Alex walked down the stairs listening to the familiar, steady rasp of sandpaper on wood.
“Tony,” Gibbs acknowledged without looking up. When Alex set the bottle of Rip Van Winkle Family Reserve bourbon on Gibbs’ workbench, he glanced over then did a double-take. “Particular reason you brought me a $2500 bottle of bourbon?”
“It’s not from me. From my family. Something about thanking you for keeping me alive despite my clear attempts to the contrary,” he replied with a grimace. “But I’m just supposed to say Happy New Year.”
“Hn.” Gibbs went back to sanding.
Alex set an envelope next to the bourbon. “I got you VIP access tickets to that boat builder’s thingy in May that I saw in that woodworking magazine of yours. Happy Holidays.”
“Two tickets?” Gibbs asked idly.
“Good. You’ll come with me.”
Alex’s lips twitched into a smile. “All right.” He picked up some tool he couldn’t even name and fiddled with it. “Air Force offered me a job.”
Gibbs looked up with a frown. “Knew you were working somewhere—Jenny was put out it was classified above her. You thinking about going to AFOSI?”
“No, it’d be an NCIS Resident Unit, and I’d liaise with Air Force special investigations.”
“You’ve been working a month already. Seems you’re decided,” Gibbs replied without inflection.
“Not really. The general who offered the job… he suggested I do it to evaluate the work and keep myself busy. My media issues weren’t a problem on base.”
“And? How was it?” Gibbs asked with what almost seemed like disinterest, but Alex could hear a little something in his voice.
“It was… different. Stumbled into a big mess on my first day. Complicated investigations, but they’re also very contained on base. It–” He broke off and ran his hands through his hair. “It’s not the same. But it’s not even possible to get ‘same’ back. That ship sailed when the FBI ran my DNA.”
“You can’t work undercover, doesn’t mean you can’t investigate crimes in DC.”
“I know. I haven’t made up my mind. General O’Neill wasn’t thrilled that I gave him a ‘maybe’ when I left the base on Friday. But I need to see how much of what I loved about this job is salvageable. Hell, I don’t even know how it’s going to feel now that everything is so different.”
“Guess we’ll know tomorrow.”
Alex sighed. “I admit, I’m not able to read you at all right now.”
Gibbs straightened up and set the sandpaper down. He grabbed his old coffee cup and the jar of screws, upending the screws on the work surface. To Alex’s surprise, he cracked open the new bottle of bourbon. He handed the jar off to Alex.
He took a sip, feeling the burn, but it was a lot smoother than Gibbs’ regular poison.
“That’s nice,” Gibbs said, sounding surprised. He turned his attention back to Alex. “I understand why you’d want to be closer to family. You’ve been denied that your whole life—makes sense to be with them. Doesn’t mean I want you to go.” He took another swig of the bourbon then set the mug down. “I picked you for my team because I want you there. I’ve been thinkin’ and you were right, somewhere along the way I bought into your act a little too much. But whether I was short-sighted or not, doesn’t change anything. I want you on my team. But that’s me sayin’ what I want as your boss.”
Alex was surprised that Gibbs had said so much, but it felt good to know that Gibbs did want him around.
“But as your friend, I just want to see you happy,” Gibbs said gently, surprising Alex with the care. “You deserve it, and if your journey takes you to Nevada, nothing changes. I’ll still have your six anytime you need me.”
Not sure what to say but feeling a little choked up, Alex just watched as Gibbs took a last drink of his bourbon and went back to sanding.
“How’d the visit go?” Gibbs asked, attention seemingly back on the boat.
“Good. Got to meet John and his boyfriend.” He watched Gibbs carefully.
Gibbs glanced over, one eyebrow raised.
“Okay, is that a judgy eyebrow or a surprised eyebrow?”
With a snort of amusement, Gibbs shot back, “Oldest is in the military. He not trying to keep it quiet?”
Alex fiddled with the weird tool with a handle that rotated. “We’re his family,” he near-whispered. “He shouldn’t have to hide.”
Gibbs expression became assessing. “I’ve never judged you, Tony. But next time, I’m not packing your porn.”
“Oh my god, Gibbs! Do you have any idea the uncomfortable conversation that caused? Why did you pack that magazine?”
Gibbs frowned. “You told me to get your kindle out of the bed table. Thought that was some weird euphemism for whatever gets you off.”
Alex started to laugh. “A Kindle is an electronic device you read books on.”
“Huh.” He began sanding again. “How’d that go over?”
“Fine. No one cared. Well, Patrick worries about it with my line of work.”
“He’s right to, but you’ve been hiding it all this time.”
“I may not want to keep hiding,” Alex snapped.
Gibbs stopped sanding and raised that eyebrow again. “Then don’t. I’m not telling you what to do. If you want to hide, you’ll do it as well as you’ve always done. And when you’re done hiding, you bring him by.” The rasp of sandpaper began again.
Alex blinked. “Why?”
“Need to make sure he’s good enough for you,” Gibbs remarked to the boat.
“Gibbs,” Alex began.
“How was it with the oldest brother?” Gibbs interjected.
“I– it was good. Mostly. I don’t know.” Alex felt really flustered. “I like all my brothers, but John…”
“Just say what you have to say, Tony.”
“He’s so weirdly over-protective,” Alex blurted out. “I had a resisting arrest a couple weeks back, and the corporal got in a lucky shot and kicked me in the ribs.”
“Yeah. Nothing but a hairline fracture. But John just lost it. He was on base with me and…” Alex huffed. “I had to practically jump on him to keep him from going to the stockade and beating a corporal black and blue.”
“Sounds like a good brother,” Gibbs remarked idly.
Alex threw up his hands, nearly hitting himself with the tool he was holding. “It was just a broken rib!”
“Uh huh. So if this corporal had hit your younger brother and broken his rib–”
“Now wait a minute. Mattie’s a civilian!”
Gibbs raised an eyebrow again, but this time, Alex understood it.
“Stop being reasonable. It’s fucking with my worldview.”
That actually made Gibbs laugh, and he turned from the boat to face Alex squarely. “He driving you crazy with it?”
“No,” Alex admitted. “I just see how much he worries, and he keeps trying to protect me. I mean, hell, Gibbs, I needed to go question a suspect and John volunteered to go for me.”
Gibbs’ lips twitched. “That’s family, Tony. If John got hurt, would you be okay with it because he’s military and it comes with the territory?”
Alex scowled. “Seriously, stop it.”
“I talked to Ziva,” Gibbs said, obviously changing the subject. “Told her straight to stop making passes at you.”
Rubbing his forehead, Alex wondered how that had gone down. “And?”
“She claimed I misunderstood, but I warned her off anyway.”
“You know I could have handled it, right?”
“Oh, you will. She’s not going to stop until you put her down. Hard.”
Alex made a face. “Great.”
“Fornell got in touch while you were gone. They concluded their investigation into the information leak.”
“Indirectly, it was Agent Sacks.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Why?”
“According to Tobias, Sacks was bitching about you to his girlfriend—pillow talk—and let stuff about the investigation and your real identity slip.”
Alex was nearly grinding his teeth. “That fucking prick.” He ran his hand through his hair. It wasn’t like it wouldn’t have all happened eventually, but he didn’t appreciate Special Agent Slacks forcing their hand. “So because I refused to be cooperative in his attempts to put me away for a murder I didn’t commit—and that didn’t even happen—he just–” Alex broke off, too frustrated to continue.
Gibbs let silence reign for a few moments then said, “He’s been suspended for a month, but Fornell wants that to be the end of it. Told Fornell he needs to talk to you.”
“Meaning, Fornell wants me to persuade Patrick to let it alone.”
“Yup. Told him I wasn’t getting involved and he could damn well ask you himself.” Alex got that this was information sharing, and Gibbs most decidedly was refusing to get involved.
“Right.” Deciding a subject change was in order, because he knew Gibbs wasn’t fond of listening to Alex rant, he asked, “How’s Abby doing?”
“She’s coming around. No excuses though for the way she’s been acting. I love her, but she’s being a brat.”
He sighed, not knowing how to fix the situation. The frustrating part was he didn’t even know if he wanted to. The last email he had from her, she was still clearly pissed at him that she’d gotten in trouble for running his DNA and stepping on the FBI’s sensitive little toes.
Gibbs stepped close and gripped Alex’s shoulder. “Listen. You do what’s best for you. I’m not gonna tell you to go, but I’m not gonna ask you to stay either. That’s bullshit pressure either way. Never doubt I want you on my team, but if you need to go… we’re good. I’ve always got your six.”
Alex nodded. “Thanks, Gibbs.”
– – – –
Shrugging out of his coat, Alex dropped it over the couch even as he was dialing his cell.
“It’s about damn time!”
“Hello to you, too, Rodney.” He got a huff in his ear. “Is everyone there?”
