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Box Steps 1: Opening the Box

Chapter Text

Opening the Box
by ksl

part one

Finding out Ziva had excluded him completely from her party while inviting everyone else hurt had more than he thought it would. In a way, he could understand her leaving him out. It wasn't as if she liked him all that much anyway or that they were great friends. But for the others not to have noticed or commented on his absence, that was like getting sucker punched. They knew how much he hated being left out.

With a skill he'd learned through years of practice, Tony left the office with no one noticing he was gone. He mentally saluted his uncle Sal for taking time to teach to show him how to do it the the first time. All he had to do was wait for them to get side-tracked, wrapped up in something else. Be sure he had an excuse at the ready, `Just going to the men's room', if any one asked where he was going, knowing full well no one would. Slip out the door to the stairwell. Then down one flight and catch the elevator the rest of the way.

He ditched the sling as soon as he stepped off the elevator. It didn't matter that Ziva said it was a scratch from a box rather than a graze from a bullet. He'd have played up the injury for sympathy out of habit more than any real need. It wasn't like this was the first bullet wound. And given the nature of the job it probably wouldn't be his last.

Driving a stick shift was like riding a bike. He'd been doing it for so long it was nearly instinctive. Uncle Sal had taught him how to do that too. The old man had used his cane to run the clutch when he'd had the lower half of his left leg removed because of Diabetes. Driving with a bullet burn was a piece of cake in comparison.

Tony smiled sadly thinking about Sal. He'd learned a lot from that man. At the moment something his uncle's often said to him kept running through his mind. `Don't expect too much from people, Anthony, they will only disappoint you."

"Amen, Sal, amen." Tony wished the old man hadn't always right.

Tony made it home without incident, just like he knew he would. His arm hurt like hell, but it had before he'd left the office so it wasn't a big deal. Nothing a little scotch wouldn't cure.

He tossed his house keys into the bowl on the small table by the door. Tony kicked off his shoes. He headed for the liquor cabinet and poured a healthy shot of scotch into an expensive cut crystal glass. He downed it before pouring another. Sal would be appalled. Good scotch should be savored.

He smirked when he heard a knock at the door. He knew he wouldn't make a completely clean escape. Although, he had hoped no one would actually bother follow him. But then his luck all day had sort of been a mixture of good and bad. No reason for it to be any different now.

He tossed a mental coin, wondering which of them it was. Not that it mattered. He didn't have any thing to say to whoever it was. Not right now. He wasn't in the mood.

A second knock came, louder than the first. Tony sighed. It was too much to hope for whoever it was would just go away. He counted silently, heading for the couch. Tony sat so he could have a clear view of the door.

Another knock. His name was called, the sound muffled by the door. He sipped his drink and waited, still counting. He could afford to wait. It was warm in his apartment and cold outside. He wasn't overly surprised to see Ziva walk through the door exactly one minute later.

He sipped his scotch before commenting casually, "Could have sworn I'd locked that."

She had the good grace to look embarrassed. He knew she'd picked the lock; he'd heard the faint scratching of metal on metal that couldn't be anything else. Although, he half thought it might be Gibbs since he knew the former Marine possessed that skill. But then Gibbs had a key to his place, and the former Marine wasn't even on the list of possible visitors. Gibbs didn't apologize, and sure as hell wouldn't go out if his way to see if Tony was all right. No amount of wishing or dreaming was going to change that.

It was good to have proof Gibbs wasn't the only one on the team who could pick locks. Ziva's little skill might come in handy some day.

"I was...worried." She offered by way of an explanation for her presence. She stepped closer, hands moving in a gesture he'd come to recognize as a sign of nervousness.

"Worried?" He arched an eyebrow. "Why?"

"You were shot, Tony."

"Hmm...no, it was just a cut from a crate." He sipped his drink, green eyes meeting dark brown easily. "No cause for concern."

"Damn it, Tony, we both knowâ€""

"Then why tell McGee differently?"

He knew she'd meant it as a way to put him in his place, to make the injury seem insignificant. It was also her way of getting even for him getting them locked in the shipping container. He still thought getting in the box was the right move. Caught in the crossfire, there was no where else to go. It was get in the damn box or die. She was never going to see it that way, so there was no point in arguing about it.

She made a helpless hand gesture, unwilling or unable to admit she'd lied to McGee out of spite. It was oddly painful to watch her struggle for words. He preferred her sharp and mean. At least that he knew how to deal with. It had been way too long a day for him to willingly put up with any more.

"I am assuming you broke in here for a reason."

"I did not break in." She snapped back at him.

Defensive was good. He could work with that.

"Most guests don't need to pick the lock to get in. Doors are usually left open for welcomed company." He pointed out nonchalantly, settling back a bit more into the couch, enjoying the flush of embarrassment that rose to color her cheeks.

"How about you get to the point, Officer David." He didn't say, `and then get out' but it was implied nonetheless.

She swallowed, clearing her throat. "I said I'd make you dinner."

"Some other time." Tony finished his drink, wondering it would be worth it to get up and get another. "I'm not really hungry."

She fidgeted again. It was interesting to so her so uncertain. Any other time, he'd have capitalized on it. Right now he just wanted her to go away.

"You shouldn't drink when you're on medication."

"No, you shouldn't." Tony agreed, rolling his eyes. Like Ziva actually gave a damn that he might be stupid enough to put himself into a coma. "I'm not on any medication."

"They gave you pain pills."

"Doesn't mean I took them." Tony hated pills. The ER doc who had looked him over had given him the pills without asking if he wanted them. Tony tossed them before he'd left the office.

He stood up, leaving his empty glass on the coffee table. "You let yourself in. You can let yourself out. Be sure to lock it, will ya?" He gave her a hard look. "I'm not interested in entertaining any more uninvited guests."

She flinched. "Tony...I am sorry I didn'tâ€""

"Yeah, whatever." Tony decided it didn't matter. She wasn't sorry she hadn't invited him. She hadn't wanted him there. What bothered him was that not even Abby seemed to mind or care that he wasn't included. He expected better of people he considered friends. Sal was right. Tony should have listened to him more closely.

Seeing her still standing in the same spot, Tony sighed. "Was there something else you wanted?"

"I didn't think you'd wantâ€""

"You should not be forced to endure the presence of someone in your home that you really don't want there." Tony smiled tightly, his voice unconsciously mimicking the overly polite tones his mother had used when she was pissed. "I'd appreciate it if you'd extend me the same courtesy."

"It wasn't like that!" Ziva protested hotly. "I justâ€""

"I really don't care." Tony turned way. "It's late." Way too late for any sort of lie or story she and the others might have come up with. Assuming they'd even bothered. He wasn't interested.

His breath hissed out in pain when she grabbed his injured arm. He stopped himself from lashing out at her, but only just barely. It was shamefully gratifying to see her flinch away from him in fear. He'd never raised a hand to a woman before, and now didn't seem the time to start.

"I'm sorry." She backed away immediately. "I'm sorry. I forgotâ€""

Tony sighed. He should have had a third scotch. "Go home, Ziva."

"I need to make this right." It wasn't quite a plea but it was close.

"Make what right?" He looked at Ziva squarely, schooling his features into something blandly polite. "You didn't do anything wrong." She hadn't. It was her party, her home. She could invite or exclude anyone she wanted.

"You're angry with me."

"I'm not mad at you." No, he wasn't angry. He was disappointed, in himself, in his teammates. It was his mistake. He never should have assumed that because he liked them, thought well of them, and wanted them to be a part of his life that they would feel the same way about him.

"You are mad at me," she countered, "I can tell." A small frown formed between her eyebrows.

"Why does it matter to you?" He smiled, looking down at her, deliberately not agreeing or disagreeing with her statement. It wasn't like she'd given a damn before, so why be bothered by it now.

She bit her lip, once more struggling for to find words. "We work together."

"Yeah, so?" Tony rolled his eyes. "You think I wouldn't back you up or something?" Jesus. Did she really seem that shallow? Did she think him so poor an agent that he might leave her high and dry for hurting his feelings? No wonder she didn't invite him to her party.

"No!" She shook her head, one hand reaching out to him before drawing back. "It's not...Look, I just don't want things to be awkward between us."

Bingo. It wasn't about him at all. It never had been. It didn't matter to her how he felt as long as he didn't make it difficult for her. Tony shook his head. How the hell did she ever make it as a spy if she couldn't lie any better than that? And why the hell did his father have to be right? Son of bitch had called it the first time when he told Tony he didn't matter to anyone but himself.

"Yours is not the first party I wasn't invited to, Officer David." He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. It was just the first one where people he thought of as friends made a point of making sure he knew he'd been left out.

"Don't beat yourself up over it."

"I am sorry."

"Yeah, I know." Tony shrugged one shoulder. She just wasn't sorry for the right reason. But, he could afford to cut her some slack; the others weren't sorry at all, for any reason. And it wasn't like he really considered Ziva a friend; certainly not now, and definitely not in the future. They were coworkers. Nothing more, nothing less. He could handle that.

Mentally relegating Abby and McGee to the same category would take a little doing, but wasn't impossible. And anything more he might have wanted from Gibbs was nothing more than a pipe dream anyway. They obviously didn't want more from Tony, so there was no reason to give it. Sal had been fond of saying, `never give anyone anything that they obviously don't want'. At the time he was talking about a second helping of sauerkraut, but Tony figured it worked equally well in other areas.

"I could still make you dinner." The offer was hesitant. Tony recognized an olive branch being offered when he saw one.

"Some other time." Like right after Satan learned to ice skate. She might well be the type to leave him high and dry in the next fire fight, so it wouldn't do to give her reason to feel justified in doing so. No reason to alienate her completely. He'd been the peacemaker for too long to really stop now. "I'm tired, Ziva, and my arm hurts."

"Oh...of course." She nodded, looking genuinely disappointed. She was a better actress than he gave her credit for.

"You'll be able to get to work okay tomorrow?" Ziva brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "I could--"

"I got home just fine." Tony cut her off. He wasn't going to owe her any favors. Not if he could help it. "Getting to work will not be a problem."

Not that he was going to work tomorrow. No. He still had a week's worth of sick leave coming to him from the whole Y. Pestris thing. Now seemed like a good time to take it. He wanted a little time. Get a little perspective on his life, the job and his `friends'.

He'd put in the request with the director via e-mail before he left the office. She hadn't turned him down, just like he knew she wouldn't. The injury report from this last case would be more than reason enough to give him the sick leave. Assigning him on desk duty just gave him free rein to annoy half the building. Whatever else she might be, Sheppard was no fool. It was better for everyone for her to just grant the leave request.

He'd leave a voice mail message and an e-mail for Gibbs. He had to type up his report for the case anyway. By the time he got that done, Gibbs would have left the office and he wouldn't have to risk the former Marine denying his request. Neat and simple.

Gibbs could let everyone else know Tony would be out for a week if he wanted. Ordinarily he'd have sent Abby an e-mail or left a note for McGee, but he didn't really see the need to do that any more. He'd call Ducky if he got a chance, but wasn't in any real hurry to do that either. Maybe when he got back.

Tony smiled easily. He'd mastered the ability to look warm and friendly when he felt anything but years ago. "Good night, Ziva."

She smiled back, looking relieved. Hell if she thought everything was good with them, more so the better.

"Good night, Tony."

After she left, he set the deadbolt and the chain. He headed back to his antique desk and powered up his laptop. Waiting for the computer to warm up, Tony poured himself another scotch. He'd finish his report, then grab the bag that was always packed and head out. He could be where he was going before the sun rose. After that, he'd play it by ear.

 

end this part

Chapter Text

Gibbs had wanted to rip Sheppard a new one for granting Tony's request for leave. But it was within her authority, and it wasn't her he was really angry with. Tony had circumvented the chain of command. The younger man had done an end run around him to get what he wanted. It was the first and only time Tony had ever done such a thing. It pissed Gibbs off.

Tony's injury was a scratch; hardly the sort of wound that warranted a week off. He said as much to Sheppard. She pointed out that Tony had the time on the books. It was his to use. It didn't matter that Gibbs thought his injury insignificant. Tony had been injured in the line of duty and was entitled to the time off if he wanted it.

"Just because you don't think he should have it, isn't reason enough to deny a valid request." She shook her head. "Besides...any injury, no matter how minor, requires an agent to qualify on the firing range to be cleared for field duty. He's not going to get the opportunity to qualify until they take out the stitches. And that's scheduled for two days after he gets back."

Sheppard huffed in annoyance when Gibbs opened his mouth to continue arguing with her. "Really, Jethro, I've seen the man in action. He's a menace when he doesn't have anything to do." She made it clear she thought Tony wasted too much time chatting up women in the building. And she was not at all pleased that her personal secretary seemed to have developed a real fondness for Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo.

"Trust me, Jethro, it was better for him to take the week than stand around bothering the female personnel."

Gibbs bit back a nasty retort, recognizing a losing battle when he saw it. She didn't understand. In the four years Tony had worked for NCIS, he'd never asked for a single sick day. Pushed for a vacation and time off, sure, but never for sick leave. Hell, it had taken him nearly dying from exposure to the plague to get him to take any time at all. And even then he was back at the office the second the doctor cleared him.

Something was wrong with this picture. Gibbs could feel it in his gut. He just couldn't pin down exactly what.

Tony hadn't call Abby. He always called her. But this time he left without so much as a word to her. He hadn't said anything to McGee about leaving either. Or Ziva, although, Gibbs realized that was a bit of a long shot. She was still new to the team.

No one had known Tony was taking a week off until Gibbs checked his voice mail. The message had been left at 3 am. It had been straightforward, direct and to the point.

"Boss, it's DiNozzo. Since I'm going to be assigned to a desk for the next week...I thought it would be better to just use up some of the sick leave I have on the books. The admin people are always harping about that stuff anyway. Director Sheppard already approved my request. I'll be in at the usual time on Monday."

The e-mail he'd gotten was equally direct. It included the director's response to Tony's request and his report, but offered no more information.

By all rights Gibbs should have left it there. But he couldn't. Not when he didn't know where the hell Tony had gone. The younger man had always told him where he was going, gave him a contact number and an address. This time, nothing. It was... distressing. He hated not knowing where Tony was. What if something happened to him? What if his injury really was more serious than Gibbs had thought?

Tony hadn't answered his cell or his home phone. Gibbs had been tempted to ask Abby try to track him down, but he didn't want to worry her. She was still upset with him for not supplying more information when Tony and Ziva had been locked in the shipping container. He couldn't bring himself to admit to her that he didn't know where Tony was.

Gibbs stopped by Tony's place and let himself in with the key Tony had given him. It was the only time he'd ever been in the younger man's apartment without permission and he felt a little guilty about it. Gibbs brushed that awkward emotion aside. Tony's well being was very important to him. And for all he knew, Tony could be lying on the floor unable to reach the phone and call for help. That was not a mental image he really wanted or needed, but it wouldn't go away.

There was nothing out of place in the apartment, at least not that Gibbs could tell. It looked a lot neater than when he was there last, but not much else had changed. No sign of a struggle or abrupt, unplanned departure. The closet was still full of clothes, the bed made; Tony had even watered the houseplant Kate had given him if the faintly damp soil was anything to go by.

Gibbs looked at the blinking light on the answering machine. There were 2 messages. One would be his, so who left the other? He hesitated for a moment before hitting the play button. He'd already invaded Tony's privacy. In for a penny, in for a pound, Gibbs thought with a shrug. And this might just give him a clue as to where Tony had gone.

'DiNozzo, call me,' was all he'd said. Gibbs winced at hearing the anger and irritation in his own voice. He hadn't meant to sound like that. He was just worried. He opted to delete the message, and wished there was a way to do the same with the message he'd left on Tony's cell phone. Despite his second and third wives' insistence that he had no decent communication skills, Gibbs was painfully aware that his tone would not help fix whatever the hell was wrong that had Tony leaving the way he had.

The second message was from a man. Gibbs didn't recognize the voice and the caller didn't identify himself. There was just a hint of an accent in the words, but not enough for Gibbs to pin down anything specific. What really bothered him was the obvious affection and warmth in the speaker's voice. Whoever it was clearly knew Tony well.

"Sorry I missed your call, Tony. On the off chance that you'll get this before you leave...yes, the key is in the usual place. I know, I know, a fake rock next to that stupid garden gnome I have yet to find a way to accidentally destroy is not an imaginative hiding place. But it's worked for years, right? So why mess with it?"

There was as soft laugh. "If I'm not there, just help yourself. And for the last time, Tony, you own the place, of course you can use it if you want."

Gibbs frowned. The message was clearly not intended to be cryptic, but it raised more questions than it answered for him. Owned what place? Where? Who the hell was this guy?

He could set McGee to tracking down those answers. Have him research Tony's personal finances, get the phone log and find out who he'd called and when. But all that seemed a bit excessive, even to him. It would draw unnecessary attention to the fact that he really didn't know where Tony had gone. At the moment, all his team knew was that Tony was taking the week off. They didn't know he'd left Gibbs out of the loop. And he wasn't about to tell them differently.

Waiting until Tony got back seemed like the only real option. Gibbs hated waiting.
************* **************** **************
McGee glanced over at Tony's desk again for what had to be the hundredth time that day. He'd missed the other man. Five days without Tony around was reminiscent of his being out recovering from the plague. McGee didn't care for the comparison.

He wasn't quite sure how the hell he could miss Tony when he wasn't there, and hate having to put up with his teasing when he was. Tony was one big freaking paradox, McGee decided.

The office was quiet without him there. No faint sounds of clicking buttons while Tony played video games on his phone, no commentary while browsing online at erotic websites, no crumpled paper being shot into waste baskets scattered around the room. He was used to Tony's antics now, and the silence made it hard to concentrate.

Tony taking time off had come as a complete surprise. His injury hadn't seemed all that serious. McGee had seen him keep working with concussions, scrapes and bruises. Ziva said he'd only cut his arm on a box, but the doctor's report confirmed the injury had been a gunshot wound and had taken twelve stitches. He wasn't sure why she lied, but McGee could guess. It was fun to jerk Tony's chain some times, give him a taste of his own medicine.

All Gibbs had said was that Tony would be out for the week. McGee had expected Tony to call and check in, bored out of his mind at home. But so far no calls, no e-mails, nothing. He'd tried calling Tony's house three days ago, and had only gotten the machine.

McGee mentioned making the call to Gibbs, wondering if he should be worried. Gibbs said Tony wasn't home. So where the hell was he? McGee had been too afraid to ask that aloud.

The last time McGee had seen Tony was the right after their last case. He'd been at his desk one minute, the rest of them laughing and joking about the dinner party at Ziva's and then he was just gone. Ziva had left just a moment or so after McGee realized Tony was missing. He just assumed Ziva met up with him at the elevator or downstairs or something. She was supposed to be driving him home and making him dinner.

McGee figured Tony would have something planned to get even for his not being invited to the party. It had been a bit mean and petty to leave him out, but it was so rare that McGee got one up on Tony, he hadn't been able to resist. He knew how much Tony hated to be left out.

McGee had been a bit leery of what he might find at work the next day. But an empty desk hadn't been at all what he expected.

