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Box Out

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Disclaimer: Nope, not mine. Thanks for letting me play with them.

"Damn it, DiNozzo, I told you to box out!"

Coach was pissed and Tony kept his head down, sweat dripping down his nose to plop in wide, round drops onto the floor of the military academy gym. His skin was flushed, but not just from running the length of the court for nearly the entire game. He'd left his guard position to try to draw the foul and his man had gotten around him to get the ball and go in for two. Now they were down by one, seconds left on the clock. His fault. He could feel the team's anger, smell it in their sweat, hear it in the barely muttered curses. He'd feel it in their pushes and elbows later in the locker room, harder, rougher punches in the shower if they lost the semi-final because of him.

"If we lose, DiNozzo, you'll be running suicides until you puke."

Shouldn't take long, he thought, nodding in agreement without raising his eyes. He knew better – blocking with his body under the net, position unmovable, holding off any encroachment into his team's zone to the inside - that was his job. Defense. Never let them in.

But sometimes he'd see a gap, see an opportunity and break for it, and he'd leave an opening for the enemy to score.

Like now.

The memory of his basketball coach's voice faded into the background, but Tony still seemed to smell the hot, heavy air of the gym, hear the slamming feet in the bleachers, the shouting crowd, and the churning in his gut as the clock ticked over to zero. He couldn't help but finger the ribs low on his left side that had been cracked by a few well placed kicks half an hour later.

Tony replayed the last few minutes in the midnight-darkened bullpen. The bullet graze had started to burn again, pain gradually leaking through the local anesthetic the ER doc had used when he'd cleaned and stitched it. He'd been teasing the probie, allowing the adrenaline rush of the gun fight, the day spent trapped within the cargo container, and the final showdown before Gibbs rode to the rescue to leach away in the familiar banter of the squad room and the habitual disgust of a McGee feeling provoked by Tony's whining. Ziva had promised to make him dinner as an apology for not inviting him to her intimate soiree with McGee and Palmer – that should be fun, continuing some of the dialogue they'd started in the shipping container. A moment ago he'd smiled at the thought – the challenge of joking it out of her. Getting around her guard - getting inside.

His mistake.

"I talked to Ziva – you cut it on a wooden box."

Why would she say that? She knew what happened: the ricochet had buzzed between them like an angry hornet, and it took a few seconds before either realized it had ripped through Tony's coat, his shirt, and left a jagged tear in his right arm. She'd helped him down from the truck, later, acting all the solicitous partner, offering to drive him home.

He gathered his waning energy and surged to his feet, all swagger and over-the-top drama on the outside while he processed on the inside. Abby's body slammed into him hard and he choked a grunt into a whining screech when she jogged his elbow. Tony let the Goth scientist's innate protectiveness ground him and moved back towards his desk, holding his arm tight against him with the other hand. Who knew he'd be thanking his father for training him so well.

"Anthony – I won't tell you again."

His father's voice held that low, controlled anger, a kind of warning sign that his patience wouldn't last forever. Tony tried to school his adolescent features into a bland mask, like the one his father showed to the world, but his jaw hurt from clenching his teeth so hard and his eyes stung as a few last tears escaped. His mother was dead, but he was still a DiNozzo. 'Emotional scenes' were all right for women and children, but not for men. Not even now.

"It's not a lack of emotion, Tony, it's a firm control," his father explained in the limo on the way to the cemetery when his son had flown into a rage over the man's cold, uncaring attitude. "In our business, enemies are everywhere, always looking for a way in, for any weakness. In public, you must be immovable." His large hands had adjusted Tony's tie, had brushed unnoticeable flecks from the shoulders of his dark suit. "Closed off." One finger tapping against his cheek brought Tony's flooded eyes to his father's pale face. "Don't let them see the pain. Don't let them in."

Words to live by. Tony felt his shoulders straighten, regardless of the low throb in his arm. He'd gotten sloppy – lazy - again.

Ziva's dark eyes held something darker, almost triumphant. He was startled by the fleeting image of Kate Todd smirking at him, returning jibe for jibe and tease for tease. Still, beneath their sibling barks and nips, Kate had carried a deep wealth of caring, a heart for her team. He blinked the images clear. Ziva wasn't Kate.

The words and phrases, glimpses into Ziva's personal life that was still very murky, had been dropped almost purposefully, deliberately, during the past few months, but Ziva was still opaque to him. Hidden. Secret. Her arrival on the heels of her psycho-killer brother, her instant – worrying – connection with Gibbs, the little ways she jabbed at Tony's discoveries, his leadership, and his role as second on Gibbs' team. Something snapped into place with a gut-wrenching twist within him. Well, shit.

Just minutes before his grand-standing play – his mistake on the court - Tony had watched the ball into the hoop. His shot put his team up by one and he felt the thrill through his nerves as the crowd roared, vibrating the air in the huge gym. His legs had been shaking with strain, the muscles so tired just a moment ago. Now he was recharged, victory for his team within reach. The team had been plagued by injuries this season, giving the freshman a chance to play, to show what he could do. He'd turned to race back along the boards, shadowing his man.

"C'mon, get down there!"

The coach's voice was the only one Tony heard. He'd flung the sweat from his hair and focused – bumping his body into his man, his slim back to the bigger boy's chest. The other player dribbled frantically, looking around – nobody open. Tony saw it in his eyes when he decided to take the ball in himself.

"DiNozzo! Box out, DiNozzo!"

Time slowed around the desks in the bullpen. He watched Abby's hand on Ziva's arm; he remembered the forensic tech's initial loathing of the Mossad agent contrasted with her instant bonding with Kate. Ziva had pulled out all the stops to break through the block, to convince Abby she could be a friend, that she was trustworthy. McGee – she'd wooed McGee with a few seemingly innocent appeals for help – fastest way to work, good restaurants, dry cleaners. And she'd given him a sometimes partner against Tony's boisterous version of team camaraderie. Two against one.

She'd tried with Tony – for a while. The smutty talks about GSM and honey dust, dinner after he'd broken up with his married girlfriend, never mind what had seemed to be real concern for him when he'd taken the brunt of the beating during their undercover assignment. Ziva had sucked up to him in private as she undercut him with everyone else. He had to admit it – she was good.

Tony's gaze darted to Gibbs, just coming out of the elevator with his usual cup of coffee. That bitter tang in the back of his throat still stung, still surprised him with a sweep of regret at the oddest moments. Whatever friendship – partnership - they'd once shared – whatever Tony had imagined they'd once shared – it had long since eroded into cold disdain and indifference. He dropped his eyes to his desk. It still hurt.

Back in Baltimore – back when a tube sock wearing detective had rassled a tall federal agent to the ground – from that moment there'd been a connection. A fledgling friendship. It had built slowly into a firm, trusted bond as they worked side by side, learning each other's strengths – and weaknesses. But it hadn't survived. Hadn't survived a smart-mouthed ex-Secret Service agent joining the team. Had thinned out further when McGee came along. And, finally, it seemed, it had been buried along with Kate.

Maybe Tony'd just been handy, the only game in town after Gibbs' last partner left to go afloat. Maybe Tony had imagined the warmth, the mentorship that had grown into a mutual respect. A trust he came to base his life on. But it hadn't been lasting – not for Gibbs, anyway. Tony remembered the first time Gibbs had turned biting words into a joke at Tony's expense, to put him down – put him in his place in the eyes of Kate and McGee. A place that used to be right by Gibbs' side. He remembered the flush of anger – of hurt. How he'd told himself it was funny, a game played out only when others were around to see. That later, over beers, or the rough edges of a boat in a basement, Gibbs would smile and ruffle Tony's 'perfect' hairstyle, and firm up their bond.

Until he didn't.

A sniper's bullet had killed more than a beautiful, courageous, treasured partner. It had snuffed out Gibbs' respect once and for all. Cold and distant, blue eyes never quite meeting Tony's across the bullpen, now, their connection was gone, and Tony had given up trying to restore it, to earn his way back behind Gibbs' walls. His gaze swung back towards Ziva. Apparently, Gibbs had found a brighter student. A daughter. Of course. How could Tony possibly compare?

"Let's run that drill again – here, Lesher, come stand here, by the key." The coach had positioned the gangly twelve-year-old facing the net. "Ramirez, come on, you'll be the shooter." Another boy stood poised nearby, dribbling the ball casually. "Now, DiNozzo," he'd grabbed Tony by the wrist and pulled him into position, his back to Lesher's chest, then pushed down on his shoulders. "Bend your knees, that's right, a little wider. Arms out, elbows bent. Good, good." He'd turned to the other boys. "Now, when Ramirez heads in for the shot, you guys have got to remember to box out, just like Tony is here – you've got to keep position, hold your man off the ball. Basketball games are won through smart defense, boys, not fancy plays and jumps."

His first coach, his first year playing. The man who'd turned an awkward, abandoned, grief-stricken twelve year old into an athlete. Tony had worshipped the man, believed the sun rose and set with his approval. He'd never worked so hard in his life.

Until he'd met Gibbs.

He didn't know how Ziva had burrowed under Gibbs' usually miles-thick armor, but he had his theories – and Tony was neither stupid nor oblivious, no matter what other people might choose to believe. But Gibbs bought her act – hook, line, and sinker. Had from day one, no matter how much he shellacked that hard-ass glaze over his amused little smiles and fond gazes. It used to be – they used to be for – Tony clenched his teeth, refusing to finish the thought. Nausea twisted his gut as he looked into her brown eyes, all crinkled at the corners with amusement.

"Her cooking rocks, Tony. What was the name of that dish you made last night at the party?"

Tony blinked. Abby was there. At Ziva's. Abby, McGee, Palmer…

Gibbs breezed past. "Chunt. Slow cooked beef with potatoes and beans. It wasn't bad."

Gibbs.

After the semi-final, freshman year, the blows had fallen heavily against Tony's back, knocking Tony face-first against the brick wall behind the gym. The rough surface scraped his cheek open, the sudden pain shocking a gasp from his lips. It was okay. It was the last noise he'd made. He'd deserved every punch, every kick. He'd let them down. Let his coach down.

Nuh. He felt the blow low, in his belly. Turning, Tony caught the flagrant sneer on McGee's face before his stare flashed back towards Ziva's vicious little smile. Well, props to her, then. It looked like she'd succeeded. McGee, Abby, Palmer, Ziva, and even Gibbs – he swallowed bile – the perfect team. Anger burned and he felt the flush slowly creep up along the length of his neck towards his chin. Ziva – winning? Like hell. Suddenly, Tony didn't feel the pain in his arm any more.

Abby's sweet, pale face showed no hint of teasing or mockery. "Too bad you couldn't make it, Tony. Ziva told us you turned her down."

"Well," Tony felt his lips curl back, exposing his teeth. "If Ziva said it, it must be true." He turned in his chair. "Right, Probie?"

He caught the flicker of uncertainty in McGee's eyes. "Uh, right."

Tony had welcomed his teammates' blows, laid there, let them hit him, curse him. His silent acceptance seemed to drain their need for violence.

No. It was clear that McGee had been in on the joke. The game. Ziva's plan to deliberately isolate Tony – leave him out of an obviously team-centered evening. And as for the rest of them …

"What do you mean, Tony?"

Poor Abby. She'd never have stood for it. What you see was what you'd get with Abby. Now, the question was, could Tony expose Ziva's scheme without tearing up Team Gibbs for good, or would he just have to swallow it? He'd done it before – military school wasn't the first or the last time he'd taken the blows. He watched Gibbs' gaze brush over him as if he didn't exist. This time, though, it just might kill him.

Getting back to the barracks had been tough, but he'd made it. Fell into bed. Got himself to the infirmary the next day with a tale of falling down concrete steps in the dark. Never missed a class.

The Mossad agent continued to eye him warily. Ziva knew that he knew, that he was on to her. That might have to be enough. Although, now, he'd never trust her again, and with the wounds left – oh so deliberately, it seemed, by McGee - tearing up Team Gibbs might be pretty damn unavoidable.

Tony blew a heavy breath out into the air. "Nothing, Abbs." He smiled gently and lowered his head, waiting until she'd pulled McGee out from behind his desk and headed off. He could sense Ziva's presence, still there, waiting, on the other side of the desk, but he carefully ignored her. Reaching behind his neck with his left hand, Tony unlatched the sling the ER doctor had told him to wear for at least a week, to remind him to keep his arm still and protect the stitches from pulling, mostly. The wound was ragged and prone to infection since the bullet had seared pieces of his coat and shirt into the wound. He couldn't stifle a hiss as he straightened his arm and turned on his computer.

"Tony – I thought I was taking you home?"

He'd never told a soul. They were his team – no matter what. He wouldn't let a little pain drive him away. He'd been back with the team the following season. A little older. A lot wiser. And he made sure to learn defense.

He barely raised his eyes. "Gonna have to take a rain check on that one, Zee-va. I've got a report to finish." He opened the report program and began inputting information.

A flutter of movement caught his eye and suddenly Gibbs was there. Side by side with Ziva. Frowning. Yeah, nothing new there. Tony kept typing.

"DiNozzo, you can finish that up tomorrow. You're at your desk until the shooting board signs off on the guy you took out at the dock, anyway."

Tony shook his head. "Nah, I'll finish it while it's fresh, Boss. Won't take long. 'We got locked in a shipping container, burned some phony money, bounced around, moved some furniture, yadda yadda yadda …' You know, the usual."

Ziva's throaty chuckle sent a blade of ice down his spine. "Oh, look, Gibbs, now he is sulking. How … cute."

A cold silence filled the air and Tony focused his anger on the plastic keys under his fingers, his eyes searing gouges into his screen. Biting back at her would rebound – painfully - as long as her silver-haired champion backed her up. A long moment later, Gibbs' hand crept into Tony's line of sight as he reached over and pushed the button on the monitor. The screen went dark and Tony closed his eyes, his rage muffled by the exhaustion that suddenly turned his muscles to water.

"Go home …"

Tony waited for it. Another dismissal from Gibbs, with just the right mixture of disappointment and disgust.

"… Ziva."

His eyes popped open in time to see the narrowing of the Mossad agent's lips. She recovered quickly.

"Yes, Tony, come on," she wheedled slyly, "you don't want to pass out on the floor from hunger."

"Boss- "

"I don't think DiNozzo needs a babysitter, Ziva." Gibbs voice was low and even, not growling, but damn close. The blue eyes were sharp, icy, focused exclusively on Tony.

Ziva finally got the message and sighed. "Very well. Good night," she added stiffly, the victorious glint in her eyes transforming into veiled frustration.

Tony couldn't resist a wide, insincere smile. "Thanks for everything," he called after her, standing and grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair, absently fingering the bloody slit in the sleeve. He carefully pulled it on over his injured arm, keeping his back to Gibbs' unwanted scrutiny. He opened his drawer to reach for his gun and found… nothing.

Right. Abby had it locked away in evidence. And it would stay there until the shooting board released it. He slammed the drawer shut and grabbed his bag.

It wasn't until he reached the elevator that he realized Gibbs was at his side.

The doors slid open and the NCIS medical examiner took one look at Tony and exploded.

"Anthony!"

Tony jerked backwards and a curse flew out between his lips before he could catch himself, the pain throbbing from his shoulder to his fingertips.

The medical examiner was livid. "What do you think you're doing?" He pushed Gibbs roughly out of the way and latched onto Tony's good arm, stepping right into his personal space.

"Ducky?" Tony's eyes opened wide, voice carefully controlled, denying his body's automatic response to the pain.

The older man thrust the thick folder he'd been carrying into Gibbs' hands. "I just received your medical report from Doctor Anderson at the hospital – he faxed the treatment information for your wound and I see that he specifically ordered you to wear a sling for one week!"

"… enemies are everywhere, always looking for a way in, for any weakness. Don't let them in."

"Box out, DiNozzo!"

He'd never let a little pain drive him away.

Tony mentally bent his knees. Steady. Immovable. No one was going to get inside again.

He turned on the charm. "You know how doctors love to exaggerate, Ducky. It would take more than a little scratch to –"

"Shut up, DiNozzo." Gibbs pressed one hand into Tony's lower back and moved him into the elevator, Ducky following along.

Tony felt the warmth of Gibbs' hand and he nearly stumbled, only the pressure of Ducky's hold keeping him upright. He shifted away from the touch of either man, his back to the wall, slowing his breaths to take charge of his pounding heart and spiking blood pressure.

Once the doors had closed, Gibbs pressed the button to take the three of them to the basement. He shoved the folder back into Ducky's hands without bothering to open it.

"In English, Duck."

Tony seethed quietly, leaning back against the cold wall, gaze fixed on the lighted numbers as if the descent of the small car could sink his emotions down below his usual amiable mask. It wasn't working. He needed to go – now – get away, lock down his roiling thoughts. He barely listened to Ducky's nattering – it sounded just like what the ER doc had said, anyway, just longer-winded.

"I'll want to see what damage he's managed to do to it before he goes home, Jethro," the medical examiner stated when they reached the basement. "And where did you put the sling, Anthony?"

