long might do. "Ask your questions," he said, "but only of me."

Standing as close as he was, Tony could feel a thread of tension ease in Gibbs. "At least fifteen years ago, a mare left your herd."

Brian nodded. "Eighteen years, actually. Pamela. She was one of the last of Murphy's foals."

Murphy's foals? Tony dug through his memory. Hadn't the centaur who'd visited Gibbs when he and Tony first got together mentioned a Murphy? She did. He was the herd stallion before this guy. For the first time it occurred to Tony to wonder if Murphy had been Gibbs's father... which would make Fitzpatrick his half sister. The possibility made Tony's head spin.

"What happened?" Gibbs asked.

"Why do you care?"

Tony heard Gibbs make a tiny, impatient noise, but he suspected Brian missed it. "I told you I had to come out here to question you in connection with a criminal investigation," he said calmly, not a hint of his impatience showing in his tone. "She's involved."

Brian's eyes flashed. "If she's in trouble, it's my responsibility to sort it out."

"She left," Gibbs bit out. "Declared she wasn't yours anymore. And then she joined the Navy. That makes her my responsibility."

Both centaurs were silent for a long, tense moment, just staring at each other. Brian kicked shallowly at the ground. "Shortly after she came of age, she realized that she preferred a woman's touch to mine," Brian said finally. "She thought she could handle it. She came into season twice and got through it twice before she decided she'd rather leave the herd than be subject to me."

Tony fought down a frown. There were nuances he was missing here. He added half a dozen more questions to the list he had for Gibbs.

"Have you had any contact with her since then?" Gibbs asked.

Brian shook his head. "The deal was, I'd give her everything she needed to get on her feet in the human world, but she wasn't ever to have contact with the herd again. Not a phone call or a letter."

"Can you think of a reason someone might want to kill her?" Gibbs asked blandly.

"Is she dead?" Brian asked, expressing nothing more than mild curiosity.

"Shot outside her apartment building," Gibbs confirmed. "It's her death we're investigating."

"Can't help you there," Brian said, shrugging. "I imagine she became a very different person after she left the herd." He paused, and now he looked troubled. "Unless..."

"Unless?" Gibbs's voice took on a slightly sharper edge.

Brian frowned irritably. "I'm getting old, Gibbs. I know there are a couple of young stallions keeping an eye on me; the sentries have run into them once or twice, but they never hung around long enough for me to get out to confront them myself."

Old? Tony was certain Brian was younger than Gibbs. Maybe not by much, but-- But centaurs don't live as long as humans do, Tony remembered, his heart plummeting into his stomach. A centaur in his late forties might still be strong, but he was definitely past his prime. Put him up against a young, aggressive centaur with nothing to lose and everything to gain... Tony couldn't help but remember Gibbs's brief battle with Don, and that hadn't even been in earnest. Put a herd in the balance and shave ten years off Don's age...

"You think they'd kill Pamela?" Gibbs asked. "Doesn't seem to make sense. She had no connection to you. D.C. is hours away."

"A young stallion with an ache for a herd would easily take offence to a mare living on her own," Brian pointed out. "Besides which, young stallions frequently don't make sense."

Gibbs nodded. "Names?"

But Brian shook his head. "I can't have their identities cropping up in anything official, especially not anything official which is both criminal and connected to other centaurs. If one or both of them ends up dead it can't come back on me, and if I end up dead the herd won't do well with a stallion who's drawn that kind of attention."

"Would it help if I promise to keep everything off the record if something concrete develops?"

Tony bit his lip but kept quiet. This was Gibbs's area and they'd be covering up a hell of a lot more than a couple of names if it turned out the murder had had anything to do with centaurs--including Fitzpatrick.

Brian considered for a long moment. "If one of them is involved, you tell me," he said at last, "and I'll take care of it. Your suspect turns up dead, you close your case, and the herd stays out of it."

"The two stallions aren't from this herd?" Gibbs sounded like he was just confirming. He can't seriously be thinking of taking this deal, Tony thought.

"No," Brian stated. "They're not mine."

Gibbs nodded sharply. "Agreed."

Tony jerked in surprise. "Boss--!"

"Quiet," Gibbs hissed, turning his head just a fraction.

Tony subsided, mind roiling. Gibbs had a sense of justice like no one else Tony had ever known, including all his compatriots from three police departments and every agent in NCIS. He couldn't be willing to hand his suspect over to vigilante justice.

Not unless the alternative is them escaping justice altogether, Tony admitted to himself, reluctantly. Gibbs was never obvious about it, but Tony had worked with him too long not to understand that the convenient deaths of a couple of scumbags had been a little too convenient. Tony was certain that it had never been Gibbs's finger on the trigger, but he was just as certain that the centaur's influence had been little more than a step removed from the action.

That didn't mean he had to like it.

"Elliot Parker and James Stephenson," Brian supplied after a moment. "Take care of your people, Gibbs."

Gibbs's spine stiffened at the obvious dismissal, but all he said was, "I'll be back if I have more questions."

Brian lifted his chin. "Don't come unannounced."

Gibbs half turned and opened the driver's side door, nudging Tony. Tony blinked, slid into the car, and paused only a moment behind the wheel before climbing awkwardly over the gearshift and into the passenger seat. Gibbs slid smoothly into the driver's seat and shut the door, eyes still fixed on Brian. He didn't look away until the engine was started and the car was turning in a tight arc.

Tony waited until they were well away from the house before speaking. He wished he could know when they were off Brian's territory, but he hadn't seen any sign of where it started on the way in and he didn't imagine he'd see one on the way out. "You're not seriously going to stick to that deal, are you?"

"One or both of those young stallions is going to turn up dead anyway," Gibbs said bluntly, not even glancing at Tony. "Maybe Brian, too. We can't change that."

Swallowing heavily, Tony took a moment to wrap his mind around that. Knowing how stallions decided control of the herd and knowing it were two different things. He felt like he was racing through that hotel looking for Gibbs and Don all over again, heart in his mouth, trying not to think of all the ways everything could go to hell. "The killer wouldn't be dead if he were in prison."

Gibbs shot him a look. "He's the one you want to protect?"

Tony grimaced. "I don't want to plan on anyone turning up dead, Boss."

"This is the way it works for centaurs, Tony. Parker and Stephenson understand the risk they'll be taking if they challenge Brian, just like Brian understood when he challenged Murphy." Gibbs paused for a moment. "The herd needs a leader willing to take that risk and to accept the responsibility he inherits if he wins. They're all obedient to the herd stallion; they need a stallion who's earned that obedience."

"But you wouldn't--" Tony cut himself off. What had that female centaur--mare, he guessed--said a year ago? We always thought you'd eventually challenge Brian, regardless of how strong either of you were. The herd has been expecting for years now to lose you both, you know.

"I had every intention of coming back and killing Murphy," Gibbs said harshly, underlining the memory. "I joined the Marines specifically to learn how to lead, how to fight, and how to kill. I intended to take that herd for my own."

"But you didn't," Tony said quietly, studying Gibbs.

The muscles in Gibbs's jaw twitched and the skin around his eyes tightened. "By the time I came back to make my challenge, Brian had already taken over from Murphy."

"So why didn't you challenge Brian?"

"I thought about it." Gibbs was driving with fierce concentration, but Tony didn't think he was actually paying much attention to the road. Fortunately, they were still out in the middle of nowhere. "I wanted to."

"But you didn't," Tony pushed.

Gibbs shot him an irritated glance. "No. I didn't. Brian was young and strong. He'd been leading the herd for a year. They were...settled. Taking out Murphy would have been in the natural order of things. Taking out Brian would only have been selfish."

"From the scars Brian is carrying around," Tony said, "I'm guessing not all stallions are quite so rigorous about 'the natural order of things.'"

Gibbs snorted. "There are good and bad centaurs just like there are good and bad humans."

"The idea of leaving this up to vigilante justice doesn't sit well with me, Gibbs." Tony let out a slow breath and shook his head. "This isn't even some dedicated scumbag too well protected to go to trial. The killer shouldn't automatically earn a death sentence."

"It wouldn't be automatic," Gibbs denied. "He'd have his chance."

What chance? If Brian was going to... Oh. Shit. "And what if he wins the challenge?" Tony asked. "Then there's a murderer leading the herd."

"There'd be a murderer leading the herd regardless," Gibbs said dryly.

"Not what I meant," Tony snapped.

"Do you think I'm happy about this?" Gibbs shot back impatiently. "No matter how it goes down I'm going to be swearing to bald-faced lies in official reports. But I won't put every centaur in the whole damned world in danger of exposure for the sake of my career. Not even for my life, Tony."

Tony swallowed and looked away for a moment. Was he going to be on the brink of losing Gibbs every time they ran into another centaur? He knew what it would mean if they were exposed, but Goddamnit, the secrecy complicated things all to hell. And here he'd thought it would get easier now that the team was in on it. "So what do we do if Fitzpatrick's killer does end up in charge of the herd?"

This time Gibbs did sigh. "I don't know, Tony. We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it."

And in the meantime they'd both be hoping someone other than Elliot Parker and James Stephenson had killed Pamela Fitzpatrick. Tony had never wanted to clear a suspect so badly in his life. So much for impartiality. Maybe Kate and McGee would have something from Fitzpatrick's case files when they got back.

Which reminded Tony... "What do we tell Kate and McGee?"


So not surprised, Tony thought wryly. Gibbs would want to protect his people from a shit storm like this could turn out to be. "They can't back us up if they don't know," Tony pointed out anyway.

"They also don't have to lie if they don't know."

"We can count on them, Boss," Tony insisted quietly. "We might need to."

Gibbs was silent. "I'm not so sure of Kate," he said at last, reluctantly. "She's already got problems with me; I don't want her opinion on 'vigilante justice' to tip the balance. And McGee is still inexperienced, even if he isn't a probie anymore. He's got his whole career ahead of him."

"He's also got the right to make his own choices."

Gibbs shot Tony a wry look, reminding him that, as far as Gibbs was concerned, he had every right to make a decision concerning McGee's well being. He was a member of Gibbs's 'herd', after all. "Which we'd be making for him, if we told him."

"You know what he'd say," Tony shot back.

"I'm not bringing either of them into this," Gibbs said flatly. "It has to be my risk--"

"And mine," Tony interjected.

"And yours," Gibbs went on as if he'd never been interrupted, "but it doesn't have to be theirs. It won't be."

The finality in Gibbs's voice made it clear that any further argument would be an exercise in frustration. Tony subsided into his seat and tried not to pout. Given how little impact all his arguing had had, he wondered just how much of this conversation had been Gibbs humoring him. Hey, a year ago he wouldn't even have humored you, he told himself sourly.

They left the back roads and merged onto the highway in silence. Tony's mood lifted a little as the car picked up speed, their progress taking on the edges of Gibbs's usual style again. "You mind if I ask a question?" he asked eventually.

"You didn't seem to have a problem a little while ago," Gibbs said dryly.

Tony hunched down in his seat a little, vaguely embarrassed.

"So ask," Gibbs said, marginally softer.

"Brian said Pamela was one of Murphy's foals. So..." Tony trailed off, not sure how to phrase this, but Gibbs didn't seem willing to fill in the rest of the question. "Did you know her?"

"Pamela Fitzpatrick was 38," Gibbs said. "She was born two years after I left the herd."

"But Murphy was your herd stallion when you were there," Tony said.

Tony swore Gibbs was suppressing a smile now. "Yes."

"So was he...were you..." Tony grimaced and just forced it out: "Was Fitzpatrick your sister?"

"Took you long enough to spit it out," Gibbs said, smiling a little. "Yes. She was. Most likely my half sister, actually. The chances that we had the same mother are relatively small."

Tony blinked. "You don't know for sure?"

"Why would I? Like I said, she was born after I left the herd." Gibbs's tone was casual, as if they weren't speaking of anything of consequence.

"But, wouldn't your mother have told you?"

Gibbs shot him a frown. "I didn't have any contact with the herd after I left, Tony. You know that."

"Yeah, I know," Tony said. "But...I mean, I haven't exactly got a warm and fuzzy relationship with my parents, but they'd have told me if I had a brother or a sister or if someone in the family died. Important shit like that."

"I didn't leave on particularly good terms," Gibbs said. "Actually, I told Murphy to enjoy the time he had left, because when he next saw me we'd be 'talking' about the herd." He was quiet for a long moment. "They probably would have kept in touch if not for that."

"Regrets?" Tony asked quietly. Gibbs hadn't known they'd never be his again. He'd meant to come back for them.

"Everyone's got regrets," Gibbs said after a moment. "That doesn't mean I'm not happy with what I've got."

But if you could trade, would you? Tony didn't ask the question aloud. He wasn't sure he'd like the answer.


When they got back to NCIS Kate and McGee were at their desks, intent on their computer screens.

"Anything in the case files?" Gibbs asked briskly, heading for his desk and sliding smoothly into place. Tony settled into his own chair and woke his computer up. The windows he'd had open while working on Pamela Fitzpatrick's background were still open. He closed them, not bothering to save his notes.

"We've got a possibility," Kate reported.

Tony's head came up attentively. As she scooped up a file and walked over to Gibbs's desk it was all Tony could do to bite back the questions: Who? How strong a possibility? Why? They have an alibi? Gibbs would ask soon enough.

Gibbs waved his hand eloquently.

"Jason Tangiers," Kate said. "Petty Officer. He was accused of and arrested for rape and seems to have a history of battery, though none of that ever made it into an official statement. Not a high profile case, but he's violent and Fitzpatrick's coworkers said he threatened her repeatedly."

"Location?" Gibbs prompted.

"Right here in D.C.," Kate said with satisfaction. "Missed shipping out while he was being held. His case came up for trial a week ago and he got off on a technicality." She pulled a sheet out of the file folder and held it out to Gibbs. "His address is there."

Gibbs didn't take the paper, just nodded at Kate and McGee. "You two run with it. DiNozzo and I are chasing another lead."

"Fitzpatrick say something to her family?" Kate asked curiously.

"Nope." Gibbs was cool. Casual. "She hasn't been in touch with them since she left home, but they say there were a couple of guys poking around, asking about her."

"Names?" McGee asked, hands hovering above his keyboard.

"DiNozzo's got it covered," Gibbs said. "Go with Kate. Interview Tangiers."

"Got it, Boss," McGee said agreeably, but he shot Tony a curious look as he passed his desk.

Tony just shrugged. It wasn't like Gibbs hadn't deliberately mixed up their assignments before. When the case wasn't too hot he was inclined to force his people to build experience in the areas where they were the weakest.

Elliot Parker and James Stephenson were in the system, but only just. They had driver's licenses, social security numbers, and high school diplomas--though Tony noted that both of them were home schooled until grade 7. But neither of them had attended college or ever held a job. So what do they live off of? Tony asked himself. The foster parents? That doesn't seem to wash. Have to ask Gibbs. Later.

Parker was originally from Wyoming and Stephenson from Georgia, which made sense given that Brian had said they weren't his. Not his sons and not from his herd. Tony couldn't help but be relieved by that--this case was getting complicated enough without bringing more inconvenient familial relationships into it.

Inconvenient familial relationships...shit. Tony quickly pulled Fitzpatrick's file back up and scanned through it. He breathed a sigh of relief when he found the line he was looking for. Murphy Gibbs wasn't listed as her father. Apparently when she'd cut all ties, she'd cut them as thoroughly as possible. Fortunately for one Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Tony went back to Parker and Stephenson's profiles. Both of them were a ways from home, though Parker was certainly the furthest. Just wandering, Tony wondered, or were they looking for something specific? Like a herd with an aging stallion. Gibbs had never mentioned it, but there couldn't be that many centaur herds wandering around. Maybe Brian was the only herd stallion old enough to make a good target.

Of course, if that's true, it doesn't make a very strong case for them as suspects. Tony thought. If they'd go to the trouble of travelling hundreds of miles to find an older stallion, it seems unlikely that they'd kill an independent mare just to show their colors. Tony tried not to feel too encouraged by that.

Parker and Stephenson were staying in two difference cities, both about midway between D.C. and the herd's spread in West Virginia. Tony guessed it wasn't smart to set up home base too close to the stallion you were interested in taking out. Whatever their motives, they were far enough out of the way that Tony doubted he and Gibbs would be going out to interview them today, so he bent his attention to scraping up whatever detail he could while Gibbs read Kate and McGee's report on Fitzpatrick's case files. At least, that's what Tony assumed he was doing. Here's hoping there's not some part of this he's cutting me out of.

As five o'clock approached Tony couldn't help the way he started watching the clock, wondering when Kate and McGee would return, and whether or not they'd be bringing Tangiers's alibi with them.

They got back at about a quarter after; Kate was looking particularly strident. "Report," Gibbs ordered briskly, flipping the file on his desk closed and leaning back in his chair.

"Tangiers is definitely sexist and violent," Kate said, lifting her chin a little. "You might be getting a complaint, but McGee and the building manager can witness for me." Gibbs lifted his eyebrows. Kate scowled. "He made repetitive, insistent, and increasingly aggressive passes at me," she elaborated. "And he only seemed encouraged when I started questioning him about Fitzpatrick. So I shut him down. Firmly."

"He said he was home alone, probably still sleeping, the morning the lieutenant was killed," McGee interjected when Kate paused. "So no alibi."

"He own a weapon?"

"A .357 Sig," Kate confirmed. "We called in a warrant for the gun on our way back, based on his connection to Fitzpatrick and the threats. Just waiting for it to come through."

Gibbs glanced at his watch. "I doubt they'll have it for us before morning," he said. "Go home, get some sleep, be here bright and early."

