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Fill Me Up

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Chapter 1

 

Tony smiled as he looked at the silver and gold foil figures covering the walls.  The bright lights, the colorful sparkly decorations, music, food, dancing…he loved it all.  While he didn’t really have any religious associations with the holiday, he respected that others did and left it at that, preferring to concentrate on the part he really liked…namely, the look of it all.  People smiling, everyone happy, and everything about having a good time with friends.  There was no room for reality, something he’d had far too much of lately. 

 

Tony rolled his neck muscles as he looked around.  This was going to be a good party, he could already tell, and it was exactly what he needed right now.  A huge number of holiday revelers, the bright colors and all the lights made him feel slightly manic so he closed his eyes for a moment and imagined everything faded to grayscale, as though he were in an old black and white film.  It would still be beautiful, he thought.  It always was, even in the strange colorized versions of some of his favorite old movies. 

 

“Tony!  You made it!”

 

He opened his eyes and turned to see Abby making her way towards him.

 

“Told you I only needed to finish off my report so now it’s party time!”  Tony rubbed his hands together in exaggerated anticipation while wiggling his eyebrows, making Abby laugh as she hauled him onto the dance floor.

 

Tony lost himself in the dancing. This is what Christmas was to him. He didn’t really have any personal experience with the heart-warming sentiments others associated with Christmas. Yeah, he’d heard the stories that were shared by his friends and co-workers, visited with friends during Christmas and knew the plotlines of just about every Christmas movie ever made. He’d just never experienced anything like that in his lifetime. Those family-type storylines belonged to the Abby’s and McGoo’s of the world. And angel-aided Christmas revelations about life and your place in it…well, that was entirely George Baily’s bailiwick. Besides the happiness he got from gift-giving (and receiving, naturally), his holiday experience consisted of the bright and shiny aspects of the holiday alone, the surface glitter that matched the Christmases he’d had for a few years at home. Kind of like the Christmas dance numbers in the old Fred Astaire movies where the magic was all in the moment, the glitz and perfection of the dance, and it didn't matter if the dancers went home to an empty, solitary apartment. You just had to string the moments all together to make the holiday shine. It was enough, he told himself.

 

Sometime later Tony found a relatively quiet spot to take a breather beside the large ornate Christmas tree that reminded him of the holidays in his home when he was young.  He grimaced slightly as his mind traveled back over those well-worn paths.  His mother would always hire someone to handle the decorating to ensure that their home reflected the sophisticated ambience his parents favored: all very adult and with nothing catering to a little boy’s idea of Christmas.  He found himself feeling resentful.

 

Knock it off, DiNozzo, he told himself sharply.  You’re far too old to be revisiting that crap.  With a smirk he took another sip of heavily-spiked eggnog and debated just switching to straight bourbon.  His eyes scanned the room focusing on the festive decorations and he again saw his childhood home.  It appeared that his memories were not to be denied, a realization that made him scowl into his drink. 

 

He remembered wanting to help decorate one year with his Christmas projects from school. The biggest art project was his rendition of one of the three Magi made out of an empty baby food jar. He remembered being so proud of the sparkly decoration and he was sure his parents would love it because his teacher said so. He’d covered it with glitter and had glued colorful plastic beads on it. The head was made from construction paper. He remembered that he couldn’t get the eyes quite right so one was larger than the other but he’d put a gold foil hat on its head and he’d glued cotton balls on its face for a beard. He brought it home along with the snowflakes he’d cut out and the Christmas tree he’d colored and the green and red paper chain he’d made, one link for each of the twelve days of Christmas. When he got home he saw that the decorators were well into their task. Wanting to do his part, he carefully placed each item on the big table behind the couch that held the Nativity scene, sure that his mother would appreciate how well his Magi fit in.

He’d been wrong, of course. He heard his mother telling one of the maids to get rid of the things he’d made. They appeared later in a small pile on his desk. He remembered being unsurprised that his efforts weren’t good enough. It was all about appearances, after all, for everything from clothing to behavior and to surroundings. His father had impressed that fact upon him numerous times…often quite painfully. Christmas was when you made everything picture-perfect so that everyone who came to the house could see how important you are. Therefore, when the holidays rolled around, you pay someone to go out and buy all of the bright, shiny things and then, when you were done with it, you threw it all away.

Okay, he was a fast learner and now that he finally understood, he left all of his junk in a pile on his desk knowing it would be thrown out when the rest of the Christmas decorations were taken down for the year.  It was shortly after that when he realized he could save Rosa some extra work when she cleaned his room and from that point on he just tossed his projects before leaving school.

 

His eye was caught by the flash of a camera as a couple posed in the densely packed room.  That, too, brought about a memory of fake smiles and a hard hand gripping his shoulder warning him to be still, to be good.  God, but he was tired of remembering.  What he needed to do was forget about the past and concentrate on the bright and cheery here and now because it was Christmas and he loved every sparkly thing about it right down to that last shiny ornament, just like the ones that were hanging from the tree he found himself staring at.  He forced a grin and then laughed as he looked at his reflection in the shiny orb in front of him.  Just what every tree needs…a Tony DiNozzo Christmas ornament…  He grinned at himself and laughed at his smile which was huge and distorted.  Suddenly he saw a tiny Abby approaching, getting bigger and bigger with every step until she appeared over his shoulder, just as big and distorted as he was.

 

Tony turned towards Abby with a laugh just as he was jostled from behind.  His arm swung out and knocked against the tree branch and dislodging the bright sphere he’d been peering into so intently just a moment before.  Both he and Abby fumbled as they tried to catch it but the fragile orb fell to the ground and shattered. 

 

“Ooops!” Abby said with a wide-eyed smirk. 

Tony glanced at her and then looked back down at what remained of the Tony DiNozzo Christmas ornament. The pieces were still shiny on the outside but the inside was dull and gray. Empty. He felt a sudden chill as he stared. He became aware of a very hollow feeling inside of himself.  That’s me…

 

“Sorry!  Sorry!  I’ll get that,” said the unknown man who’d bumped into Tony.  Tony saw him bend down and pick up the biggest pieces, placing each into his now-empty cup.  Abby appeared next to him and together they swept the smaller pieces into a napkin. 

 

Tony just watched, frozen.  …when you’re done with it, you throw it all away…

 

“Come on, Tony!  Dance with me!” Abby pleaded with a bright smile once she’d straightened.  Her smile broke through the fog Tony was in.  He looked into her bright green eyes, automatically returning her infectious grin.  He desperately needed her to fill the empty ache inside of him but he couldn’t bring himself to verbalize that need and, truth be told, he wasn’t sure she could.  But if dear, sweet, irrepressible Abby couldn’t, who else could?  He had no answer to that and he felt his breath leave him making his chest ache even more.  

 

Maybe there was some expression on his face or maybe Abby just sensed something was off because her smile melted away as she looked into his eyes.

 

“Tony?” Abby asked, a small frown marring her smooth forehead but Tony just shook his head.  He didn’t want to spoil her party with his depressing epiphanies.

 

“Nothing, Abs. Just wanna dance,” Tony said instead. He must have been convincing because he was rewarded by the return of a trademark Abby grin. With one last look at the magical world reflected in the other shiny orbs on the tree, Tony joined the happy crowd and forcibly lost himself in the rhythm.

 

~~~~

 

“Damnit, DiNozzo!”

 

Tony winced at the growled comment and nearly spilled the final ingredient for the famous DiNozzo Defibrillator he normally swore by. 

 

“Sorry, Boss…but it really was a great Christmas party!  You should have been there!” Tony said with a falsely bright smile, despite the anger burning out of those blue eyes he knew so well.  He could feel the slight twitch at the corner of his eye but his smile never faltered even though Gibbs glared at him for a few seconds longer than usual.  Tony’s head throbbed painfully and his stomach chose that moment to give a lurch, making him swallow thickly.  Gibbs’ eyes narrowed even more and Tony’s smile twisted into a grimace.

 

“Don’t care how good.  You come to work hung-over like that again, you’ll be looking for a new job come New Year’s.”

 

“Yes, Boss…won’t happen again, Boss,” Tony said quickly but Gibbs was already striding away.  Tony closed his eyes for a moment and then dropped his head onto his desk, his hangover cure momentarily forgotten as he considered how real the threat was this time.  He shook his head in disgust. Probably pretty damn real, he decided.  He was used to hearing them every year since Gibbs tended to watch him closely during the holidays.  This year, though, he seemed to be even more watchful...and got angrier than ever over his usual holiday indiscretions.  Tony decided he really needed to get his head out of his ass or he truly would be out of a job.

 

“A Christmas party on a Sunday night?  Really?” came a disbelieving voice and Tony grimaced into his desk.  When he lifted his head, however, his typical smug grin was firmly in place.

 

“Well, unlike McGeeky schoolboys who have a firm bedtime on school nights, adults get together whenever they choose to do so and far be it for me to turn into a McParty Pooper by leaving just as those adult get-togethers really start rocking.  Abby and I had a great time.”

 

“Riiight.  Abby said the party you and she went to was on Saturday night.  Are you saying it lasted all the way through Sunday night?  Especially since Abby said you were pretty toasted when she took you home...early Sunday morning.  So what’d you do?  Catch a cab back to the two-day long party?”

 

Tony blew out a breath that was half derisive laugh and half back-pedaling as he tried to straighten out his story.  The truth was that when he finally woke up Sunday afternoon, he knew he couldn’t hang out in his empty apartment…again…so he decided to visit his favorite jazz bar.  Unfortunately, the drinks and the music had both gone down very well.  So well, in fact, that he’d closed the bar.

 

“Never said it was the same party, McJealous,” Tony answered flippantly and turned to finish making his concoction and then downed it in two large gulps.  He sat still for a moment, his hand pressed against his stomach as he forced himself to keep it down.  Once he was sure he was successful, he turned back to McGee only to find him on the phone.

 

“That was Gibbs…we’ve got a case,” McGee said as he grabbed his bag and moved towards the elevator.

 

“Wait!  Why didn’t he call me?  And where’s Ziva?” Tony said as he grabbed his bag and followed.

 

“Don’t know and Ziva’s the one who found the body,” McGee replied as turned to hit the down button on the elevator.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

Tony snapped a picture of the young man identified as Seaman First Class Victor O’Donnal.  Adjusting the focus, he took a close-up of the icy track of tears down the young man’s face.  His next picture was of the Christmas card which the dead man held in his hand.  Tony took a picture of it, too, but couldn’t quite read what was inside.  It would have to wait until they got it back to Abby.

 

“And what do we have here, Antony?” Ducky asked upon his arrival.

 

“He was crying, Ducky,” Tony said quietly as he contemplated a frozen visage of such utter despair that it made his chest ache.  There was something about the man, sitting there with tears frozen to his face that filled him with a horrifying sense of déjà vu but he couldn’t place why.  His trance was broken when Ducky squatted next to the body.

 

“Oh dear, you poor young man,” Ducky said sadly.  “Well, let’s take care of you and perhaps you’ll share the reason for your unhappiness.”

 

Tony stood to make room for Palmer to assist Ducky.  He looked around and saw that Ziva was still giving her statement to Gibbs although she did look his way and gave him another one of those speculative glances that were, quite frankly, starting to get on his nerves.  Fortunately, it looked like Gibbs asked her something and she looked back at him to answer.  Tony took that moment to move to another location to continue shooting as he considered the abbreviated story he’d heard so far.

 

Ziva had found O’Donnal during her morning run, having first seen the young man sitting against the trunk of a tree on the first leg of her run.  When she noted that he was still in the same place upon her return leg, she investigated and found him frozen in place.  Since the man was in civilian clothing she made her first call to the local PD.  It was after they’d identified him that NCIS was called in.  She then called Gibbs.

 

Tony looked back at O’Donnal and felt his stomach twist.  As an investigator, he needed to know what was written in that card but, personally, he was loath to find out.  Just the thought of whatever it might be filled him with intense dread so he stepped back and forced himself to start humming as he continued his task of shooting the scene.

 

Since Ziva was still occupied, Tony began sketching next, watching with some amusement as McGee tried to help Ducky and Palmer get the body, which was frozen into a seated position either from rigor or the icy temperature, onto the gurney.  When they were done, Ducky directed McGee to take a sample of the frosted ground where the body had been.

 

Even though there wasn’t any snow on the ground, Tony found himself singing, “Watch out where the huskies go and don’t you eat that yellow snow…” *

 

He was interrupted by the sting of a slap across the back of his head.  It was the third of the day and he wasn’t quite sure what the first two were for but this one he understood. Even though it made his throbbing head hurt even more, he found himself thanking Gibbs.  He did need help focusing on the case at hand and not on his nebulous sense of kinship with a dead man.

 

*Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow by Frank Zappa

 

~~~~

Later, Tony accompanied Gibbs down to Autopsy.  Gibbs was still pissed at him, which was understandable especially in light of the fact that he’d failed to charge his cell phone over the weekend, which was why Gibbs had to resort to calling McGee.  When he realized that he understood what one of the head slaps was for earlier.  Tony figured the other one was just on general principle.  Gibbs was still watching him closely and was keeping him on a short leash.  Tony didn’t mind, though, he liked being on Gibbs’ six.  Plus the glare tended to anchor him, something he found he needed an awful lot lately. 

 

As they entered they heard Ducky telling Palmer of several instances where individuals had been found with BAC of over 1.0 and had survived.