Well, someone was finally talking to him - Tony supposed that was progress. He loosened his jaw enough to answer. "It's behind my desk."

Gibbs' held one hand against the open elevator door. "I'll get it – you check him out, Ducky."

One down, one to go, Tony thought to himself. Gibbs was apparently done with the whole 'caring and controlling' portion of this evening's entertainment. Now he just had to make all the right responses to Ducky's genuine concern and he could get out of here.

"Very well, Jethro. Come along," he ushered Tony out ahead of him.

Cool green eyes locked onto the slender figure of Jimmy Palmer as soon as the doors swished open to the autopsy suite. Another of Ziva's conquests, Tony thought.

"That will be all for today, Mister Palmer," Ducky called, pointing Tony to the nearest metal table.

"That's okay, I'd rather stand," Tony snapped, working his coat off as he watched Palmer until he'd scuttled silently out the door. Damn it, he muttered under his breath – putting the coat on once was bad enough, at this rate he might as well leave the thing off and risk pneumonia by driving home in his shirt sleeves.

"Uh-huh, I thought so." Ducky clucked his tongue at the blood that had seeped through the layers of gauze wrapped around his arm. "When will you learn to take care of yourself, my boy?"

That's exactly what I'm trying to do, Tony seethed, remaining silent and still beneath the doctor's firm hands. The sooner he let Ducky manhandle him, the sooner that Tony could escape and start rebuilding his defenses. Batter his body – his soul - back into shape. He glanced down at the ugly wound. He'd take the foul, swallow the smirking rejection, absorb the blows. He hadn't forgotten how. What was another scar?

Chapter Text

Tony had switched to football in his junior year at the military academy, when all the guys he’d loved and respected – the upperclassmen and the coach who had become his surrogate family – had gone. He’d been a starter since his freshman year, and now would have been forced to take responsibility for leading the younger players. At graduation he’d looked around – at Leymer, Sanchez, and Natali standing there in their dress uniforms, eyes focused on the future, and he’d known. He wasn’t ready. Leading a team? Becoming the older brother? He blinked quickly and stole a glance at Coach shuffling his feet on the platform, uncomfortable with the limelight as always. They’d given him a plaque. Twenty years of loyal service. The new coach was young, twenty-something – his years on this planet just about equal with Coach’s experience - broad shoulders and thick neck and dark, glittering eyes standing there in the audience all arrogance and attitude, thinking that a hard body could possibly replace the gnarled hands and graying head of the man who’d taught Tony about teamwork. Who’d taken on the role of ‘father’ when Tony’s own couldn’t be bothered. He felt sick. No. He couldn’t do it – wouldn’t do it. He ran.

That summer he’d worked out like a madman. Running, lifting, spending any hours he wasn’t busy on his job at the gym or on the track. Going back to Long Island hadn’t been an option – or a desire - for him since he’d started boarding school at twelve. No one there wanted to see him and living on an empty estate in the New York suburbs was torture. So he worked. Maintenance. Painting. He helped resurface the parking lots. Cut grass. Stripped and refinished the gym floor. Repaired fences. Hauled garbage. Whatever they wanted him to do as long as it kept him there, at school, where he’d found a home. He’d run at night after the gym had closed. And in August, he was ready.

On the football team he was the kid again, the rookie. Learning. Memorizing plays, practicing footwork in the hot summer sun, growing calluses where the unfamiliar pads rubbed against his skin. He was fast – faster than the starting receivers. He didn’t mind their scathing looks or their loud comments to the other players; he was in their sandbox now, and he knew he’d have to win his place. And Tony’s reputation as a team player had gone before him. It was okay. He’d expected it. Played harder, worked harder, tried harder, took the hits, smiled through the pain, and came back the next day. The coach watched it all, seemed to have eyes everywhere, and ran the team so hard that any aggression they might think to take off the field disintegrated into exhaustion. And Tony sweated side by side with them day after day after day. And earned his spot.

Tony stood quietly, eyes at half-mast, allowing Ducky’s rambling words to fill up the emptiness as the medical examiner’s fingers probed and prodded, ignoring the pain that spiked at the older man’s inelegant touch. He tried to reach back to that determination, that patience, the stubborn resolve that kept him centered during those weeks of testing while the new team dynamic had grown up around him. He honestly didn’t know if he had it in him to do it again.

And, dammit, he shouldn’t have to. He ground his teeth together as his anger surged, hoping the doctor’s concentration on his popped stitches would keep him from noticing. Tony wasn’t the rookie anymore – he was far into his fourth year at NCIS and, supposedly, Gibbs’ senior agent. This was his team. The only person who needed to earn a place here was –

“Dammit, DiNozzo, I used to think you were pretty smart.” The words were coated with a thick layer of disappointment.

He hadn’t even noticed the autopsy doors slide open and suddenly Gibbs was at his side, piercing stare leveled at the mess of blood and torn skin of his arm. Pain and exhaustion and nausea kicked Tony’s brain into neutral and sped the heated words from his mouth.

“Yeah, well, I used to think you were pretty damned perceptive, Gibbs, so I guess that makes two of us.”

The cool fingers of the physician stuttered against Tony’s skin but he couldn’t look away from Gibbs’ blue glare. Wouldn’t look away. Yeah, on another day, at another time, when he wasn’t crashing from an adrenaline high that had lasted for hours, when he wasn’t contemplating the dissolution of a team he’d made his family for the past four years, when he wasn’t aching for a connection that had turned away from him months ago Tony might have regretted those words, smiled and joked and hauled them back with a stream of prattling nonsense. But not today.

“Jethro, perhaps you should allow me to finish up with young Anthony and then take him home.”

Always the buffering, compassionate soul, Donald Mallard, Tony smiled to himself. Unless you really pissed him off, and then he’d flay skin from bone without any help from those knives he wielded against dead flesh. Not tonight, Ducky, Tony thought, not tonight.

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed, head cocked slightly to one side. “You about done here?”

A small sigh cooled Tony’s skin along with one more swipe from the alcohol soaked gauze in the doctor’s hand. “Very nearly, Jethro.” He felt a clean bandage as it was placed gently against the raw wound and clever hands wrapping a bandage around and around his arm to hold it there. Ducky seemed to be moving slowly, drawing out his ministrations as if time could lance the poison from the air.

Tony dropped his gaze first. As always, he chuckled darkly. But this time it wasn’t respect or fear that made him look away. This time – for the first time – it was something closer to grief. Another ending. Another reminder that he just didn’t make the cut. He closed his eyes and waited, knowing Gibbs wouldn’t speak again until Ducky was finished and gone.

Tony didn’t even play in the first three games of the season – all hard losses. But when Jorgens came out of game four with a pulled groin Tony got a short, stern lecture and a slap on the ass. And caught the winning pass. The feeling was heady, sending him soaring, but the coach brought him back to Earth, brought them all back to Earth, in the locker room. No gloating – no celebrations. Just the soft-voiced insistence that they’d better work twice as hard the next time.

He earned his place, eventually. And the rush of having a team again, a family, encouraged him to give everything, every ounce of strength, every molecule of oxygen, every trembling step. Taking the hits in practice and from the other teams – that was the easy part; the physical blows always healed. It was his own mistakes, his own fumbles or missed plays that seared his soul. Made him doubt himself.

And then, senior year, he’d been scouted by The Ohio State University. Big Ten powerhouse with the football legacy of the great Woody Hayes. Offered a partial scholarship. Scholarship housing. And a new family – one that sought him out - that wanted him.

Like Gibbs had. Or, he smiled wryly, that’s what he’d thought.

Ducky was bending his elbow now, fixing the sling around his neck, and Tony took a deep breath, trying to settle his stomach against the roiling and twisting spasms, past and present merging to steal his control.

He managed a smile. “Thanks, Ducky.”

He’d been so grateful. Practice before freshman year of college was like nothing he’d experienced before. Sweat ran from every pore, muscles bunched and shuddered in painful contractions – he couldn’t seem to get enough water, enough air, enough of anything, but he kept going, jaw clenched, forehead creased in a perpetual frown.

“I suggest you follow your doctor’s advice from here on, Anthony,” the medical examiner was collecting up the bloody gauze, the old bandages, taking his time. “He’ll need light duty for a week, Jethro, or at least until the stitches come out.”

Silence ushered the older man from the room.

And then, the week before their first game, Coach had called in most of the new freshmen who’d stuck with training, who hadn’t already dropped along the way, as well as some upperclassmen transfers. Tony had been ready for a lecture, a rant about the legacy of this school, this football program, and what they each owed to their new teammates. Instead, he’d been cut off at the knees, speechless, breathless.

“You’re not good enough, not for this team.”

“Hey, Ducky,” Tony jolted forward a step just as the medical examiner headed out, coat over his arm.

The doctor looked up from under the brim of his hat. “Yes, my boy?”

“What did you think of Ziva’s cooking last night?”

Tony had missed the rest of the speech from the roaring in his ears, but when the last kid had shuffled out of the locker room, he had looked up to see the coach watching him, eyes hooded, arms crossed over his chest.

“DiNozzo, right?”

Tony had straightened his spine and stood, drawing up gracefully to his full height. He felt the haughty mask slip into place, the one his father had taught him to build inch by painful inch.

“Coach.” No mumbled pleas, no begging for another chance. DiNozzos didn’t cry, didn’t beg, didn’t break - didn’t damn-well bend.

They’d stood that way for what seemed like hours. Finally, Coach had nodded, once.

“Not giving up?”

After all his work? All his blood and sweat? Was he giving up on finding a new family, a team, a place to belong? “Hell no, Coach.”

Hell no.

Ducky frowned and took a half step back into autopsy. “Last night - Sunday? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Ziva’s team party,” Tony explained lightly, grabbing his coat and clenching his hand around it, hoping his frustration would be consumed in strangling the jacket and not his oblivious team leader.

“But,” Ducky moved further away from the doors, letting them close again, the chilled air swirling among the three stiff figures. “When we talked Saturday evening, Anthony, and I asked if you had a ‘hot date’ lined up,” a smile flashed across his face and then disappeared, “you said you had nothing to look forward to but a boring day doing laundry and catching up on recorded episodes of Survivor.” He shrugged as he slid one arm into the sleeve of his coat. “I heard nothing about a team party.”

“Huh.” Tony laced the syllable with every ounce of aggravation and sarcasm that bubbled up within him, gaze moving slowly and deliberately towards Gibbs.

The muscle in Gibbs’ jaw jumped. “Good night, Duck.”

As soon as the doors swished closed Tony moved, putting some distance between the two of them, hoping to claim some control in the few seconds he might have before Gibbs called him on his biting words, his attitude, his open challenge to ‘the Boss’s’ vaunted perfection.

“You have something to say to me, DiNozzo?”

Tony turned and shifted one hip onto the edge of Ducky’s desk and wished he could cross his arms over his chest for that tiny, extra layer of protection. He struggled to control his voice, to filter out the sense of betrayal, to leash the snarling rage that threatened to spill out all over the floor between them. Why was it so hard this time? Why had his restrained, impervious mask shattered in the face of this man’s – this team’s – rejection?

Back in college he’d kept his scholarship and juggled his time between warming the football team’s bench and running the boards with the basketball team until he’d proven his worth. It had taken a year of punishment to his body that made the police academy seem like a swank vacation paradise and Gibbs’ hard-handed discipline like a welcome home. That year of working side by side with Gibbs – alone, no buffers and no judgments - had left him soft. Kate’s big sister act, McGee as the green, too-smart younger brother – even then he’d been at the top of the pecking order. Secure enough to feel accepted. Believed in. Too easy a mark.

“Yeah, Gibbs, I do.” Tony’s breathing stuttered and he leaned heavily on the desk behind him, suddenly exhausted again. “She’s not Kate. And she’s sure as hell not Kelly.”

Gibbs was in his face in a second, blue eyes narrowed to slits, muscles clenched, all righteous anger and icy retribution. Tony had known it might come to this, that, injured or not, Gibbs could lash out at him, knock him to the floor, beat him senseless. He’d take it, if it would heal his wounded team. He didn’t flinch.

Hot breath washed over his face, but Gibbs never touched him. “What the hell is wrong with you, DiNozzo?” the older man seethed.

Tony couldn’t help the laugh that forced its way out from between his lips, and he wondered if he’d been hoping for that punch to land, if he was so desperate for a connection with this man that a fist breaking his skin in anger would feel like a memory of his twisted family. To a twelve year old, negative attention had been better than smooth indifference.
But he wasn’t twelve any more. And when Gibbs edged closer Tony brought up his good arm, hand still fisted in the soft folds of his jacket, and pressed it against his boss’s chest.

“Just listen, Gibbs. For once,” he splashed a parody of his usual grin across his face, “for once, just listen to me.”

The slight easing of the tense muscles in his boss’s chest allowed Tony to pull in a deep, relieved breath. He licked dry lips as the older man backed off a few inches, still teetering towards violence, waiting.

“You know a helluva lot more about foreign intrigue than I ever will, Gibbs. You know about training and philosophy and standard procedures. Spies and covert ops guys, they’re smart, trained in infiltration, probably plotting conspiracies in their sleep. ‘Plans within plans within plans,’” he quoted. “Me, I’m just a dumb cop working hard – damned hard. Yeah, I’m good at undercover, I can play a role, but underneath? Just Tony DiNozzo, trying my best to protect my team and catch the bad guys.”

“What the hell-”

Tony cut him off quickly. “You said you’d listen, Gibbs.”

“I’m not gonna stand here all night, DiNozzo, waiting for you to get to the point.”

“No?” The anger was rising again; Tony could feel its heat leaching up towards his face. “Think you can spare five minutes?” he snapped. “After all, Ziva got an entire evening with you and Probie and Abby and Palmer – you’d think I could at least be granted a five minute audience.” He winced inwardly at the pathetic tone that underlay his demand and the flicker of dismissal behind Gibbs’ blue eyes. No. This could not be personal; he would not convince Gibbs of anything if he made it personal.

Tony sighed and swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Look. You get it, right? That Ziva left me out of the big team night deliberately? That she wormed her way into McGee’s confidence, teased a hell of a lot of intel out of him about me, about our past?” Undermines me at every opportunity, he added to himself. “That she’s been doing her best to get past Abby’s rejection since day one?” He swallowed and lifted his gaze to lock with the frigid blue one just a few feet away. “That she’s been playing you?” he whispered.

The silence congealed around them until Tony felt as if he was encased in ice. Solitary. Alone. He’d opened a bottomless trench between himself and the man who’d become his mentor, his friend … more. Tony clenched his teeth – he had to make Gibbs see, to reach him, no matter what it cost. It always fell to him to tell Gibbs the hard truths, to take the nasty, vindictive crap that the Marine could spew and to still stand up to him the next time. To take one for the team. It was his job, his place. Damn it, he wished Gibbs would just hit him, it couldn’t hurt this much.

“One simple lie tonight and McGee woke up and saw it. He’s smart - I’ll bet he’s thinking over everything that’s happened during the past few months right now. Ducky understood before he left here tonight. And Abby?” Tony shook his head. “She’s going to figure it out real soon, and then the shit will truly hit the fan.”

Gibbs wasn’t moved. “I trust Ziva, DiNozzo. That should be good enough for you.”

Tony’s eyes widened. He’d known it was a long shot, that the fallout from Ari had linked Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs to Mossad Officer Ziva David in some basic, fundamental way. But he hadn’t realized that it had cut his loyalty to Tony so utterly, so completely, that he wouldn’t hear the truth. “I’m not saying she’s evil, Gibbs, I’m saying that she’s doing things, saying things, that are weakening this team. I just-”

“Weakening the team or weakening you?”

Enough. Tony stood quickly, brushing off the dizziness that threatened to send him plummeting to the floor. He was done. Gibbs was the team leader, NCIS’ favorite son, unorthodox in his habits and infallible in his results. Let him deal with the consequences. He swallowed the acid in his throat and carefully maneuvered to the door, fumbling his good hand into his pocket to reach for his phone. Just before he pressed ‘4’ to see if Ducky was still in the parking lot, he stopped.

He didn’t turn, didn’t want to see, but more importantly, didn’t want Gibbs to see the pain he couldn’t mask. “Okay, you trust Ziva. I guess the question is, when did you stop trusting me?”

Chapter Text

"All I can tell you, kid, is don't stick your nose in there unless you want it cut off."

Tony tore his stare away from the closed office door and glanced up at the tall detective facing him. Detective Crane. In the past, Tony would have grinned at the resemblance between the tall, thin figure resting his bony hip on the desk and the man's name. Today he frowned, trying to force his mind from the bloody, confused images still flashing behind his eyes, and tongued at the cut on the inside of his cheek. He hurt – every muscle and joint – as if he'd been tackled by the entire Michigan defensive line, but there were no bruises or cuts or broken bones to justify the pain. Nothing to show off in the locker room; nothing to arouse a sympathetic caress from the girls or a congratulatory chest bump from the guys. And nothing that could possibly explain his stolen voice and the anguish that scraped along every nerve whenever the dead eyes of the teenager he'd shot beneath the flickering street light stared up at him from his memory.