McGee nodded and headed back to his desk. Kate followed suit. Catching Gibbs's eye, Tony waited until his boss gave a tiny head jerk toward the door before shutting down himself. It didn't take long, though McGee did make it to the elevator just far enough ahead of him that Tony had to wait for it to come back up from the lobby. Kate stepped up beside him while he was waiting, but she didn't even shoot him a sidelong glance. They stepped into the elevator together. Three, two, one...

"Tony...," Kate began hesitantly. Tony reached out and stopped the elevator. Breaking off whatever she had been planning to say, Kate turned to face him and rolled her eyes. "No matter how hard you try, you will never be Gibbs," she said, exasperated.

"I'm not trying to be Gibbs," Tony denied. "I just figured this conversation was going to take longer than a single elevator ride and there are cameras in the parking garage."

"Video only," Kate pointed out.

"Do you seriously think there isn't anyone in this agency that can lip read?" Tony shot back.

"That's a little paranoid, Tony."

Tony snorted a short laugh. "Sometimes paranoia is necessary. I'm not about to be casual with the pair of secrets I'm carrying around on a day to day basis."

"Pair of secrets?" Kate raised an eyebrow.

"I'm sleeping with my male boss," Tony said dryly. "It's not up there with centaurs running around the countryside, but it still counts."

"Of course." The discomfort on Kate's face was pronounced. "Listen, I don't need a whole conversation, anyway. I just wanted to know if you talked to Gibbs about letting me have a look at him."

Time to deliver the bad news. "I did. He's not too hot on the idea."


"Frankly, Kate, neither am I," Tony admitted.

She stopped and visibly regrouped. "Why not? What've you got to do with it?"

"I wish you'd stop asking me that," Tony muttered. "He's my--" he paused and ran through all the possible terms before settling on, "partner. Has been for over a year now. If it involves him, it involves me, and vice versa."

"I can't even describe how weird it is to hear you say that," Kate said, shaking her head.

Tony had to laugh. "It's kind of weird to hear myself saying it."

"So," Kate hesitated. "Why don't want me to see him"

"In his other shape," Tony supplied. "It's... I guess I'm just... I don't want to share," he said, sighing.

Kate gave him a puzzled look. "Tony, I'm not interested in sleeping with him."

"I know, I know." It would almost be easier if that was the problem. Gibbs would turn her down and there'd be some awkwardness and then they'd all get over it. "It's not about that," he said aloud. "It's just, his other shape is something that Gibbs only shares with me. It feels...intimate. Personal. I don't want to bring someone else into that." Tony finished with a shrug, shoving his hands into his pockets.

"And Gibbs won't do it if you're uncomfortable with it," Kate inferred.

"If he really thought it was necessary, he would," Tony denied. "But he doesn't want to put himself on display for your curiosity and he thinks you can handle it, even if it takes you a little longer."

Kate bristled. "I can handle it." Tony just looked at her and eventually her hackles went down. "I really can handle it. I'm just having some trouble working all of this into my worldview."

"Changing your worldview to fit might be easier," Tony said wryly.

"Maybe." Kate pushed a lock of hair behind one ear and sighed. "Listen, you want to grab dinner?"

Tony knew how dinner would turn out if he said yes--a lot like lunch the day before. He knew he should, knew Kate needed to talk this through, but given a choice between spending the night with Gibbs and spending it trying to fight his way through Kate's prejudices... "Sorry. I'm expected."

Kate opened her mouth to ask, then paused as enlightenment dawned. "Ah. Right."

"Ask Abby," Tony suggested. "Maybe she can't answer your questions, but at least you can talk things out with her."

"If there's anyone with a flexible worldview, it's Abby," Kate agreed, smiling a little.

Taking that as the end of the conversation, Tony started the elevator up again. Kate touched the button for the lab and waved good night to him when he got off at ground level.


Since Gibbs had commented last night about heading to Tony's the 'next time,' Tony stopped at the grocery store on the way to his apartment to get what he needed for dinner. Gibbs was the better cook, but Tony did decent pasta and the deli department of the supermarket was pretty good.

By the time he'd drained the pasta, Tony was beginning to wonder if he'd misunderstood. Maybe the comment really had just been a joke. Hell, maybe Gibbs was feeling grumpy after their conversation and wasn't planning on coming over at all. Tony debated waiting before mixing the pasta into the pot that held the sauce, but pasta cooled off and got sticky pretty fast if you didn't sauce it quickly, so he shrugged and dumped the noodles in with the sauce. Cold pasta would make a decent lunch if Gibbs didn't show.

Still, he waited as long as he could before he got out a Tupperware bowl and separated out half the dinner to stick in the fridge. Pulling cutlery out of the drawer, Tony tried to remember if there was anything worth watching on TV. Somehow, he wasn't in the mood, but...

But there was a knock at the door and a rattle in the lock, and by the time Tony made it out of the kitchen and into the living room Gibbs was already shutting the door behind himself.

"I was beginning to think you weren't coming," Tony said lightly.

"If I was going to come over here to discuss the case, I had to stay behind long enough to conceivably have something to discuss," Gibbs said, shrugging out of his jacket and draping it over the back of one of Tony's dining table chairs.

For a moment, Tony thought Gibbs really did just want to discuss the case. But only for a moment; the look Gibbs had fixed on him had nothing to do with work, and the longer he held it, the more of the centaur and the less of Tony's boss came through. "It's somehow not fair when you don't even bother to sneak." Tony couldn't help pouting a little.

"Stallion's privilege." Gibbs didn't seem to realize what he'd said, instead inhaling deeply and striding into the kitchen. He flicked a glance at Tony as he passed by him and Tony found himself turning and following Gibbs automatically. "Pesto?"

"Yeah," Tony confirmed. "And that not-salad thing you like from the deli," he added, though Gibbs could see that from where he was now.

Gibbs peered into the bowl Tony had dumped his own dinner into before turning to face him again. He ran his eyes slowly over Tony and Tony felt his stomach tighten at the casual possessiveness in the look. "It'll keep?" Gibbs asked, but he wasn't really asking, because he was advancing on Tony, backing him up against the fridge.

"Not really," Tony said, his heart rate picking up, "but it's already cold."

"That'll do," Gibbs murmured. He pressed his hands to either side of Tony's head and leaned in slowly.

Tony forced himself not to push up off the fridge to meet Gibbs, instead letting the centaur descend on him, mouth hot and demanding. The kiss started out deep and didn't let up even a fraction. Tony let his eyes close and kissed back with all his attention, savoring the strength of Gibbs's mouth on his, the warmth of Gibbs's hand where it cupped his jaw, the slide of their tongues and the taste of Gibbs and the slow pulse of heat that went through his body.

Gibbs pulled his mouth away slowly and let his hand slip down Tony's jaw and over his throat, coming to rest on his collarbone. The touch was heavy, almost rough and Tony shivered. Bedroom?, he wanted to ask, and cuffs? But the words wouldn't come.

The hand on his collarbone moved to grip Tony's arm just above the elbow and Gibbs pulled him away from the fridge and steered him out of the kitchen, down the hall, and into the bedroom. Tony remembered doing almost the same thing last night and grinned, but the grin faded when they got to the bedroom and he saw the look on Gibbs's face. Hungry. Powerful. A herd stallion on his own turf just as much as Brian had been, for all that Gibbs was in human shape.

Tony scrambled out of his clothes before he really thought about it and then Gibbs was pulling him back into his arms. The centaur's clothing was rough against Tony's skin, but he couldn't bring himself to care, not with the way Gibbs's hands were gripping him, not when he could feel the length of Gibbs's cock even through his pants, hot and ready. Tony just fell into another kiss, letting the little whimpers of pleasure escape because he knew Gibbs liked to hear them.

Gibbs's hands parted the cheeks of Tony's ass and squeezed them, holding him open like that. Tony shuddered and leaned into Gibbs's body, their mouths parting as he pressed in close, as if Gibbs could shield him when it was Gibbs exposing him.

"My Tony." Gibbs's voice was raw with arousal and need.

"Yours," Tony replied, and shuddered again when Gibbs kneaded his ass roughly. For all the helpless, shivery feeling of exposure, his cock had thickened and now pressed against his belly, occasionally catching near-painfully against the waistband of Gibbs's pants.

"Hands and knees," Gibbs ordered, letting go of his grip on Tony.

"Yes, Boss," Tony gasped.

"Tony," Gibbs stopped him the moment he stepped toward the bed. "Spread yourself out."

Tony flushed, but when he got up onto his hands and knees he spread his thighs as wide as he comfortably could and waited. And waited. Goosebumps prickled his skin as he became more and more aware that Gibbs was just looking at him. The occasional rustle of clothing or the thump of belt or shoes hitting the floor told him that Gibbs was undressing, but the centaur said nothing as he stripped.

Just as Tony was wondering if Gibbs planned to touch him at all, hands gripped his hips and Gibbs draped his body over Tony, tugging his ass back snugly against Gibbs's groin. Tony gasped, both at the sudden excess of sensation and the sudden weight. Gibbs wasn't even trying to spare him from it, just lay heavily over his back and tucked his face into the curve of Tony's neck, tongue sliding over his skin.

Panting, Tony let his head hang down and held both of them up. Gibbs's arms wrapped around him and rubbed over his chest and throat, down to his belly, but avoided his cock. Only for the moment, Tony hoped. His skin grew hot and sticky where they were pressed together and his heart pounded against Gibbs's lips on his throat. Lips...and teeth.

"Gibbs," Tony gasped as a sharp jolt of pain went through him. Gibbs just kept sucking and biting carefully, raising a hickey that Tony knew would only be darker the next day.

Finally Gibbs pulled away, licking the mark so soft and slow that Tony couldn't help a low moan. "Tony," Gibbs said, low and dark.

"Please," Tony moaned. "I want... I need...."

Gibbs chuckled. "I know what you want," he said, rubbing his cock up and down the crease of Tony's ass in illustration. It left a slick smear of pre-come over Tony's skin, over his hole, and Tony's cock throbbed at the wet, sticky promise. "But I think you're not desperate enough," Gibbs went on, turning his head to murmur into Tony's ear, his breath hot and damp. "I could rim you. That would get you desperate fast. But I think I like this," he rubbed his hands over Tony's chest, tweaking his nipples, brushing teasingly at his cock, "too much. This is where you belong, in my bed, in my arms."

A flush of warmth that had nothing to do with arousal, as urgent as that was, suffused Tony. His arms, which were starting to tremble with the effort of supporting both their weight, firmed and held steady for a little longer. Yes, Tony thought, God, yes. I never belonged anywhere before you made a place for me with you. But he couldn't figure out how to say it, how to get the thought out where Gibbs could hear it. He could only hope that Gibbs knew, like he knew so much.

Gibbs nuzzled at the nape of Tony's neck, licking occasionally at the damp, sensitive skin. Against those spots Tony could feel Gibbs inhaling, scenting, and inside Tony something relaxed. He knew. Gibbs always knew. "Touch me?" Tony asked softly.

"I am touching you," Gibbs murmured, tweaking a nipple. Tony whimpered. "But it's never enough, is it? You need more." The hand petting Tony's belly shifted just a little and Tony groaned in pleasure as it closed firmly around his cock. "More contact. More sensation."

"Yes," Tony gasped. "Please. So good. You're so good. Just...more."

"Not yet." Gibbs's hand slid up and down Tony's cock slowly, sending wave after wave of aching heat through him. "Desperate, remember?"

Tony whimpered. Desperate wasn't too far away, as far as he was concerned. He couldn't push his hips forward into Gibbs's touch, not with the way he was braced to hold their weight up. All he could do was kneel there, knees spread wide, the thick length of Gibbs's cock pressed up against his hole, while Gibbs stroked his cock and rolled his balls between his fingers and rubbed a thumb over the slick head of Tony's cock and raised it to Tony's lips. Tony sucked it eagerly into his mouth, tongue sliding over the pad, cleaning his own pre-come away. He swallowed convulsively, lips sealed around Gibbs's thumb, refusing to let it go, but Gibbs withdrew firmly. "No," Tony almost sobbed.

"Shh." Gibbs ran a soothing hand over Tony's body. "I've got more for you." His weight lifted from Tony's body and for all the sudden relief in Tony's arms a protest rose up in his throat. This wasn't more, this was less. But the protest turned into a wordless, heartfelt moan of pleasure as a firm, slick finger pushed into Tony's body. He wanted to fold his arms, to drop his head down onto them, but 'hands and knees' Gibbs had said, so he locked his elbows and pushed into the fingers that opened him up instead.

"So eager," Gibbs murmured. His voice was so warm with satisfaction that Tony couldn't have been embarrassed even if he'd been able to feel anything through the haze of hunger and need and sensation.

It took all the concentration Tony had to scrape together a single word, a plea born of the burning need inside him. "Gibbs..."

A hot, blunt touch at his hole and then Gibbs was pushing inside and all Tony could do was moan, an endless string of "oh"s torn from deep within. Gibbs was everything, hot and thick and hard, the shape of him familiar and perfect, filling Tony up as if they'd been made to fit each other. And maybe that was a stupid thing to think, but right now it felt right and true and Tony didn't care if it was stupid because it was everything he wanted.

Tony's ass pressed into the curve of Gibbs's groin, but Tony barely had time to catch his breath before Gibbs was moving, fucking Tony with slow, steady, almost languorous strokes. Tony's eyes slid closed as he rocked into Gibbs's movements, picking up the rhythm easily. Desperation lurked just under the surface, but for now Tony's whole world was the stretch of his ass around Gibbs's cock and the grip of Gibbs's hands on his hips and the occasional teasing stroke that sent bright flashes of pleasure arcing through Tony.

"So beautiful," Gibbs said, and his voice was hoarse in a way that made Tony shiver with pleasure. Deliberately, he squeezed down on Gibbs and savored the choked moan and the sharp, hard drive of Gibbs's cock that resulted.

Gibbs's weight shifted, stirring his dick inside Tony, and then he lay over Tony's back again, covering him, his arms holding Tony tightly. "You can take me." Gibbs spoke into Tony's ear.

He didn't know if Gibbs meant his weight or his cock or something else, but it didn't matter, the answer was the same. "Yes," he breathed.

Gibbs moaned softly and his grip tightened for a moment and his hips jerked, pushing him deep and hard into Tony's body. Tony's breath caught. Face buried in the curve of Tony's throat, Gibbs let go, taking Tony with short, hard strokes.

Tony's whole body burned with pleasure, with exertion, with the heat of Gibbs's skin against his. His cock burned hottest of all, aching with need, but Gibbs didn't touch him again. Not even when he groaned out his own release, his dick pulsing inside Tony, his body wracked with shudders.

Desperation overtook Tony and he pushed back hard, driving himself onto Gibbs's still-hard cock, but Gibbs just pulled away. Pulled away completely. Tony's cry of denial turned into a cry of surprise as Gibbs pushed him, tumbling him onto his back. He hardly had time to register the change in position before Gibbs was on him, hands on his thighs, mouth on his cock, taking Tony into his throat and swallowing. Tony's back arched at the shock of the sudden wet heat and then Gibbs sucked hard and Tony's orgasm tore through him, harsh and unexpected.

When he finally relaxed into the mattress Gibbs crawled up next to him and lay so that they were shoulder to shoulder, staring up at the ceiling. Finally Tony turned his head to look at Gibbs, smiling a little. "You been holding that in all day?"

Gibbs met his gaze and smiled, a little wryly. "Since we spoke to Brian, anyway."

Tony looked back at the ceiling and sighed. "Yeah. I'm sorry about that, Boss.

"Sorry for what?"

Frowning, Tony turned his head again. "For insisting on coming along. I realized when I got there, when I saw you with Brian, that I just reminded you that you had something to defend. Having me there automatically made you more confrontational, which you certainly didn't need."

"But it made Brian less confrontational," Gibbs said, rolling onto his side and propping his head up on one hand. "Didn't you see how he reacted when I reached for you?"

"He relaxed," Tony recalled.

"You reminded him that I had my own commitments, that I wasn't after his herd, which was probably a hell of a lot more important than either of us realized at the time, given that he's had young stallions sniffing around." Gibbs paused and frowned. "I wonder if any of the mares have been talking to them."

"Why would they do that?" Tony asked. "I mean, they cut you off because you were going to challenge Murphy, so..."

"Murphy was thirty-nine when I left the herd," Gibbs's gaze was distant, but he reached out and laid a hand on Tony's chest. "And still quite strong. The mares wouldn't have been worried about challenges against him, not really. But Brian is 49, going on fifty in a couple of months. Murphy was 50 when Brian challenged him. If there are potential successors around, the senior mares are going to want to check them out, see if they wouldn't mind following one of them."

"And if they like one of them?"

"Then they might arrange for him to have an advantage over Brian," Gibbs said, half shrugging. "Call them when he's sick, or having an off day, or injured, and let the challenger know to seize the moment."

Tony stared up at Gibbs for a long moment. "But...Brian is their lover, right? I mean, he's the only guy and they've got kids, so he has to be."

Gibbs's lips curved up. "Yes, Tony, he's their lover. He's the father of some of them, too."

"And they'd arrange for him to be killed?" Tony couldn't help it--he brought up his hand and tangled his fingers with Gibbs's where they rested on his chest.

"And to think, just this morning you were worried about the poor abused mares," Gibbs said, laughter lurking in his voice.

Tony glared at him. "It just seems so cold-blooded."

"It's survival, Tony," Gibbs said matter-of-factly. "Death is a part of centaur life. You can't blame the mares for wanting their new stallion to be someone they like, someone they think they can trust."

"Would Brian know?"

"I expect so." Gibbs shrugged. "Brian knows he's on the way out."

"Then why doesn't he just," Tony lifted their linked hands as if to gesture, glanced down at them, and brought them to rest on his chest again, "step down? Or something."

