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Dark Chocolate and Red Wine

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Tony liked the taste of dark chocolate because it was bitter and smooth, and went great with a glass of '98 Zinfandel. He'd never told anyone about it because it would ruin his macho, over-sexed, frat boy image, and besides, dark chocolate was traditionally served with port, not red wine. But really, his silence on the matter was due more to privacy than anything else. Sitting in front of his jumbo plasma cost-him-two-months-salary-and-then-some TV, watching It Happened One Night, and indulging in two glasses of Zinfandel and a pound of Godiva was how he dealt with all the wrong turns, missteps, and fuck ups his life seemed to attract.

 

(Looking back on it now, Tony conceded that perhaps It Happened One Night had been a bad choice in movies to watch after the Horribly Awful Jeanne Break Up Slash Disaster in Slow-Mo HD. The movie, a classic black-and-white directed by Frank Capra in the glory days, involved a street-smart reporter hero looking for a story and willing to use anybody to get it, a feisty love-worn heroine who falls head-over-heels, a rich over-bearing father, and hidden secrets all over the place. It was a little too close to the truth, and the happy ending found him kneeling over his toilet bowl at two in the morning thinking of could have beens and fate.)

 

Among other things, one significant advantage in his lust for dark chocolate was unlikelihood of being arrested, as he had been while partying at that extremely questionable club in Philadelphia . And now, he thought as he stared around at his belongings, packed into boxes for the first time in eight years, he was running again, just like he had in Philly, from Peroria, from Baltimore. Just like he always did.

 

What the hell, he thought. Might as well go out with a bang.

 

And with that, he finished off his glass of wine, consumed the last bit of chocolate, and taped up the final box labeled flicks.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony hated going in to work now. Before, he had usually been the one who arrived first, the one who sat at his desk and actively contemplated how goddamnlucky he was to have a job he loved. His job at NCIS was his life, the thing he thought about with joy and glee. But that was before. Now, he was the last one in the mornings and the first one out the door in the evenings. He spent more time in Abby's lab than he did in the bullpen, preferring to spend his time breathing air that didn't feel like so much dead weight against his chest.

 

He hated how empty he felt.

 

He had moved his desk so that he couldn't see her's directly. He didn't even know which "her" he was thinking of, whether it was Kate or Paula or Ziva. One night he concluded that it was all three, and then he got himself spectacularly drunk. He called in sick the next day, hung up on Gibbs, and then felt guilty doing so. And then he hated that he felt guilty at all.

 

Gibbs chewed him out in the middle of the bullpen for that stunt, and if Tony were being honest with himself, he'd say he deserved it. But lying was something that came naturally to him, and besides, he was good at it. So instead he blew up at Gibbs and got desk duty for a week. His "coworkers" gave him slaps on the back (out of Gibbs' earshot—because none of them were as suicidal as Tony) for standing up to the Big Bad Bossman, but Tony knew that he really just wanted Gibbs to fire him. He was just too much of a wuss to say so.

 

Gibbs didn't fire him, and Tony kept showing up late for work, and everyone went on pretending that nothing had changed. Tony spent most of his time staring at McGee because it was better than staring at her desk, but then McGee started staring back and that was just too awkward even for Tony. He wound up staring at the elevator doors instead.

 

Other agents kept telling him that things would get better, that he'd get a new partner, and everything would be okay. After he'd nearly punched Agent Ragnel in the face, they quit telling him face to face and started sending emails instead. He deleted them all and didn't bother replying.

 

Tony hated going into work.

 

 

---

 

 

"What's going on with Tony?" he heard McGee whisper to Abby. Tony wanted to roll his eyes, but he didn't because he had a hangover and he already felt nauseated. He didn't hear what Abby whispered back, but he did hear what Gibbs told the office in general:

 

"Don't know, don't care! But he better work it out soon, or he's gonna be in the unemployment line. Got that, DiNozzo?"

 

Tony grunted a non-answer and finished deleting his overfull inbox. Who knew NCIS had this many agents? Didn't they have something better to do than to barrage him with emails?

 

 

---

 

 

After the third week, Tony had finally mastered the art of not looking at her empty desk, and that was when human resources choose to put someone in it, of course. The replacement was a woman—that much Tony noticed before he was racing for the bathroom because she looked too much like Jeanne and the thought of Jeanne made his stomach burn and his heart clench. After he finished puking, he wiped his mouth and flushed the toilet and wondered if someone could really die from a broken heart. If so, he wished that a shard of his heart would hurry up and pierce his lungs so that he could drown in his own blood in peace.

 

Gibbs was waiting for him when he left the stall, and Tony felt like he was gonna hurl again under the scrutiny. He washed his hands and waited for his boss to say something.

 

"What was that?"

 

Real eloquent, boss, Tony thought.

 

Tony didn't answer. He blow-dried his hands and wondered what it was that kept bringing him back to this job. He knew there was a reason, but it seemed that he was quickly forgetting about it. Guilt, that ever present companion he'd known since he was ten, was growing stronger inside him. Why was he here?

 

"Well?"

 

I hate you. I hate it here. I want Ziva to be back. I don't ever want to see her again. I want to run and never stop. I want to curl up into a ball and never move. I want you to act like you give a damn. I want you to lie. I want you to fire me. I wish I couldn't feel. I don't want to be numb. I hate waking up. I hate being awake. I hate dreaming. I wish I was in Spain with my own team. I wish nothing had changed. I hate being alone. I hate being at work. I wish you really did give a damn. I hate you.

 

"I don't remember," he said instead. He paused, contemplating leaving it at that. He could leave, just walk out and keep going until his Italian shoes were in shreds and he had no idea where he was. But that would be a waste of a good pair of shoes. "I don't remember why I keep showing up for work."

 

"To get a paycheck," Gibbs replied, trying for a light tone. Tony didn't react; he just kept staring at the door and wondering if he'd ever feel at home.

 

"She looks like Jeanne," Tony stated. God, he felt like shit. His apartment was full of boxes and he hadn't watched a movie in a week. He spent almost all of his time in someone else's bed. That morning, he'd woken up a strange house at dawn with no memory as to how he got there. He was falling apart, and he wished Gibbs would swoop in and fix everything, but Gibbs was just as fucked up as he was.

 

"Yeah," Gibbs said. "I know. But she won't last."

 

 

---

 

 

Tony found himself driving that weekend. He didn't know where he was going; he didn't really care. He drove without paying attention, and it really was a miracle he didn't wrap his car around a tree. Maybe that was what he wanted. He pulled over and slept when he felt tired and it was too dark to see anything, and when he woke up he realized that he was in Louisiana. He pulled into an itty-bitty town to buy gas and food, and maybe some alcohol.

 

The girl behind the counter was in her early twenties. She was cute and obviously into him. Tony found himself flirting back like he had in the Great Before. Before Ziva left, before Jeanne left, before he became someone else. It felt good. He smiled and laughed and got her phone number. He made a note of the little town's name (Bond, which made him laugh again) and hit the road with a six-pack of Dr. Pepper, a box of donuts, but no beer. He jammed a random CD into his stereo and cranked the music up as loud as it would go.

 

He barely made it back to DC in time to come to work that Monday. He walked in wearing the same clothes he'd worn that Friday, albeit washed through the kindness of a nameless motel somewhere in Tennessee. People gave him strange looks at his appearance, because he hadn't shaved and his suit was wrinkled. Tony whistled Frank Sinatra and walked with a bounce in his step. McGee did a double take and called Abby, who immediately rushed up to see. Gibbs observed his Senior Agent silently from behind his desk with raised eyebrows. Tony was so distracted clearing out the fresh batch of "It'll Be Over Soon" emails that the Entire International Staff of NCIS insisted on sending him that he didn't notice that her desk was empty again.