The raised voices were barely muffled by the thin oak door, rage and frustration carrying clearly through the large squad room on the second floor of the Peoria Police Department. But the individual words were hopelessly garbled into a raving jumble, one building on another until a shout silenced them so they could start all over again. After the total crapfest that had torn a hole in his partner's leg and left one boy wounded and another dead - Tony shivered - he had been called up here, to the lofty realm of the plain-clothed detectives and the department Chief. And behind those doors were the men deciding whether Officer Anthony DiNozzo would get to keep the shiny silver badge that he'd been wearing for only six months.

Tony rolled his shoulders, trying to find a comfortable position for his large frame in the cramped seat of Ducky's Morgan. For once, the medical examiner didn't fill the air with his musings and remembrances, and, for once, Tony really wished he would. He'd much rather have the older man's stories wash over him, numbing the discomfort in his arm and providing new images for his skittering thoughts to dwell on rather than the same, tired old memories. He glanced at the figure next to him in the momentary glow of passing headlights and the yellowish radiance of the antique car's gauges, lingering on the deeply carved lines and the paper-thin skin beneath the doctor's eyes. Tony wasn't the only exhausted man in this car.

"Thanks for the ride, Ducky. Sorry to keep you out so late."

The older man smiled grimly without taking his eyes off the road. "Not at all, my boy. Happy to be of service."

Tony leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. Right. Sure. Ducky would never begrudge Tony a ride home, would always do his best to see to the physical welfare of any member of Gibbs' team. But this – what had happened tonight – he shook his head. This was different.

Crane stood. "I'm serious, DiNozzo," the detective took a step closer to him, intensity drawing his narrow features into a predatory scowl. "When you go in there, you just nod like a good boy and do what they tell you. You hear me?"

Tony had tried to blank his features, tried to pull the reserved, controlled mask into place as he had done so many times before, but he could tell it wasn't working. Crane was still hovering over him like a bird focusing on the field mouse that was darting in circles looking for cover. He looked down at his lap, focusing on the fingers of his left hand where they worried the cuff of his sleeve, picking at the thin line of dried blood that had caught in the seam. Finnegan's blood.

The claw-like hand that tightened on his shoulder brought Tony's chin up. "I asked you a question, kid."

He felt his muscles clench. "I hear you, Detective." Yeah. Loud and clear.

Message received.

Tony had dragged something out into the light tonight, something dark and poisonous like a bloated, sludge-covered body. As long as it had been hidden in the dark, as long as you could still walk by, eyes carefully averted, never admitting the stench, as long as everyone was willing to ignore it, they could all pretend it didn't exist. He'd played that game before; gone along, kept quiet, let himself be carried with the flow just to keep peace with the team, with the family. Too many times. He felt the deep ache in his chest and swallowed the emotions that tried to explode from his mouth. Maybe he could have done it again, maybe he had one more in him. Just one more.

Ducky was, without a doubt, the fairest minded man Tony had ever met. Maybe it was the doctor's age, or his European upbringing, or the years he'd spent gazing into the eyes of the dead, but Donald Mallard rarely jumped to conclusions – good or bad – and always had the strength to admit it on the rare occasions that he'd been wrong. He'd worked with Gibbs for a long time, seemed to know the man inside and out, and Tony would bet he'd become intimate with more of the taciturn man's secrets than any of his ex-wives.

Tony understood – he'd worked with Jethro Gibbs for only a fraction of the time and he felt the same irresistible pull of the man's character and the force of his convictions. More, he'd been drawn to trust him with his life, with his loyalty; with the real Anthony DiNozzo that lay deep beneath masks and grins and movie quotes. Tony knew that Ducky and Gibbs – their connection was different, but strong, profound, he smiled wryly to himself, much stronger than Tony's, apparently. There was respect there, and a deep mutual trust. And Tony's accusations, the way he'd used Ducky to expose Ziva's manipulations, had opened up a breach in that trust.

"Chief."

Tony stood, feet apart, shoulders back, his cap in his hands, keeping his gaze fixed on the graying man on the other side of the desk. Williams and Saldano were behind him, radiating hostility, the smell of angry testosterone reminding Tony of that military school locker room so many years ago. He pressed one elbow against his ribs as if to protect them from the memory.

"Take it easy, son," the chief grimaced, attempting a smile that quickly became a glower, heavy eyebrows a single line across his thick brow. "Finnegan is in recovery – he's gonna be fine."

One layer of regret and fear lifted from Tony's soul and he clenched his teeth tightly, not quite sure whether it was to keep from sobbing in relief or shouting in condemnation. Finn should never have been… it was their fault, the two detectives behind him… they'd been shadowed in the dim parking lot of the convenience store… if Tony and Finn hadn't stopped for coffee…

"Now I know how you're feeling – first shooting, first fatality – and for it to be a fifteen-year-old …"

Tony mentally flinched from the man's words, but struggled to hold perfectly still. The emptiness of the teen's lifeless eyes wanted to pull him back, back to his split-second decision, to the glint of light on the dull silver barrel, the shifting shapes in the background, the smell of gunpowder and blood in the air. But something wasn't right – something there, in the room. The chief shook his head and clucked his tongue, and Tony felt his own eyes narrow quickly in suspicion.

"You're probably pretty confused – it hits ya like that sometimes. Kinda forces your mind away from the memories." The chief rubbed one hand across his forehead. "Nobody's gonna blame you if your report has some holes, kid. Everybody here has got your back – we're a team, after all. Us against them."

Sweating. The Chief was sweating. Beads of moisture collected at the edge of his hairline in the cool air-conditioned room. His voice was strained, worried, covered over with a blanket of mock sincerity and sympathy. Tony glanced down at the man's gnarled hands splayed flat against his desk. They weren't fidgeting or shaking, but the knuckles were white and the tendons strained along the backs of his hands. Lying. He was lying.

"Chief, I-"

One of the hands flew up to cut him off. "Listen, DiNozzo, we don't want this to look bad for you – a rookie's first incident report, his partner wounded. Why don't you take the night, go home, get drunk, get some sleep. Go see Finnegan in the morning before you come in here to finish your report."

The fine hairs along the back of Tony's neck were standing on end, but he didn't turn, didn't want to see the smirking expressions on the detectives' faces. The message was clear. Crystal. The only person who would be accused of anything in this room was him – the rookie. The new guy. The kid.

His gut tightened, acid burning up the back of his throat. Somehow he knew that Finn, his partner, his mentor, would agree.

And he had. The next morning Tony had dragged himself from Finnegan's bedside after being cursed out and sworn to secrecy. Williams and Saldano were good detectives, Finn argued, it wasn't their fault one of the kids they were 'interviewing' had panicked and pulled a gun. He cut Tony off every time he opened his mouth, getting angrier and angrier, telling him to 'wise up,' to 'pick a side.' Nobody in the department wanted to hear that those detectives had been shaking down the teen-aged dealers for drugs and money behind the neighborhood 7-11 when he and Finn had pulled up.

So Tony learned to keep his silence. Take the hit, just like usual. Swallow the guilt. Look out for the team. And he transferred out as soon as he had his two years in. The greatest lesson Peoria taught him was that without trust there was no team.

He opened his eyes when the Morgan pulled to a stop. His apartment building loomed up, silent and brooding in the darkness and Tony awkwardly fumbled for the door latch with his left hand.

"You'll keep that bandage dry, Anthony, and I want to see you wearing that sling at the office tomorrow."

"Will do, Ducky, and thanks again. I'll catch a cab in the morning." Tony straightened as the car pulled into traffic; he clutched his coat almost closed over his bent elbow and peered through the icy drizzle to watch the low taillights blur into one continuous red stream like one of those time-delayed photos. Each drop of rain fell with a tinny chime against the sidewalk, soaked into his clothes, his hair, as he stared at the lights hurrying away.

Why tonight? Why had he chosen this time, with this team, to open his mouth and open their eyes to the splintering trust? He'd been on the outside before – he could take it. Ducky was a good man, but tonight, instead of swallowing his words and keeping his silence, instead of taking the hit himself, Tony had screamed and pointed at his hurt as if he was a five-year-old child. As if he had learned nothing in the past. How could anyone respect him for that?

He moved slowly, muscles aching, the heavy glass door of the lobby nearly defeating him before he wrestled it open. The elevator delivered him to the fourth floor before he realized that it had begun to move. He managed to get his key into the lock and carefully let the door close behind him, dropping his ruined coat to land in a puddle on the hardwood floor of his foyer. Tony's eyes were drawn through the dark apartment to the light filtering in through the open blinds across the living room. He crossed the room and laid his cheek against the cool glass, looking up into the sky to watch the raindrops appear out of the darkness. Long moments later he turned his back and shed his keys and wallet and cell phone to spill onto the coffee table and lowered himself into the comforting arms of his sofa. He'd just lie here a minute, he promised himself, just until he could remember where he'd lost the anger and stubbornness that had fueled his words to Gibbs in autopsy. Maybe the rain had washed them away - along with his mask.

He'd welcomed each blow, laid there, let them hit him, curse him. He'd never told a soul. They were his team – no matter what. He wouldn't let a little pain drive him away.

"Chunt – slow cooked beef with potatoes and beans. It wasn't bad."

"Oh, look, Gibbs, now he is sulking. How … cute."

"Enemies are everywhere, always looking for a way in, for any weakness. Don't let them in."

Warm pressure guided his hand, blue eyes smiled as he fumbled with the sandpaper against the soft planks. Guns drawn, standing shoulder to shoulder against the threat of armed men, covering each other as they took positions outside the kidnapper's door. Heads bent over files, bouncing clues back and forth across the desk until the tangled skein of the case unwound between their hands.

"I trust Ziva, DiNozzo. That should be good enough for you."

Cold. So cold. Freezing rain tumbling from the sky beneath the glow of a single streetlight, falling onto the dead boy's staring eyes.

Tony jerked awake, his stifled shout echoing in the empty room, and tried to pull ragged gasps of air into his lungs. The shrill ring of his phone where it danced across the coffee table finally broke the dream into sharp fragments and Tony unconsciously reached out with his right hand. The pain brought him up short and he clutched his arm back to his body, blinking his way to complete awareness, the memories of the night before crowding back.

He unfolded his long legs from the couch and sat up, dropping his head into his left hand. The phone rested quietly for a moment before it began its song and dance again. Frowning in the early morning light, Tony managed to focus on the words on the small screen before flipping his phone open with a sigh.

"Bark, McLassie, and this better be about how little Timmy has fallen into a well and we've got to save him!" Tony raised his voice to a high falsetto on the last few words, loading them with mock angst.

"Tony- I just-"

McGee's voice trailed off into silence and Tony stretched, straightening his spine and feeling the joints pop, one by one, back into place. He waited, unwilling to fill in the gaps for the younger agent this time, the image of that smug face turned towards him in the bullpen last night bringing back the taste of betrayal.

"Tony, are you there?"

He stood, shaking out his legs. "I'm not the one unable to get out a complete sentence, Probie, and I haven't taken a leak yet, so stutter faster. We catch a case?"

"No – no. Listen," Tony could almost see McGee's determined frown, his lips disappearing in a thin line, "I wanted to call to apologize. To tell you how sorry I am that I got… that we left you out…"

Tony couldn't take it anymore. "That you got suckered in by the shapely Mossad agent and left your teammate high and dry?"

"Yes." That one syllable hissed through the phone with a huge sigh of relief. "Tony, I don't –"

"That you took her word over mine and felt pretty good about sticking it to the one guy who had your back when you shot that cop last month?" Anger kicked in and Tony delivered each word like a blow.

"Yes – Tony-"

"The one guy who has always had your back, no matter how much I've teased you, or how pissed off Gibbs has been?"

"Tony! Yes, okay!? I screwed up!"

Tony wedged the slim phone between his chin and his shoulder and reached back to release his right arm from the sling. He couldn't have this conversation now. He was groggy and dirty and hungry – his stomach moaned in protest – and liable to bite into McGee so hard he'd never recover. He kicked off his shoes and began to unlatch his belt, moving slowly down the hall towards the bathroom.

"Pick me up in half an hour, Probie, we have to talk."

He tossed the phone through his bedroom doorway in the direction of his bed and continued stripping out of the smelly, dank clothes he'd been wearing for 24 hours, angrily trying to strip away the sense of depression and failure that clung to him like smoke. Enough. Enough wallowing in the past, allowing the hurt to draw him back to all those other times and other places, the teams, the families, the bruises and scars. He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, noting the streaks of soot on his neck, the red-rimmed eyes, the scruffy growth of beard.

"Time to decide, DiNozzo," he snarled at his reflection. "You gonna run? Gonna whine like a little girl because the Boss doesn't like you best?" He ruthlessly squashed the deep ache that tried to surface. "Or are you gonna man up and fix this, fix this team?" He leaned closer to the mirror, his breath fogging the surface. "Fix your team?"

The man in the mirror stared back, as if waiting for the answer.

Chapter Text

The warm water loosened his muscles and his memories and Tony drifted in the steam-filled air, left hand braced against the smooth tiles as if to maintain a grasp on the sharp, cold present through the fog. Peoria slipped away, another hard lesson, one that cost far more than a few bruises and a broken team. The dead eyes still haunted him, they probably always would, but he’d honed his skills since then – now, when the memories surged, when the regrets and hurts rose up from their graves no one could tell.

“You’re a natural, DiNozzo, just try to keep that quick mouth in check.” Philadelphia Detective Pete Osbourn had smiled a crooked smile and finished adjusting the wire that they’d strung through the intricate Celtic chain hanging around Tony’s neck. Finally satisfied, he tucked the chain inside the tight black shirt and patted his chest. “Remember: observe and adjust. Don’t take any chances.”

Tony had buried his doubt beneath energetic antics and near-manic excitement. His first solo undercover op – even if Pete and Samuels and six other cops were listening in and hovering in the background, it would be Tony in that club, trying to attract the attention of their suspect. And, hopefully, getting the guy to take him home – into his life, into his trust.

He’d arrived at Philadelphia with expectations – with just two years of law enforcement experience under his belt, he’d expected to run the gauntlet, he expected to have to prove himself, to be shuffled to the outside, to fight and work and bleed for acceptance, let alone respect. He didn’t expect to be thrown into an already eight-month-long investigation of gun running and execution-style killings simply because he was a new, young, Italian face.

They’d all been surprised at how quickly he’d taken to undercover work – how easy it was for him to put on a mask, to slip into a shallow, smiling role and only let people see what he wanted them to see. They didn’t realize he’d been doing it all his life.

Tony carefully stretched and bent his right arm, exploring his limits, stopping just as the stitches began to pull painfully. Ducky was bound to check. He shut off the water and smoothed his fingers through his hair, shivering as the last few drops slipped in a cold trail down his back. He stepped out onto the thick mat and dried himself, taking pains to gentle his motions near the red and swollen flesh of his arm, dropping the towel to the floor after swiping it across the mirror. The face reflected back was nearly unrecognizable.

Serious. Brooding. Thoughtful. Words few would use to describe very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. Very few. His brow tightened and he smoothed his fingers over the new lines that had begun to appear one day on a sunny rooftop when blood showered across his face in a hot, angry burst.

“I miss you, Katy.” The words surprised him, and the sudden vision of Kate’s teasing gaze transformed into the hooded, watchful stare of the dark-haired agent who sat in her chair and hungered for his partner’s place. He gritted his teeth and reached for his razor.

A crash course in undercover work submersed Tony in the world of lies and deceit and paranoia. Within two days of his arrival he had a new name, an apartment, and an adjusted history that was beginning to feel more real to him than his own. A job at the Navy Yard gave him access to the kinds of weapons that were disappearing, a regular drop at a local bar gave him contact with the department, and a weekly dinner with his ‘Uncle Pete’ kept him from forgetting he was not really Tony Bianchini – young, rebellious, a cocky kid who wanted nothing more than an easy life and a quick buck. At least, that was the theory.

It wasn’t the first time he’d sacrificed himself for the team. Basketball, football, locker room fights and bruising reminders in the night – it was all the same, he’d told himself. Don’t make a fuss, don’t whine, don’t complain – do it for the team. Prove yourself. Take the blows. Keep your mouth shut.

He hadn’t exactly argued. No, Tony had leapt at the chance to go deep, to forget Tony DiNozzo and the dead eyes of a child and the betrayal of his peers, to make himself significant - valuable - to these people; to earn his spot in this new city. But, after six months of deep undercover, Frankie Zeppolli’s casual blows had ramped up to dangerous bouts of tough-guy games – meant to test his boys’ loyalty – their resistance to pain - and culminating in nights of Russian roulette. Tony hadn’t flinched. Instead, he’d slipped under the mafioso’s radar and into the man’s crew to become enough a part of the scenery to be ignored and disregarded while the criminal planned his jobs and made his connections.

But with his ‘brother cops’ listening in to every word, every moment, Tony found that he was more of an outsider than ever. And it was too late to change his mind.