“Yes, I’m sitting here with your entire freakishly attractive family. We’re having some sort of weird New Year’s Sheppard bonding that involves high-stakes pool and alcohol. I think I won a car. John’s being all huffy because his math-bro went home and so math-bros versus engineer-bros pool tournament will have to wait for next time,” he said derisively.
“Rodney!” he could hear John call out from the background.
“Rodney,” Alex chided on a laugh. He sort of adored Rodney and his caustic little attitude. They’d gotten off to a bit of a bumpy start, because every time Rodney got really scathing, Alex started to laugh and Rodney had thought he was being mocked. He’d griped about Alex being too much like John and not taking him seriously. But they’d gotten past the get-to-know-you blues when Alex managed to convince Rodney that he really liked him. Alex hoped John held onto Rodney, because Alex so needed Rodney at every family function. Although, his nerves could do with a little less of Rodney and Matt trying to blow up the back yard!
“Your brother is giving me an eyebrow and has his hand out. I suppose that means he wants the phone. Don’t get dead out there being crazy,” Rodney warned.
“I could say the same, Rodney.” He hoped he’d get to see John and Rodney again before they left to return to Atlantis at the end of the month, but nothing was guaranteed.
“Alex,” David’s voice came over the line. “Give me a second to get away from some of the noise.” There was the sound of a door shutting. “Everything go okay?”
“I’ve known Gibbs for nearly five years, Dave. Nothing bad was gonna happen.”
“No pressure to stay?”
“Nope. He wants me to stay but supports me going.”
Dave sighed. “I know we haven’t done the best job not pressuring you.”
“I’m not used to people worrying about me, but I get it,” Alex replied. There was also that Matt had expressed quite clearly that he just wanted Alex closer. Patrick spent more time in DC, and Dave’s time was split between DC and Nevada.
After concluding the conversation with his brother, Alex sat at his piano and began to play something random, his thoughts on the last month. For all that the time getting to really know his family was great, it was good to finally have some time to himself. Working at Area 51 had been challenging in some respects and restrictive in others. Just working on a single base felt a little confining to him, but it was a huge base, and just the things he’d begun digging into could keep him busy for the next year. The investigation into corruption on base was ongoing, but Alex had left O’Neill with enough information to determine if Landry should be questioned. Alex thought he should, but he didn’t get to decide if a general was going to be called on the carpet for deliberately brushing problems under the rug, which ultimately allowed corruption to spring up on the base.
The holidays had been weird for him. He hadn’t spent the holiday season with family in so long he couldn’t remember, and it had certainly never been like holidays with the Sheppards. Alex was used to working over the holidays, but his brothers had been so horrified, he’d given in and found himself on the family jet, piloted by John, for four days in Paris. His father had given him a car. Well, two cars—a Lexus SUV in Nevada and an Audi in DC. He’d had a moment or two of wrestling with himself before he’d just accepted and said thank you. It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford the cars himself, and Patrick knew that, so Alex felt it was a genuine gesture of affection and not some sort of misguided attempts to take care of him or buy him.
The gift he’d liked best was that while they were in Nevada, Patrick had remodeled the family home in Virginia to convert two guest rooms into a suite for Alex like the ones his brothers had. He’d said he wanted Alex to know it was home whenever he wanted it. Alex couldn’t see himself giving up his independence but there was something about knowing he had a place to land if he needed it that was new and suddenly very vital.
He thought about what he had facing him going back to work: Fornell, Ziva, Abby, the media… Change.
He scowled. Some discordant notes were the result of his annoyance. With a sigh, he got up from the piano and decided to go to bed.
– – – –
Alex had just finished using the bathroom and washing his hands when Ziva slipped into the men’s restroom. He met her gaze through the mirror’s reflection. “Something I can do for you, Ziva?”
“I wanted to speak with you.” Though it wasn’t overt, her body language was definitely all come on. “You have been avoiding me, no?”
“No. I was gone until last night. But you know that already,” he said without inflection as he finished drying his hands.
“I left you messages,” she said stepping close.
“I noticed. Interesting that I never gave you my private phone number.”
Ziva shrugged one shoulder. “We are on the same team, are we not?” She reached out to touch his lapel, and he stepped away.
He leaned down so his mouth was right by her ear and whispered, “I’m just going to say this once. Don’t ever follow me into the restroom again.” With that, he turned and left.
Ziva didn’t immediately follow—no doubt getting her temper under control—so he took the opportunity presented by her absence. “Need to go see Abby, Boss.” Gibbs nodded, so Alex headed for the stairs.
Like he had so many times, he entered her lab to the blaring heavy metal and called out, “Abbs!”
She spun around on her stool. “Tony!” Launching herself at him, she wrapped her arms around him tight. “Tell me you’re home for good!” she yelled over the music, right into his ear, nearly deafening him.
He pried her off of him, went for the remote for the stereo, and turned it off.
But before he could reply, she added, “Did you talk to that nasty assistant director at the FBI yet? They need to withdraw that complaint so Madam Director will remove the reprimand in my file. I wasn’t doing anything but making sure they weren’t getting your hopes up for no reason!”
“I’m not calling the FBI,” he snapped, trying to get his temper under control. “Even if I had any sway with them, which I don’t, you were reprimanded for using NCIS resources for what amounted to personal reasons, and you got caught. There was no active case!”
“I had to make sure they didn’t screw up!”
“I’m not discussing this! I told you in the email that this has nothing to do with me! The only person who can reverse your reprimand is Director Shepard since she issued it!” He blew out a frustrated breath, trying to find his patience. “I came down here to tell you I was offered a job in Nevada, and–”
“You’re not taking that!” she interrupted as she blew a raspberry. “This is home. You belong here. With us.”
“It’s not a straightforward decision,” he countered, and why the fuck did she think she got a say?
She propped her hands on her hips and glared at him. “It’s only complicated if you make it that way, DiNozzo.”
Her deliberate use of his old name brought him up short. He wasn’t even sure what she was trying to do other than upset him. “What are you doing, Abby?”
“This is where you belong! You are Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. That’s who you’ve always been, and you can be again. You just need to stop letting shiny things grab your attention.”
He blinked, and his mouth opened and closed a few times before he managed to get out, “Are you really calling me a magpie and making my family out to be nothing more than bottle caps?”
She looked abashed briefly, but then this stubborn look entered her eyes that didn’t give Alex much hope for the recovery of their friendship. “We are your family, Tony.”
Shaking his head, he felt the ties of their friendship snapping under the strain of her behavior. He decided to just change the subject. He’d known Abby for years, and when she got her heels dug in, there was very little hope of redirecting her. “Ziva called me a few times over the holidays.”
“So? She’s your teammate. She can call you if she wants.”
“So, I didn’t give anyone my private cell except for Gibbs, and the phone is registered to Sheppard Industries. I’m hoping you weren’t stupid enough to hack my father’s company, and I know Gibbs didn’t give it to either of you, so how’d you get it?”
“What makes you think I had anything to do with it?”
“Well, I don’t think Ziva would use Mossad to try to get my phone number, and she sure as hell didn’t do it alone. My gut says it wasn’t McGee, and so that leaves you.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him but said nothing.
“I think you should answer the question, Abby,” Gibbs’ voice came from the door, and he didn’t sound pleased.
Alex straightened his spine. “I can handle this, Gibbs.”
“Not your job, Tony.” He looked at Abby, who was wide-eyed. “I didn’t give you Tony’s cell. How’d you get it?”
Their stare off went on for longer than Alex thought it would, but Abby finally cracked and said, “I pulled up your cell phone records and figured the number registered to Sheppard Industries was Tony.”
Gibbs pointed at Abby. “You wait there.” He then crooked his finger at Alex. “With me.” In the hall Gibbs quietly said, “You need to let me handle this. She crossed the line. Go get caught up on what you missed.”
“Yes, Boss.” Before he could walk away, Gibbs halted him.
“Ziva corner you? Noticed that she followed you earlier.”
“Right into the men’s room,” Alex remarked dryly.
Gibbs’ jaw muscles clenched. “I’ll take care of it.”
“I can handle it.”
“Not the point, Tony. I’m not having her pulling this shit. I’ll deal with it. Right after I deal with this. Get back to work.”
He started to object but suddenly wasn’t even sure what the hell he was objecting to. Putting those thoughts off until he had some time alone, he went back to his desk, leaving the mess with Abby behind him.
– – – –
Alex had just finished rolling out a sheet of pasta when he heard the distinctive sound of the Sheppard town car in the drive. After a hectic workweek, including working through Saturday, he’d been antsy and bored at his condo. Patrick and Dave were due back from Nevada today for business meetings in DC all week, so he’d impulsively decided to go to the Sheppard family home rather than find something to distract himself with.
“Alex?” David said from the kitchen doorway, looking surprised but pleased. “Are you responsible for whatever smells so good?”