 

“I didn’t think that was possible,” Tony commented as they entered.  Gibbs was unusually quiet which allowed Ducky to answer Tony’s question.

 

“Oh, yes.  In 2009 there was a case in Skierniewice, Poland, where a 45-year-old man was admitted to the hospital after being struck by a car. The blood test showed his blood alcohol content was 1.23…”

 

“That what killed O’Donnal, Ducky?” Gibbs finally asked.

 

“Not quite, Jethro. While this young man was certainly on his way to a case of alcohol poisoning with a blood alcohol level of 0.524, this poor young man froze to death.” 

 

“So he passed out and because he was outside…”

 

“Yes, that’s correct, Tony.  His system would have started to become depressed not only from the alcohol consumption but from the cold weather so he simply fell asleep and because of his inebriation, he most likely didn’t feel the cold at all.  I suppose you could say it was a gentle passing into the long night…”

 

“Not too gentle, Ducky, if he was crying…” Gibbs reminded him.

 

“Yes, unfortunately that is quite true but I trust you’ll determine just why that was…”

 

Tony didn’t hear anything else as he stared at the sad face of their victim.  This was the downside of the holiday season.  Whatever problems you had seemed so much greater.  That thought caused a pang in his chest.  He was only aware of the moment when Gibbs moved away from him so he automatically turned to follow as the metaphorical leash tugged him away.  He already knew that their next stop was Abby’s lab, so with a quick stop at the nearest Caf-Pow machine, they made their way there. 

 

“Whatcha got, Abs?” Gibbs said as they walked in.  Tony noted the array of personal items they’d taken from O’Donnal’s apartment earlier spread out across her worktable.  His eyes zeroed in on the card that had been found in his hand.

 

Abby swung around from her computer with a wide grin.  With a flourish worthy of a game show hostess, Abby presented a picture on her monitor.

 

“Behold the DiNozzo coat of arms…”

 

Tony got to see a shield with one corner taken up by a Ferrari 308GTS and another with a movie camera.  A broad grin had just spread across his face when he felt a hard slap on the back of his head.

 

“What’d I do?” he asked forlornly as he rubbed the back of his head, the broad grin he’d sported a moment before replaced by a pout.

 

“Distracted Abby with that damn bucket list of yours,” growled Gibbs.

 

Without losing a beat, Abby turned off her monitor and swung around to the Christmas card.

 

“…and while this isn’t a coat of arms, it is your stereotypical Christmas card.  I’ve checked it for prints and found two separate sets.  One set belongs to Seaman O’Donnal but I haven’t found anything on the other set.  My guess is it belongs to Gina.”

 

“Who’s Gina?” asked Gibbs as he squinted at the card.  The cover showed Santa riding on a toy-filled sleigh that coasted over snow-covered rooftops. 

 

“Gina signed the card, Gibbs.  From her message,” Abby began but paused at Gibbs’ squint and trombone stretch and then added helpfully, “…which says…’I pray you find true happiness this Christmas.  No one deserves it more than you.  Love always, Gina, Mark, and Tommy’.  I’m guessing she might have been an old girlfriend?”

 

“Hmmph,” Gibbs grunted.

 

Tony heard it all but was caught by the image on the cover of the card.  When he was little he used to wish he could live at the North Pole with Santa because it was always Christmas there.  Mrs. Claus would always have hot chocolate and cookies ready and everyone would always be smiling and happy. 

 

No one there would ever hurt you with vicious words or lock you away in dark, lonely places. 

 

At the North Pole, Mr. and Mrs. Claus were always happy to see you.  Mrs. Claus wore soft dresses with aprons that always had treats in the pockets.  She gave out warm, bosomy hugs without worrying about creasing fancy material.  Mr. Claus would laugh and lay a gentle hand across your shoulder just because he wanted to, not because someone was looking or taking a picture. 

 

“DiNozzo?” asked Gibbs and Tony tore his eyes away from the card to focus on the icy blue glare in front of him but then his eyes slid back to the card.

 

“Old girlfriend sounds about right,” he answered but his voice sounded kind of funny, sort of monotone which was wrong.  He needed to fix that.  Clearing his throat and putting a bit more animation into his voice, he continued.  “From the cover, which looks like something a kid would choose, I’m thinking Mark and Tommy are part of her new family…or at least her family post-O’Donnal,” he finished quickly to cover his lapse in concentration.  He looked back at Gibbs only to see Gibbs staring at him as though he was trying to see inside of Tony’s skull which confused him and he shot a quick look at Abby who was also staring at him.

 

“What?” he asked quickly and wondered if he didn’t have something on his face.  He started to raise a hand but Gibbs turned to stride out of the lab.

 

“Find her,” grunted Gibbs over his shoulder on his way out.

 

“On it, Boss!” he called out quickly but then shot Abby another questioning glance.  “What?” as asked again in exasperation.

 

“It’s just that you seem awfully distracted, Tony-boy,” Abby said.  “Is it your whole bucket list thing?”

 

Tony laughed.  “No!  That’s just…just something I was playing around with…”

 

“Really, Tony?  Because I know you normally love Christmas.  It’s a time you always party your butt off, but this one seems to be getting you down somehow and you’d tell me if there was really something going on, right?  Like you’re not dying or anything, are you?  NO!” Abby said, suddenly grabbing Tony by the shoulders.  “You are NOT dying, mister!  I won’t allow it!  Tell me, you’re okay, Tony!  TELL ME!”

 

“Whoa, slow down, Abby…I’m not dying…I’m fine!”

 

“Are you sure?  Because Christmas has to be the absolutely worst time to die not to mention that you’ve got a billion…a gazillion of things you have to do first and I’m not talking just about your bucket list, because I’m sure you haven’t thought of everything, yet…”

 

Her tirade was stopped short by a strong, warm hand planted firmly across her mouth.

 

“I am not dying, Abby.  I am fine.  Really.”  Tony slowly removed his hand, ready to replace it at the merest hint of another Abby-rant.  He really didn’t need her to re-visit the whole dying-on-Christmas theme.

 

“Then what’s going on?” Abby asked in a plaintive little voice.

 

“Nothing…it’s just…maybe I haven’t had my quota of Christmas cheer, yet…” Tony tossed out quickly.

 

“YES!! That’s it!  Okay, we are going out again tonight…”

 

“Okay…but only if we get this case closed, alright?”

 

“Yes…which means you need to go do your thing, like, right now.  And then we’re going out to party, Mister!”

 

“Great!” Tony said with a wide grin as he snatched O’Donnal’s address book from the stack on her worktable and then he kissed Abby on the cheek and quickly left the lab.

Chapter Text

Tony returned to his desk only to learn that Gibbs had gone for coffee.  Ziva and McGee were busy at their computers.  He was glad.  The man needed to be caffeinated if he was going to be watching him every minute.  Tony sighed.  Gibbs knew he partied extra hard during the holidays, but he’d obviously picked up that there was a different edge to it this year.  Sure, he was partying a little harder than normal but it seemed as though their cases had been rougher than normal, too.  He rubbed a hand over his face.

 

“Are you alright, Tony?” asked Ziva.

 

“Just dandy, Zeee-vah!” Tony answered with his trademark grin.

 

“So you are no longer suffering from the effects of your Sunday party?” she asked coyly.

 

Tony shot McGee a look only to see him smirking into his computer.

 

“Like I said, I’m fine.  Thank you,” Tony answered shortly.  He so did not need to be hassled about his morning condition, especially since he was still suffering from a lingering headache.

 

“I think you need someone to look after you.  It is obvious that you do not know when to hang in.”

 

“Hang out.”

 

“But you are not going out.  You should stay at home, stay in, yes?”

“But it’s called hanging out.”

Ziva rolled her eyes.  “Regardless of what it is called, you should have rested so that you would be ready to work today.  You need someone to ensure it is so.”

“You volunteering for the job?” Tony asked regretting it even before the words had completely left his mouth.  It was the slight hesitation just before her answer that made Tony’s hackles rise up.

“I already have a job.  Ray does not need me to take care of him like a child.”

“Then you better get to it, Ziver, or you won’t have a job to get back to,” growled Gibbs as he walked into the bullpen.  “You, too, DiNozzo.”

