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Jan 06

If Found, Please Return – Chapter Three

Story Index Page

Chapter Three

Monday morning, Tony strolled into the bullpen extra early. He been informed last night that he was on stand-down this week—other than writing up his report of the op Saturday morning. He wanted to get it knocked out, then he was going to meet Matt for lunch to check out David’s sweet ride that he’d lost to Matt for the week in a bet.

After his meltdown Saturday night, Patrick had spent the whole night at Tony’s place. They talked about a few serious things, but mostly the conversation was light. After he’d taken a long morning nap, he’d spent a big piece of Sunday with his family. No one brought up Tony’s hasty departure, and the time together was good. There was a palpable tension anytime Tony brought up John, but he assumed everyone was worried with John being out of touch on his assignment.

Tony had just finished booting up his computer when Gibbs appeared in front of his desk and set a cup of coffee down—causing Tony’s brows to shoot up in surprise.

“You okay?” he asked as he clearly gave Tony an assessing once-over, eyes lingering on the vivid bruise on Tony’s jaw.

“Better,” Tony replied. He wasn’t great, but he was definitely improving. The magnitude of the situation hit him at the oddest times, and it would be like suddenly feeling disconnected from reality—but mostly he was coping.

“Director might call you up this morning. Also, Fornell sent over a list of preliminary questions they have for you. Everyone will understand if you want the family lawyer to look them over.” Gibbs made a face at the word “lawyer,” and Tony nearly smiled.

“If something raises a red flag, I won’t answer it, but I can’t think of what that might be,” he replied. He didn’t think he could tell the FBI much, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to hold back.

“All right. Get it all done and get out of here.”

“Gotcha, Boss.”

An hour later, he was done with his account of the op the day before and was wading his way through the FBI’s questions about Tony’s background, and lots of in-depth questions about Senior. There were also a few sections about his mother and her family. He wouldn’t be surprised if the FBI reached out through channels to the Paddingtons to see what they might know about the situation or any of Senior’s other activities.

Gibbs had ventured off to wherever Gibbs went when they were between cases. He was aware of McGee and Ziva arriving, but stayed focused on his work. McGee had become a bit of a pain since Ziva joined the team a few months ago. Tony didn’t want to think Ziva was at the source of that, but it was a reasonable conclusion given how she seemed to like to sow divisiveness.

Ziva, on the other hand… well, he was on the fence about her. He could put up with her petty bullshit while she tried to find her feet, but he was a little mystified by some of the stuff Gibbs let slide. She didn’t think the rules applied to her, for starters, and that created problems that, more often than not, Tony had to cover for or fix. Although, he’d be less inclined to put up with her if he could verify that she was the source of McGee’s recent twattiness.

“So, Tony,” Ziva said as she approached his desk, “what trouble are you in now?”

He glanced up and noticed McGee sitting on the edge of his desk, smirking. “No trouble. But you’ll have some if you don’t fix that report from two weeks ago that Gibbs keeps kicking back to you.” He looked to McGee. “And you never submitted the loss report for that camera you broke.”

“It was an accident,” McGee said defensively.

“Well, hell, McGee, we don’t get to just submit reports for things that you break on purpose. Actually, that’s a whole different report. It’s called a reprimand, and it goes in your permanent employee record,” Tony said sarcastically. “I need all the loss reports done to finish the month-end Summary of Incidents report. And I need it today, so get crackin’.” He looked at Ziva. “You, too.”

“We don’t take orders from you,” Ziva shot back. “And what has happened to your face? An angry boyfriend, perhaps?”

“Actually, you do,” Tony retorted, feeling annoyed at the completely blatant acknowledgement of what he’d seen in her behavior. He ignored her baiting him over the bruise. “I’m second in command, and when Gibbs isn’t around, I’m in charge. And right now, you have a report to fix.”

McGee actually had the audacity to look uncertain about getting to work, while Ziva crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “Gibbs is not away, he is simply not at his desk. You are no better than the rest of us.”

Tony got to his feet abruptly, his chair slamming back against the file cabinet. He was completely aware that he was overreacting, but he knew before he ever came in this morning that he wasn’t in the best control of his temper. “I’m not–”

“You got a problem with taking orders from my Senior Field Agent, Officer David?” Gibbs asked as he rounded the corner, cup of coffee in hand. He stepped right up close to her and waited.

She dropped the defensive posture. “I do not think Tony has proven his qualifications sufficiently to be in command when you are away.”

Tony’s mouth actually fell open in astonishment, but he quickly snapped it shut.

Gibbs’ glare should have frozen Ziva where she stood, but she just raised her chin in defiance. “You are a liaison, and it’s not your place to question the NCIS chain of command or the qualifications of anyone on my team!”

“It is simply my opinion,” she said stubbornly.

“When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it. Until then, keep it to yourself. You ignore orders from my SFA again and the director can find you another team. We clear?”

Her brow furrowed. “I thought we had–”

“Are we clear?!” Gibbs barked.

“Yes, Gibbs,” she quickly replied, obviously figuring out that she’d crossed the line.

“Then get to work.”

She went back to her desk, but shot Tony a dark look as Gibbs turned to McGee.

“Agent McGee, next time you follow someone’s lead into being insubordinate, you can find another team. Clear?”

“Yes, Boss,” he responded, straightening his shoulders. “Sorry, Boss.”

“You’ve got half an hour to get the loss report to Di–” He halted suddenly and then said, “Get it done immediately.”

“Yes, Boss!”

As soon as Gibbs turned back to his own desk, McGee caught Tony’s eye and mouthed, “Sorry.”

Tony just inclined his head as he took his seat. Gibbs’ actions were wholly unexpected, but welcome. He wasn’t sure if Gibbs had done some serious thinking, or if he was just being nice because of all the recent changes. Tony hoped it was the former, because he didn’t need Gibbs backing him up out of pity.

He returned to trying to get everything done so he could get out of there ASAP. Gibbs hadn’t mentioned doing the month-end reports, but they were due on Wednesday and Tony sure as hell didn’t want to leave them in Gibbs’ hands! Last time Gibbs filled in the SFA paperwork while Tony was on vacation, Tony had come back to hate mail from nearly every department. Gibbs did his own paperwork just fine, but seemed to have a mental block about the very detailed reports his SFA had to produce. Tony added to his reports as the month wore on, so finishing them wasn’t a huge task. He just needed that one thing from McGee.