Ziva had seemed as surprised as everyone else when Tony wasn't at work. McGee wondered why Tony hadn't said anything to her over dinner. He wondered why Tony hadn't said anything to him either. Even Abby hadn't known Tony was taking a week off. That wasn't like Tony at all.

He refocused his attention on his computer screen when he spotted Gibbs. The former Marine had been very short tempered all week. He'd snapped at everyone for just about anything. And McGee really didn't want to give him an excuse to yell at him.

On one hand he was glad it was a slow week, with no new cases. McGee already knew first hand working without Tony was far more difficult than working with him. The man could be decidedly immature and down right juvenile, but he was no slouch as an investigator. And he always managed to carry his share of the work load.

On the other hand, no new cases meant little or no time away from Gibbs. Helping out other teams, reviewing old cases and getting ready for court were not the former Marine's favorite things to do. Gibbs was testy on a good day, and it hadn't been a good day since Tony hadn't shown up for work.

McGee knew Abby had run a GPS triangulation on Tony's cell phone. Unfortunately, Tony hadn't used his cell since he left or had it turned off. She hadn't gotten a signal yet that would give them any idea where he might be.

Tony's car didn't have LoJack or she'd have probably tried that too. It seemed wrong to McGee that they'd track Tony down when the man obviously didn't want them to know where he was. Tony had never made a secret of his whereabouts before. In fact he seemed to delight in giving them too much information.

McGee had suggested Abby just ask Gibbs. That hadn't gone over very well. He was pretty sure if looks could kill, he'd have been a pile of ash.

She did pull Tony's phone records, which McGee thought a bit extreme, but it didn't stop him from reading over her shoulder. Tony had made one phone call the night, or rather the morning, he left. The number was to a Michael Capanzini in Grottoes, Virginia. Grottoes was a small town on the west side of Shenandoah National Park, not far off state highway 340. McGee had to look it up since he'd never heard of it.

It was by all accounts a sleepy little town of about two thousand people. Founded in the last 1700's, it boasted thriving industries at one time, but now subsisted on the tourism. McGee had no idea why Tony would have called anyone who lived there. He never mentioned any one named Michael Capanzini that McGee could recall.

Abby had wanted to call the man and ask him if he knew where Tony was. McGee tried to talk her out of it. It wasn't like Tony was officially missing. No report had been filed. And Gibbs knew where he was. Or at least he sure acted like he did.

He tried to convince her that they couldn't just call a total stranger and demand answers. And he really didn't think Tony would appreciate them poking around his phone record, good intentions notwithstanding.

Abby was determined to talk to this Michael Capanzini. She'd tried several times already. But each time she'd only gotten an answering machine, one with a computerized voice that told them nothing about the man they were calling. Abby had been unwilling or unable to leave a message when she didn't know for certain who was going to get it.

He knew she was going to call again today. He checked the clock on his monitor. Abby told him her what time she planned to call. He had ten minutes to get to her lab if he wanted to be there to listen in.

Gibbs was getting up for another cup of coffee. McGee figured now as good a time as any to slip out and head down to Abby's lab. Ziva gave him a suspicious look, but McGee ignored it.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he made it to Abby's lab. She glared at him. "You are late."

"I am not."

"Yes. You are."

McGee decided it was better to just quit now while he was ahead. She'd been nearly as snappish as Gibbs lately. Tony not calling her had really pissed her off. And she had been nearly frantic all week trying to find him. She dialed the phone, putting it on speaker and waited with barely concealed impatience.

She cursed when it was the answering machine again. She used more force than necessary to end the call. Abby slammed the cordless back into its cradle.

"Why don't you leave a message?"

She glared at him. "This is the last guy Tony spoke to, McGee. He could be an axe murder or something. I'm not just going to leave a message."

"Technically he's not the last person Tony spoke to." McGee felt compelled to point out. "According to the phone records, Tony's last call was to Gibbs."

She held up a finger. "Do not split hairs with me."

"And I don't think this Michael guy is an axe murder, Abby." McGee shook his head. "Tony's called this guy an average of once a month. He's probably just a friend."

"A friend he's never told us about." She huffed. "We're his friends, McGee. He tells us everything."

"Evidently not." McGee bit his lip. It wasn't like he told Tony everything. He winced thinking about the whole dinner thing.

"You could just askâ€""

"I am not asking him where Tony is." Abby glared at him. "Gibbs should be willing to share that information. We all worry. He should know that by now."

McGee wanted to point out that the second 'B' stood for bastard but refrained. He didn't want Abby to smack him.

"Tony will be back on Monday," McGee offered. It was small consolation, but it was really all they had to go with.

"Why didn't he call me? He always calls." Abby sighed. She looked so dejected.

"I'm sure it wasn't personal, Abby." Tony wasn't the type to be deliberately cruel. At least not to Abby.

"I just want him to come home."

McGee pulled her into a hug. "Me too, Abby, me too."
**** ***** ***** ******* ***** ***** ********
It was common knowledge among the family that the love of Salvatore DiNozzo's life died in the jungles of Viet Nam. No one ever said much about it. They just accepted it, and understood the devastating loss was the reason why Sal never married.

He had no children, so when he died, the bulk of his estate was divided among his siblings. They split his stocks, bonds, and mutual funds between them equally. His house in the Hamptons was sold, along with his Porsche and the apartment in New York City. They split those proceeds equally as well.

Only one asset was specifically designated by Sal to go to his brother's son, his nephew Anthony. Two hundred acres of land nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia were bequeathed to Tony when Sal died. The land bordered the Shenandoah National Park. Covered almost entirely by hardwood forest, it was far too steep and rocky to farm or even develop easily.

The only improvement made to the land was a small two room cabin that had been initially constructed over 150 years ago. It was simple and rustic, with the original field stone fireplace still intact. It had few luxuries and limited amenities.

All in all, it seemed like a strange thing to give Tony. No one was more surprised than he was when he decided to keep the land rather than sell it. Over the years, the cabin had become something of a hidden refuge for him. It had become a place for him to fall back on when the world and his life got a bit too intense for him to handle with his usual coping mechanisms. Some things were just more than junk food and movies could fix.

It was refreshing to spend a few days in a place where time wasn't measured by a clock on the wall, but rather by the movement of the sun and the changing of the seasons. It soothed his troubled mind and soul to be surrounded by natural things, be they green and growing or dormant for winter, instead of concrete, metal and glass. It was comforting to know he had a place he could go where noisy neighbors meant a pair of woodpeckers had nested in the dead tree that was a stones throw from the bedroom window.

The cabin was where he went when he felt lost and uncertain, when he needed to ground himself and think clearly. It was at the cabin that Tony had made a lot of major decisions. What to do with his life when his dream of playing pro ball was lost had been resolved there. The pros and cons of leaving one police department for another had been debated there. How to deal with his own mixed up bi-sexual nature was worked through on the cabin's back porch while he watched songbirds visit the birdfeeder.

Access to the cabin meant driving across land now owned by Michael Capanzini. Sal had worked out an easement with the previous owner that granted him permission to use the single track dirt road which began in what was now practically in Mike's back yard. It was an agreement Tony had renewed when he inherited the property and Mike bought the surrounding parcel. It was the beginning of their long friendship.

He paid Mike to do periodic maintenance to the cabin; to make sure it was properly winterized, repairs made as needed, the chimney was cleaned, and that none of the local wildlife moved in and set up house keeping. Mike always protested that the money wasn't necessary, but Tony insisted. He didn't want to take advantage of his friend's good graces. Mike's work as an artist, while growing in popularity and acclaim, didn't generate a steady stream of predictable revenue. Tony just saw paying Mike for keeping up the cabin as a way to return the favor.

He gave the cabin one last look. He smiled. How Sal had known he'd need a place like this was anyone's guess, but he was damn glad Sal had seen fit to give it to him.

Tony made sure the door was secure, more to prevent wildlife from gaining easy access than to keep people out. The only real lock on the place was at the gate in the fence that separated their properties. Tony always dropped the key off with Mike when he left.

He didn't bother driving his mustang up the dirt track. He hadn't wanted to risk the low riding car on a less than ideal road. Mike offered him use of his jeep, but it wasn't that far to walk so Tony had declined. Mike didn't mind his leaving the mustang in his driveway.

Tony shrugged his backpack over his good arm. Mike had raised an eyebrow at the bandage and the stitches when he'd seen them, but didn't ask any questions. That was one of the things Tony truly appreciated about Mike, the man knew when not to push.

Tony locked the gate on his way through. It really was more for show than anything else, but Sal thought Frost was right; good fences make good neighbors. So Tony made sure the fence was maintained and the gate locked when he wasn't there in honor of his uncle's memory than out of any real need.

He stepped up on to Mike's porch. Mike opened the door before he could even knock.

Mike was only a few years older than Tony, but gray hair was already making an appearance at his temples, adding silver to the natural blond. Small laugh lines round his eyes and lips appeared when he smiled and added to the impression that he was older than he was.

"Hey." Mike greeted Tony casually. Light brown eyes took in the backpack over Tony's shoulder. "You heading out?"

Tony nodded, handing over the key. "Only had a week."

"More than you usually spend here at one time." Mike's observation was casual, leaving it up to Tony to offer more information or not.

"I know." Tony sighed. "I needed it."

Mike gave him a brief nod. He understood better than anyone what being at the cabin was for Tony. He also understood the need to deal with life as best one could. Sometimes talking about it wasn't really the answer.

"You okay?"

Tony smiled. "Better." He'd never lied to Mike, no point in starting now.

Mike nodded, accepting the truth of Tony's answer. If and when Tony was ready he'd tell him more about what happened he would. It was enough for him to know Tony was doing better than he had when he'd arrived at the crack of dawn five days ago. Tony wished everyone was so easily satisfied.

The phone rang. Mike ignored it. He always did. He never answered the phone if he didn't know who was calling, but he flatly refused to get caller ID.

"People who know me, know enough to leave a message." Mike had said the first time Tony had asked him about this quirk. "Telemarketers hang up when they get the machine. I'm not interested in aluminum siding, vacations to Disney Land, or a magazine subscription. Just because they waste their time calling, doesn't mean I should waste mine by answering."

Tony wished his job let him be equally blasé about answering the phone. He'd even brought his cell phone with him, just in case. But the coverage was so spotty, most of the time he couldn't get signal enough to send a call much less receive one. He had considered trying to get a land line into the cabin but it didn't seem worth it when he was usually on there for a few days at a time.

Mike pulled Tony into a gentle hug. "Let me know if you need anything."

"I will." Tony returned the hug, soaking up the simple, open acceptance that Mike gave freely. "Thanks."

"Any time, my friend, any time." Mike kissed him on both cheeks. The gesture was one of platonic affection, nothing more. It was something Mike picked up from his parents and grandparents, all of whom had been raised in the old country where physical displays of affection came naturally. The faint accent Mike had was another tell-tale sign of their obvious influence in his life.

"You want me to kick over that hideous gnome on my way out?" Tony waggled his eyebrows. Its presence had been a joke between them ever since Mike's mother had given it to him for Christmas last year as a gag gift.

"Momma would know you did it on purpose." Mike laughed. "I keep telling you, its demise has to be an accident."

"Your mother is a scary woman." Tony grinned. "I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course."

"Of course." Mike grinned back, eyes lit with amusement. "She still wants to adopt you, you know."

Tony laughed, delighted as always to hear Mrs. Capanzini thought enough of him to want to claim him as her own. "You don't want another little brother." Mike had three.

Mike smiled at him and patted his cheek. "You already are my little brother, Tony."

Tony could feel a blush warming his face and he looked away. "Thanks."

"Any time, man."

That Mike genuinely meant it warmed Tony right down to his toes. He cleared his throat. "I'll..ah...I'll try to call you next Sunday."

"Okay."

Tony knew Mike wouldn't be upset if he didn't call, nor would he demand an explanation. Mike took what came as it came. He didn't push, and yet, Tony almost always found himself wanting to give him more. Knowing Mike wouldn't judge him, wouldn't like him any less, or find him lacking was decidedly reassuring.

"Dive safely."

"Always."

Tony drove carefully out of town. Shifting was no longer difficult but the stitches itched like crazy. He'd be glad to get those out.

He wished he could say he'd be equally glad to go back to work. Tony sighed. He'd made up his mind to take what came. He wasn't going to ask or expect more for his coworkers than they were prepared to give. A solid working relationship would have to be sufficient from now on.

In some ways, he realized, it already had been. It just wasn't until they'd taken such pains to deliberately exclude him, and make sure he knew it, that he realized he'd been so wrong in thinking it had ever been more than that.

He was Gibbs senior field agent by default, not by design. He'd simply outlasted everyone else. There was something to be said for endurance, Tony thought with a wry smile. He was unsure if he should be proud of himself for sticking it out or ashamed for being too stupid to jump ship when he had the chance.

McGee and Abby could be considered friends by default too. If they weren't on the team, they likely wouldn't really have anything in common or spend time with him at all. Hell, neither one had bothered to call or visit when he was out for two weeks recovering from exposure to the plague. Even Abby's apology for nearly putting him in jail had come a week after he'd been cleared, almost as an afterthought.

Ducky was in a class all by himself. Tony wasn't even sure what to call it. Again, the only time they really interacted was work related. Tony hadn't even known the man's mother kept a pack of Welch Corgi's until the job forced him to spend time with Mrs. Mallard. It was hard to really call him a friend when Tony knew so little about the man. Coworker was probably the best designation available.

Palmer, the autopsy gremlin, was just a guy at the office. Tony still didn't see him as particularly interesting. Although, it was good to know he could tune a piano. It was unlikely he and Palmer would ever have a relationship even close to what Tony had with Mike.

Ziva...well, she was just another agent after all. Nothing more. And it was clear she would likely not see him as even that much. She didn't respect him or believe him capable, and probably never would. As long as she did her job and didn't get him killed, Tony decided he could accept that.

Tony nodded to himself. It had definitely been time for him to come to terms with reality.
It was obvious they would always find him wanting in some way. It hurt, but he could live with that. His father felt the same way about him. It was why his old man had cut him off at the age of twelve, and why he hadn't been invited to a family function in more than decade.

He was good at the job. That much he'd never questioned. Gibbs never would have asked him to be on his team, much less kept him on if he wasn't. It would just have to be enough for him to simply take pride in solving the cases they handled.

He knew he could trust his coworkers to watch his back...at least on the job. Gibbs wouldn't want his perfect record messed up. Ziva had her own pride and desire to prove herself to keep her honest there. McGee was among the favored and he'd bust his ass to stay there. Ducky lived for solving puzzles, just like Abby. And Palmer wasn't really a problem since he worked under Ducky. Tony would have to reevaluate that if Palmer ever was in charge of autopsy.

After hours, off the clock, Tony figured all bets were off. He shouldn't rely on them or expect any more than he might from a complete stranger.

If he couldn't hack it being that way, well, he made a regular habit of updating his resume. There was enough in his stock portfolio he could live comfortably for months if need be. It wasn't like he had no where to go.

Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had a plan. All he had to do was follow it.

Chapter Text

Not knowing where Tony was felt like an itch Gibbs couldn't scratch. It was made worse by the simple fact he had the means to find him. Of course, in order to do that, he'd have to admit he didn't know where Tony was. Gibbs wasn't prepared to do that just yet.

Tony had asked for a week of sick leave. He'd never voluntarily taken sick leave before, or done an end run around Gibbs to get time off. Whatever the hell was going on, it had to be important. And it was obviously something Tony didn't want to share.

So, Gibbs had decided that if Tony wasn't back on Monday, he'd have good reason to turn Abby and McGee loose to find him. He was determined to wait until then.

Gibbs had expected to hear from Tony by now. In the four years he'd worked for NCIS, Tony had never been out of touch for more than seventy two hours. He always called in, even when on vacation. If he didn't call Gibbs, he'd call Abby, or send an e-mail to McGee. It had been a given he'd communicate with someone...until now.

Gibbs never had trouble getting a hold of the younger man before...no matter what. Whether it was two in the morning on a Saturday or two in the afternoon on a Wednesday, Gibbs had always been able to contact him. Tony would routinely cancel whatever weekend plans he had, he stayed late at the office, showed up prepared to do the job. Gibbs belatedly realized he'd been taking Tony's dedication for granted. No one else on his team, or any other team for that matter, equaled Tony there.

Tony was due in on Monday, so he should be home Saturday or Sunday. Although, Tony had sometimes went straight to the office if he was running late.

Gibbs knew it was stupid, but he found himself sitting in front of Tony's apartment building most of Saturday. And it looked like he'd be spending most of Sunday there as well. He sipped his coffee, grimacing when he found it cold. He was tempted to turn the car on and warm it up, but refrained.

He felt a little silly staking out Tony's place. But it wasn't like he had anything better to do. His hands hurt from spending hours working on the boat, and there wasn't a damn thing at the office to keep him busy.

The sun was beginning to set when Gibbs glanced at his watch. He was hungry but didn't want to leave just yet. He'd give it another hour, Gibbs decided.

He caught sight of Tony's mustang just a second later. The car really was a beauty. Not that he'd ever say so out loud.

Tony pulled into his parking spot. Gibbs watched him through narrowed eyes. Tony looked fine, more than fine actually. Gibbs blinked, somewhat surprised by how relaxed and content he looked. It was like the Tony was breathing deeper, moving easier than he had in a long time.

He'd gotten so used to seeing Tony stressed that he'd forgotten he ever looked any other way. Stressed? Gibbs mentally took a step backward. It wasn't something he'd have normally associated with the carefree younger man.

You are such a dumb ass, Gibbs told himself. No one was so happy go lucky, so down right clueless, as to feel no stress after being in as many life and death situations as Tony had been in the last six months.

Gibbs cursed. In less than six months, Tony had lost his beloved classic car, nearly died from the plague, had seen Kate get killed, been shot at countless times, and gotten the crap beaten out of him. Just one of those, in such a short time, would have been enough to cause a person to snap. So maybe he really had needed the week off. Shit. How close had Tony been to the breaking point and Gibbs never noticed?

His thoughts were interrupted by his cell phone. "Gibbs." He snapped out in his usual sharp manner.

"You want to come in for a cup of coffee, or were you planning on spending the night in your car?"

Gibbs cut the connection and got stiffly out of the car. He'd been sitting way too long. He should have known Tony would spot him. Maybe he had and wanted to be seen.

He headed up to Tony's apartment. Gibbs wasn't surprised to find the door unlocked. He stepped inside, welcoming the warmth, realizing just how cold he'd been in the car.

Tony offered him a steaming mug. Gibbs took a sip, nodding his head in thanks. The moment felt so familiar and natural. Gibbs realized he'd missed this easy rapport. He didn't have it with anyone else.

"You want to tell me why it is you're staking out my apartment, Boss?" The question was a blend of curiosity and caution. "I'm not a suspect in another murder or something am I?"

"What?" Gibbs blinked, started by the questions. "No, you're not a suspect for anything." Shit. He'd forgotten all about Chip framing Tony for murder when he made his mental list of stressful situations.

Gibbs felt a bit sheepish, but covered it by glaring at Tony. "I was not staking out your apartment."

"So what would you call sitting in your car for hours watching my apartment?" Under the amusement there was just a barely noticeable edge of sarcasm in his voice.