"There isn't exactly a retirement home for centaurs," Gibbs said dryly. "He's led the herd for twenty-nine years. He's not going to give up without a fight. Even if he did value his own skin over whatever time he has left with the herd, what would he do without them? Whatever experience he had blending into the human world is thirty years out of date and buried under a herd stallion's reactions. He's got no job experience. What fifty year old wants to go to school, especially one who has fifteen, maybe twenty years left?"

Tony looked down at their entwined hands rather than looking Gibbs in the eye. "You knew all of that, and you wanted to be where he is?"

Gibbs's thumb rubbed over the back of Tony's hand. "I hadn't really thought about it at the time, but yeah, on some level, I knew what it meant to be herd stallion, and yeah, I wanted it. I wanted to lead, Tony. I wanted to take care of them. I wanted them to be mine. I knew I could do it. I knew I'd be good at it."

"Must have really thrown you for a loop when you came back and found Brian instead of Murphy," Tony muttered, looking down at the hand he was holding.

"Thrown for a loop is putting it mildly," Gibbs said dryly. He gave Tony's hand a squeeze. "Took me twenty-eight years to get my head screwed on straight."

Tony looked up and grinned broadly. "Or not-so-straight."

Gibbs snorted. "That was terrible." He sat up, tugging Tony up with him before letting go of his hand. "Come on. I could use dinner."

"Worked up an appetite, did you?"

"I did all the work," Gibbs shot back, sliding out of bed.

Tony followed, pausing to grab his boxers. "Didn't exactly give me much of a choice about that, did you? I expected you to go for the cuffs."

Gibbs didn't bother with clothing. He paused in the bedroom door and watched with a small smile curling his lips as Tony stepped into his boxers and pulled them up. "I don't need the cuffs to know you're mine," Gibbs said, raking a possessive gaze over Tony.

"True enough," Tony said easily, slipping by Gibbs. "Food now."

In the kitchen, Tony looked into his bowl and the Tupperware container at the cold pasta. "Well," said Gibbs, peering over his shoulder, "at least you didn't use a cream sauce."

A cream sauce would have turned the pasta into one sticky lump of slightly textured goo. The oil in the pesto had at least kept the noodles more or less independent entities. Tony sighed, opened the Tupperware container he'd set aside, and stuck a fork in it and his bowl. He handed the Tupperware to Gibbs. "Dinner is served."

Gibbs snorted. "Elegant." He took the tub and went into the living area, plopping down on the couch instead of at the dining table. Tony followed suit, turning to sit sideways, his feet across Gibbs's thighs.

"You're eating in the buff," Tony pointed out. "I don't think elegant is either of our strong suit."

"It's just as well," Gibbs paused to swallow a mouthful of pasta. "I never did get along very well with elegance."

There was a story there, but Tony wasn't in the mood to go after it at the moment. He'd done more than his share of prying lately. "So, it turns out that Parker and Stephenson are from Wyoming and Georgia, respectively," he said instead, knowing that they wouldn't be able to discuss this part of the case while they were in the office. Not honestly, anyway. "Is it normal for young stallions to wander that far from their original herds?"

"Depends on the situation with the local herd," Gibbs said. He ate thoughtfully for a moment. "It's more complicated for lone stallions to travel than it is for humans, though. They've got to get permission to enter each new stallion's territory. Unless they're looking for trouble, in which case they wouldn't care about the niceties."

"Any chance we could get in touch with their families? Get a little more background on them before we have to talk to them?" Tony pulled another knot of noodles off his fork with his lips. The cold pesto sauce was actually pretty good and the noodles hadn't had a chance to dry out, so they were just a little firmer than usual.

Gibbs shook his head sharply, taking a moment to swallow. "No. Their original herds might not want them around, but that doesn't mean they want them dead. They're not going to do anything that might put either Parker or Stephenson in danger. Especially since over the phone--unofficial and off the record--I have no way of proving who I am. As far as they know, I could be Brian, or another rival stallion, looking for an edge."

Tony frowned. "But why would they have any reason to think that's what this is about?"

"Herd stallions keep track of lone stallions," Gibbs said. "Trust me, every herd in the country knows exactly where Parker and Stephenson are and what they're doing and what shape Brian is in right now."

Tony paused in the midst of twisting his fork in his pasta. "How many herds are there in the country?" he asked, curious.


"And that's how many centaurs?"

"Maybe a couple thousand." Gibbs shrugged. "We don't exactly keep a census."

"Twenty-three herds, a couple thousand centaurs..." Tony shook his head. "How the hell have you managed to keep this a secret? Especially in the days of satellite technology. I mean, when the general public can use Google Earth to find their own homes and the military has ten times that resolution, how do you keep a single herd of centaurs from being seen, never mind twenty-three of them?"

Gibbs actually paused and tilted his head. "You know, I never really thought about it? But there must be something in place."

Tony shook his head. "And here I never thought I'd see you take anything for granted."

"I'm not taking it for granted," Gibbs argued. "Satellite technology exists but centaurs are still a secret. Therefore there has to be something in place. That's just logic."

"Right. Sure." Tony leaned over and stole a forkful of noodles from Gibbs's Tupperware tub.

"You've got your own," Gibbs said dryly, pointing with his fork.

Tony swallowed and smiled brightly. "Yours is better."

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. "Really?" Tony was expecting it, but for all his attempt at defense, Gibbs still scored a forkful of noodles from his bowl. Tony laughed and leaned back into the couch, cradling his bowl protectively. "You protect your dinner, but not yourself?" Gibbs asked, curling one hand around Tony's ankle where it rested on his thigh.

"You wouldn't want my feet flailing around near any sensitive bits, would you?" Tony asked, nodding at Gibbs's unclothed groin.

"I think you've got a vested interest in those sensitive bits," Gibbs returned. He dropped his fork into his all-but-empty Tupperware container and leaned forward to set it on the coffee table, keeping a firm hold of Tony's ankle.

"Hey, I can't control instinctive reactions to tickling," Tony warned.

Gibbs's fingers drifted over Tony's feet, rubbing firmly here and there, not trying to tickle at all. "Did I say anything about tickling?" he asked, a glitter in his eye.

Tony's feet were tingling warmly. Okay, he thought, fumbling to put his bowl down on the coffee table as he sank deeply into the couch, his eyes sliding shut, possibly a miscalculation.

But he wasn't sure he cared.


Tony had barely settled into his desk the next morning before McGee and then Kate arrived. He brought up the profiles he'd worked up on Parker and Stephenson, though he didn't expect to add much to them, and leaned back in his seat. "So, how'd dinner go?" he called across the aisle to Kate.

She shot him a startled glance before smiling a little and turning her attention back to her computer. "Pretty good. Abby has an...interesting perspective on life."

"This is a surprise?" Tony grinned.

Kate rolled her eyes. "Of course not. I just never saw her perspective on this particular subject before."

"Which subject?" McGee asked innocently.

Tony resisted the urge to cover his face with one hand.

"Relationships," Kate said smoothly.

McGee opened his mouth--probably to protest, given that they'd all heard Abby's perspective on all sorts of relationships multiple times--but he caught sight of Tony's expression, paused, and nodded seriously instead. "A long conversation with Abby can certainly be eye-opening," he said, and then suddenly blushed.

Tony leaned forward over his desk and looked down the aisle at McGee. "Oh, really? Do tell, McGee."

"A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell," McGee said firmly.

"So there was kissing!" Tony waggled his eyebrows. "Just on the lips, or-- Ow!" Tony settled back into his chair, rubbing the back of his head and glaring at Gibbs as the man continued to his desk. I really should have expected that. Kate and McGee were smirking at him. "The warrant for Tangiers's gun come through yet?" Tony asked sweetly. He knew very well it hadn't; he'd checked the fax tray when he got in.

"No," Kate said shortly. "It's still early, Tony. The judge probably hasn't even finished reading her mail yet."

"And while she's doing that, you and McGee need to be putting Tangiers at the scene of the crime," Gibbs said briskly.

"Tangiers's apartment doesn't have security cameras," McGee said regretfully. "So we can't catch him going out. The cameras in Fitzpatrick's building don't cover the street outside and there's no reason Tangiers would have gone inside."

"Don't assume he didn't go inside," Gibbs snapped, standing up. "Check! DiNozzo, you're with me."

Kate shot Tony an inquiring glance as he followed Gibbs out of the squad room and all Tony could do was shrug helplessly in return. He knew very well where they were going, but if Gibbs didn't want to explain, Tony wasn't about to. Not when he wasn't entirely sure what was safe to say.

"Kate and McGee are good agents," Tony said as they settled into the car. "If you keep cutting them out of the loop like that they're just going to get curious and start checking things out themselves."

Gibbs grunted and started the car. "If we get this resolved quickly enough it won't be an issue."

Rushing through a case is never a good idea, Tony thought. But Gibbs knew that. This case just had much bigger problems than being a little rushed.

Stephenson's hotel was closest, so they stopped there first. After a quick look at Gibbs's badge the front desk gave up his room number and a spare key quickly enough. Definitely one of the advantages of finding a suspect in a hotel, Tony thought wryly.

"He had to be on the first floor," Tony sighed as they stepped away from the front desk and headed off down the hallway. Ground floors had a hell of a lot more escape routes for a potential suspect.

"Actually, yes," Gibbs said, checking room numbers. "Centaurs and heights, remember?"

"I remember, but I didn't think that'd apply inside a hotel," Tony commented. "I mean, four walls all around you. If you don't look out the window, what's there to be afraid of?"

"We can tell when we haven't got solid ground under our feet. Knowing is just as bad as seeing, sometimes." Gibbs found the appropriate room and paused for a moment. "You knock," he said eventually, moving several paces down the hallway. "He'll know there's a stallion around, but if he sees you first, he's more likely to open the door."

Tony nodded and rapped briskly on the door.

There was the faint sound of footsteps and then a long pause, presumably while Stephenson peered through the peephole. "Who's there?" His voice was a little muffled by the door, but still clear.

"Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, NCIS," Tony replied. He listened carefully, just in case Stephenson went for the window.

Instead the door opened, but only as far as the hotel's security latch would allow. A young man with blond hair, blue eyes, and a hell of a stubborn set to his jaw peered out at Tony. "What the hell is NCIS?" he asked.

"Naval Criminal Investigative Service," Tony said, suppressing the urge to sigh. "I need to ask you a couple of questions about Pamela Fitzpatrick."

Not a flicker of recognition in Stephenson's eyes. Of course, he wouldn't necessarily have known her name. There was plenty of wariness there, though. "You got a partner?" Stephenson asked, eyes scanning as much of the hallway as he could see around Tony through his little slice of doorway.

Tony briefly debated lying, but Stephenson clearly knew Gibbs was there. If he thought the older stallion wasn't with Tony, this could go exactly the way they didn't want it to. "Yeah," Tony said. "We figured we'd better make sure you knew why we were here before you two had to say hello."

Stephenson didn't move. "I want to see him."

Tony glanced over at Gibbs, who took a couple of steps down the hallway and stopped at Tony's side, well within Stephenson's field of view. Tony watched the two centaurs bristle automatically, but the expression on Gibbs's face stayed calm and bland. The once over that Stephenson gave him was slow and thorough, and ended with a dismissive snort. The door closed briefly, then reopened with the security latch off. "So what does NCIS want with me?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest.

"To come in, for a start," Gibbs said evenly.

Stephenson paused, then inclined his head slightly and stepped back from the door. Entering after Gibbs, Tony glanced around as they stepped into the room. Pretty standard. Looked like Stephenson was living out of his suitcase. I suppose he's not expecting to be here for long.

"So who's Pamela Fitzpatrick?" Stephenson asked. He leaned against the cabinet that presumably held the room's TV and kept a wary eye on the two of them.

Gibbs produced a photo and held it out so that Stephenson could see it. "She is."

"Pretty," Stephenson said. "Also dead. Am I supposed to care about this?"

"She's one of us," Gibbs said. "Left the local herd eighteen years ago and was murdered outside her apartment building Monday morning."

"And you went and talked to Brian, and he said to check me out, right?" Stephenson guessed. He shook his head, not waiting for an answer. "I didn't think he was the type to weasel out of his challenges."

"You haven't challenged him yet," Gibbs said, voice hard. "And you'll certainly be facing him if you had something to do with her death. Just sooner rather than later."

Stephenson met Gibbs's gaze without so much as a flinch. "You're no threat to me, old man. Don't pretend you are."

Tony could literally see Gibbs's spine hardening. His eyes went flinty. Slowly, he stepped up close to Stephenson, lowering his voice until it was as quiet as it was cold. "I may not give a shit about challenging you myself," Gibbs said, "and I may not be willing to put all of us at risk by arresting you for this murder, but I can sure as hell fuck with your carefully laid plans, starting with bringing you in for questioning and sitting on you just long enough to give Elliott Parker a shot at Brian. You ready to challenge someone your own age, Stephenson?" A flash of surprise crossed the young stallion's face. A small, tight smile twisted Gibbs's lips. "You didn't think you were the only one sniffing around, did you?"

"When did you say she was killed?" Stephenson asked tightly.

Gibbs backed off a step. "Between roughly five and six a.m. Monday morning."

Stephenson let out a breath. "I was on the herd's land that morning," he said. "Scouting the ground."

"Can anyone confirm that?" Tony asked.

Stephenson didn't look away from Gibbs as he answered. "A couple of sentries ran me off. A big bay, probably a senior mare, and a young chestnut."

Gibbs just nodded. "We'll be in touch."

"I doubt it," Stephenson snorted.

Tony took his cue, exiting the room and holding the door for Gibbs. The older centaur, he noticed, didn't once turn his back on Stephenson.

"I don't think he did it, Boss," Tony said as they headed back to the car.

"We've both got to be careful of wishful thinking," Gibbs said sharply. "We'll need to go back and talk to the sentries."

Tony circled around the car and opened the passenger side door. "After we talk to Parker, right?"


James Stephenson had been twenty-one and looked older. Elliott Parker was nineteen and he barely seemed that old. T-shirt, ripped jeans, and an attitude. Even more of an attitude than Tony could put down to a stallion's natural aggressiveness.

"I don't have to tell you shit," he spat. "Fucking old man and his pet human. I don't know what the fuck you think you're doing, poking your nose into herd business."

"This has nothing to do with the herd," Gibbs ground out yet again. "This has to do with an independent mare who was murdered outside her home. Now, you know her or not?"

Parker barely glanced at the photo. "Never seen her before in my life."

A phrase Tony had heard about a thousand times before. At least.

"Where were you Monday morning between five and six a.m.?" Gibbs pushed on.

"None of your goddamned business," Parker snarled back. "I can go anywhere I like and do anything I like without reporting it to some fucking nazi cop."

Oh, for God's sake. This was ridiculous. "Would you drop the attitude?" Tony burst out impatiently. "You think swearing every other word and getting in our faces makes you tough?" He snorted. "I was a city cop before I was a Navy cop, kid. You think I haven't seen, grilled, and locked up a hundred punks like you? If you want to lead anyone, never mind a herd full of centaurs, some three times your age and some all of four years younger and just as full of piss, you need people to take you seriously more than you need them to know you've got a set of balls."

"What do you know about balls?" Parker said derisively. He jerked his head at Gibbs, "You're rolling over for him, aren't you?"

Tony concealed his surprise at the observation. "Sure," he said instead, "which means I get an up close and personal look at someone with a real pair every day, and let me tell you, you sure as hell don't measure up."

Parker lifted his chin. "What do you know about what it takes to be herd stallion?" He'd stopped swearing, Tony noticed.

"I've met three stallions who were responsible for someone or other," Tony said steadily. "And all three of them knew when they were dealing with trivia that was best dealt with fast and forgotten so that they could get onto more important business. We've been here nearly an hour, Parker. Guess you haven't got more important business to be at."

"I've got plenty of business waiting for me," Parker snapped. "So you might as well march your asses down to the diner a couple blocks from here and review my breakfast menu."

"Name of the place?" Gibbs asked coolly.

Parker sniffed. "Sunrise Diner."

Gibbs turned and stalked out of the hotel room, leaving Tony to catch up with him. Parker all but slammed the door the moment Tony crossed the threshold. Tony practically had to jog to keep up with Gibbs, the man was stalking out to the car so fast. They slid into the sedan together, but Gibbs didn't start it right away, instead resting his hands on the steering wheel and taking a long, deep breath.

Tony waited until some of the red flush had gone out of Gibbs's face before speaking. "Suddenly," he said, "I understand why the mares might want to have a say in Brian's successor."

Gibbs glared at him and then, almost involuntarily, snorted a laugh. "No shit," he said, turning the key in the ignition.

"Uh, Boss?" Tony said hesitantly. "We might want to get an address from the front desk instead of just driving around looking. He didn't say what direction."

Gibbs turned the car off with a grimace and got out again, heading back into the hotel without a word. Tony didn't comment, just followed after him silently. He couldn't think of much that would piss a man like Gibbs off more than knowing he wasn't thinking clearly. Except maybe dealing with a pissy young stallion, Tony thought wryly.

After being shown a photo of Parker that Tony had printed off his computer, the staff of the Sunrise Diner confirmed that he'd been in for breakfast--three eggs sunny side up and runny, wheat toast, sausages, and a vanilla milkshake--early every morning for the past two weeks. Ever since he'd arrived in town, according to the file Tony had put together. "I remember him," the woman at the counter said, wrinkling her nose, "because young men are rarely up that early these days. And he always forgot to tip." Tony bought a slice of pie from the pastry tray and tipped her twenty bucks for her trouble.

Gibbs shot him an amused look as Tony shouldered the door of the diner open, bending his head to lick up cherry filling where it threatened to leak out of the side of the slice of pie. "You always do that?"