He grinned. “Yeah, I decided to take over the kitchen. Gave Carmen and Marco the night off so she didn’t freak out when I turned her spotless kitchen into a pasta factory.”
“Is that Alex I hear?” Patrick asked, coming up behind Dave and smiling. He didn’t even blink at the mess Alex had made, he just walked in and gave Alex a one-armed hug. “Hello, son.”
“You just got flour all over you,” Alex laughed, holding his hands as far away from his father’s Armani casualwear as possible.
He waved it away. “I’m sure there’ll be more once you tell me how I can help.” So he put his father and brother to work finishing up dinner.
Forty minutes later, they were sitting down in the small dining room.
“This is so good,” Dave said after the first bite. “How’d you manage to hold out on the culinary skills all month?” The questions was clearly rhetorical, because Dave was too busy eating.
After a few minutes, Patrick asked, “How did the first week back go?”
Alex shrugged one shoulder. “It’s a mixed bag. The press is still giving me some issues, so it’s not exactly business as usual.”
“And everything else?”
With a huff of frustration, he set his fork down and braced his elbows on the table. “Nothing fits. People stare, ask insane questions, try to order me around.” He added the last thinking of Abby who was giving him the cold shoulder again. “Twice I’ve been approached about investing in someone’s business, and one request to pay for someone’s college tuition.” He rubbed his forehead. “People are insane.”
Patrick gave him a sympathetic look. “I wish I could tell you that it will stop, but I know it won’t. You get used to it and just start handing out your accountant’s business card, telling people they have to get past him. Well, her in my case. Elaine is particularly vicious.”
“I like vicious women. I need her number.”
“She’s entirely too old for you,” Patrick said dryly.
Alex blinked, then started laughing. “That was so–” His cell began ringing the distinctive tone he’d programmed for Gibbs. “Sorry. I need to take this.”
“What rule is that?” Dave asked. “Three?”
Grinning, Alex nodded. “Never be unreachable.” He answered the phone. “Hey, Gibbs.”
“I expect a heads’ up when you skip out on this shit, Tony,” Gibbs said sounding exasperated but not angry.
“I’m sorry, Gibbs, but I left my psychic decoder ring in my other pants.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he clarified. “What did I skip?”
There was a long silence. “Ziva didn’t invite you to dinner.” It wasn’t a question.
He leaned back in his chair. “No. I take it I was the only one not invited?”
“You got it in one.”
“Well that was… petty.”
“In addition to stupid.”
“Gibbs,” Alex said on a sigh. “It doesn’t matter. She’s playing games—she only wins if I get upset.” He gestured to his family to see if he should take the call out of the room, but they waved him back in his seat.
“Not just about you, Tony. She’s trying to mess with my team. I’m not letting that go.”
“All right. Do what you’ve gotta do. I just don’t want to get involved. It’d just play into what she wants.” Alex really didn’t care what Gibbs did about it. It was a childish ploy on her part to try to hurt him, and he wasn’t biting.
“I planned to send you two to follow-up on a tip about some smuggling through the port in Norfolk tomorrow morning…”
“No reason to change that, Gibbs. It’s work.”
“All right. There’s a priority ride from Anacostia at 0615. Be on it. Check out a car from the Norfolk office. Expect you two back by lunch unless you find something.”
“Gotcha, Boss.” The line went dead. He stuffed his phone back into his pocket.
“Everything all right?” Patrick asked.
“Fine. Just one of my coworkers trying to create friction on the team.”
David frowned. “Why?”
“Could be because I won’t sleep with her, but I actually don’t think that’s it. She’s been trying to create tension since she got here about five months ago. The sex is new—since my real name was revealed.”
“Oh.” David made a face like he’d smelled something nasty. “That’s not going to stop either, you know? People trying to climb into your bed because of your last name.”
Alex took a bite of his pasta and chewed it like it had offended him in some way.
“Did Gibbs need you for something?” Patrick asked. “Should we reschedule lunch for tomorrow?”
He did some quick math on the short flight to Norfolk. If they found nothing, they should be back well before lunch. “I don’t think so. I need to check out a tip on something in the morning, but these things are routine, so it shouldn’t take long. If something comes up, I’ll give you a call and we can reschedule.” If there was any substance to the tip, he’d just call his father and bump lunch to later in the week.
– – – –
Patrick paced his office, waiting to hear something about Alex. His son was supposed to have lunch with him but hadn’t shown and hadn’t called. His cell was going straight to voicemail. Agent Gibbs had refused to answer his questions, likewise with Director Shepard. By late afternoon, he’d been hung up on twice, given the runaround by a bureaucrat repeatedly, and gotten no answers. Frustrated, he’d gone to President Hayes, who Patrick had known for years. It was high-handed and likely a huge overreaction, but he was fairly certain it would be a long time before he stopped overreacting about Alex.
“Any word?” David asked as he entered Patrick’s office.
“Nothing yet. Henry said he’d call the Secretary of the Navy personally.” It certainly wouldn’t matter to Henry that it was after business hours.
“You know Alex could have just gotten a high priority case and is out of cell phone range, and he’ll be pissed if we brought the President into a matter of lack of adequate cell towers,” Dave replied, clearly not believing a word of it. If it were cell towers, why wasn’t Gibbs affected? Why couldn’t Gibbs just say that Alex was out of range? No, something was wrong.
“Did you say anything to Matt?”
“Not yet. He’ll raze NCIS on principle, and we might need them. But he’ll be home soon and he’s gonna call…”
Patrick snorted. People thought Mattie was the sweet one, but he had the devil’s own temper. It was difficult to rouse it, so most people didn’t expect it when Matthew went on a tear. The only grace they had in the situation was that Matt was in Nevada.
“Yeah, he knows. He’s pissed that they hadn’t given Alex a subdermal implant yet. I’m pretty sure Rodney is hacking NCIS as we speak.”
“We’re going to have to tell Matt something soon. He’ll raise hell that he’s the only one who doesn’t–” His cell ringing interrupted him and he scrambled to answer. “Sheppard here.”
“Dr. Sheppard, this is Secretary Davenport. President Hayes asked that I fill you in on the situation at NCIS.”
“So there is a situation?” he asked, feeling like his heart was being squeezed.
“Yes, sir, there is. Agent Sheppard and his partner were following up on some intel about small arms smuggling. What we’ve been able to deduce is that there was a firefight and the agents wound up trapped in a shipping container, and presumably locked in.”
Patrick’s hand tightened on the phone. “My son is in a metal box in the middle of January?” With Alex’s lung problems? Somehow he knew that wasn’t all of it. If it were just the shipping container, they’d have him out by now. “What else?”
“The container was loaded on a truck and driven away. We are searching for the agents and the container as we speak.”
Closing his eyes, Patrick struggled for equilibrium. “You’re telling me my son has been abducted?”
A glass shattering pulled his attention, and he met David’s horrified gaze.
A few short minutes later, Patrick hung up with the Secretary of the Navy and began shrugging into his coat. “I shouldn’t ask you to do this but I need you to tell Matt and update John.”
“Dad, where are you going?”
“I’m going to NCIS. And I’m not leaving until they bring my son back.”
– – – –
Patrick paced the conference room at NCIS, the same conference room where he’d first seen his son after thirty-two years. Though it hadn’t even been two months yet, he’d come to admire the man his son had become, and he loved Alex with every fiber of his being. He prayed he wasn’t about to hear about his son’s death.
Director Shepard had been by briefly, setting him up in the conference room with a Marine outside the door to act as an escort—but he knew guard when he heard it. The director had assured him she would notify him as soon as she had intel, seeming to be much more cooperative than she had been on the phone. So far, he’d heard nothing.
The door opened, and Patrick halted his pacing, staring in shock as David, Matthew, John and Rodney all came in.
“Any word?” Matthew asked immediately.
“Nothing.” There was really only one way his boys could have arrived so quickly; they’d gotten the SGC to beam them to Virginia.
John offered, “I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask, and O’Neill said yes.” Considering the circumstances, he couldn’t find it in him to be upset. “What happened, Dad? David wasn’t clear on the details.”
“There aren’t even any significant details in their system yet,” Rodney supplied. “Believe me, I looked. There are just some forensic tests that don’t have any context and a few other small things.”
Patrick was still getting accustomed to Rodney McKay but he rather liked the man and appreciated his determination to help in the situation. “The director said that Alex and another agent were following up on a tip about small arms smuggling, but it was a bad tip. She wouldn’t give additional information.” Rodney made a face, so Patrick knew he at least had more information about that part. “An unknown number of men with automatic weapons started firing at them, and they took cover inside a shipping container. The container was then removed from the port. They’re searching for the container.”
John looked homicidal and turned away. It was obvious to Patrick that he and Rodney knew something else.
Matthew crossed his arms over his chest. “So whatever is in that container is worse than small arms, and whoever was protecting it now has Alex.”
