A late night summons to the director's office has never, in the history of Tony's fifteen year NCIS career, lead to anything approaching good news. In point of fact, often times it has led to the exact opposite of good news - there had been many meetings with Jenny Shepard in this very office at this hour of the night, meetings that involved La Grenouille and Jeanne Benoit. That had been the very definition of a bad situation that had ended badly and Tony would be lying if he said he didn't still feel a little pull around the scar tissue every now and again, maybe a little less recently since he's seen her again.
But still, that dread of late night meetings remains.
Less than two minutes into the conversation, he knows exactly why he's been called here under cover of darkness and he knows too that he'd been right - no good ever comes of meetings at this hour of the night.
"I think you need to consider this." Vance's eyes are dark and serious in the dim lamplight as he concludes, his lips set in a thin line that shows no humour, his tone one that brooks no argument.
Tony shifts in his seat, runs one hand down his pant leg. He opens his mouth to give his usual, jocular type of response but the words turn to ashes in his mouth. There's something different in Vance's voice and demeanour, something that hadn't been there the previous times they'd had this conversation. "Are you ordering me to take the assignment?"
Vance doesn't blink. "You've been here for fifteen years now, Tony," he points out. "That's a long time in the second chair. You're ready - you're more than ready - to lead a team of your own."
Tony shifts again. "I feel like I still have a lot to learn-" he starts but the words ring hollow, even to him. He stops before Vance can point out that he's filled in for Gibbs on more than one occasion, that he did a more than adequate job. Maybe even approaching Gibbs good, if he did say so himself.
Vance tilts his head, lifts one eyebrow. If Tony has learned one thing about working with Vance for as long as he has, he knows a challenge when he sees one. "You're ready," he said quietly. "You know it. I know it. Gibbs knows it." He leans forward, places both elbows on his desk, hands joined like he's praying. "And frankly, Tony, there's only so many times you can take a pass on an offer like this before they stop coming entirely."
There's a slight shift in his tone to go along with his shift in movement. Tony narrows his eyes, hearing what he didn't say as clearly as what he did. "You're telling me this is my last chance?"
"No, I'm not saying that." The denial is swift enough that it can only be the truth. "But it will happen, Tony. We both know that too."
Vance leans back in his chair, eyes him steadily and Tony stands, nods his head once. "Thank you, Sir," he says. "I'll certainly consider what you've said."
"See that you do."
Tony spends the whole of the next day considering it, all while going about his usual tasks, trying not to think about how much fun he has at work. He enjoys teasing Tim, enjoys getting his technical answers from Abby and even Ducky's stories are something that he knows he'd miss. He'd even, and this is something that he'll never admit out loud, miss Gibbs and his head slaps.
He's been here for fifteen years. He loves his team, loves his job, loves his life.
He's comfortable and for a man like him who'd never really felt at home anywhere in his life, that's a powerful thing. He's not so sure he's ready to give that up, not so sure he wants to.
So he does the only thing he can think of, goes to the only person who's capable of seeing through his bullshit and giving him some real, honest advice.
The stairs still creak on their way down to Gibbs's basement and one breath has him inhaling the familiar aroma of sawdust and wood, a combination that, even though he has no woodworking skills whatsoever, instantly makes him feel more relaxed. "You here, Boss?" he calls down, though he knows he is because the light is on and he could hear the familiar sound of a tool scraping against wood from the top of the stairs.
"Come on down, DiNozzo," comes the reply. There's a hint of humour in the words and when Tony gets closer he can see the little almost smirk that matches it, even though Gibbs never looks up from his sanding. "Been expecting you."
That can only mean one thing.
"You talked to Vance."
"Vance talked to me." It's a small distinction, but an important one and Tony mentally decreases his chances of ever getting an offer like this again. "So, you gonna take it?"
"I don't know." Tony is honest with him, comes all the way down into the basement and sits down on the stool across from Gibbs. "I know I probably should..."
"No, you definitely should." Gibbs doesn't beat around the bush, doesn't stop his sanding. The motion is rhythmic, compelling and it's almost enough to distract Tony from what they're talking about.
He's half joking, or at least he's trying to joke when he says, "You trying to get rid of me?"