 

Abby arrived, amid fanfare and Burt the Farting Hippo, ready to interrogate him. But no matter how much she begged, Tony told no one what he'd done that weekend.

 

He'd fled across state lines like a felon, he'd driven hard to the point of nearly crashing, and then he'd slept in his car. He hadn't had sex the entire weekend, and he was planning on calling the cute girl in Bond the minute Gibbs stalked off to get more coffee.

 

 

---

 

 

Baylee was cute and witty with an adorable accent. Tony called her more and more frequently. They traded emails and text messages and after two weeks Tony drove to Bond, Louisiana to meet her parents. They thought he was charming and fun and great for their daughter. He liked them and wished his parents had been similar. They told him straight up that they wanted him to be their son-in-law.

 

He stopped going out at nights to get drunk and instead watched movies with Baylee. They'd tune into the same movie on TV and trade commentary over the phone.

 

Tony showed up at work on time the following Monday.

 

 

---

 

 

Baylee drove up to DC to see him one weekend a month later. Tony loved how she ran to him across the NCIS parking lot and threw her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist—just like he was a returning war hero and she was his hometown sweetheart. He loved how she instantly loved the little French cafe he took her to and how she giggled when he whispered Italian into her hair.

 

Sei fantastica.

 

She didn't say anything when she saw Tony's box-filled apartment, simply arched an eyebrow and glanced over her shoulder at the Federal Agent. He grinned and left it at that.

 

She stayed all of Saturday and headed home early on Sunday morning. She left him with a kiss and a warm feeling. He watched the road as she drove away and wondered when he had started feeling again.

 

 

---

 

 

He got the call at work. McGee stared at him as the phone slipped from his hand and hit the floor. Dead. Baylee was dead. Smiling Baylee, perfect Baylee, the woman he'd held in his arms only yesterday, was dead.

 

Tony barely heard McGee pick up the phone and talk to Baylee's tear-choked mother.

 

Dead.

 

Morta. Lei era morta.

 

Gibbs gave him the rest of the day off and Tony went in search of alcohol.

 

 

---

 

 

The funeral was that weekend. Everyone from McGee to Ducky had offered to go with him, but Tony refused and drove the whole trip alone in his car, retracing the same route that had lead him to her. He felt dry and tried. Absently, he wondered when it would stop, when the women he knew would quit dying. Kate, Paula, Jenny, Michelle. Ziva, alone in Israel.

 

The turn out at the funeral was bigger than he'd expected. Almost the entire town of Bond was there, and Baylee's parents introduced him to everyone as the out-of-state boyfriend. Her father gripped Tony's shoulder too hard, but Tony didn't care because Baylee was gone and it was all his fault. She wouldn't have been there if she hadn't been driving back from DC. She wouldn't have been on that road when the over-tired semi-truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and swerved into her lane.

 

The driver walked away. Baylee didn't.

 

He would have a bruise on his shoulder come Monday, but Tony didn't plan on being sober enough to give a damn. He stayed in Baylee's old room at her parent's house. It smelled like lilac, roses, and honey. He didn't sleep the entire night.

 

Ciao, mia dolcezza. Mi mancherai. Mi dispiace cosi tanto.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony showed up late the following Monday. There was new someone sitting at her desk, but he didn't care enough to pay much attention. McGee put a cup of coffee down in front of him, like a Boy Scout putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole, and left Tony to himself. Gibbs didn't say anything about anything other than the case and Tony didn't say anything at all.

 

 

---

 

 

The agent that sat at 
her
 desk was gone by Thursday and so were all of their leads on the dead Marine. Tony had quit checking his email Tuesday afternoon and he stopped bothering to turn on his computer after Wednesday. Too much empty sympathy.

 

He still wasn't going out at night, hadn't since he'd gotten the phone call. Instead, he stayed at his apartment and watched old reruns on TV. The boxes sat around him, filled with his memories. Each one was precisely labeled: Flicks A-Ar. Flicks As-Ax. Hitchcock. Jimmy Stewart. Horror 1956-1979. His apartment was beginning to smell like cardboard. Tony sipped Zinfandel, ate dark chocolate, and wondered what Baylee would have said if she knew that he consumed more chocolate than a PMSing girl.

 

He thought she would have laughed.

 

 

---

 

 

Two more agents came and went. Tony felt like a storm was coming. Weeks had passed since Baylee's death and Tony had started going out again. He bought more movies and filled up another box, labeling it Post-Baylee. He taped it up, knowing that he would never open it again.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony went out with Abby for the first time since Ziva left. When he asked what she was doing that night, the Goth had stared at him for a full three minutes without saying anything. Tony had started to worry that he'd broken her somehow when she exploded into a whirlwind of action and sound. She ran screaming down the halls of NCIS, shouting "TONY ASKED ME OUT, TONY ASKED ME OUT!" Which turned quite a few heads.

 

 

---

 

 

They went to the movies, because it was a Friday, and because Tony had been stamped with club ink so often over the last few weeks that he'd gotten a rash on his left hand. He'd bought an ointment for it and had avoided eye-contact with the busty brunette behind the counter. Tony found himself unexpectedly enjoying the time spent with Abby, and he felt guilt, that ever present bastard, well up inside him again.

 

He didn't feel like a zombie anymore. Instead, he felt like a walking bruise. Everything hurt instead of nothing. His chest felt constantly squeezed, so much so that he'd actually gone to see Dr. Brad Pitt to make sure that it wasn't an infection. He wasn't sure if he felt relieved or disappointed to hear that his lungs were clear. Dr. Pitt clucked over him for a few minutes, and when Tony had looked up, he found Brad staring at him with a fierce expression on his face. Tony took a deep breath and a running leap.

 

"Are you doing anything tonight?"

 

Tony went out with Brad for a week before they both decided that it wasn't going to go anywhere. Tony was too messed up to deal with any kind of relationship, and Brad was still looking for something else, something that he didn't know but Tony did. Love. And Tony was fine with that because he still felt like a bruise.

 

Tony found himself explaining all this to Abby at 03:12 in the morning because he was too drunk to drive, his apartment complex didn't have an elevator, and he lived on the third floor. Abby nodded, and hmmed, and bustled him into her guest bed, where he slept the sleep of the dead and the dead drunk. When he woke eventually up, it was past noon, and his head was killing him with the worst hangover he'd had in ages. Abby made lunch and convinced him that he hadn't slept with her, he'd only passed out. Then she asked him if he remembered the last time he'd truly talked to Gibbs.

 

He told her he didn't remember.

 

 

---

 

 

They finally closed the dead Marine case off. The poor bastard had been offed by his own wife, a stay at home mom with two kids and a mortgage. She couldn't stand that she had to hold things together while her husband went off to war. She collected the life insurance and paid off her debts. Gibbs nearly punched her after the confession. The case had rubbed them all raw. McGee spent too much time staring at a computer screen and Tony spent too much time staring at crime scene photos. He was the one who had seen the clue that led them to the wife.

 

After they closed the case, Gibbs stared at Tony for a long moment before walking away. He didn't say anything. Tony felt something join Guilt in his heart. It tasted like Resentment.

 

 

---

 

 

Another agent was sitting at her desk. Heather Jacobs was tall, shapely, and redheaded. None of the remaining members of Team Gibbs could bear to look at her, all for different reasons. She threatened to file a complaint for gender discrimination before Agent Ragnel pulled her aside and told her- something. After which, she stopped complaining and started being overly kind instead. She brought donuts and coffee for them and was generally a pain in the ass.