Tony swallowed a mouthful of pie. "What, buy pie on the job?" He smiled, making a joke out of it, since he had to admit it wasn't the most professional thing to do.

"Tip four times as much as anyone else would," Gibbs corrected.

"You ever date a waitress, Gibbs?" Gibbs shook his head. "Trust me," Tony said, smiling crookedly, "if you had, you'd be a big tipper, too."

"Trying to improve your karma?" Gibbs asked dryly.

Tony laughed and polished off the last bit of pie, licking his fingers clean and drying them on the scrap of napkin that had come with the pastry. "Maybe as a side effect," he said, sliding into the car with Gibbs. "But mostly I just can't shake the echoes of Sandra going on and on about the things she couldn't do because her pay was 'plus tips' and she hadn't gotten hardly any that week and was it her fault that she had midterms and didn't feel like chatting with strangers and on and on." Tony gave a theatrical shudder. "If I can spare some poor guy even one of those lectures, I'll feel I've done a service to humanity."

"Never figured you for a philanthropist." Gibbs steered the car out into traffic with an apparent disregard for the rules of the road.

Tony kept his eyes on Gibbs instead of on the street; it was easier that way. "More like 'there but for the grace of God go I.'" Gibbs snorted and Tony grinned. "Or maybe, there but for the grace of Gibbs."

Gibbs shot him a look and might have said something, but his phone rang. He flipped it open one handed. "Gibbs." A long pause. "It's the only weapon registered in his name?" Tony's heart sank. "No. Do it anyway. And have McGee pull up the registries of the other cars parked along the street; you work up a basic profile on the owners for me." They pulled onto the interstate, still headed towards Brian's territory. "Just do it, Agent Todd." Gibbs flipped the phone shut with a snap.

"I take it Tangiers's weapon wasn't a match to the bullet." The pie felt heavy in Tony's stomach. Damn it.

"Not even close," Gibbs confirmed. "Kate stretched the warrant enough to check for additional weapons in his home, but he didn't have anything else. That she could find."

"They still checking the videotape?" Tony guessed that was the 'Do it anyway.'


Maybe we'll get lucky. Gibbs didn't say it, but Tony heard it in his voice anyway. "We're running out of suspects, Boss," he said, sighing.

"I know that," Gibbs growled.

"Never thought I'd find a lawyer with too few suspects." Tony had to laugh at it, if sourly. He leaned his head back. "I wish I could have met Fitzpatrick when she was still alive."

They stopped in a little town they'd passed through on their way to talk to Brian the first time and called in and announced themselves. From what Tony could tell from Gibbs's side of the conversation, Brian wasn't too happy to have them back so soon, but he was cooperating. Barely.

The way Gibbs hung up the phone made Tony wonder what tonight was going to be like if last night had been a result of Gibbs's conversation with Brian. Today he'd had the joy and pleasure of butting heads with three other stallions, none of them interested in playing nice.

Letting out a quiet breath, Tony took hold of his courage and touched the back of Gibbs's hand where it still rested on the payphone's receiver. "Are you sure now is the time to be doing this?" he asked quietly.

"I am capable of doing my job, DiNozzo," Gibbs bit out.

"I know that. I also know that you've had your nerves rubbed raw all day and you haven't eaten since this morning." Tony took a breath. "You're not thinking as clearly as you usually do."

Gibbs looked up and met Tony's gaze, a long, steady look. "I'm never going to be entirely clear when I'm talking to Brian, Tony," he said. "But I'll do the damn job." Gibbs turned and stalked back to the car.

Way to go, DiNozzo, Tony thought, shaking his head at himself before turning and heading for the vehicle at a more relaxed pace. He's really calm now.

During the drive in, Tony distracted himself from Gibbs's rigid form and strained silence by staring out the window, trying to spot the sentries he knew were out there somewhere. He caught a flicker of movement that he thought must have been one of them, but he couldn't be sure; for people the size of centaurs, they were damn good at hiding. Although, they really wouldn't need to be in centaur shape to keep watch, would they?

No kids--foals, Tony supposed, since males were stallions and females were mares--raced alongside the car as they approached this time. He couldn't help a twinge of disappointment.

It took a moment to recognize the person who waited on the porch for them. Brian was in human shape, dressed in jeans and a dark blue turtleneck, and he watched them with wary eyes as they climbed out of the car and stepped up onto the porch with him. "You spoke to Parker and Stephenson?" he asked sharply.

Gibbs's lips thinned as he pressed them together. "We've already confirmed Parker's alibi. Stephenson says he was out here Monday morning, poking around your territory. Says a couple of the sentries ran him off."

Brian's eyes narrowed. "You want to talk to the sentries."

"Alone," Gibbs confirmed.


"Yes," Gibbs shot back. "We need to be certain Stephenson isn't involved. I'm sure we'll all be happier if that's the case."

Yeah, let's just hope they don't lie to us to make sure we're happy, Tony thought, but he held his tongue.

"I didn't mean you couldn't talk to them," Brian said impatiently. "I meant you couldn't talk to them alone."

Gibbs snorted. "I can't be sure of them if you're there."

"My influence doesn't vanish when I leave the room." Brian's tone was rich with sarcasm.

"You don't need to explain that to me," Gibbs growled. "I'm not expecting to get them away from your influence. Just your cues."

Brian was silent, jaw set, for a long moment. "If not me, then Maddie," he said at last.

Gibbs paused, then tilted his head in concession. Brian turned stiffly and stalked into the house, leaving Gibbs and Tony to follow. Tony couldn't help looking around curiously as they were led through the living room, dining room, and a short stretch of hallway into a small library. The doors were a little wider than he was used to and though there was an attractive rug laid out in front of the fireplace in the living room, nothing was carpeted. Hardwood floors seemed to be the standard, but they didn't have the perfectly cared for high-gloss finish that Tony was used to seeing in expensive apartments. These floors had been sanded smooth and stained a warm reddish gold. They were also liberally covered in scuff marks that had Tony thoroughly puzzled until he remembered that this house was home to dozens of centaurs. There was no reason they should confine themselves to human form in their own house.

What decorations Tony caught sight of during their brisk walk seemed to be hand made; he was impressed with the skill displayed. He might not be an artist, but he appreciated finely made things, and there were a few truly gorgeous pieces in this home. Not that he had time to admire them--Brian moved fast and Tony wasn't about to risk hanging back.

The room where their brisk walk came to an end had shelving built into every wall. It was an interior room, so there wasn't even a window to break the pattern. Tony was interested to note that all the books seemed to be textbooks, at least judging by their size and the few titles he could make out. The fiction must be kept somewhere else. Tony resisted the urge to shake his head. I wonder how much money the herd has at it's disposal. The last house he'd been to that was big enough to have two libraries had been his father's.

Besides, one thing Tony had learned at NCIS was that keeping secrets, especially big, complicated secrets, was expensive as hell.

The center of the library held a good sized table with a bright reading lamp and a computer on it. Sitting in one of the chairs around the table was a teenage girl. She was hunched over a book, head propped up on one fist, face mostly obscured by a fall of thick, reddish brown hair.

"Leah," Brian said, his tone more gentle than Tony had heard it yet. Of course, he'd only heard Gibbs and Brian snapping at each other. "Privacy, please."

"But--" The girl protested automatically, but cut herself off quickly when she caught sight of Gibbs. Her eyes slid over his shoulder and, finding Tony, went comically wide. "Is he a human?" she hissed, as if Tony couldn't hear her when she was speaking loud enough for Brian.

Brian's expression took on a faintly but distinctly amused cast. "Yes, he is, and if you can't be more discreet than that, you'll never convince Anita to take you to that bookstore in town."

Leah flushed darkly and closed her book, leaving it on the table as she rose and hurried towards the door. She stared at Tony from under her eyelashes as she passed him.

"Leah," Brian stopped her at the doorway. She paused and turned back, waiting. "Send Maddie in, please." She bobbed her head and disappeared around the corner.

Brian scooped the book up off the table and glanced at the title. Looking up, he nodded towards the chairs. "Have a seat." He turned without waiting to see if they'd obey, striding over to a shelf and sliding the book into a gap as confidently as if he'd been the one to take it down. Centaur memory, Tony reminded himself. Brian probably had his entire house mentally mapped down to the square inch.

While the herd stallion had his back turned, Gibbs took a chair at the table. Facing Brian, Tony noticed, and at an angle to the doorway. He slid quietly into the seat next to Gibbs and settled into watching the door, since Gibbs was watching Brian.

It was only a couple of minutes before an older woman appeared in the doorway. Tony guessed her at fifty-five. Her steel-gray hair was cut very short, no more than an inch long. She wore a cream colored blouse tucked into blue jeans and gray cowboy boots. There was something familiar about the line of her jaw and the set of her eyes. When he placed it, Tony had to suppress a start of surprise. She looked a lot like Gibbs. Of course, he berated himself a moment later. Given her age, she's at least Gibbs's half sister. The resemblance was strong enough he wondered if they were full blooded siblings.

"Maddie," Brian greeted her.

"Brian," she said, nodding briefly at him before turning her gaze to Gibbs. "Hello Leroy. And Tony, I presume."

"Jethro, Maddie," Gibbs corrected her.

She nodded. "Of course. Jennifer told me you'd changed it."

"I didn't change it," Gibbs said mildly. "It's the second name I chose when I left the herd. Leroy Jethro Gibbs."

"But you go by Jethro."

"Leroy didn't stop being my name. I just stopped using it. Seemed appropriate to have a second name for the second part of my life." Gibbs's mouth had turned up at the corner, but it was too tight an expression to really be a smile.

Maddie shook her head. "That's perverse, Jethro."

"Excuse me," Brian broke in sharply. "Maddie, Special Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo need to speak with the sentries who were on duty Monday morning."

Maddie didn't exactly share her eye roll with Gibbs and Tony, but they were certainly at an angle to see it. "Katherine, Tina, Jules, Jennifer, Barb, and Laura were all on duty that morning."

"Are any of them an older bay or a young chestnut?" Gibbs broke in.

"Barb and Jules," Maddie said, turning back towards Gibbs. "I'll go get them."

Brian shook his head. "No, I'll go. I want you to stay with them while they're questioned."

Maddie's expression grew suddenly sharp. She threw Gibbs a glance, but asked her question of Brian. "Questioned?"

"Apparently Stephenson's alibi is that he was here and that two of the sentries--presumably Barb and Jules--ran him off," Brian explained. Apparently? Tony thought curiously. He wondered if it seemed strange to Gibbs that Brian wouldn't be aware that another stallion had been around less than three days before.

There was an edge of a question in Brian's voice, but if Maddie heard it, she ignored it. "Barb should be out in the stables. I'm not sure about Jules. You might have to ask around."

Brian cast Gibbs a last, warning glance, before he left them alone with Maddie. When he was gone, she cast Gibbs a much friendlier expression than she'd worn a moment ago and settled into a chair on the other side of the table. "It's good to see you again, Leroy." She winced. "Sorry. Jethro. Old habits die hard."

"Very old habits," Gibbs said dryly.

Maddie shrugged, apparently unrepentant. "None of us expected things to work out the way they did. I'm just pleased to see you home for a visit. Even if it did take you forty years."

"This isn't home anymore, Maddie. And I wouldn't even be here now if it weren't for the case." Gibbs's lips twisted into something almost like a smile. "Brian and I aren't exactly friendly."

"Brian didn't let you come out here because of the case," Maddie said, amused. "He let you come out because of him." She nodded at Tony.

Gibbs turned a little and met Tony's gaze for a long moment. Tony couldn't say that Gibbs relaxed, not here, not now, but the warm, possessive look did blunt the aggressive edge he'd been riding for most of the day.

"You might consider coming around to say hello when you're not working," Maddie suggested.

Gibbs looked back at her and raised his eyebrows. "And what would Brian think of that suggestion?"

She snorted. "I'll work on him."

"And in a month or two, he'll issue the invitation himself, I'm sure," Gibbs said dryly.

"Well, maybe not," Maddie said, smiling. "But close enough."

"Tell me about Barb and Jules," Gibbs said after a moment.

"You ought to remember Barb." Maddie's eyes sparkled. "She was a scrappy little eight year old when you left. You used to call her Barbie, until she and Anne chased you through the compost pile for it."

Tony tried to pretend he was a statue, lest the two centaurs remember he was there and stop reminiscing. He struggled to picture Gibbs as a colt, twelve years old, hair and coat still a dark, glossy brown, laughing and teasing his sister with the name 'Barbie.' Maybe it wasn't a clear mental image, but Tony had to fight down a grin anyway.

"That Barb?" Gibbs asked, voice rising in surprise. "Riding sentry duty?"

Maddie laughed. "She's forty-eight now and has six sons and daughters of her own, Jethro. Barbie grew up a long time ago."

"I suppose she must have," Gibbs said, suddenly quiet. Tony ached to reach out to him...and abruptly realized there was no reason he couldn't. Fighting down a sudden surge of nervousness, he laid his hand on Gibbs's thigh and squeezed, just a tiny bit. Gibbs shot him a surprised look, but the hand he laid on top of Tony's made no attempt to remove the touch. Tony relaxed and couldn't help smiling, if only a little. Gibbs smiled back and all the regrets vanished from his eyes like they'd never been there. Tony's heart thumped so hard he half suspected the other two could hear it. Gibbs turned back to Maddie, his hand still wrapped around Tony's, his thumb rubbing over Tony's palm. "And Jules?"

"Jules is one of Brian's, of course," Maddie said. "Eighteen and standing sentry duty for the first time. Brian almost took her off the rotation when Parker and Stephenson started coming around. Fortunately, Anne, Jennifer, and I were all in agreement on the subject."

"What's she like?" Gibbs asked intently.

Maddie shrugged. "Like any eighteen year old. She's just about finished bouncing around from chore to chore and is starting to settle down to the role she wants in the herd." Tony blinked. That wasn't like any eighteen year old he knew. Of course, all the eighteen year olds he'd ever known had been human. "She's twice as determined to prove herself since she caught wind of Brian trying to take her off sentry duty," Maddie went on, "but I don't think that's where she'll settle. She's not confrontational enough."

'Not confrontational enough,' but she ran off a potential challenger? Tony wondered. Still, if she was determined to prove herself and in the company of an older mare, he supposed it didn't knock too big of a hole in Stephenson's alibi.

"So where do you think she'll settle?" Gibbs asked, almost idly. It could have been casual conversation, killing time until either of the sentries arrived, but Tony knew better. He wondered if Maddie realized Gibbs was digging for background information for his interrogation.

"Breeding," Maddie answered definitely. Breeding? Tony thought incredulously. It must have shown in his expression, because she shot him an amused glance. "Horses, Tony. Breeding horses. We produce a couple of really strong bloodlines for steeplechasers."

Tony blushed brightly. "Sorry," he muttered.

"Don't worry about it," Maddie said, waving a hand. "Easy mistake to make. For a human," she added, teasing.

"So where did Barb settle?" Gibbs brought them back on topic.

"She's one of the regular sentries, actually," Maddie said. "There's a reason we gave her the section of the perimeter that adjoins Jules's."

"Barbie, a sentry," Gibbs muttered under his breath.

"Do I have to run you through the compost pile again?" an amused voice asked from the doorway.

Tony looked away from Gibbs and found a tall woman with chocolate brown hair sauntering into the room. Tall and built. Tony could see that even through the gray cotton shirt and rust red slacks she wore. He couldn't imagine a woman less likely to be called 'Barbie.' Hell, Tony was pretty sure she was taller than he was.

Gibbs took a long look at her and shook his head. "I have this feeling you wouldn't need Anne for back up this time," he said, smiling a little.

Barb laughed and pulled the chair next to Maddie out from the table and dropped down into it, leaning back comfortably. "Maybe not on four feet," she replied, "but I bet you could still take me on two. Gunnery Sargent."

"I thought no one kept up with me."

"Just because we didn't keep in touch doesn't mean we didn't keep an eye--a discreet eye--on you." Barb shrugged.

"Wed better get down to business," Maddie broke in. "Brian will get twitchy if we take too long."

Barb caught Tony's eye. "And it's such work to calm them stallions down again," she said, exaggerating her drawl and leering. Tony choked on his laugh before it broke free.

"Business," Gibbs said, dry as the desert. Barb waved for him to go on. "You rode sentry duty on Monday."

She nodded. "2:00am to 6:00am and 6:00pm to 10:00pm on the eastern and southeastern borders, respectively."

"Any trouble?"

Tony watched Maddie carefully, but as far as he could tell she gave no signs to Barb. Just listened, an edge of boredom to her, as if she knew all the answers already.

"I heard some yelling from Jules's section just after five," Barb said. "We've had a couple of young stallions poking around lately. He tried to slip through her section. She was angry and scared stiff and yelling to cover it. Soon as I showed up he beat a quick retreat, though."

"This him?" Gibbs asked, laying a picture of Parker on the table.

Barb pulled it across the table, took a look, and shook her head almost immediately. "Nope. This guy was a little older and palomino in centaur shape."

"How about him?" This time Gibbs presented the picture of Stephenson and Barb nodded definitively. Gibbs took the pictures back, sliding them into a pocket. "You didn't report the encounter to your herd stallion?"

"Brian knew he had challengers in the wings," Maddie broke in. "But he didn't want to be constantly aware of them. Said it would make him too nervous, wear him down before the challenge proper. He told me to keep and eye on things and let him know if it was important."

"So I filled Maddie in and advised the rest of the sentries to keep a closer eye on the eastern border," Barb said.

Simple enough, Tony thought. Of course, simple lies were also the safest, but he was pretty sure neither of the mares was lying. He was pretty sure Gibbs didn't think so either.