"No." It's the first time he's got two nos in a row from Gibbs and been slightly happy about it. "You're a damn good second in command." Tony feels himself puff up a little at the unaccustomed praise; only sheer willpower born of years of working with Gibbs stops him from reaching for his cell phone and pressing record. "I'll be sorry to lose you." Definitely, Tony thinks, he should have pressed record. "But you're ready. You're more than ready, you've been ready for years now."
"What if I don't want it?"
Gibbs stops sanding, lifts his head slowly and raises one eyebrow. This time, there's no almost about the smirk. "You, Tony DiNozzo, do not want to take command of the NCIS team working out of Pearl Harbor?" Tony bites his lip, looks down and hides his smile.
"Guess I walked right in to that one, huh?"
"You're aware it's in Hawaii, right?"
Tony shook his head. "Yes, Hawaii, land of sun, sea, surf and girls in bikinis all year round." He sighed. "While I debate staying here... in the Washington Navy Yard, with snow in winter and thunderstorms in summer." There's another sander on the table beside him and he picks it up, idly turns it around in his hands. Gibbs's eyes flicker down to it and the tiniest of lines appear on his forehead.
"Time was," he says, "that would have been reason enough for you to leave."
"Time was," Tony agrees. "I think I've grown up a bit since then."
"I think you've grown up a lot since then." Gibbs puts his sander down, plucks the one Tony is holding out of his hand. Off Tony's surprised look, he says, "I trust you with my team... didn't say I trust you with my tools."
Tony moves his head from side to side, considering. "Fair point." Gibbs reaches into a drawer, pulls out a bottle of bourbon, reaching for two jars and pouring various nails and nuts and bolts out onto the table. They catch the dim light of the lamp, as does the generous splash of bourbon that Gibbs pours into the bottom of each jar. Pushing one into Tony's hands he swirls the liquid around his glass, considering the liquid as carefully as he's obviously considering his words.
"You're ready, Tony," he says eventually. "And I can't tell you to go... can't tell you to stay either. But if you want my blessing... you've got it."
The bourbon tastes vaguely of sawdust and iron, but the overall sweetness makes it go down easy.
Making the decision is surprisingly easy.
Living with making the decision? That's somewhat harder.
Gibbs, naturally, is the first to know; Vance is a close second. Neither of them will say anything until the metaphorical ink is dry, until all the i's are dotted and all the t's are crossed and other clichés too numerous to mention. Tony doesn't say anything to anyone else until then either, and he's not sure if that's because he's afraid he's going to jinx something or if he just can't face up to the reality of what he's decided to do.
When the time comes, it's his dad that he tells first, over lunch. His dad looks surprised initially but then he sits up straight, a smile on his face. "Junior, that's wonderful," he says and pride rings loud and clear in his voice. Tony grins too, the kid who always longed for his father's approval making a sudden reappearance. "I've been saying for years you should be leading your own team," his dad continues and Tony chuckles, tilts his head to concede the point.
"Yeah, there's a lot of that going around," he says.
"Not that Gibbs isn't good at what he does, don't get me wrong," his dad begins, like he's afraid Tony's going to take offence, but Tony just waves his hand.
"Gibbs is the master at what he does," he says and his father nods, raises his glass in acknowledgement. "And I've had fifteen years of learning from the best. But I guess it's just time to spread my wings... see what else there is out there for me."
"Well, I can't say I'm not going to miss having you close enough to visit," his dad says. "On the other hand, I always did love Hawaii..." His voice trails off, his eyes taking on a faraway expression, and Tony knows enough about his dad to know that there's no way he wants to know exactly when, or what, and definitely who, he's picturing. "I can come visit, right? You'll have a spare bedroom for your old man?"
A few years ago, Tony knows he would have vanished without leaving a forwarding address. Now, however, he just smiles. "Any time you want."
If telling his dad was easy, he knows that telling the team will be harder.
He tells Ducky first, corners him in the autopsy lab early in the morning before any cases have come in to distract the good doctor. It's an odd place to pick, he supposes, but it's the place that, more than any other, he always associates with Ducky, his natural habitat if you will. The chill of the air, the smell of disinfectant, the echo of their voices against the tiled walls - if he closes his eyes and pictures Ducky, this is where he sees him.
