Pretty Strangers
by B. Cavis

Pretty Strangers
by B. Cavis

Tuesday comes, just as normal as any before. Tony stubs his toe on his dresser when he gets out of the shower, and rubs his hair dry while standing naked in the middle of the apartment and yawning. The suit he puts on is worth more than what he spends on food in a week, and he ties the strip of silk Armani around his throat without thinking. Donning the armor of his day, he thinks to himself with a wry smile, and grabs a quick drink of tea before running out the door to stop himself from being late.

He grabs a scone from the baker around the corner, and ignores her muttering in Cockney slang about how tight his ass looks. When he says thank you, there is no hint of the British lilt that some people develop when dealing with people from across the pond.

He sang in the shower, like he does every morning. It helps him practice keeping his accent under control. It has been over three years since the last time he spoke without his American voice on. He doesn’t miss it much, but he’s had years of training.

It’s been six months since he put Caitlin Todd in the hands of Ari Haswari and helped carry his boss home after he drank himself under the table. It’s been six months since he became privy to the biggest secret that NCIS houses; one that he and one other person in the building, two if you count Morrow, have sworn to keep with their lives. Six months since he said goodbye to one of his best friends and tried not to think too hard about the fact that she was going off to be in constant danger, half a world away, out of the reach of his protection and affection.

His Gmail Notifier runs constantly. His computer, his cell phone, his pager-- all are on alert in case she tries to contact him, and he is constantly aware of the fact that his family used to include six people and now includes seven.

Ari Haswari is in need of protection because Caitlin Todd is in need of protection, and that fact haunts him throughout his waking moments and his dreams.

He makes his way to the office, checks his email, and goes about his day. Gibbs is passed out at his desk. McGee is working quietly at his, trying not to awaken the older man. He doesn’t go home every night anymore-- most nights he’s wearing the same shirt he was yesterday when he wakes up, and Tony and Ducky have started to stop trying.

They still watch his back. They just do it more… subtly now.

Six months ago, Gibbs swore he would bathe in Ari Haswari’s blood to avenge the harm done to Caitlin Todd, and six months ago Tony swore he would do everything in his power to keep that from happening in order to keep her safe.

Tony doesn’t kid himself-- Gibbs is the closest thing he has to a father, and even though he knows the other man will never admit it, he’s a substitute child. He, Kate, and McGee are Gibbs’s children, and now that one of them is gone forever from his reach, he has become the ultimate mama-bear. One of his own was hurt-- someone underneath his protection-- and that means that he has to take steps for vengeance. To be repaid in blood. Tony finds the thought pleasing in a very primal part of himself-- the idea that this man has his back no matter what happens, and if anything ever does he’ll be given an offering in the afterlife; a sacrifice.

The fact that if he ever did find Ari, he wouldn’t be permitted to board a plane alive is the thought that keeps Tony up at night.

Kate may be adjusting to her new life, but Tony is having trouble adjusting to her death. Before she went off to fight terrorists in Paris the most he did to complete his MI-6 duties on a regular basis was report in what Gibbs was doing if it involved one of their affairs. His job was not to impede the process of investigations, just to protect the interests of his government.

Two months ago, Tony took steps to discredit a lead Gibbs got on Ari’s position-- somewhere in Europe. Three weeks ago, he installed a virus onto the computers running the never ending search for him that made them crash and lose all the information they had. Gibbs had growled something about spook conspiracies and been generally sour for about a week.

They’d survived, but more importantly, so had Gibbs.

It’s strange having to keep his boss from reaching his goal. It makes him feel small and sad for some reason he can’t really identify. Maybe it’s the betrayal of the trust Gibbs places in him. Maybe it’s the fact that his first loyalty is not-- can never be-- to the man who he loves more than the father he never really knew. He is the servant of two masters, and both are worthy of his loyalty.

He has to keep Kate and Ari from being discovered or they’re as good as dead.

He has to keep Gibbs from sniffing too close to the truth or he will be dead. Tony has been a spook for close to fifteen years-- he knows what happens to those who endanger missions, no matter how unknowingly. The idea that Gibbs might end up with a hole in his head, brains chunky and thick on the pavement scares him enough to keep throwing the roadblocks up without hesitation.

Special Agent Kate Todd is dead. It’s up to Tony to make sure that Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs doesn’t meet the same fate.

It’s a duty he takes seriously.

The young and the beautiful are one thing, but the young, the beautiful and the rich are quite another, and one of the many bonuses to being who they are, where they are, is that on any given day or night there are a hundred plus places begging to provide their entertainment.

During the day, there are restaurants, shops, galleries-- places to blow a lot of money in very little time and look good while going it. During the day, they spend massive amounts of Euros and have no regrets about it, because one of the wonderful things about risking your life for your respective governments is that you’re not the one picking up the bill. She throws the Black Card around like she’s Barbie, and he tosses coins and paper onto counters like he’s playing with Monopoly money and isn’t even taking it half as seriously as most people take the board game.

During the day, they are rich, they are young, and they are beautiful. Two Al Qaeda operatives; a disillusioned former member of the Secret Service of the United States government, and a man who’s playing her to get sex and information to better the cause of his Islamic brethren. Pretty strangers with pretty smiles. But during the night, they get to go out and just be themselves, or as close to themselves as they can be. At night, they get to play.

And, damn, they’ve gotten good at it.

It’s been six months. They’ve gotten good at a lot of things.

“I love this!” she laughs over the music, grinding against two men covered in body glitter and nothing else, and Ari Haswari takes a moment to reflect on how very good ex-NCIS Agent Caitlin Todd looks when she’s shimmering in strobe lights. He’s pictured her in various positions over the past two years, various places and covered in various outfits, but glitter has never played a part in his extensive fantasy life.

…Well, there was that one time where she was a mutated version of Tinkerbell, but he promised himself never to speak of that to anyone.

Her hair is full of silver, eyelids and cheekbones coated in an iridescent shimmer paste, and he watches her play in and out of the lights, beautiful and delicate with a grin on his face. He’s started to enjoy watching her enjoy herself-- it makes him feel all warm and fuzzy and contented with himself.

“You taking both of them home with us?” he calls back, grinding against the woman in front of him with only half a mind turned to the task. She’s thin and bony, platinum bleached hair and chunky silver bracelets around her wrists; she’d weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet with syrup.

He used to love women like this; call it size issues, but he used to love the knowledge that there was someone in his bed who needed his protection from the outside world.

Caitlin grins at him, eyes wicked and gleaming in the flashing lights, and her hair whips around to trail against the chest of the man behind her like a lover’s touch. Her knife is hoisted high on her leg, strapped with Velcro, and he can see it because he knows where to look. A woman who can defend herself. Who needs no protection.

Dangerous. Deadly.

He grinds harder against his little sliver of nothing, and tells himself that this is the way it should be.

“I might just have to,” she announces, stroking two cheeks at once, intoxicated by the attention being paid to her. “Great party favors.”

He laughs with her, enjoying the thrill that goes through his veins as he watches her throat tighten and her body move like water over the dance floor. He never gets tired of that-- he never could. It’s been four months and he still jerks with a small shock every time he watches her do something like that. The other day she sat down on the living room floor and bent over backwards till she was looking at him through her own legs, feet planted flat and wide apart. He’d stared at her, she’d shifted until her back cracked, and then gone back to sitting like a normal person.

They’ve gotten good at living together-- at coexisting. Sometimes, when she’s tired and her words are slow and drowsy, he’ll finish her sentences so she doesn’t have to. Sometimes when he wants a hand on his arm or strong fingers on the back of his head, he doesn’t have to ask. Kate and Ari. Partners.

It’s been six months of undercover work-- of living in the same apartment and eating dinner together. Six months ago the CIA came to her and told her that she needed to leave her life behind in order to keep the people she loved safe. Six months ago he was told he wasn’t going to be an island anymore. They’ve learned to get along with each other, and when they can’t, they’ve learned to deal with that. Sometimes he’ll go for a walk so he doesn’t have to deal with her. Sometimes she’ll go into her room and listen to her headphones until she doesn’t feel like killing him anymore.

He’s heard her cry through the walls at night for all she’s lost, but it hasn’t happened in a long time.

He’s had days with her when she’s sullen and withdrawn, and he can tell she’s thinking of how very far she is from home. He gives her space and eventually she comes out of it; she always comes out of it. Funks are funks but their partnership is strong despite its forced nature. They’re two people who were thrown together in a difficult situation. They had to make the best of it in order to live without attacking each other with frying pans, and that’s what they’ve done.

The club thrums through his bones, beat reverberating through his skull and over his teeth, and he tilts his head back and grins to the ceiling at how incredibly good it feels to be able to let it all loose. New traditions, he’s found are a good thing-- they work hard, but every night they come out and play. They have one or two favorite clubs, and they spend at least four nights a week dancing on everything from bars to clear Lucite floors, strobe lights painting their skin colors, bodies gyrating in between five hundred others in various states of dress.

He’s slowly losing his inhibitions about being seen vulnerable in front of her. She’s slowly losing her inhibitions, period.

Caitlin leans back to lick a trail of sweat off of the shoulder of Boy Toy Number Two, and he grinds closer even as she licks her lips in satisfaction. Ari’s dick stirs quickly, giving the woman in front of him a reason to giggle and shift closer, and he leans forward to nibble on her neck mindlessly. God, he hasn’t gotten laid in too long; hasn’t felt the hand of another person on his cock in more time than he cares to think about. One of the down sides about sharing an apartment that may or may not be under Al Qaeda surveillance is the fact that bringing others back to it is a big no-no. Him taking a mistress would not be a big deal among the inner circle-- Mikel would probably slap him on the back and congratulating him for taking the next step into manhood-- but bringing a woman into the “home” that he shares with Caitlin would be seen as disrespectful, and he doesn’t wish to complicate matters like that.

Plus the fact that, since neither one of them work, they tend to spend most of their time with each other. Caitlin’s understanding enough of his moods and temperament, and when he wants her to leave him alone she does, but he doubts she’d respond well to “Hey, I want to have sex. Could you clear out for a few hours and come back tomorrow? Thanks.”

They haven’t touched sexually since that one incident in their first week, and while he knows that that is for the best and is quite glad not to complicate matters like that, he has never had more wet dreams than he his having right now. He jerks off, he thinks of cricket scores, but when he dreams, she comes to him and plays across his Halcyon fields as his own personal glitter covered minx, shameless and beautiful.

He’s washing his sheets a lot. He really hopes she hasn’t noticed. It’s one thing to know he’s a sexual being and to watch him grind up against someone in a smoky club. It’s quite another to actually have first hand experience with such sexuality, and he doesn’t want to bring that into their relationship and upset the tentative balance that he’s starting to appreciate as the only stable thing in his world.

She’s always there. He’s always there. It’s the first time in his life he’s had a support system that promised never to go anywhere and leave him hanging, and it makes him feel more content with the way things are than is probably healthy for him. Caitlin is an NCIS agent that’s been forced to live with him to help fight terrorism. If she’d had half a choice to begin with, he’s sure, she would have told everyone to go screw themselves, and gone back to her life without a second thought.

She’s with him now, and she’s moderately happy with it; he doesn’t want to change that.

The two of them finish with their respective distractions, her covered in glitter and him in love bites, and they link arms as they walk past the bouncers and out of the club. Her lips are painted cherry red and beautiful, and he contemplates coating her in candy apple shell for a long moment before moving on.

“I think we need to get a season pass to that place,” Caitlin announces as they pass shop after shop, closed down business and cafés that have taken in their tables for the night. “It would be cheaper than bribing the bouncer every night.”

“You like bribing the bouncer. It makes you feel dangerous.” He reaches around her and slaps his hand on the outline of her knife. “Speaking of dangerous.”

She takes it out and holds it up at him. The blade is shiny and sharp in the streetlights; a beacon of violence in the cool night air. “This little thing? I know what I’m doing with it. It’s fine.”

“Your boy toys almost touched it. Be more careful.”

She waves a hand dismissively and puts the knife back. “You’re just jealous of the huge arsenal at my command. I can see it in your eyes. You know, Ari, envying me for the size of my knife makes me think that you might have some issues to work out. Should I get you a shrink?” She dances out of range of the playful swipe he takes at her head and laughs at him before falling back into step with him. He takes up her hand and kisses the back of it, half affectionately and half to try and make her squirm just a little bit, but she just grins, squeezing his fingers with hers. Six months ago, she would have slapped him and started stuttered in the corner, uncomfortable and uncertain.

She’s growing up and he’s thrilled that he gets to be here to watch it. The first time he saw her he knew she would do well in this life-- even when they first arrived and she was crying herself to sleep and cursing his heritage on a regular basis, he’d held out hope that she could become a spy worthy of this assignment. She was smart, she was beautiful, and she was skilled enough to bend the world and all those in it to her will.

She was a spook in the making. He just had to push her in the right direction until she wanted to go there on her own.

And now, he can attest, she has. She doesn’t look nervous when she’s meeting Mikel and his group anymore, and she’s managed to hide or suppress all of the judgment that she was raised to pass on people who talk about killing innocent civilians as a dinner conversation. She’s learning Arabic, slowly but surely, and the last time someone sneezed she said Allah bless you without realizing it.

He’d grinned silently into his napkin and felt prouder of her than he could have anticipated.

She still winces sometimes when they start talking about possible body counts, but she covers it well by joining in eagerly. Last time they mentioned hitting women and children, she suggested possible targets with a ruthless gleam in her eyes that made him think of all of the Mossad agents he had ever known.

She’s suited to this life, and it’s taken her six months but she’s starting to realize that.

They walk past deserted store fronts and darkened streets, hand in hand, and when they walk past a tiny lot full of fir trees, she stops and stares for a long moment. “Christmas is coming up,” she says, as if it has just occurred to her, and he glances at her face and realizes that she truly had forgotten how long she has been with him. “When’s Christmas?”

“A month.”

“Wow.” She steps into the small lot, pulling him with her, and he indulges silently. Her fingers are pale and clean, and she runs them lovingly down the needles of one of the trees, pulling her hand back and inhaling deeply. “It’s almost Christmas,” she says again, and when she turns to him, her eyes are full of such pleading that it takes his breath away.

Don’t look at me like that, he thinks to her. It hurts to refuse you something when you look at me like that.

“Could we have a tree?”

“A tree?”

“A Christmas tree!” Her eyes are wide and hopeful, and he swallows and looks away from her. God save me from beautiful women with no knowledge of their sway over me.

“Caitlin…” He clears his throat uncomfortably, and tries to find the right way to tell her no in the pattern of his shoes. “I…”

The silence is long.

“Oh.” She pauses, touches her lips, and shakes her head. “I… I’m sorry, I mean…”

She takes a deep breath and forces herself to give him a smile-- a tiny little abashed show of teeth and lips. He can’t remember ever seeing something sadder.

“We can’t have a tree, can we?” She looks more downtrodden and tiny than she ever has before in his presence, and he squeezes her hand as hard as he can to try and make it better. “That’s stupid of me to ask. Of course we can’t have one. I’m sorry for asking you that.”