"Have either of you been in touch with either potential challenger?" Gibbs asked evenly.

Barb snorted. "Brian might be the same age as Murphy was, but he's a damn sight stronger. I'm not looking to replace him, certainly not with a pair of young bucks like these two. I'm not entirely convinced either of them will actually challenge."

"Don't underestimate the power of instinct in a young stallion," Maddie countered. She shot Gibbs a look. "It can inspire them to some unwise actions."

Gibbs met the look flatly. "You don't think Brian would have trouble with them?"

"He might have to work at it, but I believe he'd win," Maddie said confidently. "Brian's hardly slowed down at all over the last five years and he's had experience with real challenges, instead of just mock fights. We've had a chance to look over Stephenson and Parker and no one's seen a real scar on either of them."

"That doesn't necessarily mean they haven't fought other lone stallions," Gibbs pointed out.

Maddie pinned Gibbs with a hard gaze. "With all due respect, Special Agent Gibbs, you haven't ever faced a real challenge, either."

A trace of steel entered Gibbs's spine, but though he clamped his lips shut, he didn't argue the statement. A tense silence persisted until Maddie looked up, eyes catching on the doorway. Tony followed her gaze and found a girl in a mud splattered shirt and jeans that were oddly clean, especially given that her feet were a little dirty.

"Should I come back later?" the girl asked hesitantly, tucking a lock of reddish hair behind one ear.

"No," Gibbs said briskly. "I think we're done here, Barb. Thank you."

Barb raised her eyebrows and paused for a long moment before smoothly rising from her chair and strolling towards the door. She laid a hand briefly on the girl's shoulder as she left, but didn't say anything. The girl took a few steps into the room and hesitated again, looking at Maddie.

"Have a seat, Jules," Maddie said, waving towards the chair Barb had vacated. "You're not in trouble, I promise. These are Special Agent Gibbs and Special Agent DiNozzo. They just need to ask you about sentry duty Monday morning."

Jules broke out of her hesitation at that and walked quickly to the chair, dropping down into it. "Is this about that stallion who tried to get by me?" she asked, pushing her hair back again. "Is he in trouble?"

"Why do you ask that?" Gibbs, Tony noticed, had toned down his aggressive edge again, though it still lurked.

"Wishful thinking," Jules said, wrinkling her nose. "I didn't like him trying to sneak by me. I didn't like him poking around my home. If he were in trouble, at least he wouldn't come back."

"You didn't think he was handsome?" Gibbs asked idly.

Jules's brow wrinkled. "Handsome? Why should I care if he was handsome? He wasn't supposed to be here. And he kept saying stuff like Brian wouldn't be able to take care of us much longer and wouldn't I rather have a young, strong stallion leading the herd." She rolled her eyes. "As if Brian isn't strong enough to kick his butt."

"That was a very human question to ask," Maddie commented to Gibbs.

Gibbs ignored her. "Was that what you were yelling about?" he asked Jules instead.

"Yeah. That and telling him to get off our land." Jules abruptly stopped and looked sheepish. "I didn't realize how loud I was yelling until Barb robe up. I didn't mean to pull her off of her own section. Anyway, the stallion ran off then, so she wasn't away for long."

"And you reported this to..."

"Maddie," Jules filled in promptly. "She said Brian didn't need to be bothered with things like that right now and that she'd let him know if it was important."

"Thanks, Jules," Gibbs said, smiling suddenly. "That's all we needed to know."

Jules shrugged. "Okay." She looked to Maddie. "Can I go now? Brian pulled me right out of a game of tag."

"Go ahead," Maddie said.

"Thanks!" Jules jumped up and headed for the door, unbuttoning her jeans as she went. Tony had to shake his head to himself. At least the muddy shirt, clean jeans, and dirty feet made sense now.

"Get what you need?" Maddie asked when Jules had gone.

"Yeah," Gibbs said neutrally.

Maddie smiled a little. "You are a close mouthed one when it comes to business, aren't you?"

"A lot of my business is classified," Gibbs said dryly.

"I hope you're not expecting that to impress me." Maddie put a hand flat on the table and pushed herself to her feet. "I'll go get Brian. Don't be a stranger, Jethro."

For the moment, Tony and Gibbs were alone in the library. "A human question?" Tony asked quietly.

"Mares as young as Jules don't get much say in how the herd is run," Gibbs replied. "She's probably never given the idea of Brian's eventual successor a second thought, not even to think what she'd like him to be like. Hell, it probably hasn't even occurred to her to have a preference. It was a human question to ask."

Brian stepped into the room before Tony could think of anything to say to that. "Maddie says you're all finished here," he said.

Gibbs pushed back his chair and stood. "So I am."

"Good news or bad?" Brian turned and led them out of the library and back to the front porch.

"I can't discuss an ongoing investigation," Gibbs said automatically.

The look Brian shot him was both irritated and amused. "This part of the investigation was never going on the record, Gibbs. Spare me the party line."

Gibbs grunted and paused on the porch with Brian. "It wasn't either Stephenson or Parker," he said grudgingly.

Brian let out a breath. "That's good news."

"And bad," Gibbs countered. "I just ran out of suspects."

"Not my problem." Brian nodded at their car. "Have a good day, agents."

Tony could literally see Gibbs searching for some way to have the last word and coming, frustratingly, up short. Instead he nodded sharply and jogged down the stairs to the car. Following quickly, Tony managed to slide into the passenger seat just as Gibbs turned the key in the ignition. The car was moving almost before Tony had pulled his door shut.

Leaning back in his seat, he sighed deeply. "What the hell do we do now?"

"Talk to Gena Debowski again," Gibbs said shortly.

"Why?" Tony asked, surprised.

"Because if she knew Fitzpatrick was a centaur, we asked the wrong questions the first time around." The car leaped forward as Gibbs pressed down on the accelerator. Hard.

Tony took hold of the overhead handle and swallowed. "Uh, Boss..." Gibbs shot him a glare. "Right. Never mind," Tony muttered. Gibbs didn't need to be wound up any more. As tense as he was at the moment, Tony wasn't sure how he was going to manage back at the office. Gibbs pissed off because a case wasn't coming together and Gibbs pissed off because he'd come up against another stallion and hadn't exactly come out on top of the encounter were pretty similar states, but inspiring any curiosity was dangerous, given that they couldn't really talk about where they'd been and what they'd been doing all day today. Gibbs needed to relax.

Tony suppressed a grin as an idea dawned. Squirming a little to settle himself, he closed his eyes and imagined what that night would be like. Gibbs, dark eyed and intent, his hands wrapped tightly around Tony's wrists, grinding their bodies together, kissing hard and deep until Tony had to suck air in through his nose, like Gibbs always did when he was feeling particularly dominant.

"Tony," Gibbs growled, but given the fantasy Tony was entertaining, it didn't exactly distract him. His name, with all the warning tones attached, fit right in. Tony bit his lip and shifted his legs apart, giving his hardening dick more space.

"Tony," Gibbs repeated. "This is not the time."

"What's the matter, Gibbs?" Tony drawled, letting his eyes slide open a little. "Distracted?"

Gibbs's nostrils flared and Tony spared a moment to hope he'd been right, that he smelled as strongly of whatever it was that told Gibbs Tony was his as he did of arousal. "We're in the middle of a case," Gibbs grated out.

"And your instincts are driving you so hard you're practically shaking." Tony reached down and stroked himself through his pants. "If you go back to headquarters like this, everyone's going to wonder where you were, what you were doing, and why you're so pissed off. And Kate and McGee will be too busy getting out of your way to get any real work done."

For a moment Tony didn't think Gibbs was even listening to him anymore. Then the car slammed to a halt, throwing Tony painfully against his seatbelt and knocking the breath out of him. By the time he caught it again Gibbs was already out of the car and circling around the front. Tony barely had time to release his seatbelt before Gibbs flung his door open and hauled Tony out of the car.

"Boss," Tony managed, his heart pounding in his chest. "I didn't--" He gasped as he was shoved up against the side of the car and pinned there by Gibbs's body. Dazed, Tony found himself sucking on Gibbs's tongue while the centaur fumbled with his belt and then his fly.

The shock of cold air against bare skin crystallized Tony's thoughts for a moment and he tore himself away from the kiss for a moment. "Gibbs," he gasped. "Boss! It's December and it's fucking cold."

Gibbs growled in displeasure, but he jerked the back door of the car open and pushed Tony inside, crawling in after him and pulling the door shut with a thump. Fuck, Tony thought, a little hysterically, as Gibbs pulled Tony's pants and underwear down, short fingernails scraping over the skin of his hips and thighs. Not exactly what I had planned.

A hot puff of breath was all the warning Tony had before Gibbs's tongue slid into his hole, hot and wet and right down to business. "Oh, fuck," Tony gasped. "Oh shit. Oh God, Gibbs, what...why..." He whimpered as Gibbs's hands spread his ass cheeks, making space for Gibbs's mouth as he sucked and licked at Tony's hole, his tongue thrusting inside. Tony's muscles turned to liquid until all he could do was fold his arms against the car door and lean into them. His heart pounded, his blood rushing through his veins until that was all Tony could hear, that and the intoxicating, wet sounds of Gibbs's mouth and the keening cries Tony made with every exhalation.

Tony could only let go, riding the waves of need and heat that washed through him. He was so hard it hurt, his cock full and tight, so ready he couldn't believe he hadn't come yet.

And then suddenly Gibbs's mouth was gone and just as Tony sucked in a breath to speak, Gibbs commanded, "Relax."

Tony obeyed automatically, his body easing up from its tight clench of pleasure. There was a slick, blunt touch against his hole and then Gibbs was pushing into Tony with nothing to ease the way but spit and pre-come.

A moan tore itself from Tony as his body gave way to Gibbs. He shuddered and panted harshly. His ass burned, but Tony didn't care, couldn't care. It was Gibbs taking him, rough and fast in the back of a fucking car because he couldn't wait, he needed Tony that much, wanted him that much.

Gibbs sank in deep, not stopping until his balls rested tight against Tony's ass. He paused then, hands gripping Tony's waist, and Tony whimpered softly in anticipation and struggled to relax for Gibbs, to make himself easy and open for all that he felt stretched to the limit.

Gibbs's hands tightened for an instant and then he was moving, fucking Tony hard and fast, their hips pounding together with the loud smack of flesh against flesh. "Mine," Gibbs growled, driving into Tony.

"Yours," Tony gasped in answer. "Oh, God, Gibbs, yours. Always yours."

Gibbs slammed into him again, his cock touching off fireworks inside Tony. Hips bucking back against Gibbs, Tony came with a wail, his dick pulsing hotly. All that held him up in the aftermath was Gibbs's hard grip on his waist and his position, wedged into the cramped confines of the back seat of the car. Gibbs came moments later, his breath a hiss of satisfaction, his cock grinding deep inside Tony, filling him with a hot rush of come that force one last spurt from Tony's own dick.

The two of them collapsed in a heap of tangled limbs and twisted, wrinkled clothing, Gibbs still buried in Tony's ass. Tony closed his eyes and concentrated on getting his breathing and his trembling limbs under control. God, his ass ached something fierce.

As if reading the thought, Gibbs stirred and slowly, carefully pulled out of Tony. Tony grunted softly and gingerly eased himself up to sit on one cheek of his butt, leaning against the door.

"You okay?" Gibbs asked softly.

Tony looked over at him, smiling ruefully. "Yeah, I'm good." He shook his head and laughed. "Jesus, Boss. I can't believe you just did that. In the back of the fucking car. Never mind being in the middle of a case, we're out in the open!"

"Out in the open in the middle of nowhere," Gibbs pointed out. He looked entirely too smug. But relaxed. Tony thought, still snickering. That's what you wanted, right?

"Are we even off of Brian's land?" Tony asked, bracing his shoulders against the seat and lifting his hips so that he could pull up his pants and underwear. Christ, I'm a mess, he thought. And he'd gotten come on the back seat.

"We passed the sentries about five minutes ago," Gibbs said. He finished tucking himself away and, Tony noticed, watched carefully as Tony eased himself down to sit normally on the seat.

"I wish we'd taken my mustang," Tony commented, hoping to distract him. Okay, yeah, he was sore, but damn, had it been worth it.

Gibbs's brow wrinkled. "Why? That road would have destroyed it."

"Nah, the mustang is tougher than that." Tony grinned. "And fucking in the backseat of that thing is one of my favorite fantasies. If I'd had the slightest idea I could talk you into it, I'd have tried ages ago."

Gibbs broke into a startled laugh. "You didn't exactly talk me into it this time."

Tony grinned unrepentantly. "Same effect."

"Come on," Gibbs said, opening the door and sliding out. "We still have to talk to Ms. Debowski before heading back to the office."

Tony opened the door on his side and climbed out stiffly. The passed each other in front of the car and Tony attempted to make himself comfortable in the passenger seat. Gibbs didn't even have to start the car again; he'd never turned it off, just put it in park.

"Well," Tony said as they got going, "no one's going to be wondering why you're twitchy, but they're sure going to be curious why I'm walking like John Wayne."

Gibbs just smiled.


On their way back to Gena Debowski's apartment in Ballston they bowed to the requirements of professionalism and discretion and stopped to buy new clothing. Both Tony's apartment and Gibbs's home were too far out of their way to justify the time they'd need just to change. So they put themselves in order as much as they could, made their purchases quickly, and changed in a public washroom before arriving.

Gena greeted them at her apartment door. She looked tired, worn, but her eyes were only faintly red rimmed. "Agent Gibbs, Agent DiNozzo," she said softly. After a moment she moved back from the doorway, implicitly inviting them into her home. They stepped past her and she shut the door softly. "Have you discovered who killed Pam?" she asked. Tony could hear the tightness in her voice that spoke of suppressed tears.

"I've afraid not." Gibbs put a gentle hand on her elbow and guided Gena into her own living room. "We came back to ask a few more questions. We've learned some things about Pamela which lead us to believe you may know something about her death that you weren't able to discuss on Monday."

Tension stiffened the muscles of Gena's neck. "I answered every question you asked," she said, pulling away from Gibbs's hand.

"You've been very cooperative," Gibbs agreed, nodding. "We have no problem with you, Ms. Debowski. I believe you were only keeping a promise, protecting Pam's secrets, but that secret could be connected to her death and, frankly, it's the only lead we have at the moment."

Gena didn't meet either of their gazes. Instead she walked into the kitchen area and started making coffee, more to have something to distract her than because she meant to offer any hospitality, Tony suspected. "You already know Pam was gay," Gena said, focused on measuring scoops of coffee out of a can.

"That's not the secret I meant."

"So which secret did you mean?" Gena asked. She filled the carafe with water and proceeded to pour it into the coffee maker's reservoir.

Gibbs hesitated. "How much do you know about Pam's childhood?" he asked carefully.

Gena paused, the stream of water dribbling to a halt for a moment before she continued pouring. "We didn't keep secrets from each other," she said finally.

"So you know she was home schooled," Gibbs probed.


"And that she had a very large family." That was a truth in direct contradiction of Fitzpatrick's file. Her parents of record were foster parents often used by the herd to ease young stallions into the human world. According to her file, Pamela Fitzpatrick was an only child.

Gena put the coffee carafe back into its place and touched the on switch before looking up and studying Gibbs for a long time. "Yes," she said at last. "I knew about that. But how do you?"

"I come from the as Pamela did," Gibbs said quietly. A sentence which would make no sense at all to someone who didn't know. Tony watched Gena carefully for any hint of confusion.

But there was none, just a widening of her eyes as she absorbed Gibbs's meaning. "I didn't think you knew her."

Gibbs relaxed marginally. "I didn't. I left before she was even born."

"You think what..." Gena hesitated, eyes darting quickly to Tony and back, "what she was had something to do with her murder?"

"He knows," Gibbs said, answering that quick glance.

"You and me have a lot more in common than you realize," Tony said, smiling a little and tilting his head toward Gibbs.

Gena's mouth rounded into an 'oh' of realization. "I didn't think it worked the same way for...for stallions as it does for mares," she said awkwardly. She glanced down, flushing a little, and apparently noticed the steadily filling carafe. She looked up at the cupboards over the counter and got down three mugs.

"It doesn't," Gibbs responded. "But that's not why we're here, Ms. Debowski."

She paused in the act of retrieving milk and sugar and glanced at Gibbs quickly before setting both items down on the counter next to the coffee maker. "No. So ask your questions. Your new questions."

"Did anyone other than you and Pam know what she was?"

Gena turned and leaned her hip against the counter while she waited for the coffee to finish brewing. "No," she said definitely. "We were extremely careful, Agent Gibbs. Even more careful than we were with our relationship."

"With all due respect," Tony interrupted, "you weren't that careful with your relationship. At least one of your co-workers is quite aware that you and Pam were together."

"Susan," Gena grimaced. "She's doesn't know..."

"She knows enough," Tony said.

Gena sighed. "There's a difference between picking up on romantic tension and making the mental jump to believing someone isn't human."

"Depends on the person," Gibbs said dryly. "Have you noticed anyone acting strange around Pam lately?"

"No, but..." Gena shrugged. "When we're not at work, we spend pretty much all our time alone together. I never really saw Pam with other people, not since my schedule changed from the one I was on when I met her."

"What about when Pam arranged time in her other shape?" Gibbs asked.

Gena shook her head and took a moment to fill three mugs with the coffee. She held up the milk and sugar in turn to let them indicate how they took their coffee and doctored her own with a healthy slug of milk and more sugar than Tony had ever seen anyone use. "She almost never did," Gene answered eventually. "Maybe two or three times a year, and she always went somewhere out of state.