McGee knocked out his report quickly, and Tony was able to finish everything inside of another half hour. He submitted the electronic copies to Gibbs for approval while the paper copies were printing. Gibbs had to approve them online, but he preferred to read everything on paper. It was an extra step, but Tony didn’t really care if it’s what Gibbs wanted.

Paper copies in hand, he stepped in front of Gibbs’ desk. “Here are the hard copies of the month-end reports. All the case reports are current except for the one of Ziva’s that’s still outstanding.”

He could see that Gibbs was grateful that Tony hadn’t dropped the ball on the reports, but his boss just said. “All right, get out of here before something else comes up.”

“You’re getting a TAD?”

Gibbs made a face, but nodded. “After lunch.” Tony’s desk phone rang. “Just go,” Gibbs ordered.

“Gotcha. See you next week, Boss.”

“Where is Tony going?” Ziva asked, getting to her feet. McGee stayed at his desk, but looked perplexed.

“I’m on vacation the rest of the week. I’ll see you guys in a few days.”

Her eyes narrowed. “After the FBI’s visit on Friday, you expect us to believe that you are not in trouble? Are you going on a lan?”

“On the lam,” Tony corrected automatically. “And my personal life isn’t any of your business. I’m on vacation.”

“Back to work, Ziver,” Gibbs said chidingly before Ziva could say anything else. “Get out of here, Tony.”

“Just a minute, Agent, DiN-nozzo,” the director said hurrying down the stairs, stumbling over his name. Seriously, did everyone think he was going to freak about his name? His fucking badge still said DiNozzo. He wasn’t even sure yet what he was going to do about the permanent issue of his name.

“Tony’s on leave, Director,” Gibbs interjected.

“I’m aware, Agent Gibbs. I authorized it, if you’ll recall.” She didn’t seem to be paying too much attention to Gibbs, instead focusing on Tony. “I need to speak to you a moment. You, too, Jethro.”

Tony wondered what the hell could be going on now?

He followed her over to the windows, waiting a beat for Gibbs to step next to him. “Is there a problem?”

“Director Fitzgerald just called. There was a leak to the press. ZNN called the Bureau and us for fact verification. The FBI tried to stall, but they’ll be going live any minute now.”

“What?!” he yelped. They needed more time. He needed more time. This was supposed to go down as a very carefully crafted press release, not whatever the fuck this was going to be. “How?”

“The FBI is certain it’s an internal leak. Some of the facts ZNN was checking were known only to the investigative team and those in the chain of command.”

Tony fisted his hands in his hair and wanted to scream. He’d had barely two days to wrap his head around this, and now the entire world was about to find out. “Please tell me they’re leaving my name out of it.”

“We don’t know. No one is certain the breadth of information they have obtained, and they haven’t been receptive to anything the FBI has had to say. SecNav is trying to stop it, but no one thinks he’ll have success. They’re worried about another news outlet getting the story before they can run with it.”

“Fuck!” Tony growled, not even caring about the director’s presence.

The director’s phone chimed, and she grimaced when she read the text. “They’re airing as soon as the current commercial ends.”

“McGee!” Gibbs barked. “Bring up ZNN on the plasma.”

Tony wanted to protest, but there was no damn point. He would only be delaying his team’s knowledge by minutes. They all went to stand in front of the plasma just as Tony’s phone started buzzing like mad. He ignored it.

“What’s going on, Boss?” McGee asked as he adjusted the volume.

“We’re about to find out, McGee,” Gibbs retorted.

With dread, Tony watched the cat food commercial come to an end.

The words BREAKING NEWS scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

This is a ZNN special report. Sources inside the FBI have confirmed that the Sheppard baby kidnapping has been solved after more than three decades. Most of our viewers will remember that on June 15th, 1973, when he was a mere three days old, Alexander Sheppard disappeared from the nursery at Dominion Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia, never to be seen or heard from again. ZNN has been informed that this past Friday, in an unrelated matter, a positive DNA match was made, and it was confirmed that a man known as Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Junior, is in fact Alexander James Sheppard.”

“What?!” was yelped out from so many directions, Tony didn’t even try to figure out where. All he could think of was that he was screwed.

DiNozzo,” a fucking picture of him from his NCIS file flashed on the screen, “is a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, based out of Washington DC. We’ve been told he’s already been reunited with his family, and the FBI has made several arrests in conjunction with Agent DiNozzo’s abduction. ZNN has contacted the Sheppard family for a statement, but have not yet received a reply. We will continue to follow this story and will apprise our viewers as we have new information. To recap, the case of one of the most infamous child abductions in modern history has been solved. Sources at the FBI–”

Tony ripped the remote out of McGee’s hand and nearly broke it as he turned the plasma off. “Did anyone think to tell them I work undercover?” He was beyond furious. News agencies were supposed to blur out the faces of undercover agents, not slap up a color portrait for everyone to see. He was fucking ruined.

“SecNav was going to bring up the issue, but I don’t know if there wasn’t time, or if they didn’t care,” the director replied as she watched Tony with a concerned expression.

“I’m never going to be able to go undercover again!”

“Agent DiN—Tony,” Shepard corrected, “Your primary role is to investigate. You’re not a fulltime undercover operative.”

He glared at her. That was hardly the fucking point! He went undercover all the damn time! And there sure as hell was no one else on this team who could do it. His phone started vibrating again.

“That’s not the point, Jen!” Gibbs exploded, looking as furious as Tony felt. “They compromised an agent’s safety with that report!”

“And what am I supposed to do about it now, Jethro? SecNav and I will take them to task for their lapse, but it’s not going to solve anything for… Tony.”

“Is it true?” McGee asked, sounding bewildered.

“It can’t be true,” Ziva chimed in.

Tony glared at her so fiercely, she took a step back. He switched his gaze to McGee. “What do you think, McClueless?”

“Tony,” Gibbs said softly.

“No, Gibbs,” Tony said, completely aware everyone on the fucking floor was staring, and he couldn’t be bothered to give a shit anymore. “This is my life and no one here has any rights to it.” He looked back at McGee. “Is it true that my undercover career is wrecked? Or is it true that I’m Patrick Sheppard’s son? If you’re not enough of an investigator to figure out those answers, I’ve been wasting my time,” Tony snapped.

“Tony!” Gibbs barked.

Tony glared at him, managing to bite back the vitriolic response.

“Patrick Sheppard was here with that general and Fornell on Friday,” McGee said, looking ashen.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Seriously?” Tony had no patience for stating the obvious. He stepped around Director Shepard and grabbed his bag.