“This can’t be happening,” Matt said.
Patrick looked to John and Rodney. “What do you know?”
John turned back. “It doesn’t matter, Dad.”
“Wait. You know something?” David asked, looking angry.
“Stuff that doesn’t help!” John retorted.
“You don’t get to make that decision for us, John,” David bit out.
“Boys,” Patrick admonished softly before they could get going at each other and before Matthew could get into it at all. “John, just tell us what you know.”
“It doesn’t mean anything out of context,” John replied. “They found a body at the port, shot three times, all the slugs were a match to Alex’s registered NCIS sidearm. How does that help any of us right now?”
John was right, it didn’t help, but Patrick knew his oldest, and John was holding out. “What else, John?”
The stare off lasted for several long moments before John finally said, “The bad intel… they think it was actually explosives.”
Matt made a small, wounded sound and abruptly went to stare out the window.
Patrick asked, “Do they think Alex is actually in the container with the explosives?”
“Yes,” John eventually replied, and he and Rodney exchanged a look, so Patrick knew there was more.
“Son, please just tell me.” Patrick already felt like he was about to snap.
“The body they found… It ties back to al-Qaeda,” John said, obviously reluctant to deliver the news.
Patrick finally sat down. Terrorists were looking for his son.
“They’re going to get him back,” David asserted. “And he’s going to have spent all day in a metal box in January, so let’s deal with that.”
“Right,” Patrick said, letting himself be refocused. “Alex’s lungs. Let’s make sure we have a specialist lined up to look him over. Alex already told me that his records are all at Walter Reed. We should plan to go there if possible.” He took the diversion and began to plan for any contingencies they might need if Alex was wounded or ill.
An hour later, they were all sitting in silence, still waiting for news. The director had been by with another non-update. Whatever was going on at the port wasn’t being relayed back to HQ, though she had mentioned that cell reception was poor.
Mattie had briefly entertained the idea of going to Norfolk to be closer if there was news, but they all knew that wouldn’t help. They could accidentally interfere with the search, and there was no guarantee that’s where Alex even was anymore. It was categorically a bad idea, though it was difficult that Alex might be three hours away when they found him. Part of the preparations they’d made was having a helicopter on standby in both DC and Norfolk in case urgent transportation was needed.
The shrill ringing of his phone startled him. He hadn’t wanted to accidentally miss a call so had taken it off vibrate. He pulled it from the inner pocket of his suit. “It’s Gibbs.” He answered quickly even though he was filled with equal parts anticipation and dread. “Gibbs?”
“Hey… It’s me. I’m fine,” Alex’s strong voice came over the line.
“Alex,” he whispered, not even fighting the way his eyes stung and his throat closed up. “Son, where are you?” Matt dropped his head to the table and seemed to be taking deep breaths. David was staring anxiously. John and Rodney were shoulder to shoulder, John’s expression fixed and intense. Rodney just looked worried.
“We’re just leaving the port authority. I waited until we were away from the warehouses because cell reception was shit and we couldn’t get a clear signal. But I’m fine. Gibbs found us, and I’m on my way back.”
“Alex…” he had so many questions but he knew this wasn’t the time. “Are you all right?”
“Just a little wound to my arm. I’m okay.”
He hoped Alex was right about the severity of the wound. “We have a helicopter waiting to bring you home if you need it.” The idea of waiting for them to drive back from Norfolk was horrible.
“We already have a flight. I should be back in a little over an hour, but I need to go to the Navy Yard first. I’ll be home tonight… as soon as I can be.”
“We’re at NCIS,” he admitted.
“You are?” Alex asked incredulously.
“I wanted to be here in case there was news. We’ll wait for you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Right.” Alex took a deep breath. “I’ll see you soon, then.”
“Be safe, son.” He waited until Alex hung up then looked at his other sons. “I didn’t get any information other than he’s fine and he’s on his way back. He’ll be here in about an hour.”
“Fuck.” John scrubbed his hands over his face.
The wait was interminable before a Marine stuck his head in and said, “Agent Gibbs’ team has returned. He said he would join you shortly.”
“Who? Gibbs?” At the Marine’s nod, Patrick started towards the door. “I don’t particularly want to see Agent Gibbs. I want to see my son.”
“Sir, if you’ll wait here…”
“No.” Patrick wasn’t going to be moved and the Marine had been ostensibly assigned as an escort not a guard, so he gave way and escorted them down to the office area where Alex’s desk was located. Patrick was the only one who’d seen his son’s work station—on the day they’d met.
Two people were seated at their desks, a rather soft-looking younger man who Patrick thought from Alex’s descriptions was McGee, and a petite woman with dark hair, covered in streaks of what looked like soot. They both got to their feet when the Sheppards and Rodney all appeared in the bullpen. Before anyone could say anything, there was a ding and Gibbs strode off the elevator, not faltering for a second at finding five additional people in his territory.
“Told them to tell you I’d be up,” he fired off without preamble or pleasantries.
“Where’s my son?” Patrick countered, not in the mood for conversation.
He and Gibbs were involved in a brief stare-off when the one he thought was McGee said, “Uh, we left him in autopsy.”
Patrick’s knees felt wobbly and he was grateful for John and David on either side of him. Alex was supposed to be fine.
“What?” Matt asked weakly.
Gibbs reached over and smacked the back of the agent’s head. “He’s getting his arm checked by our ME, Dr. Mallard. Come on, I’ll take you.” When they all started to move, Gibbs glared. “One of you. He’s fine. The rest of you can wait for him to get up here.”
“Boys,” Patrick began.
“Go, Dad,” Matt said as he rounded Alex’s desk and took a seat. “We’ll wait. But not too long.” He shot Patrick a meaningful look. “We’ll just be getting to know Alex’s coworkers.” His tone was icy and, under normal circumstances, Patrick might have tried to spare the agents Matthew’s mood, but he couldn’t care less at the moment.
In the elevator with Gibbs, he asked, “How badly is he hurt?”
“He let the paramedics clean and wrap it but insisted on waiting until he got back to have Ducky check it over. Tony’s stubborn about hospitals.”
“Hm.” They passed the next floor and he added, “You hung up on me.”
“No time to deal with the ruffled feathers of family. My only job today was to find Tony. You want someone to talk to, call the director.”
Patrick was torn. He knew in normal circumstances he’d appreciate Gibbs’ focus and determination, but it worked against him today and he kind of wanted to smack the man. Plus, from what little Alex had said on the phone, it sounded like Gibbs had saved his son today, so he was grateful and annoyed.
“I can’t help but worry about him, and I won’t hesitate to use any means at my disposal to take care of him.”
Gibbs flipped on the emergency stop and turned to face Patrick. “Your means includes the President of the United States. It does him no good to have his father calling the President every time he runs into a problem.”
“Then answer my damn questions next time!”
“I was busy looking for your son!”
“And what would you have done, Agent Gibbs? If your child were missing? Would you stay home and hope it came out all right?”
Gibbs’ expression hardened. Patrick thought Gibbs might be set to really tell him off, but instead, he flipped the elevator switch back to ‘run.’ “You’re gonna get a pass on this one because he was in real danger.”
“With him or with you?”
Patrick wanted to resent Gibbs just for his sheer knowledge of Alex, but also for the bond he shared with him. But all he could manage was gratitude that Gibbs had found his son. “How close was it?”
“Don’t ask that question. You’ll make yourself crazy. He’s alive—focus on that.” The elevator doors opened and Gibbs strode out, other doors immediately swished open.
Patrick stepped into autopsy to find his son sitting on a metal table, shirt off, arm bloody, and a short older man standing in front of him, peering at an x-ray. The arm looked much worse than he’d expected, and his son was covered in sooty streaks. But he was alive, and Patrick felt like he could breathe again.
Alex met his gaze and held it, even as he said, “Thought you were gonna tell him I’d be right up, Gibbs.”
“You’re his kid, Tony. I wasn’t gonna keep him in the bullpen without a gun,” Gibbs retorted as he leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed. “How’s he doing, Duck?”
“I’m rather afraid it was a mistake to bring Alexander to me. He will need to be treated in the emergency room.”
“Ducky,” Alex began. “Come on. Just stitch me up.”
“I certainly cannot do that, my dear boy. You have a bullet sitting near your humerus. While the penetration is not terribly deep, I’m not prepared for any difficulties should they arise during its extraction. There are also several splinters in the wound. You’ll need IV antibiotics.”
Alex had been shot? Patrick’s stomach felt like lead.
Gibbs pushed off the wall. “Ziva said you scratched it on a crate.”
“Through my winter coat I scratched myself badly enough to take my arm out of commission and make myself bleed?” Alex asked dryly. “I think the angle was just right for the round to have been slowed down by the crates we were behind. It probably came through the corner where the wood is thickest and into my arm. Along with a bunch of damn splinters. Or it could have lost velocity passing through a crate and ricocheted off another. So, yeah, I guess I hurt it on a crate.”