“Caitlin,” he begins gently, but she pulls away from him and shakes her head, walking out of the lot and starting down the street. He takes one last look at the fir and follows her three steps behind, hands in his pockets. Waiting.

She stops about three blocks later, and sits down on a stoop, looking at her hands. He comes up next to her and sits down two steps below her, leaning back so he can look at her face. She rubs her fingers together, and he watches for a long moment before she takes out the handkerchief he gave her in the boardroom that first day and slowly cleans her fingers. She’s got sap all over herself, and it’s not as much of a good thing as before.

“I don’t know why I wanted a tree,” she says softly. “I mean, I know why, but… Look, when I was little, this was the holiday, you know? I mean, we had Thanksgiving and I loved my birthday, but this was the only time when everyone sat down and was just… still for a while. I have three older brothers and a younger sister; it was rare for us to all be in the same place for any amount of time. But Christmas was just so… peaceful. We’d sit around, we’d watch our relatives drink themselves silly, and we’d try and think of new and inventive ways of figuring out what they’d given us.” She smiles to herself, caught in reminiscence. “I used to sleep under the tree with my sister on Christmas Eve-- we were too excited to go upstairs to bed. And I guess when I saw the trees, I wanted that again. The peaceful feeling.” She shakes her head. “It’s stupid.”

“It is not stupid,” he contradicts flatly. “It is an understandable wish, and if it was possible, I would allow it to be granted. But Caitlin, unfortunately, we are not in a situation where we can indulge.”

She nods to herself, not meeting his eyes, and they sit in silence for a long moment.

“Do you have any memories like that?” she asks, sniffling and rubbing her nose on her sleeve. He shrugs.

“My father was more of an… advisor than a father. My mother was a good woman, though, for all of her faults. However, she was a doctor and Gaza is not precisely a peaceful area. She was called away often.” He pauses and closes his eyes to try and get a clearer grasp on his memories. “There were a few times when I would have an uninterrupted day with her, or with him, but they were never in any set pattern. It was a childhood of convenience.”

Caitlin looks at him and her face is scrunched up tight. “That’s so sad.” Given another minute to ponder it she’ll start offering him hugs and homemade sweaters with love in every stitch, and as much as he wouldn’t mind a pubic display of affection from a beautiful woman, he’s not all that comfortable with the level of sewing skill Caitlin possesses.

“It is over now,” he says uncomfortably, getting to his feet and offering her his hand. She takes it and he pulls her up to stand next to him. “Besides,” he says with a smirk. “I’ve found the company of my adulthood to be much more enjoyable.”

She smiles and tucks herself close to him, arm around his waist as he shelters her in his arm. They start walking again, watching the cars go by and the streetlamps dance over the pavement.

“We should start a tradition,” she says calmly, and he glances at her. “Well, mine can’t be followed anymore, and you didn’t have any to begin with. We should have a new one.”

“We go out and dance four nights a week-”

“That doesn’t count,” she says firmly, in her newly discovered “oh, you are such a stupid boy” voice. “A tradition has to be more meaningful than that. Let me think on it for a couple of days.”

“Hm.” They continue walking, eyes scanning the horizons and the people they pass for danger or interest. His arm over her shoulders is warm and heavy, and she sighs in contentment. Paris is beautiful at night, and the air is cool and comforting against her face.

“Tony,” McGee asks quietly, eying their boss nervously. “Um… why is Gibbs covered in orange darts?”

Tony looks up from the file he’s reading, licks his lips, and takes a deep breath. It appears that, in her latest search for things to keep herself occupied, Abby has taken drastic measures. Gibbs’s face is covered with orange suction cup darts, a smiley faced pattern posted on his forehead.

He looks like a possessed jack-o-lantern. Abby was ridiculously pleased with herself when she walked on by him and offered a cheerful bounce. “It’s his own fault,” she’d announced happily. “I told him he had to go home and get some sleep last night, he didn’t, and now he’s paying for it.”

“Tell me you didn’t cover those things with superglue,” he’d muttered, and she’d grinned wickedly, showing the pointed vampire teeth her orthodontist had recently agreed to make for her.

He’s planning on getting up and leaving before Gibbs wakes up. All in all, he thinks it’ll be much safer to not be within range of his voice and his throwing arm. Sure, he likes Abby more than any of them, and it’s unlikely that he’ll throw something at her, but the odds of Tony’s head getting slapped are improving as the seconds tick by.

“If you feel like waking him up to ask him, go for it, Probbie.”

The younger man turns an attractive shade of green, swallows and sticks his head back down to stare at his computer screen. “Um, no, that’s okay.”

“I thought not.” Tony looks back down at his computer screen, and makes Mario jump over one of the little mushroom guys. “Gotcha,” he smirks to himself.

The little window that pops up informing him he has mail from Lamb45 makes his stomach clench. He pauses the game and pulls up his email account, one of several dozen, and opens up the email with the subject line “Missing you.”


Went to see the big guy today-- we’re both really excited. It looks like I might actually be able to help a bit. I’m jumping around the apartment squealing. He’s humoring me.

We went dancing again tonight, and on the way back we stopped by a Christmas tree lot. I’d forgotten it was coming up so soon. I wanted to get a tree, but he talked some sense into me. I guess that’s the one thing I miss about my old life-- being able to celebrate the same traditions that I used to. It makes me sad, but then I think about all of the new things I’m doing and the new people I’m meeting and I know it’s all worth it.

I miss you.


He reads the email twice more before exiting the program and nodding to himself in approval. She’s getting better. Nothing in that email was anything other than supportive of Al Qaeda, and nothing in it suggested that she was a woman having doubts about her loyalties. She was flawless-- brilliantly vague where she needed to be, with just enough truth thrown in to make it have the ring of reliability.

She’s good, he thinks to himself, and hates that she had to become good. That she had to learn how to lie and cheat and be dishonest for a living, and that she has no other option now. She’s walking the streets of Paris, living a lie, and it’s become a way of life for her that she can’t escape.

It makes him sick. It makes him think back to the innocence and goodness he saw in her eyes the very first time he met her-- how pure she was-- and he feels nauseas that he was part of the coalition that took steps to rob her of that strength of character.

He’s made her a fraud, and he hates himself for it.

McGee looks up at him, snorts when he finds him focusing on how to kill the little turtle that throws hammers, and goes back to his work. Gibbs stirs briefly in his sleep, but exhaustion overpowers habit for the time being, and he sleeps on.

Tony fumes silently, feeling disgusting and greasy, and jumps to get the flower that lets him shoot fireballs.

“I don’t see why we can not attack the ship in harbor,” Qassam hisses as Ari, eyes blazing. “We would not be stopped-- a quick drop of a package and there would be a death count that would make the Americans take notice.”

“For how long?” Ari fires back, relaxed and calm on the outside, fire and brimstone on the inside. He can feel his teeth itch; he wants to rip this man’s flesh from his bones with his bare hands for more than one reason, not the least of which is that he’s an irritating little bug.

Al Qaeda terrorists aren’t all sunshine and congeniality, he thinks to himself with a tilt of his lip. Huh. Who knew?

“If you attack the ship, the Americans will mourn, but not enough to demand policy change or scar them in the long term. 9/11 had the effect it did because civilians were involved. If you bring the military into this, it is just another casualty of war-- regrettable, but forgotten when the next big issue comes along.”

He looks at Mikel with serious eyes and a set to his jaw. “If we are going to make a mark, it has to involve a larger death count than what a package bomb could produce, and it must involve those not directly in the line of fire, to prove that no one is safe when they invade innocent countries and kill our brothers.”

Abdul is nodding slowly, and Qassam’s cheeks are turning a brighter shade of red with each passing moment. “Mikel,” he snarls, “are you really going to let this young cub decide what you do with your men? He is barely dry of his mother’s milk.”

“And yet,” Mikel points out, “he speaks with a wisdom that many do not possess even at my age.” He nods to himself, inclines his head to one side, and looks at Ari seriously. “And what would you suggest, Haswari?”

He smiles grimly. It took the Mossad an hour to come up with this one and the reasoning behind it. He’s quite proud of them for it, actually. “Attack a symbol of France’s relationship with America. Show the whole world that if your government associates with those who would kill and capture our brethren, then you are no better yourself.”

“And risk alienating French Muslims?” Qassam points out with a snarl. “You would hurt our cause more than help it.”

“If they are loyal to the cause then they dislike the French government already. In the public schools, too many young women are forced to go without their faith and too many young Arab men are kept from expressing themselves. The Muslims in France are tired of being treated like an oddity-- they are a strong force here. If we give them something to rally behind, they will do it. Gladly.”

Abdul strokes his moustache. “It is an interesting proposal. It holds merit.”

Qassam looks two steps away from mutiny. Ari bows his head in thanks and offers the appropriate words of humility, trying not to smirk at the same time. Mikel waves a hand. “I will consider both arguments carefully. We are not pressed for time and we are blessed to have the youth and new point of view that Haswari brings to our group. The infidels may not pay for their crimes in this generation, but we shall live on as a strong force in the next.” He presses a button and a maid comes in with thick Arabic coffees on a silver tray. Ari accepts his quietly.

Qassam is glaring at him openly, and he pretends not to see it.

“He hates you,” Caitlin says amicably as she braids her wet hair to keep it out of her face. “We knew that already.”

“But does he hate me more than he is loyal to Mikel is the question.” He cleans his hands in the sink and pulls out the knives and cutting board. “If he eliminates me, Mikel is going to eliminate him.”

“Unless he can find something on you to make Mikel take care of it for him and redeem himself in the man’s eyes,” she points out, and tosses an apron at him. “What is it with you and making friends? You seem to have missed that Sesame Street episode.”

“They’re jealous of my charm and wit,” he says and starts slicing garlic cloves with a sharp knife as she tries not to say anything snarky to endanger the future of her meal. He’s been promising to cook for her for weeks in order to shut her up about the amount of take out food in their fridge, and she has no intention of letting him back down now.

“I’m sure that’s it,” she agrees magnanimously and grabs the bottle of white wine out the fridge to refresh both of their glasses, before retaking her place on the counter next to him. “To you not burning my dinner,” she says in toast, and he glares at her until she adds “and to us. That too.”


They drink, and she leans over to watch his progress. “You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Caitlin, I speak five languages, I can shoot a target from very far away, and right now I am exercising more patience than anyone on this planet or any other. I can manage to cook.”

“Well, if you poison me,” she promises, “I’m coming back to haunt you. Fair warning.”

“If I poison you, I will use your corpse as a coffee table,” he promises back, and she grins, singing a few lines along with the music they’ve got on in the background.

“So Qassam hates you. Do you want me to try and find something out about him from Idina and Jess? They’ve been closed mouthed about him in the past, but if I suggest a girl’s night out, I might be able to force something.”

“Best not to arouse suspicion. If they bring it up, indulge, but don’t appear over eager. If he gets wind that you are looking into him, we could have more problems than it’s worth.”

“Gotcha.” She tilts her head to one side, as if trying to catch a line of the music that’s eluding her ear, and sighs. “Okay, I want to ask you something, and you can’t mock me for it.”

“But how else will I amuse myself?”

“Ari,” she warns, and he nods easily. “Good. Okay.” She takes a deep breath, a deeper drink of wine, and sighs. “What do you want for Christmas?” The knife pauses, and she looks down at the garlic. “They’re, ah, not chopped yet,” she points out helpfully, and he glares at her before continuing. She licks her lips and prods his elbow with her knee. “So?”


“Look,” she says, arms going over her chest to punctuate her power. “I know that we can’t have a tree.”


“I understand that we can’t deck the halls or start singing Christmas carols or spin a driedel anytime soon. Okay, fine. But I am getting you something. You are going to have to deal with that. I’m sitting you down, I’m making you eat dinner with me, and then I’m giving you a present. So you’re better off telling me what you want, instead of waking up and seeing, I dunno, socks or something.”

His lips twitch. “Socks?”

“Red ones,” she threatens. “Wool, with little reindeers on them and bells. I’ll make you wear them all the time and pretend you like them.”

“I don’t need anything.”

“That’s not fair,” she snarls, “you have to give me something to work with! What if I show up with some horrifically ugly sweater or a book on gardening or something?”

“I’ll think you’ve taken leave of your senses and have you committed.” He smirks to himself and finishes with the garlic cloves, throwing them in a bowl and grabbing for the olive oil. “I do not need anything, Caitlin.”

“That’s not an answer,” she exclaims, flustered, and sticking her finger threateningly in his face. “Socks, Ari! They’ll look like something Rudolph spat up, you hear me?”

After dinner, which she admits that he made well enough to hide the taste of poison, they go into the living room and write their respective emails to the right people.

Tony sends her a picture of Gibbs covered in orange darts with the caption “Abby misses you.” Kate cackles affectionately and sets it as her background.

She’s stopped getting that pain in her heart whenever she sees him or thinks of him. His name is tainted with more good memories than bad omens now, and she remembers the warmth that spread through her when he provided that rare, beautifully pure praise she sometimes received. Nods. Comments. Smiles.

She’s learning how to be a spy from Ari, but Gibbs will always be her mentor; her teacher. Ari is a partner, Gibbs is a father with a disciplinarian’s stick in one hand and the world in the other.

The CIA wants to know about what Idina and Jess’s involvement in every day business is, and the Mossad wants to know what the likelihood of them being turned is. Kate reports on both in the code he’s been teaching her, poking at each key, uncertain as to what she’s doing at times. He finishes first and waits for her to put Abigail away before speaking.

“Qassam worries me. We do not need someone poking around.”

“We could deal with him,” she says confidently, and he glances towards the closet where the weapons for every occasion and position are stored. One of the first care packages the CIA sent to them was a brand new sniper riffle, and it sits gleaming on the top shelf underneath the extra sheets.

“I could,” he says calmly, and she raises her eyebrow.

“You don’t think I could do it?”

“It’s not a matter of could you. It’s a matter of would I let you.” Her hackles are going up, and he raises a hand to cut off the feminist rhetoric before it gets going. “I am not going to allow you to do it Caitlin, and that is final. You are not ready to do that, and even if you are, I am not ready to have you do it.”

“That’s not fair.”

“This life is not fair. You have never had an issue with it before.” She folds her hands quietly in her lap, getting very, very still, and he takes a deep breath. Great. Handling explosives after dinner. “This is not an issue of gender.”

“The hell it’s not,” she hisses. “You don’t think I’m strong enough to do this.”

“You are strong enough; this does not have to do with your not inconsiderable strength.” He shifts uncomfortable on the couch, running a hand through his hair. “I am trying to think of a way to express this properly.”

“You haven’t managed yet,” she informs him angrily, and he sighs.

“I know,” he mutters, and tries to find words floating above his head that work. The ones he finds are truthful and meaningful and way too honest for him to say, and he looks down at his feet for guidance instead. “Killing alters a person.”

“I’ve killed people before, Ari.”

“I know that,” he sighs. “But there is a difference between killing someone in the line of duty and killing someone through a scope. Your point of view changes-- the repercussions are immensely different. I wish to spare you that.”