Gibbs stayed silent, chin rising unconsciously in a challenge. There was no way for Tony to know how long he'd been there. He wasn't going to admit to anything.

"There was frost on your windows. Takes a while for that, Boss." Tony's lips curled in a knowing smile. "And you had to make a view port."

Tony was nothing if not observant. Gibbs knew he was busted. Rather than answer the earlier question, he redirected the conversation. "You didn't call."

"I was on sick leave." Tony arched an eyebrow, unfazed by the abrupt transition. "You knew that." His tone and look neatly implied Gibbs should not have expected him to call. With anyone else, he wouldn't have.

"You did an end run around me." Now that he was beginning to understand just how much Tony might have needed the time off Gibbs wasn't as pissed by that as he had been, but he was still angry that the younger man had asked the Sheppard. Tony should have asked him.

Tony tipped his head in acknowledgement of Gibbs accusation. No backing down, no apology, no explanation. Gibbs hadn't expected that. He thought Tony would stutter through some sort of excuse, make an effort to pacify him, give him that little boy smile. It was odd to find himself stymied by the truth.

"You didn't need a week off for a scratch."

"No, I didn't." Tony agreed calmly, expression giving away nothing.

Gibbs' jaw tightened. Again with the honesty that told him nothing. He wanted to hear the reason. He wanted to know what else he might have missed. "Then whyâ€""

"Why I needed it isn't important." Tony interrupted smoothly, voice entirely neutral. "I had the time on the books, and authorization to use it."

Green eyes narrowed, gaze sharpening. "And I'm betting that's not really why you're here. So if you could get to the point, there are other things I'd like to do before work tomorrow."

Gibbs wasn't sure quite what to make of the overly polite tone. He'd never heard Tony use it before. Gibbs opted for, "I had no way to contact you." Rather than admit he'd been worried. "If we'd gotten a case there was no way to reach you. That is unacceptable, DiNozzo."

Jade green eyes met sky blue squarely. "First of all, we make a living tracking down people." Tony snorted. "You could have found me any time you wanted. Pulled my phone records, checked my finances, put out a BOLO on my car."

The observation nicely reinforced the fact Tony was intelligent, despite his jock, goofball frat-boy persona he often showed. He rarely missed a trick. The list of options Gibbs could have exercised made it clear Tony hadn't been hiding; he just hadn't volunteered his location.

"Second, the scratch you mentioned took twelve stitches and would have left me desk bound anyway. McGee and Scuito are definitely better at tracking down shit via the computer and paperwork than I ever will be."

Gibbs was surprised to hear Tony refer to Abby by her surname. To his knowledge he'd never done that before.

"Third, you've got Officer David. She seems to have been good enough to have gotten your stamp of approval to be on the team. So she should be more than capable of backing you up in the field."

Ziva was good. And getting better as an investigator but she wasn't Tony. And if her shooting on their last case was anything to go by, she definitely needed some time on the firing range. Tony had put three bullets into his target. Ziva hadn't hit a thing.

"And last, you said 'if' which means you didn't get a case." Tony smirked ever so slightly. "I believe it was you who told me 'might have doesn't mean shit'. You didn't catch a case so not being able to contact me is a moot point."

Tony sighed, and shrugged one shoulder. "You could have found me if you'd needed me. You didn't. So it doesn't matter."

He cocked his head to one side. "Which still doesn't explain why you were staking out my apartment."

Gibbs sipped his coffee, buying time. Tony wasn't known for his patience but Gibbs knew the younger man had it in him to wait him out of need be. Reluctantly he offered, "I was worried."

Tony seemed surprised by Gibbs statement; a small frown forming between his brows. "Why would you be worried? I didn't get into trouble of any kind that you'd have gotten a call. And even if I had, I wasn't on company time, so I wasn't your problem or your responsibility."

Gibbs blinked. Tony really believed that he'd only worry about him while on the job? Did he really believe that Gibbs wouldn't have cared about finding his body in a ditch somewhere as long as it wasn't related to the damn job? The younger man's inflection seemed to make it clear he did.

"You've never asked for sick leave before." That slipped out before Gibbs realized it. It wasn't exactly an explanation. And Tony's response made it clear it did nothing to change his conviction.

"Before I met you I'd never been pushed out a plane before either." Tony shook his head. "There is a first time for everything, Gibbs."

Tony sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Look...if you're not going to tell me why you're really staking out my place, could you at least go the hell home? It's cold outside. I don't want the others blaming me for you catching pneumonia."

"I told you the reason."

"You were worried. Right." Tony snorted delicately. "Fine. Have it your way."

Gibbs realized Tony's dedication wasn't the only thing he'd take for granted. The younger man had always believed him, had more faith in Gibbs than he sometimes had in himself. He couldn't remember Tony ever questioning him, ever not accepting what he said at face value.

Tony held both arms out and did a slow turn. "Take a good look. I'm fine. Nothing for you to worry about." Tony motioned toward the door. "You can leave now."

"Where did you go?" Gibbs asked, not moving.

"Think if you were really worried, you'd know where I went by now." Tony smiled coldly. "Good to know I need to be out of touch at least five days before you get too excited about tracking me down."

Gibbs winced internally. "I didn't want to invade your privacy."

"Right...You've got so much respect for my privacy that you were in my apartment while I was gone."

Gibbs blinked. Other than deleting the message he'd left, Gibbs hadn't touched anything in Tony's apartment. Nothing would have given away that he was in Tony's place. There was no way he could know--

"Educated guess." Tony's statement neatly cut off Gibbs' thoughts.

The younger man's smile took on a hard edge. Gibbs belatedly recognized Tony had been bluffing. Tony hadn't known for certain Gibbs was in his place until his own reaction confirmed it. Gibbs forgotten Tony wasn't a novice at interrogation. Hadn't expected to be interrogated, Gibbs thought ironically. But then nothing about this conversation had been quite what he expected.

"Word of advice, Boss." The smile softened slightly. "Don't play poker with people who know you, or be prepared to lose your shirt."

Before this moment, poker wasn't a game Gibbs thought Tony would be any good at playing. He had always thought the younger man revealed too much, too easily. Now he wasn't so sure. Putting all his cards on the table seemed to be the only real option.

"I was worried, Tony." Gibbs made eye contact and held it. "In four years, you've never voluntarily taken a single day of sick leave. I stopped by to make sure you were okay."

Tony studied him for a moment. Gibbs had no idea what he was looking for.

"When you realized I wasn't home, you opted to stake out my place?" Tony arched an eyebrow, clearly amused. "It would have been easier to ask one of the others to help track me down. More comfortable too."

Gibbs looked away. "I didn't want themâ€""

"To know you didn't have a clue where I was." Tony cut him off, eyes hardening like ice. The former cop nodded to himself. Gibbs could almost feel a wall going up between them. "Good to know your pride takes precedence over my well being."

"It's not like that." Gibbs ground out. At least not completely like that, he amended silently.

"Oh?" Tony folded his arms across his chest. "Then what is it like?"

Gibbs hand clenched around the mug, knuckles whitening. He'd fucked this up, and he really didn't know what to say to fix it. He wasn't even sure how it had gotten this bad.

"I'm sorry." It came out as little more than a whisper.

"You're sorry?" Tony stared at him. He didn't think Tony could have look more surprised if he'd grown a second head.

"You were right." Gibbs squared his shoulders. "I didn't want the team to know I didn't have a clue where you were."

He held up his free hand, stopping anything Tony might say. "But I also didn't want to invade your privacy. It was the first time you asked for sick leave. I didn't know why you'd asked for it, but I knew it wasn't because of your arm."

Gibbs hesitated for a moment. "Taking the week must have been pretty important."

"It was." Another honest answer from Tony that told Gibbs almost nothing.

Gibbs nodded, accepting what Tony was willing to give him. It was unlikely Tony would offer him any more.

He cleared his throat. "I didn't think you'd appreciate me putting Abby or McGee to work tracking you down."

"I wouldn't have." Tony admitted quietly.

Gibbs was reassured he'd gotten that much right. "So, that left waiting."

"You hate waiting." Tony observed quietly.

"You're worth it." Gibbs stated succinctly. He wasn't sure why that simple statement of the truth should seem to mean so much to Tony but it obviously did. Icy green eyes thawed and Tony smiled at him.

"Thank you."

Tony held out a hand to take the empty mug from Gibbs. Gibbs handed it over without thinking. "Go home, Boss. Get some sleep. You look like you could use it."

No one else on his team would have even noticed. It was another thing Gibbs added to the list of things he'd taken for granted; Tony knew him well enough recognize when he hadn't been sleeping well and wasn't afraid to call him on it.

"You'll be in the officeâ€""

"At the usual time, yes." Tony assured him.

Gibbs nodded. A week ago, Gibbs' gut told him something was wrong, but he had no idea what. His gut was telling him now that something had been fixed, but he still wasn't quite sure what. It was also telling him not everything was back to normal, but he didn't know why.

"You're okay, right?" Gibbs wanted to make certain of that.

"Better."

Gibbs was beginning to hate these short, honest answers. He got more from Tony when he tried to lie. And maybe that's why he's telling me the truth, Gibbs thought with a sudden flash of insight. Needing to think about that, Gibbs decided to settle for what he had achieved at the moment, and give them both time and space.

"I'll see you tomorrow." It wasn't quite an order, but it wasn't far from it either.

"I'll be there."

Chapter Text

Tony checked his appearance in the mirror, smoothing out non-existent wrinkles. Clothes didn't make the man, but people definitely responded to appearances. A suit, silk tie and four hundred dollar shoes had gotten a doorman to call him 'sir', a cab to stop in a bad neighborhood, a second glance from a pretty girl.

Perception often became reality. If he looked professional, he stood a better chance of getting treated that way. He knew it was all smoke and mirrors, nothing of substance. But Tony readily admitted to himself, knowing people thought better of him when he was in a suit than when casually dressed was just the little boost of confidence he want to start the day with.

He was desk bound until the stitches were removed tomorrow. It meant he wouldn't have to worry too much about ruining the Armani suit. Assuming, of course, he didn't open any infected letters again. It still bothered him that they'd destroyed his other one. It had been one of his favorites.

Tony sighed softly, thinking about last night. He really had been surprised to see Gibbs staking out his apartment when he'd gotten home. "Could have knocked me over with a feather," Tony murmured to himself.

Gibbs was brutally honest on a good day, and he'd never outright lied to Tony. So Tony decided to take him at his word. He really had been worried. Gibbs hadn't used the resources at his disposal to track him down out of respect rather than hubris.

The fact that Gibbs had even said the words, 'I'm sorry', was something remarkable. Tony couldn't remember the former Marine ever saying them before, to anyone.

But he knew better than to assume his well being would ever be Gibbs' main priority. The job always came first with the older man. Always.

Kate told Tony when he'd been chained to Jeffrey White, Gibbs said he hadn't lost an agent yet and he wasn't going to let Tony mess up his record. Finding him had never been exclusively about Tony at all; it was about Gibbs record and stolen artifacts that made the U.S. look bad. The same could be said about the last case. Gibbs might have been worried about him and Ziva, but he was probably more concerned with finding the weapons they'd been looking for.

Tony shook his head. Hell, he hadn't even been trapped in the sewers for a day when Gibbs had given his desk to McGee to use. So if they'd gotten a case, he had no doubts that Gibbs would have tracked him down and ripped him a new one before putting him to work. And he was okay with that. It was normal for Gibbs. The former Marine didn't play favorites, or pretend to be friendly. He treated everyone the way he felt they needed to be treated to get them to do their best.

Not calling in had been a deviation from the norm. Tony hadn't honestly thought it would be cause for worry. In the past, when he'd called in on vacation, Gibbs always sounded annoyed to hear from him, as though he hadn't wanted to be bothered. And when out on sick leave recovering from the plague, Gibbs hadn't seemed overly concerned about him. The former Marine hadn't called or stopped by or even sent an e-mail.

Kate and McGee hadn't either. They didn't seem to have missed him at all as far as he could tell. It was just business as usual. He should have caught a clue then.

Abby had seemed delighted to have him back, but recent events had Tony calling his own perceptions into question. Abby was just naturally exuberant and wired on caffeine most of the time. It didn't mean anything that she was happy to see him. He never should have assumed it did.

Hell she was happy to see him after he and Ziva had been missing, but she hadn't even noticed he wasn't at Ziva's dinner party. And McGee had looked proud to have gotten one over on Tony. Palmer probably felt the same way, although, he and Tony so rarely interacted it was hard to know for sure.

Tony didn't know if Ducky had been there but it was a safe bet he had been. It only made sense. Ziva liked Ducky. Everyone liked Ducky, as opposed to the 'tolerated for the job sort of reaction' Tony got.

Tony pointed at his reflection. "Never were the sharpest tool in the shed, were you, DiNozzo."

He pulled on his overcoat. He filled his travel mug with his favorite blend of coffee. He grabbed his pack and headed out the door.

Tony let the Mustang warm up, sipping his coffee as the windows defrosted. The stitches still pulled a little when he shifted, but his arm no longer hurt to use. It would be one more scar to add to his collection.

Tony stopped at the bank on his way to the office. He always kept some cash on him, just in case. Making a living tracking other people, had made him more conscious of paper trails. So he habitually kept enough money in his wallet to buy a full tank of gas, find a place to stay, and buy dinner. Tony rarely used his credit card for anything. If he didn't have cash, he didn't buy it.

Nodding to himself, Tony withdrew a little extra. He put the extra in his suit coat pocket. It was time he paid up on those debts left outstanding. It had been okay to owe friends. Ultimately, he always planned to pay up, but friends were willing to make allowances or accept excuses. Owing coworkers or casual associates was not really acceptable.

Tony usually arrived at the office between six thirty and six forty five. Until Ziva had joined the team, he was often the first one in.

As he went through the metal detector, the guard nodded to him. "Good to see you again, Tony."

"You too, Allan." Tony smiled at the older man. He was on a first name basis with all the security staff. Although, spending late nights at the office he was more familiar with the night shift than day.

"Heard you were out sick." Gray eyes gave him a frank appraisal. "You feeling all right now?"

"Yeah, Allan. I'm good." Tony patted Allan on the shoulder. "No worries."

"Thought it might have been a relapse," Allan confessed, still looking a bit concerned.

"Nah. Nothing like that." Tony collected his gun and backpack from the belt. "Just didn't want to be desk bound after getting shot in the arm."

Allan's eyes widened. "Didn't know you'd gotten shot."

"Just a graze." Tony made a dismissive motion with one hand. It was one thing to play up his injury for sympathy among his teammates but he didn't like to have people really worry about him. "Have to qualify on the shooting range again and I can't do that until I get the stitches out. Made more sense to me to just take the week off."

"Damn, Tony." Allan shook his head. "You gotta take better care of yourself."

"Trying to, Allan." Tony smiled. "I'm trying." Taking the week off and staying at the cabin had definitely been a good start. Putting his plan in motion would be the next step.

Tony got on the elevator. He held the door for Marissa, the Director's personal assistant. She smiled at him, warm and inviting.

"Good to see you back, Tony."

"Nice to be back."

Marissa was a lovely woman. Dark curly hair nicely accentuated her café au latte skin and stunning brown eyes that were highlighted with flecks of gold. She had a great figure, slim and athletic, and a quirky sense of humor which made her even more appealing to Tony.

It was a shame he'd mentally marked her off the list of date material. It had taken him awhile, but he'd learned not to date women he worked with, even if they weren't on the same team. It caused way too many problems when things went bad. He still liked to flirt with her and she gamely played along, enjoying the attention.

He leaned in slightly and caught the scent of her perfume. She tilted her head slightly, arching her neck, giving him greater access. He gave her a wink, "Very nice."

"Thank you." Her eyes dropped enough for her to look up coyly from under her lashes.

They immediately adopted neutral expressions when the elevator announced the floor. When the doors opened, Tony made a graceful hand gesture, inviting her to precede him. She did, walking a way with a bit more hip action than necessary, nicely showcasing her ass. Tony shook his head. It really was too bad they worked in the same building.

He headed for his desk, dropping his backpack next to it. He powered up his computer. There would be dozens of e-mails. There always were. Most of them would be crap he never read, although, he now made a point of reading memos that came from the Director.

Who knew she'd be so touchy about being addressed as 'Madame Director'? Tony snickered to himself. Somehow the title always conjured up an image of her in leather with a whip. It was either that or her in a red lace teddy in a room full of courtesans preparing for a burlesque show. He'd pay good money to see either one.

Tony's focused on weeding through the crap that had accumulated in the week he'd been gone when McGee arrived. He didn't look up or acknowledge the other agent until McGee stopped in front of his desk.

"Tony...You're back."

"Sharp observation there, McGee." Tony responded automatically, keeping his tone dry. "Going to make a trained investigator out of you yet."

McGee rolled his eyes. He grinned. "How's the arm?"

Tony shrugged. "It's fine." He turned his attention back to his computer.

McGee seemed disconcerted. He clearly hadn't expected Tony to stop with such a short answer. It was a bit mystifying to Tony why McGee initiated the conversation at all. The last time he'd been out on sick leave McGee hadn't said one word to him when he'd come into the office. And on any given day, it was usually Tony who started their conversations. Just more proof, Tony told himself, that we aren't really friends.

McGee fidgeted in front of Tony's desk. "Did you...ah...have a good week?"

"Yeah, I did." He knew McGee expected him to expound, but Tony wasn't going to tell him about the cabin. And he wasn't in the mood to make up a story. Besides, it wasn't like McGee wanted to hear anything about his life outside the office anyway.

Tony reached into his pocket and pulled out the bills he'd put in there. He offered them to McGee. "Here."

McGee frowned, hesitantly reaching out to take the money. "What's this?"

"What I owe you." Tony thought he had the count right, but he hadn't watched things as closely as he should have. Not that it mattered from here on out; he wouldn't be borrowing from or betting with McGee any more.

"What you owe me?" McGee repeated slowly, looking befuddled, forehead furrowed as he looked down at the money.

"Yeah." Tony shrugged. "You might want to count it. Make sure it's enough."

McGee stared at him. He probably never expected to get paid back. Tony added the lack of faith and trust to the list of reasons why they weren't really friends. He'd never deliberately stiffed anyone. McGee should have known that.

McGee tried to hand the money back to him. "You don't have toâ€""

"Yes, I do." Tony shook his head, pushing McGee's hand away. "It's yours."

McGee looked confused, but nodded slowly. He pocketed the money without counting it. Tony mentally shrugged. If the debt wasn't paid in full, it wasn't his fault.

McGee went to his desk. He kept shooting puzzled and concerned glances at Tony. Tony chalked it up to his just not acting the way he normally did. But then McGee hadn't liked him much the other either. Contrary bastard, Tony thought. At least this took a lot less effort on his part.

Gibbs strode in, coffee in hand. "We've got a body."

The former Marine looked around. "Where the hell is Ziva?"

"Here." She rounded the corner, looking frazzled and out of breath. Tony wondered if she'd missed the bus again, but didn't ask.

Gibbs gave her a hard look, but didn't comment. He reached into his desk and then tossed a set of keys to McGee. "Get the truck ready to go."

"DiNozzo."

Tony stood. "Yeah, Boss?"