Tony drew the razor across his skin, smooth and quick. Controlled. He knew there was a connection here, something his subconscious was trying to get him to see, some reason these dark memories were floating to the surface, reminding him of every time he thought he’d found a home, a team, and every time he’d failed. It was more than the threat of another loss, more than a trip down the dim, garbage-strewn alley that was Tony DiNozzo’s memory lane. He rinsed his blade and raised his left hand to his face, setting the razor carefully against his cheek. Philadelphia had ended just like they all had – why dwell? He hissed at the sudden sting and watched a bright drop of blood swell beneath his jaw.

“Enemies are everywhere, always looking for a way in, for any weakness. Don’t let them in.”

“We’re a team, after all. Us against them.”

“Remember: observe and adjust.”

Clear green eyes met his in the mirror. Of course.

Tony managed to wrestle his jeans on, clumsily zipping and buttoning one handed, but was fumbling his attempts to re-bandage his wound when his cell phone rang.

“What?” he snapped, glancing at the clock. He’d said thirty minutes – was McGee so anxious to get this awkwardness between them cleared up that he’d forgotten how to tell time?

But it wasn’t McGee’s strained tenor. “I’ll be there in fifteen, DiNozzo – don’t make me wait.”

He felt every muscle tense, every barrier to his soul rise and lock into place, immovable. His throat too tight to choke out words, Tony closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath, unwilling to play the faithful lap dog for even a moment. Been there, done that, and, dammit, it never ended well. Not for him – not for anyone. The cost was too high; even if the bad guys were put away, the good guys came away from the fight with too many scars, too many wounds that never really healed. Marriages crumbled, blood pressure rose, and friendships fell apart. Tony had allowed the new status quo to develop around him, around Gibbs’ team, without lifting one finger. Enough was enough. He wasn’t the new guy anymore. He’d finally figured it out.

“I already have a ride, Gibbs, and I may as well let you know that McGee and I are going to be late. My fault,” he added hurriedly, before the storm of Gibbs’ reproach could break over him. “For some reason I’m not my usual sparkling self this morning.”

The growl was almost inaudible, but Tony could feel it across the empty air between them. “How late?”

His grip on the cell phone became a choke-hold but he forced a lightness to his tone. “I don’t know,” he finally answered, “until Tim gets a clue, so, I suppose, we could be a while.”

The silence buffeted his ear, but, for once, Tony waited Gibbs out, smothering any hope, any expectation of support.

“Are you really so desperate for allies in your little imaginary war, DiNozzo?”

Tony nodded wearily. It wasn’t one of Gibbs’ rules, but ‘the best defense is a good offense’ seemed to be an unwritten Marine motto. “Not a war, Gibbs, more of a puzzle. Just trying to figure out the picture on the box. You ever try to put together the Statue of Liberty when the pieces look a hell of a lot like Mount Rushmore?”

“DiNozzo-”

“Look, Gibbs,” Tony moved toward his front door, the hesitant knocks announcing McGee’s arrival, “you don’t want to deal with this? Want to pretend all is well in the Kingdom of Gibbs? Fine. I’m your senior field agent, that means the crap jobs fall to me.” He threw the door open, watching McGee pale and take a step back in the face of his controlled rage. “I am on it, Boss.” The words didn’t so much drip as glow with radioactive sarcasm.

Closing the phone with a snap he grabbed Tim’s jacket with his left hand and yanked him into the apartment. “Move it, Probie. We’ve got exactly ten minutes to blow this popsicle stand before ‘perfect storm Gibbs’ gets here.”

After Tony had taken on the new scars, let himself be praised and cossetted by Zeppolli for his machismo and blind loyalty, after the arrests, the interrogations and the depositions and the testimony before the open court, Tony had tried to find himself again. But Tony DiNozzo had never even existed within the Philadelphia PD; he had no desk, no partner, and no identity. Just a reputation as a head-case willing to do just about anything, to be just about anyone, to get the bad guys. His very presence was suspect, as if his co-workers were always looking for the lies in his teasing words and easy smile; as if Tony had played in the dirt for so long that it might rub off on them.

Vice requested him more than once. Narcotics. Fraud. A new set of faces to trust his life to every week. By the time he’d been in the city eighteen months he’d answered to over a dozen names, and his small apartment felt crowded with the meaningless relationships and shallow, empty lives he’d worn like suits of clothes. And, standing naked one morning before his own reflection, Tony had realized that he was still alone.

“Tony - you okay?”

Tony blinked into the bright sunshine and plucked the sunglasses from the neck of his shirt. Funny what eight hours could do. From icy rain to clear, blue skies – even the puddles from the night before were drying up. He slid the shades onto his face as the last piece of the puzzle slid into place. Ziva, Gibbs, McGee – he should have seen it before, should have been the first to recognize what was happening. Funny that it had turned out that all those years of hiding, all those desperate attempts to win his own place had left him so blind. Well, the sun was out now.

McGee was peering at him like a lost puppy – again. Ever since he’d gotten a good up-close-and-personal look at the ragged wound in Tony’s arm, the probie had been stumbling all over himself in guilt. And Tony didn’t have the heart to take advantage – this time.

He leaned back in the wrought iron chair, easing the sling over his arm, stretching his legs out into the sidewalk, utterly uncaring about who had to step around him. “You’ve never been undercover, have you, Probie?”

Tim’s fingers danced nervously across the outdoor table before reaching for the steaming Styrofoam cup. “I’ve read all the manuals, studied the case files.” He met Tony’s accusing stare. “Uh, no, not really. Well, unless you count my waiter gig while you and Ziva were-”

“No.” Tony cut him off. “Doesn’t count.”

McGee’s eyes narrowed and Tony smiled as the younger man sipped his coffee instead of biting off a reply.

“Okay, listen up, Mcprentice. There are three basic approaches to going undercover.” Tony held up one finger. “First, there’s the ‘Actor.’ He designs a detailed new identity, researches exhaustively, memorizes a full blown past and falls into it completely. Completely immerses himself in the role – forgets about his own life, his prior connections, pretends he’s on the stage one hundred percent of the time. It’s exhausting and confusing and dangerous, but it’s the way some long-term operatives do it.”

“Tony, what does that have to do with-”

“Don’t interrupt, McKnow-It-All.” Tony let his mind return to those first few days in Philly, the intense voice of Pete Osbourn trying to give the raw, eager new cop enough tools to pull off the op and not get himself killed in the bargain. Pete had been a good man – Tony had been a pall-bearer at his funeral. He shook himself. “The second method, and my particular favorite, is ‘Observe and Adjust.’ It takes quick thinking and the ability to size up a situation and make changes on the fly. This guy doesn’t take a whole lot into an op with him except his own personality. But – and here’s the important part, Probie - he can change tactics, change his back-story, adjust to whatever happens in a split second. His only goal is to fit in and become a part of the suspect’s world.”

The frown on McGee’s face made Tony hesitate. This was a risk, this honesty. He was breaking his own rules here, giving McGee a peek into Tony DiNozzo’s head, letting him in. His father wouldn’t understand, Finn would have cursed him, his coach would have been livid. But, even with the memory of the smug superiority on the probie’s face in the bullpen last night, Tony could not think of Tim McGee as his enemy. Not if this team was going to survive.

“That’s what you did on the undercover case with Ziva.”

Tony let a relieved sigh escape. “I did. We didn’t have enough details for a competent back-story. Or enough time.”

Tim was nodding now. “Yeah, you were still you, still annoying, still immature…”

“Yeah, thanks, Probie, glad to see you’re getting this,” Tony drawled.

“So, what’s the third approach?”

Tony leaned forward, making sure he had all of the younger man’s attention before he continued. “The third method is something I call the ‘Grand Gesture.’ This guy takes charge of the situation as soon as he steps into the room. Manipulates the reactions of everybody around him to make a place for himself in their world. Usually, he finds the weak link in an organization and exploits it, sets himself up as stronger, better, a replacement for the poor shlub he’s targeted, effectively cutting him out and creating an opening he can step into. Making himself indispensible.”

He watched carefully, waiting for it, waiting for the penny to drop, the other shoe to land, the fish to take the bait. Come on, Probie.

“Tony.” McGee shifted closer, eyes wide. He cleared his throat and whispered as if he was voicing the hard-held secrets of the universe. “You think Ziva is undercover? That she’s undercover for Mossad with NCIS?”

“Are you asking me or telling me, McGee?” The time for nicknames and teasing was over – either Tim would see it, see her manipulations, her attempts to put them on the defensive, to put Tony aside as the weak link that she could easily replace, or Tony had permanently alienated Tim, had all but hand-delivered him to Ziva.

McGee sat perfectly still, every thought that raced through his mind visible on his face. Tony felt the time drag on, and, with every moment, tried to prepare himself for another rejection. Honesty had never been his game, but it was all he had left.

Color rushed into the younger man’s face and his lips tightened, a steely resolve darkening his eyes to grey. “Holy shit,” he breathed.

All of the frustrated desperation that had fueled him seemed to drain out through Tony’s pores, leaving him shivering with cold in the warm sun. He dropped his head back against the chair and closed his eyes, relief loosening the tight control he’d drawn around his emotions. Yes. Finally. Maybe Gibbs was right, maybe he had been looking for an ally. But it felt more like he’d found a friend.

A hand clutching his sleeve had him blinking, staring back at McGee’s suddenly frantic face.

“Tony?”

“Yeah?” He frowned and then turned awkwardly in his chair to try to follow the young agent’s frozen stare. His heart lurched.

“Gibbs doesn’t know, does he?”

The tall, silver-haired figure detached itself from the coffee shop’s doorway and strode towards them.

Tony unconsciously bent forward, cradling his injured arm. “He does now,” he groaned.

Chapter Text

Gibbs dropped into the empty chair on Tony’s right with a dramatic sigh, tugging on his coat and settling in as if the metal café chair was his favorite recliner. Tony automatically shifted left, away from the chill of the other man’s bland, studied gaze and the contradictory warmth that always seemed to radiate from his skin. He clenched his teeth, schooling himself to calm professionalism. No clowning. No excuses. Gibbs couldn’t fix this mess with a knowing smile or a slap on the back of the head – and after their conversation last night in the morgue, Tony was sure anything Gibbs said now would only reveal how much worse this whole thing could get. Tony had done the unforgiveable, after all. He’d invoked the past – a past that Gibbs kept hidden away behind the locked walls of his persona coupled with grim resistance to all attempts to drill beneath his skin. Once upon a time, he’d let Tony in. Made him welcome. He’d shared the best – and worst – moments of his life. And had then – metaphorically and physically – shown Tony to the door and locked it behind him.

Glancing up, watching the pale, gaping expression that signaled utter panic on McGee’s face, Tony straightened. He couldn’t falter in the face of Tim’s new insight, wouldn’t do that to the kid. Tony had to think, he had to act, or the probie would be steamrolled by that specific combination of hero worship and fear that Special Agent Gibbs instilled in all of his subordinates.

The silence around the table grew and Tony felt the familiar amiable mask hover just under the surface. He couldn’t use his usual diversions, couldn’t bluff and quip and play the fool in order to break the tension. He had to hold onto the tenuous trust that had been building between him and McGee, show him that Tony DiNozzo was more than an annoying clothes-horse, an average agent on a winning team. The weak link. He had to discard his mask, the mask that Tony’s past – his father, his coaches, the stress of loneliness and the particular challenges of fitting in to the old-boys’ network of law enforcement – had prepared for him. He glanced at Gibbs’ shadowed gaze, his watchfulness and distrust. Tony’s history may have prepared him for Ziva, prepared him to get under her own mask and come to grips with the plots and plans that were fed by her Mossad training and an inbred paranoia, but nothing had prepared him for Gibbs.

The opening in Baltimore had come at just the right time, after the seductive lure of undercover work had faded and before Tony had completely lost himself and flamed out. A detective by default – experience alone made Tony more qualified than any of his peers - he’d buried himself in the ins and outs of investigation, his need to prove himself subsumed for once beneath his drive to disappear into the work, to become the job as wholly as he had become so many fleeting and fantastic identities in Philadelphia.

He’d laughed and joked, paid for his share of the beer and flirted with more than his share of the waitresses, all the time holding himself separate, withdrawn, unwilling to let himself care about becoming part of the team. He’d studied and learned and worked long, tedious hours on case after case, honing his empty role as overgrown frat boy as well as his skills until neither were questioned, and his ease with witnesses and his proficiency with every aspect of procedure became accepted – understood. A good detective. Always up for happy hour. Reliable on the stand. Jock. Ladies’ Man. Cop.

The day the Navy investigator arrived, Tony had been tied up with a messy, convoluted tale of drugs and money, murder and blackmail and bribes. Back in the squad room, he’d looked into the icy blue stare of Leroy Jethro Gibbs and smiled, easy and unaffected, denying an instant respect, an immediate sense of the older man’s intelligence and tenacity. And when the whole thing eroded into the sick realization that Tony’s partner – the man he’d trusted at his back and by his side – was hip deep in garbage and payoffs, he’d known his time in Baltimore was over. It was Gibbs’ outstretched hand he’d taken, the connection between them snapping into place.

“Got it all figured out, DiNozzo.”

Tony wished the smile playing around Gibbs’ lips was genuine, but he heard the unveiled sarcasm, the bite that turned the question into an accusation of betrayal. Next to him, Tim huffed out an impatient breath.

“Boss – Ziva – ”

“Probie!”

“McGee.”

He could almost hear Tim’s jaw slam closed. Tony held McGee’s startled gaze for a moment before turning to face his boss.

“Sort of a private conversation, Gibbs,” Tony said evenly. “We won’t be long.”

Gibbs stared, but Tony didn’t look away. Not this time, he silently told himself. This time the all-powerful Gibbs was wrong and Tony couldn’t let the probie’s stuttering questions or half-realized conclusions compromise the team even further. Trust was already broken – his trust, Gibbs’ – both. It had to stop, and stop now. One second of doubt, one fleeting moment of suspicion out in the field and this fraying faith in each other could cost Tim his life. Or Gibbs his.

Callused hands lifted the coffee cup and steam raised a thin shield between Tony and the older man’s anger. He felt the tightened muscles in his chest loosen just a fraction and pulled a deep swallow of the clear morning air into his lungs.

“Tim,” Gibbs never looked away. “Go pick up Abby. And Ziva.”

“Uh…”

The coffee cup came to rest on the table and Tony’s stomach knotted into a hot, searing mass. What the hell?

“Tony and I have a few things to discuss.”

He closed his eyes and felt a humorless smile curl his lips as a coating of ice grew along his spine. Tony shook his head. ‘Discuss.’ This would end well.

“You – you want me to bring Ziva and Abby… here?”

Tony rested his head against the back of the chair, beaten by waves of bright confusion on one side and controlled anger on the other.

“Sure,” he muttered to himself, “why not. What this team really needs is another party, isn’t it?”

Movement to his left – a sleeve brushing against his arm – and Tony blinked up into McGee’s anxious face.

“Go ahead, Probie – you heard the Boss,” he offered, flashing a toothy grin. “The more the merrier.” This wasn’t Tim’s fault, no matter how much Tony would love to blame him for being well-played by the dark-haired spy. Best to get him out of range of the blowback, keep the guy safe from flying shrapnel when this thing between Tony and Gibbs really blew. Which would be in T-minus…

McGee nodded, gaze darting back towards Gibbs before settling again on Tony’s weary face. “Okay. But we’re not done here, Tony.”

Tony watched his retreating back. “Oh, I think I am,” he whispered.

“You’re what?”

The flat tone was all too familiar lately.

It hadn’t started out that way. Any distrust, any minor hesitation had been on Tony’s side. Gibbs had made it clear with a pat on the cheek and one movie reference that he wasn’t taking Tony on out of charity or some kind of misplaced sense of responsibility. It was to be a true partnership. Give and take. Butch and Sundance. If they were going out, it was going to be together, in a hail of bullets.

How could he resist?

Gibbs was curt, sure. Demanding. With standards up there in the nose-bleed seats. He expected Tony to work long hours and to pick up Navy and Marine jargon on the fly. Ship armaments. Promotion schedules. Forms and regs and the particulars of investigation, NCIS style. But Tony didn’t mind. Not at all.

Their connection grew daily; the ease of working in the man’s shadow as if Tony had been born there should have surprised him, should have sent his hackles up and his suspicion meter pinging. But, instead, it only fueled his determination, and his drive to win, to succeed, to put the pieces together was now directed towards living up to Gibbs’ expectations. To making him proud. He’d obeyed the man’s orders without question, not unthinking, exactly, but, he smiled ruefully at the memory, with the eagerness of a raw recruit, and the devotion of a son.

“So, you’re up to your ass in crap, DiNozzo, just like the first time I met you.”

The words crashed Tony back into the present with a painful shove and he shook his head, trying to dispel the hurt and self-loathing. Gibbs could still read him so easily. He knew he’d been back there, in that Baltimore alley, warming himself with the memory of their first meeting and the immediate friendship Gibbs seemed to offer him. The mentorship. The trust. He shrugged, and regretted it as the wound pulled and his arm burned. A low hiss escaped before he could catch it back.