Gibbs’ expression was thunderous, and he was clearly holding onto his temper by a thread. “When I asked for your condition why didn’t you tell me?”
“Boss, I didn’t know,” Alex said in a placating tone. “I thought I’d been grazed. The paramedic pulled some big splinters out, but the bleeding had mostly stopped. He agreed I could wait no more than a couple hours for stitches.” He turned his attention back to Dr. Mallard. “What’s the worst that could happen if you take it out?”
“My dear boy, you could bleed profusely. The bleeding is fairly minimal for a penetrative wound and the round could be acting as a cork, if you will. Just removing the projectile without being prepared for actual surgery would be very risky. And you certainly know that between dirty wood fragments and the bullet itself that you need IV antibiotics. I’m afraid you’ll need to go to the hospital posthaste.”
“Ducky,” Alex said again.
“Alex,” Patrick whispered, trying to figure out how to navigate this minefield. “Please…”
Suddenly Alex was up and standing in front of him. “I’m okay. This isn’t a big deal.”
“You’ve been shot,” he said, not sure how to express his horror at the idea without overwhelming his son with trying to take care of him rather than focus on his own injury.
“Dad,” Alex replied softly, but firmly, and it was the first time he’d called Patrick ‘Dad.’ “I’m okay. It’s all done and I’m fine. I promise.”
“You spent all day in the cold. And did you inhale smoke? You’re covered in soot.” He didn’t want to make his son carry the burden of Patrick’s worry, but he wasn’t going to back down about professional care.
“We were burning counterfeit money,” he replied off-handedly. At Patrick’s expression, he added, “It’s a long story.”
“But you inhaled smoke? With your lungs?”
“Alexander, your father is quite right,” Ducky added. “I should have considered that. You most assuredly need to go to the hospital.”
Alex made a face, and Patrick wasn’t sure how to navigate the situation.
“Tony,” Gibbs said firmly, and Patrick watched as the two exchanged looks until Alex slumped a little.
“Gotcha, Boss.” He gingerly got back up on the table. “Wrap me up, Ducky. My father can get me to the hospital.”
Patrick looked to Gibbs and exchanged nods. Though he somewhat envied Alex’s bond with Gibbs, right now he was grateful for it.
Dr. Mallard insisted on Alex wearing a sling. He passed Patrick the x-ray. “It will save you some time in the emergency department.” He looked back to Alex. “You are not to use that arm, and straight to the hospital.”
“What hospital?” Gibbs asked. “I can send the rest of the Sheppards after you.”
“Wait,” Alex said. “Which Sheppards?”
“All of your brothers are here, Alex,” Patrick replied. “And Rodney.”
“What? How did they get– Never mind. I know how.” He blew out a breath. “I’ll go tell them we’re going to the hospital.”
“What are you thinkin’, Tony?” Gibbs asked.
“That they need to see I’m okay and maybe they’ll go home rather than a big Sheppard-processional to the hospital.”
“Make it quick,” Gibbs ordered as he led the way out of autopsy.
– – – –
Alex leaned back against the elevator and closed his eyes for the short ride up. He could practically feel eyes on him: his father, Gibbs, and Ducky. His arm was throbbing like a bitch, but he needed to keep everything together because he had a situation to manage. He always had a situation to manage, whether it was Gibbs, his teammates, a case… there was always something.
After a dangerous situation, he’d normally find a way to joke with his team and lighten things up, but he already knew that wasn’t going to work with his family. And it seemed to make them worry more whenever he tried.
He pushed off the wall when the elevator dinged, and he regretted it because he jostled his arm. While everyone was still watching him after his pained gasp, he strode out of the elevator in the lead for once.
He noticed everyone was clustered in the bullpen, and only John’s head turned when they got off the elevator. His oldest brother’s eyes were filled with concern as they gave him a critical once-over. At least with the bandages and the sling, his bloody shirt was mostly covered.
John gave way as he approached the group of people. Mattie and Ziva were squared off with McGee holding on to Ziva and Abby’s arms, and David doing the same for Matt.
He made it just in time to hear the tail end of Matt’s harshly whispered sentence. “…won’t stick his dick in your poisonous cunt.”
“Whoa!” Alex exclaimed. “What the hell did you do?”
Everyone spun around and Matt exclaimed, “Alex!”
Ziva pointed at Mattie. “He had the nerve to say–”
“Not him. You. What the hell did you say to my brother?” Alex demanded, knowing Matt had to have been pushed pretty far to come up with that!
Ziva’s brows snapped together, and she glared as Abby screeched, “Tony!”
“Jesus, you’re messed up,” Matt remarked. “Is any part of you huggable?”
Alex held out his good arm. “This side,” he said with a smile.
Matt gave him a careful hug. “You’re really okay?” he whispered.
“Gonna be fine.” He nodded to his older brother. “Dave.”
“God you’re a pain.” But Alex could see the stark relief, so he offered a reassuring smile.
“Someone want to tell me exactly why Mattie was commenting on the toxicity of Ziva’s lady parts?” he asked.
“Tony,” Gibbs said in a warning tone as he circled the group of Sheppards to move closer to his own desk.
Alex shot Gibbs a look, cautioning him to let Alex handle this. “Seriously. What the fuck happened?”
Dave answered, “She just was informing us of how you caused the situation today.”
“Did she now?” Alex asked dryly, pain and fatigue having completely broken his give-a-fuck. “Yeah, in Mossad they teach them how to stand out in the open in the crossfire of two AK-47s with only a handgun and not need cover. Hell, they probably manage it with a paperclip. We do it the hard way at NCIS and seek whatever is going to keep us from being bullet-riddled.”
The odd little half-wounded sound from Matt made him regret his decision to snark at Ziva’s expense. He blamed the pain as he squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “I’m fine,” he whispered again, ignoring Abby’s indignant tirade and Ziva’s huffing.
McGee rolled his eyes. “Way to play it up, Tony. You’re just making your family worry over a scratch.”
Before Ducky, his father, or Gibbs could go off, Alex softly asked, “Is that right?”
“Ziva told us how you scratched your arm on a crate and made a big production at the scene with the paramedics,” McGee added.
“Really?” He pinned Ziva with a look. “Interesting.” He cracked his neck then looked around the office, trying to see if there was anything he missed. His backpack had been brought up by McGee and his sidearm had been surrendered because he had killed someone with it—he’d get a new one when he reported for duty again. “I guess we’re ready. No point in hanging out here.”
The group was already dividing—his family veering off to join him, and Gibbs moving close to Ziva and whispering lowly. Ducky was shooting him a concerned look, but Alex could only manage a nod.
“I have a helicopter waiting to take us to Walter Reed,” his father murmured, getting everyone’s attention.
“Wait, what?” Matt said.
“Yeah, I was hoping we could avoid the group hike to Bethesda. I got this, I promise. They’re just going to check me over,” he reassured his brothers.
Suddenly, Ziva was pushing through his brothers and hissing, “You tattlestory.”
“Tattletale,” he corrected automatically. “I’m tired, Ziva. Go away.”
“How could you tell Gibbs that I shot you?” she hissed.
Alex frowned. “I didn’t.”
“Ziva!” Gibbs barked.
“You told him you were shot when my bullet ricocheted. You were not to tell anyone!”
“What the hell is she talking about, Sheppard?” Gibbs asked, shouldering Dave away so he could get closer.
“She’s talking about when she panicked and opened fire to try to escape the container, causing a bullet to ricochet all over. And I never even intimated that I wouldn’t say anything, because it most certainly was going in my report. Just like the fact that you missed everything you shot at when we were under fire,” he snapped. “And it damn well should be in your report, too!” he took a breath and prayed for patience. “What I told Gibbs was that a bullet likely ricocheted and then passed through a crate, losing velocity before it hit my arm. You know… when the bad guys were shooting at us.” And now he was furious with her for forcing this conversation.
“I want out of here,” he said to his father as he turned to leave. But suddenly his world exploded with pain and his vision completely whited out.
He knew he was sitting on the ground and propped up against something, but spots were swimming in his vision. He blinked a few times, even though the world felt like it was spinning. The pain in his arm had gone from a horrible ache to feeling like it was being ripped off. “What the fuck?” he finally managed to get out.
Ducky and Rodney, of all freaking people, were kneeling by where he was propped against his own desk, and Ducky was unwrapping his arm. “Ducky, stop,” he croaked.
“My dear boy, I must check it. You’re bleeding again, and I must ascertain if it has become exigent. Do be still.”
He sort of managed to put the pieces together in his mind. Ziva had grabbed his arm when he’d turned away from her. There were a ton of raised voices, and he thought he heard Director Shepard a decibel or so below Abby. He wasn’t hearing Gibbs, which worried him. What he could see was his father and Matt keeping back but watching closely. Dave was turned away, looking toward the source of the yelling.