 

Tony slept with her after the Awful Coffee and Italian Shoes Incident. He didn't call her back. She left, leaving her desk empty again. He didn't consider it a violation of Rule # 12 because Heather wasn't his coworker. She was just another shadow in a long line of lost women.

 

Tony didn't know why Human Resources kept giving them female replacement agents. It wasn't going to work out. Too many women had sat in that seat, too many women who were blown away or left behind.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony thought he saw Trent Kort lurking on the upper staircase one day. He did a double take, but no one was there. He told himself he was imagining things.

 

 

---

 

 

The next replacement was another woman, an African-American goddess with a feisty attitude. Tony found himself liking her in spite of himself. Special Agent Kacia Noor was no virgin to the law enforcement business. Before she joined NCIS, she was a VICE officer in New York. She was tough and no-nonsense, and Tony felt less like a bruise when she was around and more like a human being. She didn't treat him with kid-gloves the way everyone else had. She told it to him straight and didn't hold anything back.

 

Abby was slow to like her, because Abby was slow to like anyone new to their torn apart family. McGee held her in something akin to awe. Tony didn't know what Gibbs thought of her, and he didn't really care.

 

They caught another horrible case that week. A little girl, the daughter of a sailor, was found raped and strangled by the docks. Tony felt sick to his stomach the whole time he snapped pictures. Gibbs was even more terse than usual and McGee had run to the side of the dock and started hurling after taking one look at the crime scene. Kacia just looked at the little girl stonily before beginning to take measurements. Ducky arrived and began to whisper softly to the little girl's corpse. Tony turned away and fought his urge to join McGee at the edge. If he went there, he might not come back.

 

Tony did throw up when they identified the body. Bailey Johnson was only six years old and some bastard had stolen her innocence, stolen her life. McGee had sent unsubtle concerned looks his way after they found out the girl's name. Kacia followed the looks but didn't say anything. She already knew about Baylee.

 

Bailey and Baylee. It must have been a cursed name.

 

Gibbs told the parents. The mother broke down and sobbed so hard that she too had thrown up. The father sat as still as a statue and asked who, who could have done this to my little girl, in a tight voice. Gibbs could only shake his head in reply.

 

Abby ran the DNA from the rape kit and called Gibbs immediately. They all trooped down to the lab to hear what she had to say.

 

"The DNA from the rape kit doesn't match any in any of the databases I ran it against," she whispered. Her eyes were red and think mascara streaks ran down her checks. "I triple checked it to make sure."

 

"You called us down here for that?" Gibbs said curtly. Tony felt a stab of anger at Gibbs for being an ass, and he put his arm around Abby's shoulders. Rape cases were always tough on an emotional level for all those involved, especially the rape and murder of a child. Abby was too sensitive to handle the crime scene photos as well as an Agent. Hell, Tony hadn't handled the crime scene photos well, and he'd seen plenty of gruesome things over the years.

 

"No," Abby shot back, her temper flaring. "I called you down here because the DNA is similar to that of the victim's. Too similar." She showed them the DNA signatures overlapped. "The bastard who did this was the related to her."

 

Tony felt a cold hand around his heart, and he thought of Harold Johnson sitting in his living room while Gibbs told him his daughter was dead. He hadn't looked surprised.

 

 

---

 

 

They pulled Chief Petty Officer Johnson in for questioning and presented him with the evidence. Tony and Gibbs double teamed him, and it was Tony who revealed that the DNA showed that whoever raped Bailey was closely related to her. Johnson stared at him for a minute and said it was impossible because Bailey wasn't his daughter. His wife had cheated on him seven years ago while he was overseas; "that bitch" was not his child. He would never rape his own daughter.

 

"You bastard," Tony growled. "She was your fucking daughter. You raped her. Your own daughter!"

 

"That little bitch is not my daughter!"

 

"DNA doesn't lie," Tony said, slamming the evidence in front of the petty officer. "You raped her."

 

"She deserved it," Johnson started to say, before Tony cut him off by punching him. He was across the interview table and on the bastard before Gibbs could do a damn thing about it. Tony sank his fist into Johnson's gut and listened as the air whooshed out of his lungs. He pulled back his fist and started to throw another punch when Gibbs hauled him backwards, throwing him off of the petty officer. Kacia held onto him while Gibbs arrested Johnson and McGee stood uselessly in the doorway. He kept muttering nonsense to Tony, about how everything was going to be okay, it was over, calm down, everything will be okay.

 

Everything will be okay.

 

 

---

 

 

They made Tony see a shrink, and he did, filling the fifty-minute hour with useless banter about playing sports in college and joining the police force. Dr. Ashley Hitchder nodded and took notes and said yes when Tony asked her to dinner. They wound up at her place, an old townhouse overlooking the bay. Tony left the next morning tired and hungover, but with the knowledge that he had passed his psych exam.

 

 

---

 

 

He found Trent Kort sitting outside his apartment complex. Kort didn't say anything, merely handing Tony a styrofoam cup of coffee and a bagel bag. Tony raised his eyebrow and accepted the offerings. Kort gave Tony a razor blade smile.

 

"You want to come up?" Tony found himself asking, because Kort wasn't bad looking, and Tony felt empty.

 

"Sure," Kort replied. He followed Tony up the three flights of stairs to his apartment and waited for the federal agent to unlock the door. Tony's apartment was still full of boxes, and Tony hadn't bothered to dust in a month. He was almost never there anyway. The walls were bare of pictures or posters, and the rooms were framed by deserted bookcases.

 

Kort said nothing. He followed Tony with his eyes as Tony downed the coffee (just the right amount of nutmeg and cream—Kort had done his research) and shoved the bagel bag into his almost empty refrigerator. He watched as Tony slid off his jacket and tie and slowly started shedding his clothes.

 

 

---

 

 

Being with Kort was nothing like being with Baylee or Jeanne or Brad or Heather or Ashley. Where they were soft, Kort was rough, full of sharp edges and jagged words. When he woke up the next morning, Kort was gone, but there was a fresh styrofoam cup of coffee on his kitchen counter and a movie ticket for the following Friday. There was no note.

 

Tony thought about relationships as he took a shower, brushed his teeth, and stripped his bed of its sheets. Kort didn't talk to him, but then Tony was tired of talking. The silence they had had last night was a comfortable one, more comfortable than Tony had experienced in a long time. Maybe Kort had somehow known about the Johnson case and reacted accordingly. Maybe he just knew Tony.

 

Tony felt Gratitude join Guilt and Resentment. He slipped the movie ticket into his pocket.

 

 

---

 

 

He showed up for work on time that day. McGee spilled his coffee in surprise. Gibbs didn't say anything, and Kacia wasn't there. She showed up late, breathless, and complaining about traffic, reminding him of Ziva for the first time. Gibbs silently pointed to her desk and gave all of them the silent treatment. Tony found himself not caring. He was in a good mood, and the ticket felt like it was burning a hole in his pocket all the way through to his flesh. He took his lunch break with Ducky and told the older man about the whole thing.

 

Ducky gave the good advice to take it slow and not to get ahead of himself. Tony laughed and bounced and tried not to knock the silverware off the table. He finished up his reports and spent the rest of the day pouring over cold case files and finally responding to the tech staffs' pleas to empty his overstuffed inbox. Friday was only forty-eight hours away.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony didn't notice that Gibbs was following him until he was halfway to his apartment. He spotted Gibbs' car purely by chance and was confounded when it mirrored his various turns. He pulled into a gas station and waited. Gibbs pulled in after him and got out of his Mustang. Tony rolled down the window of his own shitty replacement car and looked Gibbs straight in the eye.