“You’ve killed people that way before,” she says pointedly, and rubs her forehead. “You aimed for me like you knew what you were doing.” She looks angry and tired, and neither emotion is one he’s prepared to deal with right now.

He remembers the way she looked through the scope, hair blowing in the crosshairs, and rubs his eyes to try and get rid of that image. The whispered “Sorry,” he’d offered at the time hadn’t seemed like enough to appease his guilt over looking at her for even a moment like a true enemy-- like a possible casualty of war-- and thinking about it brings the whole thing back into his mind.


“I’m just as strong as you are, Ari,” she says, and her eyes are cold. “They wouldn’t have partnered me with you if I wasn’t.”

“No.” He can feel something building inside his throat-- anger and frustration boiling underneath his tongue, and he bites the inside of his cheek hard. Her face, so innocent and pale when he looked at it through the sniper riffle, is floating in his mind’s eye and he can’t seem to get rid of it. Her face is getting redder and redder, her eyes narrowing, and her mouth it moving without him hearing what she’s saying.

…her hair in the bulls-eye. Her forehead as a target…

“…need help… won’t compromise the mission. So wh-”

“Because I am not going to permit you to become a killer,” he growls out, and she swallows whatever word she was about to release to make her point. “I am the only one here who is going to have blood on their hands when we leave this apartment, Caitlin, and if you do not abide by that, I will lock you in a closet and claim you’re ill until the end of this mission.” He stands up, jaw set and fists by his sides. “Do I make myself clear?”

Her face has gone very pale, eyes very serious, and he takes a deep breath only to realize that there is something ringing in his ears. He digs a finger in one for a second, comes away with nothing, and takes a deep breath.

He is yelling at her.

He has never yelled at her in the entire time he’s known her-- he prefers snark and gentle pokes to get his way. His father used to tell him that yelling was the first sign of a lost argument, and his mother always taught him that while he couldn’t trust women, they were not subhuman.

He is yelling at her, and the sound feels strange coming from his throat. He presses a hand to his lips, and swallows convulsively. He knees are weak and if he stays standing he thinks he’s going to yell again or kill someone. Neither one appeals much, so he sits down next to her on the couch and looks at the floor solemnly.

“I am asking you this as a favor, Caitlin. Do not kill Qassam. If he has to be eliminated, it will be done, but please do not take steps on your own.”

She doesn’t speak for a long moment, and he leans back on the couch, throwing his arms across the back in exhaustion. He wears himself out when he fights with her; he feels like his bones are heavy and wooden, uncomfortable in his own skin. He lets his head rest back on the couch and stare up at the ceiling so he won’t have to look at her and risk challenging her again.

He takes a dozen breaths in and out, tries to feel like a real person again, and when she slips herself into his lap and twines her arms around his neck like child, he is wrapped around her before he can draw another. His hand is shaking slightly with adrenaline when he grabs her by the back of the neck and holds her there, and he hides his face in her shoulder so he won’t have to see such a weakness in himself.

“I won’t kill him,” she says softly.

“Thank you,” he answers back just as quietly, and she nods her acceptance of both his unspoken apology and appreciation.

“Do you think we should get up?” he asks after a few minutes, and she nuzzles her face against him, curling her way around him and purring like a cat with a nicer ass.

“I’m counting your chest hairs. Give me five more minutes.”

They eat Thanksgiving dinner together because where the hell else are they going to go?

Abby cooks a turkey that looks like something Martha Stewart would die for, and then arranges the perfectly carved pieces on a plate to spell out ABBY ROX.

“The vowels are the dark meat,” she announces cheerfully as she puts it on the table, and Ducky applauds her on the most inventive and delicious looking meal he’s ever had the privilege to see.

Tony eyes the candied yams in a casserole dish the shape of a coffin, and the Hamlet skull centerpiece. “It certainly is… interesting.”

She beams. “I thought about using the cranberry sauce as blood coming out of the eyes, but then I decided that it was too much cleanup,” she says regretfully. “It looks okay, right?” She pops a seat next to a oddly speechless Gibbs, who offers her the affectionate smile he saves just for her.

“It’s lovely, Abs. You should be proud.”

She bows her head and presses her black lace covered hands together. “Okay, since I cooked, I get to decide who starts. And I pick… Ducky!” The table looks at her in confusion.

“Abs?” Gibbs questioned.

“Gibbs, this is Thanksgiving. We’re supposed to go around and say what we’re thankful for. Haven’t you ever seen a television show?”

“I watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving when I was a kid, does that count?”

“I loved Woodstock,” she gushes. “That bird was the shit. I had a friend who made a bong out of this Woodstock statue thing his parents gave him when he was a kid-- he used to put the weed in the beak and suck-”

“I know what I’m thankful for,” Ducky begins calmly, interrupting the tangent in the making. He’s started enough of them-- he knows how to cut one off. McGee looks grateful, and Tony takes a moment to wonder if, possibly, he’s sucked a bird recently.

The table is quiet as Ducky raises his glass. “I am thankful to be at this table right now, warm and about to eat a meal prepared by the lovely Miss Sciutto, surrounded by friends.” He drinks, and Abby points authoritatively to McGee, who swallows and looks more panicked than Tony had ever seen him look.

He puts this away for future reference. In order to freak McGee out, all he has to do is propose public speaking.

“Um, I am, uh, thankful for… good food,” he announces, nodding desperately, “and uh… for how lovely Abby looks tonight.”

Their hostess blushes deeply, the table laughs, and Tony finds himself in the limelight.

He raises a glass of good red wine, clears his throat, and says “I’m thankful for people who give a damn if I wake up in the morning, for a full glass of shiraz, and the closest thing to a family I have.” They were expecting something along the lines of “I’m thankful for the string bikini.” The table goes quiet, and he drinks regardless. It’s good to keep them on their toes every now and then.

“And Gibbs?” Abby asks eagerly breaking the silence, “it’s your turn.”

He’s been drinking for a little while longer than the rest of them, and is still the most sober. He runs a hand over his mouth, and Tony puts on his best silly ass look in preparation to play the shallow one again. It’s always good to keep the façade up around Gibbs. He’s a bit too perceptive for Tony’s own good.

“I’m thankful…” he pauses and takes a deep breath. “Ah screw it.” He looks up at everyone. “Thank you for putting up with me,” he says. “That’s what I’m thankful for. I’m not the easiest person and I know it. Thank you all for not getting fed up and saying screw it.” He drinks the rest of his glass down, and Abby continues on to herself before his statement can set in and screw with their heads too much.

She’s his ultimate defender, in her mind. Ducky pours Gibbs another glass and Tony tosses a piece of paper in McGee’s hair to distract him.

They’re his ultimate backup.

“I’m thankful I get to be here,” she says calmly. “And I’m glad you all came. I was sitting around feeling really depressed about this whole thing, and I wouldn’t be getting through it without all of you here too.” She takes a shaky breath, raises her glass, and dares the rest of the table to contradict her. “To Kate.”

Gibbs is the first to raise his glass, McGee the last, but they all toast to the memory of an Agent who isn’t really dead before they start to eat. Tony and Ducky don’t look at each other for the entirety of the meal, and all of them are too drunk to drive themselves home at the end of the night.

“Are you awake?” she whispers from underneath his chin, and Ari grunts low in his throat.

“Until you started to poke me with your finger, no.”

“Ah. Good.” She shifts closer to him and lets out a soft grunt of satisfaction when he lies down on the couch and takes her with him. When you sleep alone every night, sometimes it’s nice to have human contact. “It’s Thanksgiving,” she hums. “I’d forgotten about it.”

“Oh.” The pillow underneath his head is so soft and she is so warm over him, like a down comforter without the poofy part. He moans slightly, at peace and she nuzzles his neck. “Alright.”

“What are you thankful for?” she asks in a low murmur, and he can feel his brain leaking out his ears as the seconds tick by, his grip on reality slipping and faltering the longer he tries to hold onto it.

“Hm…” he mumbles. “Uhh…” He licks his lips and tries to clear the cobwebs from his brain for a moment. “I’m thankful for…mmm… tha…” He slips back into the sweet arms of sleep, and she’s left sitting in the dark by herself, huddled against his chest and trying to fight away the demons of loneliness that are coming out to play.

His heartbeat is slow and steady, a calm thump against her cheek, and she closes her eyes and tries not to cry for some reason she really doesn’t understand all that well, but knows is real.

“I’m thankful you’re here,” she whispers against his shirt, and then feels so ridiculous for talking to herself that she rubs her face against his chest until her eyes are dry and the burn in her throat is manageable. He grunts in dissatisfaction at the movement, and when he rolls them over so he’s sleeping on his side and she’s curled up, back against the couch, front against his, she feels simultaneously trapped and safe.

She hides her face in his shirt, presses so close to his body that she might as well be a Siamese twin, and cries silently into the solid warmth of his chest.

“I’m sorry I let you down,” Gibbs murmurs from the floor around two AM, and Tony glances down at him in confusion. The alcohol in his bloodstream is still too prominent for him to think clearly, and he is sort of uncertain about how much time has passed and where he is. He looks at the blood red walls, blinks to himself, and decides that this is either Abby’s or he’s found a sex club so upscale it rivals the ones in Amsterdam.

Probably Abby’s, he reasons. He hasn’t been to Amsterdam in years.


Gibbs’s eyes are bright and his cheeks are flushed with drink. He licks his lips and throws an arm behind his head. He’s finding the hardwood floor on either side of him insanely interesting.

“I let Kate die,” he whispers. “I let you all down.”

Tony sobers up in the span of three seconds, and rubs his eyes. “Boss, you didn’t let us down.” He blinks, getting to his feet and swaying drunkenly, more for show than anything else, and when he falls and lands face down on Gibbs’s chest, he mutters a tipsy. “Uh, sorry boss. I swear I’m not going to moles-ter you.”

Gibbs snorts, closing his eyes. “Sure, Tony.” Tony smiles internally, thinking back on all the times over the past six months that this man has looked like he needed hug. He tightens his arms and legs for a quick moment, doing the best job he can and praying it’ll be half as effective for a man who doesn’t permit himself to need the touch of others.

Tony yawns and rolls off of Gibbs, lying side by side with him and staring up at the same ceiling. “We love you Boss Man,” he mutters, sluing the “love” to make it sound like it has an “r” somewhere in it. “We don’t want you to be sad. You’re our friend.”

“I’ll kill Ari, Tony,” Gibbs promises softly. “I promise you that. He’ll pay.”

Tony nods. “Know, Boss. It’s ‘kay.”

“And then I’ll be able to look at you all again.” He yawns, rolling over to face Tony so his back isn’t to the door and any enemies that may arrive to gut him and his team. “Promishhh…”

He passes off into sleep, snoring lightly, and Tony waits for a good long time before risking a glance at him. The older man’s mouth is surrounded by lines that weren’t there a year ago, his eyes less happy and more troubled. There is sadness in every painted line of his body, and it makes Tony sad in turn. Somewhere, an ocean away, Caitlin Todd is alive and well, trying to protect them all from certain death at the hands of Islamic fanatics.

Tony doesn’t sleep for the rest of the night. When Abby comes bouncing in the next morning to find them both on the floor, she just smiles and goes to make coffee.

Groans, grunts-- heat. She is nothing but fire and skin, and he is hot and solid underneath her, moving up and bouncing her as she rides his cock like it’s going to disappear at any moment and she wants to get a good memory before it vanishes. The scratch marks on his chest bleed red, and she plants her hands on his shoulders, to keep him pinned as she bends down to present the very tip of her tongue to him.

She licks the blood off, salt and saliva in his wounds, and he breathes in sharply though his teeth. “Gaaaa…” His hips jerk up, hard and rough, and she throws her head back to burry her own hands in her hair.

“Oh sweet God,” she gasps at the feeling of him thrusting up harder at her, and he laughs as he rolls them both over, pins her hands on the sheets, and starts making her brain cells disappear with easy, slow movements that draw each sensation out until her skin is melting and her flesh is singed with the lazy heat of him.

Toomuchtoomuchtoomuchtoomuch! She’s arching away and closer at the same time, pushing and pulling and fighting, and he grins down at her as he throws her headfirst from the cliff and watches her crumble at his feet.

Kate wakes up with a gasp, tangled in her sheets, and stares up at the ceiling frantically to try and remember where she is and what she’s doing here. Who cares? her clit informs her, panties soaked and legs trembling. Take care of me first, the growing tension in her body demands, and she shoves a hand down the front of her panties before she can think to do anything else.

Fingers desperately pushing at her, other hand flat and clenched against the mattress-- God she is so desperate for it she is going to implode if it doesn’t happen soon. She flops over onto her stomach, keeps her fingers moving despite the uncomfortable feeling of having her arm wedged in between her body and the mattress, and shoves the other hand down her back to play with her asshole.

She squeezes her eyes closed, imagining strong hands and firm touches on her skin-- someone pushing her against a wall and shoving just enough clothing aside to bare her, she thinks, and when that doesn’t do it, she drifts back to the dream.

Hands in her own hair, riding some dark, handsome stranger with laughing eyes and a strong chest, getting held down and fucked until she was sore…

Licking the blood off a broad, firm chest, she thinks to herself, and her body clenches tightly around both the invading digits and the intrusive thoughts.

Her breathing is harsh and rough in the room, and she listens to the clock ticking on the wall to try and regulate it a bit more. Just relax, she tells herself. Just breathe. She waits until her body has stopped thrumming with her own heartbeat and closes her eyes for a long moment to gather her thoughts.

Well. That was a new one.

She’s not a stranger to wet dreams, she will admit. She has never orgasmed during one, nor have most women according to everything she reads, but she has had them in the past. They didn’t stop when she came to stay with Ari, but they didn’t increase either.

That dream, though…

Kate has always had an active imagination, and despite all of the flustering that Tony used to be able to make her do, she is not nearly as sheltered as he likes to think. She’s private, sure, and the idea of discussing sex in public makes her blush and stammer like any good Catholic girl should, but when she gets in the bedroom, she’s inventive and open to trying new things.

She had a toy collection at home. Modest but effective. She really hopes that Tony had the decency to not look in her bedside table when they cleaned out her apartment.

Still. For all of her creativity and all of her imagination, she’s never…

Let’s just say that the only dreams that inspire her to do things are the ones that feature her wearing something pretty and fashionable she saw in the store the other day, or the ones that tell her someone might just end up dead soon. She’s never had one that literally forced her to masturbate afterwards, and the fact that her clit is apparently becoming the most powerful part of her body is sort of disturbing.

She tells herself not to bother thinking on it; wet dreams aren’t rational. “Sleep,” she orders out loud, curling up around a pillow and burying her hot face in her arms.

It takes three more before she figures it out.

She’s almost becoming accustomed to them by the time realization dawns. Desperately hot, sweaty nights of waking up with the phantom touch of a man on her body and two handfuls of sheets in her palms have started posing a threat of becoming the status quo.

Idina comments on her unkempt appearance during lunch, in her usual fashion, and Kate has a mouth full of orange when the older woman says “Caitlin, have you taken a lover?”