He tells Ducky first, of all the team, because he knows that Ducky will be unreservedly happy for him, and so it proves. He literally claps his hands together, holds them under his chin for a moment before pulling Tony into a hug. "My dear boy," he says, "this is simply wonderful. And long overdue, if I may say."
Tony quirks one eyebrow. "So I've been told," he says and Ducky looks only slightly abashed, and even then only for a moment.
"I take it Jethro already knows?" Off Tony's nod of acknowledgement he continues, "Well, I must say, our loss will surely be Hawaii's gain.." He tilts his head with a twinkle in his eye, raises one finger as if in warning. "Although I have heard, from sources that will remain nameless in the medical examiner community, that there is a certain special unit that works out of Honolulu whose commander has a reputation that rivals even that of Gibbs..." He chuckles, shakes his head. "Though in quite the opposite manner of following the rules."
Tony narrows his eyes in mock suspicion. "You trying to make me change my mind, Ducky?"
"Not in the least... even if I did think it would do me any good." Ducky crosses to his desk, pulls out a bottle of the finest Scottish whiskey and two glasses. "I realise we are both on the clock, however I think a wee dram will do us no harm?" Tony doesn't have the heart to refuse him and he's gratified to see that Ducky's idea of a wee dram really is what it is supposed to be; no Gibbs' measures here. "A toast then... to fair winds and following seas."
Tony clinks his glass against Ducky's and thinks, not for the first time, how much he's going to miss it around here.
He tells Tim next, out of the office just in case his reaction is on the loud side. Not that he expects that from McGee, the guy's been known to be able to keep a cool head in the worst of circumstances, but in all his years of working at NCIS, Tony's learned that it sometimes pays to be cautious. He wonders briefly if that's one of the Gibbs Rules that he's forgotten about: if it's not, he thinks it really ought to be.
He seizes his opportunity at a street coffee stand a couple of blocks away from a witness's house when they're snatching five minutes between finishing interviewing one witness and heading back to the office to report their total lack of success to Gibbs. It's a trip neither is in a hurry to make. Tony's expecting Tim to be surprised - after all, he's been at the Naval Yard for a long time - but speechless is a bit of a shock and he waves his hand in front of Tim's face, just to make sure that he's still in there and Tony's news hasn't fried his brain completely.
"Tim?" he says, still waving his hand up and down. "You still with me?"
Tim blinks a couple of times, shakes his head from side to side like he's been swimming and he's trying to clear some water out of his ears. "Yeah," he says in that tone that he gets when he can't quite comprehend what he's actually hearing, needs another few minutes to let it sink in. "I'm still here... I'm just a little... I mean, not that it's not good news, I mean it's great news..."
"But it's a shock to the old Mc-system, I understand." He's actually sincere but he throws in the teasing nickname partly for old time's sake, partly to bring Tim back to a sense of familiarity. "I mean, I know it's going to take you a while to figure out exactly how you're going to go on without me..."
Tim's eyes narrow and just like that, he's back. "I think I'll figure it out," he says dryly. "But wow... Hawaii." He frowns. "Does this mean you're going to grow a moustache and wear flowery shirts and shorts?"
It takes a second but when the jibe lands, Tony's jaw drops in a mixture of surprise and approval. His hand lands on his chest in a gesture that's meant to convey shock. "Is that a Magnum P.I. joke?" He doesn't wait for the confirmation. "Tim, I'm actually proud."
"I thought you'd like that." Tim raises his cup to his lips, winces as the hot liquid hits them. Lowering the cup, he blows across the surface, asks his next question before he tries to drink again. "How long have you known?"
"A couple weeks... I've been waiting for it all to be officially approved before I tell anyone."
"And you leave..."
"A couple more weeks." The words sound fairly daunting, like there's not enough time to get all the pieces of his life in order before he has to be on his way. "Don't worry, I'm not going to cheat you out of a leaving party..."
"Not my first worry, believe it or not." He looks like he has something more on his mind and Tony instantly jumps to the only conclusion that he can.
"Hey, don't look so down. I promise to be back for you and Delilah and the Mc-Wedding of the Year... you don't think that I'd miss that, do you?"