“Yes, Boss.  Working, Boss,” Tony called out as he dove behind his computer.  He had O’Donnal’s address book out in seconds.  Even though he was thumbing through the pages looking for any hint of a Gina, he couldn’t help but glance over at Ziva.  Unfortunately, she looked up at that same moment and sent him another one of those weird little smiles.  He didn’t return it, looking down instead but no longer saw the address book in his hand.  What he saw in his mind’s eye instead was his bucket list or, more specifically, item 19.  He needed to handle that one.  And soon.

~~~~

Tony shut everything down late Friday evening.  Their case was closed and their reports had been written.  Tony didn’t want to think about this case anymore.  He just needed to get out of the office.

“Got a date, Tony?” Ziva asked and Tony looked up from zipping his backpack closed.

“When don’t I have a date, Zee-vah?” Tony answered facetiously.  He wasn’t lying about having a date…it was just that his date was not with a woman.  Or even a man, for that matter.  His date was with forgetfulness.  This case was stirring up a whole slew of unsettling emotions, a lot more than he was prepared to deal with.

“So do I,” said McGee from his side of the bullpen as soon as he got off the phone.

“Cathy is not working tonight?” asked Ziva.

“No, she is not,” McGee concurred with a smile. “Just got off the phone with her to let her know we’d closed the case so we’re going out to dinner and to a late movie.”

“Well, good for you, McPlanner,” Tony said as he hefted his bag over his shoulder.  “Have a good weekend, everyone,” he said with a last look at Gibbs and then, not wanting anything else to hold him up, he called out a goodnight and walked out of the office.

Several hours later Tony was quickly on his way to forgetting all about Seaman First Class Victor O’Donnal, the Vic who became a vic over what he’d lost. 

The only problem was that he couldn’t get the memory of the frozen tear tracks out of his head.  He wracked his brain and then suddenly remembered why it all seemed so familiar.  Oh, God…no wonder…

The party was finally over and it was very, very late.  He shouldn’t have gotten out of bed but he was hoping to see his Mama again.  He crept downstairs very quietly hoping to avoid the maids who were busy picking up the worst of the mess.  It was then he heard his mother’s voice, an angry, bitter hiss.  She was answered by his father, yelling quite loudly, as usual.  He remembered hearing a sharp crack and then a thud.  He crept around the corner and that’s when he saw her.  He remembered her lying there in her gorgeous holiday dress, the dress that she was so very worried about creasing before the party that she wouldn’t let her only son hug her, now spread out in untidy heaps about her as she lay on the floor where she’d fallen in a drunken sprawl. 

He ran to her with a cry and that’s when he saw the tears on her face.

Tony closed his eyes tightly and ran a hand over his face.  He opened his eyes and stared down into the drink in front of him.  He blew a breath through clenched teeth hearing in his mind the cries of a small boy…

“Mama!  Come on, Mama,” he’d said thinking that she was just sick again.  “You need to go to bed.”  It was then he saw the widening pool of red behind her.  “Mama!” he screamed.

He’d tried to lift her but what seven-year old boy could lift the unconscious form of an adult?  He tried again only to be roughly shoved to the side.  He fell against the piano bench, hitting his head as he fell over.

“Leave her!” growled his father.  “She’s just fucking drunk…l”

“Just fucking drunk…and you hit her, you bastard…” he muttered to himself.  For three days…three FUCKING DAYS he thought she was dead.  It was later he’d learned that she’d just retreated to her room, still drinking, only no one had bothered to tell him.

“Be quiet, Anthony, and go to your room.”  “Don’t ask so many questions.”  “Your father is too busy to see you.”

He remembered finally tracking his father down to ask if his father was going to bury Mama.  He got slapped in the face for that question.  It wasn’t until years after they really did bury her that he realized his father thought he was accusing him of trying to kill her.

“Hey, Tony…last call although I think you’ve had enough…”

Tony raised his head and stared blearily at Carl, the bartender.  He gave him a faint smile.  They’d done this so many times over the years and Carl knew him, knew the different expressions that said yes, he’d had enough, although it didn’t always mean alcohol.

Carl offered to call for a ride and Tony nodded and thanked the man.  He grabbed his coat intending to stand outside in the cold to clear his head a bit.  He left his scarf hanging and his coat unbuttoned.  When he stepped out he gave a quick shiver.  He was cold and his breath came out in little puffs but his head immediately felt clearer.  He stayed in the doorway and scanned the street.  No sound except for the noise of distant traffic and the occasional roar of a garbage truck.  The lines to an old song came to him.

“Prehistoric garbage trucks…have the city to themselves…” he sang under his breath.  It was late, or was it early?  Either way, there was no one out so maybe 3 or 4 in the morning. 

“And most of the taxis, most of the whores…are only taking calls for cash…”  That’d be about right, he thought as he sang to the night sky.  Even though the city was mostly dark he still couldn’t see any stars.  The sky was clouded over but he doubted they get snow.  That was too bad.  He wanted it to snow, wanted pristine white to cover the damp filth.

He looked down at the ground, noted the dew that had turned city dirt to grime.  It was then he noticed a torn piece of tinsel trying hard to shine in the dark.  It was all bent and dirty and he figured that it, along with an old beaten up and scratched ornament that was lying partially attached, had probably fallen from the decorations on the outside of the building.  Tony felt an ache go through him as he looked at it because he remembered the ornament that had broken at that party...empty…and now scarred and useless.  It struck him as one of the saddest things he’d ever seen. 

God, he was drunk, but the song kept playing in his head and he sang a few more lines.

“Well, now, it's past last call for alcohol
Past recall has been here and gone
The landlord he finally paid us all
The satin jazzmen have put away their horns
And we're standing outside of this wonderland
Looking so bereaved and so bereft
Like a Bowery bum when he finally understands
The bottle's empty and there's nothing left…” *

Tony softly repeated that last line as he stood in the dark, swaying softly with his head hanging down.  “I’m empty,” he said to the world at large.

“Not empty, Tony,” came a low voice which made Tony’s head snap up.  Unfortunately, that action also made the world tilt around him.  His eyes widened and a warm hand curled over the back of his neck, anchoring him.

“Easy.  I gotcha,” Gibbs said and then Tony felt Gibbs’ other hand reach out to squeeze his shoulder, a nice, comforting squeeze.  Not painful at all.  The only problem was that now he was shivering.

“Come on.  Let’s go home,” Gibbs said and Tony felt the buttons on his coat being done up and the scarf winding itself around his neck.

“Cab’s coming,” Tony muttered.

“Nah, Carl called me.”

Tony nodded and then the next thing he knew, he was being buckled into Gibbs’ Charger.  He watched the world pass by in a blaze of lights.  It reminded him of all the lights in the ballroom, the bright colors of the women’s dresses but no one was as pretty as his mother.  He recalled looking down through the railing from his perch at the top of the stairs of his family home while his parents hosted one of their many holiday parties.  It had all been so beautiful and everyone always seemed to be having the most wonderful time.  He was never allowed to join in because the parties had been for his parent’s friends and business acquaintances, not little boys.  He just remembered how beautiful it all was and at the center of it all was his mother, always the most beautiful woman there.  He remembered seeing her down below, laughing and dancing, her skirts unfolding like a flower as she was spun about in the arms of his father or some other lucky man.

 “Did you ever dance with her?” Gibbs asked as he drove and only then did Tony realize he’d spoken aloud.

“No, I was never allowed downstairs during their parties.  She didn’t dance any other time…”  She was far too unhappy…and then she never danced again…

Gibbs said nothing for a moment.  “Did you get a lot of presents?”

Tony’s small smile disappeared only to be replaced by a wide, slightly lop-sided and completely fake grin.  “Of course I got presents, Gibbs!  Lots of presents.  I remember one year I got this chemistry set…”

“Have to tell Abby you were into chemistry when you were a kid…”

“Well, I wasn’t but nobody knew that.  Nobody knew anything.  Anyway, I decided to try it out so I mixed up this blue…stuff…I don’t remember what it was supposed to be and I guess I didn’t get it right because it let off these seriously bad fumes and then the housekeeper started yelling at me to stop it.  How do you stop a chemical reaction?  Well, you don’t,” Tony slurred and he slapped his hand down on his thigh in emphasis.  “All I could do was stand there while she started running around opening windows and fanning at the smelly smoke with her apron.  It was amazing.  So funny,” Tony said with a laugh and ignoring the fact that Gibbs just watched him.

“What’d your folks do?”

“Oh, this was great.  They were asleep as usual on Christmas morning but when the housekeeper started yelling my father got up and ran down the stairs.  His face was so red and his eyes were completely bloodshot.  Looking back on it now I think he might’ve still been drunk because he reached out to grab the vial and lost his balance somehow.  So the vial goes flying and smashed against this painting and then…then my father really started losing it but that was nothing compared to my Mom,” Tony said, his smile gone as he became lost in his memory.  “As soon as she saw that blue stuff dripping down the painting she started screaming and yanking on my father’s arm, telling him to fix it but how could he?  So he starts yelling at me but I didn’t really know what the stuff was so he started whaling on m…” Tony stopped, suddenly aware of what he was about to say.  “…he was just wailing.  Just like my mother,” Tony said, again plastering that wide grin on his face.  “It was all so funny, Gibbs.  Really funny.”

Gibbs just nodded.  “How old were you?”

“I was eight,” he said and then fell silent.  He felt as though he should be saying something but nothing came to mind.  He didn’t want to remember any more.  Fortunately, the silence didn’t seem to bother Gibbs because he stayed quiet, too. 

A short time later they arrived at Gibbs’ home.  Tony sighed softly.  He was still shivering slightly and he wondered how long he’d stood outside of the bar.  It hadn’t been long, but considering the low temperature, it wasn’t surprising that he was chilled.  Gibbs pulled into the garage and then helped Tony into the house.  Still quiet, Gibbs took his coat and scarf and then led him upstairs and helped him to bed. 

Later he would wonder if it hadn’t been a figment of his alcohol-soaked imagination, but he could have sworn he felt a hand brush through his hair just as he fell asleep.

*Your Latest Trick by Dire Straits

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Tony woke up late the next day.  He sat up carefully, grimacing because it felt as though his brain was sloshing in his head.  Remaining still until he was sure he could move without getting sick, he eventually made his way downstairs.  He thanked Gibbs and every god he knew of when he saw that there was still coffee in the pot.  Two cups later he felt marginally human again, which probably wouldn’t have been possible with anything weaker than Gibbs’ tar-like brew.

He listened carefully but the house was quiet and he wondered if Gibbs was working down in his basement.  He opened the door and listened but there were no sounds.  With relief, he realized that Gibbs must be out running errands.  A wave of guilt crashed through him at the selfish thought.  He not only owed Gibbs for coming to get him.  He owed him an explanation.  The only problem was that Tony didn’t think he could ever tell anyone about the garbage that rolled around in his head at this time of year.

He should probably at least try but knew he wouldn’t.  With a quickly scribbled note thanking Gibbs, he called for a cab and left.

~~~~

Saturday night and another holiday party, Tony was dancing with the gorgeous blonde he’d met a couple of hours earlier who was really too drunk to even appreciate the Very Special Agent about whom she was currently draped.  Tony didn’t mind, though, because he was very nearly as drunk as his lady friend. 

It worked…well, at least for now.  Since Friday night hadn’t been enough to promote the forgetfulness he sought, Tony continued the party into Saturday night.  He wondered if he was on the road to job burnout but decided that it wasn’t the job itself.  It was this fucking holiday and the cases affected by it.  Ever since they’d identified Gina and closed the case at the beginning of the week, Tony had been desperate to separate himself from the reality of another case, of another instance where somebody could only see what they’d lost in their lives and not what was still possible.  And if it wasn’t possible, why can’t people just move on?  He closed his eyes and thought of number 19.  I guess some people can’t just move on without talking about it first. 

Why couldn’t everyone just let Christmas be about having a good time?  Why can’t you just leave the baggage at the door? Tony wondered drunkenly to himself.  It’s what he did and he was doing just fine, thank you very much.  Tony swayed, almost stumbling again as Mary? Kerry? Terri…that’s it, he nodded to himself…failed to follow his (in his mind) very impressive side step turn.  He ignored it, though, and bravely continued on until a tap at his shoulder revealed an amused and slightly worried Abby.

“You lookin’ to cut in, Abssss?  I can do that, right…uh…Mary?” Tony slurred to his semi-conscious dance partner.

Abby giggled.  “Think you’ve both had enough dancing, Tony-boy.  Besides, Kerri’s friends want to take her home.”

Tony glanced over to a small knot of drunken party-goers who were staring at them…him…and laughing their asses off.  He frowned because he only wanted people to laugh at him when it was his idea that they laugh.  Looking back down at the woman hanging off of his arms, he realized that she’d almost passed out.  From past experience, he knew that unconscious women were no fun, especially the next morning. 

“’kay,” he said and then let Abby help him drag what’s-her-name over to her friends.  As soon as they reached the only slightly less intoxicated group of partyers, Tony stood up straight and, leaning ever so slightly, smiled his most charmingly inebriated smile. 

“Sh-she’s ready to go home now,” he said very carefully to a chorus of laughter.  Tony watched as the group half-walked, half-carried his ex-dance partner and made their way to the door.  Maybe he and Abby should call it a night, too. 

Nope.  Bad thought…which lasted only as long as it took to think it, Tony said to himself and then giggled.  He was drunk, too drunk to drive so it would have to be a cab when he eventually decided it was time to go home.  It just wasn’t that time, yet.  He put his arms around Abby’s waist.

“Le’s dance,” he slurred into her hair.

“Toneee…it’s almost three!  I’ve got to get some sleep before I meet with Sister Rosita!” Abby exclaimed with a sleepy grin.  “Besides, if you haven’t gotten her number by now, it’s a little too late.  I doubt she’s even capable of remembering it at this point.”

Tony smirked.  He could have gotten her number at some point if he’d really wanted it.  He just didn’t, that’s all.  Besides, he was tired of bringing home faceless women…and men.  And he knew he was too drunk to even consider going with anyone to their place, not that he was in the frame of mind to pursue anyone or let them pursue him.  No, he just wanted to keep partying, dancing and laughing the night away…whatever was left of it.  But Abby wanted to go home so he nodded and told her okay and they grabbed a cab together.

When they got to Abby’s apartment and she asked if he wanted to crash rather than go to his place, he very politely declined.  Asking the cab to wait, Tony very gallantly stumbled his way to her door to make sure she got in okay.  With a quick peck on the cheek he bid his goodnight and then stumbled back to the cab.  Knowing Abby would be watching from her window, he turned and gave her a jaunty wave and then climbed into the cab. 

“Where to?”

Tony blew out a quick breath.  He really didn’t want to go home so he gave the driver the address to his favorite bar.

“Buddy, you got any idea what time it is?  Bars are closed.  Where else do you want to go?”

“Gibbs’s house…” he said automatically.

“Fine.  Where does Gibbs live?”