"Give Ducky the address." Gibbs offered him a slip of paper with the location of the body. Tony gave it a glance glad he'd learned to decipher Gibbs' handwriting years ago.

"Have Ducky meet us there."

"Will do."

"I call you when we have more details."

Tony nodded. Doing research in the office was not nearly as much fun as being in the field, but at least he'd still be contributing to the team. Ziva looked a bit confused as to why he wasn't going with them. Tony didn't bother to enlighten her. Gibbs or McGee would explain it if she asked.

She followed McGee as he headed for the elevator. Tony gave her points for catching on fast about not getting left behind.

Gibbs stopped by Tony's desk. He smiled. "Nice to have you back, Tony."

Tony tipped his head in acknowledgement. "Nice to be back."

And it was, he realized with a smiled. He still loved this job, no matter how messed up his relationship with his coworkers might be. It was still better than what he'd had in Philadelphia or Baltimore.

He was glad the rest of them would be out of the office though. It definitely made things a lot easier for now.

Chapter Text

Abby's choice in music typically reflected her mood. At the moment she was torn between being worried, hurt and pissed. She sighed, stabbing viciously at the play button on the stereo. Instead of screaming guitars and loud bass the speakers played something decidedly soft, melodic and sad.

"Guess it's hurt and worried then," Abby muttered to herself, morosely sitting down in front of her computer.

She'd seen Tony's Mustang in the parking lot when she pulled in. She expected him to leave a message, send an e-mail, stop by the lab...something, anything, but not a peep all morning. She sighed heavily. Well, if he wouldn't come to her, then she'd just have to go to him.

Determined to see Tony, she'd bounded upstairs, eager to make sure he was okay, give him a warm 'welcome home', and find out where the hell he'd been. She'd save yelling at him for not calling for another day.

The bull pen was mostly empty when she got off the elevator. She'd heard there was a new case. But Tony wouldn't be going out to the field. Not until he qualified on the shooting range again. So he had plenty of time to come see her. He was avoiding her. That was the only explanation, and she wanted to know why.

She was still somewhat pissed at McGee for not mentioning to her that Tony had been shot. And she wasn't happy with Ziva for saying it was just a scratch. Who the hell was she to determine what sort of injury was serious or not? A scratch didn't require stitches for crying out loud. And they could have died in that damn shipping container. That wasn't something to be made light of.

Just because Abby was glad Ziva wasn't dead didn't mean she liked her yet. She'd accepted the invitation to dinner because Jimmy asked her to. He wanted her to give Ziva a chance. And when she found out Gibbs was going, Abby decided it would be okay; a team building thing.

Maybe she should have followed Tony's and Ducky's examples and turned the invite down. The food might have been outstanding, but Ziva still wasn't exactly one of the team. She wasn't going to replace Kate as Abby's best friend that was for sure.

Abby rounded the corner, and spotted Tony talking on his cell phone. She skipped over to his desk, grinning, happy that he was back. He'd held up one hand, asking her to wait while he finished. She nodded to herself when Tony wrote something down; definitely work related and not a social call.

"I'm on it, Boss....I'll have it when you get back." Tony nodded even though Gibbs couldn't possibly see him. "Yeah, already checked that. You were right."

The annoyed look he gave the phone told her Gibbs had hung up on Tony. Abby thought Gibbs really needed a lesson on phone etiquette.

She waited until Tony pocketed his phone before she launched herself at him giving him a hard hug. He didn't move or make any effort to return the gesture. Even though he didn't actively try and push her away, Abby still felt like he'd just erected some sort of wall between them. That wasn't normal.

She pulled back to stare up at him. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." His smile was nothing like the ones he usually gave her. It was distant and impersonal.

She looked him over. The suit and tie were a good look for him. He wasn't sporting any bandages, no cuts or scrapes. But the attitude was all wrong. She blinked. "Are you sure you're okay? 'Cause you don't seem...well, like yourself."

Tony's expression hardened slightly, although the smile stayed firmly in place. "Was there something you needed?"

"You took a week off." She shook her head ignoring his question. "You never take sick leave. Well hardly ever. I mean there was that whole plague thing, but that was totally understandable. And you really should have probably taken more time. I mean I know you were bored and staying home isn't quite your thing, butâ€""

"Did you come up here just to discuss my leave status?" Tony arched an eyebrow.

"No." She blinked, caught off guard by his tone. Tony had never talked to her like that. He'd always been friendly, outgoing, and tolerant of her tendency to run off on tangents. He rarely interrupted her.

"Tony, I was worried about you."

"So people keep telling me." Tony snorted delicately.

"What people?" Abby cocked her head to one side. "And why do you sound like you don't believe them?" The 'or me' went unsaid though it was loudly implied.

"You don't need to worry." Tony shook his head. "I'm fine."

No, he wasn't. Something was wrong. He wasn't acting like Tony at all.

"Why didn't you call me?" She frowned at him, pointing a finger. "It wasn't nice to just leave without a word."

"I left word with Gibbs."

"Oh please. That's the same as not saying anything at all." Abby rolled her eyes. "You know he sucks at sharing. I think me must have been an only child or something."

"I'm an only child." Tony pointed out quietly.

"Yeah, but you play well with others." She grinned cheerfully.

Tony sighed softly, and squared his shoulders. "Can we talk about this some other time?" He held up the tablet he'd been writing on when she'd come in. "Gibbs wants me to run down some things."

"No we can not talk about this some other time," Abby said firmly.

She was not backing down. 'Some other time' and many variations thereof was a line Tony had told Abby his parents often used when putting him off as a child. It typically translated into 'never'. Things like 'later', 'we'll see' and 'not now' were all just creative ways of denying him until the obvious 'no' was realized.

"This can wait."

"No, Tony. We need to talk now." She shook her head. Too much time had already passed. He'd already been gone a week without a word and had ducked her all morning.

"Never doesn't seem like a bad alternative," Tony mumbled, looking away from her.

"Tony." The reprimand was obvious in her voice and she wished she'd toned it down when he winced.

"I've got work to do."

"So then let's do this and you can get on with that." There, nice and reasonable. She was not giving an inch.

He shook his head. "Gibbsâ€""

"C'mon, Tony." She wanted to stamp her foot like a child. "You know I'm not going away." She hoped she didn't sound as much like she was whining to him as she did to herself.

Tony glanced around the bullpen. It wasn't crowded but it wasn't exactly deserted or private either. "Abby, please, I'd rather notâ€""

"Conference room." Abby pointed to the elevator. If it was good enough for Gibbs, it was good enough for her.

Tony sighed and nodded once. He followed her into the elevator. He flipped the emergency stop switch after a moment, leaving them safely between floors. She wished he didn't seem so reluctant to talk to her. He never had been before. What the hell was going on?

"Why didn't you tell me you were taking a week off?" She asked softly, getting straight to the point. He was willing to talk to her for now, but that didn't mean he would for long.

Tony shrugged. "I didn't think it mattered."

"How could it not matter?" Abby stared at him. She poked him hard in the chest, venting a small measure of anger and frustration. "We're friends. Friends care about each other."

He raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that?"

"Of course, I'm sure." She poked him again, hard. "Why would you ask such a stupid question?"

Tony's jaw tightened. He reached for the button, but she knocked his hand away.

"Tony...talk to me."

"Just leave it alone."

"No." She was pushing hard. "I deserve an answer." Abby wanted some kind of reaction. She wanted the old Tony, not this distant, controlled version of him. They weren't leaving the elevator until she got him.

"Fine." Tony's eyes flashed as they narrowed. "Us being friends...That would be why you helped Kate doctor a photo of me? You remember it, I'm sure. The one that made me look like a poster boy for gay pride."

Abby felt herself blush. It hadn't occurred to her Tony even knew about her part in that little incident. "Kate was my best friend, Tony. All she told me was that she needed to have something over you so she could get back what you had over her. It was harmless."

"Harmless?" Tony nearly growled, his eyes like ice. "If she'd showed what you made for her to anyone else, it could have cost me my job. Or at the very least gotten me one hell of a beat down."

Abby stared at him. "Kate would neverâ€""

"You don't think she would?" His lip curled in a sneer and he leaned forward. "She made sure damn near everyone in the building knew about me kissing Voss."

He snorted. "You aren't naïve enough to think that there aren't more than a few bigots in this building. We're affiliated with the macho Marines and gung-ho Navy for God's sake. You know we've worked enough hate crimes to know better than to think Kate's little blackmail picture couldn't do some serious damage if she'd shown it around."

Abby winced. She clearly remembered a case with some poor sailor getting thrown overboard and left to drown because his buddies saw him kissing another man. And another where a Lance Corporal was beaten because his comrades thought he was just a little too effeminate for the Marines. She never thought doctoring the photo would put Tony in danger because Kate said no one but their team would ever see it. It had seemed like an innocuous prank.

"At least what I had on her was genuine. At most it would have gotten her a reprimand, at worst she'd have gotten asked out on a few dates." Tony ran a hand through his hair. "Christ. Do you know how many incidents of gay bashing I worked in Philadelphia?"

Abby shook her head. She was pretty certain the question was rhetorical.

"Never want to be caught up in the wrong end of something like that." Tony shuddered.

She reached out to touch him. "Tonyâ€""

He stepped back. "Us being friends...That would be why you didn't come see me or call when I was out for two weeks recovering from the plague. Would have thought nearly dying was greater cause for concern than just taking a week off, but clearly I was mistaken there."

Abby blanched. She'd never told him that she'd caught Kate's cold, and that Dr. Pitt had told her seeing Tony wasn't a good idea. His lungs were still recovering and Pitt didn't think it would be a good idea to risk exposure. She hadn't called because things at the office got hectic and every time she got a chance it seemed way too late to disturb him. He needed his rest.

"And us being friends, " Tony stressed the word 'friend', giving it a negative connotations, "that would be why it took you more than a week to apologize for putting me in jail for a murder I didn't commit?" He held up a hand when Abby opened her mouth to protest.

"It was a damn good frame. I'm not faulting you for following the evidence." Tony shook his head. "Anyone else would have bought it and I'd be a prosecutor's dream. That's not the point." He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "The point is that if you were sorry about it, why take so long to say so?"

"Black roses aren't that easy to find you know." Abby sniffled, surprised to find herself on the verge of tears.

Tony reached out to her, one hand cupping her face. "Oh, Abby, don't cry, please." His thumb lightly caressed her cheek. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry...I didn't mean any of that." He leaned in and kissed her forehead.

"All that stuff you said, it wasn't like that. It wasn't." Abby pushed him away. She wiped away a stray tear. "I'd never ever do anything intentional that would hurt you. You aren't being fair."

"I know." The admission stole all her thunder.

"God damn it, Tony." She hit him in the arm. She was surprised when he flinched away with a hiss of pain.

"Bad arm." Tony ground out.

Good, she thought savagely for just a moment before immediately feeling bad for hurting him. "I didn't meanâ€""

"I know." He pulled her into a hug, holding her close. "I'm sorry." He murmured into her hair, his voice hoarse. "I'm sorry."

"Why did you say all that shit?"

Tony sighed softly, and pulled her closer, laying his cheek against her hair. "It sounds stupid and petty if I say it out loud."

"Can't be any more stupid and petty than you thinking I'm not your friend. Or that I'd hurt you on purpose." All the distress and shock she felt bled into her voice. She hated that she still sounded like she was on the verge of crying.

"I took the week off to do some thinking." Tony sounded sad, hurt and disappointed.

"Thinking about what?"

"When I was eight, my father took me with him on a business trip. When he checked out of the hotel, he left me behind. Was on my own two days and he never knew I was missing." Tony tried to pull away but Abby clung to him afraid if she didn't he'd never come back to her. The breath he released sounded more like a sob than a sigh.

"Think he was kind of relieved to have me gone. Probably never would missed me at all if I hadn't charged enough to room service for the bill to get his attention."

Tony rubbed her back, almost as though offering her comfort gave him comfort in turn. "It is childish and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but none of you even noticed I wasn't at Ziva's party." He took a slow deep breath. "Made me think maybe I'd been reading everything all wrong. That you were just tolerating me, and would rather not have to put up with me...like my father, you know?"

"Oh Tony." She whispered. "We aren't like him."

"It's all in how you look at it Abby."

"Well, then let me help you look at it the right way. Gotta see stuff from outside the box, Tony."

She pulled away, raising her hands to cup his face, forcing him to look at her. "You and Kate were always competing. It was like watching two little kids on a playground. But you know she'd have done anything for you...the same way you'd have done anything for her."

Abby smiled gently. "You got over the Voss thing. Same way she got over you going through her purse. Tit for tat. That's the way things were between you."

Blue eyes searched green. "She'd have never shown that picture to anyone else. And even if she did, you got so many girlfriends, no one was going to take that thing seriously."

"No one?" His lips curled into a half smile.

"Well, no one but me." Abby shrugged, unable not to be honest. "But I know you better than they do. Most people never see beyond the surface." They'd gone clubbing together a few times. She knew he wasn't nearly as inflexible about his sexuality as he tried to make others believe.

"Abby, I've got all the depth of a parking lot puddle. All I am is surface. No depth to be had." He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against hers. "And this latest bout of self pity or whatever certainly goes to show that."

"You are a better man than you give yourself credit, Anthony DiNozzo." She kissed the tip of his nose. "A moment of poor judgment as a result of past experiences isn't the worst thing in the world. Lots of people have done dumber things."

He chuckled. "Thanks, Abs."

"You're welcome." She patted his cheek. "The plague thing...I had a cold. Dr. Pitt told me stopping to see you wasn't a good idea because your lungs were already compromised. Kate and McGee said you always sounded so tired when you called them. I didn't want to risk calling you and waking you up. You needed to rest or you weren't going to get better."

"Should have figured it was something like that."

"Yes, you should have." She gave him a pointed look. She wasn't happy that he'd doubted her, but at least she understood. Given his past, it wasn't hard for her to grasp that some of those feelings of abandonment could easily change his perception of two weeks on his own. That time had probably felt like an eternity to Tony, especially having limited contact with people. Tony needed to be around people like he needed air to breath.

"Gibbs was cranky those two weeks you were out. I think he missed you."

"I called him." Tony snorted. "Trust me, he didn't miss me."

"He did." Abby insisted. "He's just not good with expressing himself. Especially over the phone."

"Can we agree to disagree on that one?"

"For now." Abby knew that was a battle that would take more time. She was okay with that.

Abby did a quick mental review of things Tony had mentioned. "What about Ziva's party?" She frowned. "Of course we noticed you weren't there. But you'd turned her down so I wasn't expecting you to be there."

"I didn't turn her down, Abby." Tony shrugged on shoulder. "I never got invited."

"But Jimmy said everyone got invited." Abby bit her lip. "It was supposed to be some kind of team thing. Still wasn't sure I liked her, and I'm still not sure. But I figured if we were all there we could bond. You know? Maybe find some common ground or something."

Abby stepped away from Tony, hands moving as she continued speaking. "I wasn't even going to go. But Jimmy all but begged. McGee said he was going. He thinks just a little too much of Officer David." Abby rolled her eyes. "Like she walks on water or something. Honestly. So she's got spy stuff. So what. Like the stuff I do isn't pretty damn amazing?"

Abby paced the confines of the elevator. "Even Gibbs was going. So I thought I should go. Cause he'd already said I should play nice. Didn't want him to think I wasn't willing to make the effort. I thought Madame Director would be there too. God knows the last thing I needed was for her to get her panties in a bunch because I wasn't warming up to her personal pick for the team."

Abby's pacing picked up speed. "She's just nuts that woman. First the stupid dress code thing and then a homicidal assistant. That kind of help I can do without."

She spun to face Tony. "I know Ducky couldn't go because he already had plans. He was catching that play thing he'd missed when you guys had to go under cover as those married assassins. Think he had some lady friend." Abby winked and smiled. "The Duck man is just such a sweetie."

Abby stepped close to Tony, hugging him again. "I thought you had plans." She looked up at him, feeling just a bit guilty. "I was kind of mad at you for getting out of going. Least you could have done was invite me along. Give me a good reason to skip out of her party. Not that the food wasn't fantastic or anything. But I can get a good meal anywhere."

Abby huffed out a breath. "And Gibbs, he got a call fifteen minutes after we sat down to eat. He was out the door right after that."

"Gibbs didn't stay?"

"No." Abby shook her head, pigtails flapping. "I can't prove it, but knowing him he arranged the call on purpose. The man is not the dinner party type." She rolled her eyes. "He did head back to the office though so maybe not."

"Could have been intell on the case." Tony nodded to himself. "He sent us to the docks before I even got to my desk."

"Makes sense." Abby shrugged. She was more willing to put money on him arranging an escape.

"He left me there with McGee making eyes at Ziva. And Jimmy making eyes at me." Abby grimaced. "It was a damn good thing the food was good or it would have been a complete disaster. It didn't hurt that Palmer can be pretty funny...in an offbeat, weird kind of way."

Tony chuckled. "Suddenly I don't feel so bad about missing out."

"You never should have." Abby waggled a finger at him. "You need to discuss stuff with me before you go off the deep end."

"I didn't go off the deep end." Tony smiled. "I just took some time off to think."

"Yeah, and you end up thinking I wasn't your friend." Abby gave him a dirty look. "That sounds like the deep end to me."

Tony kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry."

"I know." She smiled. "It's the reason I already forgave you."

"McGee knew I wasn't invited." Tony raised a hand to rub at his eyes. "Look on his face was a dead give away."

"Point." Abby wasn't going to deny that. McGee had looked smug. He rarely looked like that unless he had good reason for it. Her eyes gleamed.

"No," Tony said firmly.

"What?"

"Whatever you're thinking...no." Tony shook his head. He smiled ruefully. "I sort of already started something."

"You didn't say anything to him like you did to me?" Abby bit her lip. She didn't want to see the team fractured and McGee wasn't nearly as capable of dealing with a hostile Tony as she was.

"No." Tony chuckled. "Said next to nothing to him."

"Silent treatment." Abby knew that would be more effective than most would expect. For all McGee's protestations to the contrary, he liked hearing Tony's stories and he liked being considered Tony's friend.

"Cold shoulder too." Tony shrugged. "Paid him what I owed him too."

Abby raised both eyebrows. "Nice touch that."

"Strange to think of paying a debt off as being punishment."

"Yeah, well, no one ever said we were normal."

"Point."

"What about Ziva?"

"Not like she and I were ever friends, Abby." Tony shrugged. His tone and body language clearly conveyed that he didn't think he and Ziva ever would be friends.

Ziva was definitely not Kate, Abby thought. And she was reassured that she wasn't the only one who thought so.

"Her not inviting me didn't matter." He looked away. "You not caring I wasn't there...that mattered."

She nudged him gently under the chin with her fist. "You know better now."

Tony grinned. "Yeah, I do."

"Good." Abby glanced at her watch. "Cause you have to get whatever Gibbs wanted taken care of done. And I've got to get back to the lab."

She reached for the button to put the elevator in motion, but Tony neatly captured her hand. He brought it up and placed a kiss on the back of her knuckles. "Thanks."

"For you...any time." She smiled. "You're worth it."

Chapter Text

Working a crime scene with Ziva was nothing like working with Tony. McGee grimaced to himself thinking that was a monumental understatement.