"Usually she didn't even use 'friendly' ranches. She'd just find somewhere big and wild and we'd go camping. Pam wasn't comfortable using places that she knew had close ties to any particular herd." Gena held up a hand to stop Gibbs from commenting. "It wasn't that she thought they'd refuse her or make trouble for her. Nothing like that. But she felt that once she'd cut ties with the herd, she shouldn't go back on that. At all. Making contact with a 'friendly' ranch counted, as far as she was concerned.

"Not to mention that she was really afraid people would find out about her nature. Her logic was, the more centaurs went to a ranch, the more likely one of them would be discovered and suspicion would be cast on the rest. Discovery by association." Gena raised her coffee to her lips and took a long, slow sip.

Gibbs gestured with his coffee mug, somehow managing not to spill it. "How did you find out?"

"Pam told me," Gena said simply. "Right after she asked me to move in with her. She said I had a right to know what I was getting into."

"And she didn't mention anything over the past little while?" Tony asked. "Anything that might hint someone knew more than they were supposed to?"

Gena shook her head. "No. And she would have told me if she was worried. I can't tell you how many false alarms we've had. Pam was terribly paranoid about that."

Gibbs nodded and lifted his coffee mug to drain the last of it. "Thank you, Ms. Debowski. For the coffee, and for speaking with us."

Tony set his own mug down--still half full--and retrieved a business card from his pocket. He held it out to her. "Call us if you think of anything that might be important."

Hesitating for a moment, Gena finally took the card from him. She looked down at it for a moment, rubbing her thumb over the lettering. She looked up at Tony and smiled, a small, sad thing. "I'll do that."


When Gibbs and Tony arrived back at NCIS, the team, plus Abby, congregated around their desks to brainstorm.

"I take it the two guys who were bugging Fitzpatrick's family had alibis," Kate guessed after taking one look at Gibbs.

"Solid ones," Tony confirmed with a sigh. It was hard to sound disappointed when he was so relieved. Kate's narrowed eyes told him that he hadn't been quite as convincing as he'd hoped, but she didn't call him on it. For the moment.

"You get anything off the security tape of Fitzpatrick's apartment lobby?" Gibbs asked Abby.

She shrugged disconsolately. "Just residents going in and out. None of them even seemed particularly freaked out, at least not until the newspaper guy ran in and called the cops."

"The cars on the street?" Gibbs prompted McGee.

"Same deal," he said. "All belonging to residents. There weren't even any visitors' cars, registered or unregistered. At least not by the time we got there."

"What about Fitzpatrick's computer?" Tony asked.

"All work stuff," Abby said, wrinkling her nose. "Not even a computer game on it, other than the ones that come preinstalled. I checked it inside and out and there's no sign anyone has tampered with it and there's no secret hidden bits. I even took it apart and looked inside the casing."

"Tell me what we do know," Gibbs demanded.

Tony started with the basics. "She was shot between four-thirty and six a.m. on her way to work, before she got to her car. She was facing whoever shot her, but she didn't try to run. The killer wasn't waiting for her at her car, because she had to turn away from her car to face him or her."

"Nothing was stolen," Kate picked up the thread of the recitation. "Not even her briefcase with all her current case files and her computer, which was a pretty recent--and therefore valuable--model. Her part in all of those cases, and in most of her other cases for the past year, has been support work. She wasn't the lead attorney on any of them."

"All the cars on the street were registered to residents of the building and authorized to be there," McGee said. "Everyone who passed through the lobby for two hours before the murder and until the police were called in was a resident or a guest of a resident. The officers who interviewed the residents of the building say that almost everyone was either asleep or busy getting ready for work at the time of the murder. A few of them heard the gunshot, but they didn't realize that's what it was. Those of them who went to look out the window didn't exactly hurry, so no one saw anyone leaving the scene."

There was a long, quiet pause.

"So basically, everything was exactly as it should be," Abby said finally.

"Except for one dead Navy lawyer." Gibbs scowled. Silence descended again. Eventually Gibbs leaned back in his chair. "Sleep on it, people. If no one has an idea in the morning we'll review the lobby tape for twenty-four hours surrounding the murder and re-interview everyone in the building personally."

Tony's wince was echoed by Kate, McGee, and Abby, but they all got up and, with various nods and sighs, went to gather their things to go home.

At his desk, Tony quickly brought up his web browser, logged into an anonymous webmail service, and fired off a quick e-mail to numerical address at the same server: Where do you want to meet up? He minimized the window and futzed around as if cleaning up a last few details until Gibbs left the office. When he was gone Tony brought the window back up and hit the 'Get Mail' icon.

A message appeared in the inbox. Mine.

Figures, Tony thought, smiling wryly to himself. He shut down his computer and headed out of the office, contemplating what route he ought to take to Gibbs's home this time.


Gibbs hadn't bothered to cook, but the Chinese food didn't take long to get there once they'd ordered and the little boxes were easy to eat out of while Tony sat on the wooden steps that led down to Gibbs's basement, having appropriated a couch cushion for the sake of comfort, and watched the centaur work on the boat.

It was quiet in the basement, not even the TV breaking the silence. Gibbs hadn't turned it on when he came down and Tony hadn't asked. He figured they needed space to think more than they needed the background noise right now.

The brisk knock at the front door, faint but audible this far into the house, came as a surprise. Tony caught Gibbs's gaze as he looked up and raised his eyebrows inquiringly. Gibbs shook his head and laid his sanding block down. He jogged up the stairs past Tony and went to unlock the front door. Tony lurked on the basement stairs, straining his ears and hoping whoever it was didn't feel like checking on the progress of the boat. He wasn't supposed to be here.

"Kate," Gibbs acknowledged, letting Tony knew who was at the door.

"Gibbs. Since when do you lock your door?"

"Since I decided I could use a little privacy," Gibbs said.


Tony decided that that was his cue and stepped through the basement door, strolling into the living room, hands tucked into the pockets of his pants. "Hey Kate," he said, settling on the sofa.

Her mouth briefly rounded in a surprised 'oh'. "I didn't...interrupt anything...?" She let the question trail off awkwardly.

"Fully dressed and in the basement?" Tony asked, raising his eyebrows. Just as she started to look sheepish, he grinned wickedly. "Not this time." She flushed and glared at him.

"Kate," Gibbs said before she could speak. "Is there any particular reason you're knocking on my door just two hours after leaving the office?" It couldn't be anything official and they all knew it; she'd just have called for that.

The question seemed to steady her. "Yes," Kate said firmly. "I want to know what's really going on with this case."

"Really going on?" Gibbs asked mildly. He disappeared into the kitchen for a moment and returned with a two mugs of coffee, one of which he held out to Kate.

She turned it down. "Yes, really going on. I'm not stupid, Gibbs. You and Tony disappeared for two days in a row, running down the vaguest of leads and not telling anyone else squat about them. I don't even know where you went. And today when you got back you'd both changed into complete sets of fresh clothing." Tony couldn't help the glance he exchanged with Gibbs. Kate didn't miss it. "What's going on?" she demanded.

Tony silently willed Gibbs to give in and actually answer. Stonewalling Kate wouldn't exactly inspire her to new levels of acceptance when it came to him and Gibbs and Gibbs's nature. A little trust could go a long way right now. If only Gibbs's insincts weren't on a hair trigger right now, Tony thought wryly. He wouldn't be thinking about winning Kate over, about what he needed to do to protect himself in the future. He'd be thinking about what he needed to do to protect Kate's career now.

Gibbs's voice was steady, unyielding, when he responded. "Nothing you need to be concerned with."

"If it concerns this case, it concerns me," Kate shot back hotly. "How am I supposed to contribute anything if I'm being cut out of developments important enough to tie up the two senior agents for two full days?"

"Those developments turned out not to have anything to do with the case," Gibbs argued.

"You can't know that! We haven't solved it yet." Kate had dug her heels in. It's a damn good thing Gibbs let off some steam earlier, Tony thought, fighting down a snicker.

Of course, that didn't mean that Gibbs was feeling exactly mellow. "I'm dealing with it," he said flatly.

"Do you not trust me anymore? Is that it?" Kate asked, lifting her chin a little. "I don't immediately jump on board with your...your personal life and the centaur thing, and now I get left out of the loop?"

"McGee is just as in the dark as you are." Gibbs took a long, slow sip from one of the coffee mugs he held and set the other down on the coffee table in front of Tony. He left it, whether or not it was an offer. Coffee was the last thing he needed this late at night.

"So you don't trust McGee either?" Kate demanded, eyes flashing.

"Trust has nothing to do with it, Agent Todd," Gibbs said coolly.

Kate's eyes narrowed. "I notice you didn't say your personal life had nothing to do with it."

"You're splitting hairs."

"Sometimes you have to split hairs to be accurate," Kate said. "I'm not leaving here until I get an answer, Gibbs."

He snorted. "Whether or not you get an answer isn't up to you. It's my decision."

"Then I guess you'd better set up for a houseguest," Kate snapped. Tony resisted the urge to say I told you so, but the disgruntled glance Gibbs shot him told him the centaur was hearing it anyway.

"The lead Tony and I have been running down is very much off the record," Gibbs said after a moment. Kate's eyes lit up in triumph, but Tony could have told her that Gibbs wasn't actually backing down. "The less you know about it, the less you have to lie in your reports, the better for your careers."

"And yet you brought Tony in on it," Kate commented. Tony could see her thoughts on her face. Gibbs keeps secrets from his team, supposedly because he's concerned for them, but he brings his lover into it. Either it wasn't actually a cause for concern and he's playing favorites, or it's serious enough for him to risk his lover as back up, but he doesn't trust the rest of his team enough to ask them.

"I'm not playing favorites, Kate," Gibbs said, apparently reading her expression as easily as Tony had. "If you were going to notice a difference, you'd have noticed it a year ago. You commented on that yourself."

"Then that brings us back to the trust issue."

Like a dog with a bone, Tony thought. If Gibbs didn't give in and explain soon he could permanently damage his professional relationship with Kate. He caught Gibbs's eye for a moment and tried to communicate that silently.

Gibbs was quiet for a long time, turning from Tony to study Kate intently. She seemed to sense he was on some sort of cusp, because she didn't field any more arguments, just let Gibbs contemplate her in silence. Finally he turned away from her and joined Tony on the couch, gesturing with the coffee cup for her to take the armchair. "Have a seat."

Kate paused, eyeing Gibbs warily for a moment before she sat, all but perched on the edge of the deep, comfortable chair.

"Pamela Fitzpatrick was a centaur," Gibbs said. Tony let out a quiet sigh of relief. Gibbs took a long sip of his coffee while Kate absorbed that.

"Are there differences obvious enough that you could tell, even though she was in human form when she was killed?" Kate asked eventually. Tony could see an edge of denial in her eyes, as if she couldn't believe what she was saying. Can't blame you, he told her silently, but didn't speak.

Gibbs shook his head. "No. When we're in human shape we're almost completely indistinguishable from ordinary humans. If we weren't, we'd have been discovered a long time ago."

Kate relaxed a tiny fraction. "Then how could you tell?"

"She'd had a hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, but there was no record of the operation in her background," Gibbs said.

"Okay, hysterectomy I know," Kate said, waving a hand. "But what's a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy?"

"They took her ovaries and tubes, too," Tony supplied.

Kate frowned. "What's that got to do with anything? The absence of records is a little odd, but I can't say my first thought would be 'Maybe she's not human.'"

"It might have been, if you understood that most mares that leave the herd choose to have that operation," Gibbs countered.

"Mares?" Kate asked, looking disturbed. "Why not 'women'?"

"I'm not a linguist," Gibbs said impatiently. "The point is, when Ducky told me, I thought I'd better double check. I wanted to be sure. I was hoping I was wrong. But I recognized her childhood address as one the herd uses regularly when they provide their people with ID."

"So you went to talk to her family to see if they knew anything about why she died," Kate guessed.

Gibbs nodded shortly. "They gave us a lead, a couple of names of stallions who might have issues with independent mares, but both of them turned up solid alibis."

Kate slid back deeper into her chair and rubbed her forehead briefly. "Stallions. Mares. The herd. I don't know if I'm ever going to get used to this."

"You don't need to get used to it," Tony said, shrugging. "Just accept it. It's not like you're going to get it tossed in your face every day. Hell, you might be better off trying not to think about it at all."

"This isn't something I can just forget about, Tony," Kate said, sighing. "As much as I wish I could. Trying to understand it is the best I can do."

"I don't know that you'll ever really understand, Kate. Not even if I explained." Gibbs drained his coffee mug and set it on the table. Silently, Tony slid over the one Gibbs had set down in front of him. The centaur picked it up almost absently. "It's not just me. It's not just one thing. It's a whole different species. A whole different culture."

Kate's eyes slid over to Tony. "But you understand?"

"You say that as if there's something wrong with it," Tony said dryly. He knew exactly what was wrong. Despite all the time they'd worked together, Kate still got irritated when it was his knowledge, his idea that broke the case. He was a phys ed major, a cop. She'd never said it, she never would, but Tony could hear it in her voice sometimes--she was supposed to be smarter than he was.

"No, nothing wrong," she said, a shade of embarrassment entering her voice as she realized how she'd sounded. "I just...I guess I can see how Abby and McGee would take something like this in stride. Those two have their heads half in the clouds anyway. But you always struck me as a pretty normal." At Tony's grin, she added, "In an irritating, chauvinistic sort of way."

"I'm touched, Kate, really," Tony said dryly.

"Touched in the head," she shot back automatically.

"That's a bad thing?" Tony grinned unrepentantly. "Listen, it's not that complicated." He paused, suddenly powerfully aware of Gibbs sitting next to him, but forced himself to go on as if what he was about to say weren't particularly important. "Gibbs, and this thing we've got between us, is more important to me than...anything else. If I can have this, it's worth whatever that takes."

Kate glanced from Tony to Gibbs and back again. "I just can't see it," she said.

"Are you looking for a demonstration?" Gibbs asked, arching his eyebrows.

Kate flushed. "Of course not," she said, so quickly that Tony knew she was wondering now what it'd look like. What they'd look like, together. Perversely, he kind of wanted to show her, to crawl over Gibbs and kiss him, slow and deep, and let Kate see that this was real, and not strange, and not wrong.

Gibbs shot Tony a sidelong glance. "Don't think I don't know what you're thinking," he said, lips curving up just at the corners.

"Of course not," Tony said, laughing. "You always know what I'm thinking. Even when I'm not sure what I'm thinking."

"Can I just--" Kate cut herself off and rephrased. "Where did you come from? Centaurs, I mean. Did--have you always been around?"

Asked straight out like that, Tony wondered how Gibbs would handle the issue of Zeus. He was quiet for so long that Tony began to think that he wasn't going to answer at all.

"We've been around for a few thousand years at least," he said at last. "We believe that we were created by Zeus, in ancient Greece. For a very long time, that was the only part of the world where centaurs lived, but eventually we began to wander, to spread out."

Now that's smooth, Tony thought, admiring. Every word was true, strictly speaking.

"A few thousand years," Kate murmured. "Why so secret? If you've been a part of the world so long, why hide?"

"We didn't used to," Gibbs said. "The Greeks knew about us. But when we started travelling...we didn't get a particularly warm reception. Things as different as we are tend not to. It was easier just to pass," Gibbs shrugged.

Kate was silent for a long moment. "I'm sitting here, and I can't tell that there's anything different about you," she said finally. "Even knowing, I can't see anything to tell me what you are."

"Would you feel better if you could? If there was some way to tell centaurs from 'real' people?" Gibbs asked, challenging.

"That's not what I meant," Kate said, brushing her hair back from her face. "I've worked with you for four years, I know that you're a real person. But if I can't tell, if I didn't know about this... What else is there that I don't know about?"

"A hell of a lot," Tony said, shrugging. "Jesus, Kate. You didn't think you knew everything, did you?"

Kate scowled at him. "Of course not. But I thought I understood about the big things. The important things."

"This doesn't mean that everything you knew is wrong, Kate," Gibbs said. "Just incomplete."

"You learn something new every day?" Kate said, wryly. She shook her head and pushed herself up out of her chair. "I'm going home. There's only so much of this I can handle in one dose."

Gibbs and Tony rose and walked her to the door. Just as she put her hand on the knob, Tony called out, "Hey, Kate." She glanced over her shoulder and Tony turned and grabbed Gibbs and pulled him into a kiss. He kept it light and easy, but Gibbs must have figured in for penny, in for a pound, because the next thing Tony knew there were fingers sliding into his hair and Gibbs's mouth was opening under his and he had to suppress a little whimper of pleasure. He forgot all about Kate and just kissed, drinking in the slick caress of Gibbs's mouth.

They parted slowly, lips clinging together for a moment, and Tony had to swallow and lick his lips before he could turn and look at Kate. She stood frozen, one hand on the door, staring at them. Bit by bit her stunned expression transformed into a smirk. "You're so going to pay for that," she told Tony, nodding towards Gibbs.

Tony grinned. "I know."

Kate just shook her head and turned the door knob. "I'll see you in the office tomorrow."

Tony stepped back so that he couldn't be seen through the doorway and just waved good night. The door closed and Tony waited, shoulders hunched a little.

"I'm not going to slap you," Gibbs said. Slowly, Tony relaxed and started to turn towards Gibbs, only to yelp as he was smacked sharply on the ass. "On the head, anyway," Gibbs finished, smirking.

"Hasn't this ass taken enough punishment for one day?" Tony asked, following Gibbs as he headed back to the basement and their abandoned dinner.

"That'd carry more weight if you hadn't been moaning for more at the time."

"Moaning for more only means you worked me over really well."

Gibbs paused on the stairs and shot him a look. "You still sore?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "I'm just teasing. I might start carrying lube in my jacket pocket, but that doesn't mean I regret a damned thing."