 

"What. The. Hell."

 

Gibbs shuffled slightly, looking faintly embarrassed but not totally. Tony just felt angry. "You're going to see Kort," Gibbs said.

 

"How the hell do you know?" Tony asked, his anger leaking out at the seams. Ducky would never betray Tony's confidence. Who was Gibbs to keep tabs on him?

 

"I had Abby run the prints from the coffee cup you've had sitting on your desk for the past two days. They matched."

 

"You had no right—!" Tony bit out.

 

"Kort is dangerous, Tony," Gibbs said. "You've been wearing long-sleeves for the past few days. Bruises on your arms?"

 

Tony didn't answer. He rolled up his window and sped off, leaving Gibbs standing alone in front of the gas station.

 

 

---

 

 

The movie was a foreign film airing at a little theater that Tony loved. They always played the classics there, and they weren't afraid of controversy. Kort was waiting for him out front. The movie was in French and Tony had seen it before, but it was a good film and Tony enjoyed how his shoulder brushed against Kort's in the darkened room. When the movie ended, they went back to Kort's place because Tony couldn't be sure that Gibbs wasn't staked out in front of his.

 

Trent Kort's apartment was surprisingly comfortable. Instead of the austere gray-scale styling he expected, Kort's furniture was warm and rounded, the kind that begged one to curl up and read a good book. There were several bookshelves along the wall and several books stacked on the coffee table. Tony was amused to see McGee's latest thriller open on the armchair.

 

Afterward, Tony attempted to make an omelet and failed miserably while Kort laughed at him goodnaturedly as he dumped the burned remains into the trashcan. The CIA agent grabbed a fresh pan and started over, showing Tony how to tell when it was ready to be flipped. They ate the omelet in silence, both sitting at Kort's dining room in their boxers. Tony had fresh bruises on his arms and a craving for Zinfandel and dark chocolate and It Happened One Night for the first time in months.

 

They went out for lunch at a little Italian place that was out of the way, and Tony ordered for them both. Kort smirked at him and told him to call him "Trent". Tony felt warm inside until he looked at one of the waitresses and found himself rushing to the bathroom to throw up. Trent stood in the doorway and helped Tony get to his feet. Tony didn't tell Kort that the waitress looked like Paula's twin sister because he already knew, just like he already knew about Tony's coffee preferences and the Bailey Johnson case. Tony leaned on Trent on their way back to the table.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony and Kort didn't talk much, but silence was a kind of language, one that Trent was fluent in and Tony was learning. Tony didn't have to say anything to Kort because there was nothing to say. Kort didn't say anything to Tony because Tony needed quiet and Kort didn't need to talk. Their time together consisted of films and food and sex and not much else. Tony went to work with bruises covered by cloth and felt more human for it. He liked the sex he had with Kort and the way it made him feel. He made jokes with Kacia and teased McGee and pretended that everything was normal.

 

Tony felt better as time went on.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony felt Gibbs before he even saw the open door, felt his presence in Trent's apartment. Trent drew his gun and motioned for Tony to step behind him. Tony did so, not bothering to point out that he already knew who had broken into the cozy space Tony was starting to think of as 'home'. Kort entered after whispering for Tony to stay outside. Tony sat on the bench beside the door and tried to eavesdrop.

 

"Gibbs," he heard Trent say. "What the hell are you doing in my apartment?"

 

"Back off, Kort," Gibbs snarled. "Back off."

 

"Back off what? DiNozzo? Please, Gibbs, he's a grown man. Tony," Kort emphasized, "can make his own decisions."

 

"What do you want from him?" demanded Gibbs.

 

"Nothing." Trent sounded at ease, like this was a normal conversation. Gibbs probably had a gun on him. "That's just it. I don't want a damn thing from him."

 

"That's not like you, Kort," Gibbs barked. "You use people. You twist them. And I want to know what you're doing to DiNozzo!" Gibbs definitely had a gun on him.

 

"Now you're just projecting. Get out of my home, Gibbs, before I shoot you."

 

Tony endured the awkward pause from within the apartment as Gibbs analyzed the threat. He heard footsteps coming toward the door and then Gibbs was there, realizing that Tony had been outside the door all along.

 

"Tony..." Gibbs said slowly.

 

"Can it, Gibbs," Tony responded. "I don't care."

 

Gibbs left without saying anything else.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony had good days, bad days, and really bad days. The morning after the tension filled scene at Trent's apartment was a really bad one. Tony felt all the things that he and Gibbs had never said welling up inside him, threatening to consume him. He had more hickeys and bruises than usual. He rolled up his sleeves in a defiant gesture to Gibbs, who looked away pointedly and refused to rise to the bait. Ducky shook his head over it and recommended again that Tony slow down. Abby grinned at him and wiggled her eyebrows. McGee stuttered and was generally awkward. Kacia just rolled her eyes.

 

The silence in the office was different than the silence between him and Kort. This silence was the deadly, the calm before the storm, the stillness before the violent attack. It made Tony uneasy.

 

 

---

 

 

Gibbs didn't apologize, but then, Tony hadn't expected him to. Instead, Tony found a coffee cup and a bar of milk chocolate on his desk one morning. Tony drank the coffee and put the candy bar away and left it at that.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony knew that Kort wasn't the answer. But then again, Tony didn't even know the question. Trent was a place holder, something to get himself from point (a) to point (b) without losing it. The reasons behind Kort's involvement were a mystery, but if Tony had to guess, it was either a way to pass the time or a way to piss Gibbs off. Or both.

 

Tony didn't care. He liked spending time with Trent because he really didn't know the man and because their relationship was uncomplicated. If you care about someone, they're more likely to hurt you. Trent wasn't out to hurt him. Trent was just passing the time and didn't mind doing it with Tony. They watched foreign cinema and talked to each other in Italian. Trent showed Tony how to cook, and Tony showed Trent a good time. Tony went to bed satisfied that their arrangement was just the thing he needed.

 

Gibbs stayed in the background, watching Tony like a hawk, waiting to swoop in and fix everything. But Tony hadn't forgotten that Gibbs was just as broken as he was. Gibbs just didn't have someone like Trent Kort.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony knew that it was only a passing thing, so he wasn't surprised when he found Trent's apartment completely deserted one day, weeks after the Gibbs' Invasion of Privacy Incident. The furniture was gone, there were discolored rectangles where there used to be pictures and bookcases, and the rooms were empty. The place smelled of Lysol and Windex. Trent Kort had wiped everything down, destroying any evidence that a man of that name had ever lived here. There probably hadn't actually been a man of that name living here; Tony had never asked if Trent's name was really Trent.

 

There was a note in the kitchen.

 

Tony wondered as he stared at it. It was unlike the careful CIA agent to leave any trace of himself behind. Tony rubbed his eyes and checked again, but the note was still there. Addressed to him.

 

Tony,

As you can tell, I have already left. They finally reassigned

me to active duty again. I apologize that I am unable to tell you

in person. The days we've had together have been a delight.

Call if you need anything.

Trent

 

Underneath was a phone number.

 

Tony took the note and folded it. He slid it into the same pocket where that first movie ticket still lived, a reminder that for every dark day, there is someone willing to drag you out of it.

 

He left the spare key on the counter.

 

 

---

 

 

He didn't tell anyone. Instead, he took Abby out for a night on the town and crashed at her place. Her guest bedroom was becoming uncomfortably familiar. Abby was good about not asking questions when it really mattered. She was insanely curious about everything, but if you really needed a shoulder to cry on with no questions asked, Abby was the Goth to go to.