A hard grip on his shoulder kept him from pulling away and Tony turned, bitter words rushing to the surface.

“Hey, take it easy.”

The silvered head leaned close, too close. Blue eyes stared beneath crooked brows and above the dark shadows of sleeplessness. This time, Tony made himself look. Was that concern? Guilt? Tony blinked, searching for any hint of that one-time solid connection, an echo of tenderness, or, at least, a memory of friendship. His eyes burned as he wondered if he would recognize any of those emotions on this man’s face.

He forced his muscles to relax, to stop pulling back, and felt Gibbs’ grip loosen, but the older man didn’t let go. “What is this, Gibbs?” Tony found himself whispering, his throat tight with embarrassment. “I’ve already got the personal kiss off, got pushed out of your life. Is this where you tell me if I can’t suck it up and trust Mossad Officer David with my life I should get the hell off your team, too?”

 

Gibbs didn’t move, didn’t blink, but the hand on Tony’s shoulder changed from a steel claw to a firm, steady support. Utter confusion sped through him, and he knew it was shining all over his face, his mask long gone, discarded too easily.

“This is not about you and me, Tony – it can’t be.”

“That’s not –” Tony shuffled his feet beneath him as if to stand, but gave it up when the hand moved to grip the back of his neck, drawing his eyes back to the pale face beside him. “Dammit, Gibbs, I know that. You’re the one who won’t see. Whatever I did – however I -” he gritted his teeth, refusing to babble out all the apologies and explanations that he’d tried before and a couple of hundred more he’d thought of since.

The crooked, half-smile didn’t mock Tony this time. If anything, the bleak expression turned inward. “Yeah, believe me, I heard all about that last night from Ducky.”

“Ducky?” Memories of his shame at involving the older man in Tony’s own problems surged.

A moment later Gibbs leaned back in his chair, both hands carefully flat on the table in front of him. “Oh, yeah. Let me have it with both barrels after he dropped you off.”

Refusing to acknowledge the … familiarity … of the sudden chill Gibbs’ withdrawal left, Tony dropped his gaze. “I didn’t mean to put Ducky in the middle, Gibbs, I should never have mentioned it…”

“I don’t know – I certainly wasn’t listening to you, DiNozzo.”

Tony waited. “And now?”

“Now?” The muscle in Gibbs’ jaw jumped. “Now we fix this.”

Anxiety, doubt, loss – those were all comfortable friends swirling around Tony’s mind in a grey cloud. It was the hope, the spear of possibility that Gibbs’ easy assurance sent through the thick mass like lightning that stopped his breath, that hurt. Before Tony could put words to this new dread, demand an explanation, Gibbs spoke again.

“You’re going to have to trust me, Tony.”

The anger that had been briefly sidetracked into nostalgia threatened to return, churning Tony’s gut with acid. “Don’t fucking play me, Gibbs.” He meant it to be a snarl, a growl, but it came out more pleading than powerful.

“I am not playing you.” Each word was shot out with a sniper’s precision, designed to hit its target, as Gibbs lunged forward to take Tony’s wrist, squeezing just hard enough to keep him still. The blue eyes bored into him. “Will you let me finish?”

“Finish then,” Tony seethed, his breath tearing at his throat.

Gibbs leaned even closer. “I was going to say, you’re going to have to trust me, Tony, but that’s not gonna happen until we get some things straight between us.”

Tony wrenched his left hand from Gibbs’, throwing himself backwards in the chair, ignoring the sharp pain in his arm. He didn’t bother to meet the man’s glare – he knew he couldn’t win. There were only two choices here: hear Gibbs out, listen meekly while he laid out Tony’s new place in the bastard’s personal pecking order, or flip his badge onto the table and flip off his job at NCIS – at least with Gibbs’ team. No choice then – he’d already decided that this was his fight, his responsibility, his team.

He swallowed what was left of his pride, his dreams of rebuilding a friendship with the older man, and his hope of reclaiming his place in Gibbs’ family as he’d never been able to with his real father. It took – a while – but Tony finally raised clear eyes to Jethro Gibbs’, letting the numbness grow up around him so that nothing could touch him. Nothing showed on his face, less in his eyes – he knew the feel of this mask and it fit him perfectly. Tony held his shoulders back against the uncomfortable metal chair, cradled his now throbbing right arm in his left hand and cocked his head.

“I’m listening.”

Anger smoked behind the deadly glare – anger mixed with … something else. “Like hell you are, Tony,” Gibbs released a sigh.

He blinked. It didn’t sound like anger.

“You’re already so sure of what I’m going to say that you’re just sitting there, waiting to get it over with.” Gibbs turned and tossed his empty coffee cup into the trash before running one hand through his hair in frustration. “What the hell can I say to get through to you?” he muttered, talking to himself. After a moment he raised his head and Tony watched his throat move as he swallowed some bitter thoughts of his own. The blue eyes were bright now when they turned Tony’s way.

“Kate died, Tony. She died, right there in front of us. And you – you didn’t.”

Tony felt the mask slip.

Chapter Text

Tony felt the blood rise to his face, red, throbbing anger jerking all of his muscles to tautness. His hands fisted, knuckles white as Gibbs’ words slammed through him. He could barely see, the hot, wet splash of Kate’s blood blinding him. “You fucking-”

Gibbs’ hand slapped down onto the metal table, the sound ringing through the outdoor café like a shotgun blast. “Hey! Do not put words in my mouth, DiNozzo!” Matching Tony, glare for glare, he pressed forward, his chest tight against the table. “I have never wished it was you instead of Kate. Never,” he ground out between clenched teeth, “not on my worst day.”

Tony’s heart thudded back into place and he swept a dry tongue across his lips. He loosened his death grip on his injured arm and breathed again, looking away from the accusing glare across the table, raking the thinning crowd with a glance. Heads had turned their way, murmurs rising, but he didn’t care, couldn’t seem to come up with the quick flash of smile or shrug of his shoulders that would ease their tension and leave him and Gibbs suspended within their cocoon of public privacy.

Turning back, he frowned down at the debris left from his breakfast with McGee, wondering that he couldn’t see the cracked shards of his faithful old mask lying there. The outburst had cleared some of the tension between them, siphoned off some of the anger, but it had left Tony flailing, hammered with all the guilt and loss of Kate’s death that he’d kept to himself. Unshared. No one to share it with. It bubbled and rushed up his throat until he could taste it. He couldn’t look up, wouldn’t let Gibbs’ see the honest pain written in his eyes.

A rustle of clothing and the screech of metal against the brick sidewalk announced that Gibbs was moving, shifting his chair closer. One finger tapped at the tabletop. “Look at me, DiNozzo.”

Tony closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Gibbs, just say what you came here to-” His words shuddered to a halt when he looked up and caught the matching guilt and shame in Gibbs’ eyes, shadowed only by the man’s relentlessly stubborn determination.

“You listening now?”

Blue lights and pain and the sensation of drowning, broken glass tearing at his lungs with every cough, but one touch on the head and a whispered phrase had hauled Tony’s awareness from his battered body and flipped his eyes open.

“I’m – I’m listening, Boss.” No undertone of perfect submission this time; no pathetic eagerness to soothe and please even as he neared death. The words were the same, but Tony heard the difference – and if he could, so could Gibbs.

“Good.” Gibbs shifted uncomfortably. “Because, what I’m saying is that a woman – an agent – in my command was murdered because I had my head up my ass. And I’ll be damned if I lose anyone else because I still can’t see daylight.”

The frown threatened to gouge permanent furrows in Tony’s forehead. What? That wasn’t… “Gibbs.” Yeah, Gibbs should have seen Ziva’s manipulation, but Kate? He cleared his throat, searching for something, anything, to say. “You can’t seriously blame yourself.”

“Damn straight I can.” Gibbs sat back, shaking his head back and forth. “Ari knew who his target should be from the beginning, but his own twisted mind couldn’t give up its fixation on Kate. Why?”

Tony’s mind reeled. This – this was the last thing he’d expected to be discussing. How the hell had they come back, full circle, from trust in the team, in Gibbs, to Ari and Kate? To guilt and blame and blood on a Norfolk rooftop and that bastard’s bullet between her eyes? “What are you talking about?”

“Come on, DiNozzo, think.” Intense, demanding – teaching. Gibbs was relentless in his focus. “Why Kate?”

Tears were so close. The private conversation – talking the case through – having Gibbs point out a hidden truth, nudging Tony to the right conclusions. It was all so familiar. He shook off the warmth, the lost connection in the memories. Focus, DiNozzo. Focus.

The same old theories flitted through Tony’s mind. “Because she’s a woman- she was a woman - because he knew you would react – you’d be distracted and hurt – more from a woman’s death. Especially a young woman you held yourself responsible for.” A Kelly substitute. A dark haired daughter. It had all been realized too late to save Kate; not all of the Monday morning quarterbacking, the second-guessing they’d done, could give Kate back her life.

Gibbs’ head tilted, compelling an explanation. “And how would he know that?”

“Gibbs, where the hell are you going with this?” Tony pushed forward in his chair, impatient, off balance. “We all know Ari did his homework – learned everything there was to know about you down to how you used Lapua, .308, boat-tailed and moly coated ammo.”

A ghost drifted across Gibbs’ face, aging the man by decades. The blue eyes, unfocused, turned to that inward hurt that Tony knew accompanied most of Gibbs’ memories. “Yeah, Tony, he knew me, knew how I reacted when someone close to me came to harm, died,” he choked on the word, “on my watch.”

Tony allowed the grieving husband and father a moment and then shook his head, confused. “So?”

“So – Ari had files on me, on every member of my team, and he wanted me hurting, on edge, coming after him without thinking. Just like I’d done before,” he snapped. Teeth clenched, Gibbs lowered his head, his fingers curling around each other until his hands were fisted together in his lap. The fierce blue gaze suddenly lifted to strike Tony like a blow. “So, tell me, Tony, why the hell didn’t he go after you?”

Tony heard himself grunt, the air forced from his lungs as if a powerful hand had slapped him to the mat; he couldn’t focus, his eyes blinking quickly as images twisted and changed and snapped to perfect clarity within his mind. Holding Gibbs in the morgue after he’d been shot in the shoulder. The silver head leaning over him in the hospital, and then Tony recuperating in his home, Gibbs getting him through the painful remnants of the plague. An unlocked door and evenings with cowboy steaks and bourbon, and more than a few nights curled up on that damned lumpy couch. Him and Gibbs. And then the pictures flashed with unholy precision against Tony's inner eye: the blond jogger Ari had tried to lure him with, the bomb strapped to the trunk of the car, the bullet through the lab window. Kate’s wide, staring eyes, her body lying so still under the blue spring sky.

Bitterness and guilt coated his tongue, causing his words to slur and smear together. “I know you may have forgotten, but I’m not a woman, Gibbs.”

“I got that, DiNozzo,” Gibbs spat out, humorless, “but if Ari’s first priority was to hurt me, why didn’t he target the man I thought of as my son?”

Jaw tight, Tony turned his face away as he answered. “Maybe he was smarter than you think and had figured out I didn’t really mean all that much to you.” Dammit. The deliberately casual reply sounded wounded, petulant. He snapped his head back around, attacking first before Gibbs could call him on it. “What the hell does it matter, anyway? As you so cleverly explained, Kate’s dead and I’m not and Ziva’s sitting at her desk, screwing with the team. That’s the reality.”

Gibbs sat perfectly still, staring back calmly in the face of Tony’s outburst. The morning breeze caught at his hair, at the collar of his coat, and the smell of exhaust and freshly baked bread spiced the air around them; the voices of passersby, the ringing of cell phones, heels clattering against the refurbished sidewalks in the trendy DC neighborhood as men and women hurried to work all added background music that made this strange, unlooked for discussion just that much more surreal. On a corner in Georgetown sat two federal agents, lingering over coffee and talking about guilt and redemption, family and death, endings and beginnings. Scorsese should direct.

“Or,” Gibbs’ expression was somber, his voice slow and level, “maybe he had figured out how much you meant to me, but made his choice based on something completely different.”

Tony dropped his head and rubbed both hands over his face, hard, ignoring the pain. Enough. He didn’t come here to wallow in his ridiculous, day-time-drama family life, or to talk about his dead ex-partner. Gibbs could go to hell. He flattened his hand against the table and had half stood before that same damned hand latched around his wrist. Tony jerked his arm away, flinging it out to the side and leaning down from his full height towards the still too calm face of the older man. A cynical grin pulled at his mouth. “Okay, what? What the hell are we talking about?”

The only evidence of Gibbs’ own anger was the tightening at the corners of his mouth. “We’re talking about Ari’s agenda.”

“Ari’s agenda – Ari’s agenda?” Raw emotion overflowed and Tony’s thoughts spewed out without filter. “He was a whack-job, Boss, with daddy issues and mommy issues, who hated his heritage and couldn’t figure out if he was a Jewish patriot or a Muslim terrorist. He played the FBI, SecNav, and Mossad,” a near hysterical laugh bubbled in his throat, “hell, his entire family, and then – then – he fixated on you as, what, another father figure he wanted to punish? Believe me, I get it.” His voice was too loud, gestures too big, but he couldn’t hold it back any longer, couldn’t put up a front, couldn’t find his calm, cool, and collected mask anywhere. He pushed the chair out of his way and rounded on Gibbs, still seated, still unmoved.

“Ducky’s gonna kill you if you pull out any more stitches, DiNozzo.”

“Yeah, well, apparently, Ducky can damn well get in line,” Tony spat, yanking at the sling beneath his coat.

Gibbs stood all in one motion and crowded Tony back against the table, one hand fisting in his jacket. “You need to hear me out,” he breathed, the scent of coffee and exhaustion brushing against Tony’s cheek.

“No, you need to back off, Gibbs,” he growled.

The murmur of other voices grew around them until both reached and drew out their credentials, simultaneously, badges displayed to either side while their eyes remained locked in battle.

Finally, the older man took one step back and held both hands out to his sides, his eyebrows raised in mock surrender. “Where you gonna go, DiNozzo? I thought you committed to this team. I thought you – you and McGee - were gonna fix this.”

Tony’s head ached, his arm ached, his gut coiled restlessly. “I am. I will,” he thrust his jaw forward. “It would have been better if you hadn’t come, Gibbs, if you’d just let me handle it. If Ducky had never said anything…”

Both hands came up to Tony’s shoulders, framing his neck, fingers gentle against his skin, holding him there without real restraint, without overpowering. “If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have remembered who it was that put together all of Ari’s information about me and about the team.”

“Ziva-” Tony blurted, without thought.

“Yeah, Tony, Ziva. Ari’s control officer,” Gibbs sighed tiredly. “His little sister, half-sister, born to Ari’s hated father’s legitimate Jewish wife. Ziva - Eli David’s crowning joy,” he announced sardonically. He dropped his arms and moved back, his eyes asking the question. Tony tightened his lips and reached back for his seat. When they’d both settled, Gibbs quirked a half-smile. “You ever see a picture of Mossad Director Eli David?”

Tony shook his head.

Gibbs’ snorted. “Powerful guy. Tall. Silver-haired. About my age.” The same smile flashed again. “Doesn’t talk much.”

An Israeli Gibbs, Tony immediately thought. Images spun, memories racing. Eli and Gibbs, father figures. Kate and Ziva – the smart, trusted daughters. And, in a moment, he had it. The connection. The reason Ari had killed Kate, even knowing about Gibbs and Tony’s friendship. That painful hope flared in his chest. “You’re not here to tell me I’m wrong, are you, Boss? About Ziva?”

A disdainful grimace came and went on Gibbs’ face. “Hell, no, Tony. You’re not the one with his head up his ass, here.” He leaned forward, eyes suddenly intent, communicating so much more than his words ever would. “I’m here to get it through your head that Ari, the crazy bastard, targeted Kate because of his own twisted need for revenge against a father who had rejected him. Whose face do you think he saw when he looked through that scope and targeted Kate on that rooftop? A dark haired daughter protecting her ‘dad,’ standing between Ari and everything he wanted?”

Ziva. Damn. Sibling rivalry was hell all over the damn globe.

Tony shifted, mind sifting more pieces into place. “What about Ziva, then?”

The blue eyes narrowed. “Ziva is too smart to make the same mistake.”

Tony turned and stared, unseeing, down the busy street, the adrenaline that had kept him going, kept him moving and fighting and positioning himself so that he could block Ziva’s move, keep her from the inside, from scoring against his team, drained away and left him cold, shaking, exhausted. “So, even though we haven’t been exactly friends … haven’t … we haven’t …” He swallowed, chin lifting, mind straining for purchase against the thoughts flooding him.

“I screwed up, Tony.” Gibbs’ voice sounded raspy, deep, as if the words were pulled from him against his will. “I should have remembered that letting people in, letting people get close to me is much more dangerous for them than for me.”