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Gibbs stepped up to the boat and ran a hand over one of the smooth, carefully shaped ribs. Tony settled on his cushion and picked up his Chinese food. Cold now, but still good.

"You're not seriously going to start carrying lube around," Gibbs said, picking up a sanding block.

"Sure I am," Tony said easily. "It's me; do you really think anyone would think twice about it if I did?"

Gibbs snorted and started in with the sanding block. "I'm not sure what that says about your reputation."

"Hey, my reputation is keeping us out of trouble." Tony shrugged and stuffed another forkful of noodles into his mouth.

"I suppose it's only fair, given how much trouble it's gotten you into," Gibbs said dryly. He turned his attention back to the boat and leaned into the sanding motion, but Tony knew it didn't mean he wasn't paying attention. Still, he let the conversation trail off and just watched, eating his Chinese food and enjoying just being here, with Gibbs.

Tony had to wonder what Frank would think if he saw his old frat buddy now. Of the three guys he'd kept in touch with--the three he'd gone on Spring Break with every year until he and Gibbs hooked up--Frank was the only one who knew that Tony swung both ways. He'd told him at the party they'd gone to after commencement, when he had enough beer in him to give him a little liquid courage but before either of them got drunk. He'd figured either he'd get to stop lying to his best buddy, or he could slip out of the party and leave Frank behind with college and the frat.

But he hadn't had to. Frank had been cool. Surprised but cool. Almost from that moment, he'd made a game of trying to guess what Tony's taste in guys would be like. It had become a running joke over the years--he'd guessed wrong so many times, so spectacularly, for so long that now he did it on purpose. Tradition. At least, Tony thought Frank knew what his type was by now.

Tony grinned to himself. Not that Gibbs entirely fits the mold I had in mind. He considered for a moment. Actually, if you took the opposites of all the details of Frank's last guess, he'd hit closer to the mark than Tony had. Maybe he wouldn't be surprised at all. The thought made Tony's grin widen.

"What are you grinning at over there?" Gibbs asked, not looking away from the boat.

Eyes in the back of his head, I swear, Tony thought. Either that, or centaurs are psychic. "Not much. Just...all's right in my world," he said aloud, shrugging.

Gibbs paused briefly in his sanding. "We have an unsolved case on our desks and all's right in your world?"

"There's always going to be an unsolved case on our desks, Boss," Tony pointed out. "But you and me, together, here, having dinner. That's right. Everything exactly as it should be."

"Everything exactly as it should be," Gibbs said, pausing in the act of raising the sanding block again. Instead he slowly set it down. "That's what Abby said about the tapes and the computer and the cars. Everything exactly as it should be."

"Which is why we're stuck," Tony reminded him, confused.

"What if everything was exactly as it should be because everything other than the murder itself happened the same way it always does?" Gibbs asked, suddenly intent.

Tony finished his Chinese food and set the box aside. "Isn't that kind of the definition of 'everything exactly as it should be'?"

"My point, DiNozzo," Gibbs said testily, "is that the killer was exactly where he should be, too."

Tony blinked, the pieces suddenly clicking together. "He's a resident. He could be on the tape, but we discounted him because it was normal for him to be in the building."

"Exactly. He could have shot Lieutenant Fitzpatrick and then just gone home." Gibbs looked fierce, as if he was ready to head straight back to the office to confirm his theory.

"Which means we're going to have to re-interview all the residents of the apartment building personally," Tony commented.

"Starting with those who had cars parked on the street," Gibbs confirmed, nodding. He considered a moment and grunted in displeasure. "In the morning. We won't have any easier a time of it for hauling people out of their beds."

Tony relaxed a little. He was still looking forward to getting into his bed. To sleep, he promised the lingering ache in his ass. Even if just thinking about Gibbs fucking him in the back seat made his dick stir.

Gibbs glared at the boat, clearly not in the mood to work on it anymore. Tony grinned. My turn. "Come on, Gibbs. Play gin with me. See if you can beat me this time."

"I beat you at poker," Gibbs said, stepping away from the boat.

"Why do you think I suggested gin?"

Gibbs shook his head, but he left the boat behind and jogged up the stairs. Tony followed, bringing his cushion with him, and wondered if he could get Gibbs to play for sexual favors again. Not that Gibbs had finished 'paying up' from the last game, but Tony wasn't about to let that stop him. Not now that he knew 'sex in the car' was on the menu.


The entire team, most particularly McGee and Abby, were relieved to hear about Gibbs's moment of inspiration the night before. They might be comfortable with computers, but that didn't mean either of them liked studying hours and hours worth of video. Especially boring video. Even repeating interviews was preferable.

Unfortunately, between 8:00 and 9:00am on a Thursday morning, their suspects weren't all conveniently at home in the one apartment building. Gibbs and Tony headed for the workplace of the first on the list while Kate and McGee took the second.

They both struck out. Not that either of them could magically look at a suspect and know if they were guilty or not--and if Tony could have one superpower, he thought sometimes that that might be the one he'd pick--but he was learning to trust his gut, and his gut said that Ted Rodgers hadn't shot Fitzpatrick. Kate and McGee's suspect had managed to turn up an alibi--he'd been on the phone with the IRS, which was about as solid as you got.

They worked their way through about half their list and were still empty handed, other than a couple of people with no alibis but no motives either. They got mentally tagged for a further look later, but Tony was still hoping that they wouldn't need to expand their search from those residents who'd been parked on the street.

Eventually, Tony and Gibbs returned to the apartment building to interview the first of the residents who were home at this time of day. "And here we are, back at square one," Tony said as he pulled the door of the lobby open and stepped inside after Gibbs.

"I think we arrived at square one yesterday." Gibbs headed straight for the elevators and pressed the up button. "This is square two."

"Which will lead to square three," Tony said optimistically.

Arthur Albert Allen--and Tony didn't want to know what his parents had been thinking to saddle him with a name like that--lived in 2B. Far enough away from Pamela and Gena, in 5F, that Tony wondered if they'd ever actually met. It seemed odd to live just yards away from someone and never really have run into them, but Tony knew maybe half a dozen people in his own building on sight and there were apartments for nearly a hundred.

They had to pound on Allen's door for more than a minute before the sound of a deadbolt sliding back and a security chain rattling into place came through the door. The door opened to the length of the chain and a stocky man with a sleep mask pushed up onto his forehead peer blearily out at them. "Whaddya want?" he mumbled.

Gibbs and Tony displayed their badges. "NCIS. We need to ask you a few questions, Mr. Allen," Gibbs rattled off.

Allen turned and peered at something inside the apartment. "Fuck," he muttered, a little clearer. "Listen, it might be the middle of the day for you, but I work the graveyard shift. For me, it's the middle of the night. Can't you come back later?"

"I'm afraid not, Mr. Allen," Gibbs said firmly. "Do you mind if we come in?"

Allen tried to scrub his hand over his head, ran into the sleep mask, and pulled it off with an elastic snap. "Fine," he muttered. The door shut, the chain rattled as it came off, and the door opened again, this time all the way. Allen turned and wandered deeper into his apartment, leaving them to enter and shut the door behind themselves. "Who did you say you were with?"

"NCIS," Tony repeated. "Naval Criminal Investigative Service."

Allen grunted and gestured them over to the dining table he had set up next to the kitchen area. "What's that do?" he asked, dropping down into a wooden chair.

"We investigate crimes involving Naval or Marine personnel or property," Gibbs said calmly. He continued to stand. Allen, Tony noticed as he claimed a seat for himself, paused noticeably.

"What's that got to do with me?" he asked, propping his head up on one hand.

"The woman who was murdered in front of this building Monday morning was a Navy lawyer." Gibbs's tone was simply informative, but he was watching Allen like a hawk.

"Oh." Allen swallowed visibly. "Any, uh, leads on that?"

"We're pursuing one right now," Gibbs said, almost conversationally. "You work from 8:00pm to 4:00am in," he paused, checking his notes, which Tony knew was mostly for effect, "Germantown. So you'd be getting home around 5:00am."

"More or less," Allen said. He was looking a lot more awake now.

"Do you own a gun, Mr. Allen?" Gibbs asked neutrally.

"No, never have," Allen jumped in, so quickly that Tony was certain he was lying. "Those things make me twitchy. More power than one person ought to have."

"Then you won't mind if we have a look around."

Allen hesitated. "Of course not," he said finally. "Just, could you be quick? I'm missing out on sleep here and I've still got to work tonight."

Gibbs didn't answer, just nodded politely and pointed Tony towards the kitchen while he started poking around in the living room. They searched quickly but thoroughly, lifting cushions and opening drawers, poking around inside cupboards and peering under the furniture. No gun.

Tony joined Gibbs in the bedroom after finishing his search of the bathroom. "Nothing, Boss," he said quietly. "But this guy is way too twitchy."

Gibbs nodded, lips pursed in thought. "If he killed her and just went in the building as usual, he had limited opportunities to ditch the weapon, and we didn't find it at the scene."

"I don't remember who the LEOs said was last person into the building was before the murder," Tony said, "but I know it wasn't this guy. I'd have remembered the name. Which means he could have ditched the gun before he went back to his apartment."

Gibbs shook his head. "He wasn't on the list Abby made of the residents on the tape at all," Gibbs said. "He must have believed that someone would hear the shot and call the police, which means he knew if he was going to get settled in his apartment and be ready to be surprised when they showed up, he had to be quick. He knew the camera was there; he probably circled around back to avoid it. And if he thought he got away with it, he might not have been willing to take the risk of disposing of the gun more thoroughly." Gibbs glanced through the bedroom doorway at Mr. Allen, who hovered nervously in the living room, peering back at them.

"So what's between the back entrance and this apartment?" Tony mused aloud. "The maintenance room, the elevator, and the first floor. And two garbage chutes; one on the first floor and one on the second."

"Everything attached to the lobby is probably too public," Gibbs reasoned. "Even if the cameras don't actually cover the elevator. Best bet is the garbage."

Tony looked over at Allen, eyes landing on the windows to his left. They were cracked open slightly. "Or straight out the window," he suggested. "He shoots Fitzpatrick, hurries to the safety and privacy of his apartment, realizes he needs to ditch the weapon, panics, and tosses it before he thinks twice."

Gibbs considered for a moment, then nodded. "You go down and check underneath the windows. If it's not there, get the manager to let you into the garbage. I'll stay and keep an eye on Mr. Allen."

Tony grimaced but nodded. Back at ground level, he left through the main doors and started circling around the building, hoping silently but fervently that they'd find the gun underneath Allen's window. He didn't relish crawling around in dumpers under the best of circumstances; today he didn't even have a jumpsuit with him.

The base of the apartment building had been landscaped with thick, short bushes. Evergreen bushes, unfortunately. They were just as prickly and impenetrable now as they would be in the summer. Maybe more so. At least in the summer they dried out and got brittle.

Thinking sad thoughts for his dry cleaning bill, Tony got down on his hands and knees and peered under the bushes, crawling slowly along the row. Something squarish, dull, and black caught his eye after a minute. Tony paused to pull on a pair of latex gloves before he fought his way past the bush's needles to retrieve it.

Sitting back on his heels, Tony looked down at the mud streaked gun he held in his hand with dark satisfaction. "Gotcha," he muttered. Tony retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and hit the speed dial. "Boss," he said when Gibbs picked up. "Found a gun in the bushes under the windows. It's a Glock. Looks like a .357."

"Call Kate and meet me out front," Gibbs said briskly. There was a click as he hung up.

Tony grinned and pulled an evidence bag out of his jacket pocket. Thursday afternoon and it looked like they'd be tying this thing up soon. Seemed like their plans for the weekend were safe. From this case, anyway.


Tony stood in the dark observation room and stared into interrogation, where Gibbs sat across the table from Arthur Allen. Allen was sweating visibly, but he seemed to have used the trip down to headquarters to scrape up some sort of determination, because he was managing to meet Gibbs's gaze. For the moment.

"This is the guy?" Kate asked quietly, standing next to Tony.

"Looks like it." He arched an eyebrow. "Doesn't look like much, does he?"

"No." She seemed a little disturbed.

"Any idea why he killed her?" McGee asked, leaning forward a little to peer over Tony and Kate's shoulders.

"That's what we're here to find out, McGee," Tony said.

"Mr. Allen," Gibbs began, one hand resting lightly on the file folder on the table in front of him. "Would you like to tell me why we found a hand gun in the bushes under the windows of your apartment?"

"Those bushes are also under the windows of apartments 1B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, and 8B," Allen answered, "but I don't see any of those residents in here. What've you got against me?"

"None of those residents had cars parked on the street immediately out front of the building, adjacent to the crime scene," Gibbs said evenly.

Allen snorted. "They would if they could. Even with street permits, most of the parking around that building sucks. Those spots out front are prime, but you only get them if you're timing is right."

Gibbs tilted his head. "So who ends up there is the luck of the draw, is that it?"

"No, no, no," Allen leaned forward on the table, speaking intently. "I said if you're timing is right, not if it's good. I usually get home just before this guy in a green Subaru Outback leaves for work. I just slide into his spot. Get it almost every morning. Sometimes I have to circle the block for a few minutes, but it's worth it."

"This guy takes his parking seriously," Kate commented, sounding bemused.

"Hey, parking is a serious thing," Tony protested. "My building has limited underground space and competition for those slots is cutthroat. Every year I have to take a day off to get in line early enough to claim one of them." He paused when he saw how both McGee and Kate were staring at him. "What?"

"You take a whole day off to wait in line for a parking space?" McGee asked.

"I drive a 1966 Mustang!" Tony said defensively. "I'm not about to park it out on the street." Kate just shook her head and turned back to the interrogation room.

Gibbs flipped open the folder and glanced down briefly. "You were parked next to Pamela Fitzpatrick."

"Who?" Allen looked genuinely confused.

Gibbs pushed a picture across the table. "Pamela Fitzpatrick," he repeated. "Thirty-eight years old. A lawyer with the Judge Advocate General's office. She lived in 5F before someone shot her and left her to die in the street."

Allen looked a little shaky, but he pushed the photo back across the table. "I guess she was the one who drove the blue Volkswagon," he said unevenly.

"She was." Gibbs tucked the photo back into the file and looked up at Allen. From the way Allen flinched, Tony could guess what kind of look he was on the receiving end of. "But I think you already knew that, Mr. Allen."

"I don't know everyone who lives in my building," Allen said, sticking his chin out.

"But you know everyone who parks on that street. By sight if not by name."

"Not if their schedule doesn't run up against mine!" The protest was quick, rushed, and Allen hurried to reinforce it. "She left for work before I got home and got home before I left for work. She had to--she blocked me in with her car often enough." Allen's mouth suddenly snapped shut and he flushed, as clear a cue as if it had been written on his forehead.

Gibbs paused, letting the mistake sink in for a moment. "Pissed you off, didn't it?"

"Well of course it did," Allen said, sounding almost reasonable. "I mean, there've been mornings when I couldn't get out of the spot at all, no matter how careful I was. It's hard to explain being late to work because you had to take the bus when your boss knows you have a car. But hell, I'd have had to dent my car and hers just to get out."

"You were always the careful one," Gibbs said.

Allen nodded. "Yeah."

"The considerate one."

"Yeah, I was." A hint of self-righteousness crept into his tone.

Gibbs appeared not to notice. "You thought before you acted. Made sure not to put yourself in anyone's way."

Allen was nodding enthusiastically now. "That's right."

"But that bitch, she didn't care about anyone but herself."

"She thought she was entitled," Allen added eagerly. "Just because she was some big shot lawyer with her fancy job. She thought she was one step above the rest of us."

"But you brought her down. Showed her who had the power," Gibbs said flatly.

Allen froze. "I didn't," he said weakly.

"You got home one day and she hadn't left yet," Gibbs said. He went on implacably. "She was just coming out of the building, walking towards her car, and when you realized who she was, in her uniform, with her briefcase, you remembered all those times she'd parked you in and made you late and gotten you in trouble with your boss, and you got angry."

"I didn't." Allen repeated, shaking his head. "I just...I just wanted to scare a little humility into her," he said, slumping back in his chair. "I wasn't going to hurt her."

"The gun was loaded." Gibbs's tone was unforgiving.

"I couldn't do it if the threat wasn't real. I needed to know I had back up." He looked up, scowling at Gibbs. "I didn't impress her. The gun had to."

"She wasn't impressed, was she?"

Allen snorted. "She laughed," he said bitterly. "She said she'd seen a lot scarier things than me. She said I didn't have the guts to use a gun."

"Congratulations," Gibbs said softly, dangerously. "You proved her wrong."

"I damn well did," Allen muttered. He didn't even sound like he regretted it.

Gibbs stood and left the interrogation room, taking the folder with him.

"He killed her over parking etiquette," Kate said, aghast. "That...that's just so stupid."

"People kill each other over stupid shit all the time, Kate," Tony commented tiredly. "I saw a lot more of it as a city cop than I have since joining NCIS. People killing each other over baseball tickets or a ten dollar piece of junk, or a spot on a street corner. Happens all the time."

"Uh, don't we need to arrest him?" McGee asked from behind them.

"Yeah," Tony said. "I got it."

Allen went quietly enough, once the cuffs were on. Tony got him booked and processed and into holding, and then he went upstairs to start composing that bit of creative writing he'd have to call his report. Coming up with two days worth of work to cover his and Gibbs's investigation of the herd was going to be interesting. And they'd have to coordinate. Make sure their stories matched.

The rest of the team were typing industriously when Tony settled into his desk, hardly even looking up. He brought up his usual template and started at the beginning. That, at least, was straightforward enough.