Tony thought for a moment.  He really didn’t want to go home, but if he went to Gibbs’ house, he’d probably get his head slapped and his assed kicked for getting drunk again.  Maybe he shouldn’t go to Gibbs’ house.  Probie, on the other hand…

~~~~

Tony lifted his head, just barely, after tossing what little he had left in his stomach into the bucket sitting next to the couch.  His eyes opened a crack and then he groaned as multi-colored lights assaulted him.

“Gah…” he moaned as he threw himself back against the couch cushions.

“If you’re done making those disgusting noises, you can empty your bucket in the bathroom,” Tim said disgustedly from his seat by his typewriter.  “God knows I’m not doing it for you.”

“…time’s zit…?” Tony groaned from under the forearm he had thrown across his face.

“It’s after two in the afternoon, Tony.”

Tony lay quiet for a little while longer until he could open his eyes without a lance slicing through his head.  With his eyes opened a bit, he could see McGee’s disgustingly cheery little Christmas tree in the corner of the semi-darkened room.  McGee was sitting at his typewriter, typing away.

“How’d I get here?”

McGee turned around and glared at him. 

“By cab, I would hope.  You pounded on my door at 4 o’clock this morning, Tony.  What is going on with you?  What is with all this drinking?”

Tony’s eyes shut in pain at McGee’s first words and then he slowly buried his head as the questions continued.  Why couldn’t he understand it was just partying?  It’s what you did over the holidays.

“It was just a party, McGoo…haven’t you ever over-indulged?  Oh, wait.  Of course you haven’t because you’ve never been invited to an adult party, have you?” Tony practically shouted from under his arms which were now criss-crossed over his face.  Of course he knew he was wrong.  McGee had attended a couple of holiday parties with his girlfriend, Cathy.

McGee didn’t answer.  He was so quiet that Tony had to raise his head just to make sure he was still in the room. 

He was.  He was still sitting at his typewriter but now he sat with his arms crossed over his chest and he was glaring at Tony. 

“Tony, I’m serious.  What’s going on?  I know the holidays are hard for you, but this isn’t the answer and I don’t know what Gibbs’ll do if you keep it up.  He depends on you…we all depend on you.”

Tony’s chest tightened at McGee’s statement.  Gibbs depended on him…  But, damnit, it was just a party!  Now it was Tony’s turn to glare.  “Why can’t you understand that I’m just celebrating the season in my own way?  What’s different this year from every other year you’ve seen me party?  First Gibbs, and then Abby, and now you.  Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

Tim stood up and come over to the couch.  He sat on the coffee table and looked at Tony.

“We’re your friends, Tony.  That’s why we can’t leave you alone.  What you’re doing, what you’ve always done…that isn’t partying.  That’s trying to deal…or forget.”

Tony glared at him so hard it made his head hurt even more.  There was no way he could ever forget… “So why haven’t you guys done an intervention before now if it’s so disturbing?  What’s so different about this year?”

Tim shook his head and looked down at his feet.  “I can’t answer that, Tony.  All I know is that it is.  Maybe…maybe everything is just getting to you.  Maybe that’s why you came up with your bucket list…”

“Hold on there, McConclusion Jumper.  That was just…just a list of things I’ve been thinking about.  It doesn’t mean anything!”

“Really, Tony?  It seems to me that you’ve been trying to get your head straight about something lately and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the drinking thing won’t help!”

Tony blew out a breath of frustration.  “Why can’t you get off the drinking thing, McGee?” he growled.  “I’m just having a good time in my own way.  You do your thing with your friends and family just like Abby and Palmer and Ducky.  Hell, even Gibbs does his own thing.  But, hey!  Here’s a thought.  His thing involves copious amounts of bourbon, too, so why doesn’t he rate the questions?”

“Tony…”

“No, I’ve had enough of this,” Tony said and then he stood up, swaying a bit as he did so.  He grabbed the bucket and marched into the bathroom with McGee trailing after him but Tony slammed the bathroom door in his face. 

McGee knocked on the door.  “Tony…come on…I just want to help…”

The door immediately swung open.  “You want to help…take this,” he said as he shoved the newly cleaned bucket into McGee’s chest.  He stormed out of the bathroom and swung by the couch for his coat.

“Thanks for the couch, McGee.  Maybe someday…when you grow up…I can return the favor.”

McGee just rolled his eyes as Tony stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door closed as he left.  His last view of Tim was of him slumped against his entryway wall still clutching the bucket.  He paused for a split second…waiting…waiting…there it was.

“Abby’s gonna kill me,” he heard Tim moan and, despite his throbbing head, he laughed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Early Monday morning Tony watched as McGee and Ziva exited the elevator together.  He almost laughed at the hesitant ‘good morning’ Tim sent his way which he made sure he returned with a wide grin.  From the number of calls he’d avoided from Abby, he figured she’d taken her frustration out on McGee.  He almost felt sorry for the guy. 

 

Although he’d never admit it, Tony thought about what McGee had said and he knew that he was right in terms of the drinking…and the Gibbs depending on him thing. Well, actually, he was more concerned with what Gibbs threatened…namely, that his job could truly be in jeopardy if he didn’t get his act together. Since working for Gibbs was his entire life, he’d have to be an absolute moron to jeopardize that in any way. Still, McGee was right and he knew that. Not to mention that, for the first time, he actually believed he might be following in his parents' footsteps, something he had sworn he'd never do. He shook his head slightly. He didn’t know why this time of year made him so crazy…well, he did, actually. Still, it was what it was and he got through it. Fortunately, Christmas was on Sunday this year and then he was home-free since New Year’s was a no-brainer, especially since they were on call.  

 

Despite the stories he told his co-workers, the fact was that, normally, he never let his personal issues come between him and the job.  The mere thought of disappointing Gibbs in that way made him cringe.  That he had been allowing that to happen, more so this year than in previous years, shamed him.  It had to stop.  It was time for him to be the Senior Field Agent Gibbs expected once again.  No matter the cost.

 

Tony caught the surprised smile on both his teammates’ faces when they saw their favorite morning drinks waiting for them on their desks and he almost laughed when Tim took the lid off of his first in order to ascertain if Tony had tampered with it in any way.  Tony hadn’t…but it had been an effort not to.

 

“Thank you, Tony,” Ziva purred as she sipped her tea.

 

“Yeah, Tony…thanks,” Tim added.

 

“It seems you took my advice and got some rest over the weekend,” Ziva said smugly as she looked Tony over, approval in her dark gaze.

 

“’bout time you took someone’s advice,” Gibbs grunted as he entered the bullpen. 

 

Tony saw Gibbs look him over as he drank from the cup Tony had left on his desk, too.  The nod, showing both his approval and thanks, made Tony grin back.  He decided that it had been a good idea not to go to his favorite bar last night although it had been close. 

 

Tony had forced himself to spend the previous night doing all of the chores he’d been ignoring due to their caseload and his partying.  He sighed.  He hadn’t even been staying home when they’d been on call so everything had been piling up.  There was just something about the quiet of his apartment that was really bothering him lately.  He’d found himself sitting in Gibbs’ basement a bit more often than normal this year.  That had to stop or Gibbs was bound to think there was something wrong…which there wasn’t…damnit!

 

The good part about not partying was that he finished the last of his Christmas shopping and he’d wrapped everything up and stacked them on his dining table.  The bad part about not partying, though, was that he’d almost brought out the tiny Christmas tree that he used to put up the first few years he was at NCIS.  He wasn’t sure when it was but, at some point, the tiny tree had struck him as particularly pathetic so he’d stopped putting it up.  Besides, he usually ended up at Gibbs’ on Christmas Day anyway.

 

Gibbs never bothered with much by way of decorating although he did, on occasion, put up an ancient string of Christmas lights across his work bench.  He smiled as he thought of what was, basically, the only Christmas tradition he had.  He’d show up at Gibbs and then they’d have some of Gibbs’ famous cowboy-style steaks (one day he would get that recipe) and then he’d spend the rest of the evening hanging out in the basement with Gibbs while he started some new project once all of the Christmas toys were done with for another year.  There were usually some sports to watch on TV and Jackson had even been there a couple of times and that was always good.  Either way, it worked and he looked forward to a repeat.

 

Tony’s mellow feeling evaporated in the next instant when Gibbs informed everyone that since they didn’t have any active cases, the Director had ordered that everyone get caught up on their annual training requirements.  All three agents groaned in unison which made Gibbs smirk.

 

“You’ve three have got Sexual Harassment starting in fifteen…”

 

“Just us, Boss?  What about everyone else?” Tony asked.  What about you?

 

“We’re split up.  Abby, Ducky, Palmer and I’ve got COMPUSEC now.  You three’ll have it this afternoon.”

 

McGee alone groaned at that…he could practically write computer security protocol from memory so sitting through a briefing would be torture.  The thought made Tony chuckle.

 

“You know, it’s been a few years since you were in the dungeon, McGeek…things might have changed.”

 

He laughed out loud when McGee shot him a dirty look as they left the bullpen. 

 

At midmorning, Tony went to the break room for coffee to help him get through the rest of the briefing.  He looked up when he heard someone behind him.  It shouldn’t have surprised him that it was Ziva.  He’d been avoiding going to the men’s room because he knew she wouldn’t hesitate to follow him when she had something on her mind.  From the look in her eye, it seemed as though it was finally time. 

 

“Where’s McGee?” he asked in hopes of keeping whatever it was she wanted to say to him away from anything personal.

 

“He has gone to the restroom,” Ziva said and then looked over her shoulder as someone walked by.  “Tony, I would like to speak with you…” she began and then walked away forcing Tony to follow her. 

 

Tony sighed and then, lifting his chin, stepped forward as though he were going into battle.

 

“What’s up, Zeee-vah?” he asked as soon as she’d turned around after leading him into a small alcove.

 

“We have known one another for a long time, Tony.  At times I have felt that there is something more between us than being mere teammates.”

 

Tony exhaled slightly through his nose.  This wasn’t his first experience with this type of situation but that didn’t make this any easier. 

 

“If you’re referring to Paris…”

 

“Yes, Tony, we have never discussed what we had in Paris…”

 

That’s because I realized what we didn’t have…

 

“…and I needed to know if you had any…lingering…thoughts about our time there…”

 

Tony smiled.  “No, Ziva.  What happened in Paris, stayed in Paris.”

 

He saw her frown and then realized that he’d inadvertently made it sound as though she’d been just another notch on his bedpost.  Been there, done that…

 

“What I realized was that while I do love you, Ziva, it’s more like loving a very hot cousin…but still a cousin,” he said with a small grin. 

 

“Cousins do not do what we did, Tony,” Ziva said with some asperity but with a gleam in her eyes. 

 

“Very true, my hot ninja chick…unless you’re a second cousin or maybe a third cousin.  People say cousin once or twice removed, but I’ve never been sure what that means, exactly…”

 

“Tony!” Ziva said sharply but with a smile on her face.  “What I wanted to tell you…personally…is that I believe Ray and I…well, things have become quite serious…”

 

Really?” Tony almost shouted, relief flooding through him, and then realized that he should probably tone it down a bit.  “That’s…really wonderful, Ziva,” he finished sincerely and then noticed a small frown on her normally smooth forehead.  “That’s good, right?”

 

“Yes,” Ziva said shaking her head and then Tony saw the realization in her eyes...the realization that there really wasn’t anything between them.  Not now, at least.  Tony heard the uncertainty in her voice and he finally realized what had been behind all of those looks she’d been giving him lately.  She’d been trying to choose without realizing that he’d never been in the running. 

 

Well, she knew now.

 

"Yes, of course it is good...I just wanted to be sure that you...heard it first from me," she finished gamely but he could still see a shadow of regret in her eyes.  It was best this way, he knew, because he simply couldn't love her the way she deserved.

     

    “Ziva,” Tony said gently, “I’m very happy for you.  Of course, I’m still not sure that CIRay is good enough for you, my little ninja chick,” he said knowing that she’d jump to Ray’s defense.

     

    “He is a good man, Tony.  I am the lucky one,” she said with certainty. “We would like to tell the rest of the team, on Friday night since everyone is leaving for the holiday.”

     

    Tony smiled.  Everyone but me and Gibbs...  Then he pulled her into his arms.  “I’ll be there to raise the first toast.  Am I invited to the wedding, too?”

     

    “Of course you are, Tony, but only if you promise to behave,” she said sternly although a sense of calm seemed to envelop her.  “And now I believe we must return to our class.  I, for one, have no desire to do this again.”

     

    “You and me both, Ziva.  You and me both,” Tony said sincerely as he mentally crossed item 19 off of his list.

     

    ~~~~

     

    By the end of the day Tony was restless.  He dreaded going back to his apartment so he jumped on the computer to see what movies were playing.  He would not go out to a bar tonight. Absolutely, positively would not go to a bar.  He would, instead, take in a movie…or two…and then, when he was exhausted enough to just pass out, he’d go home to sleep.  He was looking up two movies and was debating which movie to take in first when Abby skipped up behind him.

     

    “Hey, Abs…”

     

    “HI, Tony…what are you doing tonight?  I’m in the mood for Classic Christmas so I rented “White Christmas”.  Wanna come over?”

     

    “On a school night?  Oookay…’White Christmas’…a true classic….1954, directed by Michael Curtiz and featuring the music of Irving Berlin.  You know it was one of the first films done in VistaVision by Paramount.  VistaVision gave a wider aspect ratio…”

     

    “Tonneee!” interrupted Abby.

     

    “What?”

     

    “Do you want to see the movie with me tonight or not?  I’ve got popcorn and your favorite beer and we can order some pizza.  Then…and only then…can you tell me about VistaVision, okay?” she finished with a grin.

     

    Tony laughed.  “Okay, Abs.  I’ll be there with bells on.”

     

    Later, when Tony looked at Abby’s Christmas tree, he had to admit that he’d never seen Christmas lights made up of little skulls wearing Santa hats.  It was so Abby. 

     

    “Wow,” Tony commented as the film came to a close.  “Could you imagine working with your best friend and being married to a pair of sisters who also work in the same job?  It’s amazing they don’t kill each other.”

     

    “What do you mean by that?  We all work together and we’re like a family.  I don’t see you trying to off Tim or Ziva.”

     

    “That’s not the same.  Although I love you like a little sister, we’re not actually related which, trust me, is a good thing.  As far as Ziva and McGoo, the offing thing is still a possibility.  As for family, no time, Abs, no time.”

     

    “Why do you say that?”

     

