Spoilers: None.

Archive: Anywhere, just ask me first.

Disclaimer: Yeah, right, sure I own 'em. In my dreams. Tony, Kate, Gibbs, Abby, McGee, and any other characters mentioned here are the property of NBC, and I'm not sure who else. No copyright infringement is intended, though.

Author's notes: So, watching "Conspiracy Theory," my mind stuck on Kate's comment about dating Tony's frat brother. This was before I had seen the other episode in which this is referenced, so I was thinking that they had to have been spending time together off-duty. I was also intrigued by the idea of Kate hanging out with a bunch of drunken horny frat boys. Well, that idea barely made it in, and the story itself kinda spun out of control, but this is what came out of it. This thing is my baby - I've been changing and tweaking it forever, so I truly hope you enjoy.

THIS STORY HAS NOT BEEN UPDATED. I was simply fixing all the line breaks that mysteriously disappeared - I swear, sometimes I hate the way this site works. I apologize to anyone who had to read one big huge story all at once - it was always meant to be broken up like this.

And lastly, to those who have asked about possible future Tate stories: I don't watch NCIS anymore. After a few episodes of Ziva, I lost interest. Yes, the pairing still holds a special place in my heart, but I doubt I will ever write in the fandom again. All apologies. Thank you so much to everyone who has been so supportive of this piece, however - it remains one of my all-time favorites, and it's really good to know that all of the time and effort and constant editing and re-writing paid off.

Kate is surprised at how easily they fall into a routine.

She's always liked routines. She has so many of them, some she can never remember not having. They're little things, like the order in which she lays out all the individual little pieces when she cleans her service revolver, or where she puts her coat and shoes when she comes through the door. She watches the same few television programs every night before she goes to bed, has the same kind of bagels for breakfast every morning, listens to the same radio station on the way to work. Having a pre-determined way to do something eliminates chaos, and Kate won't stand for chaos. She likes things neat and in-order. Her little routines make sense to her; they tell her that she's still alive, and that everything's still right in the world. There will be three sharpened pencils and three black-ink pens in the cup on her desk at work, and chicken in the freezer when she gets home. These are things she can count on, even when nothing else makes sense. They calm her, give her purpose.

Integrating Tony into her life is surprisingly simple. Although honestly, she had never planned on letting him in in the first place. He was arrogant and conceited and misogynistic and sexist and just generally a pain in her ass. But somewhere along the way, inexplicably, and they had become friends. And then, he had become a part of her life. A part of her routine.

Tony gets to work about five minutes before Kate, and always has a cup of black coffee ready when she walks through the door, because she's a bear otherwise. Though she bitches about it, ultimately she lets him drive when they travel, because she's likely to get them lost anyway. He supplies the snacks when they're going long-distance, getting two bags of Doritos instead of one because although she insists she's not hungry, she always steals most of his. She types his reports for him, because it takes him hours to hunt-and-peck his way through them.

Having Tony be a part of her routine scares Kate a little. It's almost as if he's trespassing into something sacred - something incredibly intimate. She's dated men for years without becoming accustomed to their presence intruding upon the familiarity that is always so oddly comforting to her. But with Tony, she doesn't have to work at it. One day, she simply turns around and there he is, in the center of it all, as if he's been there all along. It would take more effort to remove him from her life than it had taken to invite him into it.

And what's really frightening is that it doesn't bother her at all
On Fridays, they have dinner at Wok In The Park, two blocks east of the NCIS building. They order something different every time, which sometimes spurs the mock-arguments that have become such a staple of their relationship, because Tony's memory really isn't as good as he likes to think it is. In the first six weeks, they work their way through all the chicken dishes, and Kate wonders what will happen when they've made it through the entire menu.

Out of habit, they only drink tea or soda, but one night Tony reminds her that they're off-duty and orders a bottle of wine. Kate wants to protest, but only a little, so she laughingly tells him that he'd be a lot easier to handle with some alcohol in her system.

Tony wants to toast - he insists that the Irish side of him balks at the thought of drinking without toasting. Kate asks him what he wants to toast to, and when he says her, she blushes. In the dim lighting, she prays he doesn't notice. They clink their glasses together and she sips slowly, savoring the taste as she teases him about what a strange mixture Irish and Italian is. He asks about her heritage, and a mention of her beloved Romanian grandmother somehow evolves into a discussion of the war in Iraq.

A part of her is amazed that she can have intelligent conversations with Tony DiNozzo, of all people. Then again, one of the things that she likes most about him is that he's always surprising her. Whenever she thinks she's got him all figured out, he does or says something that completely shocks her. On the surface, he seems like an arrogant bastard who mentally never left the frat house. Most people would never assume that he's actually a very smart guy. And he is - brilliant, she might even say. Not to his face, of course. But when they're out in the field, he's always spotting the seemingly insignificant details that prove to be so vital. He pieces the scene together in ways that never would have occurred to her. But she makes up for it by excelling in the areas at which he isn't as strong; she's better at getting information out of suspects, organizing evidence and finding patterns. They complement each other.