“Toooonyyyyyy!” Abby’s voice came from behind the cubicle, then she came around it at a run. “Is it true what they said on ZNN?”

Tony closed his eyes and prayed for patience. “It’s true,” he bit out.

“How could you not tell me?” she yelled as she socked him in the arm.

“Abby!” Gibbs barked.

“It’s not fair, Gibbs. How could Tony keep this all to himself?”

Tony stared at her open-mouthed. Yeah, Abby could be spoiled sometimes—Tony and Gibbs and practically everyone indulged her relentlessly—but he’d never heard her be quite such an entitled little twat before.

“It’s Tony’s personal life and none of your concern. You need to go back to work. In fact,” he raised his voice to carry out over the entire floor, “all of you need to get back to work!”

For once, people weren’t listening to Gibbs, or at least, most of them weren’t. Not even Abby.

“Gibbs!” Abby said insistently. “Tony has to tell us these things!” She spun back around to face him. “Oh my god. Do they call you Alex or Tony? Have you decided what name you’re going to use? Do you get along with them? Wow… do they even like you?”

Tony took a step back, smacking into his file cabinet and getting a sharp corner right between his shoulder blades. He just stared at Abby, utterly appalled at how she was acting and the things coming out of her mouth.

Gibbs tried to take her arm, but she shrugged him off. Before he could say anything else, Shepard yelled, “Ms. Sciuto! You will get ahold of yourself, or I’ll have you escorted from the building.”

Abby stopped flailing but actually vibrated as she bounced on her heels. “You don’t understand, Madam Director! This is so exciting. And we’re Tony’s family… he needs us. He has to tell us these things so we can take care of him!”

“We’re not family, Abby,” Tony said, hoping his voice was soft enough to not carry to the entire floor.

“Tony,” she said, looking stricken, “how could you say that?”

“Because I finally spent some time with a family this weekend. And my father, who has been looking for me for thirty-two years, put less demands on me the whole weekend than you did in five minutes.”

Abby’s mouth just hung open for several long moments, and no one said anything. Finally, she snapped her mouth shut and said, “I’m going to forgive you because I know you’re upset and saying things you don’t mean.”

“I do mean it,” Tony replied, feeling weary and incredibly disappointed.

Starting to look pissed, Abby started to say something, but Gibbs barked, “That’s it! You’ve done enough, Abby. I don’t want to hear another word.”

“Gibbs!” she said in a tone that was way too whiny for Tony’s nerves at the moment.

“Alex?” a familiar voice said, and David stepped up behind Ziva with his security escort trailing behind, looking uncertain.

“Dave… what?” Tony began, utterly bewildered by his brother’s sudden appearance.

“We’ve been trying to call, and, well, I was closest. Are you all right?”

“Yeah. No. I mean…” he shook his head. “They aired my picture. From my NCIS file,” he said sharply as he shot a pointed look at Shepard. She looked startled, but he turned his attention back to his brother.

“I’m so sorry, Alex. Dad’s trying to do damage control, but it’s bedlam right now. I don’t know if anything we can do is going to be able to help. But… can I take you home?”

“That’d be really good,” he admitted, wanting to end the spectacle.

David moved so he was between Tony and Abby, and grabbed Tony’s bag. “Come on… let’s go home.”

Tony walked out with his brother, not caring about the chaos he was leaving behind.

– – – –

Tony stared out the window of the car, vaguely listening to David’s half of the conversation as he talked on his Bluetooth headset while driving. Apparently Patrick was in some oversight meeting all day and had called for a recess to set his PR and legal teams into motion to deal with the situation. He’d spoken with Tony briefly, promising to get to the bottom of things, and he’d get out of his meeting as soon as he could. Tony appreciated the thought, but he recognized that there was very little to be done about it now. The damage was done.

David disconnected his call and glanced at Tony. “Press are already amassing outside your apartment building. There are only a few now, but I expect it will be a zoo soon.” He hesitated briefly, then added, “You know we want you to think of home as with us, and I really want to take you home, but I’ll take you wherever you want. We’ll get some help dealing with the press if you want to go back to your place.”

Tony considered for a few seconds. He’d planned to spend a big portion of his days off with his family, but there was really no reason he couldn’t just stay at the Sheppard family home. If it got to be too much, he’d leave. “I’d need to get some things…”

“Hey, if you’re okay with it, we can arrange for someone to get whatever you need.”

Not too thrilled with the idea a stranger going through his shit, he considered for a few seconds, then fired off a text. Despite the fact that Tony had been pissed as hell in the bullpen, he knew Gibbs wasn’t going to hold a grudge over it. And, yeah, it was ballsy to ask his boss to get him a change of clothes, but his give a fuck was broken.

The response came back almost instantly. “Gibbs will drop off some stuff for me later tonight.”

“Perfect. Listen, I mentioned to the legal department about the photo being from your NCIS personnel file… is that picture anywhere else?”

“No. It was taken by NCIS and is part of my employee file.”

“All right. NCIS isn’t the source of the leak, everyone’s pretty sure it’s the FBI, but they’re going to make sure NCIS has to answer for that photo getting out.”

The media would have managed a photo of Tony somehow, but they clearly went to someone at NCIS for background information and that person pulled the image from Tony’s personnel record. Anyone going into employee files for that purpose needed a serious fucking reality check. It’s not like it would have been difficult to obtain a photo of him without violating agency procedure. Someone could very easily get fired over something really stupid. And considering how angry Tony was, he couldn’t find it in him to care at the moment.

Tony had been trying to imagine how bad the media shitstorm was going to be, but he so far hadn’t been able to wrap his head around it. “Any idea how out of control this press nightmare is going to get?”

“It’s not going to be good,” David replied with a shake of his head. “Dad and I were already consulting with a couple carefully selected people on the SI PR team, and they were planning for a media siege. It’s not going to be pretty, and it’s not going to be over with very quickly.”

“Shit.” Tony glared out at nothing.

“Look, Dad’s going to want you to have security on you for a while. And before you say anything,” David said quickly when Tony started to reply, “just think about it, okay? This is going to be crazy. I know you’re a fully trained federal agent, and you probably don’t need actual protection, but I have a hunch you’re going to need some help with crowd control and people to run interference.”

Tony made a face, but considered all the ramifications. “No commitment, but I’ll consider it after we see how big of a mess this is.”