    “My whole life is about the job.  I don’t have anything else.”

     

    “Of course you have time for family!”

     

    Tony rolled his eyes.  “My father is out of the country on business.  Do you want to know how I know that?  I got a gift basket with a card that said as much written in someone else’s handwriting.”  Tony’s eyes drifted off into the distance and he frowned, deep in thought.  “I just have to wonder if his secretary got to decide whether I rated the executive gift or the minion-level gift…”

     

    “Tony, I was talking about us,” Abby said in exasperation as she punched him lightly on the shoulder.  “We’re your family.  Sort of like a family business, you know?  Sure, you sleep in your apartment but you come to work with me, your sister, and Tim, your brother…”

     

    “…how about step-brother…” he quipped which earned him a harder slug on the shoulder. 

     

    “Ziva is like a sister…”

     

    “Cousin…” Tony again corrected automatically, earning him a raised eyebrow from Abby which he promptly shrugged off, grateful that it wasn’t another punch.

     

    “Ducky is like our grandfather or maybe an uncle although I kind of like grandfather…” she continued.

     

    “Palmer is definitely a cousin…a little strange but always fun to visit with…” Tony added getting into the game.

     

    “And Gibbs is like our father…”

     

    Tony actually winced at that because some of the thoughts he’d had about Gibbs on occasion in no way resembled son-like thoughts although he’d never say that to Abby.

     

    “What?  You don’t see Gibbs as a father-figure?” Abby demanded upon noticing the wince.

     

    “Actually, I was imagining the head-slap I’d get if I ever called him Daddy.”

     

    Abby giggled. 

     

    “Abby, when I said I had no time for family you know I was talking about…someone apart from…”

     

    “Yeah, Tones, I know,” Abby interrupted gently.  “And it’ll happen…for both of us.  What I’m saying is that there doesn’t have to be such a defining line between your job and your life outside of your job.  Maybe you need to look a little closer to home, you know?  You just have to find the right person who understands you and what you do and who can accept that this job is a huge part of who you are.”

     

    Tony blinked because an image of Gibbs immediately appeared in his head at Abby’s words but then he shook his head.  “Whoa…you’re not applying for the job, right?” Tony asked, his eyes widening comically in pretend fear. 

     

    “No, silly…you’re my brother.  End of story,” she said with a light punch to his shoulder. 

     

    Tony sighed in pretend relief and Abby laughed again.  All thoughts of Gibbs aside, he knew exactly what she was saying.  The only thing was that he’d tried it both ways (and then almost laughed at his unintentional pun) and then dragged his thoughts back on track.  The fact was that he’d tried with women who weren’t part of his professional world but it hadn’t worked with either Wendy or Jeanne.  Although it had been for different reasons, both women had ended up trying to make him choose between NCIS and them.  They’d each lost.

     

    Then he’d tried with Special Agent EJ Barrett.  While she’d been great on the relationship front, she’d fallen short on the agent front after leaving him for dead without verifying it first.  It was a professional betrayal he couldn’t separate from his personal feelings for her.  Then there was that whole thing where Gibbs about had a cow whenever their relationship came up in conversation because of Rule 12.  Rule 12…hmm…that might be an insurmountable hurdle.

     

    Through it all, the one thing he learned about himself (something that he refused to contemplate too deeply) was that he had to have Gibbs’ approval no matter what he did.  So, the end result was that it all seemed impossible.

     

    “It is possible, though,” Abby declared and Tony wondered if she was reading his mind.  “Think about the other teams.  You guys are the anomaly in that none of you are married.  Every other team has one or more married members.”

     

    Tony thought about Ziva’s upcoming announcement and decided that’d get him off the hook.

     

    “Yeah, well, I’ve never been good at the whole balancing act thing,” he said thinking about Wendy.  “I’ve always been an ‘all or nothing’ type of guy.”

     

    “Finding your balance will happen, Tony.  You’ve just got to have some faith.”

     

    Tony smiled at that.  “I think, Little Sister, that I’ll leave that up to you since you seem to have the market cornered in faith and positive thinking."

     

    After that he considered leaving but Abby insisted they watch 'Elf', a movie that always made Tony laugh, so how could he say no?  Anyway, it ended up being another late night in a series of late nights so when Abby offered her couch, he gladly took her up on it.  The next morning he lefther place early so that he could swing home to shower and change.  While tired, he felt good.  Abby always had a way of cheering him up.

     

    Chapter Text

    Chapter 6
    The next day, Tony was contemplating the card he’d just gotten in the mail when Ziva asked Tony over for dinner saying that she wanted to talk to him about her plans. He wondered why she specifically wanted to talk to him seeing as he had absolutely no experience with whatever it was she needed to do as far as getting married and whatever paperwork HR needed from her. He then decided that what she really wanted was some reassurance, especially since he was the only one who knew what her plans were at this point. With that in mind, he readily agreed and then pinned the card on the partition behind his desk.

    Their evening actually turned out pretty well, especially since Ziva really was an excellent cook and Tony had been lagging in the eating department lately. Their discussion had cemented her happiness in his mind which was something he was grateful for. He still ended up assuring her that he’d be giving CIRay the shovel speech regardless of whatever it was she’d end up doing to the man herself. He was sure that whatever it might be, it would be infinitely worse than what he’d do with a shovel. Of course he’d had to explain what the shovel speech was. Naturally, she wondered why he’d use a shovel rather than just shooting Ray if he truly did deserve to die.

    “Because that way I’ll already have the shovel to bury him with,” Tony answered as though it was the most obvious thing in the world and was rewarded with her rich laughter.

    Sharing the wine that he’d brought, they continued talking late into the evening. Unfortunately, the more that Ziva talked about marriage, the more Tony remembered Jeanne and what might have been. He felt the familiar painful twinge and he winced.

    “Are you alright, Tony?”

    Tony smiled. “Getting a little bit of a wine-headache is all. I think I’ll call it a night.”

    “You are tired and with the wine we have shared, you are welcome to sleep on the couch tonight.”

    Tony almost laughed. Beautiful women offering their couch seemed to be the norm lately.

    “No thanks, Ziva. Besides, I’m sure CIRay wouldn’t appreciate it if he ever learned that I’d spent the night.”

    “Ray trusts me. It would not be an issue.”

    “I’m glad about that but I still think its best that I go. I’m looking forward to crawling into my own bed tonight.”

    Ziva accepted his words. By the time Tony rose to leave, he realized just how full his belly was and just how much he wanted to go to sleep. With a gentle smile and a warm hug, Tony thanked Ziva for the evening and went home to sleep the sleep he normally experienced only at Thanksgiving. He was grateful for that, at least.

    Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last. He couldn’t keep from thinking about Jeanne as he drove home.

    There had actually been a few moments during that undercover op when he’d deluded himself into thinking that their relationship could actually survive the truth of who he was. He’d had fantasies of it, living with Jeanne in that house she’d shown him, celebrating anniversaries and holidays like Christmas together, maybe even children’s birthdays. But no, even if she’d been willing to try he knew that she’d never be truly able to trust him. She’d always be wondering about his work and wondering who he was lying to while undercover. He knew that it would have eventually eaten her up inside.

    He couldn’t do that to her. Better a quick cut than a slow, lingering death. So, when she asked if there’d been anything real between them, he’d lied and told her no.

    More than once Tony wished that he’d given her another answer that day, but he’d honestly thought it was better for her to think it had all been lies, let her turn her back on him and everything he’d put her through so that she could get on with her life. At least, that’s what he hoped had happened.

    There’d been many nights where he’d lain awake and wondered if things had worked out as he hoped. He still got a painful twist in his gut whenever he thought about having damaged her more by lying; maybe even damning her to a lonely future because he’d destroyed her ability to trust… Fuck! He just wished he knew, wished he could go back and tell her the truth. Yeah, good old 26… He’d started so many searches for her but always ended up canceling them.

    He arrived back at his apartment and slowly climbed the stairs. He was tired and needed sleep if he was going to function at work the next day. Unlocking his door he stepped in and hit the switch for the light. His first instinct was to note the quiet of his apartment, sensing that everything was as he’d left it earlier. Secure now, he released the slight tension he unknowingly held and with a small sigh he tossed his keys into the basket on the small table in the entryway and then removed and hung his coat in the closet. He moved to take off his suit jacket and pull off his harness and then looked around his empty apartment and only then noted that the same silence that had originally given him a sense of security now enveloped him like a dark cloud. He immediately regretted not taking Ziva up on her offer.

    Not yet ready for sleep, he grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and booted up his laptop to check his email. He briefly considered starting a search for Jeanne and then abandoned the thought. He gave a small, humorless smile as he remembered a line from a favorite old movie, of James Kirk talking about the dangers of re-opening old wounds.

    “Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan, 1982,” he said to the emptiness around him. He’d always believed those words, too. It was better to leave the past behind you and just let it go.

    Except, of course, at Christmas when you not only re-open old wounds, you stick a knife into them and twist.

    Disgusted with himself, he slammed down the lid on his laptop and grabbed his water bottle and went to bed.

    ~~~~

    Tony was yawning broadly into his hand the next morning, glad that Gibbs had gone down to see Ducky again. He frowned at that because he had the stray thought that Gibbs was talking to Ducky a lot but then Ziva said she’d be back and he figured she was hitting the head. He wondered briefly why she didn’t seem as sleepy as he was but decided that it must be one of her ninja skills, second only to going for days on end without sleep which was obviously a sniper skill. He yawned again and wished he had skills like that. It would sure come in handy, especially when they had a really hot case…and at this time of year.

    Thinking about that made him wonder about Gibbs. While it was obvious Gibbs was still keeping an eye on him, the glare wasn’t as intense today. Maybe Gibbs had something else on his mind. Regardless of the reason, Tony was glad. He was beat and he didn’t need Gibbs breathing down his neck. Once Gibbs stepped away, Tony took the opportunity to just close his eyes for a minute. He was interrupted, though, when McGee walked over and asked Tony to dinner at his place so that he could help him with some plot holes in his latest book. Tony frowned for a minute. It was at that moment he understood exactly what was happening…and who was probably behind it all. His eyes narrowed as McGee continued to speak, apparently taking his silence as a need for more persuasion.

    “I’m working on this complicated storyline, Tony, but there’s something wrong that I can’t put my finger on. I just need a second pair of eyes and since you’re such a great investigator…”

    “Whoa, hold it right there, McLiarliar Pants on Fire…”

    McGee dropped his head and closed his eyes. “It was that last bit, wasn’t it?”

    “Yup. Now, the big question here…and don’t think I don’t already have a suspect…is who put you up to being my babysitter for the evening?”

    “Come on, Tony…it was bad enough when you left my place with the hangover from hell…”

    “Stop right there, McTattletale, but thank you for proving my suspicions,” Tony said with a smile that could only be called evil. Tony could see a frisson of fear go through Tim and his smile widened as he contemplated the myriad ways he could make this work in his favor. Deciding that the best thing to do would be to leave McGee in doubt, he spun on his heel and headed straight for the elevator.

    And just like the time before, he laughed when he heard McWuss mutter “They’ll just talk…of course, they’ll just talk…and then she’ll kill me.”

    ~~~~

    Tony stood in the doorway to the lab and just watched Abby as she swayed to the heavy beat of whatever that was playing on her stereo. She was busy typing into some database that made absolutely no sense to Tony but that she was obviously very familiar with considering the lightning-fast speed of her fingers. He’d bet a cool fifty that she never had to hit the backspace to correct any errors.

    He took another step closer but was caught in the act of sneaking up when Abby spun around at that moment.

    “Tony,” Abby said with a bright grin which belied the warning shake of her finger. “Sneaking up a la Gibbs is not nice!” She then shut off the music and threw open her arms which Tony obligingly filled.

    Once Abby’s hug was over and Tony found that, yes, he could breathe, he pulled back enough to look Abby in the eye. “We need to talk, Abs.”

    “Sure, Tony…fire away,” she said but turned back to her computer.

    Tony slid up next to her and saw that she was staring a little too intently at the monitor. She knew the gig was up.

    “I’m fine, Abby. I don’t need a babysitter...especially not McLiterary Genius.”

    Abby scrunched up her lips in a half-pout, half-grimace but then she turned to look at Tony and he could see the worry in her eyes.

    “Tony…”

    “No, Abs. You’ve got to trust me on this one. I’ve got it under control, okay?”

    “Got what under control, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked making both his Senior Field Agent and favorite lab tech jump and turn around guiltily.

    “My computer, Boss,” Tony answered thinking fast. “McGeek put this strange application on my computer that’s supposed to help me, but it seems to act more like a virus…oomph!” he coughed when a very sharp elbow made contact with his belly.

    Gibbs glared and just used his thumb to point over his shoulder. Tony understood the message immediately and high-tailed it out of the lab even though he wondered if Gibbs had been in on the whole thing, too, and had been hovering just so that he could come to Abby’s rescue right when he was needed. Or maybe it was just another case of Gibbs’ preternatural way of knowing things he really shouldn’t. Regardless, Tony wasn’t sure if he should be annoyed that everyone was getting into his business or grateful to know they cared.

    Tony was still debating the issue as he walked back to the bullpen the long way, taking the front elevators instead of the back elevators. He told himself it was just to get more of a chance to stretch his legs and not because he wanted to avoid the Christmas tree which was usually placed by the windows just behind and to the left of his desk. As he rounded the partition he saw Ziva reviewing a cold case file. She looked up and gave him a soft smile, nothing like the seductive smiles of the recent past. He grinned back easily.