When she’s done coughing (and Idina is done, unhelpfully, laughing at her) she wipes her eyes and clears her throat. “What are you talking about?”

“You don’t look like you’ve been getting enough sleep at night,” she purrs suggestively. “And I can only think of one reason for that unless…” she eyes Caitlin dubiously. “Are you pregnant?” She raises an eyebrow and smirks. “Is Haswari going to be Papa soon?”

“No,” Kate says firmly, and Idina’s lips twitch. “Nothing like that. I’m just having trouble sleeping. Nightmares.”

“Try hot tea,” Idina says in dismissal of the topic, and goes back to tutoring Kate on the proper usage of Arabic titles according to age, sex, and position.

When she gets home, Kate looks at herself in the mirror, examines the ever growing circles, and groans. “Ari,” she complains out loud, aware that he isn’t actually in the apartment right now. “I need you to tranquilize me before bed tonight.”

She should go work out. Clearing her mind is easier when she gets to beat the crap out of something at the same time, but she is so out of it she’s afraid she’d pass out on the floor. She tosses herself down on the couch, examines her hands through bleary, sleep worn eyes, and sighs to herself.

Best to try and get it out up here.

“Okay,” she begins, gathering strength in that word. “So you’re having sex dreams. Really, really good sex dreams.” She nods. “Why? Because you haven’t gotten laid in way too long, and you’re living with a man who is so off limits he might as well be wearing police tape boxers. Your vibrator is at home, you go out partying every night, and you haven’t had time for a really good orgasm in too long. Your body is… compensating.”

She snorts at the word. Sounds so dirty when she says it in this context; she might as well say “your body has decided to fuck itself for you.”

Kate shakes her head and dislodges the thought. “So. No orgasms, lots of half-naked dancing, and no regular sex partner in… God, over a year. It’s only natural to have dreams about a tall, dark, and hand…”

Her words die, the thoughts die, and she hears the laugh that her phantom lover lets out each night coming up the stairs of the building, getting closer and closer, and she dodges into her room and closes the door quietly and quickly before throwing herself onto the bed and doing her best “I am dead” impression.

The apartment opens, Ari calls her name, and when her door is gently pushed open she keeps her eyes closed and her face blank. He comes in, pulls a blanket over her, and touches her shoulder. He burns her through the cloth, and if she didn’t have the poker face she’s spent the past few months developing, she would never be able to fake sleep after that touch. Not knowing what she knows now.

God damn her subconscious, she thinks as he leaves and closes the door behind him. I can’t just have a crush on Ashton Kutcher or something like that? I have to get wet in the panties for a man who I’ve agreed to not have sex with, in order to save the world from the Bad Guys.

Apparently, when she wasn’t looking, Al Qaeda added “Keep Kate from getting sexed up” as another of their goals. She imagines a list in some secret, underground headquarters, glowing on a Hi-Def screen.

-kill all infidels
-protect the Islamic culture and religion
-make Kate’s clit unhappy
-buy milk

“Oh fuck me,” she says aloud, unhappily and quietly, staring up at the ceiling, asking the ceiling tiles if it’s possible that she is just this unlucky. She can’t remember if she kicked a leper in a past life, but honestly, hasn’t she done enough good in the past few years to make up for it? She’s spent years protecting people-- keeping everyone as safe as she could.

Doesn’t she deserve an easy orgasm or two?

She falls asleep for a bit, a few minutes of rest, and when she wakes up again she has clarity in the crust around her eyes. Her profiler instincts kick in, and she runs her hands over her body to soothe her body before she starts to try and soothe her mind.

I’ve been with one man, night and day for over seven months, she reflects calmly. It’s only natural that I start to develop an attraction to him. That’s the way we’re wired. But if I actually got close to him, I’d probably feel nothing but the love I have for a brother or a friend. She blinks, licking her lips and tries to imagine having a brother who looks like Ari.

She’s never considered incest before. She shivers at the idea and makes a face. Great. He’s turned her into a pervert too. Wonderful. She is never going to be able to look at her family the same way again after that little thought process. And she blaming that completely on Ari.

Friend she can buy. After all, that’s all they are right now, right? Close friends, sure, but just friends. They’re not even friends by choice-- they were thrown together into a dangerous, deadly situation. It’s no wonder they started to get closer-- it’s natural that they started to get closer.


She thinks back to him pressing her up against the wall that first week and licking her throat like she was a giant Kate-sicle. Back then, she had felt trapped, uncertain as to her future and her place. She’d been about three steps away from blowing him away for the first month or so, and yet when he had grabbed her and shoved his leg between hers, she hadn’t had much of a problem getting hot for him. In fact, by the time he had let her go she had been so close to coming that she had briefly debated fighting against him a little longer to make him fight back and bring her over the edge.

She’d denied having the thought later, but sitting on her bed, hands against her stomach right now, she can’t hide from it.

She wanted him then, and that was when she hated his guts. What does that mean now? Now that she considers him a confidant; a partner in the truest sense of the word?

He’s cooked for her. That usually means something.

…doesn’t it?

God, she thinks, I am going to jump from the window at this rate. She taps her forehead, as if to wake her brain up from its beauty sleep, and sighs. “Well?” she asks her gray matter. “What have you got for me, huh?”

She waits a few minutes, imaging her brain tightening as it tries to come up with a worthwhile solution, and she’s just about to decide “ya know what? Fuck it!” and go and jump him until he’s bawling like a baby and his dick falls off from the abuse, when the metaphorical light bulb appears over her head.

Just give it a shot, something inside her says cheerfully. Like a teenie bopper on crack. Get close to him, and you’ll see. It’s just your head screwing with you. There’s only attraction because you’ve been with him and no one else. You can always tell when you dance with someone. Remember Michael? David? Robert? You danced with them and you knew.

She perks considerably, looking towards the closet full of clothing suitable for a night on the town. Take him out for a real dance, put yourself in his hands, and by the end of the night, you won’t want anything to do with him but a long hug and some companionship.

The email in his inbox is nothing short of desperate.


She wants to have Christmas. The last gift I gave was a letter bomb.



To say he’s shocked would be an understatement, but he can’t think of another word to describe it so it’ll have to do.

Tony has an awareness than his sister figure is staying with Ari Haswari. He is perfectly informed about their daily activities, he knows that she is still safe and whole, and he knows when she needs his advice. But as for Ari himself, Tony has admittedly had very few direct dealings with the man. Apart from the few pre-arranged emails to periodically report on Kate’s condition, he doesn’t talk with him and he has no desire to. Kate is his sister, Ari is his brother in law without marriage, and he protects both of them, but he only has dealings with one.

This is a break in character, to say the least, and it makes him laugh until his eyes tear.

Tony reads it in the comfort and warmth of his apartment, glances down at Tonytha (because calling that miserable animal by his own name was just too weird), who looks back up at him and snorts in disinterest at the water running down her new owner’s cheeks.

“He wants advice,” he tells her, and she tilts her head to one side. “How mean would it be if I told him to get her a vacuum cleaner?”

Tonytha rolls over and ignores him, her preferred method of dealing with the fact that she is now owned by a man who thinks pizza is a breakfast food and bikini’s are an acceptable design for men’s underwear.

So Ari wants to get Kate a Christmas present, Tony thinks to himself, and sits back in his chair with his fingers pressed against his temples. This is interesting. Sure, she said they were getting closer-- more comfortable with each other-- but this is a step in what might be the wrong direction. Comfortable is one thing-- planning a surprise present for a woman who just seven months ago was planning on killing you to escape her gilded prison is probably quite another.

Tony’s never been in this situation before. He’s not entirely sure he wants to be now.

His brain is screaming “WRONG!” and running into walls repeatedly, but some part of him is saying that maybe this isn’t the end of the universe. Sure, there’s still a good chance that this is going to blow up in somebody’s face before the whole thing is over and done with, but he has to try and look at this critically.

He doesn’t know what direction this is a step in.

After all, Kate and Ari have been in that apartment for seven months, not him, and as much as he keeps in touch with Kate, he doubts that that covers it. Two people, reasonably young, both attractive and single stuck in a foreign country with only each other for comfort and true companionship.

He remembers mentioning Stockholm Syndrome to her, only half joking at the time, and the look on her face when she thought he wasn’t looking.

He remembers telling her to try and trust Ari if she needed help. That she had to convince herself she was in love with him if she wanted to survive.

He remembers why he is a moron.

“Stop it,” he tells himself harshly, a hint of his accent coming through, and he pushes it down forcefully before focusing on the reply button and trying to gather enough strength to push it.

This isn’t a big deal, he tells himself. This isn’t inappropriate, and it isn’t life threatening. He wants to get her a present to help her with the home sickness. It’s just him being… nice

Huh. Ari Haswari nice. He thinks he just killed a few brain cells off with that one.

Gibbs, for all of his faults, is quite right about a few things. Lying with details makes it more believable. Knives are handy. Tofu is disgusting. Ex-wives are like herpes-- once you got ‘em they don’t go away, and everyone becomes convinced that you’re a slut for having them.

Romance between agents never works.

Well, Tony admits, not “never.” But rarely. He’s known men and women in the game, groomed to be in peak physical condition and picked to be pretty and deceiving, that have looked at the man or woman sitting next to them during a mission and started to wonder how someone so pretty could be bad for them. He’s seen good careers, good lives lost because someone put their dick where it didn’t belong and ended up getting so emotionally attached that when it came time to make the tough decisions, they weren’t thinking with a clear head.

He’s seen the after effects of “romance between agents.” Sometimes he was the only one who could identify the bodies.


Tony takes a deep breath and tries to clear his brain as much as humanly possible. This isn’t a big thing, he tells himself. It’s not. A present is a present. It’s not romance, it’s not sex, it’s not life threatening. Just a present. This is not something that requires me to…


Tony leans forward in his chair and grabs his cell phone off the desk. Oh, he thinks simply to himself again, and is dialing his director before he can stop to think twice about what’s going on.

“I want to go somewhere new tonight,” she tells him, slicking her lips with deep crimson and pouting experimentally in the mirror. She looks like a 1950’s Hollywood sex symbol without the excess weight, and he watches her smooth the red dress she’s wearing down her stomach and thighs. “Can we?” He looks up at the ceiling, thinking quietly to himself, and when he nods she nods back. “Good.”

“Bored with your toys?” his lips turn up. “They’ll be disappoint-”

“I’m dancing with you tonight,” she informs him in no uncertain terms, and the words die in his throat as he blinks at her and tries not to look like a deer in the headlights. “Find us somewhere good to go.”

There’s a dismissal there, and he steps out as she straps on a pair of black dancing heels, the kind she wears only for ballroom and partner dancing, not grinding. He looks down at the black slacks and white dress shirt he has on, prays she’s not expecting him to play her Prince Charming tonight, and goes to find a place to let her stretch her legs.

She comes out a moment or two after he gets off his cell phone, throat bare except for a hint of perfume that wraps around him as she walks past to get her coat. Her hair is brushed to a fine shine, her face is clean and pure looking, and when she turns dark eyes on him, she is more serious than she has been in months.

“Are we going?”

“What’s wrong?”

“I want to dance,” she says again, and shrugs. “Come dance with me, Ari.”

He looks at her for a long moment, at the lipstick, the hair, the dress and the shoes, and knows to his bones that there is something not right here but can’t put his finger on it. This isn’t homesickness, and this isn’t even “Oh, it’s two weeks to my period, I need to cry for some reason” sadness. This is something else.

She’s not smiling. She always smiles for him.

“Can you promise me that nothing is wrong?” he asks her calmly, and she shakes her head.

“I can’t promise that. But I promise it’s nothing big. And it’ll be better when we get back.” She offers a weak smile, nothing like her normal glowing display of teeth and good nature, and he is still shaky. There’s a part of him that’s too afraid to take her out and expose what is obviously a woman in a vulnerable state to the world. He wants to wrap her in cotton wool and put her back in her room until she feels better; wants to take this fog of depression away from her before he lets the world see her.

She steps into his personal space, puts her hand on his arm and looks at him like she’s a little girl asking for an impossibly huge favor-- a pony for her birthday or a fairy to land upon her nose.

He links arms with her, feeling a bit stronger when she reaches further to twine her fingers with his, and by the time they’re out the door, silent and solid, she’s leaning into him like she usually does, eyes scanning the way she’s been taught.

He doesn’t let go of her hand until they’re standing outside of the club, and she doesn’t move outside of the warmth his body provides until the night is over and they both wander off in search of peace and solitude.

The wine is cheap, the air is smoky and rich, and Kate breathes in the smell of hardwood floors and sweat until her lungs ache and she has to release it back. Her fingers tighten briefly around his, and the singer on stage winks at him flirtatiously when she turns away. He doesn’t wink back and he doesn’t ask himself why.

The song is too upbeat, too pop-tarty, and they take seats on the thick red covered sofas together, shoulders pressed together. Caitlin is focused in on the reflection of a wine glass, and he is too caught up in his dissection of her mood to notice when the singer leaves and the place goes silent for a while.

“Why are you upset?” he asks softly into her ear, and she shakes her head. “Is it the holiday?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” She leans back against his shoulder, suddenly looking very exhausted. “I just… It’s nothing. Just let me work it out.”


They sit quietly for a while, watching the cigarettes light up around them in preparation. A young woman takes the stage, dark skinned and blue eyed, and when she opens her throat, Ella Fitzgerald leaps forth from between her teeth with a passion that leaves the purists breathless.

She takes his hand in the opening notes of “In My Solitude” and leads him out to the floor, eyes serious and mouth set in a thin line. He pulls her into the appropriate positions, hands in the right places, and when she takes the first step he’s right there with her, looking into her eyes calmly.

It’s like finding an outfit in your closet long since forgotten, trying it on for kicks and discovering that not only does it still fit, but it looks better than before. He is the ultimate pair of black jeans and cashmere sweater. The dance they commit to together hugs her more closely, more fashionably than anything she owns.

She knows what she’s doing. When she steps, her foot is firm and steady. There is no hesitation in her-- there isn’t room for any with all of the other thoughts and feelings running about inside of her.

She’s been doing this since she was ten years old and her brothers needed someone to practice on for their respective proms. She remembers spinning around their tiny living room, the carpet rough and familiar under the soles of her feet, teasing her brothers as they lead her round and tried not to look uncomfortable with the idea of not only dancing in public, but first doing it in private with their little sister. One by one they stepped up to the plate-- took the right of passage-- and Kate got better and better at the box step each and every time, until she started to crave more. Long after the corsages melted away, long after the Prom Memories photos had been thrown into shoeboxes to be dug up years later and reminisced over, Kate had loved the feeling of unity that dancing had. The partnership; the equality it gave her with her partners.

Lessons followed, dances, balls, recitals. Her mother used to complain about the cost, but the first time she saw Kate in a recital, salsa shoes and dress on, she had sat back and dabbed at her eyes, muttering about “my little baby’s growing up” in the nostalgic tone that always made Kate and her siblings roll their eyes. Kate had danced, ignoring the world.