“Fair enough. At some point this afternoon, someone from our PR team will come by to talk about an official press release. Dad wanted to talk to you about that later in the week anyway, but our timeline got shot. But we’re not going to say anything to the media without discussing it with you first, okay?”

“Yeah.” It was all overwhelming, but he appreciated that his family wasn’t trying to run roughshod over him. “And thanks.”

He spent a few minutes wondering if things were truly going to be bad enough to warrant dragging security around with him to manage the press and crowds. On the one hand, it was ludicrous to think of his life in that kind of light, but he’d certainly seen stranger things over the years. “This is going to be a nightmare,” Tony mumbled, rubbing his temples. He considered the impact this would have on all the Sheppards and nearly cringed. “I… damn, Dave, I am so sorry about this disaster.”

David abruptly changed lanes, startling Tony, then pulled the Mustang over in a no-parking zone, slamming on the brakes.

“What the hell?” Tony exclaimed, looking at David, who was turning in his seat so they were facing off.

“Don’t ever apologize for any of this!” David said vehemently. “I wish there was a way to make this easier for you, but I am nothing but impossibly, unbelievably grateful that we found you. None of the BS even matters.”

Tony blinked a few times, trying to get his bearings.

“I know you don’t get it yet, but your absence has been this incredible empty spot in all of our lives. Having you back is worth anything.”

“All right, David,” Tony finally managed to get out, not sure what to say in the face of such a raw declaration.

David was watching him closely, but eventually nodded and pulled back into traffic. “You know you can call me Dave,” his older brother offered after a few minutes of silence. “Of the people close to me, only Dad calls me ‘David’. Well, Mattie does when he’s annoyed or making a point. He seems to need the extra syllable for emphasis.”

Tony couldn’t help but laugh. He was just getting to know his younger brother, but that seemed just like him.

By the time they arrived at the house, it was clear a couple of media outlets had beat them. But at least there were big-ass security gates and a fence, which Tony did not have at his condo. Plus, there was private security to keep the driveway clear so Dave could get through.

Matt was waiting for them in the entryway, looking annoyed. “Those assholes! How could they leak that and show your picture?!” He shoved a handful of clothes at Tony. “Our plans to go anywhere are shot, so we’ll just have to find something else to occupy our time.” He pointed at Dave. “And don’t think you’re out of the bet. You’re still going to cough up your car, just not today.”

Bemused, Tony stared at the handful of sweats Matt had given him. He was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, which seemed casual enough. Why did he need more casual?

– – – –

With experience borne of much practice, Tony absorbed the elbow to the stomach and kept control of the ball, feinted left, then went around Matt to the right and took the shot. “Game point!” he declared as the ball sank through the net.

He braced his hands on his knees and caught his breath, the November cold annoying his lungs slightly. Suddenly he started laughing. “I can’t believe you fouled me!” he said around his laughter, even as something caught his eye.

Matt was panting, too. “Leveling the playing field,” he retorted. “Only way in hell I have a chance of beating you!” he said ended with a grin.

Still laughing, Tony strolled over to the edge of the small outdoor court behind the Sheppard family home and picked up his phone. He ignored the flood of text messages, missed calls, and voicemails and began typing out a text to Dave.

“You’re not going to beat me, foul or no,” he retorted with a cocky grin. Basketball had been the perfect way to get his mind off the situation. He reached for the hoodie and pulled it on over his sweaty t-shirt.

“What’s up with Dave?” Matt asked, staring at where their older brother had just emerged from the back entrance. Dave was glaring out over the property with his arms crossed over his chest. Security guards came from around the sides of the house at a brisk clip.

“I texted him that there’s someone with a camera in the bushes about thirty yards due east.”

Matt’s mouth dropped open as he spun around and watched as the security team rousted the photographer from the shrubbery and escorted him away. “How the hell did you see that?”

“Have to pay attention to my surroundings,” Tony said with a shrug.

“All right, Super Agent Man, let’s hit the showers. Carmen will have lunch ready soon.”

Normally, Tony would be all over figuring out how the reporter go on the property and trying to fix the situation, but, for once, he decided to just let someone else take care of it. Besides, Tony had already sampled Carmen’s cooking and was not going to miss out.

– – – –

Patrick settled into his customary chair in Hammond’s office. He knew George wouldn’t have asked to see him if it wasn’t important, so he’d set aside his desire to go home and check on Alex. His hope was that George had some news about John.

“How is your family, Patrick?” George began with obvious concern.

“In some ways better than we have been in a long time. Today was a nasty surprise for Alex, but I know he’ll rebound. John is a worry, of course.”

George nodded. “Hopefully my news will set your mind somewhat at ease. The Daedalus reached Pegasus. The situation is still hot but at last communication just a couple hours ago, John was alive and well. I expect we’ll know more in the hours to come.”

Patrick felt like an incredible weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He knew there was no guarantee, but knowing that John was all right as of today was an unmeasurable relief. “Will there be any chance of him coming home?”

“Decisions are still being made about the future of the expedition, but at a minimum, the expedition leaders will come in for debriefing. Whether they’ll be returning to the city is still under review. It could be that the entire expedition will be recalled.”

“And what about John?” Patrick asked again.

“Major Sheppard is the military commander of the expedition.”

“What?” Patrick blinked in shock. The SGC and Homeworld Security had been vague about the details of what actually was going on in Pegasus—classified, of course—but he was sure they hadn’t mentioned John going out there in command.

“His CO was a casualty very shortly after they arrived, and Major Sheppard assumed command. I’m afraid I cannot give you any more specifics, but because of his position in the command structure, he will return to the SGC for debriefing.” George gave a smile. “So, yes, John will be coming home.”

Patrick took a steadying breath, getting himself under control. All his boys might be together soon.

“There was one other issue. It certainly crossed my mind, but the issue was actually raised by President Hayes—that three of your sons are read in, to varying degrees, on the Stargate program.”

Immediately, Patrick was concerned. He’d known Henry Hayes for years, and the man was, on occasion, completely unpredictable. “What did Henry do?”

“He’s simply requested that we have… Alex?” George paused to ask, and Patrick nodded. “He’s asked that Alex be vetted by Homeworld Security.”

“To what end?” He certainly wanted Alex to be cleared to know what the rest of his family was working on, but he was wary of what might be motivating Henry.

“I’ve discussed it briefly with General O’Neill and General Landry, who is assuming command of the SGC when Jack moves to Washington, and they’re both interested in finally setting up a Resident Unit for investigations. Either at Area 51 or at the SGC directly. It’s been an unresolved issue for several years, and Agent Sheppard might fit the bill perfectly. I admit Jack groused rather loudly about the possibility of finally having an internal investigator after he has left.”