A funny little smile plays around Tim's lips as he sips his coffee. "Well, I hope not," he says, lowering the cup and eyeing Tony steadily. "I mean... I'm going to be needing a best man."
Of all the things that Tony had expected to hear, that had been nowhere on the list. He's so surprised, in fact, that the only thing he can say is exactly what he's thinking. "You're asking me to stand up for you?"
Tim shrugs. "I don't have a brother," he reminds him. "And to be honest? I couldn't think of anyone better."
A curious lump suddenly forms in Tony's throat and a sip of his own coffee does absolutely nothing to wash it down. "Well then..." Another sip and still the lump does not budge. "I'd be honoured."
He knows the grin on Tim's face is mirrored on his own but he can't resist one little niggle, call it one for old time's sake. "You know this means I'm going to have to come back to throw you a bachelor party..."
Tim blanches but he recovers quickly, and he does it by changing the subject completely. "Have you told Abby yet?" he asks and suddenly any urge Tony might have had to tease anyone about anything disappears completely.
He's known, of course, that telling Abby is going to be the hardest of all.
But as it happens, he doesn't need to worry about it.
Because the day he walks into her lab to tell her, she refuses to turn around to face him, instead stands with her back ramrod straight, her shoulders stiff and he knows.
"Who told you?"
There's a long pause, then a sniff and he feels his stomach twist. It could have been guilt, it could have been regret, it could have been pure fear - he's rarely seen Abby this mad, had been pretty sure he never wanted to. He has a feeling, though, that he's now about to.
"Palmer," she says. "He thought I already knew." Every word is a bullet and he presses his lips together, looks down and waits for what will inevitably come next.
Instead, he gets only silence.
"I should have told you."
A mirthless chuckle is her only response and, slowly, carefully, he takes a step closer towards her. When that garners no reaction, for either good or evil, he takes another, then another.
He's standing beside her by now and she glances at him out of the corner of her eye but doesn't otherwise move. "I'm really mad at you, you know."
"I know. You're right to be." He shrugs. "I guess I didn't know how to tell you... I guess I thought that, if I did, it'd make it real." At that, her head does turn, more in surprise than anything if the look on her face is anything to go by. It figures, Tony guesses - after all, it's not as if she's exactly used to him being serious. "We've been here a long time, Abs... and I want to go, I do... but I want to stay too."
Her lips are pressed so tight together that the edges of them are white. She nods once and then she moves so quickly that he doesn't realise she has until her arms are around his neck, her feet actually not touching the floor. "Well, you'll have to come back and visit," she demands, her voice slightly muffled in his neck. "Because I'm not going to Hawai'i ... all that sun..." He feels the shudder that courses through her body at the mere thought and he tries not to smile.
He doesn't have to try too hard.
"I think I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow," he murmurs and if he feels a tear hit his neck, he doesn't say a word, just hugs her harder.
His goodbyes already said, on moving day he leaves with no fanfare. His belongings have already been shipped ahead of him, waiting for him to find a new apartment in Honolulu. A cab takes him to the airport and he watches the familiar streets weave by, knowing that while not necessarily for the last time - he'll be back to visit, if only for fear of Abby's wrath - things will be different from here on out.
He feels sad, but only a little.
Mostly there is hope.
Hope that blooms a little brighter as he stands in a crowded terminal at LAX, scanning the screens for his connecting flight, when he hears a familiar voice at his elbow.
"We must stop meeting like this."
She looks much the same as she had the last time he'd seen her, also at an airport, but in Tel Aviv, not Los Angeles, and a closer look - because he has to have a closer look, has to let his eyes roam over her like a starving man at a banquet - tells him that this time her eyes are free of tears. More than that, they are shining with life, with a mischief that he'd seen countless times from across the squad room, a mischief that is more than matched in the curve of her lips, in the tilt of her head as she smiles up at him.
Looking at her, standing beside her for the first time in far too long, all he wants to do was smile. So he does.
"I think that can be arranged."
His voice is huskier than could reasonably be accounted for by spending almost five hours on a plane, but she doesn't seem to mind. Indeed, her smile widens as she steps towards him and slides her hand into his.
"Come on," she says. "I know where we're going."
Deciding that sounds pretty good to him, Tony falls into step beside her.
He doesn't look back.