Tony knew his smile was brittle. “So, when you were talking about trust, you meant,” he turned back, plunging his hand into the pocket of his coat and pressing his frigid fingers into a fist, “you meant with this – us – this ‘family’ thing.”

Nothing changed behind the blue eyes. There was no revelation of love, no weakness. “You’re not my son, Tony.”

Huh. He knew that. It shouldn’t hurt. Shouldn’t feel like the last rejection – the one that finally broke Tony DiNozzo for good.

But Gibbs wasn’t finished. His right hand moved across the table to lie, palm up, like a promise. “You’re my senior agent. And a damn good one.” A dark cloud of apology passed over Gibbs’ face. “And have my permission to ream me a new one if I ever forget it again.”

Tony nodded, once. “Got it, Boss.” He strangled a plea for something more – that partnership he’d been promised. Friendship. Not offered. Not available. Work – duty – respect; nothing more. It was enough. He straightened his shoulders and fastened a mocking grin on his face. It had to be enough.

“So, now what?”

Gibbs stood. “Now, I’m gonna get me some coffee and you one of those girly drinks you like so much and we’ll wait for the rest of the team to show up.”

Tony leaned his head back and blinked up at his boss. His coach. His mentor. “And?”

Coat flapping, Gibbs strode off. “And we’ll straighten out Miss David, one way or another.”

Tony watched the commanding figure move unhesitatingly through the crowd of diners until he disappeared behind the café’s doors. He huffed out a breath, hunching forward and drawing his legs in to try to conserve what little warmth - what little energy - still flowed sluggishly through him. Drawing his hand from his pocket, he clenched and unclenched his fingers, finally rubbing his hands together and gazing up at the bright sun. “Count your blessings, DiNozzo,” he muttered. “It could have been worse.”

He grabbed his sunglasses from where they hung against his chest and slipped them on. He was too old for a father figure anyway.

Chapter Text

Eyes closed behind his shades, Tony let his head fall back against the sun-warmed metal of the café chair, and, muscle by muscle, forced his clutching fingers to relax where they’d dug deeply into the skin just above his right elbow. The sounds of traffic and chattering patrons hummed across him, enveloping him in their movement, their drive and energy, but somehow leaving him untouched. He felt a twitch in his lips and wondered what others saw - if the scene would reveal one single, motionless man, aching and unaware, within a slipstream of fast-forward images, like a car in one of those wind tunnel commercials, where stripes of cold air slid along its contours without ever actually brushing against its metal skin. If he opened his eyes, if he moved just an inch to the right or left, or stood, unexpectedly, could he disrupt the perfect pattern around him, could he make a dent in the stream, a bump in the smooth road of progress? Is that what he’d been trying to do when he looked at his reflection this morning and decided to take a stand?

“You’re my senior agent. And a damn good one.”

Gibbs’ hand had lain across the table as if beckoning him, as if waiting for Tony to reach out and grasp it. It had been an invitation to return to his place as trusted sidekick, to stand just behind Gibbs’ right shoulder, tall and unbending, safe in his shadow but still alert for any threat that Gibbs might not see. Teammate. He should have been happy. Gibbs had seen the truth of Tony’s warnings about Ziva, about her manipulations and schemes, and he was willing to act to defend the team, to put back the faith and confidence in his second that had eroded away. And yet, here Tony sat, alone, trying to pull the sunshine in through his skin to reach the cold, numb places inside.

He twisted his shoulders against the cruel iron behind him. Maybe it was because it took Ducky’s word to get through Gibbs’ own iron stubbornness; Ducky’s, not his. Maybe it was because it had taken a real, physical threat, the sight of an open wound oozing blood on Tony’s skin to open the man’s eyes. He knew about taking one for the team, he knew about sacrifice and putting yourself in the line of fire for your family. But the tough-jock-punching-bag role was getting old and so was Tony, and he didn’t know how many more holes they could put in him before everything he was leaked out.

Tony snorted and shook his head. “No, even you can’t fool yourself that easily,” he quipped, a thin smile creeping across his face. He’d take a bullet for Gibbs any day. For Timmy or Abby or Ducky – or even Ziva. He’d throw himself in front of danger without a second thought – the kind of danger that came from the barrel of an enemy’s gun or from the sly machinations of a Mossad spy. He rubbed at his forehead to try to push away the growing ache there. The problem was Tony didn’t want to do it alone anymore. And that’s where Gibbs’ bald-faced, matter-of-fact statement of denial had left him.

The smile died. If he was honest, if he put away the resentment and anger and righteous fury that Ziva’s plans and Gibbs’ blindness had sprouted within him, if he tore away his own iron blinders and really looked he’d see it was that one little phrase that had slammed him in the gut, that left him boneless and tired in the beautiful sunny morning, that stole all the smugness that should accompany Gibbs’ admission of guilt. Just one.

“You’re not my son, Tony.”

All the denial in the world couldn’t cover it, couldn’t rationalize his reaction to those words, and couldn’t explain away the emptiness with glib reassurances that Gibbs’ second was all he ever wanted to be.

Some nagging clue, a taste of wrongness, a change in air or sound flipped open his eyes and Tony straightened, gaze searching for an answer. The tables were emptier, the streets no longer clogged with cars jockeying for position, a teen-aged girl in a black apron was running a wet rag over tables and chairs and collecting lipstick smeared cardboard cups and the last bite of crumb cake left on a tattered napkin. He growled at himself. How long had he been sitting here, all morose and pouty over his long-lost daddy? And just how long did it take one surly, focused ex-Marine to fetch two cups of coffee?

Gibbs should have been back long before Tim showed up, long before Tony was required to face the accusing gaze of the dark eyed spy and the bright energy of hurricane Abby. After all, the trip from Georgetown to Anacostia and back during rush hour, even if it was only a few miles, could take upwards of thirty minutes, and Gibbs only had to walk thirty feet. But the suddenly sparse crowd and the familiar engine noise of a certain NCIS sedan told Tony that it had been more than a few minutes.

Tony’s mind shifted into third gear. Gibbs’ rules. Senior Field Agent. Damn it, he seethed. He wouldn’t look around, wouldn’t give in to the raised hairs on the back of his neck, and the sure and certain knowledge that he was being watched. His teeth clenched, the headache pounding red blurs behind his eyes. Great.

The man had a rule for every occasion, all neatly numbered and chiseled into the granite of Gibbs’ Marine heart. Rule Nine – always carry a knife; Rule Seven – always be specific when you lie; Rule Twenty-three – never mess with a Marine’s coffee if you want to live; Rule Twelve … yeah, he knew that one, too. Tony drew in a deep breath. Now would this situation fall under Rule Thirty-eight – your case, your lead, or Rule Forty-five – clean up your own mess? Probably somewhere in between, Tony groaned, as this mess had not been Tony’s fault in the first place. “You wanted to be senior agent, Very Special Agent DiNozzo,” he reminded himself.

If the rules were in play that meant Tony was on his own, dangling out here on the end of Gibbs’ hook so he could bait the team, flop and flash his fins until they were ready for Gibbs to reel them in. It was annoying, maddening, and so damned familiar that Tony nearly laughed out loud.

He heard Abby coming long before anyone else. It was more than the loud clomping of her platform boots on the sidewalk, more even than her distinctive, gravelly voice that could cut through any sound around her – he could sense her in the immediate lifting of his spirit and then the wrench in his gut when he realized what was coming, and why Gibbs, the bastard, had made himself scarce. He stood quickly, bracing himself physically for Abby’s usual greeting, and mentally digging in his heels for purchase against the shit that was, without a doubt, about to hit the fan.

“Tony!”

The long, thin arms twined around his neck and Tony drew her in, left hand coming up to hold her close for a second, to revel in her friendship and easy acceptance. She backed off quickly, hands raised and fingers splayed in her black lace gloves as if encompassing the entire scene. “A field trip! We hardly ever get to take field trips, well, at least when there’s not a dead body – there’s not a dead body is there?”

Tony took in the full length black cloak, its hood draped over her head to block out the sun, and glimpsed the leather and chain collar and the embroidered white shirt that peeked out from between the folds. He grinned, shaking his head, “What, no parasol today, milady?”

Abby sighed. “No,” she moaned, “Timmy made me leave it in the car.”

“You always hit me in the head with that thing whenever we go anywhere,” McGee complained shrilly.

“That just means you’re walking too close,” she shot back, settling into the chair across from Tony, making sure the sun was at her back.

He raised his gaze from her twinkling eyes to take in the other figures. The strain was evident on McGee’s face, in his haste to fill in the small empty silences with something like their familiar give and take, in the way he moved hurriedly to slide into the chair between Abby and Tony before Ziva could get too close. The younger agent flicked frequent glances towards the Mossad officer, brows drawn, mouth tight, the look on his face making it clear that he was trying to piece together everything that Tony had said and everything that Ziva had done since her unexpected arrival months ago. And Ziva…

Ziva hadn’t missed a thing. Eyebrows lifted just a hair as if asking a question, she stood, calm and serene, but outside the group, unwilling to take part in whatever was going on until she had some answers. Tony eased himself back down, hating the way the flat, metal chair bit into his thighs, his back. This wasn’t the venue he’d have chosen for this – it was neutral ground. He would have arranged to be in a position of strength, dressed in one of his favorite suits, well-pressed, well-rested, comfortable. Not off-balance, a new abandonment tearing at his soul as the wound in his arm reminded him of his vulnerability. He needed… he needed - Tony tried to bite back the hated thought – he needed Gibbs.

Slim fingers grasped the heavy chair to Tony’s right, tugging until it sat at an angle, too close to Tony for comfort, where Ziva could easily keep one eye on the street and the other on the faces around her. She settled there, on the surface the very picture of a woman who knew exactly what to expect, and whose intricate planning – she was sure - left only one path through the maze for this particular rat. Tony slouched back, left hand behind his neck, refusing to broadcast the frustration and anger that filled him, scrutinizing her behind his shades. Fine lines around her mouth. Hands carefully flat against the table. He felt his brows twitch. Perhaps Ziva wasn’t as perfectly composed as he’d first thought.

Even though the curve of Ziva’s lips spoke more of disdain than humor, the shadows behind her eyes revealed more, he suddenly realized, than she wanted. Doubt. Anger. Maybe even a hint of fear.

“Ziva.”

“Tony.” Her smile looked tenuous. “So, we are playing hockey, yes?”

Tony dredged up the automatic correction, the answering grin, the hint of condescension that she’d be expecting. “Hookey, not hockey, Zeeva,” he shot back, “but I don’t think it’s the same when it’s your boss’s idea.”

The gaze she swept around the emptying tables was pointed, obvious. “So, where is Gibbs?” Small, sharp eyes pierced him, challenging. “Or was his invitation some sort of ruse so that you could pull one of your childish pranks?” She clucked under her breath. “Gibbs would not like that. Perhaps you should be more careful, Tony.”

“Oh, there’s no doubt about that,” he admitted loudly, teeth flashing in the sun. That was the understatement of the century. More careful with his life, with his heart, with the trust he still placed too easily in others. Tony heard the echoes of his coach, his father – “Defend, Defend, Defend.” He frowned and cocked his head, watching her – watching her poke at him, stab at him with her words and wiles. The flash of victory in her eyes, the dark joy of a predator that watched its prey panic and turn into that blind alley. Tony blinked and sat up, gaze riveted to Ziva’s as he slowly slid the sunglasses down his nose. Well, I’ll be damned.

He’d been on defense since Ziva made her first move to the inside. He’d backed off and tried to shelter behind Ducky and McGee, and now Gibbs. He’d closed himself off, wandered back down the paths of his past and stuck to hard earned habits of a lifetime. And he’d let Ziva - let her offense - rule the court. He almost turned around, almost looked for those narrow blue eyes that were surely watching, almost gave in to his urge to yell, to demand to know if this was what Gibbs had been waiting for. Waiting for Tony to stop backing down, stop leaving himself open for the blows in the first place. Someone had once said, “Offense wins games but defense wins championships.” Well, whoever it was, Tony realized, he’d forgotten one thing. If you didn’t win the games, your team never got to the championships at all.

Abby’s gaze had been darting back and forth between them, her mouth open and her thin black brows knotting fretfully. Tony knew she’d felt the tension, watched the interplay of words underscored with snark and surliness and he saw the sudden wariness smother her usual frantic good humor. “Yeah, where is Bossman, Tony?” A little breathless, a lot worried. “And how come you’re still wearing that stupid sling?”

“Well, now, that’s a very good question, Abby.” The tightness of his smile hurt, but Tony couldn’t let it drop, he wouldn’t. No damn way he was going to give Ziva another opportunity to make a play. Gibbs was giving him the signal to take the lead, to step out, to poke the hornets’ nest and draw the foul. He leaned forward, letting his broad shoulders and physical presence dominate, intimidate. “Why am I still wearing this sling, Ziva? A little scratch from a wooden box sure doesn’t rate this kind of treatment, now does it?”

Ziva put one finger on her chin as if she was deep in thought but Tony noticed the fleeting glance towards McGee as if assessing a teammate’s position. “To garner sympathy from a cute waitress?” She blinked coyly. “I am sure the wounded hero routine can be quite successful.”

“Hey!”

Tony patted McGee lightly on one arm at his outburst to show his gratitude, his eyes never leaving Ziva’s. Yep, that’s right, he’s my teammate – he let her read it in his face. “No, that’s okay, Timmy. Ziva’s right – girls do lap up the injured warrior act.” He looked off into the distance momentarily. “Many a coed fell before Anthony DiNozzo’s portrayal of ‘The Brave Little Soldier’ back in college. Ah, those were the days.” He let the full force of his gaze settle back on the Mossad agent. “But not this time.”

“Does it really matter?” Ziva huffed, determined to make her point, “the real question is, where is Gibbs?”

Tony slid into the opening she’d left him. “No, the real question, Officer David, is why you lied in the first place, and why you are so determined to hang onto that lie with your sharp, pointy fingernails,” he screeched, curving his hands into claws.

“Don’t be a fool, Tony- or at least not as big a fool as you usually are.”

“Ooo, nice come back,” Tony slapped the words back at her, leaning further into her space, “but I’ll ask you again. Why am I wearing this sling?”

“Tony, what…” Abby’s question trailed away.

Tony felt McGee shift restlessly beside him.

Ziva’s body went completely still.

He smacked his hand flat onto the metal table just as Gibbs had done not so long ago, the sound and fury scattering pigeons and making Abby and Tim lurch back in their seats. “Answer the question!” he shouted.

Suddenly, it was as if they were the only two at the table. Ziva’s eyes narrowed dangerously, all semblance of play or camaraderie erased. “Because you are a weak, fragile child who is still tiredly clinging to the dream that you are good enough to be on Gibbs’ team,” she hissed, inches from his face. “Because you were stupid enough to lock us in a metal box and then too fat and lazy to get out of the way of a bullet.” She pointed one finger at him as if she’d stab him with it, “and because, for reason of some past ‘affection’,” she hooked her fingers into quotes and laced her rising voice with scorn and contempt, “or Marine responsibility, Gibbs’ hasn’t yet transferred you to a desk job where your constant need for attention won’t get you or someone else killed.”

Tony closed his eyes, a real smile on his lips, and leaned back in the uncomfortable chair. “Thanks, Ziva,” he breathed, “that sounds a lot like the truth. For once.”

He knew Abby was on her feet, flying to attack; he felt the buffeting of the air as McGee fought to control her. The snarled words, insults, and shouts rained down on him, the slap of skin loud in the morning air, the turbulence increasing as Abby and Tim strove to defend him in the face of Ziva’s mounting attacks, but it was the warm presence at his back that Tony focused on, ignoring all else.

The aroma of dark roast coffee and sweet hazelnuts made him open his hand and close it again around the cardboard cup. A firm grip on his shoulder grounded him, but it was the murmured, “Good job,” against his ear that touched him.

“Thanks, Boss,” Tony whispered, eyes still closed. He’d have to open them soon enough.

Chapter Text

Gibbs’ silent presence struck like heat lightning through the tense figures, but the air still crackled with potential violence, and anger and resentment hung like low clouds just about to burst. Unfortunately, the pause only gave the combatants time to refuel and rearm.

“Gibbs! Did you know Tony was shot? That-” Abby shook her head, her eyes screwed up tight, “-that this… this person lied?” She gestured towards Ziva, clearly unwilling to even speak her name.

“Abby.”

“No!” The Goth scientist’s shoulders hunched in anger. “Don’t you ‘Abby’ me, Gibbs! This is wrong!”

“I know.”

“Even if it is just a graze – you can’t tell me that Tony deserved it!”

“You’re right.”

“It’s crazy! It’s – it’s – the dinner and, and,” red streaks of anger splashed across Abby’s pale cheeks, “and those other things she said,” she twisted in her chair, one fist punching against Gibbs’ chest, “you didn’t hear what she said about Tony!”

Abby was all but spitting, the hood of her cloak blown back by her fury and her gloved hands fisted. Ziva, straight and stiff and poised like a knife, her dark eyes on fire and hands held carefully open at her sides, looked like she was readying herself for a blow. And McGee – poor McGee. His voice rising shrilly as he tried to manage the middle ground, McGee was taking the only real damage. The probie had more guts than brains to get between those two.