Patrick blew out a breath. That was completely unexpected. It would certainly be easier to have Alex aware of what the rest of the family was involved in, but the idea of another son being sucked into working for Stargate Command did not fill him with joy.

“I appreciate the heads up, George. I’ll give Henry holy hell the next time we speak,” he added wryly.

“There should be some traction on the matters of both your sons over the course of the week. I’ll keep you apprised personally.”

– – – –

Tony peered around the corner and found the hallway to be empty. He glanced back at Dave and Matt and gave a nod. The three of them crept down the hallway until they got to the door. He half expected someone to jump out with a camera, but he put his key in the lock, and the three of them made it inside his condo without incident.

Once the door was closed, Matt jumped over the back of Tony’s couch and sprawled out as he glanced around. “That was slick as shit how you snuck past those reporters.”

“It helps that it’s three in the morning and the reporters aren’t expecting anything to actually happen. Though if any of my neighbors saw me, we’re screwed. There are at least half a dozen that would sell me out for a free order of fries,” Tony remarked with a laugh.

Dave was looking around and went to the piano. “When we showed you mom’s, you didn’t mention…” he looked over at Tony. “Do you play?”

“Yeah. That belonged to my–” he sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “That was Claire’s piano. It was the only thing she left me in her will.”

Matt slipped up next to him. “You know it’s okay if you call the woman who raised you your mother.”

Tony shrugged one shoulder and stepped back a bit. “Let me just grab some stuff and we’ll get out of here before we press our luck. And please remind me of this if I ever ask Gibbs to pack for me again. Seriously. I ask him for my kindle and he brings me a porn magazine. And I own one damn polo shirt and he manages to find it,” Tony muttered as he walked toward his bedroom.

He heard his brothers following him and so was prepared for Matt’s, “Dude! What’s with the bed?” Matt sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed and peered up at Tony.

“I’m just not in the habit of bringing people here, so the big bed seemed like a waste.” He started dropping the clothes he wanted on the free portion of the bed.

“Okay, no. There’s way more story than that, but I can practically feel Dave’s glare drilling holes in my skull, so I’ll bother you about it when he’s not around.” He leaned back on his elbow, practically lying on Tony’s jeans. “And I love your boss. Asking for a Kindle and getting gay porn is the most righteous packing mistake of all time. Besides, it helped us get that awkward Kinsey discussion over with.”

Tony huffed out a laugh as he started folding the clothes to fit in his duffle. “That’s one way of looking at it.”

“It’s the best way! Can you imagine how long that discussion would have taken to come up naturally?

“Not long with you around, Mattie,” Dave remarked dryly from where he was leaning against the wall.

Matt made a dismissive wave. “I’d have given him some time to settle in before asking, but having him open his bag and there being gay porn was the perfect segue. Now we all know where everyone is at… Alex is an equal opportunity employer, I’m gay all day, and you’re missing out on making friends with your prostate.”

Tony’s folding was getting sloppy because he was laughing at Matt.

“Really?” Dave asked dryly. “Some women have strap-ons, Mattie.”

“No. Way.” Matt sat up, eyes wide. “You did not.”

Dave just raised a brow.

“Oh my god, David! That’s totally awesome. Who?” Matt bounced a little on the bed.

Rolling his eyes and sighing, Dave finally replied, “Melinda.”

“Oh. Yeah. Wow.” Matt paused and shook his head. “Dude! I’d have let her fuck me, and I totally don’t swing that way. Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“Yes, because that’s the sort of thing that comes up in conversation.”

“I can’t believe you and the being dignified thing again! You making up with your prostate is news.”

“Matthew,” Dave said severely.

“David,” Matt shot back.

The two were glaring at each other and Tony couldn’t help it, he started cracking up.

– – – –

After breakfast on Wednesday morning, Tony broke away from his family to go read, but found himself in the sitting room where his birth mother’s baby grand was the obvious focus. The piano was beautiful, and it oddly made him feel connected to a woman he’d never known.

The last couple days had gone better than expected. As much as possible, his father and brothers were taking the week off of work to spend time with Tony and get to know each other. Dave and Patrick periodically had to deal with a meeting or two, and several times Matt had been nose down in a pile of schematics that Tony couldn’t hope to understand.

Sometimes it was overwhelming and he wanted to retreat, but mostly it was good. Better than good. It was family—and Tony had finally seen just how far off the mark he’d been about what that even meant. And it felt good that this was for him, that he was accepted without reservation, that he didn’t have to pretend or keep up a front. When it got to be too much, and he needed to be alone, no one said anything, they just let him be.

The biggest source of frustration was actually the rest of the world. The media circus was bigger than he’d expected, which was sort of hard to believe. He was glad for the Sheppards’ PR and legal teams, because he knew he was insulated from the worst of it, but it was on the news. All. The. Time.

Worse was the people he hadn’t heard from or talked to in years coming out of the woodwork, all wanting to “reconnect.” Right. So far the entire Sheppard family was lying low, but he’d been warned that Patrick would need to make a statement soon. Tony could be involved or not, and he truly believed that whatever he wanted was okay with Patrick.

He was still trying to figure out what he was going to do about NCIS. He planned to return to work on Monday, but something about his identity being revealed the way it had been felt like an ending of some sort, though he couldn’t even put his finger on why yet. It certainly limited his role on the team to purely investigative. In some ways, that made the job less interesting for him, and he felt ridiculous for being so put out about it. He could still be a good agent; he didn’t need to be able to do undercover work. Since he had no clarity in his own mind about the job or his future, there was no reason not to go back to work and see how things shook out.

Tony sat at the piano and lifted the fallboard. Music was how he de-stressed, but this was Emma Sheppard’s piano, and she was a rather sacred topic. No one had hesitated to tell Tony about her, but they spoke of her with such reverence. He lightly touched the keys, not allowing his fingers to press at all, and wondered what kind of music his mother had liked.

“She played to you all the time,” Patrick’s voice came from the doorway.

“I’m sorry. I was just curious…”

“You have nothing to apologize for. She was your mother… she’d be so delighted to have you sitting at her piano.”

Tony touched the keys again softly. “She played to me, you said?”