Interspersed with inappropriate behavior and childish humor, Tony typically managed to make good observations and insights. Ziva didn't say much at all. And McGee found he missed Tony's more colorful commentary. He never realized how much it served to lighten the mood and how often it gave McGee a springboard for his own theories and ideas to investigate.

Tony often handed out bits of helpful information in a condescending manner, which McGee really didn't appreciate, but he had to admit he'd learned a lot from Tony in the past two years. Ziva didn't share or offer much while they were working. And with a small flash of pride, McGee realized she knew less than he did about working as an investigator.

While Tony seemed incapable of taking anything too seriously, she was far more focused and sober. And Ziva didn't seem able to grasp the idea that people could be homicidal without religious or political motivation. She seemed to believe people always acted with an ulterior objective in mind, usually something dark and sinister with an espionage slant. Tony was more inclined to think people's actions were the product of their own personal beliefs, wants and desires. They could be mean, vindictive and cruel without feeling the need to join a terrorist cell or stick it to a foreign government.

McGee didn't think Ziva saw teamwork the way Tony did either. Oh, not that she didn't do her share or work well with them...but she didn't give the same level of acceptance or faith Tony did for no other reason than McGee was a teammate.

Tony had never second guessed McGee's recitation of events of shooting the cop in that alley. He'd never called McGee's judgment or ability into question. While he might have thought McGee had overreacted or panicked, at least he had the decency not to say it out loud. Unlike Ziva, who McGee knew had been sure he was either lying or incompetent.

McGee sighed softly. Tony's way of helping him deal with that incident hadn't exactly been ideal, but he had made the effort. No one else on the team had.

McGee still wasn't sure he and Ziva were friends. Sure, he'd shown her around the area. And she'd made him dinner. Although, that had been far from something just between the two of them since it had included Abby, Jimmy and Gibbs. Well, Gibbs for a little while, McGee mentally amended. But it wasn't quite a team thing either because Tony and Ducky hadn't been there. And he knew Tony had been deliberately excluded.

He'd told her stories about their past cases, and shared a lot of details about Tony; something in hindsight he realized might not have been such a wise move. He belatedly came to understand exactly how Tony might have felt about his telling Ziva those things when Tony told Ziva about McGee's computer gaming. It wasn't something he was necessarily ashamed of, but he still didn't care for her knowing he spent hours doing it or that he had an Elf Lord as his persona.

"Why is Tony not with us?" Ziva asked quietly, raising the camera to take another picture of the body of Petty Officer Virginia Simms.

"He has to qualify on the shooting range before being allowed out into the field." McGee continued to sketch. He hoped Gibbs wasn't expecting too much from his drawings. Tony was better at this than he was.

She frowned. "Why?"

"Part of the new regs." McGee looked up from his sketch. He could quote chapter and page to her, but decided not to. "Any agent injured in the line of duty has to prove they can meet the field requirements before being cleared for more than desk duty."

He was glad those regs hadn't been in place when Tony came back to work after his exposure to the plague. If Tony hadn't been with them that morning McGee would likely have been blown to bits. He winced internally. McGee had never thanked Tony for saving his life that day.

McGee also never thanked Tony for dragging him out to the firing range to better his shooting ability. The weekend sessions out there had been fun. Tony had taught him a few things that helped improve his aim, while recounting how Gibbs had made targets out of Kate's PDA and Tony's favorite hat.

The taller man had been proud of the shot McGee had made in that alley. McGee had been proud of himself too until he realized it meant he'd actually killed a man. He still had mixed feelings about the action but had come to terms with the skill.

He glanced over to where Gibbs was on the phone. McGee knew he was talking to Tony, putting him to work tracking down information on Virginia Simms. He still wasn't sure what to make of Tony's strange behavior earlier.

He'd expected Tony to regale him with stories of where he'd gone and what he'd done the week he was out. McGee had been so sure Tony would have a ready explanation for not calling: some leggy blonde that kept him busy, a fast car he'd fallen in love with, drinking party that went on for days. He wasn't prepared for the near silence he'd gotten.

And he really hadn't been prepared for Tony to hand him money. Not that he'd ever thought Tony would stiff him. No. He knew better than that. He just never expected to get the full amount handed to him. There was something decidedly final about the action. It worried McGee.

The key to Tony's strange behavior was that stupid dinner party, McGee realized with a sudden flash if insight. He'd known how Tony would feel being excluded, but he'd been so flattered Ziva had asked him and so delighted with the prospect of getting one over on Tony he'd lost sight of what the other man might think or do in response. It shamed him to think he'd risked a damn good friendship for someone he wasn't even sure he liked and he didn't think respected him.

He needed to talk to Tony. Really talk to him. Find a way to make things right. Unfortunately, he knew he wouldn't get a chance until they were done with the crime scene.

Gibbs snapped his phone shut. "You have a time of death, Duck?"

The older man had arrived just a moment ago but didn't appear offended by the demand for information. "Based on rigor and liver temp, I'd say just she's been dead about ten hours. That would make it around eight to nine last night give or take an hour or so. I'll be able to refine it further when we get her back to the morgue."

Gibbs nodded. "Cause of death?"

The older man pointed to the gunshot wound in Simms chest. "Off hand, I would say she was shot." Ducky leaned closer. "The gun powder residue and stippling suggests it was very close range."

McGee had noticed the powder burns earlier. They were hard to miss on Simms white t-shirt, although the blood had done a bit to obscure them. Her casual dress of jeans, t-shirt and light jacket seemed to suggest she hadn't planned to go far. There was a deli not far away; McGee thought Simms might have been heading for it when she was shot.

"Point blank?" Gibbs asked with a frown staring down at Simms, gaze fixed on the wound.

"Probably." Ducky clucked his tongue. "Poor dear bled out very quickly by the look of it."

"Caliber?"

"Bigger than a 9 mm." Ziva stated with confidence.

"Quite." Ducky smiled at her. "Most likely a .357. or larger."

"Exit wound?"

"Help me roll her, Jimmy," Ducky instructed. The younger ME moved quickly to assist.
Ducky looked up, his blue eyes sad. "Through and through, Jethro."

Gibbs nodded grimly. "Ziva, you stay here. Find that bullet or the casing. McGee, you're with me. We'll check out the Petty Officer's home."

McGee nodded. He wondered what it said about him that he was more worried knowing he'd have to wait to talk to Tony than he was about riding in a car with Gibbs. At least he trusted Gibbs not to kill him. Ziva's driving he still wasn't so sure of.

Only a few blocks away from the small park where her body was found, Simms' home proved to be a small two bedroom bungalow a realtor would have described as cozy. McGee was sure Tony would have had some comment on Simms' overly feminine décor. Hell, even he thought the flowered wallpaper, frilly floral curtains, and pink carpet were a bit much, but didn't think Gibbs would care to hear his opinion. There was no sign of a struggle, everything neat and orderly. Probably just the way Simms had left it.

There was little in the way of food in her cupboards or refrigerator. McGee had a feeling he was right about her being on her way to the deli. Ducky's time of death coincided with her getting a late dinner.

McGee raised his eyebrows when he looked through her rack of DVD's in the living room. Interspersed among the romantic comedies and musicals were several action films that seemed decidedly out of place. They were definitely what Tony would call 'guy' films.

Bathroom revealed more feminine frills. It made McGee glad his girl friend wasn't quite so prone to the usual 'girlie' things when she offered to help him decorate his place. He had thought about asking Abby for help but had decided against it. He wasn't that fond of black.

On the dresser in her bedroom was a framed photo of Simms with a man. His arm was over her shoulder, one of hers around his waist. They were both smiling.

"None of his stuff here." McGee observed, giving the closet a quick check. "Whoever he is."

"Dating but not living together," Gibbs nodded. He held up the box of condoms he found in the nightstand. "Having sex at any rate."

"See if there is anything on her computer." Gibbs ordered, taking out his cell phone. McGee knew Gibbs was calling Tony. From the office, Tony could pull her phone records, get a line on Simms friends and coworkers, and maybe a lead on her mystery man.

Whoever shot Simms had to have known her. Total strangers didn't usually get close enough to shoot someone at point blank range. McGee wondered what Tony would find, and almost wished he was back at the office. While he enjoyed field work, his first love was digging for information.

McGee powered up Simms' computer that was in the other bedroom which she'd set up as something of a home office. He could hear Gibbs talking in the other room but couldn't make out the words.

McGee wasn't too surprised to find her computer wasn't password protected, since Simms job didn't require handling of any classified information or fixing computers. He checked the last file she'd been working on. McGee winced when he realized one was a 'Dear John' letter. And it looked as though she'd e-mailed it a day or so before she was killed.

"Boss?"

"Yeah?" Gibbs stood in the doorway.

"Think I might have found a motive."

"Boyfriend, right?"

McGee blinked. He really should be used to Gibbs being one step ahead. "His name is Don Jensen. And I got an address."

McGee frowned. "Howâ€""

"Tony started looking into the phone records as soon as we had a name for the vic." Gibbs sounded pleased. "There were regular daily calls between them until a week ago." Gibbs pointed to the computer, his expression impatient. "Can you pack that thing up?"

"On it." McGee knew better than to make Gibbs wait. He sighed softly as he hurried after Gibbs clutching Simms' laptop. Looks like it would take even longer to get back to the office than he'd expected.

He tried not to flinch when Gibbs pulled out of Simms' driveway with a squeal of the tires. At least he was in the front seat this time and had the 'oh shit' handle to grab on to.

"Do we know if Jensen is home?" McGee asked, trying not to look at the on rushing traffic as Gibbs passed a slower motorist.

"According to the financial records Tony pulled, Jensen is self-employed. Business address is the same as his home address." Gibbs snorted. "Some internet company."

Gibbs cell phone rang. He glanced at the caller display. "You find out he has a gun?" Gibbs nodded in response to whatever Tony was saying. "See if you can track down her friends. I want to talk to them." He hung up with his usual disregard for social convention.

Gibbs glanced over at McGee. "Jensen has a registered handgun."

".357?"

"Yeah."

It looked like this was going to be a straightforward case of a lover's quarrel gone bad. Not their usual case, but certainly far from ordinary. McGee honestly wondered why they didn't encounter more mundane homicides. Like the sort that Tony talked about when he worked in Baltimore; killings motivated by gang turf wars, drunken arguments escalating into murder, divorce settlements and custody battles that got ugly, hit and runs. He supposed working for NCIS got points for rarely being boring.

Jensen's home was an older ranch style in a sleepy neighborhood just fifteen miles from Simms. McGee was grateful for a short ride. It hadn't been long enough to make him nauseous. It was kind of frightening to think that he was getting used to Gibbs' driving.

McGee reached for his gun the same time Gibbs did when a knock at the door revealed it to be open and unlocked. Gibbs pointed to him, and then motioned for him to go around back. McGee kept low as he dashed around the house. He hoped like hell Jensen didn't keep some big dog in his back yard.

McGee tried the back door, disappointed to find it locked. Shrugging, he kicked it in, quickly moving through the house. He found Gibbs in the living room, along with Jensen. Jensen was obviously dead, a gun shot wound to the right temple, a .357 cradled loosely in his right hand.

There was a note on the coffee table. McGee put on a glove before picking it up.

"Suicide note?"

"Looks like." McGee scanned the sheet. It was only a few brief paragraphs. "Stuff in here about not being able to live without Virginia. Hadn't meant to shoot her...just wanted to make her talk to him...things got out of control."

"Ya think?" Gibbs retorted, expression grim.

McGee winced. He continued reading. "Says he's sorry. And that he hopes his last act will make it right."

"Make it right?" Gibbs snorted, shaking his head. "I'll call it in. Grab your kit and start taking photos."

McGee frowned. "Butâ€""

"Until we know for sure his gun was the one that killed Simms and that he really did off himself, we will continue to investigate, McGee."

"Right, Boss." McGee headed out to grab his gear from the car. He could hear Tony in his head commenting, 'Gibbs is of the opinion that just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, doesn't mean it is one, Probie.'

McGee couldn't decide if he was relieved or disappointed that the case ultimately proved to be just what it appeared to be, a murder-suicide. Jensen's gun had been the one to kill Simms. Ziva spent the better part of the day looking for the bullet that killed Simms. Abby matched to the one in Jensen's head and to the gun itself.

All in all, McGee should have been happy to have wrapped up the case in such a short time frame. And for the most part he was. This kind of rapid, neat closure rarely ever happened. It had literally taken one day to process the evidence, validate their theories and write the reports.

But McGee was frustrated over not getting a single minute alone with Tony to talk to him. Tony hadn't seemed quite so cold when they'd gotten back to the office, but he still wasn't his usual self. It was downright odd not to hear a single movie reference being made, not one comment on the fickle nature of romance, and no whining about how much doing paperwork and time in the office sucked. Tony didn't ask for details on what he'd missed by staying behind, nor did he mention all the work he'd done while stuck at the office. Other than a 'good job, McGee, Officer David', Tony hadn't said much at all.

If it hadn't been for Gibbs glancing at Tony's desk periodically as though expecting him to say something, anything, McGee would have thought he was the only one who noticed. Ziva didn't seem aware of Tony's change in behavior, but she'd spent the bulk of her day scouring half the park for a bullet slug. It was petty, but McGee was glad she looked tired.

He wanted to grind his teeth in frustration. McGee saw the clock move closer to quitting time. He resigned himself to not getting the chance to talk to Tony at the office. On a good day it was just too chaotic for a private conversation anyway. That left out of the office. McGee was fairly certain getting Tony to come to his place or meet him somewhere was out of the question; Tony's place was really the only option. He could do that.

He'd bring a pizza and a six pack of beer as a peace offering. He'd never seen Tony refuse food yet. Well, other than those tofu things Kate used to bring, but no one liked those. It should at least get him in the door, he hoped.

McGee felt better with a plan. Not that things ever quite worked out the way he planned, but at least he had a starting point. It was more than he had all day.

McGee finished up his report. He nodded to Tony unsure of what to say when the other man offered a general 'good night' directed toward the office rather than any one in particular. Gibbs followed Tony, stopping him near the windows.

McGee couldn't hear what was said. The exchange didn't appear heated, and nothing Tony said warranted a head slap; one more thing that had been conspicuously absent during the day. Tony gave Gibbs a quick smile, and nodded his head once before leaving.

McGee wasn't quite sure what to make of the expression on Gibbs' face. Since he didn't follow Tony or call after him, McGee assumed the former Marine was satisfied for the moment with whatever they'd discussed. He wondered if that hurt or helped his chances for talking to Tony later. No matter. McGee was determined to talk to Tony.

He e-mailed his report to Gibbs before printing it. He'd learned that from Tony too. Gibbs had a tendency to delete e-mails or ignore them outright but he always paid attention to hard copy. What was a mystery was why the man insisted on getting the damn e-mail in the first place.

McGee shrugged into his coat and grabbed his pack. He'd order pizza from his cell phone on the way. Stop off and pick up a six pack. He'd be at Tony's in under an hour.

"Heading home, McGee?" Ziva asked.

"Yeah."

"Going to be playing online?" She smiled, clearly still amused by his hobby.

He realized he didn't know anything about her that would let him tease her on equal footing the way he could with Tony. Ziva had yet to share anything about personal about herself. And she probably wouldn't any time soon.

He just shrugged one shoulder. "Not tonight."

She raised both eyebrows. "Other plans?"

"Yes."

He smiled leaving her with that simple answer knowing she was waiting him to say more. He wondered if this was how Tony felt that morning when McGee had stood in front of his desk. Probably. He grinned to himself in the elevator. Having Tony rub off on him wasn't all bad.

McGee called the pizza place closest to Tony's apartment from the car. He ordered what he knew was the other man's favorite and told them he'd be by to pick it up. The beer proved to be more of a challenge. He really had no idea what Tony liked.

Tony had boasted about how fast he could bong a beer, but McGee had never actually seen him drink. They'd never gotten together to go clubbing since that wasn't really McGee's scene or even grabbed a drink after work. McGee sighed and shook his head, grabbing a six pack of the first beer he saw in the cooler.

He got to Tony's place and parked on the street. McGee took a slow, deep breath. He wasn't good at stuff like this; not that he was even sure just what 'this' was, but he knew he wasn't good at it.

"Doesn't matter, Tim." McGee told himself. He couldn't take another day like today. He wasn't willing to give up his friendship with Tony and keep this...this 'coworkers and nothing more' thing. He could hear Gibbs' voice in his head, 'Suck it up, McGee and do what you have to'. He grabbed the pizza and the beer and headed for Tony's apartment.

He knocked. It seemed odd that there was no doorbell but McGee chalked it up to another of Tony's paradoxes. Even though he was expecting the door to open it still surprised him. He opened his mouth and then closed it unsure of what to say.

Tony cocked his head to one side, leaning casually against the door, green eyes amused. "You come by to show me your fish impersonation?"

"No." McGee rolled his eyes. "I brought dinner. And beer."

Tony arched an eyebrow. He shrugged, stepped back and opened the door wider.

McGee couldn't help looking around curiously. He'd never actually been in Tony's place before. It wasn't as messy as Gibbs' had implied or as much like a cheesy bachelor pad as Kate assumed. McGee thought it looked comfortable, homey even.

"Nice place."

"I like it."

McGee wasn't surprised to see a state of the art plasma screen TV in Tony's living room. The news wasn't what he expected to see on it though. A movie or a game, yes, but the news didn't seem the sort of thing Tony would spend much time watching.

"Make yourself comfortable." Tony nodded to the couch.

He must have changed clothes when he'd gotten home. The suit had been exchanged for a faded pair of jeans and an Ohio State t-shirt. The other man's causal attire made McGee more conscious of his own suit and tie and he briefly wished he'd had a chance to change as well.

Tony waved a hand toward the kitchen. "I'll grab a couple of plates." He pointed the beer McGee was still holding. "You want a glass?"

"Bottle is fine."

The whole conversation was strangely stilted, formal and yet casual and familiar at the same time. McGee decided not to think about it. He put the pizza and beer on the coffee table before shrugging out of his coat and leaving it on the back of the couch.

Tony offered him a plate when he came back. McGee took it. He opened the pizza box and waited politely for Tony to take a slice or two.

Tony left his own plate on the coffee table and took one of the beers instead, twisting off the top before taking a seat on in the overstuffed recliner. He took a sip and sat back, staring at McGee steadily. McGee tried not to fidget.

"You want to tell me what you're here?" Tony cocked his head to one side. "Or you want me to play twenty questions until I get it?"

Although Tony's direct approach caught him off guard, McGee was almost relieved. It gave him a starting point he'd probably have never found on his own. He cleared his throat. Even though he knew the question was going to sound like something right out of a grade school playground, McGee couldn't stop himself from asking, "Are you mad at me?"

Tony smiled slightly and shook his head. "You know, until I talked to Abby this morning, I never thought giving you what you wanted would be construed as punishment."

That wasn't an answer to his question. McGee frowned, setting the plate down on the coffee table. "I never askedâ€""

"Oh yeah, you did." Tony sipped his beer again, pointing a finger at McGee. "Lost count of the number of times and the different ways, but you made it quite clear that you preferred me to be serious and focused on the job."