 

It took Tony half the day to realize that he wasn't torn up. He didn't feel left behind, or lost, or even very sad. He was okay, more okay then he had been before...before Trent swooped in and fixed everything.

 

Funny. Tony had always thought his guardian angel would look like Gibbs.

 

 

---

 

 

Somehow, Gibbs found out, of course. It wasn't from Abby, because she'd sworn up and down she wouldn't tell anyone anything, even under the threat of a Gibbs Death Glare. But Gibbs was Gibbs and Tony wasn't surprised when he found his boss sitting outside his apartment shortly after he left Abby's. They hadn't talked about Kort since the Not So Fun and Really Not Appropriate Apartment Invasion Thing. Tony had filed his relationship with Trent under "None of your business, boss" and all but dared Gibbs to try something. Gibbs hadn't.

 

But now Gibbs was sitting outside his apartment, and Tony had a bad feeling about it.

 

"He's gone," Gibbs said, because Gibbs wasn't one to dance around something.

 

"Yeah," Tony replied, because Tony was tired and confused and really not in the mood.

 

Gibbs paused as if he was searching for something to say. After a long silence he said, "How're you?"

 

"He left me a note," Tony said, because he was pretty sure that was what Gibbs really wanted to know.

 

"Oh," Gibbs said. Tony didn't know what else to do. Part of him wanted to go to Gibbs' house and sit in his basement and watch the older man work on his boat, but Tony hadn't done that in months. He didn't know if he was still welcome, still a part of the team even. There was too much unsaid, undone, un-anything. The silence between him and his coworkers was stretching, expanding, pushing Tony away.

 

He wondered if this was what Ziva felt.

 

He realized that he hadn't thought of Ziva in a long time. It made him want to get drunk, quick and hard.

 

"Don't come into work with a hangover tomorrow," Gibbs said finally. The older man got to his feet and headed for the stairs, leaving Tony in front of his building wondering when Gibbs had started to read his mind again.

 

 

---

 

 

The overwhelming sympathy from the office was expected. He didn't know how the Entire International Staff of NCIS had found out about his latest ended relationship, but they did. Damn gossips. Tony cleared out his inbox and wondered if they'd ever get their own love lives and stop worrying over his. McGee left a sticky note on his desk covered in cramped writing that Tony struggled to read. It was amazing how small the junior agent could scribble. Tony read the note and suppressed a smile; a warm feeling was growing somewhere in the vicinity of his chest.

 

Kacia gave him a bar of milk chocolate because she had seen Gibbs give him one before and because expressing herself was as hard for her as it was for the rest of their team. Tony wanted to thank them all, even though he didn't actually feel depressed about Trent's absence. Their collective heart was in the right place even if they missed the details.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony went clubbing and drinking and partying, but it was more casual than hard, more just-passing-the-time than let-me-not-remember-this-the-next-morning. He met a few people, slept with a few people, and just let the world go. He hung out at his movie theater and argued with the stuffy, artsy, theater professors, who, he swears, come just to debate nineteenth century German film with him. He laughed at it a bit, until he remembered that they all thought he was a film professor like them, because he told them that, as part of his Jeanne relationship cover.

 

He didn't tell them it was a lie. In some ways he'd never leave that case, that relationship.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony didn't know why, didn't know what made him do it, but twenty-one weeks after Ziva left, Tony found himself buying beer and pizza and driving to Gibbs' house. He pulled into the drive way and waited, knowing that Gibbs would come out and get him eventually because Tony couldn't bring himself to enter on his own. He didn't have to wait long. The door to the well-kept residence opened, with Gibbs standing in sharp, slivery contrast to the darkness of the street. Tony felt something squeeze his chest again, like it had before he went to see Brad all that time ago.

 

Tony rolled down his window and waited, remembering his anger the last time Gibbs approached his car window. Except this time Tony had come to Gibbs, and he was a little more at peace, a little less angry and raw and hopeless than he had been then. Gibbs advanced toward his crappy replacement clunker, his hands held out slightly from his sides non-threateningly, like a cowboy shying up to a skittish colt. Tony hated to think of what caused that caution, that hesitation. Hated to think of the havoc his fucked up-ness usually left behind.

 

Gibbs leaned against the car, his eyes trained on Tony's face. He didn't say anything, probably afraid to do the wrong thing, afraid to scare him off, like he really was some frightened pony. The older man waited.

 

"It's been one hundred and forty-seven days since..." Since you chose me over Ziva, since Ziva abandoned us, since I could look you in the eye without my world falling apart. Since I could look at the desk across from me without feeling shame. Anger. "Twenty-one weeks. Seven days in a week."

 

Gibbs said nothing, but the "congrats, you can multiply," was hanging in the air.

 

"I..." Tony, who could talk anyone into anything, who could and had charmed drug dealers, serial killers, and celebrities into doing whatever he asked, with no hesitation, couldn't bring himself to end the sentence. So he waited instead, signaling that the ball was in Gibbs' court now.

 

Gibbs looked at Tony, at the pizza and beer, at the way Tony's hands gripped the steering wheel of his crap car. He sighed and stepped back, giving Tony the space he needed to grab the food and booze and climb out. The silence wasn't the same as the silence he'd become so accustomed to with Kort, but it wasn't bad either. It had a new flavor to it, one different than the slouching, lazy easiness held before the Israel mess. Tony couldn't identify it, and judging from Gibbs' expression, he couldn't either. Tony followed Gibbs up the short walkway to the door, partly because he still didn't feel easy with Gibbs at his back and partly because he wanted to see Gibbs lined in the light of the doorway again.

 

 

---

 

 

It wasn't some kind of romantic anything. Really. Tony had no desire to chase his boss, his older, gruff Do-as-I-say-Not-as-I-do boss, the man who'd dragged him to hell and back, literally. (Lying was something that came naturally to him, and besides, he was good at it.) They sat on the floor in the basement, backs to the wall, watching a baseball game on Gibbs' tiny television. The boat rose beside them, a beached whale that smelled like sawdust and bourbon. Tony felt himself fall into the old habits, the ones where he felt safe in Gibbs' basement, because nothing-nothing-could hurt him here. It was a childish habit, a childish hope, one that Tony had thought he'd thrown away after Gibbs' abrupt departure to Mexico. He hadn't, of course.

 

The belief was still there, still hidden inside him, a sharp lump next to Guilt, Resentment, and Gratitude. Hope.

 

Tony sipped beer and ate pizza and let the silence cool, let himself pretend it was a different silence. Let himself pretend it was the same slouching laziness he'd had before, not the brittle and edgy one he had now. They finished the game and pizza and beer, and Tony left before he could spend the night.

 

I will not, he told himself. Kate is dead, Paula is dead. Jeanne is gone, Ziva. I will not.

 

He left before he could ask to spend the night.

 

 

---

 

 

It seemed like each day got a little brighter, each breathe a little easier. McGee stopped giving him that look, the one where pity and regret overwhelmed his eyes. Tony was very thankful for it, because he'd rather have McGee pissed off and awkward than pitying and awkward. Anger Tony could deal with, because it was still there in his chest. Only now it was shrinking and changing. Now he could look at Gibbs without the burning need to simultaneously run away from and punch the bastard.

 

His anger was mostly directed at Ziva now, because she made Gibbs make that horrible choice, after all the trouble she went through to make them all like her, care for her. She came in, slid into Kate's spot, and acted like she was a part of the team only when it suited her. She played them all, and while Tony could understand it, he could never, ever forgive it. Not so much for his own hurt, but for the others' sake. For McGee, who Tony had been trying so hard to protect and toughen up. For Gibbs, who had lost so much already. For Abby, who had finally accepted Ziva into their mixed up family. For Ducky and Palmer and...