“Yes—when she was pregnant. You were so restless at night, you’d keep her awake. One night, she played the piano, just to pass the time, and you settled right down. Over the last two months of her pregnancy, she tried several pieces of music, but Loch Lomond worked every time—anything else was hit or miss.” Patrick smiled wistfully. “Almost every night, I’d lie in bed reading and listening to her play Loch Lomond until you’d settle down enough for her to sleep.”

He found himself smiling a bit. He’d always loved Loch Lomond, and he suddenly felt very connected to a woman he’d never met. “I was a sleep terrorist,” he murmured.

“Your mother used to say that you were a night owl and that you didn’t like to be bored. So when we’d settle down to go to sleep, it got quiet and dull for you, and that’s why you’d start to kick and squirm. She said, ‘Mark my words, Patrick, we’re going to have a hell of a time keeping this one occupied.’” Patrick smiled and shook his head.

It was so strange because she was right about that. Tony did hate to be bored, he was a night owl, and playing the piano had always helped him relax and clear his mind.

“John and David were both single-minded and very focused, even as children. Matthew, on the other hand…” Patrick shook his head. “I think he’s more like you from what I’ve seen.”

Tony nodded. He identified with Matt’s ability to do six things at once, jump from topic to topic, and concoct elaborate strategies to avoid boredom.

“Do you play? I saw the other piano, but that’s no guarantee,” his father asked leadingly.

“Yeah… it’s how I relax. Clear my head.” He shot Patrick an amused look.

“Will you play something for me?”

Though he didn’t usually play for others, Tony nodded and settled squarely in front of the piano. He tested the tone of a couple of keys and found the piano to be well tuned. He considered playing Loch Lomond but thought it might be too emotionally charged. Instead, he went for something more contemporary. Yiruma’s May Be began to fill the room, and Tony felt himself fall into the music.

Patrick watched his son play, heard the notes fill the room, and felt his heart break a little. Alex played so much like Emma—he clearly had her passion and gentle touch. He often thought the reasons his other sons stayed away from continuing their piano lessons was because it was too wrapped up in their mother. He’d understood, but still grieved that one of Emma’s passions wasn’t carried on in their children. It struck him how despite Alex not being raised with his brothers, he was still so much like them. But in so many meaningful ways, Alex was the one most like Emma.

Patrick had a lengthy list of things he needed to do today—not the least of which was talk to Hammond about John, and get an update on the FBI’s investigation into their leak—but as the room filled with music, he settled in to listen. And remember.

– – – –

Tony stood with Gibbs outside the courtroom door on Friday morning, one of the Sheppard family lawyers nearby but keeping a respectful distance. It was probably odd that he asked Gibbs along for this, but when the time had come, he’d needed that familiar strength and someone who wasn’t so emotionally invested in what Tony was about to do.

This part of the courthouse was closed to the media, but they’d had a hell of a time getting past a throng of reporters outside. Someone at the courthouse had clearly leaked Tony’s presence in civil court to the media. He’d thought his father’s insistence on sending bodyguards along had been overkill. It wasn’t. And Tony was damn tired of seeing his picture plastered all over the place. He’d agreed to attend a press conference with Patrick tomorrow morning, and maybe things would start to calm down after that.

“Decided what you’re gonna do?” Gibbs asked as he surveyed the area, probably looking for threats.

“No,” Tony admitted.

Gibbs finally met his gaze. “Seems like you’re out of time to be makin’ up your mind.”

“I know. When the judge asks me, I’m gonna go with my gut. I’m sure it’s making the family lawyer crazy that I haven’t decided what to put on the forms.”

“He’s gettin’ paid no matter what,” Gibbs said dismissively.

Tony chuckled. “Right.”

The door to the courtroom opened, and Tony muttered, “Showtime.”

It took some time for the judge to look through all the paperwork, before he addressed Tony. “It’s a terrible thing that was done to you and your family, young man, and it’s my intention to do everything that is within the power of this court to see you are kept whole. In reviewing the provisions for your trust from your grandfather, it was noted that the Paddingtons were aware you were adopted, so there’s no legal basis for Mr. DiNozzo’s challenge of your ownership of your trust, and certainly he has no basis to claim any of your other financial assets. However, as I’m sure you’ve been told, since you were never legally adopted, your legal name is in fact Alexander James Sheppard.

“If you choose to do nothing in regards to your name, we’ll issue the orders to have all your assets assigned the proper name. However, if you wish to use a different name, of any origin, I will grant you a legal name change immediately and then issue the orders to clear up these little problems.” He paused and gestured to all the paperwork Tony had gathered when he’d gotten the unexpected notice from DiNozzo’s lawyer that they were trying to seize his trust and some of his other assets. Plus, NCIS had been having fits over Tony’s real name, because you couldn’t have a name that wasn’t legally your own on your badge.

“You simply need to decide what name you’re going to use,” the judge concluded.

And that was the decision Tony had been putting off making in his own mind. He’d known all along he’d have to make a choice quickly because his name legally was Alex Sheppard, and all his assets were in the name of Tony DiNozzo. Senior had just forced his hand and he’d had to do it a little sooner than expected.

Gibbs’ steady presence on his six helped him feel grounded, and he suddenly knew what he was going to do. Once he made the decision, he found he had no doubts at all.

– – – –

“Sorry that took so long,” he called out as he tromped up the stairs to Patrick’s study. He gave a start of surprise when he realized Matt and Dave were there as well. “Oh. Hey.”

“You were on the news. Repeatedly. Did you know there are a bunch of videos on YouTube with Gibbs being a dick to the press? I have a big old platonic crush on the man now,” Matt commented lightly. It was obvious he wanted to ask, but was containing himself. It was clear they all wanted to ask. David was too casual, and Patrick was trying to look only politely interested.

“Bunch of vultures,” he muttered, still annoyed about the media, then said, “We stopped by NCIS to deal with some paperwork and get my new badge.” He pulled it out of his pocket and tossed it to his father.

Patrick opened the badge and looked at the credentials. “Special Agent Alexander J. Sheppard,” he murmured, touching it like he thought it might not be real. No one had put any pressure on Alex about the name, but he hadn’t been oblivious to what they’d been hoping for. He wasn’t going to try to get people at NCIS to stop calling him Tony, but legally, he’d chosen to be Alex Sheppard from this day forward.

“Yes!” Matt crowed and snatched Alex’s badge from Patrick. “Special Agent Sheppard is in the house!”

“You good with this?” David asked softly as he stepped right next to Alex.

“Yeah, I really am,” Alex replied with a smile.