McGee bit his lower lip. He hadn't initially appreciated Tony's lighthearted look at life or juvenile behavior, finding it decidedly unprofessional and distracting. But until today, he hadn't realized how much better it was compared to more sterile, almost humorless environment at Norfolk. Nor had he realized, until Tony stopped doing it, just how much he looked forward to their verbal sparring. He'd missed Tony more today than he had the week the other agent had been gone.

Tony sighed, shaking his head again as he looked away. He toyed with the bottle cap, walking it across his knuckles with the same innate grace he did most things. Tony curled his fingers around the bottle cap and looking at McGee again.

"Wasn't really trying for the silent treatment." Tony's expression was vaguely apologetic. "Was just how it worked out."

"I don'tâ€""

Tony shrugged one shoulder and shifted in his seat to lean forward, elbows resting on his knees. "You have said more than once you don't want to hear about my off hour activities. You don't want to me talk about movies or sports or women. I believe you said I share too much. So other than the job, I don't really have a whole hell of a lot to talk to you about."

McGee winced internally. Tony had a point, and it hurt to think just how right he was. He gotten so used to their easy repartee he'd lost sight of just how much of it involved topics not related to the job. He'd also lost sight of how often he'd told Tony he didn't want to hear about his life. It wasn't true, but he never thought Tony actually believed him.

Tony gave him a considering glance. "Honestly, I thought you'd be relieved to have me be more professional and less like an X-rated Peter Pan."

McGee blinked. "Didn't think you knew Kate called you that."

Tony smirked, but there were shadows in his eyes that bespoke more of self-deprecation than humor. "It was too good a line for her to keep to herself."

McGee nodded. Kate seemed to take delight in getting in her digs. But Tony kept her on her toes and seemed to enjoy the challenge. And unlike Ziva, Kate never deliberately excluded Tony from anything.

"I'm sorry."

Tony cocked his head to one side. "You really shouldn't apologizeâ€""

"A sign of weakness, yeah I know." McGee sighed heavily. "Gibbs keeps telling me that."

Tony chuckled. "Wasn't what I was going to say."

"Oh." McGee flushed. "What...ah...what were you going to say?"

"Saying your sorry is the same as admitting you did something wrong. You really shouldn't accept blame so willingly, McGee." Tony smiled tightly, and McGee can almost see him gathering his reserve about him. "Being honest or stating your preference is hardly qualifies as doing anything wrong."

"I wasn't honest." McGee blurted out. They'd been making progress, Tony was warmer than he'd been all day and McGee wasn't going to give that up. Not again.

"Excuse me?"

"I hated today." McGee confessed baldly. He grabbed a beer for himself, rolling the bottle between his hands. "It was all wrong."

"You didn't like being in the field with Gibbs?"

"Don't be obtuse." McGee glared at Tony. He hated when Tony did that. McGee knew for a fact Tony was smarter than he let on.

"You know what I mean. You weren't you." He waved hand in a frustrated gesture, adding emphasis, blue eyes meeting green. "I know I said before it would be better for you to be...well, like you were today, but I was wrong, okay? I don't ever want another day like today."

"I know it was that fucking dinner." McGee grimace and shook his head. Tony had ignored all his stupid comments before about his behavior.

"I was an ass about the whole dinner party thing. She asked me and I knew she wasn't going to ask you. And I admit I was pretty damn thrilled. It was stupid and petty, but I wanted to get one over on you. I admit it."

Tony arched an eyebrow, but didn't comment. McGee ran one hand over his face. "You're always so sure of your prowess with women. And it was just such an ego stroke to think she'd rather spend time with me. Not you."

He sighed, putting the beer bottle down on the table. He didn't even like beer. "Hell, I didn't know Palmer was invited until he showed up. And then Abby was there and Gibbs too."

"Explains the two bottles of wine you brought to dinner." Tony murmured. He cocked his head, frowning. "You didn't really think she'd have planned a romantic dinner for just the two of you, did you?"

"Why wouldn't I?" McGee glared at Tony. Just because he wanted things back the way they were didn't mean he wanted Tony insulting him. "You don't think someone beautiful and sexy like her would go for a guy like me?"

"You're not her type, McGee."

"Why? Because I'm not good looking enough and drive a fancy car like you?" McGee snorted. "You're not her type either."

"No, I'm not."

Tony's mild rejoined wasn't at all what McGee expected. Tony seemed to think every woman had the hots for him. Tony gave him look and McGee flushed knowing Tony knew what he'd been thinking.

"Oh she might give you or me a ride just to see what its like. But we would never be more than scratching an itch."

"Why not?"

"I know people, McGee." Tony rolled his eyes. "Who they sleep with or lust after are usually totally different than who they want to spend the rest of their life with."

Tony toyed with the bottle cap again, looking toward the ceiling. "You and Abby did the wild thing, but she isn't who you'd bring home to meet mom. Which isn't a big deal, 'cause you aren't who she'd bring home either."

Tony sighed. "Five gets you ten that Ziva's got her own personal 'no coworkers' rule that is probably even more iron clad than Gibbs'." He shook his head. "But the real kicker is she's got herself one hell of a daddy complex. Her type will be a lot like dear old dad. And neither of us are much like him."

McGee frowned. "How do you--"

"What turns her crank is someone in power. Man or woman probably doesn't matter to her much." Tony continued as though McGee hadn't spoken. "It just has to be someone who could keep her safe while harboring secrets." Tony smiled wryly. "People in power always have secrets."

McGee rolled his eyes. That sounded like something from one of Tony's movies. "You don't think skill and ability had anything to do with getting ahead?"

"If it were skill and ability then the best guy for the job would always get it." Tony snorted, cynicism clear in his voice and countenance. "Skill and ability get you the interview, McGee. Most of the time, it's who you know and what you got on someone else that gets you a job in a position of power."

Tony pointed a finger at him. "You really think Sheppard got the job as director because she's got all the skills and ability to do the job? May I remind you she assigned Ziva without talking to Gibbs, she issued that dress cod edict and hired Chip."

McGee had to admit those examples showcased a lack of good judgment. Tony pursed his lips. "She may have the politics down. Haven't seen enough to know for sure yet. But as far as experience goes she doesn't have it."

"How do youâ€""

Tony's smile was sly. "I dug into her record."

McGee blinked. "You didn't?"

"I did." Tony nodded. "Pays to know who you are working for."

McGee was impressed in spite of himself. He never would have thought to dig into her past. And even if he had, he wasn't sure he'd have the balls to do it.

"You hacked into her record?"

"Hell, no." Tony laughed softly. "Everything has a hard copy, McGee. If you are persistent, know where to look or who to ask, you can find just about anything."

Tony waved a hand in dismissal. "But that's all off topic." Tony sat forward. "Ziva thinks she can kick your ass. Means she doesn't regard you as an equal. And that more than anything means you aren't going to ever really stand a chance." Green eyes were frank and honest. "If it makes you feel any better, neither will I."

"Would it piss you off if I said yes?"

"Nope." Tony grinned.

"We okay?" McGee asked hesitantly.

"Yeah." Tony leaned forward to grab two slices from the box and put them on the plate he'd left on the coffee table earlier.

McGee blinked. He hadn't expected it to be that easy. But he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth either.

He took a couple of slices for himself. McGee sighed softly. "Why would she invite me and make it seem like it would just be the two of us?"

"It's something every woman in the world does. Look approachable and be unattainable." Tony nibbled the tip of the slice he held. "Kind of the whole origin of sexual tension."

McGee shook his head. "I should have known better."

Tony took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. "Doubt she meant for you to feel like it was going to be more. Me...sure. But you...she likes. She probably was just thanking you for showing her around town. And to make sure you didn't read too much into it she invited Palmer."

"She said he'd tuned her piano." McGee hadn't even known Palmer could do that. But then he didn't know Ziva even had a piano until then.

"Palmer invited Abby."

"He did?" McGee hadn't known that.

"Yeah." Tony snickered. "He's sweet on her. He told her it was a team thing to get her to go. Since Gibbs had already given her a warning on playing nice with Ziva, she kind of felt obligated to go."

McGee nodded. He could see that. "Doesn't explain why Gibbs was there."

"No it doesn't." Tony chuckled. "You want to ask him?"

"Ah...no."

"That's what I thought." Tony grinned. He saluted McGee with his beer. "Me neither."

McGee laughed. God, he'd missed this easy friendship. Not usually very religious, he sent a silent 'thank you' heavenward that Tony wasn't the sort to hold a grudge.

"You want to watch the game?"

"Sure."

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Ziva sighed softly, sipping her coffee, dark eyes looking around her apartment. In spite of all her things being present, it wasn't really home. It was just....a place, storage and little else. It was depressing if she let herself think about how little of her personality and preferences were actually reflected in her furnishings. There was no emotional connection. Everything was tastefully neutral and bland. It spoke of quality but little else.

Everything except for the piano. The finish gleamed dully in the low light, its unusual red lacquer made it stand out as a focal point in the otherwise uninteresting living room.

She sat down on the piano bench and lovingly stroked the ivory keys. Ziva, when she found time to play, played with more determination than skill. Her ability was more the product of hours of practice than passion or talent. The real musician in the family had been her brother, Ari. He'd loved this piano.

Keeping it was sentimental foolishness, but Ziva couldn't bear to give it away. Having Jimmy tune it for her was more sentimental nonsense but she couldn't ignore the instrument any more than she could dispose of it. It was the only thing of Ari's she been able to hang on to.

She fingered an easy melody with one hand, holding her mug in the other. Somehow she hadn't been at all surprised to learn Tony knew how to play. Or that he thought he played well. Of course, she'd have to hear him for herself to know if he'd just been bragging, but somehow she felt certain he was honest about his ability. She was equally certain he would never play for her.

Ziva shook her head. There was a great deal about Tony she really didn't understand. He seemed like such a child, and yet he was dedicated and capable when it came to the job. He wasted hours entertaining himself, but always managed to have what Gibbs asked for.

When they were undercover, pretending to be married, she knew he was never really interested in her sexually. It came as something of a blow to her ego to realize being pressed up against him, nearly naked, he was genuinely not attracted to her. There was no mistaking that. Oh, he'd flirt and tease and give her the once over, but she was clearly not his type. How was that possible? He seemed attracted to every other woman on the planet, acting like a horny teenager.

He knew women; that was certain. Tony couldn't do algebra or math in his head, but he could figure out a woman's height and weight just by looking at her legs. And he made no bones about his appreciation for their...assets.

It wasn't that she wanted him to be attracted to her. He was not her type. But if he was infatuated with her, even just a little, it would give her another leg up on him, a way to control and manipulate with greater ease.

She'd spent too much time involved in espionage to not want to have something on everyone. It was a survival mechanism ingrained for so long it was nearly instinctive.

McGee, he was like a puppy, eager to please and equally easy to cow. He really was afraid of her; knowing she was capable of torturing another human being had certainly cemented the idea in his head that she was dangerous. Jimmy was much the same way, although he was more in awe than fear. Ducky saw her as a lady, and treated her as such. A fatal weakness if it came down to it. He was a chauvinist, but gentlemanly about it. Gibbs, she knew, saw her as a capable agent, but she didn't think he really trusted her. He knew about Ari being her brother and her relationship with her father; she knew about Gibbs wife and daughter, it was a fair trade off.

Her efforts to befriend Abby had so far gone no where. Abby didn't like her and she really didn't know why. The lack of insight was more troubling than the animosity. Abby had hugged her when they'd gotten back from being trapped in the shipping container. Said she was glad Ziva wasn't dead, but that wasn't quite the same as being happy she was alive. Ziva was savvy enough to know the difference.

Tony should have been as easy as McGee. A few insults to his manhood...things like asking McGee to show her around town, questioning Tony's taste in women, making derogatory comments about his car. The sperm bank incident couldn't have given her greater ammunition.

And yet, no matter what she said or did, he never seemed to let it get to him. At least not for long. He was...irrepressible. Tony was forever rising to the bait and making a few hits of his own which surprised her. She never really expected that. It was frustrating and oddly endearing, forcing her to work harder than she thought she'd have to.

She sighed heavily. Getting in digs was less and less satisfying. She didn't want to think of her coworkers as potential enemies. She didn't want to feel the need to know their secrets to ensure compliance and assistance.

She wondered when getting to know her coworkers become more than just ferreting out weaknesses. Ziva wanted to trust them, and she wanted them to trust her. She wanted them to really like her and see her as a member of the team, not just a replacement for Special Agent Todd.

Inviting McGee and Palmer to dinner was more than just a 'thank you' for their help. Although, that had been a big part of it. She loved to cook and wanted to make the first step toward being more than just another coworker, working toward common ground and genuine friendship. It was stupid, but she wanted them to care enough about her to actually fight to leave her desk vacant the way they had for Kate. In Mossad, she'd be replaced the very next day. Her family would sit Shiva, not her coworkers. At the office, it would be business as usual, as though she'd never existed at all.

Palmer asking Abby was a bonus, she'd thought. It was a chance for her to improve her interactions with the other woman, establish a rapport that didn't feel quite so much like a pact of non-aggression. It wasn't a big deal to her that Palmer had lied to get Abby to come. She was fairly certain Abby wouldn't have come any other way, so Ziva had excused the little white lie.

Opting to make Palmer's untruth less of a lie, Ziva had even gone so far as to invite Director Sheppard. They'd been friends...in a manner of speaking. It seemed like the right thing to do to at least invite the other woman. And it never hurt to curry favor, even though she knew the rest of the team didn't hold Sheppard in the same regard as she did.

The last thing Ziva expected was for Sheppard to extend the invitation to Gibbs. Or for the man to show up. He didn't do things with his staff during their off hours, or so she'd been told. She was almost relieved that he didn't stay long. He'd made McGee and Palmer both so nervous Ziva was afraid they wouldn't be able to eat.

She fully understood Gibbs annoyance with Sheppard. She'd invited him or more likely ordered him to attend. Ziva cursed silently. More favors like that from Sheppard and Gibbs would be sending her on a slow boat back to the Middle East and her father. At least Sheppard could have had the decency to let her know she wouldn't be attending.

Ziva hadn't invited Tony because she'd initially only intended for it to be her, McGee and Palmer. It was supposed to be a quiet little dinner; an opening gambit into establishing a better friendship with her coworkers. It snowballed into more before she realized it.

And once it had grown, she'd made the conscious decision to leave him out. Ziva hadn't extended the invite to Tony simply because she hadn't wanted him there. Tony always managed to make himself the center of attention. She felt certain if he'd been there he'd have taken over and she wouldn't have achieved her goal of getting to know the others better or letting them get to know her.

Ziva winced and got up from the piano to dump the remainder of her coffee. She'd read that whole situation wrong. Being smug about getting one over on him hadn't quite panned out the way she'd expected. She thought he would roll with it the way he had everything else. No harm, no...fowl? What sort of stupid expression was that anyway?

She shook her head. It was foolish to think offering to make him dinner would make up for it. Especially once he'd known about her deliberate exclusion. Her calculated insult telling McGee Tony's injury was just a scratch from flying debris, and not a bullet wound, certainly hadn't helped matters.

He had left the office without saying a word. It shamed her that she hadn't even noticed. How could she have missed him? She was a trained operative and a damn good spy.

Following him home and then picking the lock probably wasn't the smartest move she'd ever made. But she couldn't shake the feeling that everything would be worse if she didn't fix it right then. Not that she knew how to fix it, but she had to at least try.

He accepted her apology and sent her on her way. Ziva thought he believed her, that everything was okay between them. But when he didn't show up at work the next day, she realized he'd said enough to pacify her and make her leave. He'd played her, and done a good job of it. She'd never even realized his smile, the kiss on her cheek, the understanding words, it all meant nothing.

She'd gone home and baked a batch of brownies as a second peace offering, wanting to be sure things were good between them. But he wasn't at his desk in the morning. She'd kept the pan hidden in her desk drawer, waiting for him to arrive. He never showed.

Gibbs let them know Tony was taking a week of sick leave...after he'd checked his voice mail and e-mail. She took that to mean Tony hadn't cleared it with Gibbs. The angry countenance on the older man's face was too obvious a clue to miss.

Tony had refused pain meds for his arm, and managed to drive himself home, so Ziva knew his taking time off didn't have anything to do with that injury. She sent out a few feelers for confirmation with Sheppard. The only explanation for Tony's absence she'd gotten was a statement that he'd requested sick leave, and his injury on the job was a viable reason for her to grant it.

Gibbs was nearly impossible to be around all week. Abby was barely speaking to her, and was definitely not saying much to Gibbs. McGee kept sending worried glances towards Tony's desk but wouldn't talk to Ziva about the other man at all. Although, she knew for a fact he'd talked to Abby.

She could see them not being willing to discuss Tony's absence with Gibbs. He was about as approachable as an angry bear on a good day, and it hadn't been a good day since Tony hadn't shown up at work. But their leaving her out bothered her more than she thought it would. Did they really think her so heartless and callow that she would not care about Tony having left without a word? Did they think she wouldn't help them look for him, or join them in a united front to demand answers from Gibbs?

Ziva grimaced, rinsing out her mug. Abby had no doubt thought so. McGee...it was hard to say for sure. Other than not discussing his worry over Tony, he treated her the same way he always had.

Ziva had been hesitant to do her own digging into Tony's whereabouts. The people she could ask would no doubt pursue deeper than she wanted them to go, assuming him to be a 'person of interest' with regard to an issue of security. And she wasn't prepared to explain to them why she wanted to know.

She'd planned to be to the office early Monday morning. She hadn't counted on the bus being late. She'd only gotten a glimpse of Tony, barely enough to see he looked okay, before being sent into the field to investigate the murder of Petty Officer Virginia Simms.

She'd expected him to go with them. She had thought perhaps Gibbs leaving Tony behind was a form of punishment until she'd asked McGee. It was embarrassing to realize she wasn't familiar with the regulations. She made a note to get a copy and read them as soon as possible.

Spending most of the day looking for the bullet or the casing hadn't been much fun. Even with a metal detector the job had been tedious and exhausting. She was surprised to find herself missing the companionship of the others.

She watched both Gibbs and McGee sending glances Tony's way as they worked on wrapping up the case and documenting everything. She'd sent him a few concerned looks of her own when none of the expected commentary had been made. Tony had barely spoken ten words when they returned.

She wanted to be amused and see Tony's silence as him sulking like a child, but she couldn't. He wasn't pouting, he was productive. He wasn't making derogatory comments or trying to show her up; he was focused on his part of the case. He wasn't trying to draw attention; he was the very model of professional.

Ziva hated it. She would never admit it, but she'd missed him. The week he was gone had been interminable. And it was worse with him back in the office acting....god, acting like an adult. It was unnatural.

She wanted to talk to him, but never got the chance to confront him. She couldn't tell if that was by design or just happenstance. Either way, it left her stymied.

McGee leaving as he had, telling her nothing was disconcerting. She'd grown accustomed to him offering information freely. Tony had told her in that box sharing information was a process of give and take. While Tony never seemed to mind continuing to give, perhaps McGee had begun to understand she rarely responded in kind.

Damn. Yet another pitfall in this friendship thing. She couldn't expect any of them to keep opening up to her if she wouldn't return the favor. Why the hell did it have to be Tony who managed to point this out? All without saying a word.