Her heels had clicked on the floor, her partner’s hands had been firm and knowing, and she had lost herself in the swirl of her skirt and the wave of her hair as it tossed and churned around her.

She knows her way around a floor with both eyes closed, and she is pleasantly surprised to discover that Ari does too. Grinding in ill lit clubs is one thing, dancing is quite another.

This is what it’s about, she thinks as he guides her around the floor, oblivious to all other eyes upon them. This collection of movements, strung together so loosely to form something so perfect. This breathtaking feeling of unity-- of submission to the lead, and trust in his hands. When a man knows how to dance, it doesn’t matter if the woman does; a good lead makes the steps come. Somehow, someway, the steps come.

He pushes and pulls, steps and retreats, and she follows and strays accordingly. Her body is limber and willing to be moved about, and the two of them are vaguely aware that everyone in the club is watching them as they slowly make their way about. The song is soothing and low, sweet and gentle, and they move together to the beat, swaying slightly.

Ari draws her closer, hands skimming her hips lightly. “You know what you’re doing,” he says gently, and she nods.

“Yes,” she says simply, and is suddenly very aware that she is very close to him. Her cheeks turn bright red, her breath comes in quickly, and he looks at her in puzzlement. “It’s nothing,” she says quickly. His eyes seek the truth, her face conceals it, and he sighs slowly, twirling her out and watching as the folds of red that drip down her legs wing out to play in the warm air before coming back down and finding his hands again.

He leans in and brushes her ear with his lips, speaking soft and low, and wondering at the shiver it sends through her. What is going on with this woman? “You are going to tell me what is wrong if I have to torture you to get it out of you,” he warns firmly, and she opens her mouth to protest again when the final notes of the song come upon them. He wraps an arm around her back, adjusts a leg, and she is nothing but heat and red silk, tossed over his arm.

Her hair trails lightly, seductively across the floor for the barest of moments before he pulls her back up and grabs her hips to keep her from running. “Do I have to torture you?” he asks in exasperation, and she swallows, trying to look anywhere but his eyes. “I will not enjoy it, Caitlin, but I will if I need to. You promised to trust me.”

“This isn’t about trust,” she whispers, cheeks still bright red and eyes still searching for an escape. His fingers tighten on her hips, brow furrowed. “I… I trust you, Ari,” she whispers, “this is about something else.”

“At the very least, will you tell me what is the matter?” He’s pleading now. He wonders when he started to care so damn much what was going on in this woman’s head. Reduced to pleading because she won’t smile at him. He hasn’t felt this pathetic in years.

Caitlin bites her cheek, face losing some of the flush, and licks her lips slowly, absently. “I… I was hoping to simplify something. I mean, I wanted something to be easy in my head. Only… it’s not.” He looks at her, and she can already imagine what he’ll say to the people on the phone in the white coats.

Oh, yes, hello. I’d like to report a crazy person. I think she might have developed mad cow disease… No, we haven’t eaten beef-- could she have gotten it off a toilet seat, possibly? I know a man who caught “gay” from a toilet seat once… Thank you. Please send big men in tight fighting clothing. She’ll appreciate that.

She grabs his hand and leads him into a corner, sitting down beside him on the sinfully red couch and spreading her legs, too exhausted to be ladylike. This is taking something out of her, and she’s afraid she won’t be able to get it back one she lets it go-- like trying to fit everything into Pandora’s box once more. She glances at the silent man on her side, protective and questioning, and the little voice inside her that screams about friendship and team dynamics starts to wail.

“I’m not upset,” she says quietly. “It’s not homesickness or anything like that. I was just hoping that I could keep something straight in my head-- I wanted to be sure of something.”

“And are you?” he asks softly, eyebrow cocked in an “I’m still not entirely sure if you’re losing your mind so I’m going to humor you to prevent you from attacking me with your nails and insulting my heritage loudly” sort of way. She swallows.

“I just realized that the thing I wanted to keep simple… isn’t. There’s no way to make this easy on myself, and it’s just something I’m going to have to live with.” She shrugs and offers a weak flash of a smile. “That’s all. It just means that I can’t take the easy way out.”

They sit in silence for a while, watching as the people trickle past with drinks and cigarettes and cloves, and when she turns to him, he has the furrow in his brow that she has come to understand means he’s thinking deep and meaningful thoughts. More than one night she’s gone to bed before him leaving him to that look and the firing of all of his important brain synapses, and woken up the next morning to find him still thinking in the same position and sent him to bed.

“What?” she asks softly, and he’s the one to refuse her this time. They sit quietly together until they’re both yawning, and he helps her with her coat on the way out.

The apartment smells like home. Kate breathes it in and tosses her coat on the armchair with a sigh. “Bed time,” she says gently, trying to find the strength to be cheerful and upbeat again. She’s failing.

She’s attracted to Ari Haswari. Emotionally, physically; she can picture herself with him in ten years having just as much fun as she is now, and she has a brief, horribly traitorous flash of a child with milky coffee skin and her eyes, flashing a wicked smile and shrugging long dark hair over her shoulders when asked how she managed to get into the locked study and find her birthday present three weeks before her party.

Stop it.

“I’m going to crash,” she announces, only to find him standing by the stereo, plugging in a mixed CD, and glancing over his shoulder at her. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

He straightens and seems to take over the room, making her feel small and weakened. She’s falling apart at the seams-- terrified that she’ll do something stupid and reckless, and she wants nothing more than to run far and fast in the other direction.

She’s stuck in a room with a lion. She’s starting to wish she hadn’t rubbed herself with those steaks.

“Dance with me,” he says, raising his hands and calling to her. His body is perfectly positioned, arms up and out, and all that’s missing is her inside of them.

She takes a deep breath and meets his eyes steadily, trying to hold onto her nerve. She can never remember if you’re supposed to look wild animals in the eye, but she’s never been one to roll over and play dead. He’s not that scary, she tells herself. Gibbs can glare ten times better than he ever could.

Gibbs never made her panties wet enough for her to fear discovery, of course. But she’s trying not to ponder that particular part right now.

“I already danced with you,” she says calmly, warningly. He’s not a moron-- he can tell she’s not at her best right now and he should give her the space she needs. The fact that he seems intent upon poking her with a stick until she takes his head off is out of character and slightly suicidal.

He cocks his head to one side, eyes running over her to take everything in, and he wiggles his fingers slightly. “Dance with me again.”


“Just one dance,” he promises, and she sighs in exhaustion as he steps forward to take her hand in his and draw her back to the center of the room. “Then you can sleep. I only want to see something.”

She falls into step easily, her body moving without her brain, and the first lines of “Somebody to Watch Over Me” spills from the speakers. She keeps her eyes down, her head on the motions of her feet, and when he shifts her closer, she lifts her eyes to focus them on a point on the wall over his shoulder.

She can’t do this right now. She is going to either jump him out of need or start crying out of frustration, and neither option is a good one.

“I just want to go to bed,” she says quietly, and he shakes his head.

“A bit longer, I’m afraid. I assure you, Caitlin, I do not bite.”

“Liar,” she sniffs, and he grins.

“May I ask what is so fascinating on the wall behind me?”

“I thought I saw a bug,” she says, not moving her eyes. “It was pretty and green.”

“I have seen that insect before,” he notes calmly, and she has the feeling that he’s mocking her, she just can’t figure out how. “I assure you, it will be there when we are done.” And he takes his hand from her waist, wraps it around her chin, and forces her to meet his gaze. His hand retreats, her chin stays where it is, and she is staring into eyes she called kind all those months ago, unable or unwilling to draw them away. They’re smiling. “Now, am I truly that frightening?”

She swallows and struggles to keep herself dancing. Her feet feel heavy and her legs are loose rubber underneath her. She’s leaning heavily against him and she knows it, but he’s not complaining and if anything, he’s holding her tighter because of it.

Kate has no idea what she’s gotten herself into, but she knows that it scares the crap out of her. “I need to stop,” she whispers, “please.”

“The song is almost over.” She lets her head drop forward onto his shoulder, breathing shakily, and his hand comes up to tangle in her hair and stroke the back of her neck. “It’s alright,” he whispers.

“How?” she asks roughly. “How is this alright?” She feels like crying again. She bites down on her lip to keep it from happening, and lets the song fill her ears and brain.

“Although he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome, to my heart he carries the key…”

Yeah, she thinks cynically. That crying thing is looking better and better with each passing moment.

She is tension and fire underneath his hands, and Ari drags his fingers through her long dark hair to try and soothe them both. His stomach is full of glass covered vipers, swirling and biting at him as they tear him up. He feels both alert and numb, like he just dumped himself in freezing cold water, and if he takes his hands off of her, they are going to shake and give him away.

He’s shaking. A woman has made him shake.

This is bad.

He knew something was wrong-- hell, he even had the feeling that it was something to do with him-- but the fact that it’s this is something else; something new. His brain can’t take it entirely, can’t believe it.

Caitlin Todd… likes him.

God, he’s a ten year old with his first crush and he doesn’t even care. He feels like whopping and twirling her around in joy and then dragging her off to bed and not letting her out until she’s walking bowlegged and cursing every time she sits down. He wants to tangle her in his bed sheets until she’s so far gone she can’t say anything but his name.

He wants to sit on a beach with her, sand up his ass, and watch her read a magazine telling her she’s fat. And he hates the beach.

Caitlin Todd likes him.

Somewhere up there, someone hates him.

She’s breathing shallowly against his throat, sniffling every now and then, and he’s not sure if she’s started to cry, but he has a feeling she’s close to it and he can’t bring himself to find the words to make it all better. They don’t exist. He’s got guns under his mattress, an Al Qaeda cell’s major information on his cell phone, and when he steps outside of this apartment he is constantly on the alert-- constantly afraid.

Caitlin Todd likes him. And there is absolutely nothing that either one of them can do about it.

Ari takes a deep breath in, realizes that the song is over, and slowly moves his hand in circles across her lower back. “The song is over,” he says quietly, and she nods.

“Not yet. Just a bit longer,” she whispers, and he nods. “It’s not fair,” she says again, and he shakes his head.


“You’d think we earned a reward by now.”

He smiles briefly. “You would. It does not work like that.”

“Yeah.” She draws back slowly, and the cold air that takes her place is like the universe slapping him across the face for allowing his guard down long enough for this woman to make her way in underneath it. She’s in now, under the radar, and it’s too late for him to push her out without taking too much of himself with her. He looks down at her, face just as sad, and she offers a brave smile. “That’s life,” she offers, her voice cracking at the end, and her face is crumpling fast. She’s going to start crying or screaming, and he wants nothing more than to tell her “Screw terrorism. Let’s go find a bed and breakfast in the French countryside to spend the rest of our lives in being pampered and messing up bedding.”

But he can’t.

“Thank you for the dance,” he whispers, a poor substitute, and she nods, smiling back weakly.

“Any time. Thank you.” She points towards her door with a thumb. “I’m going to get some sleep.”

“Sleep well.”

She pulls away from him entirely, her warmth leaving, and he watches her go into her room and close the door behind her. The catch is a tiny snick in the quiet room, and he listens as her bed heaves with her weight and one muffled scream escapes.

Just one. It appears she’s decided not to bother with the crying part.

He walks over to the well stocked back, picks up a bottle of 10 year old scotch and pours himself four fingers full in a glass, before walking over to the couch and sitting down.

He takes the bottle with him. It’s his best friend for the night, and as much as he wants the woman in her bedroom to come out and retake her place by his side as his partner and companion, the booze is a substitute he’s willing to accept for a short while.

Three AM confessions are best when flavored with booze.

Caitlin stirs when he sits on the edge of her bed, but doesn’t turn to him. Her face is rosy and rubbed raw from the blankets. She wraps her arms around a pillow quietly.

“I want you to listen to me,” he whispers, “because I will say this one time and one time only.” She nods, face covered with her hair, and he makes lazy circles with the flat of his palm on the small of her back, rolling the tension out of her, and she takes a shaky breath before settling. “We can not do anything about this while the mission is active. Neither one of us can have our judgment clouded in such a manner; one slip on our parts could lead to our deaths and the deaths of many others. We can not endanger them.”

She sighs. “Yeah.”

“However,” he continues, and she stills every muscle in her body, head tilting so one curvy ear points up from underneath her hair. “I am not willing to let this go.” She turns towards him, eyes on his, and he swallows. “This mission is a serious one, and we can not endanger it, but there are things between us that are not going to vanish if we simply ignore them.”

One hand seeks out the pale flesh of her belly, rubbing the little strip of exposed skin along the waist band of her boxers, and she closes her eyes and breathes deeply. “This,” he whispers, “is not going to disappear if we stick our heads in the sand. When the mission is over, we could explore… this.”

She blinks up at him. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”

“When the mission is over, Caitlin, we can do whatever we want, for as long as we want. The more focused we are, the faster the mission will be done.”

“You are,” she says, sitting up and sitting back against the headboard. “You’re telling me that we’re both going to just wait until the end of this to jump each other.”

He purses his lips in annoyance. “That is not how I would choose to phrase it, but-”

“That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” she pronounces clearly. “And I’ll tell you why.”

He sits back against the headboard next to her, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at her. “Please enlighten me.” And he’d had such hope too-- she understands their duty, she understands the danger-- why the hell wouldn’t she agree with him?

Is it possible she’s objecting to the sex part, his brain things for a second, boggling at the idea. How could anyone say no to sex? It’s…. sex. It is single handedly the most pleasurable thing Ari has ever experienced. The idea that she doesn’t want to do this… with him…


Great, he thinks with a snarl. He’s going to be a retarded personal ad, and she’s just going to go out and buy herself a vibrator or something else equally sex-toy-errific.

“We’re supposed to be jumping each other now,” she points out, and he takes a moment to run the phrase around his brain. “As far as everyone we are in contact with right now is concerned, you’re using me for the sex, right?”


“Then to not actually have sex means we don’t have the right dynamic. When was the last time you showed up with a hickey on your neck? Or I told Idina I was sore from last night? Never, that’s when.” She folds her arms over her own chest, glaring back at him. “We’re putting the mission in danger right now by not having sex.”

He’s pretty sure his mouth is open.


“And another thing,” she snarls, climbing on top of his thighs and poking him in the chest with her finger. “When this mission is over, you’re going to ditch me and go back to being the big, bad Mossad agent. You’ll find some nice blond Swede to marry and have lots of bratty kids with, and I’ll get a Christmas card. Maybe. Meanwhile, I’m back in NCIS, Gibbs is glaring at me for not being truthful to him, and I’m still trying to get up the confidence to talk to Abby again. I’ll find some loser lawyer to date who I can push around and get my way with, and probably end up old and wrinkled and still walking around shooting people.”

He grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her until she’s gone limp and giggly, and when he rolls her underneath him, it’s more to assert dominance and truth than to hump her. “You foolish little woman,” he mutters affectionately, elbows on either side of her head, and she looks up at him with half-lidded eyes. “That will not happen.”

“How do you know?” she challenges, lips thin and angry. “You’re going to leave, Ari, I’ll leave too, and we’ll probably never see each other again.”