The earsplitting screech of a metal chair being dragged slowly, agonizingly slowly, across the space from table to table finally shut them up and turned each pair of eyes towards the stern, controlled features of their boss. Tony watched, blowing through the tiny slot in the lid of his coffee cup, focusing on the whistle of the air as, with Gibbs’ proximity, the pressure rose again to explosive levels.

“Sit.”

The command was dropped into that small gap, that instant between reaction and action, between an opened mouth and the spoken word. It cracked the heavy, stifling mood and Tony smiled grimly behind his cup. No censure, no biting reprimand, just one word tightened the reins that Gibbs had always wielded like a master, and reminded them that they were federal agents – Gibbs’ agents – and that he was, most definitely, in charge. The twinge of pride mixed with sorrow, the flavor of loss in his throat – Tony wouldn’t blame himself for those; he was only human, after all. He held the cup with a carefully even pressure as he kept his eyes lowered, his gaze lingering on the spark of the sun’s bright reflection along the curved edge of the lid, allowing the glare to fill his vision, to block out every other sight until the moisture that hung between his eyes and the figures around him painted them with indistinct outlines and softened the sharply drawn silhouettes.

What a group. More than a combination of their skills – which were too many to count – more than a bunch of quirky individuals, or the seething mass of territorial fury spouting immature insults that they seemed right now. Tony felt their bond deep in his gut. This was a team – his team. Gibbs’ team. Tim’s. Abby’s. He glanced to his right. Ziva wanted in and would claw her way ruthlessly, searching out and exploiting any vulnerability. He’d known that – had told Tim as much. And Gibbs, Gibbs knew it, too. She’d targeted Tony, focused exclusively on him, and that could only really be about one thing. Sibling rivalry. New daughter and dishonored son. Had she played on Eli’s affections as easily, he wondered. If Ari saw his 'perfect' sister when he looked at Kate, what did Ziva see when she looked at Tony? Or whom?

Tony’s breathing quickened as he looked up into Gibbs’ face. In the next few minutes this team would either leave this table with the deep ties that bound them intact, stronger even, or they’d fracture and spill every connection like blood onto the brick sidewalk.

Gibbs slid his chair into the narrow gap between Abby and Ziva, wedging its metal arm up tight against the Mossad officer’s chair. Tony saw the fleeting spark of victory in the eyes she turned towards him, the smug smile beginning to twist her lips as she gracefully relaxed back into her seat, one long arm artfully posed where, when Gibbs settled, it would naturally rest against his. Tony’s stomach tightened, but he clamped down on his reactions and stared into Gibbs’ hooded blue eyes, the slight tilt of his boss’ chin and a tiny crook of his lips signaling both apology and resignation. Tony’s gaze darted swiftly, his fight or flight response engaged as he measured and assessed, looking for an opening that would let him misinterpret Gibbs’ signal. His eyes fluttered closed. Of course. This couldn’t go any other way. A sick helplessness shook through him and Tony’s lips clamped down tightly, trapping a guttural laugh.

Gibbs had left Tony alone, had left him to open the first crack in the Mossad agent’s firm control, to ignite her fury and get her to expose herself, to make the first mistake. Oh, but Gibbs wasn’t finished with him, was he? There were more to come, much more – secrets, lies, not-so-fine and private things. And they weren’t all Ziva’s. Tony could feel that strange combination of terror and adrenaline pumping through his veins as it had so many times before. His boss’ cue was unmistakable: Gibbs was calling a Trap Play.

Tony could hear the quarterback’s barking voice, smell the sweat and grass and taste the copper on his tongue from the last hard hit. They’d told him it was a cold day in Michigan, but he didn’t feel it. His skin was hot, his breathing fast, his nerves sparking with adrenaline. If they lost – if Ohio State lost this one, it would be his last game. No bowl, no championship. The coach had been even more tense than usual, his muscles bunching in his jaw in the locker room at the half. He’d been so certain, so positive as he described the changed strategy for the second half in his quiet, intense voice. But the whiteness of his lips, the deep creases around his eyes, and the trembling in his hands as he held the pages of stats in front of him had been telling – it was always the little things that gave his Coach away.

Coach pushed each player beyond his fears, beyond his position, to the very edge of his abilities. Took chances. Tony had five receptions already, had been targeted by the other team, double teamed, and covered so closely that the ball would never get near him again. So Coach shook it up. And the team advanced, made the most of every opportunity, every small mistake made by the Wolverines. And, now, they were close, twelve yards from the goal; one big play from victory. Coach had called a time out and had sent Quarterback Sandy Carter in with a new play. As he laid it out, Tony’d looked across the huddle to where Robinson’s dark eyes stared back at him from within the shadows of his helmet. He’d felt the shuffle of feet beside him, the unease, and the blood rushing through him as the words finally sank in. Coach had called a trap play – and Tony would be the bait.

Tony nodded once, tapping into his own rising tension to fuel his muscles and sharpen his mind. Gibbs wanted bait, wanted Tony to expose his weakness so that Ziva would strike. That he could do. Tony felt the feral grin stretch across his face. He’d done it so many times before.

“You good, Sex Machine?”

Tony had showed all his teeth. “Watch my smoke, Robbie,” he’d muttered, snapping the chin guard securely as he sauntered towards the line of scrimmage. A sharp smack against his butt made him snort with amusement. “Yeah, they’ll be staring so hard at my ass they won’t even notice Danny sneaking through the gap.”

“Don’t get cocky.” Gene Robinson was a huge, hulking offensive lineman and one of Tony’s best friends. The quips didn’t quite hide the real concern in his eyes.

Tony couldn’t help the bounce in his step before he settled into place on the weak side between his buddy and the tackle, nowhere near his usual position. He caught the shift of the Michigan players across the line and winked at the defensive tackle frowning back at him.

“Gonna squash you like a bug, pretty boy,” the Wolverine leered.

“Gotta catch me first, Lurch,” he’d shot back.

Sandy, the quarterback, settled behind the center and began the play call. Snap count. Tony stiffened, ready. A final count, the snap, muscles driving, and Tony turned abruptly to the inside and hustled down the line, leaving an enticing gap. The perfect lure.

“Do something, Gibbs,” Abby muttered, eyes narrowed threateningly, “she said awful things.”

“I heard, Abbs.” The older man’s fingers smoothed over hers, holding Abby’s hand tightly in his. Gibbs’ voice was quiet, even. Controlled. Tony watched the way he stopped Abby’s frantic sputtering with a few words and an assured stare.

Ziva’s dark chuckle drew his attention. “Of course he did.” She flicked a coy glance towards Gibbs. “Gibbs is not blind to Tony’s … shall we say, limitations?”

“No, we shall not! Uh,” McGee’s outburst trailed off uncomfortably, and Tony cringed as the younger man seemed to deflate before him. “I mean… Ziva – you lied about Tony’s injury!” McGee lifted his chin, clearly willing to wade in in Tony’s defense again.

Way to go, Probie, Tony thought wryly. On any other day he’d be wholly satisfied to hear McGee ride to his rescue, but not today, not as Gibbs was trying to encourage Ziva to take the bait. He let a deep breath out slowly, ignoring the cramping in his gut, wondering if McGee would be so quick to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in a moment.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, it was a joke, Tim. Don’t tell me that Tony is the only one allowed to poke fun.”

McGee huffed. “I don’t see the fun in it.”

Tony shook his head, all focus and spring-loaded tension. Shut up, Tim, he shouted mentally. Ziva had to be lured into showing her hand, admitting her agenda – a Mossad agent would never reveal anything under a normal interrogation. He had to get her attention, keep her focus on him. Tony was the weak link, the ‘fat and lazy’ frat boy who’d glommed onto Gibbs’ coattails. He kicked at McGee’s ankle. Hard.

“Maybe we should,” Tony suggested, covering McGee’s painful grunt. He held Ziva’s bold stare and nudged McGee’s knee more gently under the table. “Maybe we should talk about my ‘limitations,’ Ziva.” He watched out of the corner of his eye as Gibbs placed Abby’s hand back on the table and squeezed, startling a suspicious frown from their favorite Goth just as she was opening her mouth to rejoin the fight.

“Yeah,” Gibbs sighed into the silence, timing perfect, as usual. “I think, maybe, it’s time for a change.” The team leader leaned back and raised his cup to his lips, mouth moving as if he drank, but Tony saw the ruse, heard the double meaning behind the words, and realized there was real tension, real concern flashing in the blue eyes.

It was the little things that gave his boss away.

Tony trusted him. Even now, even after all of this, after the rejection and the bitterness and the blindness. Gibbs’ promise still rang in his ears, still inspired Tony’s trust. If Gibbs thought this was the only way then Tony would follow through.

Ziva preened, one eyebrow rising, her eyes sparkling. Abby tilted her head to one side, eyes narrowed in suspicion. Tony held himself still; poised; waiting.

“Boss-” Tim had paled, eyes wide, gaze flickering between Ziva, Gibbs and Tony. “I don’t think you understand.”

Tony felt his eyes widen momentarily, marveling at the probie’s inability to take a hint. He couldn’t deny that it felt great, that McGee’s concern and Abby’s fiery defense had expanded that inner warmth that Gibbs’ whispered praise had seeded in his chest.

“Yes, well, neither do I, McGee,” Ziva leaned back, completely comfortable, dark gaze wandering up and down Tony’s body, lingering for a moment on the sling as she shook her head in mock censure, and then focusing on his eyes. “I do not understand how Gibbs could continue to overlook Tony’s frequent mistakes, especially when they endanger himself – and others.”

She wanted to see the knife go in; to feel the sharp blade twist in his guts, and Tony winced, the guilt that flooded his eyes not completely false. Remembering Pacci, Kate, the line of lifeless faces continuing into his past until he was caught, once again, by a dead teenager’s eyes open wide beneath a streetlight. He shuddered, letting the memories pull at him, huddling back into his chair, left arm wrapped around his sling.

Tony wouldn’t know that the trap play had worked until it was all over. His job was to leave the gap, luring the defensive tackle inside, away from his spot, so the ball carrier would get an opportunity - a straight shot – no one between him and the goal line. The action was behind him now. He looked up into the face of the Michigan tight end coming around the corner and saw the player’s realization, caught the shifting of his muscles as he readied himself to launch towards the gap, but Tony’s job now was to block. He met the bigger guy head to head, his teeth gritted, every muscle tense, and stopped him. For a moment.

“What exactly do you think I should have done, Zeeva,” Tony made sure to lace his voice with just the right amount of defensiveness, shifting his eyes towards Gibbs awkwardly as if afraid.

“I do not think it is my job to fix you, Tony,” she snapped back at him, “in fact, I am fairly sure that you cannot be fixed.” She paused a moment. “Perhaps another team – one that does not require such a … high degree of intelligence. Or maturity.” She hammered her point home. “Gibbs’ people shouldn't be so needy.”

“Okay, hold on…”

“Gibbs, this is…”

No. He wouldn’t let them distract him. Focus, Tony. There were only two players on the field now, straining against each other, stumbling for footing. Tony remembered smiling into the face of that great big football player all those years ago and he bared his teeth in the face of Ziva’s disdain, tilting his head provocatively, the picture of ‘I know something you don’t know’.

“Gibbs will never transfer me, Ziva,” he chuckled, holding himself tightly. It might be true, he told himself, but not for the reason she was about to throw out onto the table in full view of everyone.

“No?” She narrowed her eyes, anger and contempt cracking like ice between them.

He forced a laugh. “No way.” He flicked one finger around the table’s circle until it pointed at her. “You’re the outsider here, Officer David.” Come on, Ziva, Tony urged silently, go for the jugular.

She leaned forward and hissed. “Why, because you call him daddy?” Her laugh was ugly. “Clearly you have merely exchanged one disappointed, disgusted father for another. Your last little father/son outing was when … let me think … it was three days after Agent Todd’s funeral, was it not?” Her eyes gleamed with victory.

They told him later that the huge tackle that had followed Tony through the gap had tripped, causing a small avalanche of hulking bodies until Tony and the tight end had ended up in a pile of twisted limbs on the turf. The Michigan tight end – now Doctor Brad Pitt - had walked away. And, although the team won and had gone on to the Sugar Bowl, it did end up being Tony’s last game. He watched UCLA beat the Buckeyes flat from his hospital room, his left leg in a cast up to his groin.

He’d been expecting it, hoping for it, but the words still left him a little breathless. There it was, lying on the metal café table in the watery light of a DC morning. Sad little Tony DiNozzo; desperate for a daddy, following Gibbs around like a puppy. Immature. Looking for home in all the wrong places. Again. Tony kept his gaze locked on Ziva’s, his face locked back into its bland mask, denying nothing. All movement had stilled around him, her accusation throbbing in the silence. Ziva smirked, opening her mouth to send another slick barb his way to make the kill shot, but Gibbs beat her to it.

“I thought all your surveillance on me and my team had stopped with Ari’s death. You only did it because you were his control officer, right?”

Tony watched the alarm spread across her face, the doubt and fear there giving her fiercely rigid features a semblance of humanity. “What? I – of course I have not,” she turned to flash a feeble smile at the older man. “You know that I had no choice but to keep detailed records on your team when I worked with Mossad.”

“Sure,” Gibbs nodded, his half-smile bitter. “I knew that. Mossad is nothing if not thorough.” He shifted in his chair to bring his blue glare down to Ziva’s level. “So what makes you think I don’t think of Tony as a son? That his … affection,” he coated the word with just the right amount of disdain, “isn’t returned?”

Tony swallowed the bile that filled his throat and shot a glance at his teammates. McGee’s mouth opened and closed like a fish, the look he flicked towards Tony all sympathetic and sad. How could Tony ever play the tough guy in his eyes when he was, apparently, so pathetic as to mistake Gibbs’ professional regard for something personal? Yeah, it was pretty much what Tony figured. Abby was sitting back, hands crossed across her waist, eyes narrowed. Smart girl. She hadn’t been shocked by Tony’s weakness. Had figured him out long ago. But, in her eyes, Gibbs would have had a damn compelling reason to reject Tony. A pretty big disappointment. Her hero couldn’t have done anything wrong, after all, so the blame had to be all on Tony’s side.

Gibbs was forcing Tony to put all of his abandonment issues, all of his deep seated need for a coach, a mentor – call it what it is, dammit! - a father out there in the bright sunlight. Oh, yeah, this would end well, just like his sports career. Respect was over-rated, right?

“Well,” Ziva drew one hand through the air, “I mean, it is obvious, is it not? You treat him with such contempt, that …” She stopped abruptly as Gibbs’ head started to shake back and forth. “What?”

“You were back in Israel for your brother’s funeral when I – when I told Tony he was wasn’t welcome at my home. In my personal life.”

A half-stifled laugh escaped as Tony brought up both hands to scrub across his face.

“You had to have been still ‘surveilling’ us since Jen made you a part of our team to know differently,” Gibbs continued.

“You – you’ve been spying on us?” Abby’s voice rumbled threateningly and Tony frowned.

“No – Abby,” Ziva exclaimed, “I would not do that – we are a team.”

“You did it. You wanted more information on us, on Tony.” McGee. Tony lifted his head, surprised. The probie’s glare was boring holes into the Mossad officer.

“McGee – Timothy – I would never…”

“Never, what, Ziva?” Gibbs voice was cold. “Never use McGee as your mule? Flirt with Palmer to get intel? Never undermine DiNozzo with every one of us?”

Ziva held up both hands, palms out, and lowered her eyes for a moment. “Wait.”

Tony stared, wondering how he’d never noticed how small she was before. The distance between him and the rest of team seemed to elongate as if he was looking at them from the wrong end of a telescope. This isn’t what he’d expected.

“I did not.” Her lips tightened into a line, explanations and excuses nearly visible as they swept through her mind and she discarded them one by one. Finally, she leaned forward. “This is what I do, Gibbs,” she seethed.

“No.” Abby sounded sad, beaten. Close to tears. “No, Ziva. This is what you did.”

“You were already a part of the team, Ziva,” McGee added softly, “why did you think you had to get rid of Tony? Hurt him?”

Her gaze shifted towards him, almost, not quite, reaching Tony’s eyes. But he sat frozen. Motionless. The words and actions were confusing, remote, too vague to make out. He listened, searching for the contempt, the judgment, the sound of smirking sarcasm and outright laughter.

“He – Tony,” Ziva started and stopped and then straightened her shoulders. “It is standard practice,” she said simply, her hands clasped in front of her, “when infiltrating a group to focus on the weakest link and to … exploit his … vulnerabilities. That way an operative can be absorbed into even a closely knit team quite easily.” She glanced up at Tony from beneath her lashes. “I collected evidence that Gibbs was not pleased with Tony, that he had discarded him on a personal level, so …” Ziva shrugged.

The laughter, when it came, was raw, grating, a sound borne of desperation and bitterness instead of joy. For a long moment Tony didn’t even realize that horrible noise was coming from him.