 

His family, torn apart once again, ripped at the seams by one of their own, who might never have actually been theirs in the first place.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony was aware of the stares, the whispers, and how he couldn't walk into the break room without the conversation falling silent. It wasn't okay, because while he'd always been the center of the gossip web, right now he wasn't giving them anything to talk about. His turn around just made the gossips talk more, made them speculate as to what exactly caused his "miraculous" change from wasted wreck to...average agent. He didn't really care that they talked about him so much that he knew that it bothered McGee and Abby and the rest of his team. The things being said were increasingly negative as every sex scandal they thought he might have been a part of was raked over and laid out in the open like a deer head on the wall of a hunting lodge.

 

Gibbs followed him with his eyes whenever he returned from his coffee break, over-sweetened drink in hand. Gibbs was making sure that the talk didn't bother him, ready to leap in and smash heads if it did. But it didn't bother him so much as it bothered his team and he would do anything for his team. His poor, broken family.

 

Gibbs believed that apologies were a sign of weakness. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. Always look out for your own.

 

He didn't know what had triggered this wave of protectiveness in Gibbs. He wasn't sure he wanted to. The peace in the office was a relaxing change from months filled with tension. And if the only downside was dealing with Gibbs on the warpath of all non-apologies, Tony was fine with that.

 

Really, he was. Even if it made his heart pound and his stomach twist and the whole damn world tilt on its axis. Gibbs chose the high road this time; he'd learned his lesson from the Apartment Invasion Mess of Inappropriate Nosiness and Protectiveness. He kept back a little and let Tony handle the gossip mongers, and he had a word with McGee and Abby so that they wouldn't get involved.

 

Tony had been by himself too much in the last few months. It didn't matter that he'd spent time with Baylee and Brad and Trent and all the others. He'd been alone inside his own head and he had to work himself out of the rabbit hole on his own, or he'd never feel truly awake.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony stopped the gossip. And no, he never told anyone how.

 

---

 

 

Tony got the letter a week into his new good mood. There was no return address, and Tony stared at it for fifteen minutes before pulling it out of his box. The smooth paper of the envelope fit perfectly into his hand as he carried it up all three flights of stairs to his apartment. He held it out by his fingertips, away from his body by the whole length of his arm. As if that would help stave off a bio weapon attack. Once he was inside his living room, he set it down on his otherwise bare coffee table and stared at it some more, wondering if he could smell the plague over the musk of the cardboard boxes.

 

Should he open it? Throw it away? Send it to Abby for testing?

 

He examined the forwarding address more carefully and than laughed as it clicked. Kort. That was Trent Kort's handwriting on the envelope, and of course he wouldn't have a return address. The man was still on assignment. What was he doing sending Tony semi-anonymous snail-mail?

 

Tony opened the letter, pulled out the folded paper, and began reading.

 

Tony,

If you're reading this, that means you worked up the courage to open it. Do not worry; there is

no plague hidden with these pages. I find myself with a break in missions, and I couldn't help

but wonder if you would be interested in flying over here. I know you have more than enough

time saved up at work for a two week vacation to Italy?

Kort

 

There was a plane ticket attached. Tony flipped open his cellphone and texted a simple reply to the number Kort had left at the end of the other letter.

 

Y.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony got his leave time approved by Director Vance since he didn't trust Gibbs not to lock him in a closet and throw away the key. Vance, of course, didn't say anything; he chewed on a toothpick and raised both eyebrows in Tony's direction. Tony thought it made the director look like a moron, but he kept that part to himself.

 

Tony knew that Vance was using his vacation as a move to "keep Gibbs in his place," but he couldn't bring himself to care. He'd come a long way in forgiving both himself and Gibbs for the Ziva mess, but it would be an equally long time still before all was forgotten. Besides, the day Gibbs couldn't handle himself against Vance was the day Tony joined the FBI and did the cancan with Fornell and that Sacks asshole. In short—not bloody likely.

 

He returned to his apartment, packed two weeks' worth of clothes, sunscreen, and condoms, and he recorded a new message on his home answering machine:

 

Hey! You've reached Tony's phone. I'm just letting you know that I'm busy enjoying the pleasures of southern Italy and won't be giving a fuck until I get back. Don't leave a message.

 

 

---

 

 

Italy was warm and peaceful. Tony and Trent spent their days having sex on the private balcony of their hotel room and browsing the flea markets. Tony found a black corset in Abby's size that he just had to buy her and a bow-tie that was perfect for Ducky. McGee got another pipe, and he discovered a jacket that Kacia would kill for. Tony mused over what to get Gibbs, but he couldn't think of anything and besides, he'd never gotten the man anything before. He went with the safe choice: alcohol.

 

 

---

 

 

Hey! You've reached Tony's phone. I'm just letting you know that I'm busy enjoying the pleasures of southern Italy and won't be giving a fuck until I get back. Don't leave a message.

 

(Beep) Omigod Tony! Why didn't you tell me you were going to Italy! You're in big trouble, mister! Call me!

 

(Beep) Uh, Tony, what were you thinking? Gibbs is pissed. You better call.

 

(Beep) Anthony, my dear boy, while it's nice to know that you're taking time off, you really should have told us. Jethro is not pleased with your disappearing act. You should call him.

 

(Beep) DiNozzo, where the hell are you! When you want time off you clear it with me, got it? Not Vance.

 

(Beep) Seriously, Tony-man, call me! Call Gibbs! Call someone! I'm starting to think that that kinky Kort dude is doing something hinky to you...well, hinky-er than kinky sex...if that makes any sense... Anyway, call or send me an email. If you don't, I will... I'll have NCIS toss your place!

 

(Beep) Hey DiNozzo, it's Kacia. I hope you're enjoying your time in Italy. Send me an email when you get back.

 

(Beep) DiNozzo! You not back yet? Get your ass stateside!

 

(Beep) Tonioooo! It's Britney, remember me? From that bar? Damn I'm druuunk... Why haven't you called me? You better not be with another girl you bast-[message has been deleted]

 

(Beep) Hey, Tony. Things are crazy here! You should cut your kinky vacation plans short. Bossman's on the warpath.

 

(Beep) DiNozzo! When I tell you to get your ass stateside, I mea—[message has been deleted]

 

(Beep) Tony, it's Abby. Ziva's back.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony only slightly abused his clearance to catch a military transport back to the United States. Really. And it was too bad there were only soldiers and no hot flight attendants.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony drove his crap car to the office as fast as the piece of junk could take him. He got pulled over half way there for going thirty miles over the speed limit, but he (only slightly, dammit) abused his badge and got out of it with a warning. He drove away, waiting until the traffic officer was out of sight before pulling out the special lights and flashing them all the way to the base.

 

He arrived at work eleven hours after he heard Abby's message. Stumbling from fatigue and worry, he made his way up to his team's floor. He wondered why, exactly, he was rushing to see Ziv—her. She had torn the team's world apart, made him deal with Kate-parallels and murdering boyfriends, giant metal boxes and team dinners without his presence.

 

Tony waited for the elevator doors to open, his stomach a bundle of raw nerves. Guilt, Resentment, Hope, and Gratitude tangled with Anger and a dash of Despair until he wasn't sure he'd be able to do anything by throw up, again and again, until the awful burning in his lungs went away. The elevator pinged, announcing his arrival and he stepped out of the doors—

 

He froze, his muscles seizing of their own accord at the sight of Ziva, a scar on her face and a tenseness that hadn't been there before hovering around her brows, framed between the team. His team.