    Looking across the bullpen he noted McGeek watching him warily and he suddenly felt sorry for the man. Not many could withstand Abby’s powers of persuasion. He shot him a quick smile and saw the tension in the broad shoulders ease a bit. He’d fix that, of course…far be it for him to let the Probie get complacent. He was debating just how he was going to get back at Probie for succumbing so easily to his Dark Mistress’s wishes when Gibbs rounded the corner from behind him, barking orders as he moved.

    “Gear up, we have a possible kidnapping…”

    ~~~~

    By Wednesday evening they’d confirmed that Petty Officer Second Class Stephen Costing, a supply clerk, had disappeared with his wife and 12 year-old son, Nathan. During the investigation, Gibbs’ team learned that Costing had left his duty station at fifteen thirty in an agitated state and without authorization. He disappeared for several hours and then showed up to pick his son up from a playmate’s home. There were issues regarding a window that Nathan and his friend had accidently broken which, per Nathan’s friend, made Costing really, really angry. No official report had been made until Nathan’s friend told his parents that he’d seen Nathan’s father holding a gun. Neighbors stated that they saw Debra Costing loading suitcases into her car when her husband arrived. They proceeded to argue and then Mrs. Costing left with her husband shortly thereafter but no one knew where they’d gone. It was reported that Mrs. Costing was in tears when they left.

    A routine search into family members turned up a brother, John Costing, who lived in the area but who appeared to be out of town and Mrs. Costing’s sister, Sarah, who lived several hours away. Phone records showed frequent calls to both siblings. Parents of both Stephen and Debra Costing were deceased. McGee got local LEOs in both areas to continue attempts to contact both siblings.

    “Report!” Gibbs barked as he strode angrily into the bullpen. Tony wondered what Abby had found in the laptop they’d gotten from Costing’s home.

    “Still nothing on the BOLO,” Ziva stated unemotionally.

    “Searching through financials…there’ve been no hits since the first ATM withdrawl this afternoon and nothing to indicate there were any money problems at home,” McGee added but his disappointment was obvious.

    Gibbs angrily threw his empty cup into the trash and turned to Tony with a glare.

    “Still going through the things we got from Costing’s workstation, Boss,” he said as he continued rifling through a series of pictures.

    “Abby didn’t find anything. Gotta go brief Vance and then I’ll be down with Abby,” Gibbs said as he spun on his heel to leave. “Find me something!” he ordered as he left.

    Tony watched Gibbs head to MTAC and debated whether or not he felt sorry for Vance. Vance was at a conference but demanded that he be kept in the loop on hot cases. An active kidnapping was as hot as it got. It infuriated Gibbs to have to take time out just to give an update and Tony didn’t blame him. He decided Vance deserved whatever Gibbs handed out.

    Tony’s eyes dipped down to the picture in his hand. It was one of the pictures they’d taken from Costing’s duty station but there was something different about this one. He stared at it for a moment. It was very similar to numerous family photos they’d gotten from the home. Following a hunch, he jumped on his computer and started looking at something and then began looking through a series of additional photos.

    “McGee, have you found anything to indicate the Costings owned a vacation home?”

    “What have you found, Tony,” Ziva asked as she looked at the evidence bag Tony held. She saw that he held a photo of Debra Costing wearing a bathing suit and standing on a rock near next to her husband. There was a wooden structure behind her, possibly a rustic home.

    “This came from his office.”

    “Yes,” Ziva agreed as she moved closer to Tony’s desk. “There were numerous pictures posted about the desk.”

    “Right, but this one was found on his desk, kind of crumpled, like he had it in his fist.”

    “What’re you thinking, Tony?”

    “Not sure, yet…got a hunch,” Tony said as he stood to get his coat.

    “Shall I go with you?” Ziva asked as she reached for her own coat.

    “No…you keep looking here. Tell Gibbs I’ll be back,” he said as he rushed from the room.

    Chapter Text

    Chapter 7

    “Tony, where are you?” McGee demanded as soon as he answered the phone. “Gibbs is pissed.”

    Tony laughed. “On my way…d’you find anything about a vacation home?”

    “Yeah, Debra Costing’s sister owns a home on small lake near Westernport. She says the Costings use it a lot.”

    “Where’s that?”

    “About four hours from here. Is that where you think they’ve…uh!”

    “Where the hell are you, DiNozzo?” growled a new voice that could only belong to one person.

    “Went dumpster diving, Boss…we need to get on the road to that address…we also need to find Costing’s brother…can you send LEOs out to his house?”

    “Fine,” answered Gibbs without question. “What’s your ETA?”

    “Be there in ten…” Tony began but found himself talking to a dead connection. He rolled his eyes but grinned, too, because it was just so Gibbs.

    By the time Tony got to the yard, Gibbs was waiting in the driver’s seat of another government sedan. McGee barely had time to jump in Tony’s car before Gibbs peeled out. Tony hit the gas and followed before McGee had even buckled up and then laughed at McGee’s gasp.

    In moments, McGee had pulled out his phone and had called Ziva. They both hit the speaker button and then Tony heard Gibbs bark, “Talk!”

    While Tony drove, he outlined what he’d found.

    “The crumpled picture isn’t the same type of photo as the others. There was also a date on the back…according to Costing’s duty roster, he was TAD that week…”

    “That could just be the date the picture was developed…” McGee suggested.

    “Yeah,” Tony agreed, “but all of these other pictures we got from both the house and his desk were printed on one of those home photo printers. I figured Costing was sent that picture by the photographer. His coworkers said he was in the breakroom when he got real agitated and then left so I figured we missed something there. When I got to Costing’s duty station I looked through all the trash cans and found this…”

    “Uh, Boss…Tony just handed me an evidence bag with several documents in it,” McGee said and then remained silent as he looked through them.

    “Well, what are they, McGee?” Gibbs growled over the phone and Tony chuckled.

    “Oh…uh, divorce papers…it looks like Mrs. Costing filed for divorce and the other is a note…umph!” McGee huffed out when Tony took a sharp turn.

    “It’s a note from a private investigator, Boss,” Tony added in helpfully. “It lists billing for surveillance.”

    “What did he find, DiNozzo?” Gibbs spit out and Tony winced at the sharp sound of car horns. He wasn’t about to make the same move just yet…

    “That picture isn’t of Stephen and Debra…it’s John and Debra,” Tony said as he again caught up with Gibbs. “The two brothers look almost identical.”

    “Contacting the local authorities now,” Tony heard Ziva say. If he was right, LEOs would find John at home after all.

    A few more phone calls later and they found out that Costing’s car was located at the lakeside home. Tony didn’t smile but his eyes narrowed in satisfaction when his hunch had been proven right. LEOs were ordered to remain on the perimeter and to wait.

    “Boss,” McGee said as soon as he closed the other cell phone he was using. “John Costing was found in his home, GSW to the chest.”

    “Yeah,” came the short response from Gibbs and Tony knew that the information wasn’t exactly good. If Stephen had gone off the deep edge enough to kill his own brother, it didn’t bode well for Debra or Nathan.

    ~~~~

    It was after one Thursday morning when Tony looked over the vehicle he was using as a barricade. The small vacation home was well-maintained, sitting prettily at the side of a picturesque lake. It was a peaceful night. Well, with the exception of the occasional gunshot that rang out at odd intervals.

    “Wonderful,” he muttered to himself. The enraged man remained inside holding his wife and child hostage. The fact that Costing was still taking potshots at them made Tony believe that the hostages were still alive. Always a good thing. Tony peeked out again and saw Gibbs trying in vain to talk to the man inside. He was refusing to talk or to let anyone come inside. The phone was off the hook so they couldn’t call him. Gibbs turned and looked at Tony but he shook his head. McGee hadn’t gotten through yet.

    “What’s taking so long, McGee?” he demanded of the man next to him who was working with the phone company to break into the landline and interrupt the busy signal. A sniper in a tree behind the house reported that Nathan was secured in the kitchen. No visual on Mrs. Costing. He could also see the phone lying on the floor. They could just see through some slivers in the windows that the husband had left as lookouts that he was moving between the front room and the dining area that comprised the right side of the house. It looked like the left side of the house was cut off by a dining table shoved up against the hallway. Except for those small openings, they were blind as to what was going on inside.

    While McGee worked, Tony glanced over to Ziva who was stationed with a sniper rifle on top of a law enforcement van. Always the wife, he told himself. And families…who needed them? Especially if they were capable of doing this to one another. Merry freakin’ Christmas.

    “Got it!” McGee called out and Gibbs pulled back to get on the line he had connected.

    Tony saw Gibbs listen in and then frown fiercely. With his own sharp hearing he could just make out the sound of a high-pitched keening. Gibbs handed him the phone.

    “Think it’s Nathan, I’m gonna talk to Costing,” he whispered. Nobody wanted Costing to know they were going to try to talk to Nathan. Gibbs moved forward again and called out to Costing. Costing made an appearance and Gibbs started but Tony blocked him out as he tried to get Nathan’s attention. McGee held the radio so Tony could monitor what the sniper at the rear of the house saw.

    “Hey, Nathan? Is that you making that noise?” He started but got no response. He tried again but still got no response. Gibbs still had Costing’s attention so Tony spoke up a little. It worked.

    “Who are you?” came a tremulous voice.

    “My name’s Tony and I’m outside. We’re trying to talk to your Dad but I need to know if you or your Mom are hurt. Can you tell me that?”

    Tony grimaced when the keening began again. “Nathan, buddy…come on and talk to me…”

    The keening stopped abruptly. “Mom’s got blood all over her,” Nathan said in a suddenly quiet voice. “She’s not moving. My father beat her up and then choked her…it’s my fault! She’s dead! Mommy’s dead!” Nathan suddenly screamed and kept on screaming.

    “Nathan!” Tony yelled into the phone as he damned himself for setting the kid off.

    “Costing! Stephen!” Gibbs yelled into the house. He started running as soon as he saw Costing run back towards the kitchen. Tony jumped up and was on Gibbs’ heels in a heartbeat and soon outpaced him.

    Tony heard Gibbs order the sniper to take the shot. A single rifle shot rang out through the night just before they reached the door and then everything was quiet. Even Nathan had ceased screaming.

    Tony and Gibbs reached the door first with Tony doing a running kick that slammed the wood inward. Gibbs moved in immediately, his gun up as he swept the room with Tony right behind him and McGee following third.

    “Suspect is down, repeat, suspect is down,” was heard over the radio just as they swept the room and then Tony heard the kitchen door being kicked open. Gibbs, Tony and the officers at the kitchen door all stepping in at the same moment to find their suspect face-down on the floor, his head blown open by the sniper’s shot. Gibbs moved over to kick away the rifle and knelt to verify he was dead even though it was plainly obvious. One of the local officers covered him nevertheless. Ignoring the body of Debra Costing that lay in an untidy heap next to the refrigerator, Tony moved straight to Nathan who sat unmoving against the wall, his head hanging down. Peripherally, he noted McGee officially verifying Debra Costing’s status.

    Tony reached out with gentle fingers to touch Nathan’s chin and was rewarded when Nathan lifted his head except that then Tony saw the boy’s eyes. Wide, horror-filled brown eyes stared blindly ahead and Tony knew the boy was in shock.

    “Need a medic!” he called as he moved to untie the boy who remained mute. “Nathan, hey…I’m Tony. Everything’s safe, now. No one’s going to hurt you, buddy…”

    Tony’s soft assurances seem to get through to him because Nathan turned at the sound of Tony’s voice and looked at him. Once he was untied he simply put his arms around Tony’s neck and buried his face. With one intense look at Gibbs, Tony turned and carried the boy out of the kitchen.

    Tony sat next to Nathan while the paramedics checked him out. He leaned back with one arm just behind Nathan, not exactly hugging the boy, but close enough for the boy to lean back every now and then and know he was there. Nathan told his story in quiet words, told how he’d tried to help his mother when his father started hitting her but he’d been too angry. He couldn’t stop him. He blamed himself for getting his father angry over breaking the window at his friend’s house. Tony tried to tell him that his father was angry before he’d gone over to pick Nathan up, but Nathan just stared at him and Tony knew he refused to believe him. McGee hovered nearby recording everything he said.

    Every now and then Tony would feel eyes on him and he knew it was Gibbs but he couldn’t bring himself to look at him. He wasn’t angry with Gibbs…well, not exactly. But he was questioning himself, wondering what he could have said differently that would have kept Nathan from screaming. He wished Gibbs hadn’t handed him the phone because Gibbs knew…he knew Tony was shit with kids.

    Tony clenched his teeth when Nathan came to the part where his father beat the crap out of and then killed his mother. He could feel the boy’s guilt but he had no words to make it better. Why did Gibbs hand him the phone?

    Nathan finished his story and it seemed that the adrenaline the boy was no doubt operating under evaporated at that moment. Tony felt Nathan lean more heavily against him and he had to move quickly to hold him upright as the boy closed his eyes. Tony looked at the paramedic with wide eyes.

    “He’s just sleeping,” the paramedic said and Tony nodded. Sleep was good. He could use some himself…eventually.

    With the paramedic’s help they laid Nathan on the gurney and covered him up with a blanket. Social Services had arrived on scene and they’d see to the boy until his aunt arrived.

    Tony turned to see Ziva reporting something to Gibbs. She had the camera in her hand so he knew that she’d finished shooting the scene inside. He should be helping secure the site but he had no interest at the moment. He stepped away and watched as the local coroner moved the bodies out to the waiting van.

    “Best outcome possible,” came a low voice behind him and Tony knew that Gibbs could read exactly what was going on in his head.

    “McGee…”

    “Nope…handed the phone to the best person here. Not your fault how he reacted…”

    Tony turned and looked at the confident face before him and knew that Gibbs believed he’d done the best job possible. Tony just wished he could believe that, too.

    “We’re done here, bodies will be sent to Ducky,” Gibbs said closing the subject and then moved to their sedans.

    Tony moved to follow but then looked back at the ambulance and saw a weeping woman holding Nathan in her arms. Nathan was awake and was staring at Tony expressionlessly. Tony walked over and stuck his hand out. Nathan tentatively put his hand in Tony’s without leaving his aunt’s embrace.

    “You did all that you could, Nathan. What happened between your Dad and Mom wasn’t on you. Please believe me…it was not your fault. Don’t ever forget that,” he said softly, his eyes never leaving Nathan’s. “Take care,” he finished and, with a final look at them both, he turned to follow Gibbs.