“Rodney, are you playing field medic, because that seems improbable. John seems more the type,” Alex remarked randomly.
“Shut up. I’m awesome at everything,” Rodney snipped as he handed Ducky something. “And John’s busy keeping the toxic twat’s face in the carpet.”
“Oh my god.” He started trying to get up or at least move enough to see what was going on, but Rodney’s hand thunked in the middle of his chest and held him still. “Oh no you don’t, Sheppard. I’ll sit on you if I have to. You’re a bigger moron than John! Running around with a bullet in your arm and acting like everything is okay! Were you thinking? No! You clearly were not thinking. So, you can just stay put.”
“I have to fix this.”
“Shut up. There are more than a dozen people involved, and at least two of them are adults. You don’t need to manage this or them. Now be still.”
“I’m not one of the adults in that equation, am I?” he asked.
“Definitely not! Next time you get shot in Norfolk, you go to the hospital in Norfolk, for fuck’s sake. What is wrong with you Sheppards?” he bitched and then ripped some tape with his teeth, passing it to Ducky. “I swear to Christ, you’re just like John.”
“Hey!” John yelped from a few feet away.
“Oh, shut up. Alex has made me cranky at all of you, because I know you all carry this same stupid-gene, and I’m rethinking my life choices.”
Alex laughed at the ridiculous threat—because it was obvious how much Rodney adored John—but it ended on a groan as any movement made his arm hurt worse than it had since he’d been shot in the first place.
“No time for any further dallying, Alexander. I fear that projectile has moved. It seems that you’ll need to sort out your interpersonal dramas some other day.”
– – – –
Alex woke, thoughts muzzy and trying to piece things together. He knew from the leaden feel in his limbs that he’d been under anesthesia, and even vaguely remembered the nurse waking him in recovery. He didn’t hurt too badly, so he knew he’d been given pain meds, but he didn’t feel too floaty or overly stupid.
Blinking a few times, he cautiously glanced around and found his father sitting by his bed, watching him intently. “Hey,” he rasped.
Patrick quickly helped Alex get a drink of icy water. “Nausea?”
Alex shook his head. “Time is it?” He finally took in the room, which was ridiculous. He knew money bought a lot of privilege—hell, he’d grown up with it—but not quite on the scale of the Sheppards. Money and influence apparently got you a huge private suite and likely a private nurse or four. There was even a sofa, and Mattie was on it, obviously deeply asleep. It had to be the middle of the night so visiting hours clearly didn’t apply in this room.
“About four in the morning,” Patrick remarked, not seeming at all tired.
He thought about telling his father to go home, but he had a hunch it wouldn’t work. “I remember the helicopter but it all gets fuzzy after.”
“When we landed, the doctor felt surgery was needed immediately for the best chance that you’d recover full use of your arm. He believes that Officer David,” his father scowled, “grabbing your arm shifted the bullet right into a nerve cluster. It’s why you were in so much more pain after she accosted you. The short ride seemed like torture for you.”
The tension in his father’s voice nearly made him wince. “How bad is it?” He hadn’t even considered that he might lose functionality in his arm.
“Doctor Fulenwider said you should get full use back if you’re careful while it’s healing and then complete your rehabilitation program.”
Relief washed over him, letting him know just how much worry he’d been pushing away. His arm definitely ached but he was surprised by the lack of real pain. He must be on pain meds. “I don’t feel particularly stupid.”
“Pardon?” his father asked, looking startled.
“I’m not in a lot of pain, but I don’t feel like I have a raging case of poor judgment.”
Patrick finally smiled about something. “Ducky mentioned you have issue with some pain meds. You boys all get that from your mother. I suggested they try the medication your brothers tolerate. Did Matthew tell you how he came out?”
Alex felt like he’d missed a conversational shift. “Uh, no?”
“He was fourteen and broke his collarbone skateboarding. The doctor gave him a shot of morphine, and I come back to the treatment room to find my baby boy flirting with every cute male nurse and doctor he could get to stand still for five seconds.” Alex laughed, but Patrick’s expression became more serious. “I almost lost you again today.”
“I’m okay. My arm will heal–”
“It’s not even the gunshot wound, though that horrifies me. Someone took you. I saw you Sunday night and the next morning, you were gone.” Patrick stopped and rubbed his hand over his face.
“Dad…” Alex said, the change in address feeling natural. He reached out and grabbed his father’s hand. “I’m fine.” He hadn’t even considered how the events of the day before might mirror the first abduction for Patrick.
Squeezing Alex’s hand, Patrick got to his feet, leaned down and pressed a kiss to Alex’s head. “I love you, son,” he whispered. Pulling back, he patted Alex’s cheek. “Get some sleep.”
Alex blamed the pain medication for the stinging in his eyes.
– – – –
When he woke again, sun was pouring through the windows, and Gibbs was sitting by his bed, reading glasses on, paper in hand, drinking coffee. Alex tried to move but his arm made itself known, and he groaned. Gibbs set the paper aside and pressed the call button. “You’re overdue. Told the nurse I’d ring when you woke.”
A few minutes later, after two nurses got him squared away, Alex was propped up in bed, feeling no pain, and drinking some juice. “So am I getting out of here today?”
When Gibbs didn’t offer anything further, Alex prompted, “Why?”
“Infection had already set in on that arm. You get to leave tomorrow.” Gibbs pointed at him. “No trying to escape.” Alex’s eyes narrowed, and Gibbs sighed. “Where does this hatred of hospitals come from. You father asked, but I really don’t know.”
“Not like you’re any better about it,” Alex retorted.
“Staying? No. But I go when I need to. I let them fix me when I’ve got a bullet in me.”
“I didn’t know,” Alex shot back.
“You suspected,” Gibbs countered. “You’ve been injured before—shot before. You knew it wasn’t a simple graze.”
Alex looked away.
“Talk to me, Tony.”
It took a long time but he finally said, “Senior… always said real men don’t get sick. I’d have to be on death’s door before he’d take me to the doctor. I know it’s not right, but…” he trailed off and shrugged his good shoulder. “Plus hate needles from stupid plague shit.”
“Hn.” When the silence stretched out, Alex looked back to Gibbs, who was watching him closely. “And because Ziva already thinks you’re weak, you weren’t going to expose a weakness in front of her,” Gibbs stated bluntly.
Alex winced. “I wouldn’t say the thought was that well-formed.”
“You need to get the DiNozzo-voice out of your head. You’re as strong as anyone I’ve ever met, Tony, and that has nothing to do with how much pain you can bear. Don’t let the past take the future from you,” Gibbs concluded, and Alex felt like they were dangerously close to this venturing into Gibbs’ family territory. He knew pushing right now would send Gibbs out the door, just as sure as it had kept Alex from admitting how injured he was.
“My family freaked out?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Yep.” Gibbs’ brevity said a lot.
“I don’t know how to avoid that.”
“You can’t avoid it. Just don’t try to hide from them because they’re worried—they’ll only worry more.” Gibbs scrubbed a hand over his face. “Your father is on the phone with John right now, Rodney is in the next room yelling at someone on the phone.” Gibbs’ expression told Alex that the man didn’t know what to make of Rodney McKay. “Matt went for more coffee, and David is with John.”
“So, what happened after Ziva grabbed my arm—I didn’t even see anything afterward. And what the hell was she thinking?” If she’d permanently damaged his arm, he couldn’t even begin to figure out what he’d have done.
“I don’t know what she was thinkin’, Tony. I’m not sure she was. John broke her nose when he put her down. Jenny had a fit, went to SecNav to complain.”
“Oh, hell. John going to get in trouble?”
“No. Ziva screwed up. She didn’t accidentally grab your arm, no matter what she says, and she took a fairly stable injury and could have made it life-threatening or caused you permanent disability. That may not have been her aim but apparently she nearly killed you more than once yesterday, and I’m not gonna have it.”
“Shut up, Tony. It’s not your job to defend her or McGee or anyone else. You’re my Senior Field Agent, and you’re not on the job to cover for them. Don’t know how long it will take SecNav to review Jenny’s complaint, but Ziva’s off my team.”
Alex sighed. “But I might not even be on the team.”
“Doesn’t matter. Can’t have a loose cannon. It’s done. She was off the team no matter what. What the hell was she thinking opening fire in a metal box?!”
“I think she was panicking.” At Gibbs’ expression, Alex held up his good hand. “Not justifying, just explaining.”
Gibbs gave what could barely pass as a grunt of acknowledgement. “Her stunt with the dinner party… she’s trying to drive a wedge in the team, and it won’t fly with me. By the way, you were right. You hit your target three times and she didn’t land one.” Before Alex could ask any more questions, the door opened and Matt came in carrying two trays of coffee.
“Any chance one of those is for me?” he asked hopefully.