“I will not permit it to happen,” he amends, and she swallows. “I will not marry some Swede, I will not pick up and walk out without a good bye. I will not. I promise you.”

“You promise.” He nods, and she blinks. “Okay. So where does that leave us?”

He drops his head to her collarbone, sighing heavily and suddenly very, very tired. “I have no idea,” he admits. “I am more or less making this up as I go.”

“Ah,” she says quietly, and wraps her arms around his shoulders and her legs around his waist. He makes a questioning noise against her shirt, and she sighs. “I think making it up as we go is probably the best thing to do,” she whispers, and he settles himself so he’s not totally crushing her, half on top and half on the side, letting her hide underneath the bulk of him. “I don’t want to lose this,” she says quietly. “I don’t want to destroy what we’ve got.”

“We won’t,” he reassures.

“We could.”

“Yes,” he acknowledges. “But we won’t.”

Christmas in Paris, Kate decides about halfway through her regular shopping trip with Idina and Jess, is officially her new favorite time and place. The stores are dolled up, the streetlights covered in mini-lights, and there are tiny decorated Christmas trees on the counters next to the cash registers.

Jess is utterly thrilled at the idea that she’s helping Kate shop-- tickled at the idea of participating, in however minor a way, in something this forbidden and new. Idina just smirked when she heard the suggestion.

“Christmas shopping?” she’d asked slyly. “And how does Haswari feel about this?”

Kate had grinned. “I haven’t told him,” she whispered, laughing like a woman who knows her lover has no idea where she is right now or what she’s doing. “I’m slowly figuring things out here, and you’ve been so helpful, but I guess I will always miss Christmas. So I figured I’d buy him a little something as a thank you for being so understanding with me over the past few months.”

Jess had squealed. “I’ve never been Christmas shopping before,” she confided when they’d come to get her in the hired car that Idina drives around in. “It sounds interesting.”


Understatement of the century, Kate thinks to herself as she literally drags Jess out of a candy store, steering her past of rows of freshly baked gingerbread men and back out onto the street. Idina is sneaking a cigarette, carefully out of the eyes of the driver, and the two of them link arms, with Jess on her other side.

“I think I need to buy something,” Jess announces. “It has just come upon me. I must make a purchase or two.”

Idina laughs. “That urge comes upon you on a weekly basis. Somehow I don’t think buying Christmas presents for the inner circle would go over well.”

Jess smiles conspiratorially. “Can you imagine the look on Qassam’s face if I gave him one of those Christmas tree cookies? He would hit me, I am sure of it, if he did not die of a heart attack first.” Her French is flawless and lightly accented, and she laughs low and clear.

Kate’s ears perk up. “Not really the celebratory type, is he?” she says wryly, and Idina waves a hand dismissively.

“The old fuddy duddy,” she snorts. “I swear, Mikel has the patience of Mohamed himself to put up with him and his mistakes.”

“He seems pretty competent,” Kate argues back. “I mean, he’s never really spoken to me, but he doesn’t seem to be unable to work.”

“Oh,” Jess rolls her eyes. “He’s not. He’s, what’s the polite term, Idina? Slow?”

Idina chides her with her eyes. “He’s not inept, Jess, just not an open thinker.” She looks at Kate and sighs. “And it doesn’t surprise me he hasn’t spoken with you. He barely speaks to me or Jess. He was raised in a very religious home in Saudi Arabia. The idea that we’re currently out without abayas and blood relatives as male escorts is offensive to him. Mikel puts up with him because his family is extremely wealthy and his uncle is a friend of his family.” She smiles suddenly. “I wouldn’t worry much about him. Your Haswari has been a welcomed addition to the group, as have you.” She plants an impetuous kiss on Kate’s cheek, and Kate beams at them both.

“Thank you,” she whispers, turning wide, emotional eyes on them. “I mean, I know I’m an outsider, but you’ve both been so kind to me. It makes me feel like part of the group, and I really appreciate that.”

Idina and Jess wrap their arms around her waist on their respective sides. “You are part of the group,” Idina whispers into her ear, and Jess nods sincerely.

“Yes,” she agrees. “You are family. Sister.”

They make their way down the street, the hired car following at a respectable distance, and when they go into their next shop, Kate impulsively buys Idina and Jess cashmere scarves that have both of them cooing and smiling at her.

She watches them toss the length of fabric over their throats like children playing with feather boas, and wonders if the cashmere will be a pleasant memory for them when they're both in custody. She touches the dark green scarf around Idina’s throat when invited, adjusting it to make the older woman look even more regal and bold, and can’t imagine ever wearing the cloth again.

Ari meets her at the door and grins at the information, laughing merrily when she announces “I have news!“

She spills before she can even take her coat off, and he is smiling like a man much wickeder than he. She grins and shakes her head. “Try not to look so much like a kid in a candy store, would you?” She slips into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine, and he follows on the balls of his feet.

“This is perfect,” he announces. “The fact that you were shared with means they have accepted you.” He laughs, rubbing his head. “I had thought this would take years.”

“Years?” She blinks and sips her wine. Years. It seems so abstract. So…out there. She’s only been here for seven months, and while it doesn’t seem to have been that long, the idea that there is still so much more to come boggles her brain and makes her eyes cross.

Years. God, she can’t even think that far anymore.

“You are more skilled at this game than you anticipated, Caitlin.” He reaches past her to grab an apple out of a basket on the counter and bites into it, munching cheerfully. “I told you your potential was not inconsiderable.”

“Yes,” she acknowledges, “but I thought you were just being an ass.”

“There might have been a bit of that in there as well,” he admits, and moves back into the living room, crunching cheerfully and muttering to himself around the food in his mouth. She sits up on the counter and takes a healthy swig of wine to wet her tongue and loosen her thoughts.

She can hear him typing furiously on his computer, pounding out words and thoughts. Emails, she has no doubt, to his superiors to let them know that they have what they’re looking for. The first sign of dissent and fracture in the group. When they bring the cell down for good, Qassam will be the one to take the fall for it. A falling star who never truly reached his potential, threatened by a younger man with more skill, gets trapped in his own ambition and starts to hurt the group with irrational decisions and hastily made plans.

They have their scapegoat, she thinks, and feels no small amount of pride bubbling within herself at this, the first useful bit of information she’s been able to bring him. Years my ass, she thinks proudly. I rule.

“Caitlin,” he calls from the living room, “you are a wonder. A treasure. I will buy you a pony and a little Japanese boy to rub your feet.”

“I don’t want a pony,” she calls back. “I want a horse.”

“Pushy.” He appears in the doorway again, grinning and she feels herself smile back automatically. Things are easier between them now. Less tense. Sure, she still has no idea where she stands, and he has no idea what he’s doing. For all she knows, she could walk in tomorrow and find him banging some pretty little toy he found at a club. She’s not even sure if she’d be allowed to get angry over it.

They haven’t actually set boundaries yet, or rules, or anything. He spends the nights curled up with her in bed, arms and legs tossed over her to keep her against him. He hasn’t slept in his own room in weeks, and she’s just fine with that.

She doesn’t know his feelings on it. But he comes back every night, so she’s guessing he’s not exactly opposed.

“Wonderful,” he says again, and she laughs, half-embarrassed at this point to be gushed over in this way. He steals a sip of her wine, eyes grinning. “I have a surprise,” he announces carefully, and she takes her wineglass back, eyeing him suspiciously.

“A surprise.”


“Is it something I’m going to like?”

“No,” he says. “I’ve decided to have you killed and turned into a coffee table after all. Sorry to disappoint you.” He glares at her. “This is the last time I ever go out of my way for you, you irritating little woman.” She grins and pouts. “Do not even try that.”

“Awwww, did the big bad Mr. Haswari get his feelings hurt?” She bats her eyelashes. “By a little old girl. How sad.”

“Witch,” he mutters, before starting again. “In all fairness,” he admits, “I had assistance.”

Her curiosity is perking even more, and she jumps down from the counter to walk around him and examine both hands behind his back. Neither one of them has her present in it, and she licks her lips. “Are you going to make me beat you up?” she asks him seriously, face very close to his. He raises an eyebrow.

“I have been trained to resist torture,” he says stonily, and she looks at him and feels the little “Play it By Ear” bug bite her on the ass.


She leans in, hand on his shoulder, eyelashes softly fluttering against her cheek. “I don’t know,” she whispers, tossing her hair over one shoulder and leaning up to drag the very tip of her tongue over the curve of his ear. “I’m very, very good.”

His breathing is increasing, she thinks. Good. He swallows and closes his eyes. “Yes you are.”

“I could have you offering me information on a platter.” Her breasts are heavy against his arm, nipples just brushing the side of his ribcage as she takes his earlobe between her licks and sucks. “Couldn’t I?”

“Silver plated,” he grunts, and she pulls back with the earlobe still in her mouth, stretching out his groan with her teeth and tongue. He follows her when she releases him, leaning towards her, and she looks at him, glowing with satisfaction. “Witch,” he mutters again, only now his voice is raspy and harsh.

“Where’s my present, Ari?” she whispers.

“Living room,” he whispers back, mocking her, and she grins like a child, running past him and ignoring the amused chuckles he lets drift after her. “I hope you like it,” he sighs dramatically, following her, and watching as she stops dead in the middle of the room, mouth open, eyes wide. “It was very hard to smuggle it in.”

Tony DiNozzo stands up, brushing cookie crumbs away from his mouth, and smiles a chocolate covered smile at her. “Hey,” he offers cheerfully. “Came to see if you wanted to run away and get the umbrella drinks with me.”

She blinks, body trembling. Ari can see her hands skimming the place she usually keeps her gun and knife, eyes wide. “Tony, what are you doing here? The mission-”

“Is fine,” he soothes. “I’m surprisingly good at not looking like myself when I need to and the agency prepared for a situation like this in advance. I’m the guy upstairs’ friend from University, watching his dog while he’s away.” He puts a hand over his heart. “I come all this way just to see you and you only think about your precious mission? I’m hurt, Katie. I mean--” Ari stands back and laughs as Kate literally launches herself at Tony, arms wrapped around his neck, legs around his waist, hugging him for all she’s worth as he falls back to the couch with her in his lap and looks panicked.

“What have you done to her?” he asks breathlessly. “She’s… clingy!”

“I’ve had her locked in a closet while I beat her with a newspaper,” Ari offers. “In hindsight, I think perhaps a magazine would have been better.”

“Shut up,” she gasps, hiding her face in Tony’s shirt. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, oh my God, Tony, shut up…” She’s whimpering and clawing at his back, desperate for the contact, and he hugs her as tightly as he can. “Christ, I thought I’d never see you again,” she whispers.

He closes his eyes for a long moment, relishing the feel of his sister back in his life, and when he opens them again he tells himself the moisture he blinks away is a result of allergies to their carpet or something. “Missed you too, Kate.” She pulls back, looks at him with lit eyes and a bright smile, then jumps off his lap to run across the room and throw her arms around Ari’s waist. He laughs and pulls her tight, not seeming to mind the fact that she’s squeezing his intestines out.

“Oh thank you, thank you, thank you,” she rambles, and he drops a brief kiss to the top of her head before letting her go. Her eyes are wide and wet. “Thank you,” she breathes. The grin he gives her in reply is huge and white.

“Enjoy yourself. I will be working.” She opens her mouth to protest, and he puts a hand over it with a shake of his head. “This is my present to you. He’s here for the next twelve hours before he has to catch a flight back-- MI-6 would only allow him to come on the condition he was helping with the work; we finished before you arrived, and now he has your information to bring back.” He offers a light smile, lip curling. “Happy Christmas.”

His voice is steady and doesn’t hold room for argument, and she really doesn’t want to offer any after all. She swallows, nods, and watches him walk out of the room, into his own and close the door behind. She stands very still for a very long moment, before turning back to Tony and giving him a wet smile. “God I’ve missed you so much.”

Tony pats his lap. “Want to get comfortable again?”

She laughs and when she cries this time, they’re tears of happiness for the first time in all too long.

They spend the time talking.

She sits next to him, eyes on him the whole time as her hand touches his or her leg skims his foot. She’s kept a steady contact with him for the entire time he’s been sitting next to her. He pretends not to notice the desperation that lurks around the corners of her mouth when he gets up to go to the bathroom and she has to lose the contact of her knee against his thigh.

He tells her about Gibbs, how he’s taking it. How Abby remembers good times instead of bad, and how Ducky found McGee crying in the autopsy room once, looking down at a rape and murder victim who shared her hair color and skin tone like he’d lost his mother and his way.

She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t know how to respond to their pain without being drowned by her own.

He tells her about how he’s sabotaging Gibbs’s search on a weekly basis now, and finds that he actually feels better after telling it all to her and spilling his guts willingly. Her eyes absorb his pain, fingers on the back of his hand centering him as he threatens to go off on tangent after tangent, and when he starts to look like a lost little boy, she shifts closer to him and rests her arm over his shoulders casually.

McGee lost his way, he tells her, and she nods. Abby lost a friend, he explains, and she gets it.

Gibbs lost a child, he whispers, and she breathes in quickly.


Tony rubs his eyes. “Let’s face it Kate, that whole father figure thing goes both ways. We’re desperate to please him, he’s desperate to protect us. You’re dead; he failed his daughter.”

They sit quietly for a time longer, and when he glances up at her, she’s looking seriously down at her hands, examining the nails and watching the cuticles for the miracles of life to appear. “How’s he treating you?” he asks quietly, nodding towards the closed bedroom door, and she lifts her chin to follow his gaze. “He’s not pushing you around, is he?”

“No,” she says calmly. “He’s wonderful.”


“He is, Tony,” she breaks off, looking at him with serious, dark eyes. “He’s not abusive, he’s not even mean. He’s never ordered me to do anything I wasn’t going to do anyhow, and he watches my back the way I watch his.” She shakes her head. “He’s a good partner. I miss you guys, but he’s a damn good partner and I’m lucky to be here with him.”

She picks the glasses up off the table and walks with them into the kitchen, hands steady. When she returns, he’s watching her speculatively. “What?”

“You’ve changed,” he notes. “You’re different.”

“Bad different?”

“No, just different. More confident.” He nods. “It’s good for you. You make a good spook.”

“Thanks,” she says wryly and sits back down. “Ari says so too. I guess I never thought that would be a good thing, but apparently, it is.” She lets her head drip back against the couch and stares up at the ceiling blankly. “I’m getting used to this life, Tony. It’s not half bad.”

“No,” he says softly.

“Why don’t I think it’s bad?” she whispers to him, and his head picks up. “This isn’t where I belong. This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. Why do I feel so… content? Why doesn’t it bother me more?” She turns needy, confused eyes on him, and he wants to have every answer she could ever need swimming on the tip of his tongue, but all he has are cheap words.

“Because you’re good at this,” he says back, and she purses her lips and looks away. “You’re adapting. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re protecting us all, and that’s what you’re supposed to do.” He touches her cheek briefly, then takes his hand away as if he’s afraid of being struck down by the divine. “You’re doing good, Kate. Trust me.”

She looks at him, lower lip trembling, and rubs at her eyes angrily. “God, I’m crying a lot.”