    Everyone was quiet on the way home. McGee offered to drive but Tony waved him off saying he was still too wired to sleep.

    “Well, I’m not,” McGee said and then leaned his seat back for some shuteye. Tony turned some music on low as he drove, his mind still in turmoil over how the events had unfolded.

    They’d gotten a statement from Debra Costing’s sister that detailed how unhappy she’d been in her marriage. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law seemed all too willing to commiserate with her which was how their affair began. Tony shook his head. Sure, he always said it was the wife but there were cases like this when every member of your family seemed to turn on you. He thought again about the card pinned behind his desk and again shook his head, silently thinking about seven- and twelve-year-old boys. Divorce isn’t the end of a family he thought thinking of the card. Divorced Dads were usually still in the picture. He just wished that Stephen Costing hadn’t thrown that all away. But in the long run, in his opinion, having a father wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be. He winced at the bitter thought.

    Unbidden came memories of his father and mother reenacting the inevitable arguments over money and what it took to make it which inevitably led to words about his mother’s drinking, and all of it amidst the detritus of yet another costly holiday party thrown for the sole purposes of showing off, networking and forgetting about reality. Ugly words and the sound of slaps on both sides had more than once chased Tony back to his room.

    Tony rolled the muscles in his neck that had tightened up and forcibly pushed the memories away. From all accounts, Nathan had a good life with his folks before it all blew up so spectacularly in one night. When he’d look back on this mess, he’d have that at least.

    “That’s gotta be better,” he said quietly as he drove on into the night.

    They returned to NCIS, arriving late in the morning on Thursday. The office Christmas party was scheduled for that afternoon but Tony had no interest in it. Gibbs freed everyone to go home to rest up and to report back on Friday morning. Despite their exhaustion, they took the time to walk around and convey their holiday wishes. After a few short conversations, McGee and Ziva wasted no time in gathering whatever they needed before they left.

    Tony took his time making sure that everything would be where he’d need it the next day. While tired, he knew he couldn’t go home to sleep just yet but staying at the office party held no appeal. He was considering a movie and maybe just a short visit to his favorite bar when Gibbs walked by and said, “With me, DiNozzo.”

    “What? I thought we were free to go home…?”

    “We are,” Gibbs said as he paused to look at Tony. “You’re with me.”

    Tony’s eyes narrowed and he felt a rush of anger. “Your turn again?” he growled in a fine imitation of Gibbs. “I don’t need a babysitter.” It pissed him off to think that Gibbs, of all people, had conspired with the rest of the team. Had Carl been in on it, too?

    Gibbs just rolled his eyes and Tony realized then that babysitting hadn’t been the reason. It was this case…this type of case. He recalled the case where Navy Captain Mike Watson had staged the kidnapping of his wife and daughter, and absolutely terrorizing them in the process, just to score some money. Gibbs had taken that case just as hard as he did any case involving kids. Gibbs had hauled him home with him that night, too. He’d spent that night talking about some of the greatest con-artist movies of all time like The Sting, Matchstick Men and Catch Me if You Can. He’d sipped bourbon that entire night all the while telling himself that he was going to get a bottle of decent scotch to stash alongside Gibbs’ bourbon. Well, he did and then kept one there ever since for nights like this.

    “So, Boss, have you ever seen Mrs. Doubtfire? It’s a divorce movie which I’m sure you’d appreciate because you probably have the market cornered on divorce experience (next to my father, of course) but it’s probably one of my favorites…” he began as he grabbed his gear and followed Gibbs out.

    Chapter Text

    Chapter 8

    They picked up some pizza on the way home, eating it in the basement as they each did their thing: Tony talking and Gibbs working. Tony wasn’t sure when it happened, but at some point during his on-going monologue about the best divorce movies, the tension he’d felt in his shoulders all through the drive home had disappeared. He leaned back onto the steps letting his voice fall silent. Probably the scotch, he thought to himself although he hadn’t had much. He was just too tired to drink more. His red-rimmed eyes slid partly closed and he wondered how many hours he’d spent sitting right here over the years. A lot, he figured, but refused to conjecture any further. For some reason, it struck him as particularly needy and, therefore, kind of embarrassing. No wonder he didn’t have time for relationships…he was either at work or sitting right here, listening to Gibbs build his latest whatever-it-was…the…the Christmas toys. Yeah, that was it. Or boats or furniture or who knows what else he did with those strong, calloused hands…

    God, he was tired. He thought about moving upstairs to crash on the couch but the thought alone seemed to take more energy than he possessed. He let his eyes close all the way as the rhythmic sounds of Gibbs sanding some small piece lulled him into a light sleep.

    Tony woke up to see Gibbs leaning over him. “Bed,” was all he said and Tony nodded. Gibbs followed him upstairs but when he moved towards the living room Gibbs tapped him on the shoulder and said, “A real bed, DiNozzo.”

    Tony shot him a curious look but didn’t argue as he continued up the stairs to the second floor. While he usually slept in the guestroom when he stayed over, he’d thought to just crash at the nearest horizontal location. Gibbs, apparently, decided otherwise. Either that or Gibbs was just getting used to putting him to bed. That thought made him giggle which earned him a curious look. He ignored it and forced himself to move and he went to bed.

    The next morning Gibbs was up at his usual ridiculously early time and was making breakfast when Tony made his way downstairs. He felt almost normal after having slept both deeply and comfortably all night, the way he always did when crashing in Gibbs’ spare bedroom. He’d already showered and only needed to grab his extra gear from his car so that he could change before going to work.

    Gibbs eyed him up and down and seemed satisfied with what he saw when he gestured towards the table where a cup of coffee was already sitting. A container of hazelnut creamer sat next to it.

    Tony shot him a grateful smile and sat down. Moments later a plate of scrambled eggs and sliced ham appeared next to him quickly followed by some toast. Tony gave Gibbs a rueful grin because it was obvious that Gibbs had noticed the fact that he hadn’t been eating much lately.

    “Thanks, Boss,” Tony said as soon as Gibbs sat down with his own breakfast but received only a grunt in reply which made Tony grin even more. He thought about Abby’s likening Gibbs to a father-figure. While she was right in a lot of ways, Tony didn’t feel that sort of kinship to Gibbs, normally. Things like this, though, sort of dropped it back into that realm. Gibbs was always taking care of him somehow and while that should have embarrassed him (wasn’t he thinking about something embarrassing last night?), it didn’t. There’d been plenty of times where he’d be up and making breakfast for Gibbs so, in his mind, he figured what they had was more like a partnership. Like what they had at work. They certainly spent enough time together, both on- and off-duty, to be partners. He looked down at his half-filled coffee cup and a vague idea began to cross his mind.

    “Eat up…your bag’s in the entry-way,” Gibbs said interrupting Tony’s thoughts. Tony just grinned because he figured he learned to anticipate from the best, so he did as he was told and they were on their way to work less than fifteen minutes later.

    ~~~~

    Tony hit print on the final draft of his report by early Friday afternoon. He looked up but knew that Ziva was downstairs speaking with Abby, Ducky and Jimmy to verify that they’d all be getting together that evening before everyone headed out for the day.

    While the pages printed, Tony leaned back in his chair, his eyes automatically going to the Christmas card pinned up behind his desk. He smirked as he recalled the eager expressions on both Ziva’s and McEager Beaver’s faces when they got nosey that morning and read the card. So, okay, he’d gotten a surprise invitation to brunch on Christmas Day from Wendy and her son – hard to believe she even had a seven-year-old son… Still, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it and wondered how long ago her divorce had been final before deciding to look him up. He shook his head at the bitter thought.

    “You shake your head ‘No’…is there something wrong with your report, Tony?” Ziva asked saucily as she reentered the bullpen. “You need to get it right so that you can come to dinner tonight.”

    “Nothing is wrong with my report, Zee-vah! It’s perfect like all of my reports,” Tony replied haughtily. “I was just going through my mental checklist of things to do before Christmas.”

    McGee strolled over to drop his report on Gibbs’ desk and then wandered back towards Tony.

    “So…have you made any decisions about that invitation?”

    “What’s it to you, McNosey?” Tony answered as he stapled and signed his report.

    “You are referring to the invitation from Wendy, correct?” Ziva asked insinuating herself into the conversation. “You should go, Tony.”

    “Not sure I’ll have time, though,” Tony said deciding that he’d much rather follow what little holiday tradition he had and show up at Casa de Gibbs on Christmas Day. Besides, the Boss needed him. “Was thinking of stopping off at Gibbs’ place…” he said deciding that it didn’t matter if the rest of the team knew he visited Gibbs on Christmas Day. They didn’t need to know why he had to be there.

    “Going to Leyla’s,” Gibbs said as he walked into the bullpen.

    Tony was stunned. Gibbs was always home on Christmas. Where was he going to go now?

    “Going to Gibbs wasn’t your only plan, right?” McGee asked worriedly.

    Tony started slightly. He’d actually forgotten that both Ziva and McGee were there.

    “Of course not, McGhost of Christmas Future,” Tony answered with a bright smile. He refused to seem so pathetic as to not have anyone to be with on Christmas. “Just wondering how to fit everything in but now that Gibbs is busy…”

    “Precisely why you should reconsider lunch with Wendy,” Ziva declared.

    “Right,” Tony said as his eyes drifted towards Gibbs.

    ~~~~

    Later that evening, Tony showed early at Torelli’s, the team’s favorite Italian restaurant. As Gibbs’ SIC, he took it upon himself to make the arrangements for their dinner. It was another tradition, if you will, that they all had dinner together before Christmas, work and travel plans permitting. This year, since Christmas fell on Sunday, they had Monday off leaving them a nice long weekend.

    Tony walked into the familiar family restaurant and was greeted warmly by the owner himself. After several smiles and hugs and well-wishes for the holidays, he was led to the back room which had been reserved for them. Tony looked around appreciatively noting the festive decorations and the small tree positioned on the long table in the corner. He arranged his gifts on the table around the tree and then walked around the dining table which was set up for ten. To add to the ambience of the season, he always made up small place cards for each person which he designed with the team member in mind. While he’d never admit to it, all of his childhood training in social etiquette did, on occasion, come in handy. He put the playful cards in place with a small grin.

    He’d just finished putting down the last place card when Ducky and Abby arrived followed immediately by Jimmy and his fiancée, Breena. Tony greeted them and pointed to the table set up in the corner upon which they could place their Christmas gifts for the exchange later. It already held the gifts he’d brought that evening. They’d decided on a gift exchange since everyone had plans for the weekend, some of which involved some travel. After their dinner, Abby would be leaving relatively early with Ducky because they planned to take in a concert, Messiah. From there Ducky was leaving the city to spend Christmas with friends and Abby was flying back to New Orleans to spend some time with her family. She would return on Monday evening.

    Since Breena’s father was visiting, Jimmy and Breena had a full weekend planned, one which still had him a bit nervous despite the understanding they’d come to when Jimmy turned down the offer of a position with Breena’s father in his mortuary business. Tony had to hand it to Jimmy who’d shown quite a bit of backbone after the snide comments about government workers his future father-in-law had been spouting. He’d been impressed when Jimmy had articulated his feelings for the importance of their job so very well. It summed up how he felt about it, too. Then Breena has supported him completely. Although he would never begrudge Jimmy any of the happiness he’d found, he had to admit to having felt a flash of envy at that moment.

    And speaking of flashes of envy, Tim and Cathy chose that moment to walk in. Cathy was an incredibly sweet girl Tim had met during one of his book signings. Cathy worked at the store and had helped to set up his table. As it turned out, they didn’t get together right away. Tim had gone to that same bookstore to do some shopping a couple of months later when he saw her again. They’d chatted and ended up having coffee together, although it was at the in-house coffee shop that was part of the bookstore. He’d been seeing her ever since.

    Tony greeted them and then they ordered some drinks. Tony looked up at the door just as Ziva and Ray walked in. He gave Ziva a broad smile and moved to greet them at the door as though he were the host of the event. Ziva rolled her eyes at him as he called the waiter over to make sure they got their drink orders in. Once they were settled and had begun mingling, Tony grabbed his own drink did some mingling of his own all the while keeping an eye on the door.

    They’d been chatting for about 30 minutes, laughing and exchanging stories, when Tony decided to try calling Gibbs. There was no answer which made Tony’s stomach tighten in concern. He leaned over to Ducky to ask if he knew where Gibbs was.

    “Unfortunately no, my dear boy. I do believe he fully intended to be here tonight. Perhaps something came up at work?” Ducky mused.

    Tony smiled and agreed knowing it couldn’t be a job since they weren’t on call and he hadn’t been notified of anything. Abby chose that moment to ask Ducky a question so Tony called the waiter over to order another drink. He then sought out Ziva to ask the same question.

    “He said he would be here, Tony,” she said, her emotionless facing belying the slight concern in her eyes.

    Tony knew how important it was to her for Gibbs to be here, especially in light of her announcement. He reached out and placed his hand on her forearm.

    “If Gibbs said he’d be here, then he will be,” Tony assured her. Unfortunately, he also knew that they couldn’t wait indefinitely to begin dinner so he signaled for the waiter to begin bringing in the appetizers they’d chosen and called for everyone to take their seats. Tony seated himself at one end of the long table laughingly fulfilling the role of hostess for the evening. To his right, in the Gentlemen Guest of Honor position, sat Ducky. His place card was in the shape of scalpel. Across from him and at Tony’s left, sat Abby with her bat-shaped place card. Beside each of them he’d seated both Cathy and Breena. Breena giggled at her casket-shaped place card as did Cathy with her book-shaped one. To Cathy’s right, Tim’s place card was nearly identical with the exception of Deep Six being emblazoned on the cover of the ‘book’. To Breena’s left, Jimmy had the obvious NCIS Medical Examiner’s van as his place card.