Gibbs had spoken to Tony before he left work yesterday. She hadn't been able to hear what was said, but things were clearly fine between them. She snorted delicately. It would take more than her and one stupid dinner party to drive a wedge between those two. Tony respected Gibbs; was more loyal to the older man than a good dog. And it shamed her to think she'd once given the same measure of loyalty and trust to a man who was far less worthy of it than Gibbs.

She tied back her hair and pulled on her shoes. She needed to talk to Tony, alone, uninterrupted. The others might not realize it, but they would follow his lead. If he was once more on good terms with her, they would be as well.

Her best chance of speaking to him was somewhere private, but she didn't think he'd take her up on a dinner invitation. Sneaking up on him and cornering him somewhere in the office wasn't a viable option either. So far she'd only managed to sneak up on him when he was otherwise distracted.

Following him home had already proven to be a mistake. She wasn't going to make that one again. She grimaced remembering the way she'd flinched away from him when he looked ready to hit her. She was not afraid of him, but he had both height and weight on her. If he'd wanted to inflict serious damage, he could. Given how she'd grabbed his injured arm, he had every right to want to.

Tony had to re-qualify on the firing range. And he should be doing that today. It might be her best chance of getting a moment alone with him. Gibbs had told her she needed to work on improving her aim, so it wasn't like she didn't have a good excuse for being there.

That chastisement still stung. She had defended her ability, mentioning the perp she'd shot in the foot though the barely opened container door. Gibbs had not been impressed, giving her an icy glare and telling her that hitting target of opportunity, out of desperation, was not the same thing as having good aim or being able to pick her shot. Damn, but he was impossible to please.

She locked the door behind her as she left her place. She'd picked this apartment because it was only a block from the bus stop. Although, the convenience of that was moot on days when Gibbs called the team in on a case before the bus began running or had them stay long after the busses stopped for the night. She might really have to look into acquiring a car or motorbike.

The office was quiet when she arrived. The security of the building was hardly up to Israeli standards, but then Americans didn't face the same sort of daily threats, or at least they hadn't until recently. She envied them their sense of invulnerability even as she considered them fools for ever thinking no one could or would attack them on their own turf.

She'd just settled in at her desk when Tony walked in. He was dressed a bit more casually today than yesterday. The jeans he had on really did nice things for his ass. Not that I really look, Ziva told herself, or that there is anything wrong with looking if I did.

"Good morning, Tony."

"Morning." He nodded to her, dropping his pack on the floor. He powered up his computer and proceeded to ignore her.

She wanted to say something, but had no idea what. Until recently, Tony had always given her an opening, a starting point. To her chagrin, idle conversation was a hell of a lot harder than Tony made it seem.

McGee breezed in a moment later, interrupting her search for something to say. He smiled at her and tossed a DVD case lightly on Tony's desk as he walked by. Tony gave McGee a quick grin, raising both eyebrows.

"You watched it already?"

"Yeah."

Tony chuckled. "Like it?"

"I did." McGee dropped his pack near his desk, pulling his chair out before turning to face Tony again.

"Told you so." Tony laughed. He waggled his eyebrows. "It was her ass in those leather pants, wasn't it?"

McGee rolled his eyes, but didn't deny it. "You see the sequel?"

"Not yet." Tony shrugged. "Was going to catch it this weekend, if we aren't tied up with a case. You want to go?"

"Sure." McGee smiled.

Ziva bit her tongue. She wished Tony would include her in the invitation as well, even though she had no idea what they were talking about. She envied McGee's easy rapport and wished she knew how he'd managed to re-establish an even keel with Tony. Apparently, McGee was even smarter than she realized.

"I should invite Abby." McGee looked at Tony, making the statement sound more like a question.

"Definitely." Tony agreed with a nod. "Sort of thing is right up her alley."

"What is right up her alley?" Gibbs asked, startling Ziva as he rounded the corner, coffee cup in hand.

"Vampires and werewolves." Tony answered without missing a beat.

"Okay." Gibbs didn't even blink. If anything he looked relieved to have walked into the midst of a 'normal' conversation.

"What time is your appointment, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked as he powered up his computer.

"Nine thirty." Tony grimaced. "Couldn't get in any sooner."

Gibbs nodded, glancing up from his computer screen. "Shooting range afterward."

It was not so much a question as an order, but Tony answered anyway. "That's the plan, Boss."

"Good." Gibbs nodded, lips curling upward in a small smile. "Want you back in the field, ASAP."

Tony tipped his head, smiling broadly in return. He was obviously taking that statement and little smile as a compliment. And well he should, Ziva thought to herself. It was as close as Gibbs seemed capable of getting when it came to handing out praise.

"Take Ziva with you." Blue eyes pinned her with a hard look. "She could use the practice."

"Will do, Boss." Tony arched an eyebrow at her but didn't comment directly. He hadn't been present when Gibbs had dressed her down about her aim and she didn't see any reason to rehash that with Tony if she didn't have to.

"I'll be in MTAC." Gibbs picked up his coffee and headed upstairs without another word.

Ziva sighed, wondering why she still found it hard to get used to someone as brusque as Gibbs. Sheppard apparently had no trouble getting used to it, or even looking past it to find it attractive. Although, she definitely hadn't been pleased when Gibbs failed to notice her new hair cut. Maybe that was why she made him go to Ziva's dinner party. Tit for tat. Another strange expression Ziva didn't understand.

She immersed herself in work, doing her best to ignore the fact that she still had no clear idea of what to say to Tony. She was sorely tempted to e-mail McGee and ask for advice. He'd obviously known what to say or do to make things right. But then she'd have to admit she'd noticed things weren't right, and that she might be the reason. She was beginning to understand why Gibbs said so little.

"You ready?"

The question startled her. Only habit and good training kept it from showing. "Excuse me?"

Tony cocked his head to one side. "Are you ready to go?"

He tapped his watch, drawing her attention to the time and making her realize just how long she'd been lost in thought. "Takes twenty minutes to get to the doctor's office. Should take less than five minutes to get the stitches out. Only ten to the shooting range from there." He shrugged. "Figured you'd want to ride along...unless you'd rather meet meâ€""

"I'm ready." Ziva stood up, not wanting him to leave her behind. Maybe she would think of something to say along the way. Tony had to be easier to talk to in the car than it was trying to have a conversation with Gibbs.

She was wrong she discovered. Tony had the radio on and seemed perfectly content to let the music fill the silence. He tapped his thumbs against the steering wheel, keeping time with the music.

He drove without the casual disregard for other drivers that Ziva and Gibbs typically had. While he didn't obey the speed limit, Tony didn't have his foot to the floor either, maintaining a smooth, steady pace. Ziva should have expected that. Tony's car was his pride and joy; he wouldn't treat it badly.

"This is a beautiful car." Ziva tossed out in desperation hoping to get him talking.

Tony smiled, long fingers moved to lightly stroke the dash in a loving caress. "That she is."

"She?"

Tony glanced her way. "She."

"Cars do not have a gender," Ziva asserted.

"Only because you drive them that way." He shrugged one shoulder, and reached to turn the radio up.

"What does that mean?" She was tempted to turn the radio off but refrained uncertain of how he'd react.

"You don't get it." Tony made a meaningless gesture with one hand. "And I can't explain it."

She stifled the urge to scowl. "I'm tired of not understanding." She muttered quietly to herself.

"You'll get the hang of it...eventually," Tony offered with a smile, sounding encouraging rather than condescending as she'd expected.

"Thanks." Ziva blinked in surprise when it registered that he'd heard her. That was amazing given how softly she'd spoken. The volume of the radio and road noise should have covered her voice completely.

His smile morphed into a smirk. "I got good ears."

That wasn't in his file. His better than average eyesight had been noted, but nothing about his hearing.

"Might come as a shock to you...but not everything worth knowing about people is written down." Tony grinned at her, green eyes bright with merriment. "It's what makes them interesting."

He executed a surprisingly fast turn, pulling into a lot and parking place with seamless precision. Tony turned the car off. "Can wait here if you want. Or come in. Choice is yours." And with that he was out of the car.

Ziva huffed out a curse in Hebrew. He was more frustrating than Gibbs some days. At least Gibbs she understood. Or at least she thought she did. Tony was just so... so...confusing.

She got out of the car and followed him, stretching her legs to catch up and then keep pace with Tony. He wasn't even actively trying to outdistance her, but his longer legs simply made it easier for him to cover more ground. At times Ziva hated being so short.

Tony held the door for a pretty woman who was on her way out. They exchanged smiles and greeted each other with a polite good morning. It annoyed Ziva that this stranger got a warmer response from Tony than she had. He didn't hold the door for her either.

Tony checked in with the receptionist. Her name tag indicated her name was Nancy. She smiled warmly at Tony.

"Hello again, Mr. DiNozzo."

"Hello yourself, Mrs. Kennison." Tony leaned against the counter. "When are you going to come to your senses, pretty lady, and let me take you away from all this?"

"To the Casba perhaps? The French Riviera?" She winked at him, dark eyes sparkling. She clearly didn't mind his flirting.

"Those places are overrated." Tony countered. "I was thinking something more tropical. St. Thomas perhaps?"

Nancy appeared to be thinking it over. She looked coyly up at Tony. "And what about my husband?"

"Bring him along." Tony shrugged, giving her a sly look. "He can look after the children. He loves spending time with the boys."

Nancy laughed out loud, a rich, warm sound of amusement. "I'll be sure to tell Larry you said so."

"Tell me what?" Asked a man in a white lab coat, stethoscope draped around his neck.

"Just trying to convince your wife to run away with me." Tony answered with a cheeky grin. Ziva was surprised by the honest answer, and that the doctor didn't appear at all upset by it.

Larry raised both eyebrows. "You take the damn dog with her and it's a deal."

Tony snickered. "Puppy eat another pair of shoes?"

"Second pair." Larry confirmed with a scowl. "The little menace."

"If you picked up after yourself and didn't leave them in the hallwayâ€""

"Yeah, yeah." Larry rolled his eyes at his wife. He handed Nancy a chart. "Mr. Samuels is getting dressed. He should be out in a minute or two."

Nancy nodded. "Are you referring him?"

"Yeah. Fax the information over to Dr. Martin, will you?"

"I'll take care of it, honey." She handed him another chart, nodding to Tony. "Mr. DiNozzo is ready for you."

"Come on back, Tony."

Since no one told her to wait, Ziva followed. If Larry thought it odd that she went with them or that Tony didn't introduce her, he didn't say anything. Larry led them to an examine room; it was the same small space that nearly every doctor's office in the world had.

Tony shrugged out of his jacket and swiftly unbuttoned his shirt. He laid both on the table. The sleeveless undershirt he had on revealed the small bandage still covering the wound on his upper right arm.

"Kept it covered like I told you to?"

"Mostly." Tony admitted ruefully. "Forgot a couple of times."

Larry sighed and shook his head. He pointed to the table. "Have a seat."

Larry undid the bandage with neat, elegant movements that spoke of both practice and compassion. The black thread of the stitches stood out in contrast to the newly healed pink skin. Ziva knew it would ultimately fade to a pale scar after time. She had similar scars of her own.

"Looks like you popped two." Larry's hazel eyes met Tony's green counterparts.

"Better than I usually do." Tony's cavalier reply made Ziva wonder just how often he'd had stitches in the past.

Larry gave Tony a hard look. "I told you to take it easy."

"I did." Tony protested. He jerked his head in Ziva's direction. "Can ask her. I even took a week off."

"Who is she anyway?" Larry asked reaching for sterile tools to remove the stitches.

"Ziva David." Tony glanced down, watching Larry work. "New teammate."

Ziva resisted the urge to growl that she was right there. They didn't have to talk about her like she wasn't. But she was oddly hesitant to interject. If Larry acknowledged her presence, he might just ask her to leave, and she found she didn't really want to do that.

"Permanent replacement?" Larry leaned in closer as he worked.

"Looks that way." Tony hissed when the thread pulled at tender skin.

"Sorry." Larry offered, and he sounded sincere.

"S'okay."

"Healed well." Larry nodded as the last one was removed. "It would have been a nice clean line if you'd done what I told you to."

"You're just mad 'cause I messed up your handiwork." Tony chuckled. "Not like it'll be my only scar, Doc."

"You shouldn't be proud of that." Larry grimaced. "Nancy worries."

Tony looked away, a trace of genuine remorse in his expression. "Sorry about that."

Larry smiled. "If she didn't like you--"

"So you're okay with it if I send her flowers?" Tony asked, grinning broadly.

"If you sign my name to the card like you did the last time, sure."

"Can do." Tony laughed. He patted Larry on the shoulder, reaching for his shirt. "Damn glad you still work those hours at the ER, Doc. Best thread man in the business."

Larry snorted. He pointed to the ragged scar on Tony's left shoulder. "Better than the guy who did that one, that's for sure."

"That one didn't have stitches." Tony pulled on his shirt.

Larry's eyes narrowed. "It should have."

"Was a long time ago, Doc." Tony swiftly did up the buttons. "Healed okay. No worries."

Ziva's curiosity was piqued. Why would he not have gotten stitches for a wound that required it? Macho stuff or something else? He hadn't hesitated to get stitches for the bullet wound. Maybe the other was something embarrassing?

Tony undid his pants and tucked his shirt in without a hint of embarrassment. But then, she'd already seen him practically naked, there was no reason for him to be modest now. He grabbed his jacket.

"Thanks again, Doc."

"You're welcome."

They stepped into the hall where Nancy met him with another chart and pointed to the exam room door across the hall. She took Tony's chart from Larry. He nodded to her and said good-bye to Tony again before heading off.

Tony followed Nancy back to the front of the office. Ziva trailed after, feeling more like an outsider than ever before. Tony leaned into say something to Nancy and she laughed again, backhanding him lightly in the chest.

Tony slid into his jacket with an economy of grace Ziva unconsciously envied. He did move well. His file said he knew how to dance, but didn't give any indication of his expertise or what style. She had a feeling, that like his skill with the piano, his ability to dance would never be something she'd get to experience first hand. There was a strange ache in her chest at that thought.

She followed him to the car. "You could have introduced me."

"Could have introduced yourself, Officer David." Tony pointed out, meeting her gaze squarely over the roof of the car. "You've never had any trouble doing it before."

"I didn't want to interrupt," she said rather than admit she hadn't even known why she'd followed him like a second shadow, staying mute the entire time.

"Then you should have stayed in the car." Tony opened the door and slipped into the driver's seat.

"It's cold out."

"We spent ten hours in that shipping container." Tony gave her a considering look. "And ten minutes in the car would be too much?"

Ziva's jaw tightened in annoyance. "You said it was my choice."

"Staying silent was yours too." He started the car, effectively ending the conversation.

She clenched her jaw in annoyance. It was a good thing they were going to the shooting range. She could take out some of her frustration there.

Tony changed the radio station before pulling out into the street. Ziva didn't recognize the song, but Tony evidently did. He was once more tapping his thumbs against the wheel, even humming along with parts.

He hadn't lied when he told her the shooting range was only a few minutes from the doctor's office. Ziva made note of the location for future reference. She would have no trouble coming back here on her own in the future.

He pulled into a parking spot and turned off the car. Tony reached across to open the glove box, his knuckles lightly brushing her knees in the confined space. He reached in to the compartment and withdrew two clips of ammo.

"You keep extra clips?"

"And you carry a spare gun." He arched an eyebrow. "Any other statements of the obvious you'd care to trade?"

"No." She bit out, surprised by how much his sarcasm annoyed her.

"Okay." He smiled, unrepentant, and got out of the car.

She followed him, wishing she knew how to read him better. Was he angry with her or not? Did he really not care, or was he doing things deliberately to piss her off?

Tony showed his badge at the door. It was required to gain access because the shooting range was reserved for government personnel, and was used by multiple agencies. Ziva's badge, which had both Hebrew and English lettering, earned her a second look, but Tony's 'she's with me' was enough to make the guard let her pass without comment. She was fully capable of ensuring her own clearance, but Ziva was glad she didn't have to. It was oddly reassuring to have Tony 'claim' her.

Tony pulled a pair of soft earplugs from his pocket, offering her a pair still in a sealed plastic bag. She pointed to the hard plastic hearing protective devices that hung from various hooks along the wall. "You don't use those?"

"I use both." Tony shrugged. "Good ears and I want to keep them that way."

Ziva nodded, appreciating his practical explanation. Even with a wall separating them from where shooters were currently practicing, the low thunder echoed, carrying to them easily. She took the earplugs he offered before grabbing a pair of others from the wall.

There were only a few spaces available in the gallery. Ziva made a note to check and see if there was a time when the facility was less crowded. Tony moved to the end of the row, shrugging out of his jacket as he went, hanging it on one of the hooks provided for that purpose.

Ziva took the spot next to his. She pulled out her primary weapon as well as her back up. She clipped a fresh paper target to the line and sent it out to fifty feet. She saw Tony's target move out to the same distance.

She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly as she aimed. Her father had taught her how to shoot. Had shown her how to take her time and squeeze the trigger not jerk it, how to brace for the recoil without flinching, how to shut out sounds of things going on around her. She aimed for center mass first, emptying the clip with steady precision.

As she hit the button to retrieve the target she saw Tony doing the same. She pursed her lips when she saw his shots hadn't been placed in a grouping like her own. Tony clearly hadn't been aiming for lethal hits. He'd neatly place three shots in each arm, and three in each leg.

Not technically within the standard bulls-eye, such wounding shots didn't result in a high score. But they were accurate and had definitely been placed intentionally. There was less than an inch between each shot, the tightly grouped holes covering less than a hand span on each of the target's limbs.

Ziva frowned. She didn't actually know what was required to qualify. She cursed her ignorance of the regulations. She should have looked before leaving the office. They didn't officially apply to her since she was a liaison and not a special agent, but she didn't want to give Gibbs any reason to find her wanting.

She reloaded, and sent out a second paper target. She took a slow breath and this time aimed to take the same shots Tony had the first time. It proved to be harder than she thought, forcing her to tighten her aim more than she expected.

Ziva grimaced as she brought her target back to her. Hitting each arm and leg once was fairly simple. Repeatedly was definitely more of a challenge. She shook her head, impressed in spite of herself with how much better Tony had done than she had. Her groupings were no where near as tight, and she'd missed the left arm twice.

She felt somewhat vindicated when she saw Tony's new target come back. He'd gone for center mass shots this time. His grouping was similar to hers, except that he had selected the center of the target's chest where as she'd aimed for the heart.

It would give her a higher score. Which in here was what she thought counted. But had the target been moving, Tony's choice would have improved the odds of a kill shot. She was beginning to suspect that Tony wasn't shooting to meet NCIS requirements but rather to meet Gibbs no doubt more exacting standards.

She cursed again and reloaded. Nothing was ever simple. Ever.

She sent out another target. Took careful aim and emptied the clip. Pulling the target back to her she smiled. Head shots were always satisfying.

She glanced over at Tony's target and noticed he'd aimed for head shots as well. His aim had placed his shots lower than hers so that he'd have been taking out the targets eyes, if it had them. Hers would have been in the forehead.