Matt smiled but shook his head. “Not even. One for me, one for Dad, two for Rodney, and four,” he shot Gibbs an incredulous look, “for Agent Gibbs.”
“Just Gibbs, kid,” he cut in.
“And Matthew or Matt will do just fine, Agent Gibbs,” his brother retorted immediately.
Gibbs snorted in amusement and inclined his head. Getting to his feet, he grabbed one of the coffees. “Need to check in.” And since he left three coffees, Alex knew he’d be back.
Matt took the seat by the bed, coffee in hand. “Do we need to engineer your escape?”
Alex blinked then began to laugh. “Okay, that’s not what I was expecting.”
Shrugging, Mattie replied, “Rodney’s going to yell at you for not getting treated sooner, Dad’s going to worry, John is going to frown and try not to yell at you, David will try to fix everything… that covers all the points on my mind except keeping you entertained.” He shot Alex a grin then his expression got more serious. “But, really, what is with those people you work with? How can you stand it?”
“Jesus, Alex, they’re horrible. I mean, Gibbs is okay, and he obviously cares about you. Plus he’s got that hot older guy thing going on.”
“What? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed?” At Alex’s unimpressed face, Matt laughed. “Okay, I’ll drop it.” His expression sobered again. “Your director is a suck up. At least until her pet spy got in trouble. McGee is a supercilious little twit. Abby is spoiled and entitled beyond belief. And that Ziva chick? What a horror show. How do you stand it?”
“They’re not that bad,” he said weakly.
“True. Ducky is made of awesome.”
Alex rolled his eyes. But then he got to thinking about it. “What exactly happened?”
“McGee was telling us about you and making jokes, but it was all a thin veneer for calling you incompetent. Ziva was just a fucking bitch. Then after she grabbed you, the thing I can’t forgive, is other than Gibbs and Ducky, none of those assholes cared what happened to you. They just screamed and yelled about that bitch getting schooled by John.”
Alex rubbed his hand over his face, easily able to visualize the whole situation. And it hurt. But he didn’t want to dwell on it. “I’m sorry about… everything.”
“Fuck that, Alex. I don’t care about anything but that you’re alive. None of that shit matters. None of those horrible people matter.”
He mentally added some more things to the tally of stuff he had to think about.
– – – –
By lunchtime, the mood in Alex’s hospital room had brightened considerably. There was actually a reasonably sized table in his room, and, except for John, his whole family was sitting around it eating. Gibbs had showed up briefly to claim his coffees then left for NCIS.
Alex was poking at his hospital food suspiciously, but it wasn’t as bad as it could be. The door opened while Matt and Rodney were in the midst of plotting something. No doubt there’d be an explosion at the end. A familiar person appeared, and Alex grinned as he got to his feet.
“Hey there, Buckeye,” Brad said cheerily as he shut the door.
“Wolverine,” Alex countered and shook his doctor-turned-friend’s hand.
“Heard you were here. Stopping by to check on you.”
“Let me introduce you.” He pointed to everyone at the table. “My father, Patrick Sheppard; older brother, David; younger brother Matt; and Rodney McKay, here to plot world domination with Pinky over there,” he finished pointing back to Matt. “This is Brad Pitt, no relation, infectious disease specialist.”
Everyone suddenly frowned. It took him a second but Alex got it. He rolled his eyes. “He treated me for the plague. Seriously.” Turning back to Brad, he asked, “This is just a social call, right?”
“Eh. Since I’ve got you here, thought I’d give you a quick check. Maybe drag you down to radiology to get a CT scan so I can look at your lungs.” He looked over toward the family. “While there are quite a few documented cases of bubonic plague survivors, there aren’t many pneumonic plague, and none who survived without antibiotics. Alex here is a bit of a wonder, and he agreed to let me follow his progress.”
“Yes,” Alex agreed readily, eager for a little space. He didn’t care if it was out of character to agree to a medical test. He was torn between appreciating how much his family cared about him and feeling weird about being in this enormous hospital room with everyone sitting around just watching him mend.
“Let me get a chair,” Brad said, turning toward the door.
Alex made a face.
– – – –
“Just how much smoke did you inhale?” Brad asked, pulling off the stethoscope.
“I don’t know. Didn’t seem that bad at the time.”
“You’ve got a rale in that left lung. Could be complications from the plague, the smoke inhalation, or even related to the surgery. I want to monitor it, however. Also, your lung function has decreased since the last time I saw you. Since I have you as a captive audience for the next twenty-four hours, I’m going to send respiratory therapy up to see you every four hours. So behave,” Brad said sternly.
Alex made a surrender gesture. “Do you really think I’m going to get away with anything?”
Brad leaned against the wall. “Oh, probably not. Your father especially was watching you like a hawk. Not that I blame him. How are you doing with all of that?”
“It’s an adjustment.”
“Well aren’t you just the master of understatement.”
Alex snorted. “Yeah. But it’s good. I wouldn’t change it.”
“Nearly called you, but figured I’d give you some time to settle in.”
Waving that away, Alex retorted, “You’re always welcome to call. Wouldn’t have sent you the new number otherwise.” They talked for several minutes before they were interrupted by some actual pulmonologists who wanted to poke at him and listen to his deep breaths until he was ready to pass out.
When Alex finally got back to his room, it was just Gibbs and his father talking in low tones. Climbing out of the chair and shooting it an evil look, he started toward the two, but Gibbs’ glare had him rolling his eyes and heading for the bed. He shot back over his shoulder, “If you want me to actually stay here, you’d better fill me in.”
His father stepped up to the bed and squeezed Alex’s shoulder. “You doing okay?”
He thought about just skirting around the question but he was coming to see that avoiding the difficult stuff with his family just made it harder later. “Mostly fine. They’re going to seize the day, so to speak, and bother me with respiratory therapy for the rest of my visit.”
Patrick’s eyes narrowed. “Your lungs?”
“A little stressed, but Brad wasn’t overly worried. So, I agreed to the RT. And now, we’ll all go back to the portion of the program where we don’t talk about my lungs or the plague.”
Lips twitching, Patrick nodded. “All right, son. I’m going to leave you and Gibbs to talk. I’ll return soon.”
Frowning, Alex watched his father leave then looked up to Gibbs. “What happened?”
“Ziva’s being sent back to Israel.”
Alex blinked. “Are you kidding?”
“Nope. SecNav asked to see the surveillance footage and, considering that she made your wound significantly worse and could have caused permanent damage, he concluded that she battered you, and John was acting in your defense. I had already said she was off my team, but Jen was going to reassign her. But…” He trailed off, making the face he got whenever he had to deal with politics.
“Let me guess, SecNav wasn’t going to have the woman who assaulted the son of a friend of President Hayes working for him.”
“Don’t take it on, Tony. She was off the team no matter what.”
“So it’s over.”
“Not completely. SecNav is having the director come to the Pentagon day after tomorrow to justify her decision to place Ziva at NCIS. No telling how that will go.”
“Damn,” Alex whispered.
“Whether you like it or not, this is the reality of the family you’re in. When people fuck up with you, it’s going to come under closer scrutiny than your average agent.”
“I don’t want special treatment,” Alex insisted.
“Too bad,” Gibbs said bluntly. “Is that price too high, Tony?”
“Of course not,” he snapped back. Even if he had to choose between his family and NCIS, it would be an easy choice. That thought brought him up short, and he realized how much he’d changed. NCIS used to be everything.
He blew out a breath and let the random thoughts coalesce into some sort of picture. His family was the most important thing now, but that realization didn’t solve his big dilemma. Special treatment wouldn’t be as much of an issue in Nevada. He’d be a one-man unit, and there wouldn’t be any public or coworkers to care that his father was friends with the President.
It was another data point, but it still didn’t give him an answer.
– – – –
Alex watched as John came in and sprawled in the visitor’s chair. His brother carefully followed the activity as Alex finished up with the respiratory therapist. As soon as she was gone, Alex raised a brow in inquiry.
“Everything’s settled. Air Force isn’t going to take any action based on Secretary Davenport’s recommendation.”
“Good.” He watched his oldest brother for several moments. “You look pissed.”
John’s hands curled into fists. “She’s just lucky the only thing she got was a broken nose and a dose of humiliation.” He glanced away. “I’m never going to be rational about someone hurting you.” He met Alex’s gaze. “None of you. Just… be careful, okay?”
There were several things Alex could have said, like pointing out that John should know it wasn’t always in his control, but all he said was, “Okay, John.”
John leaned back and propped his feet up on Alex’s bed. Reaching out, he grabbed Alex’s Kindle. He smirked. “So… Gibbs thinks a Kindle is porn?”
Alex groaned. “Matt spilled the beans?”
“So, I heard I missed the asshole who broke your leg.”
Alex threw a pillow at John. “He probably saved my life. Plus, he’s a friend, so don’t be a dick.”