– – – –

Alex arrived at NCIS extra early on Monday morning, glad that the press were easily contained when inside the Navy Yard and were being kept entirely away from the NCIS building. He’d done a press conference with his father on Saturday morning, letting Patrick take most of the questions, but he answered a couple of the more innocuous ones. The PR people thought engaging with the media would help things die down quicker, and he hoped they were right. Although the list of interview requests was ridiculous. He’d joked with Matt that he was holding out for Oprah.

He was glad he’d arrived early, because by the time he got up to the bullpen, he was completely over all the staring. And people he barely knew kept trying to talk to him. Awkwardly, at that. The awkwardness was worse than the random conversations with near strangers.

Sitting at his desk, for the first time in his career, he felt out of place. He didn’t want all this stuff to affect his job any more than it already had, but he was worried about how the day would go. About how his coworkers were going to treat him.

Instead of dwelling on the growing feeling of discontentment, he focused on the cases his team had worked the prior week and copied out the information he needed to keep his reports current.

“Agent DiNozzo, can I see you in my office?” He looked up to find Director Shepard a few feet away.

“It’s ‘Agent Sheppard’, ma’am,” he reminded.

“Of course. My apologies.” She smiled broadly at him, and it struck him as odd. “It’s a name I’m rather fond of myself.” His smile felt plastic as he rose to his feet and followed her upstairs.

The meeting was weird and uncomfortable. She seemed to have a lot of questions about how things would go with the media, which he didn’t know. She wanted to know if he needed any additional support from NCIS. Why would he? Did he need anything from her personally? That threw him for a loop and made him uncomfortable.

Alex usually read people well, but he wasn’t certain how much was her doing her job, how much was his own recent celebrity affecting her, and how much was just her making nice with the son of one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the country, and a good friend of the President. It was probably a combination of all of the above.

By the time he escaped her office, it was quarter to eight and McGee and Gibbs were in the bullpen at their desks. Alex rounded the corner and stopped abruptly at the sight of his desk. There were seven cups of coffee!

He stared in complete bemusement. “What the hell?”

“People keep dropping them off,” McGee said, looking uncomfortable. “They stopped after Gibbs told them to go away.”

Huffing in annoyance, he started dropping them in the trash.

“You don’t want them?” McGee asked incredulously.

“Anonymous drive-by stranger-coffee? Are you kidding, McRisky?”

“Tony…” McGee said with no small amount of exasperation.

“And since half of them were from my shop,” he continued, “I don’t even know which one was actually mine!” Gibbs cleared his throat and Alex glanced over to find Gibbs cutting his eyes at a cup on his own desk. “Did you rescue my coffee?” Gibbs just raised a brow, and Alex grinned. “I knew you loved me.”

After he retrieved his coffee, McGee halted him on the way to his desk. “Tony, can we talk a minute?”

“I’ll be in MTAC.” Gibbs got to his feet and left the bullpen.

Alex sat on the edge of his desk and sipped his coffee. “Shoot.”

“Look…” McGee ran his fingers through his hair. “I tried calling you last week.”

“I had literally hundreds of messages, McGee. NCIS has issued me a new cell, and I already got a new personal one.” One of his father’s personal assistants had volunteered to listen and transcribe all the messages. He wanted to just delete them all and be done with it, but there were security concerns and so he’d agreed to let someone check all the calls that came in over the week. Alex had been raised around money and influence but not on the Sheppard level. With it came crazy on a whole new level.

“Oh. Right. Well, that makes sense.”

“I’ll be sending out the new NCIS number to the team shortly, but you never give it to anyone. Clear?”

“Yeah. Of course. Listen, I’m sorry about how things went when we all found out about your family. I was just really surprised, and I wasn’t thinking about how much worse it all must have been for you.”

Alex sighed. “You weren’t the problem, McGee, and I shouldn’t have blown up at you. I’m sorry I took my frustrations over the situation out on you.”

McGee moved a little awkwardly. “Abby’s kind of mad still even though Gibbs has talked to her a few times.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. Gibbs had reported that Abby had come around. This made him think she was saying the right thing to appease Gibbs but bitching when he wasn’t present. “Her wounded feelings aren’t my problem.”

Blinking in shock, McGee sputtered, “But it’s Abby.”

“Are you capable of being objective about the things she said?”

McGee shrugged. “She was kind of insensitive, but you know how Abby is. She just says what’s on her mind.”

“All right then. So, here’s how it is—we’re going to work together fine, but I suggest you not try to be a go-between in this situation. I don’t regret what I said, and I’d say it again. She has no free pass on this subject. If you can’t respect that, you need to let me know now.”

McGee held his hands up a bit in a surrender gesture. “I’ll stay out of it. I promise. But I can’t help it if she talks to me.”

“That’s fine. Just keep it to yourself.”

“I will. Listen, do we need to start calling you Alex?”

Alex made a face. He actually didn’t want his coworkers addressing him by a name he felt belonged to his family. It was weird and illogical and he knew he’d get over it in time, but right now, it felt like an invasion. “My name is legally Alex Sheppard, but you can call me Tony. I’d prefer it, really. I’m not going to have everyone at NCIS get used to a new name.” He pointed a finger at the junior agent. “But you will have to get used to calling me Agent Sheppard when it’s appropriate.”

They talked for a few more minutes, and Alex deflected several of the questions that were venturing into the too-personal territory. It was his own fault really. He’d never been willing to answer personal questions, but people thought he was incredibly open about his personal life, so they never asked the right questions. Now, with his personal life spread all over People magazine, people knew exactly how to be intrusive and had no idea it was anything out of the norm.

Ziva’s arrival halted their conversation. She put her stuff down and offered Alex a bright smile and a cup of coffee. “I picked up your favorite. The office was not usual with you away.”

“Not the same,” he corrected automatically as he reflexively accepted the cup of coffee, wondering what kind of pod-Ziva was this. She’d never brought him coffee before. He sniffed it and got a whiff of vanilla, so he set it far away.

She frowned. “I did not prank it, Tony.”

“I smell vanilla.”

“Of course. I got you your vanilla latte.”

Alex had never in his life been into vanilla lattes, though he didn’t turn them away when they were the only thing on offer. At least, not until about two months ago.

“Uh, Ziva, Tony prefers a flat white, though it used to be hazelnut lattes. And we’ve all been off anything vanilla since the Lieutenant Bradley crime scene. Remember?” McGee offered. “When the wife tried to cover up the scent of her husband’s remains with the vanilla essential oils?”