    Tony had almost made Ziva’s place card in the shape of wedding bells but decided that he didn’t want to leave any clues. He ended up making her place card in the shape of an anime ninja. Tonight was Ziva’s night and, to that end, he sat her at Gibbs’ right in the position of Lady Guest of Honor. That left Ray sitting to Gibbs’ left. He’d been undecided on the shape of Ray’s place card and had finally chosen the shape of a gun figuring that he couldn’t go wrong there.

    Gibbs’ card was in the shape of an NCIS badge just to avoid the usual boat- or bourbon-shaped cards. Tony’s own card was in a standard rectangular shape.

    Once everyone began eating, Tony excused himself to try Gibbs number again. This time Gibbs answered.

    “On my way,” Gibbs growled and then hung up. Tony smiled in relief which he knew both Abby and Ducky noted immediately.

    Gibbs walked in halfway through the appetizer course.

    “Leaking pipe,” he said in response to Ducky’s query when he settled into the chair at the head of the table and then finally looked at everyone. He raised his wine glass in Tony’s direction. Everyone else followed suit.

    “Looks good, DiNozzo,” he said and Tony beamed.

    ~~~~

    “He’s just worried that I spend too much time at work,” Jimmy said referring to the tense visit with Breena’s father. “He loves you, Breena,” Jimmy said and put his arm around her shoulders when she attempted to apologize for her father’s behavior. “He just wants what’s best for you and, hopefully, I’m on the road to convincing him that I’ll spend my life trying to get that for you.”

    “Oh, Jimmy,” Breena said giving Jimmy a quick kiss. “I think he sees that. He just also needed to see that working at NCIS isn’t just a job for you. It’s a calling.”

    Jimmy smiled and tightened his hold on his fiancée. “Yeah,” he said in agreement.

    Tony smiled and toyed with his wine glass. Now that dinner was done and they were waiting on dessert, he opted for coffee. Everyone seemed to be having a good time as the conversation wound its way through a myriad of topics. The current topic seemed particularly appropriate. Tony noted Ziva’s attention focused on their discussion so he was curious where it would go…and what her reaction would be.

    “Sometimes it’s not just the job that keeps us occupied,” he said and then looked at Cathy. “It must be tough having a boyfriend who’s not only a federal agent but is also someone who spends quite a bit of time typing away at some new book.”

    “It’s hard sometimes,” Cathy agreed. “But I knew that going in. Being an agent is so much a part of who Tim is and it’s the source of all his inspiration for his books,” she said admiringly as she looked at Tim with a smile.

    “Yeah, but it must be tough, never knowing when he’ll get home from a case, especially if he comes in tired and cranky…l”

    Cathy giggled in a charmingly low tone which made Tony smile in return. “Sure, but all that means is that its cuddle time!” which made Tony and everyone else laugh out loud but made Tim blush slightly. Cathy continued, determined to make her point, “It takes work, but the main thing is to try to allot time for both work and personal life. It can’t be all or nothing or, trust me, you end up with nothing,” she said with a warm look towards Tim. Then she looked back at Tony and grinned. “Of course it helps that only one of us is in such a demanding job.”

    “Very true,” Tony said with a thoughtful look over towards Ziva and Ray. “Still must be tough when you have to cancel special dates or events…” Tony mused and Cathy looked at him curiously.

    “It does happen, Tony, but I knew that was part of the deal really soon after we met,” she said. “I accept that but I also know that Tim will do everything he can to keep to our plans. When he can’t, well then we just need to make sure that the time we do spend together is quality time, you know?”

    “Absolutely,” Breena chimed in. “There are personal sacrifices but what they do is so important it has to be done. And as long as Jimmy comes home to me at the end of the work day…no matter how long that is…I believe we’ll have a very,” …kiss… “fulfilling,” …kiss… “life,” Breena said with a long kiss at the end.

    “Hear, hear,” Ducky said approvingly and with a raised glass. “Very well said indeed, my dear.”

    Tony smiled, especially when he noted Ziva’s warm looks towards Ray. He couldn’t help but look at Gibbs who kept his normal inscrutable expression. He wasn’t sure why he’d pushed that conversation. It seemed important, somehow, to have everyone on the same page, almost as though he needed to know that Breena, Cathy and Ray understood and felt the same way.

    Tony looked down into his coffee. He felt a strong kinship with Gibbs right now, as though they were the only ones to have sacrificed relationships to the altar of their profession. Then he shook his head slightly in negation. That wasn’t quite right…he hadn’t sacrificed his past relationships. It was more like they’d failed the test of his profession. He raised his eyes to look at Gibbs and found the blue eyes staring at him intently. That sense of kinship intensified and he felt mesmerized. Gibbs understood him, his needs, could probably read his thoughts right now…

    It was at that moment that Tony’s thoughts were interrupted by Ziva who said she and Ray had an announcement to make. He smiled, grateful for the respite from impossible, wishful thinking. Ray stood up and, walked around behind Gibbs to take Ziva’s hand and pull her up to stand with him. They shared a quick look and then Ray urged her to go ahead. She turned to the rest and announced that she’d accepted Ray’s proposal of marriage.

    This announcement was met with a huge chorus of congratulations, well-wishes and squeals from Abby who’d immediately jumped up to run over for hugs.

    When the noise level died just a bit Tony grabbed his glass and raised it high. He was aware of Gibbs staring at him but he ignored it and pressed on.

    “To Ziva and Ray, may your marriage be a long and happy one,” a sentiment with which everyone agreed and said “Hear, hear.” But Tony wasn’t yet done.

    “And, as a reminder, Ray… just look around you and note the talents of the people in this room, you ever hurt her, you will regret it,” he said with a wide grin. “And there’d be no forensic evidence left, right Abby?”

    “Absolutely, Tony!” Abby chimed in with a laugh which didn’t nearly drown out Gibbs’ own “Damn right.”

    Both Ziva and Ray laughed. “That is the spade talk…” and then rolled her eyes when everyone else in the room including Ray responded, “Shovel!”

    Chapter Text

    Chapter 9

     

    Once everyone opened their gifts, the evening quickly wound down. Tony took care of the final details and helped everyone out to their cars with their gifts after thoughtfully providing large gift bags to help. With final waves good-bye, Tony grabbed his own bag and stepped outside to his car.

    “You okay to drive?” came a low voice behind him and Tony whirled around.

    “Boss!” he exclaimed as he jumped slightly and then frowned at Gibbs’ smirk. “Thought you’d already left.”

    “Making sure everyone got out okay. So?” Gibbs asked again and waited.

    “I’m fine. Just loading up and heading home,” Tony answered. Gibbs looked him over carefully and then nodded so Tony got in after he stowed his things and Gibbs did the same in his car. They left the lot, one after the other, turning in different directions on their way home. Tony chuckled ruefully to himself. He’d half expected Gibbs to follow him home. He automatically scanned the road behind him and then laughed at himself. It didn’t stop him from scanning the area around his apartment building just to be sure.

    Once he was in his place and had stowed the really cool things he’d been given, he looked around and knew there was no way he could stay there. Changing out of his more formal suit, he put on some comfortable clothes and called a cab to take him to his favorite bar.

    ~~~~

    It was late and Tony figured it was nearly closing time. Wouldn’t be the first time he’d closed this particular bar only this time his mood was very different from his previous visit and he wasn’t even close to being drunk. He went over the night’s events, happy with the way things had turned out. He’d enjoyed the look of surprise on everyone’s face when Ziva and Ray made their announcement. That had been good. What kept rolling around in his head, though, was that conversation. A part of it had filled him with worry and he hoped the stresses of their respective jobs wouldn’t damage Ziva and Ray’s relationship.

    He also kept hearing Cathy say “it’s cuddle time!” He wondered if his parents had ever indulged in cuddle time during those few instances when they were together and not busy entertaining his father’s business associates. He doubted it. Maybe if they had, things could have been different. Maybe his mother wouldn’t have driven off after that fight on Christmas Day and wouldn’t have gotten into that accident. Maybe.

    Cuddle time, the honest attempt to be together and then, when you were, making sure it was quality time. A few hours…it didn’t sound like much, but over a lifetime? It probably made all the difference in the world. He took another sip of his drink and became aware of a presence at his side.

    “Still babysitting me?” he asked as Gibbs sat down and ordered a drink.

    Gibbs shrugged and then took a sip of his drink. He looked at Tony. “You okay?”

    “Taking a cab as usual, Boss.”

    “Not what I meant. Are you okay?”

    Tony frowned. Gibbs couldn’t actually be asking about his feelings

    “I’m fine,” he repeated.

    Gibbs stared at him a bit longer. “You loved her…”

    Tony looked at Gibbs in shock. “No! What? Not like that…she’s like a cousin, Gibbs,” Tony declared still reeling a bit from this very weird conversation.

    Tony could see the disbelief in Gibbs’ eyes.

    “Okay, maybe we sort of tried things out once, a few years ago, but it wasn’t right. She really is like family,” he said sincerely. “I honestly hope this works out for them.”

    Gibbs didn’t say anything but Tony could tell that he believed him so he relaxed a bit. They were quiet for a bit more. Carl came by.

    “Last call, guys,” he said easily.

    Tony looked at what was left of his drink. He was done.

    “I’m good. Gibbs?”

    Gibbs just waved his hand once and Carl moved off.

    “Come on, Tony. I’ll give you a lift.”

    “We going to my place or yours?” Tony asked warily.

    Gibbs eyed him the way he’d been doing a lot lately and then smirked. “I’ll run you home.”

    Tony smiled and the men left together. They climbed into Gibbs’ truck. The Charger was now parked in the garage for the season since they were expecting snow.

    “Thanks for the lift,” Tony said when they got to his apartment building. Gibbs stared out of the windshield and just nodded. He turned to look at Tony again.

    “Door’s open,” Gibbs said finally which took Tony a little by surprise. It had been years since Gibbs felt the need to remind him of something he knew so well, but he felt warmed by it nonetheless.

    “Thanks,” Tony said again with a grateful smile and then got out and trotted to the front door. He heard Gibbs pull away and only then turned to watch him drive off.

    ~~~~

    Tony ambled about his apartment. It was late on Saturday, Christmas Eve, since he’d slept in a very long time. He got something to eat and then popped a movie into the player. He wasn’t quite sure what movie he’d put it, he just let it play in the background while he got his thoughts together. He thought about Wendy and Jeanne and Ziva, three very different women that he cared for in very different ways. They each represented a different time in his life and the door was firmly closed on two of them. Wendy, though…

    He looked at the clock and briefly considered going out again but knew he wouldn’t. He wanted to be clear when he went to meet her and her son. Tony dredged through his memory to see if he’d ever seen a picture of the man Wendy had married. Yeah, dark hair and eyes and with Wendy’s dark hair, Tony was sure the boy was dark-haired, too. There’d been a time when he’d imagined the child he and Wendy would have but that had been a long time ago. He couldn’t even conceive of it now. Well, he’d find out about Wendy’s son soon enough and then settled in to watch his movie.

    The next day Tony sat outside of the restaurant where he was supposed to meet Wendy and her son. He kept thinking of Abby’s words about finding someone who could accept how much his job was a part of who he was and, deep inside, he knew that Wendy never would. So what was he doing sitting here? Had he actually contemplated re-opening that wound, too? He barked out a humorless laugh and then started the car without thought as to where he would go.

    Naturally, he found himself sitting outside of Gibbs’ house and was surprised to see the truck in the driveway. Without questioning his actions, he jumped out of his car and walked into the house.

    "Pretty pink bike, Boss. Nice tassels," Tony said as he walked down into the basement.

    Gibbs huffed a bit. "For Mike Frank's granddaughter."

    "Mmmm... I forgot Amira and Leyla live in DC now. Of course. So I guess you have somewhere else to be?"

    "Yeah, well, so do you.”

    "Ahhh, I went. Sat in the car for about 20 minutes debating. I didn't go in. Decided to swing by Casa de Gibbs instead."

     

    "Well, we all make our own choices DiNozzo," Gibbs said with a slight note of disappointment in his voice that made Tony’s stomach clench.

    "You think I made a mistake."

    "I think you made it twice now," Gibbs said as he lifted the bike onto his shoulder.

    Huh. So Gibbs thinks he should have chosen Wendy over NCIS? Only problem was that Gibbs didn’t know all the history. Wendy expected a lot. Probably more than he was capable of giving then…maybe even now.

    “Well, when I joined NCIS I knew what you expected of me…everything. Doesn't exactly leave a lot of room for the Wendy's of the world,” he said to Gibbs’ back as he started hauling the bike upstairs.

    "Did you come here to blame me, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked as he paused on the steps.

    "No Boss," Tony answered softly. His choices were just that…his. He’d never begrudged the time he’d devoted to the job…to Gibbs.

    "Good," Gibbs answered but didn’t take another step.

    Tony looked down at the bench and saw the coffee cup and mason jar, one placed inside of the other for the next time he’d be there, in the basement, with Gibbs. He’d always been an all or nothing type of guy. It’s what Gibbs had expected and what he’d been more than happy to provide. Working for Gibbs was everything. But maybe…just maybe he could split that up a bit differently. Quality over quantity.

    "Family and job, two different cups."

    "That's right," Gibbs said from his station on the steps.

    "And... If I couldn't fill both, that was my problem," Tony said still contemplating the two cups.

    "Mm hmm."

    At Gibbs agreement, Tony looked up. "What if I can now?"

    "Then get out of my basement!” Gibbs ordered, seemingly angry now. “Man up and move on."

    "Like you have," Tony accused, slightly angry at Gibbs’ response. Was he kicking him out now?

    "Don't be like me. Learn from it,” Gibbs said and then strode angrily up the stairs.

    Tony watched him leave. "Good talk!" he said sarcastically and then put the two vessels down. He looked at the workbench and played with the old string of lights Gibbs had, yet again, strung up. They flashed half-heartedly a couple of times before going out and staying out.

    "Merry Christmas," he said dejectedly. He heard movement and looked back up to see Gibbs with his coat on looking at him from the stairs.

    "Hey! Are you coming or not? Leyla's making lamb," he asked somewhat exasperatedly.

    "You sure it's alright?" Tony asked, stunned at the turn of events.

    "Yeah, I told her you were coming."

    Tony scrunched his face in confusion. "When?"

    "I told her last week. You're not gonna find what you're looking for down here, DiNozzo. Come on," Gibbs said with a wave of his arm and then turned to jog up the steps.

    Not if you’re not here, Tony thought as he watched him go and then automatically followed as he always did. The Christmas lights on the bench chose that moment to come on and he smiled.

    TBC in Fill Me Up, Part 2: The Bucket List