“You’re having a day,” he shrugs, and she’s laughing at herself and at him, loud and strong. He pulls her into his lap, pinches her nose like he would a little girl, and grins at her. “It’s okay, Kate, you’ll be alright.”

“Yeah,” she says, and it’s not doubting, just wry. She’s always alright. She’s stopped fearing she will be, and now assurances seem empty and a waste of breath. “I know.”

“Good. Now get off me so I can get another cookie.”

She hypes herself on coffee so she won’t have to sleep and miss a moment of his company, and he’s eating so many chocolate cookies his hands are twitching with a sugar high. “I miss you,” he confides, grinning wide. “McGee’s getting lazy and complacent. I’m going to put a tack on his chair.”

“Go for it,” she allows, nodding eagerly and imagining her fellow agent running around screaming “The bee bit my bottom! Now my bottom’s big!” and decides to stop watching so many dubbed Simpson’s on TV.

“Tonytha’s doing good.”

“I can’t believe you renamed her that.”

“Hey, you’re the one who came up with the bright idea of naming that bitch Tony.” He pops another cookie. “She misses you, though. Keeps sniffing your clothes like you’ll reappear inside of them.”

Kate raises an eyebrow. “DiNozzo, what are you doing with my clothes?”

“I really liked the pink polka dotted panties and bra set. Not sure if they’re your color though.” She elbows him, hard, and they could be back at the office, Gibbs watching with a parental eye as they make each other work for it.

They’re not, of course, but it’s nice to think they could be. That this is normality; where they belong.

Tony rubs his side and watches as the sun slowly peaks over the horizon. “Nice pad, Kate.”


“So you’re okay?” he asks, and licks his lips. “I mean, really okay? It doesn’t have to leave this room-- I’ll get you out if you want out.” His hair is going in five different directions, tie undone, and she remembers that look on him from late nights in the office when they sat around and tried to eat Chinese food together. She brushes an imaginary piece of lomein out of his hair and offers the most reassuring look she can conjure up.

“I’m really okay,” she says.

“Good. I wasn’t looking forward to having to kill Haswari. He looks like a man with a girly scream that would attract the neighbors.”

He holds her once more before he leaves, duffle bag thrown over his shoulder and wig and facial prosthetics firmly in place. He looks like a Fabio knock off, and he leers at her cheerily when she tells him so.

“Want to see if my skin is as smooth as butter?”

“Only if you want to see how very big my knife is,” she answers back, and he pulls her into one last hug. “Be safe,” she whispers into his ear, and he nods.

“And you. I’ll email you when I get in.” Tony’s eyes shine out from underneath the huge sunglasses he has thrown on, and she watches her reflection in the shades as he offers a kiss on both cheeks and a quick pat on the back before walking out.

She watches him from the kitchen window, hiding behind the drapes and pretending to be examining her plants. He gets into a waiting car, red and shiny, and his teeth are a bleached white flash from the pavement as he drives away, hair blowing in the wind.

A speck of her old life, making its way down the street and merging into traffic. Leaving her once more. She contemplates finding a few tears for the occasion, then shakes her head. Enough of that, she tells herself. She won’t be any more of an NCIS agent again if she cries. She won’t see Gibbs any sooner if she cries.

She takes a deep breath, runs both thoughts around in her head, and feels surprisingly better about the whole situation. Like it’s a little bit more manageable now that she’s rationalizing. She doesn’t let herself consider the idea that it might be because she’s enjoying herself more out here than she did back there. That’s one of those wicked thoughts that she can not allow herself to consciously permit to roam through her mind.

Ari is asleep when she pushes her way into his room, and his brow furrows when her weight comes down on the bed, head tilting towards her before he settles back in and continues breathing deeply and regularly.

She watches him for a good minute and a half, brow eased, face calm and serene in sleep, and wonders when this man stopped being a symbol of all that was wrong and disappointing about her life and started being the man who sneaks her friend in to see her for Christmas. Who feels bad that he can’t get her a tree with a lot of shiny baubles to decorate her living room.

She runs a hand over his cheek, feeling the rough growth of stubble on his skin, and sighs. “So much for not getting to know you better, huh?” she whispers, and slips underneath the blankets to curl against his front and press her forehead against his chest to resume her regular position. After a few minutes his arm comes around her sleepily, a reaction to her weight, and it occurs to her that once upon a time he tried to strangle her for invading his personal space while he was asleep.

She listens to the sound of his heartbeat until Morpheus takes her, ignoring the sun peaking merrily through the window.

A week and a half later, there are three boxes wrapped with candy cane paper sitting on his table.

He picks up the biggest one, tossing it from hand to hand to get a good feel for its weight and size. The box itself is square, large, and sort of heavy, the outside screaming “TIS THE SEASON!” while tiny snowmen dance with stripped peppermint sticks in hand, and red faced children throw snowballs at each other’s heads.

The table it’s resting on is yew wood. It costs more than he makes in a year.

‘TIS THE SEASON, he thinks wryly, and rubs his hair dry with a towel, finally understanding why she went out and bought that damned peppermint body wash. The stuff stinks when in the bottle, and the shower reeks like an elf orgy. She smells like a five year old, grinning like she’s seven, and while the odor isn’t as horrible on her (alright, he admits, she smells like the peppermint stick of doom, but it’s not bad enough to warrant him going into the other room and sleeping alone) it’s still pretty heavy.

He’s beginning to appreciate being raised Jewish. It seems like a lot less objectionable way to get presents.

Ari glances down at the large brightly colored package on the table, picks it up, and shakes it gingerly, praying Caitlin doesn’t have the knowledge of how to prepare a letter bomb.

And that Tony hasn’t decided to be helpful.


“It’s Christmas,” she calls cheerfully from her bedroom, coming out in a red sweater and blue jeans. “It’s called a ‘present’ Ari. Friends and family give them to each other to show their appreciation for the fact that they haven’t killed each other yet.”

“I am aware of that,” he says dryly as she smoothes her hands down her shirt and examines her butt in the decorative mirror on the wall. “I was of the opinion I had made it clear that I did not want or need anything.”

“And I was of the opinion that you were bright enough to know that that wasn’t going to fly.” She takes the package from his hand, shaking it more eagerly and then hands it back. “See? Nothing dangerous. I promise you’re not going to get anthrax from me today.”


“Well, your birthday is still coming up,” she notes calmly, and wanders into the kitchen to grab one of the gingerbread cookies she spent all of yesterday trying to figure out how to bake. Jess has become obsessed with the holiday, and had called Kate up begging her for one of the cookies she’d seen when they shopped, before faxing a recipe over and promising it would be their little secret if she could only cook them.

Ari had okayed it as an acceptable rebellion-- one that would cement her closer with Jess but not cause too much of an issue if it was found out. He’s starting to regret that decision, actually. Perhaps he should have invented some Islamic stigma towards gingerbread cookies-- explained to her that because of their years living in the desert, presenting someone with a brown cookie was the sign that you wanted them to be caught in a sand storm and have their bones stripped white and bleached in the sun.

Okay, he admits to himself, I could probably come up with something better than that.

She comes back in, munching a cookie man’s head off, and he looks back down at the package in his hands. She’s covered the damn thing with a red bow the size of his fist, as if this monstrosity needed more colors on it.

“Come on,” she says cheerily. “I promise it doesn’t bite. Just open the damn box.” She falters, face dropping. “Unless, I mean, if you don’t want to, I guess it’s-”

He growls and rips the bow off, glaring at her as she grins wide at her accomplishment. “Irritating woman,” he mutters, cursing her heritage under his breath, and she sits down on the sofa to watch in excitement as he pulls his knife out and begins to carefully slices the ugly as sin paper to little shreds.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and he looks down at his knife.

“Excuse me?”

She gets down on her knees in front of the table, takes the box from his hands and holds it in one palm. “First, you shake it.” She shakes the present in demonstration, and the dull thunking from within makes her smile. “Then you eye it like you’re trying to figure out what’s inside.” She pulls it back and runs her eyes over the package exaggeratedly, tilting the box from side to side as if it’ll become any less square and opaque if she just finds the right angle. “Then,” she says, with a raised finger, “and only then do you get to open it. Seriously-- didn’t you ever get a present as a kid? I mean, I wouldn’t expect you to have a GI Joe, but didn’t you ever get a book or a gun or something else to make you into the perfect weapon?”

He snatches the box back and sits down with his back against the couch, glaring at her over his right shoulder. “Why do I put up with you?”

“Because you need someone to buy you presents and make gingerbread cookies,” she answers promptly. “Shake it.”

He rolls his eyes and obediently shakes the elf-puke coated package from side to side, head cocked as if he’s listening to the most interesting music in the world. “Ah,” he says, “yes, I see how this makes the whole experience that much better.”

“Shut up,” she pouts. “Ass. See if I ever buy you anything again. Coal from now on.”

He grins cheerfully and looks the package over with his head tilted to one side, curious and inquisitive. “I wonder what could be in here,” he muses aloud. “Perhaps a pony.”

She folds her arms over her chest with a sulky pout.

When he’s judged it for long enough he rips the remaining paper off and tosses it into a crumpled up ball on the floor. The box is plain and white, and he looks up in question. “Not anthrax?”

“Not anthrax.”

He sighs in exhaustion and opens the top.

Shiny, his brain notes. Very, very… shinyyyyyyy…

The black motorcycle helmet he pulls out of the box is new and designer, coated in a finish so fine he can see his own reflection in every part of it. “It is quite beautiful,” he admits, and she beams from ear to ear. He lets her bask for a moment longer before shaking her from it. “But Caitlin, I do not have a motorcycle with me,” he points out hesitantly, and she rolls her eyes.

“The polite words are thank you.” She reaches into the box and pulls out a pair of keys, grinning quietly to herself at the pleased look on his face. “I thought you might like a little bit of an escape every now and then. I had the garage guy downstairs help arrange it. Compliments of my big and impressive expense account.” He takes the keys and runs his fingers over the top of the helmet, feeling the cool plastic and metal rise and fall underneath his fingers. She licks her lips, watching his face carefully. “So, do you like it?” He smiles at her, and the worry leaves her mouth. “Good.”

“I think a ride might be in order,” he announces, looking her over. “Do you have anything leather to throw on?”

Her face pales. “Me? On a bike?”

“You said you always wanted to try one.”

“Yeah, but I was… emotionally distressed at the time,” She shivers. “Open your other presents and leave me off of your deathtrap.”

He grins at her, puts the helmet down, and picks up the next, smaller package and shaking it enthusiastically. He tilts the package at all angles, tilts his head to match, and when she looks satisfied, he takes his knife and slices the paper up the side and rips it off.

A book falls into his lap. He looks down at it, lets out a bark of laughter, and raises an eyebrow. “Colors Other Than Black,” he announces, grinning at her. “Very nice.”

“I thought so,” she says primly, and he takes it out to flip through it. A children’s book. She bought him a children’s book. He opens a cardboard page and runs his finger over the bright red scrap of velvet impressed into the book with the word RED underneath it in five languages, followed by upraised Braille dots. She munches the cookie, obviously above concerning herself with him, and he grabs one of her hands to kiss her palm and make her squeal.

“I shall treasure it always,” he says seriously, and beneath her frown, there’s a glimmer of a smile aching to get out. “One last one,” he says contemplatively, staring at the box on the table. “I’ll admit, I am absolutely petrified.”

“Not anthrax,” she reminds him cheerfully, and he nods.

“Yes. But there are so many others you could be attempting to infect me with so you can have the apartment and my new book to yourself.” He sighs deeply, furrowing his brows. “I will haunt you,” he announces, and takes the package in hand, shaking it appropriately. “And I will rattle chains when you’re trying to sleep.”

He takes the knife and slices the paper off, not receiving any protests from her this time, and runs his palms over the box. It’s lighter than the others, and he shakes it lightly. No thumping. Clothing perhaps? He dares one last look at her face, judges her as not trying to kill him, and opens it up.

“My god,” he mutters, “these are the most hideous things I’ve ever seen.” Caitlin bounces off the couch, cackling at the top of her lungs, and he stares down at the mass of yarn in horror. “Somewhere out there,” he warns her darkly, “an angel is dead.”

She comes around the table to stand over him, legs wide on either side of his drawn up knees with her hands on her hips and her head tilted jauntily to one side. “Yep!”

“These are… how could you further the production of these horrors by purchasing?” He looks up at her, mouth open, and she grins down at him before dropping to her knees and straddling his lap. He can’t even appreciate the feeling of her grinding against him-- his eyes can’t be torn away.

Reindeer socks. She got him bloody reindeer socks, and it looks like someone’s sewing machine exploded. Colors that have no earthly business together are intertwined, patterns that no one should ever witness are pressed against each other so tightly that the socks are one gigantic blur of color and design. It’s like someone took pure distilled chaos, the sound of babies crying and pigs being slaughtered, the smell of dirty diapers and blood, and mixed them all up in a blender, then used the putridity to dye the wool.

These socks are the anti-Christ, he decides, trying to find his breath. He is looking at evil personified, and it comes with bells attached to the cuffs.

Dear god, he thinks, she’s trying to blind me. This is more painful than anthrax.

“Blood is coming out of my brain,” he mutters, and she tilts her head seriously to examine his ears like a doctor’s assistant coaxing a terrified five year old through his first check up. He has a brief flash-- a fantasy involving her dressed in a nurse’s outfit and no panties, and wonders why he never got lucky enough to find a nurse with Caitlin Todd’s body, eyes, and no panties when he worked in Gaza.

Life hates him, he decides with a sigh. That’s the only explanation he can think of.

…Santa Claus looks like his wife is having an affair and the strain on their marriage is taking its toll. Perhaps marriage counseling, he consoles the fat man. Mrs. Claus can’t like that elf that much, and after all, accidents in the workshop happen on a regular basis. Hands get caught in the toy train machines, pointed shoes get hit with wooden mallets…

Ari takes a deep breath, discovers that Caitlin’s hand is resting oh so delicately on his shoulder, and decides he’s a very sick little monkey.

“Hm… Nothing in here,” she sing-songs, and he is barely aware of her curling her head underneath his chin and grinning at him. “I think I feel much better about all of the shit you’ve done to me now.”

He swallows and tries not to look too pale. His GQ genes are slowly mutating. Any moment now, he is convinced, he is going to turn into a giant Armani covered green giant and spend the rest of his life crushing things under fist and foot, growling “COLORS MAKE ARI ANGRY!”

Well, he thinks miserably, at least he won’t have to wear the socks.

“You are a wicked woman,” he breathes, and she is way too damn chipper about the whole thing for his own good. “This is… You are evil.”

She cackles merrily, and it occurs to him that he is sitting on the floor with a woman in his lap, and all he can do is look at Rudolph’s drunkenly red nose with something akin to amazement. Her breath comes out as a warm, soft puff of air against his throat, raising every hair on his body, and he puts the socks down calmly, wraps his hands around her waist, and grinds her down until she makes the sound he remembers from seven months ago-- from holding her up against the wall and taking her apart.