“Tony.” Abby’s face was pale, mascara smeared along one cheek. McGee sat, frowning, lips pushed forward in a familiar pout. And the third figure, her long, dark hair fluttering in the breeze, hunched forward, her dark eyes open far too wide.

“C’mon, now that’s funny!” Tony sputtered, his fingers digging bruises into his knees. “Boss, you’ve gotta love the irony here!” He staggered to his feet. “Your whole ‘can’t have people too close or they’ll get hurt’ crap!” He gasped, panting, wondering why it was so hard to catch his breath. “‘Protecting me’ by treating me just like my father did.” Tony clawed at the air to emphasize his words. “Well thanks, Boss, that worked out great!”

He wanted to run, to leave, to get away from the stares and the questions and the apologies that hadn’t even begun. He fumbled into his back pocket for his badge, his hands numb, useless, his calves banging into the metal chair as he shifted away. He blinked, head down, trying to ignore the warmth suddenly pressed close against his right side, unwilling to concentrate hard enough to make sense of the sounds around him. A callused hand moved to grip the back of his neck, urging him to turn, but he resisted, holding on tightly to his shattered control.

“Tony.”

“Boss.” One soft word would break him, one murmured request for forgiveness. “Don’t,” he whispered. “Don’t.”

Gibb’s hold tightened just a fraction before he let go. “Looks like Officer David needs a little help understanding the concept of ‘team.’” The older man’s voice growled – a little too gruff and a little too desperate to completely disguise the regret there. He cleared his throat. “And I need my Senior Agent to help me clean up this shit-fest.”

Tony breathed deeply as Gibbs stepped away, letting the panic, the hurt, and the pain fall away, forced them back into the tightly locked box of his psyche. Senior Agent. Holder of crap jobs, sometimes clown, verbal punching bag, trusted second. No more, no less. He nodded. McGee, Abby, and Ziva were still waiting, watching, confused, wary.

“On it, Boss.”

That hungry, caustic emptiness eating at his soul would just have to wait. Tony’s team needed him.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t the hand clamped around his good arm, steering him, maneuvering him into the passenger seat of McGee’s car that kept Tony together. It wasn’t the flash of blue eyes or the way Gibbs folded him into the seat and then reached across to fasten his seatbelt. It wasn’t the throbbing of his right arm cradled within its sling against his chest. And it certainly wasn’t the grim look on the older man’s face as he slipped away, Ziva in tow, leaving Tony swallowing harshly and watching his rigid back walking away. No – it was none of those things. It was that same painful focus, the cold control practiced and polished by the years, by the teams and cities and departments – and families - that held Tony there, silent and still, the cold glass of the car window pressed against his forehead. It tightened around him, reinforcing his stubbornness, and thickening his skin until he was, again, unassailable. Invulnerable. Alone.

It was the warmth of one slim hand on his shoulder, Abby’s kiss on his cheek, and McGee’s gruff acknowledgement, the respectful nod as McGee drove slowly through the DC streets that reached behind his mask and demolished him.

“I miss Kate,” Abby breathed against his skin from the backseat. “Every day, Tony. Every day.”

He reached up and covered her hand with his.

“Me, too.” McGee stared straight ahead, but the strain showed in the way his hands gripped the wheel, in the thrust of his chin, and in the sighing of his voice.

Tony only trusted himself enough to nod.

“We were all still grieving when Ziva came,” Tim added hoarsely. “You, me, Ducky. I guess even Gibbs.”

Tony turned to stare at his teammate, his thoughts twisting and plummeting, unfettered by hard-won wisdom or careful detachment. Tony remembered Gibbs’ icy rejection, his dismissal. After one last sail, one last talk in front of Gibbs’ fireplace, one last sharing of griefs and painful burdens just days after her funeral. One last word of comfort, a firm hand that had shaken him from a nightmare filled with hot splashes of blood and dead brown eyes. In the morning, the morning before Ziva’s return, Gibbs had showed Tony the door and then locked it behind him.

“I hate what Gibbs did to you, Tony.” Abby leaned forward, holding her cheek against his, her arm reaching over the seat to press against his chest, just over his heart. “Your grief, all the pain and hurt and stupid, stupid loss when Kate died – he made you grieve twice - for both of them.”

Tears spilled over – he felt each one as it dropped over his lashes and down his face. Nowhere to hide, no mask to cover the pain, Tony let them fall.

“I guess I’ve never been all that observant, huh?” McGee flashed a grim smile his way. “I mean, I knew you respected him, wanted his approval. But, well, I didn’t get that he’d kinda abandoned you. That the nasty things he said to you were … that they hurt you. Honest, Tony.”

Abby’s fist banged into McGee’s shoulder. “What would you have done if you knew, Timmy?”

The probie’s mouth opened and closed, eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t know – but I might have realized sooner that something was wrong with the way Ziva was acting – and that the Boss didn’t notice.”

“Didn’t care,” Tony heard himself answer.

Abby’s hand clutched tighter. “We care, Tony.”

McGee blew out a breath. “Yeah, we do.” The admission promised that in the future, in other company, the younger man might deny it, but it would always remain a firm foundation between them.

Caring – caring was good, Tony admitted. “But will you still respect me in the morning?” he asked quietly, trying to lance the depth of his need with humor.

“Don’t be stupid,” Abby answered, digging her pointy chin into his shoulder. “You’re still you.”

“Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo,” Tim quipped, flashing a smile Tony’s way.

The iceberg sitting on Tony’s chest eased up, just a little.

“And we should have seen what she was doing sooner. I can’t believe I’ve been such an idiot to trust everything she said.”

“Me neither.”

Tony looked back and forth, that icy weight slowly thawing with each word, the fear of exposure no longer beating like a kettle drum against his ribs.

Abby grabbed at his chin and turned his face towards her, her mouth tight with fury, eyes blazing. “And the Boss is an idiot for pushing you away. ‘Protecting you.’ Huh. Talk about stupid.”

Tony smiled.

Ziva was waiting in the garage when they arrived, pacing back and forth in front of the elevator, hands buried deep in the pockets of her coat. Dark eyes watched McGee drive in and park; watched them as they walked towards her, and then flashed with something like regret when she noticed how close they stood, how Abby twined her arm with Tony’s and leaned on his shoulder; how McGee walked just behind his injured side. She straightened then, her pale face showing no trace of the calm serenity of a controlled foreign agent.

“Gibbs has gone ahead to speak with the Director,” she stated evenly, gaze locked with Tony’s. “He asked that we wait for him in Abby’s lab.”

“Sounds cozy,” Tony replied as Abby pressed the button and the elevator opened. Before he could move forward, Ziva raised one hand, being very careful to make sure she didn’t touch anyone.

“I would like to speak with Tony alone.”

Not exactly a request, more like a thinly veiled order, as if their compliance was something she could take for granted.

“Oh, I don’t think so-”

Tony cut her off. “It’s okay, Abbs.”

“Tony, I’m really not sure-”

“Probie – I’m pretty sure her sneaky ninja skills won’t do her much good right now. I don’t think the Boss will believe her if she comes back with some story about how I just happened to strangle myself with the elevator cables or shoot myself in the head with her gun. Not today, anyway.” Tony added grimly, the unconditional acceptance from his teammates fading as he faced the reality of their damaged team and Gibbs’ continued rejection. What exactly was going to change? He cocked his head, letting his gaze wander over Ziva’s tight features and awkward pose and was surprised to find a slender thread of curiosity unfurling within him. He wanted to know what she had to say, how she would explain herself – or if she would even try.

Abby left another dark imprint of her lipstick on his cheek and McGee did his best to threaten Ziva with a geekily fierce stare as Tony motioned the Mossad agent into the elevator. He smiled his gratitude at the two, standing so stiffly, so worried on his behalf, as the doors closed, and then he quickly flicked the stop button.

Tony sighed and leaned tiredly against the metal wall of the small car. It was barely 0900, but he felt as if he’d been awake for days, running, dodging, scrambling for purchase, every muscle screaming its painful defiance at keeping him upright and moving. He locked his knees and tried to blink the haze from his eyes. And waited.

Listening to the silence, he traced the signs of stress on Ziva’s face, examining the tiny indications of her mounting distress, of her confusion, and the anger that seemed to be the woman’s knee-jerk reaction to the unknown. Finally she turned to face him, the familiar shutters back up to guard her eyes.

“I will not apologize for following my training.”

“I never expected that you would,” Tony replied. Apparently an apology was a sign of weakness for more than just hard-headed Marines.

“I … misunderstood the situation between you and Gibbs. My research told me that you were the weak link, the one I could target with the most ease and the best odds for fulfilling my mission.”

Shifting to ease the burning ache in his arm, Tony half-shrugged. “I don’t think you misunderstood anything, Ziva.” She was the one with all the information, the intel; she’d watched Gibbs’ harsh dismissals and destructive sarcasm, saw the fall-out of his withdrawal of his friendship. “As a spy, you made the right choice.”

“But not as an NCIS team member.”

“Right.”

“Because a team,” her brows furrowed, dark eyes now searching for answers, “a teammate would never seek to use another’s weakness, to exploit it.” She shook her head. “And yet both you and Gibbs do so every day.”

“That’s different,” Tony snapped.

“How?” Ziva stepped closer, her frantic pursuit of the solution radiating from her in waves, nearly burning him in its intensity. “How is it different? You mock McGee, Abby teases you, Gibbs slaps at everyone. Tell me, Tony, how is it different?”

He dropped his chin, lips tight, memories threatening to unravel him again. Silly taunts. Head slaps. Pranks. Verbal barbs aimed slightly too close to home. The strange, hard, deep, incomprehensible dynamic of Team Gibbs. What on Earth did it resemble more than a family?

Over-indulged, youngest daughter. Smart, geeky teenager. Tony was still the first-born son. Jock. Heir to the family business. Expected to protect his younger sibs, to remind their dad of his weaknesses and to shore up his strengths. Gibbs had reminded him of that not that long ago. Senior Agent. He’d given Tony back the rights and responsibilities of being his second, his partner. Every member of Team Gibbs slotted neatly back into place. Sort of.

“The difference, my dear Ziva,” Tony raised his head, gaze softening, lips curving upwards in wry admission, “is the foundation. Our foundation. Team Gibbs is based on more than just this job, more than a sense of justice or fairness. It’s a family. A dysfunctional family, I’ll admit. But, then again, you should find that pretty familiar.”

“And nothing can remove one from this family?”

Tony shook his head, ignoring the bite of regret, the still painful longing for more. “No. You might lose your standing. Might be in the doghouse for life.” He was so tired, so very tired of trying to figure this all out. “Might be treated like the unwelcome cousin, the family reject. The foster kid. But, see, that’s the thing. Even then, you’re still family.”

Ziva narrowed her eyes. “Even now?”

“Oh, I’ll admit you managed to rock that foundation; gave it a good shaking,” Tony laughed dryly, “but you saw the results.” He leaned in. “And you know why? I’ll tell you why. Because our foundation is a hard-assed, committed, never-leave-a-man-behind Marine.”

She held her ground, staring back with equal determination. “And yet Gibbs left you behind, Tony,” she whispered.

Tony ground his teeth. “That’s personal – it has nothing to do with the team.”

She let her eyes fall to half-mast, pursed her lips, and looked him up and down. “You are sure of that?”

Was he? Doubt and hurt and loneliness crowded into the small elevator car, smothering, numbing, teasing the pain like he would a broken tooth. Gibbs had shut him out, shut him down, and become an oblivious co-conspirator in Ziva’s schemes. But Tony’d be damned if he’d give the Mossad agent the satisfaction of admitting it. “Yeah, Ziva. I’m sure.” And the mask slid smoothly back into place.

A long moment later, Ziva reached out and flipped the switch, sending the elevator up towards the lab. She faced front again, avoiding his eyes, her shoulders hunched as if in surrender.

“As for my ‘misunderstanding,’” she continued, “I have been told that appliances can be deceiving.”

Tony frowned. “‘Appearances,’ Officer David.”

The doors opened and she threw a glance over her shoulder. “Exactly.”

Ducky insisted on examining his wound again, in full view of the team, of course, clucking over the hot, swollen flesh, and calling in a prescription for an antibiotic cream to chase away the infection.

“I’ll send Mister Palmer out to pick it up directly, Anthony,” he said as he re-wrapped Tony’s arm. “Right now he’s a bit busy shifting the four drowning victims that washed up last weekend so that he can clean the autopsy drawers.” A sly smile danced across his face. “Again.”

“Yuck,” Abby responded from her place pressed against Tony’s side, Bert clutched tightly in her arms.

“Yes, well, that should help him understand the importance of knowing one’s place within the team,” Ducky commented, glancing towards Ziva who stood removed from the group beneath the window.

“Poor Palmer,” McGee murmured, face unnaturally pale.

“What about Mister Palmer?”

Tony was facing the doorway. He’d heard the tap of the Director’s heels against the floor and had been watching when she entered the lab with Gibbs at her side, her newly shorn hair gleaming copper in the overhead lights. Ducky carefully finished with Tony’s wound, hands cool and gentle against his skin as he urged the long-sleeved shirt back up into place over Tony’s shoulder, and then smiled up into his eyes before turning to face the unknown quantity that was Jennifer Shepard.

“Mister Palmer is hard at work, Director, as he should be,” the medical examiner answered, truthfully if not completely honestly. Tony appreciated the subtle protectiveness in the elderly man’s tone and in the way he stood between Tony and the door, blocking him as he fumbled to do up the buttons of his shirt, to hide his vulnerability.

Shepard raised one eyebrow and scoured the group with a glance, but Tony had already dismissed her scrutiny, knowing that, as always, Gibbs was in charge here, it was his lead that the others would follow. He found himself straightening, breath held in his chest, unconsciously readying himself for the next blow, the next swipe against his thinly stitched armor. His eyes widened in shock as Gibbs caught his floundering gaze and strode quickly to his side, steady hands tucking Tony’s arm back into the sling and reaching around his neck to fasten it securely. Tony’s held breath left him all at once and he nearly missed Shepard’s remarks.

“Officer David, you’re expected in MTAC in fifteen minutes for a conference between this agency and Mossad in order to address the … specifics … of your assignment here at NCIS.”

Ziva shifted forward, her head up, eyes wary. “And will I continue on Special Agent Gibbs’ team?”

Gibbs didn’t glance her way. “We’ll see,” he answered, still smoothing the strap against Tony’s neck.

“Very well.” Her voice seemed smaller somehow.

“As for the rest of you,” Shepard continued. “I’m sure you can find something to do. Something work related,” she added before turning on her heel.

Ziva followed after a moment.

The silence was broken by the beeps and whines of Abby’s machines, the shuffling of feet, and rustling of clothing. Tony felt trapped, too hot, exposed, and wanted only to escape the blue eyes that never looked away, the closeness and power of the man too close beside him.

“What do you think is going to happen, Bossman?” Abby swiveled back and forth on her stool.

Tony kept his head down.

“Oh, I figure Director David is gonna take the blame, play the ‘she was following orders’ card, and make it clear that Ziva is to now consider herself working within the command structure of NCIS and not Mossad.”

“Even though that will not really be the case,” Ducky added.

“No,” Gibbs laughed.

“Will you let her stay on the team?” McGee demanded bluntly.

Tony felt Gibbs’ shrug. “That depends on her,” was Gibbs’ only answer.

~o~

Tony stood within his dark apartment, leaning against the window, staring out into another rainy night. The clouds had filled up the sky as the day progressed, crowding out the blue with their greys and blacks, tumbling and struggling against each other in the rising wind. Another ride home from a teammate in exhausted silence, less awkward, less pointed – the warmth of offered compassion and the foundation of family helping to assuage the lingering sensations of loss and strain. The team was still unsettled, tense, feelings still raw and nerves exposed. But a healing – of sorts – had already begun.

He really should turn on a light. Order some dinner. Check the movie station. ‘October Sky’ was on tonight. One of his modern favorites. Jake Gyllenhaal’s son to Chris Cooper’s father. He smiled to himself. Yeah. Tony was nothing if not predictable.

John – the father – a brave and brusque coalminer, is injured rescuing other men, putting his life on the line. Stands between a boy and his violent, drunken father. The son, Homer, the prodigal, wants to pursue his own dreams. His father doesn’t understand. Tony lifted the beer bottle to his lips, Homer’s lines reverberating through his mind as the tense scene played across his memory.

“Dad, I may not be the best, but I come to believe that I got it in me to be somebody in this world. And it’s not because I’m so different from you either, it’s because I’m the same. I mean, I can be just as hard-headed, and just as tough. I only hope I can be as good a man as you. Sure, Wernher von Braun is a great scientist, but he isn’t my hero.”

And, of course, in the end, father and son face the future together. “Only in the movies,” Tony muttered.

The knock on the door came, as expected. He could imagine the six pack of beer swinging from one hand, the blue eyes shadowed with regret, maybe an apology tucked back behind some casual words.

Tony lifted his beer again and stared out into the rain.

The End.