 

Ziva sat at his desk, a small smile listing to the side at the people around her. Gibbs leaned on his own desk, angled perfectly to watch Ziva like a hawk, worry in every military-straight line of his body. McGee smiled, open and inviting while Abby bounced around a talkative Ducky. Palmer stood next to McGee, laughing at a wiry comment from Ziva. Kacia stood to the side, the outsider for the first time in a long time.

 

Kacia turned when the elevator opened and spotted him. Tony swallowed hard and nodded once to her before turning around and pressing the button for the lobby. He left.

 

 

---

 

 

Fuck off. Don't leave a message.

 

(Beep) Anthony David DiNozzo, where the hell are you? Ziva came to the office today. I know you've had time to fly back and be here two times over! Don't be a dick, you dick! Seriously, she's still a part of the team, that mess doesn't mean anything! It was totally hinky! Please, Tony, jus—[message has been deleted]

 

---

 

 

Tony would like to say that the sound of someone pounding at his door that night surprised him, but while he knew lying came naturally to him, he was getting tired of feeling like a fake. The mess with Jeanne and Jenny had sent him on a downward spiral, mixing him up in the head so bad that even now, over year later, it was still spinning in his head. God, he was such a fuck up.

 

Liar, lair, FUBAR pants on fire, he thought as he opened the door, revealing...

 

It wasn't Abby, or Gibbs, or anyone else Tony had been expecting. Seeing as the last time they had seen each other had been full of pain, sweat, and unbearable crushing heat, the last person Tony thought would be standing in front of his door was Ziva David. Her cheeks were red, the color sharpening the contrast between her smooth face and the jagged scar that ran down her cheek. Tony couldn't tell if the blush was due to the exertion of charging up the stairs to his apartment on the third floor or embarrassment.

 

Whatever. It didn't matter now.

 

Ziva stood, framed in the doorway to his dark apartment, glowing in the light from the hallway, and Tony couldn't stop his eyes from following the puffy scar down from her hairline to the corner of her left eyebrow to even father down to her exposed collarbone. It looked angry and raw and matched the haunted look in her eyes.

 

"Tony," she said, her eyes looking past him into his apartment, taking in the boxes and empty shelves, and Tony could see her brain churning out a logical—and completely wrong—conclusion. "What—"

 

"Come in," he said, cutting her off. He didn't want to have this conversation with her standing outside his door like a desperate ex-girlfriend, not to mention the scar...

 

She hesitated before complying, her expression stiff and uncomfortable. The easiness she had gained while at NCIS had slipped away, leaving her grasping at her background for strength. It made him pity her, just a little, that she was apparently going through what he had these past few months, but then he remembered "team" dinners and terrorists and secrets that kept piling on, and how she had been so mad when he revealed his undercover assignment and keeping secrets when she had been doing so all along.

 

Hypocrite.

 

Ziva stepped carefully into his apartment and turned, keeping her back to the wall while looking around. She paused a moment and said, "I have not ever seen your apartment before now."

 

"I never invited you," Tony said, his words meant to cut. He felt like an asshole immediately after, but he held strong. He wasn't just going to roll over for her; he was done doing that, for anyone. Even Gibbs. Even Ziva. He didn't know what had happened to her over the past few months, and he couldn't bring himself to lie and say he didn't care, but he wouldn't let it affect him. She had made her choice. She would live with it, even if it had been painful, and violent, and lonely.

 

Ziva only sighed at his words and looked at his piano situated in what was supposed to be the dining room. "You told me once that your music teacher used to hit you when you made mistakes," she murmured, stepping closer to it. She moved until her back was to Tony and then she stopped, deliberately, exposing herself to him, making herself vulnerable.

 

"She did," he answered, staring at her. What was she up to? Ziva did everything for a reason.

 

"I was half in love with you, you know," she said suddenly, still not facing him. He heard her swallow wetly. "I wish that was enough of an excuse. I did not... I did not mean to hurt you like that, but Michael..."

 

Tony didn't say anything. Ziva wanted to be absolved, but he wasn't a priest, and she wasn't Catholic. He held his silence as she continued.

 

"I know that I have messed everything up, and I am sorry. Apologies may be a sign of weakness, but I am currently feeling weak, so it seems appropriate." She took a shuddering breathe. "What happened..."

 

Tony stopped himself from falling into old habits and comforting her, stopped himself from whispering it's okayI know you didn't mean it, and everything will be okay, because it was useless and because it never works. Like Boy Scouts putting band-aids on bullet wounds. God, how pathetic.

 

She turned to face him, the faint light from the streetlamps outside outlining the scar. She stepped forward a little, but he backed away, his body remembering what had happened the last time she had gotten close. She stopped, reading his movements in the dim twilight.

 

"What has happened to the team, Tony?" she asked, her voice soft. "What happened while I was away? Everyone tensed when I said your name. I know I don't have the right, but I want back on the team. Our team." She paused and then seemed to try for a lighter mood. She made another faulty assumption. "Who was that woman at my desk? She acted like a zonah. She seems as flat as a—"

 

"Ziva," he said, "shut up before you embarrass yourself." He breathed deeply and said, "Is that all you have to say? If so, get the fuck out." He was reminded suddenly of Gibbs' Totally Not Cool and Invasive Apartment Raid, and how Trent had sounded when he threatened to shoot Gibbs if the man didn't leave. He would not shoot Ziva, even if she did refuse to leave, because he really didn't want to have to deal with another dead Mossad officer, but he was prepared to call Gibbs. He fingered the cellphone in his pocket, expecting her to bite back with a rush of insults.

 

"What is up with you and Gibbs?" she said instead. Tony stared at her, wondering at the change in spoken topics and whether she really could read minds. Then his brain caught up.

 

"Huh?"

 

"It is obvious that there is something going on." She hesitated again, her eyes flinty as they focused on him. "You two have always been close." Was she fishing? She seemed so sure...

 

Fuck it. If Ziva, who had been doing God knows what and God knows who during her absence, had figured out that something was not right between Gibbs and Tony than the whole damn world knew, and Tony might as well put up a goddamn billboard.

 

Tony didn't answer her. There was anger welling inside him, looking for an outlet. What did Ziva know about anything? What gave her the right to question him? To try and squeeze back into the place she had vacated. He thought about Kacia, left to the side as the team hovered around Ziva, no one even bothering to attempt to include her in the proceedings. Anger. Resentment. Guilt that he had left Kacia there alone. Tony ushered Ziva to his door, not saying a word, and then laid it on her when the stiff silence became too much.

 

"My girlfriend died, I fucked your replacement, and I just got back from having kinky sex with Trent fucking Kort in Italy. Also, Kacia Noor is twice the agent you ever were." And then he slammed the door in her scarred, apathetic face.

 

 

---

 

 

After he was sure that Ziva was gone, he sat on his couch and wondered what to do. He felt like going out and getting hammered and picking up a nameless partner from a seedy bar to have anonymous sex. He felt like curling up in a ball and not ever leaving his apartment again. He felt like catching a plane back to Italy.

 

The only thing that stopped him from going that last one was the knowledge that Kort was already long gone. The CIA agent wouldn't have stayed in one place after Tony left; it was against training. So Tony had no outsider to run to, no one who wouldn't judge him for not wanting his partner back. Tony sank his head into his hands and wondered when his life became so damn complicated.

 

 

---

 

 

Eventually, he grabbed his keys, his wallet, and his badge and gun and left, walking down the stairs to his crap car. The only good thing about having his precious Mustang blown sky high was that he no longer had to worry about someone stealing his mode of transportation. He scowled at the POS and wished his goddamn'66 Mustang had survived, because it was so much cooler and full of awesome than this thing.