She saw Tony attached a new target, sending this one out to seventy-five feet. She stepped out of her cubicle to stand behind him. She waited, leaning against the wall as he took his shots, curious to see what he had in mind this time.

His stance was relaxed, natural. His focus was solely on the target. She doubted he even knew she was behind him. He emptied the clip with neat efficiency, unhurried and smooth.

As the target came back, she saw he'd put placed two shots in the head, two in the heart, and one in each limb. Ziva had never even seen him adjust his aim. She stepped back to her own cubicle determined to do as well. She attached a new target and sent it out to seventy-five feet. A slow deep breath and take aim. She didn't fire as rapidly as Tony had, taking her time to do it right and correct any earlier mistakes, sacrificing speed for accuracy.

She glared at the target when she saw she'd still missed two arm shots. Damn. It was definitely harder to aim to wound than kill. It was a smaller target area, and in the real world, arms and legs had greater range motion making them harder to hit.

The tap on her shoulder startled her. She looked up to find Tony standing behind her. He didn't say anything, and she belatedly understood she wouldn't have been able to hear him through the ear protection she still wore. He held up one hand fingers splayed before tapping his watch. She nodded her understanding, five minutes and he'd be ready to leave.

He stepped back into his cubicle and sent out a final target. Ziva sent a final one for herself as well. She picked up her back up piece. Her arms and shoulders ached slightly from emptying four clips in such a short time frame, but she was game for one more.

She saw Tony had only sent this target out thirty feet. Ziva sent her out the same distance. The target seemed huge in comparison to the earlier distance. She put three in the head and three in the heart.

As Tony's target came back she saw he'd opted for head and chest shots as well. Ziva smiled. At least this time she felt they were equal.

She reloaded her weapons, and holstered them. Ziva gathered up her targets. She already knew Gibbs would want to see them. She wondered what sort of comment he'd make about her misses, and wasn't really looking forward to it.

Tony had shrugged into his jacket and his own targets in hand. As they walked past the other shooters, Ziva noted a few more cubicles had opened up. She nodded herself, noting the time for future reference.

She hung up the hard plastic ear protectors on the wall. Tony did the same, pulling out his ear plugs. He pinched his nose and she knew he was popping his ears. She resisted the urge to do the same, not wanting him to know wearing the protective devices had bothered her.

She followed him out, blinking the bright sunshine. Ziva sighed softly. She felt more relaxed than she had in days.

She saw Tony rub his arm and wondered if he'd overdone it. "You okay?"

"Fine." He immediately dropped his hand. "Just a little sore."

Ziva found she preferred his overdone play for sympathy to this polite, not quite honest answer. He was shutting her out again. Determined to act now, she stepped in front of him. She had already waited too damn long.

"Is everything okay between us?"

He cocked his head, looking down at her. "Why wouldn't it be?"

She bit back the urge to shake him. They'd already had this conversation, or at least a version of it. And he'd pacified her with what she'd wanted to hear. She didn't want to go that route again. She wanted to start over, fresh, on equal footing this time.

"I want a do again," she declared firmly.

He frowned. "A what?"

"A do again." She made a frustrated hand gesture. "You know...when you get another chance."

"You mean a do over."

"Yes," she agreed. "I want one of those."

He arched an eyebrow, green eyes regarding her steadily. She felt like he was looking through her, into her, searching for what hidden agenda she might have for making the request. That dull ache in her chest was back as she realized she'd given him every reason to question her motives, to be suspicious of her offering an olive branch. Ziva tried not to fidget under his gaze and waited for him to say something.

"That's only going to work if you intend to actually do something different this time." He spoke softly, a hint of wariness in his voice. "Otherwise it is just the same song and dance."

She swallowed hard and nodded. "New song. New dance." She didn't want to always be at arms length, never fully trusted or liked or a real part of the team. She wanted to be climb out of the box her father and the Mossad had trapped her in, to start fresh, be something and someone new. She wanted...needed this chance. "Please."

"Not everyone gets a second chance."

She bit her lower lip, trying not to read too much into that comment. "I know."

He nodded once, and smiled. It was the same warm, open smile he gave her that night in his apartment. She couldn't tell if he actually meant it this time or not, but he held out his hand. "Hi. I'm Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. I hear you'll be working with the team for awhile."

She found herself smiling back, and shook his hand firmly. "Officer Ziva David. It is a pleasure to meet you, Agent DiNozzo."

"Call me Tony." He grinned and gave her a wink.

She grinned back. She felt more lighthearted and positive than she had since she walked into the NICS office with her transfer orders.

"Let's grab lunch." Tony tossed out as he unlocked the car door.

"It's only eleven." She slid into the passenger seat.

"Will be nearly noon by the time we get back to the office," he pointed out. He held out his spare clips to her, and Ziva automatically took them, returning them to the glove box.

"We'll get something for McGee and Gibbs while we're at it."

"What about Abby?"

"Her too." Tony reached once more to change the radio station as he pulled out into traffic. He pulled a pair of high end sun glasses from the visor and put them on.

"What are you in the mood for?" He asked as he headed back toward the office.

"Whatever you'd like." At the moment she didn't care, just as long as she was included, was considered part of the team.

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs sighed softly, rubbing one temple. Everything was back to 'normal' on his team. Hell, it was better than normal. He had no idea exactly what had transpired between Tony, Abby, McGee and Ziva but something clearly had.

There was no more subtle tension or aberrant behavior from Tony at the office. Gibbs laughed quietly to himself. It was a mark of just how different his team was when 'aberrant behavior' meant focused on the job, not trading insults and or teasing coworkers. As long as it worked, Gibbs didn't care. He never thought he'd be glad to hear another stupid movie or pop culture reference, or be grateful for a chance to smack Tony, or have the opportunity to eavesdrop on his team as they discussed the strangest things.

What bothered him was that he still had no clear idea of where Tony went the week he'd been off. And he didn't know why Tony had requested the week off in the first place. Or what the others had done to fix whatever the hell was wrong.

This lack of knowledge nagged at him. He hated not knowing what happened. Or why.

Tony had needed the week off. Needed it. Not just wanted it or he'd have never done an end run around Gibbs. Gibbs hadn't realized until Tony was back just how much stress he'd been under. It was unforgivable to have overlooked the younger man's health and well being, to have risked him so carelessly. He'd seen other agents and soldiers burn out, had seen the results of those breakdowns. It was never pretty.

Why had he assumed Tony wouldn't fall prey to that, wouldn't crack under the strain? What was most important to Gibbs was that he still didn't know what had been the final straw. What was it that made Tony actually do something he'd never done before, ask for sick leave?

Not only had Tony taken the week, he'd gone to ground. He had a place to go and friends he'd never mentioned. Tony didn't keep secrets. Or rather Gibbs assumed he didn't. It was disconcerting to find out he'd been wrong about that. It made him wonder just what else he was wrong about.

Since Tony had re-qualified for field duty things were good. Gibbs was leery of asking too many questions, unwilling to risk upsetting the delicate balance that was once more back in place. But if he didn't know for sure what had made Tony leave, how could he be sure it wouldn't happen again? How the hell was he supposed to help if he never knew what to look for? If he didn't know where he went, how was he supposed to be able to bring him back?

Those questions were why Gibbs found himself sitting in his car, once more in front of Tony's apartment. At least he wasn't staking it out this time...he hadn't been sitting there long enough to qualify for that. He knew Tony was home; his car was in its usual spot, the lights were on in his apartment. Gibbs even had dinner in the car to bribe his way inside. It gave him a good reason to be there, or at least a reasonable cover if nothing else.

Gibbs took a deep breath. He grabbed the bag of Chinese takeout and headed up to Tony's apartment. He wasn't as clear on Tony's preferences when it came to Chinese as he was with pizza. Tony rarely refused anything when offered, and had expressed a fondness for nearly everything on the menu.

He knocked, rapping his knuckles sharply against the door. Why the hell Tony didn't have a doorbell was another mystery. The man had every other sort of electronic gadget or gizmo.

Tony opened the door, holding his cell phone. He was obviously in the middle of a conversation. "Mike that's just the dumbest idea you've had yet for getting rid of the damn thing." Tony chuckled, his attention was clearly more on the person he was speaking to than who was at his door. He frowned when green eyes met blue. "Mike, can I call you back later?...Oh yeah, definitely...Later, man."

"What's up, Boss?" Tony snapped the phone shut, returning it to his belt clip. "We got a case?"

"No." Gibbs held up the white bag. "I brought dinner."

Tony arched an eyebrow, and moved back, holding the door open by way of an invitation. Gibbs heard him mutter, "I should have told people I preferred fine jewelry and nice shoes." He wasn't sure what to make of that comment, but Tony sounded more amused than anything else.

"You want a beer?" Tony asked.

"Sure."

Gibbs headed for the living room. The TV was on with the sound muted; an old black and white movie Gibbs couldn't place was playing. His eyebrows rose when he noticed an open copy of Leatherneck lying on the coffee table. Under it was the newest issue of MIT, Military Information Technology. He knew Tony stayed abreast of the latest weapons, jargon and acronyms, but had never given much thought to how.

Tony handed him a bottle, before gathering up the magazines and dropping them casually in a small wooden rack near the easy chair. From where he stood, Gibbs could see Maxim and Playboy were in there as well, just as he expected. It was oddly reassuring to know he wasn't completely clueless where Tony was concerned.

He glanced at the beer in his hand. "Not your usual stuff."

Tony shrugged. "McGee brought it."

Gibbs frowned at the bottle. "You hate this brand."

"He doesn't know that." Tony laughed softly as he sat in the overstuffed recliner, placing his own bottle on the small end table.

"And you didn't tell him becauseâ€""Gibbs made a 'go on' motion, taking a seat on the couch.

"He was making the effort." Tony shrugged. "No reason to let him know he missed the mark when it didn't really matter." Tony smiled. "Besides, it's free."

Gibbs found himself smiling in return. Practicality wasn't a trait he typically associated with Tony, but the younger man was no fool either. He made note of the fact that McGee had been by...with beer...and Tony's earlier cryptic comment suddenly made more sense.

"So what did Abby give you?"

Tony snickered. "You mean other than the black roses?"

"Yeah, other than those." Gibbs still wasn't sure that bouquet hadn't been dead when Abby gave them to Tony.

Tony cocked his head to one side, his gaze shifting to something only he could see. "Abby gave me a view from outside the box."

Gibbs wasn't sure how to ask him to explain that, or if he even wanted to know. "And Ziva?" The question was a shot in the dark, but Gibbs was curious to see if he was right.

Tony shrugged one shoulder. "A chance to pay it forward."

Gibbs frowned. That cryptic comment he couldn't let go. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Some times you don't get the chance to return a favor." Tony sighed softly. His gaze moved to rest on a framed photograph of an older man that sat on top of the bookshelf loaded with neatly racked DVD's. Gibbs didn't recognize the man, but there was a faint family resemblance. Tony smiled gently. "Once in awhile, though, you get the chance to pass the favor on."

Tony cleared his throat, and pointed to the bag Gibbs had placed on the coffee table. "I smell General Tso chicken." He took a deep breath. "And if I'm not mistaken, Mongolian beef with broccoli."

Gibbs nodded. He knew better than to try and steer the conversation in a direction Tony clearly wasn't willing to go. He stifled the urge to push. It was frustrating not to know any more than he had when he walked in, with the possible exception that McGee didn't have a clue about what brand of beer Tony liked.

Gibbs opened his mediocre beer, and took a swallow instead of saying anything. Tony reached into the bag, grabbed one of the little cartons and a plastic fork. He offered it to Gibbs before taking another for himself.

"So, you want to tell me why you stopped by bearing gifts or you want me to guess?" Tony grinned, shaking his head. "Damn, déjà vu all over again."

"What?"

"I asked McGee pretty much the same question just the other day." Tony chuckled. "Not that I mind having people bring me dinner, but for future reference, you don't need a bribe." Tony's eyes sparkled with amusement.

Gibbs hoped he didn't look as embarrassed as he felt. He wasn't exactly famous for being subtle. But it was disconcerting to be called on the carpet for being so blatantly obvious.

"I've got half a dozen places that deliver on speed dial. I can order in any time you want to just show up." Tony took a small bite of chicken. "I don't mind having company for dinner."

Tony speared another piece of chicken with his fork. "You going to say anything or are you waiting for me to figure out how to read your mind?" The younger man gave him a rueful glance. "Got to tell you, Boss, we're going to be here forever if you're waiting on the second option."

Gibbs stifled a smile. "Forever, hunh?"

"Well, as close as we can come, I guess." Tony shrugged, giving Gibbs a quick grin.

Gibbs sipped his beer. He sighed silently. "Last time I was here, you told me it didn't matter why you took the week off--"

"But you still want to know." Tony sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees, one hand still loosely holding the small takeout box.

"Yeah." Gibbs didn't just want to know, he needed to know.

"Why?" Tony arched an eyebrow.

"It's been a rough year." Gibbs made eye contact and held it.

"Bit of an understatement there, Boss."

Gibbs nodded. "Agents have burned out over less."

"I'm not going to eat my gun." Tony shook his head. "Was never even close to that."

Gibbs could feel something inside him loosen at Tony's honest declaration. He never really thought Tony would do something so dramatic or stupid, but he felt better hearing it just the same. Having Tony out for a week had been hell; he wasn't sure he could handle never seeing him again.

"You know," Tony's lips curled into a half smile, "knowing what the final straw was this time won't help you the next time."

"What?"

"That's the reason you want to know why I took the week, right? So you can make sure it doesn't happen again?"

Gibbs stared at him. He hadn't expected Tony to be quick at getting to the point, or hit the mark so easily. Tony put his box of takeout on the coffee table. He loosely wove his fingers together, gaze on the floor.

"Final straw is always different, Boss." Tony sighed, looking up, a small, pensive frown between his brows. "Kind of the reason why no one ever sees it coming, no matter how freaking obvious it should be. It's only after everything has gone to shit that you find out just how much was too much."

"If that was supposed to be reassuring," Gibbs grimaced, "you missed it by a mile."

"Just honest." Tony shrugged one shoulder. Green eyes met blue. "Hasn't exactly been an easy year for you either. But I'm not sure I'd know what to look for to see if you were starting to crack. Hell, I wouldn't know what to look for in McGee either, and I know you a hell of a lot better than I know him."

"I'm building a boat in my basement, DiNozzo," Gibbs stated dryly. "And McGee has an online persona that's an elf lord. Some people would say we've already cracked."

"Some people are idiots." Tony laughed softly. "We all find a way to cope, Boss. Nothing wrong with that."

"Junk food, right?" Gibbs smiled.

"Most of the time." Tony sighed, reaching for his beer. "But that's not always enough. Any more than the boat is always enough for you."

Gibbs managed to cover his surprise. He hadn't realized Tony knew the boat wasn't always enough. But then no one ever quite got him the way Tony did. He wondered if the younger man knew what he did when working on the boat didn't help, but he didn't ask. He wasn't really ready to find out exactly how well Tony knew him.

"I'm thinking candy bars and pizza aren't always enough for you." Gibbs said slowly, trying not to appear as hesitant as he felt. He choked back the real question, why hadn't Tony asked him for help or said something before just taking off, and asked instead, "Where did you go?"

Tony sipped his beer. Gibbs could almost see him weighing his choices. He waited silently, letting Tony make his own decision.

"I have a place in Virginia. Just outside the little town of Grottos." Tony finally offered quietly after a long moment of silence. "It's not much, but it's quiet and far enough away from the day to day stuff that I can take time to get my head screwed on straight."

Gibbs frowned. "Why didn't you just tell me that when I asked before?"

"Couple of reasons." Tony sighed, and took another sip from his beer. "One that makes the most sense is I didn't exactly get my head on straight this last time. Was a little cross threaded I guess."

Tony smiled sheepishly. "Found out I needed the time off more than I thought I did. First two days all I did was eat and sleep." The younger man sighed softly, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Went there expecting to deal with one thing, and found myself thinking about a lot of others."

Gibbs nodded, remembering his mental list of things that had happened in the last year. He still wasn't sure what had made Tony leave, but if taking a week off had given him a chance to come to terms with even one thing on that list, to take some time and recoup, it had been worth it.

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. "Thing I went there to work out...well, that had to be dealt with here, not there. And I hadn't done that yet when you stopped by the last time. So I was still...tetchy."

Tetchy? Gibbs mentally translated that into pissed. It definitely explained the cool reception he'd gotten the last time he stopped by. It was probably warranted. He was always doing stuff that pissed people off; it was just so unusual for Tony to be one of those people.

"And this thing?" Gibbs studied Tony. "It's been taken care of?"

"Better than I thought. And not at all the way I expected." Tony laughed. It was a free and easy sound.

More enigmatic comments. But it was an honest answer. Gibbs had seen that much for himself. Tony was back to normal, thank god. No more ice. No more uncharacteristic silence. No more anger.

Gibbs considered asking the others before dismissing the idea. It would be a violation of trust. Besides, he wasn't sure McGee could give him a clear explanation without stuttering. Abby would, in all likelihood, tell him with so much extra detail he would still have no idea what the hell happened. And Ziva, he was fairly certain wouldn't be forthcoming about any culpability on her part much or willing to reveal any one else's secrets.

On thing still nagged at him. "Was I part of it?'

Tony blinked, and reached for his food again. "Part of what?"

"The final straw, DiNozzo." Gibbs wished Tony was close enough for him to smack the back of his head. "Was I part of that?"

"You were." Tony made a meaningless hand gesture. "But like I said, it's been taken care of so don't worry about it."

Don't worry. Gibbs nearly snarled. He had no idea what he'd done or how it had been fixed. Christ. This was like when he was married. No, this was worse. At least then, he hadn't really cared that he'd messed up.

"What did I give you?"

"Besides dinner you mean?"

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "Yes, besides dinner."

Tony smiled warmly. "I got a job I love. And I get to work with some of the best." He pointed at Gibbs with his fork. "It's a pretty good deal."

"Even with all the shit that comes with?" Two of his ex-wives hadn't been able to handle the shit that came with him and the job. The third hadn't even made Tony's usual two years.

"Every job comes with shit." Tony chuckled. "And I've had enough of them to know." Tony's expression sobered. "But there's enough here to balance it. More than enough. I wouldn't have made it this long if there wasn't."

Gibbs nodded, accepting the answer, reassured by that candid declaration. "Next time...you'll come to me." It wasn't quite an order and not exactly a request.

"Count on it."

"Good." He hadn't gotten all the answers he'd come for, but it was enough.

Gibbs pointed to the TV. "What were you watching?"

"Notorious." Tony grinned. "1946. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains."

"Any good?"

"It's Hitchcock." Tony said that like it explained everything. He reached for the remote. "I can restart it if you want."

"Sure." Gibbs smiled. He sat back and got more comfortable. This would be better than spending the night working on his boat. Definitely.

"We're okay, right?" Tony asked, as he cued the DVD and started the movie again.

"Yeah." Gibbs nodded. "We're good." They were better than good, but he wasn't sure quite how to express that. From the smile Tony gave him, Gibbs realized he didn't have to. Perfect.

"We do this again," Gibbs said, already certain there would be a next time, preferably more than one, "I'll bring you better beer."

Tony laughed. "Deal."

 

The End