Alex shuddered at the memory and pushed the coffee cup a little further away.

“Oh.” Ziva looked annoyed briefly but quickly masked it, making Alex wonder what the hell was going on. “I do not know what this ‘flat white’ is, but I will remember it for tomorrow.”

She was bringing him coffee tomorrow? “You feeling all right, Ziva?” Alex asked, noticing McGee’s bemused look.

“Of course. It was not the same without you here last week.”

Okay, maybe. He’d seen this with Kate a time or two where she’d been more appreciative of him after he’d been gone for a bit. Still, Ziva didn’t seem the type to express appreciation even if she had actually noted his absence.

Ziva flashed him a look he would almost describe as coy. “Did you not receive my voice messages?”

“I had to get a new phone. You’ll have the new number shortly. Was there something you needed?”

“I simply wished to assure you that I will have your back, and that if you need me, I will, of course, be there,” she said with a smile.

“Right,” he said cautiously, feeling confused. “Appreciate it.” He pushed off his desk and moved back into his seat. “Okay. I read all the reports from last week. Catch me up on anything you think I need to know,” he directed to McGee, who was the senior of the two. And an actual NCIS agent.

Before McGee could get a word out, Ziva jumped in and started explaining the week, including how difficult things were without ‘Tony’ there. He shared a brief confused look with McGee, but then focused on what Ziva was telling him.

– – – –

When the first news van arrived at their crime scene, Alex stayed focused on the scene sketch, not wanting to have to re-do the measurements he was working with. Sometimes the press caught wind of a murder and showed up trying to get a shot of something interesting.

They caught his attention again when they tried to cross the crime scene tape.

“Hey!” Gibbs barked, moving into Alex’s eye line. “Get back behind the line! This is a crime scene.”

“We have questions for Agent Sheppard,” a woman replied. “Agent Sheppard!” she called out. “Just a few questions! What do you think of the criminal charges against Anthony DiNozzo?”

Gibbs snarled at the reporter and backed her and her cameraman up.

Alex tried to focus on the sketch and was almost done when another news van arrived. The chaos started to grow and they barely managed to finish processing the scene before it was complete chaos. The local LEOs had to erect a barricade and help with traffic so the NCIS vehicles could leave the scene.

Gibbs was stony-faced on the ride back to HQ and growled for Ziva and McGee to shut up when they started to ask questions.

Alex wanted to bang his head on the dash.

– – – –

The base housing neighborhood seemed quiet enough, but Alex’s awareness was heightened even more than usual after the run in with the press earlier in the day. Gibbs had felt it safe enough to drag Alex along to interview the neighbors of the victims.

He rapped on the door, and as soon as it was opened by a woman in her mid-thirties, he said, “I’m Special Agent Sheppard with NCIS, and I have a few questions for you ab–”

“Are you really? Oh my god! You are. You’re Baby Sheppard! Oh, this is so exciting. I can’t believe you’re here! Can I hug you?” She didn’t even wait for his permission before she glomped on with an Abby-worthy strangle-hug.

Alex flailed a bit, trying to figure out what to do, but Gibbs had no hesitation as he literally pried them apart then stood between Alex and the witness and began asking questions.

The rest of the neighbor interviews weren’t quite so touchy, but everyone was distracted by Alex’s presence, and he could see the writing on the wall. Damn whoever leaked his info to the press! If they hadn’t put up his damn picture and where he worked, he might be able to get away with just being Agent Sheppard, not THE Agent Sheppard.

Fuck, who was he kidding? It wasn’t like he was never going to be seen in public with his family. People were going to put a face to the name no matter what, and this shit would have happened anyway. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.

When they got in the car, Alex stared out the window, and silence reigned for a long time. “I can’t do my job,” he finally said.

“Not now, no,” Gibbs agreed without inflection.

Alex clenched his jaw and tried not to be angry. There was really no one to be angry at. “I can’t just sit in the office running backgrounds and financials all day.” He’d done that a time or two when he’d been injured and absolutely hated it. He couldn’t stand not being in the field with his team.

“The director thought this might come up. She wants to transfer you to the Cold Case Unit in Norfolk.”

“Boss!” Alex yelped, completely dismayed.

“I didn’t say it was gonna happen, Tony.” Gibbs seemed to be wrestling with something for several minutes. “Think you should take leave till the new year.”

“What?” Gibbs wanted him gone for a month?

“Take the time before Shepard does something drastic and transfers you. Let things cool off.” Gibbs shot him a quick look then turned his attention back to the road. “We both know you need the time. Your family needs it. So take it.”

Alex was conflicted. He wouldn’t mind more time to get to know his family and let that part of his life settle down, but he did not like the idea of leaving his team behind. “I don’t like not being on your six,” he groused.

“I’ll manage.”

Alex huffed. “Yeah, I know. You probably won’t even miss me,” he said lightly, though there was a thread of worry there. What if he was replaced?

“Always miss you when you’re gone, Tony. Expect this will be no different.”

Waiting for the punchline, Alex was a little startled when it never came. He readily admitted he always appreciated validation from Gibbs. He worked his ass off for the man, and the recognition on occasion was needed.

“Also might be good to get a break from Ziva making those passes at you.”

“Oh my god!” Alex exclaimed. “I thought I was imagining it.” At Gibbs quick look of incredulity, Alex amended. “Okay, I hoped I was imagining it. What the ever lovin’ hell, Gibbs? Just… why?”

“First time in a long time you’ve been deliberately that dense, Tony,” Gibbs remarked dryly. “You understand people’s nature as much as anyone I’ve ever known. Lot of possible advantages to someone who is crawling under your sheets.”

Alex made a face. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life questioning the motives of his bed partners. “Can I print out the rules? Maybe put rule 12 in a big font? Then circle it. Add a dash of highlighter?”

Gibbs just smiled.

Two days later, Alex was on one of the Sheppard Industries private planes on the way to Nevada with his brothers. Dave and Matt were going to be working part-time at JADEM the next couple weeks, before taking the last two weeks of December off for the holidays. Patrick would join them in a few days.

He hadn’t had this much time off work since the plague, and he felt oddly unfocused and uncertain about the future. Parts of his work that he loved had already been cut off to him forever, and it was unclear if he’d be able to execute the rest of his duties effectively—even after more time had passed.

Alex didn’t like not knowing what was coming but as he listened to Matt’s animated recounting of the disastrous date he’d been on the night before, he suddenly had confidence that everything was going to work out.

– – – –

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