Her mouth opens and he can feel her lips, damp and chapped against his throat. “Ari,” she whispers, but he has Rudolph behind him now, and there is no way she can make him stop simply by pulling out the name card. A woman who would do something like that to him deserves no mercy, he tells himself, and pushes a steadily hardening cock up against her again, breathing out through his nose as she whimpers and clutches his shoulders with her nails.

“You thought it amusing to give me those, hm?” he purrs into her ear, and she pushes down on him to grind harder, trying for more sensation, more heat, more friction, more anything. He keeps his grip hard, hard enough to almost hurt her, and is only a little bit surprised to hear her moan again.

Well, he thinks with a satisfied grin. The good little Catholic girl has a kink in her. Who knew?

He presses his fingers harder, jerking her forward and down roughly. Her fingers tighten on his shoulders, but not in pain, and her head tilts to slowly press and open mouthed kiss against the hollow of his jaw, teeth right behind it. So a firm hand, he decides, and has one down squeezing her ass firmly before she can even form a word in her brain to protest or beg.

“I think,” he whispers darkly against the curve of her ear, “that you want me to push you down on the table and fuck you for that little stunt.” Her breath catches, and he pushes his hips up to underscore the point, grinning as she whimpers. “Will you try and deny it?” he purrs, and she licks her lips, tongue coming out to briefly flick against his skin.

His throat tightens for a moment, but she doesn’t say anything.

“Not deny,” she murmurs, pulling back slightly to look at him. Her cheeks are flushed, her eyelids are heavy, and the most seductive thing he has ever seen in his lifetime is Caitlin Marie Todd looking up at him from underneath her eyelashes and licking her lips hesitantly. He closes his eyes briefly, regains control, and tells himself to let her speak before kissing her and making her come apart underneath his hands. “Thought you said we shouldn’t do this,” she teases lightly, her bottom lip too very tantalizing to let go. “That is was a bad id-”

She lets a little yelp out as he leans his head down and starts sucking on it, like a woman discovering a mouse in her purse. He nibbles on the edge, pulling it past his lips to bite and tug.

She tries to follow him when he pulls away. Her cheeks are redder. Her lips are heavier. Her eyelashes brush against her skin seductively, innocently, and it doesn’t take long for him to remember why he enjoyed running his hands down her body searching for a weapon all those years ago in the morgue.

Pervert, he accuses himself, and doesn’t fight the claim.

“It is, more than likely,” he grates out. “But I have decided you were correct.” She’s nodding slowly, watching his mouth and not listening to the words he’s saying.

“Yeah, that happens a lot,” she breathes, leaning up in his lap to not only grind down on him with more weight but to put her in reach of his mouth again. Tantalizing.

"The dynamics are not right,” he grates out, trying not to notice that she’s started to make tiny, strong little circles with her hips. Like she’s trying to hit her clit through her jeans-- rub the seam up against her. She’s using him to try and get off already; he’s got her that out of it.

Power rushes are underrated.

"Places the mission in jeopardy…” he continues, and the circles get rougher. Her body rises and falls underneath his hands, ass clenching with each lift underneath his fingers. He tries to clear his head and remember all of the very important points she was making the other night, but all he can think about is the circles, the damnable circles, and how her neck flushes when he brings a hand down on her ass and spanks her just right, making her push down harder and grind rougher, and he buries his face in a throat that smells of peppermint as he comes and fills his jeans like a twelve year old.

She’s still circling when he pulls away, still unsatisfied, and the little moans she’s making are more desperation than lust right now. He shoves a hand down the front of her blue jeans, fighting against the snug fabric to work his way towards the heat that he knows is lurking just out of his way, just below her surface, and she starts begging with her body and her voice when he breaks two fingers into her and holds her suspended on him. “There?” he rumbles against her throat, and she laughs breathily.

“Oh yeah,” she grunts, and he starts running his thumb over her clit with experienced motions and a light touch. “Ari,” comes the desperate, yet still all too coherent gasp against his skin, “teasing is not the best approach right now.” She pushes down harder, he shoves his fingers up roughly, and she laughs as she comes, hands coming up to wrap around his shoulders as her head dips back and her hair spills onto the floor. He lets his head fall back against the couch and plants his feet on the floor to let her lean back on his bent knees as she comes down.

She throws her legs up to rest on his shoulders, shifts until her ass is pressed against his stomach, and leans back to rest her head on his knees. He opens his eyes to look down at her and discovers that she’s apparently decided to use him as a giant pillow. “Comfortable?”

She grins up at him with satisfaction. “You have no idea. Can we do that again?”

His boxers are sticking to him and his dick is proclaiming that it’s done for at least an hour. He’s not twenty anymore. “Right this moment?”

“Well,” she allows, “I know you older men need a bit of time to build your stamina back up.” She pats his arm and offers a sympathetic look. “It happens to lots of guys, Ari, it’s alright-”

She cackles as he grabs her around the shoulders and pulls her up again, legs dropping as he focuses his attentions on the curve of her collarbone and the hint of her cleavage. She glances down at his dark head and is suddenly very happy that someone invented v-neck sweaters. “Witch,” he accuses without heat, sucking on her skin. She wonders when a hickey became sweet as opposed to just annoying, knows she’ll have one when he’s done, and smiles to herself in the soft, mysteriously happy way that women with new lovers have.

“Yep,” she agrees, and wraps her arms around his head, running her fingertips up and down his neck. “But it’s one of the many reasons you can’t get enough of me,” she accuses, and doesn’t wait for an answer before pulling his head back up by his hair and kissing him again until he starts to understand why men go crazy and stupid over women.

“It makes up for your cooking,” he wants to say, but he’s too busy being robbed of his mind to be witty and clever right now.

Later, he promises himself, and then her hands are pushing up the front of his shirt and running rough fingertips over his stomach muscles, and in-between wishing he’d done more sit-ups and slightly desperate hopes that she’s losing just as many brain cells as he is, he decides to let the statement go unstated.

Her cooking’s not that awful, after all.

Eventually they make it into bed. He is collapsed on his back in exhaustion, eyes closed and absolutely gloriously naked. His throat is marked up, his hair is going in five different directions, and she stands in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest and grins at his prone body.

It’s been way too long since there was someone in her bed. It’s been even longer since there was someone there she could actually have a conversation with.


“If you are going to stand in the doorway all night, I will go next door and ask Brigette to come and warm me.”

She puts her hands on her hips and raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“She likes me, you know.” He opens one eye, grinning toothily. “She thinks I’m a sweet man.”

“She’s 83.”

“Maturity is nothing to scoff at,” he replies calmly, and she sticks her tongue out at him as he tries to hold on to his high and mighty expression. “Caitlin, come to bed.”

She raises her arms up over her head and stretches, watching subtly as he eyes her curved form with appreciation. “I don’t know,” she murmurs, all sex and throaty whispers, “will you make it worth my while?”


“Maybe Brigette would like a little time with you.” She leans back to touch her hands to the backs of her calves, and he takes a quick breath in through his teeth. “You seem to think she might be a bit more… mature than me.”

“I am an idiot,” he proclaims softly, and she straightens her back and looks down at him. Both eyes are open now. His face is relaxed. “And no one else is warming my bed, Caitlin.”

She swallows. Licks her lips. Months ago, full of new information and stimuli, she profiled Ari Haswari as a very self-assured man who had never had a childhood, a real relationship, or a normal woman in his bed. She’d imagined him to be a skilled, if mechanical lover, who wouldn’t be comfortable with shows of emotion, affection, or the cuddling part that came after the fucking. An emotional virgin she might just have to deflower if she wanted to get anywhere.

…No one else in his bed…

Apparently he’s a fast learner, but then again, she knew that.

She slips over to him, climbing under the blankets and shifting until she’s comfortable. The warm weight that settles against her back and the arm that slips around her waist and holds her aren’t expected and aren’t protested to.


“Hm,” she agrees softly, and he settles in against her with a long, steady exhale of breath. She takes the hand resting on her stomach in hers and links fingers with him. His heart rate is pounding so quickly underneath her fingers that she gives into a small, satisfied smile.

Mark one down for the profiler extraordinaire, she thinks, and rubs her thumb down the wrist of her emotional virgin with a satisfied smile.

They wake each other up during the night, twice, to interrupt the sleep of the neighbors. Her throat is sore the next morning from screaming out to God, and when he gets out of bed his knees are so weak that he stumbles and grabs the nightstand while she cackles at him merrily and runs her fingertips gently down her bitten, bruised and worshiped body.

They wake each other up twice more during the night, but each time they go back to sleep she finds him around her and each time he closes his eyes her fingers are warm and steady on his wrist.

Mikel is beaming.

Cheeks flushed, face alight, his eyes are tiny glowing dots in his head, and to look at him one would think he has just received news that his mother had died and left him a million dollars in a suitcase. Ari steps into the quiet, well furnished room, and the energy almost makes him gulp.

Almost. He’s not a bad ass for nothing.

“Haswari!” the man greets, cheeks going redder and redder by the second, and Ari accepts the triple kiss before sitting down on the B and B Italia sofa and watching the older man take his customary seat at the only chair with arms.

Qassam is sitting quietly at his right. Ari offers a tilt of the head. Qassam offers nothing, and accepts nothing in return. “You called, effendi?” he offers with a polite inclination of his head. Mikel waits for the tea to be served and the servant to leave quietly before clearing his throat and settling his thick white beard on his chest.

“I have carefully considered the opinions of all presented here,” he begins, expensive suit settled perfectly around him. “Myself and Abdul have discussed the situations and have decided that while Qassam’s idea of a letter bomb aboard a ship, while admirable for its ease, would not have a large enough impact to be appropriate for the situation. Instead-”

Qassam is on his feet, face red and hands clenched at his side. “You insult me and my years of dedication to this counsel! Young Haswari has been here for less and a year, and already he is being treated like the final authority in all decisions. I have dedicated years of my life to-”

Abdul is on his feet before Mikel can speak and Ari can declare his innocence. “Qassam, sit down.”


“Sit down.”

It takes a full minute. Stress and tension-- thick as cream and just as sweet on Ari’s tongue-- fill the room, and when Qassam’s ass hit the seat, Haswari’s ranking goes up twenty points in everyone’s eyes who matters. Ari sits back against the chair, properly modest and differential to all, and thinks to himself that when he gets back to the apartment tonight he is going to spread Caitlin out on a table and make her beg in celebration, then laugh with her over a bottle of champagne about just how much God seems to love them right now.

He reminds himself to pick up fresh strawberries on the way home. He’s always wanted to eat strawberries off of her fingers and her stomach and her breasts. He imagines her throat, peaked with red berries and covered in sweet juice, and wishes he had her now to taste-- smooth white chocolate skin firm against his tongue.

Oh yeah. It’s good to be a spy in Paris with a lovely, beautiful, intelligent, hot bodied woman waiting for you to finish your spy duties back in your bed. After their little Christmas present thing yesterday morning, he had finished working, she had gone to work out, and they had found themselves in the shower. Then in the living room. Then on the bedroom floor. Then in bed. He’d left her their this morning, grinning and happy, promising to come back in a couple of hours and finally, in her words “Finally fuck me, God damn you.”

He’d teased her for her dirty mouth, she’d teased him for the fact that he hadn’t complained about it when she had proven his gag-reflex vs. Catholicism theory last night, and he had made an exasperated face at her until she hit him over the nose with a pillow.

He’s infatuated with a woman who beats him with down.

He’s quite convinced that if this somehow manages to end well and defy all of the movies he’s ever seen, he’ll wallow in contentment for the rest of his days.

Mikel inclines his head at Ari. “Haswari has presented the idea of attacking the French and the Americans at the same time in a display of our power and the fate that awaits all who ally themselves with butchers.” His face goes sour. “Men who kill women and children, who destroy us for being different than them, for refusing a democracy brought by bombs and weapons and bullets-- we shall prove to them all; to oppress those who have no voice is to bring the wrath of those who do upon them.”

His eyes glitter like a child’s overuse of sparkles, suddenly very vibrant and overstated in the dim light. When he stands, the Santa Claus is gone-- the fumbling, sweet old man who embraced him and Caitlin the first night is no longer in the room, and in his place is this strange beast. This man who is rumored to have cut off a man’s arm with a penknife to prove a point. This man who helped to stone his little sister as a boy when she was raped and defiled by a man from another village.

Haswari keeps his face carefully blank, eyes calm and deadly. He’s seen men like this before. Hundreds of times-- he’s been instrumental in their destruction and the disintegration of their organizations. It never gets any easier to watch a man who looks friendly and calm and paternal to transform into a blood thirsty fighter. A soldier for Allah.

He keeps the smooth, cool feeling of Caitlin’s skin underneath his tongue, hiding a small bit of pleasure in the work to ground himself. All he has to do is make this work, and then he can go home victorious. All he has to do is keep himself from thinking of that pier, where hundreds of innocents would have been blown to bits right before their parent’s eyes, and he can return to her and they can make it all right.

He hasn’t been a sleeper his entire life for nothing. He knows what he’s doing.

Abdul leans forward in his chair, smooth hands pressed together in front of his knees. “We have decided that in order to effect change in both the way our brothers and women are defiled on French soil and Iraqi land, an attack of this kind must be unparalleled in its magnitude and unprecedented in its daring. We shall have a day that no one will ever forget.” The tones have become that of a fanatic, slightly dazed and passionate to a fault. One would think theme music was playing in his head-- something strong and vaguely heroic to underscore the overcoming of adversity and the growth of a character.

Ari thinks of that pier, fixes the same look on his face, and leans forward like he can hardly contain his excitement. Like he can hardly keep himself from begging Allah himself to hear more immediately and bask in the wisdom of his elders.

Mikel clears his throat. “We are going to undertake a mission that if we succeed at, we shall be guaranteed places in heaven beside Allah himself. Our names will be known by every child, every priest, every politician on Earth. It will require the utmost strength, planning, and loyalty.” He turns his eyes on Ari, and Ari looks back steadily. “Haswari, you have brought us valuable information, time, and energy. You have proven yourself to Al Qaeda, and brought new blood to a stagnating pool. These past few months have been a test, one you have passed.” He smiles affectionately, looking somewhat guilty, and Santa Claus is back. “I am sorry to say, I had Idina and Jessenia surround Caitlin in order to find out if your loyalties were true. They are.” There is no doubt in his eyes. “You and your woman are now part of the inner circle; members of the family. Blood separates us no longer. We are brothers.”

Ari bows his head, eyes slipping closed. “It is an honor to help the cause and yourself, effendi. I assure you, Caitlin feels the same.”

“Of that there is no longer any doubt.” He leans back, looking every bit the proud father. “You will be in charge of this mission, Haswari. You will run it for me, prepare what is necessary, and using the information you and your woman have brought us, we will bring governments to their knees.”

“Inshallah,” Ari murmurs softly, the prayer soft on his tongue.

Qassam looks livid. Abdul looks inspired. Mikel just… looks.

Ari keeps his head bowed quietly, humble and honored, inhales, and smells peppermint.


Feed me. It stops the voices and soothes the hunger. Really... Okay, not really. But it helps.

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