 

Tony realized that his internal rant was leaning toward the hysterical. With a shake of his head, he climb into the (dirty, horrible, so uncool) seat of his car, turned the key in the ignition, and pulled out of his slot. He told himself that he didn't have a destination in mind.

 

Liar, liar, FUBAR pants on fire...

 

 

---

 

 

Gibbs' house looked exactly the same, an outward icon of suburban bliss. But Tony wasn't fooled by the normalcy of the exterior, knowing that Gibbs had lost his American dream a long time ago. He paused, half expecting his boss to appear in the doorway, outlined in silvery light, just like last time.

 

No one appeared at the door.

 

Tony cursed himself for cowardice. He couldn't assume that Gibbs would make it easier for him. That wasn't the man's way. Tony rested one slightly shaking hand on the manual window roll up, remembering all the times Gibbs had been framed in the window of his crappy car. The first time, he had come to Tony and Tony had run away. The second time, Tony had come to Gibbs and Gibbs had met him partway. This was the third time and it was all in Tony now. It should have been easy, should have been a breeze. Tony could face down drug dealers, serial killers, and celebrities. He could get out of his car, open the unlocked door, and talk to his boss. To his...

 

He got out of the car and walked to the door.

 

 

---

 

 

The smell of sawdust and bourbon mingled in the air. Tony listened to the creaks of the steps as he descended down into the basement. He heard Gibbs pause in his sanding and listen to his footfalls. The silence from the lack was almost deafening for all its brevity. Gibbs resumed sanding just before Tony's feet met the concrete floor. He didn't stop, even when Tony walked to his side and ran his hands over its already smooth surface.

 

"Ziva came by my apartment," he said to the boat. He felt Gibbs hesitate again, and Tony felt his heart flutter in an utterly senseless manner. They were standing close enough that the movement of Gibbs' hands brought his arms brushing gently against Tony's side. He was more aware of Gibbs than he had ever been before, back when everything was simpler.

 

"How'd that go?" Gibbs asked, picking up his rhythm again. Tony echoed the motions again, recalling Gibbs' hands over his years ago, saying, sand with the grain of the wood, don't stop until it's perfect.

 

"While I admit my Hebrew is rusty, I believe she called Kacia a bitch. Or a whore. I couldn't tell."

 

Gibbs didn't turn to stare at Tony, or anything so dramatic, but he did heave a sigh of regret. "I see. What did you do?"

 

"I lost my temper," Tony admitted, still mirroring Gibbs' work on the boat. The wood felt real under his hands, real and solid and there. More there than anything had been these last few months. "What right did she have to judge Kacia like that?"

 

"She's been through a lot, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, and for some reason that made Tony almost as angry as Ziva had.

 

"Well I've been through a lot too!" he snapped. It was all messed up in his head, Baylee and Bailey, Kate and Paula and Michelle and Ziva, fuck, Ziva. "I trusted her," he whispered, hating how broken his voice sounded. He hadn't felt this weak since he realized that his father had to be reminded that he left his son alone in a hotel room in a strange city. "I trusted her..."

 

There, he'd said it. He had trusted Ziva, maybe even loved her, though not in the way that she had loved him. Half, he thought, she was half in love with me. It wasn't supposed to matter, he knew, but here, in the Gibbs' basement with the scent of sawdust thick in the air, here he could break down. He sucked in a shuddering breath and leaned on the boat, strong and sturdy and real. Like Gibbs. Like Gibbs, who had been willing to met him half-way, to stumble through this mess together

 

"Gibbs," he said, as Gibbs set his sanding equipment aside and turned towards him. Tony looked at him, at his boss, his friend, his everything. "Jethro..."

 

"Let's go upstairs," Gibbs murmured. He placed his hand at the back of Tony's neck, and Tony revealed in the realness, the here-ness, of the gesture.

 

"Yeah," Tony agreed.

 

 

---

 

 

Tony made omelets in the morning.

 

 

---

 

 

He and Gibbs sat down in Gibbs' rarely used living room. Tony wiggled as he leaned back in an armchair, loving the way he felt. Gibbs' style in bed was the perfect blend of gentle and rough, demanding and giving. He eyed the way Gibbs filled out that white button up and felt inappropriate thoughts creeping up.

 

No, bad Tony, he scolded himself. You have to concentrate.

 

"We broke Rule Number Twelve," Gibbs said to the silence. The man was upset with himself, Tony could see it in his stiffness.

 

"I think we shattered Rule Number Twelve," Tony purred. Gibbs didn't back down. Shit. "Okay then, how about this: Fuck Rule Number Twelve. We've been dancing around this for too long."

 

Gibbs regarded him severely, his blue eyes piercing through Tony's brashness. "DiNozzo, you work for me. We just had sex. That changes things."

 

"Well, Jethro," Tony said. "What if I didn't work for you any more?"

 

 

---

 

 

The meeting with Vance was awkward and stiff, but Tony came prepared. He laid out the paperwork and stared the Director down, using every silent intimidation technique he had learned over the years. The other man scowled at him, but Vance had nothing on Gibbs, so Tony didn't even pretend to feel anything other than smugness. Vance couldn't deny his point, though, so the papers got signed, and Tony left with a grin and a casual hand wave.

 

 

---

 

 

"Hey Kacia," he said early that Monday. His teammate looked up from her desk (when had it become her desk instead of her desk, anyway?) and raised her eyebrows at him. He saw Ziva look up from the corner of his eye. She was sitting at the desk usually reserved for visiting FBI agents and people Gibbs didn't want to deal with. Usually one and the same.

 

"What," Kacia replied, short and to the point as ever.

 

"Want to be on my team?" he said, ignoring the turning heads from around the office. He heard frantic typing from the field agents closest to him, and he mentally snorted, figuring that the entire NCIS staff would know about it within the hour. Kacia regarded him closely and then glanced at the surrounding agents.

 

She didn't bother merely snorting mentally. "Sure."

 

"Excellent," he grinned, ignoring the shock on Ziva's face. He nodded at Kacia and walked away, ready to go see Human Resources about sending out applications for the new Major Case Response Team (the Sequel).

 

 

---

 

 

They sat in Gibbs' basement, two narrow mouthed wine glasses, a pound of dark chocolate, and an open bottle of Henry Block 7 Zinfandel between them. It Happened One Night played on the tiny TV in the corner. Tony poured the wine into the glasses and snorted fondly at Gibbs' suspicious glare at the drink.

 

"It's sad that you've never experienced this before, Jethro," he smiled, enjoying the uneasiness his—lover? Boyfriend? Soulmate?—showed at the idea of being asked to judge a bottle of wine. Gibbs preferred the harder stuff, but Tony was determined to broaden Gibbs' horizons and show him that slow and sweet was just as effective as fast and hard. Tony picked up the glass and swirled it gently.

 

Tony's mind liked taking that thought straight to the gutter.

 

"I prefer drinks that put hair on your chest," Gibbs retorted, but he obediently copied Tony's movements with the wine glass.

 

"Hmf," Tony sniffed. "More like burns it off. Now sip it slow," he instructed. "It's not a tequila shot."

 

Gibbs turned his glare from the wine to his—lover? Soulmate? "I know how to drink wine, Tony." But his words lacked bite and he did as Tony said, keeping the liquid on his tongue rather than gulping it down.

 

Tony broke off a piece of the chocolate, glad that he had splurged and bought the obscenely expensive imported kind. Perfect. He slipped the piece in his mouth and watched while Gibbs copied him. Then—

 

It was too much to resist, watching that surprised expression flicker across Gibbs' face. Tony leaned forward, arching over the space between them, and kissed his lover, his friend, his soulmate.

 

God, he loved the taste of dark chocolate and red wine.