He looked up, wincing at the ache in his neck that told him he'd been bent over his computer for too long. Kate, McGee, and Abby stood over his desk. "Come on," Abby said. "It's five. Come out and have a drink with us."

Tony automatically glanced over at Gibbs's desk and found it empty.

"He said he had to make a phone call," McGee supplied helpfully.

Brian, Tony thought. No other reason why he wouldn't make it from his desk. Taking another look at his report, Tony figured it could wait until the next day. Besides, he couldn't write that much more before talking to Gibbs about what 'that much more' was going to be. "Got a place in mind?" he asked, standing up and stretching for a moment before shrugging into his coat and dropping his things into his backpack.

"You do not get to choose," Kate said automatically. Tony made a face at her. She made it right back.

Abby rolled her eyes. "We figured The Mahogany Room," she supplied.

The Mahogany Room was a relatively quiet place, good for a few slow drinks when you were unwinding. "Sounds good," Tony said. He wondered briefly how he and Gibbs would sort things out tonight. It was the first time since Tony was hospitalized and they made their agreement--or, rather, he made his demand--to spend more time together that they hadn't been able to check with each other beforehand. Oh well, he sighed internally. One night alone isn't going to kill me.

The four of them piled into the elevator together. "This was a pretty boring case for you, wasn't it, Abby?" Tony commented, almost apologetically.

She just shrugged. "They can't all have severed mummified limbs and hacker attacks."

"Besides, I think the centaurs were enough complication," Kate commented dryly.

Tony winced.

"Just the one," Abby commented, frowning. Suddenly her expression grew suspicious. "Right?" Kate's hesitation was eloquent. "Tony!" Abby reached over and thumped him on the arm. Hard.

"Ow!" he exclaimed, rubbing his shoulder and glaring over his shoulder at her. "That hurt!"

"It was supposed to," she said, pouting darkly. "You've been holding out on me."

"More like Gibbs was holding out on everyone. Until last night, anyway. Listen, I'll fill you in when we get to The Mahogany Room, okay?" Tony promised as the elevator doors opened.

Abby poked a finger in his direction. "Promise."

Tony laid a hand over his heart. "I promise."

Her expression eased a little. "Okay."

"Are we all taking our own cars?" McGee jumped in when they'd settled.

"Yeah," Kate said. Then she raised an eyebrow. "Unless anyone is planning on getting plastered."

Tony joined Abby and McGee in their headshakes and headed for his car. To his surprise, he arrived at The Mahogany Room before any of the others. Glancing at the dashboard clock before he turned the car off, he realized he'd made it almost five minutes faster than he usually did. Oh God, he thought. I think Gibbs's driving is rubbing off on me. He'd held out for five years, but it looked like the man's bad habits were finally making an impression. Shutting the Mustang's door with a thump, Tony laid a hand on the roof, letting it slide down the margin of the windshield and across the hood in silent apology as he approached the entrance to the bar.

The other three arrived one after the other just as Tony was sliding into a booth. He raised a hand and waved them over.

"You got here fast," Kate commented as she slid in across from him. Abby claimed the seat next to him and McGee took the outside seat next to Kate.

"I know," Tony said, distressed. "I think Gibbs is corrupting me." With the timing of servers everywhere, theirs arrived just then, leaving Tony to suffer under the knowing smirks of his co-workers just that little bit longer. "With his driving habits," Tony clarified firmly when they'd placed their drink orders.

"Is that what they call it now?" McGee asked, almost--but not quite--deadpan.

Tony shook his head. "That joke's so old it's crumbling into dust by now," he said. "You need new material, McGee."

Kate smiled sweetly. "But it's so hard to resist when you set it up so perfectly."

"Be careful how you treat me. I'm sleeping with the boss." Tony grinned and waggled his eyebrows.

Kate was caught off guard, staring at him, but Abby laughed and jumped in in her stead. "Gibbs is constitutionally incapable of playing favorites, but you have fun trying to convince him."

Tony grinned, relieved that Abby had caught the joke. He didn't seriously want Kate or McGee thinking he'd trade on his relationship with Gibbs. He wouldn't have mentioned it at all if he didn't think it had occurred to both of them already. "Oh, come on," he argued playfully. "You don't think he went kind of easy on McGee when he started?"

"He did not go easy!" McGee protested. "I've never worked so hard in my life."

Tony snorted. "You should have seen how he rode me for that first year."

"I bet he rides you harder now," Abby said, leering.

"More like I ride him," Tony shot back, eyes sparkling.

Abby's jaw dropped. "Noooo," she said, lowering her voice. "I totally had Gibbs pegged as a top."

Tony had to laugh, as much at Kate and McGee's horrified expressions as at Abby's comment. "He is," he said, grinning as his fellow field agents' looks of horror deepened. "But I ride him in his other shape."

"Oh, God, I don't want to know," Kate said hurriedly. "For the sake of my sanity, please, stop there."

Realizing how his comment had come across, Tony started laughing so hard he had to lay his head down on his crossed arms and wait for the laughing fit to pass. "Not like that," he finally gasped, picking up the bottle of beer the server had left for him while he had his fit. "On his back, Kate. Centaurs can carry a person the same way a horse can."

Kate flushed darkly. "Hey, I'm still trying to get my brain wrapped around this," she said defensively.

Tony waved the comment off and took a long, deep pull from his beer now that he knew he wasn't going to choke on it. "After today, I needed the laugh."

"Speaking of today," Abby poked him. "Spill."

Sighing a little, Tony launched into the same explanation Gibbs had delivered the night before, though he went into a little more detail on Parker and Stephenson and why he and Gibbs had had to check them out.

"Okay," Kate said when he was done, "here's something I forgot to ask about last night. If all you were doing was talking to people, why did you two change clothes in the middle of the day yesterday?"

Tony couldn't help it. He blushed bright red.

"Tony." McGee sounded seriously disbelieving. "Not even you would..." he lowered his voice suddenly, "not on the job."

"It wasn't me!" Tony protested, just as quietly. "I swear! One minute we're on our way back to headquarters and the next--"

"Stop right there," Kate interrupted.

"Kate!" Abby chided her.

"You are all twisted," Kate glared around at the three of them. "And I do not want to know the details of my boss's sex life. Ever. Capice?"

"You realize you've just handed Tony the perfect weapon to use against you, don't you?" McGee asked.

"Not one he can use in public."

Tony raised his eyebrows. "After four years working together, you doubt my ability to make double entendres which seem innocent to the uninitiated?"

"After four years I'm still surprised you can use 'double entendre' in a sentence," Kate shot back.

"At least I have double entendres to make," Tony parried.

"And far too many--" Kate cut herself off as she remembered that Tony didn't actually have far too many sources for his double entendres. Tony raised his beer bottle in triumph as she stumbled to a stop, effectively surrendering the field of battle.

"Do you two keep score?" Abby asked, amused.

Tony's 'yes' overlapped perfectly with Kate's 'no.' "Oh?" She challenged. "Then who's winning?"

"I am, of course," Tony announced smugly.

Kate snorted. "Of course you are."

"If you weren't going to believe me, why ask?"

Kate just shook her head. "I don't know how Gibbs puts up with you."

"The same way I put up with him," Tony said, shrugging.

Kate looked genuinely curious. Tony wasn't sure what that said about him. Or Gibbs. "Which is?" she asked.

Tony gesture helplessly with his empty hand. "I can't tell you."


"I said I can't tell you," Tony cut Kate off. "Not that I won't. Have you ever tried to explain exactly why you love someone, Kate? It's just not that easy. I could tell you a dozen things about the man that attract me, that make me want to spend my time with him, but you already know those things. They just don't turn your crank, and apparently you can't really imagine those things doing it for someone else, either."

Kate grimaced and took a long sip from her own drink. "You just seem like such an odd couple," she said after a moment.

"But they're not, really," Abby jumped in. "I mean, sure, on the surface Gibbs is all hard ass and Tony is all happy go lucky, but when you get past that they're totally complimentary. You know they've got the same sense of humor, even if Gibbs doesn't let it show most of the time. Tony," Abby tossed him a sympathetic glance, "anyone with eyes can see you have a serious need for a sense of belonging, and Gibbs is pretty damn possessive of 'his' people."

You have no idea, Tony thought, bemused by Abby's run down of his and Gibbs's characteristics.

"Gibbs is a workaholic," McGee said, though Tony could tell he was more interested in challenging Abby than in actually punching a hole in her argument.

"And do you know who logs the second largest amount of overtime after Gibbs?" Abby came back at him immediately.

Kate and McGee immediately turned surprised glances on Tony. He shrugged uncomfortably. "I like to work at night."

"What about Gibbs's three divorces?" Kate asked Abby.

Tony couldn't resist jumping in on that one. "There is such a thing as bisexuality, Kate," he said dryly.

Kate rolled her eyes at him. "Not what I meant. I just figure three divorces is pretty good evidence that Gibbs sucks at relationships."

"So?" Tony shrugged. "You don't have to be good at relationships to have one. Even a serious one."

"Besides, Tony isn't exactly a romantic mastermind," McGee said.

"Hey! I had more than my fair share of dates before I hooked up with Gibbs," Tony protested.

"And a disproportionate number of nasty break ups, too," McGee said insistently. "Tony, someone actually filed a complaint. And that's just since I started."

Tony grimaced. There had been only the one complaint, but that had sure as Hell taught him a lesson about how hard he could push and with who. "Okay, so I wasn't always diplomatic."

"I think that's an understatement," Kate commented.

"The point is," Abby said, interrupting Tony's protest, "they're not as much of an odd couple as you might think."

"Aside from the part where Gibbs isn't human," Kate said dryly. After taking a quick look around, Tony noticed with approval.

"Well, we can't really say if that makes it more or less odd without knowing more about centaurs," Abby said seriously.

"Abby," Kate said, "I know you figure there's a lot more going on in the world than we know about or understand, but how could Gibbs and Tony not being the same species possibly make the relationship less odd?"

Abby shrugged. "Depends on how different centaur psychology is from human, doesn't it? Maybe Tony's more compatible with the way a centaur thinks than with the way a human thinks."

"How different could it be? Gibbs is indistinguishable from human as far as I can tell."

"Tony?" Abby prompted.

"You should really be asking Gibbs this sort of thing," Tony said. He signaled the server and pointed at his empty beer. "It's his business. His culture."

"And he'd just tell us?" McGee said skeptically. "Doesn't seem likely to me."

"Besides," Kate jumped in, "how many times did you tell me that what concerns Gibbs concerns you, and vice versa?"

"We're not asking for specifics. Just, you know, a general overview," Abby added hopefully.

"I'm not giving you three centaur herd dynamics 101," Tony said firmly. "But I will tell you that yes, there are differences, and yes, they suit me just fine."

Abby looked speculative even. "Herd dynamics, huh? That tells us a good bit all on its own."

"Add to that Tony's comments about having to interview 'lone stallions' and the 'herd stallion' and I think we've got some clues to work with," Kate said, eyes glittering with interest. Well, she was a profiler. If treating Gibbs's nature as a puzzle to be solved helped, Tony was willing to enable the discussion. A little. He settled himself in to watch them speculate, grinning.


It was nearly ten when Tony finally arrived back at his apartment. Drinks had grown into dinner as the conversation rambled on and he hadn't been able to make himself break off the evening just to come home when he was almost certain there wasn't going to be anyone to come home to. After all, he and Gibbs hadn't made any arrangements before he left the office.

But when he opened his apartment door the lights were on in his kitchen and living room and Gibbs was there, pacing the width of the apartment with Tony's cordless phone pressed to his ear. He looked up as Tony shut the door behind him and smiled briefly in greeting before his expression turned serious again. "No," Gibbs said into the phone, "Some portion of it is going to have to go on the record." A pause. "Because I told my people that I was chasing down a lead on two men who'd been asking her family about her."

Brian, Tony realized, shedding his jacket and piling it and the rest of his things on the dining table. Gibbs must not have been able to get in touch earlier.

"I had to tell them something," Gibbs snapped. "My agents are not idiots. They weren't about to fail to notice the fact that Tony and I vanished for two days. No. No. Of course not. I don't want to bring any particular attention to the herd either. We'll use the address in town, the one in Pamela's file. Because it was in her file, Brian. No. I'm sure. We have the killer. He confessed. There won't be any reason to pry too deeply into the investigation." A much longer pause. Gibbs was scowling deeply. "If that happens, I'll take care of it. No, you won't. It's not your responsibility, Brian. I don't care if it's your herd for the next century, it's my case!"

The joys of dominance, Tony thought wryly. He wandered into the kitchen and noticed the half pot of coffee on the warming element and the pot encrusted with something that smelled like chili in the sink. Only Gibbs could drink coffee until past ten and still expect to actually sleep at night.

"I called to inform you of the resolution of the case as a courtesy," Gibbs ground out. "I am not responsible to you. It's taken care of. It will continue to be taken care of." Gibbs hung up without saying goodbye.

"There are times you just want a cradle to slam the receiver down on, aren't there?" Tony asked, returning to the living room.

Gibbs grunted. "He got the point."

Tony steadied himself with a hand on Gibbs's shoulder and leaned in to kiss him slowly. After a moment Gibbs put his arms around Tony and pulled him closer, pressing their bodies together, but Tony kept the kiss light and sweet.

When they parted, Gibbs smiled at him. "What was that for?"

"Abby told me to give you a kiss," Tony said, smiling cheekily.

Letting Tony go, Gibbs returned the cordless phone to the handset. "For her?" he asked after setting it in the base.

"Nope," Tony sat on one arm of the couch and just watched at Gibbs went to replenish his coffee cup. "I told her the only kisses you got these days were mine."

"You spend the entire evening discussing our sex life?" Gibbs asked dryly.

Tony paused just long enough for Gibbs's look to turn into a glare. "Well, not the whole night," he said, grinning. "Come on, Gibbs. They just want to understand how we...well, how we make the two of us work. I promise I didn't get into too much detail." Even if it had been fun to make Kate squirm by skirting the edges.

"They?" Gibbs asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Abby, Kate, and McGee," Tony explained. "They surprised me, or I'd have left you a note or something."

Gibbs just nodded. "How're they dealing?"

"McGee and Abby are desperately curious," Tony said. He grinned and shook his head, remembering some of their questions. "You're lucky they don't dare pin you down and pump you for information."

"And Kate?" Gibbs prompted.

Tony shrugged. "She's loosened up some. I think having the chance to just talk about it has helped make it less weird to her. Especially having McGee and Abby there. Those two can make anything seem ordinary, when they try." Tony hesitated. "I, ah, filled them in on what else was going on with this case." Gibbs shot him a hard look and Tony shrugged helplessly. "It didn't seem right to leave them in the dark when Kate knew."

Gibbs grunted. "I guess not," he said grudgingly.

"Which reminds me," Tony said, following Gibbs down the hallway and into the bathroom. "You need to let me know what to put in my report about yesterday and the day before."

Gibbs squeezed toothpaste onto a brush as he spoke. "Stick as close to the truth as possible." He brushed quickly, holding the rest of his words until he was done. "Less chance you'll forget later that way. We went to inform Fitzpatrick's family of her death and to ask them some standard questions. I'll give you the address to use--it's in the town just off of the herd's land. They gave us Parker and Stephenson's names. No reason not to use those, since they weren't guilty. The rest can stay the same."

"Brian wasn't her father," Tony pointed out. "So why'd we talk to him?"

"We didn't." Gibbs wet down a facecloth and scrubbed his face and hands. "We'll use the names of the couple at the address I gave you. They're regular foster parents for young stallions from the herd; they'll cover for Brian and the sentries. We can't have the herd on record at all."

"If either Parker or Stephenson challenge and win, the herd will be on record anyway."

Gibbs frowned and turned and leaned against the bathroom counter. "I don't think we need to worry about that," he said after a long moment. "Like Barb said, Brian might be pushing fifty, but he's still in excellent shape. I expect the herd will have him around for several more years."

It was hard for Tony to know whether he should be pleased about that or not. To hold onto the herd Brian would probably have to kill two young stallions, unless one of them backed off their challenge. But the only alternative was for one of them to kill him... Not to mention that with Brian in charge there was a chance Gibbs might be able to go back and visit the herd again. As much as Tony wanted Gibbs to have the opportunity to be with other centaurs again, to catch up with his half sisters and make peace with the life he'd been forced to give up, some part of Tony was afraid that Gibbs would remember that he was just the consolation prize.

"You coming to bed?" Gibbs asked, nodding in the general direction of the bedroom.

"I'm gonna see if I can catch the eleven o'clock news," Tony said. "See who won the game."

Gibbs nodded. "I'll be waiting."

Tony returned to the living room alone and turned the TV on and all the lights off, letting the flickering of the screen be his illumination. But the longer he sat there, watching some murder mystery and waiting for eleven, the less interested he was in the game and the more crawling into bed with Gibbs seemed like a nice idea.

By ten-thirty Tony gave up on the news and turned the TV off, navigating his apartment by memory. He padded into the bathroom and got ready for bed quickly. Slipping into the bedroom quietly in case Gibbs was sleeping, Tony stripped down, kicked his clothes into a corner, and eased into bed.

He didn't have a chance to settle himself before Gibbs reached out and put an arm around him, tugging Tony up against his body. "I thought you were going to wait for the news?" Gibbs murmured.

"Decided I'd rather be here," Tony whispered back, making himself comfortable against Gibbs's body.

"Good." Gibbs paused, as if for emphasis. "Me too."

Tony flushed, realizing that Gibbs had known exactly what he'd been thinking earlier.

"I love you, Tony," Gibbs said quietly. "Whatever I wanted in the past, I've got what I want now. I'm not interested in trading."

Tony felt warm all over. He smiled against Gibbs's skin. "Good."


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