“Guess he gets a pass then,” John said with a grin. “You know I watched that game? Always been big on college ball.” He scratched the side of his neck absently. “I even remember noticing you looked like a Sheppard.”
“I mean, it’s weird. I think back on that and wonder why I didn’t really think about that. But I remembered that I was seeing you in everyone with even a passing similarity to us. Whenever I’d see someone with eyes like mom or dad’s nose, I’d wonder. And I had to stop, because it was making me crazy.”
Alex wasn’t even sure what to say to that.
“I can’t help but want to have figured it out back then,” John admitted.
“Don’t do this to yourself. And that’s not even your brother talking. That’s someone with nearly a dozen years of law enforcement experience who has seen hundreds of people drowning in regret and guilt for things that they had no control over.”
John was quiet for a long time. “We couldn’t deal with losing you twice.”
Alex sucked in a breath, letting that settle for a minute. “You know your job isn’t a cakewalk, right?”
John rocked back and looked up at the ceiling. “I know. And I wish I could be reasonable and not so damn hypocritical, but–” He blew out a breath. “Just… don’t be gone again.”
Alex nodded, not even sure what he was agreeing to really, but he got this wasn’t about promises, it was about wishes, hopes, and needs.
– – – –
The doctor gave Alex a final check then wrote his discharge paperwork. He was even fine with the wheelchair—whatever got him out of the hospital fastest. His arm still felt like shit and he had two weeks in the damn sling to look forward to, but he was so over the hospital food, IVs, blood tests, and just being stuck in one place.
He got situated in the front seat of David’s car and waited until they were on the road before saying, “You want to get it off your chest now?”
“Well, everyone else has found time alone with me, said what they had to say. Our timing has been bad, so…”
David laughed. “I’m just glad you’re okay, Alex. It shined a light on some things we need to get straight.”
Alex’s brows drew together. “Such as?”
“Who has your medical proxy? Where are your medical records? Who is going to be notified if you’re injured? Who are your doctors?”
“David, you don’t have to plan for the worst,” Alex said as gently as he could.
“It’s not–” He sighed. “I just need to be prepared. I want to know what to do if something happens to you. I want to be sure you’re taken care of.”
“Hm.” Alex considered that for several seconds. “And that’ll make it easier?”
“Easier? Hell no. But I don’t want to flounder over logistics when you need me.”
“Okay. I’ll get you the info you asked for.”
David’s shoulders relaxed a little and he nodded. “Thanks.”
After a couple minutes of silence, Alex asked, “You want me to go to Nevada, don’t you?”
After a pause, David replied, “I want you to be a concert pianist, but that’s me just wanting you to be safe. And don’t think it’s just you. You think I like it that Mattie works with things so prone to blowing up over the tiniest error?”
Alex had to concede that point. He pretty much hated that, too.
“But, yeah, I’d like you in Nevada. I think it’s safer. I like the idea of Matt having someone there to pull him away from his engines, and I think I’d see you more, and I want that. But I’m not going to ask you, Alex. I want you to do what you want to do. And whatever it is, I’m your brother, we’ll be fine.”
Alex appreciated the lack of pressure and the honesty. After several miles, he decided to broach the subject of something he’d noticed in Nevada. “I’m gonna get all up in your business for a second.”
David gave a surprised laugh. “Okay.”
“Ask her out.”
“Colonel Carter. I see the way you look at her. You should take the chance.”
His brother huffed. “Who else knows?”
“Just me. Only Matt and I see you with her enough, and Matt only has eyes for things mechanical when we’re on base.”
“I’m only in Nevada part time, Alex. That doesn’t seem fair to her.”
“Seriously, Dave? Have you paid attention to what she does for a living? She’s probably gone more than you. And maybe that’s a good balance. You both have stressful lives that keep you busy a lot. So maybe you’ll click and when you’re together, it’ll be that much better.”
David was quiet for a long time. “I’ll think about it.” He glanced over. “You got your eye on anyone?”
“Nah. Not right now. Bad time for that considering I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’ll be.”
“So you haven’t decided to stay here?”
“Believe me, everything is up in the air. I’m just flying blind right now.”
– – – –
Alex sat out back, looking at the grounds and thinking about his future. He’d sought some privacy after lunch, needing to get his thoughts in order, but so far, nothing was coming into focus.
“I get it,” Rodney’s voice came from behind him then the man himself moved into view and took the seat next to Alex.
“What is it you get?”
Looking off at nothing, Rodney replied, “Your self-worth coming from you work.”
Alex gave a start of surprise. “What?”
“It’s easy to seek validation from something you do well when you don’t get it anywhere else.”
And that was a little too on the nose. “What’s your point?”
Rodney finally looked at him. “My point is that you have so much more than your work—a family that loves you, friends, skills, creativity, a damn good head for math and it drives me crazy that you don’t do anything with it!” He huffed then added, “But the point is that you need to stop thinking about the box you’ve been in and what that’s done for you. When you eliminate the box, is what you get from that job worth it? Is it all that you want?”
Alex made himself not get defensive and think about what Rodney was saying.
“You don’t get it. You could do so many things. Hell, you could even come with us. I mean, do you have any idea how many more jarheads they’re sending us? We need them, but they need a minder.”
Unable to stop the laugh, Alex only managed, “Rodney.”
“Seriously. You could work at the Mountain, Nevada, our house, DC. It seems like a Sheppard thing that you guys are just great at whatever it is that you do.”
“I couldn’t go with you.” Not that it didn’t have appeal, because what an adventure. “I could never do that to my Dad. I don’t know how he’d handle me leaving.”
“Yeah, I figured. But I needed to say it. O’Neill wants you at Homeworld—he’ll probably let you pick your assignment. You just need to stop dwelling on what you had and think about what you want.”
“It’s not easy.”
“No one said it was easy,” Rodney snapped. “But ask yourself if you’re holding on to what you had here for you or for Gibbs.”
Alex shot Rodney a glare. “This isn’t about Gibbs.”
“Isn’t it? I’m not one of your brothers, I’m not going to pussyfoot around you. I met all those assholes you work with. Gibbs might be a bastard, but so am I. And he’s okay as far as bastards go. But the rest? I’m gonna have to stop being your friend if those idiots are why you’re holding on to DC.”
Alex sighed heavily. “You’re such a pain in the ass.”
– – – –
Alex paused at the top of the steps and watched Gibbs working on the boat. When Gibbs finally glanced up and quirked a brow, he started down the stairs. He’d gotten his stitches out today and done away with the sling. Initially, he’d been thinking that in a few days, he could resume desk duty. But something had clicked in his brain. All the bits and pieces and the long hours thinking had finally come together, and he’d known what he was going to do.
He leaned against the wall and considered what he was going to say for several beats. “I’m going to Nevada.” Sometimes blunt was best.
Gibbs paused his sanding briefly then nodded. “I figured.”
“I thought I’d go now. Not a lot of point to coming back for desk duty. While my arm was healing, you got used to being without me anyway. Seems like the time is right.”
Putting the sandpaper down, Gibbs turned to face Alex. “That’s something I’m never gonna get used to.”
“Gibbs…” Alex looked down, his feelings getting the best of him. “I realized you were the only reason I wanted to stay.”
“Selfishly, I want you here. But if I were your father, I’d want you away from this, too. Can’t even say that a part of me isn’t grateful you won’t be under fire all the time.” Gibbs placed his hand on Alex’s shoulder. “I couldn’t be any prouder of you, Alexander Sheppard. It’s been my honor to serve with you.”
Alex glanced away, blinking rapidly. The remark customary amongst military said a lot coming from the dyed-in-the-wool Marine.
Gibbs pulled him into a hug, and Alex readily returned it, thinking of the years he’d felt safe with Gibbs watching his back. “You take care of yourself,” Gibbs whispered.
– – – –
Alex pulled up to the house that had begun to feel like home. He stared at the house as he considered the future. Saying goodbye to Gibbs had felt like the last thing holding him here was done. He would miss some of the others, but only his bond with Gibbs had been anywhere close to keeping him in DC. Rodney had been dead on about that.
John and Rodney had returned to Colorado a couple of days after Alex got out of the hospital. John was now a lieutenant colonel, officially in command of the military side of the expedition, and he and Rodney would be leaving for Atlantis soon. Matt and David were leaving for Nevada in two days, both needing to get back to work. All Alex needed to do was let them know he was going with them.
When he’d been framed for murder, he never could have even imagined that this was the direction his life would take; that he’d finally gain everything he’d always wanted. The job wasn’t perfect, but no job ever was. But he’d finally seen that the work wasn’t all that mattered; it didn’t define him. His Dad, John, David, and Mattie… that’s what mattered.
He finally got out of the car and headed inside, managing to not see anyone as he went up the stairs to his father’s study. Tapping on the door, he entered and let his father’s smile of greeting and the real pleasure at Alex’s presence wash over him.
– – – –