He holds her coat as she slips her arms into the sleeves, holds open the door for her, and walks her to her car; the picture of chivalry. And for a moment, Kate looks at him and sees a man. But then, predictably, he makes a crack about a woman they pass on their way out the door. She rolls her eyes and shoves him away, and the sound of his chuckling follows her even after she's driven away.

The image is shattered and he's just Tony again.
Four months pass as if they were mere seconds. They're in the middle of the rice dishes and Tony's talking about finding someplace new, but by now, the staff knows them. There's a table in the back alcove of the restaurant that's waiting for them on Fridays around eight - dark and quiet and intimate. The waiters and waitresses call them by name, and the manager occasionally sends them a complimentary glass of wine. Lily, a tiny, delicate brunette who works the second Friday of the month, sometimes even manages to slip them the entire bottle, provided Tony shoots her one of his irresistible, flirtatious grins. Lily's cheeks flush and her eyes sparkle, and her hands gesture wildly as she struggles to keep her calm. When she disappears, Kate admonishes him, but only until the wine arrives, and then he makes suggestive comments about how easy it is to subdue her with alcohol.

There's still an entire page of meals left in the menu that they have yet to try, but Tony is antsy, and he chatters about an Italian place about six blocks southeast that Ducky swears is amazing. Kate shrugs, sips her wine. She won't let Tony see that this affects her.

Tony has no respect for routines. He follows them because he wants to, not because he feels, like she does, that he has to. He's not stagnant; he's always moving and changing. Sometimes Kate feels like she can't keep up with him. He's unpredictable - she never knows what he's going to do next.

She complains about it, but secretly, she likes it. It makes life more exciting. And she doesn't even have to do anything - she can live vicariously through him. Which, admittedly, is a little bit of a scary thought. But she's never met anyone like Tony - especially not working in the Secret Service. He's full of life and excitement and this never-ending, almost childlike exuberance. He's always smiling, always trying to lighten the situation. Kate can't help herself - it's infectious. She can't ever remember work actually being fun before meeting him. She looks forward to coming into the office every day, instead of regarding it as a chore.

She doesn't fool herself - she's not excited to do her job. She's excited to see him.
Friday-night dinners give birth to Saturday-morning runs. Tony shows up at Kate's apartment at seven thirty on the dot, coffee in hand. She supplies the bagels, and they lounge around on her front stoop eating and drinking in silence. They start running around eight, and return at ten. Kate finds that their paces match quite nicely, but somehow she's not surprised. They do five laps around her neighborhood, then veer off onto a narrow dirt path that snakes its way through a wooded area. The path is really only made for one person, but Tony insists on staying side-by-side. One of her arms brushes his as they run, and the other smacks against passing branches. She often ends up with scrapes and scratches, but she tends to them without a second thought.

The path bursts out of the woods and widens, wrapping around a medium-sized crystal-blue lake. This is where they stop, stretch, and catch their breath. Tony flops down onto the green grass, and Kate sits primly beside him. Only then do they finally begin to talk - never before. Unsurprisingly, it's Tony that first peels off his shoes and dips his toes into the lake. He complains that it's cold, and Kate simply raises and eyebrow, giving him her typical "no shit" look.

When they're fully rested, they pull their feet out of the water and let them dry in the sun while they lay side-by-side, squinting into the blinding light. If there are clouds, Tony will find shapes in them - everything from a pineapple to Abby, complete with the ever-present pigtails. Kate just laughs, turning her head to watch him, noting the way his brows furrow when he's trying to concentrate, and the almost unnoticeable gap between his two front teeth when he grins at her.

On the way back to her apartment, they put their socks and shoes back on and race. It's a no-holds-barred, no-foul competition, and they push and shove and find shortcuts, but still neither of them wins any more often than the other. Kate teases Tony about losing to a girl, and he replies that he lets her win. He's lying. Any other guy probably would - it's a common mentality that women can't beat men at physical tasks unless they have a little help. Most men even believe that they want such help.

Not Tony.
As the weather gets nicer, they don't race anymore. The warmth of the sun makes them far more tired than they should be, and they stroll back at a lazy pace, barefoot.

It's in the middle of April that Kate trips over a tree branch on their way to the lake. When she doesn't get back up immediately, Tony knows something's wrong. Kneeling beside her, he watches her gesture to her left ankle. He can see that it's already starting to swell, so he gently unties her shoe and pulls off her sock. He pokes and prods gently, feeling a twinge every time she emits a quiet whimper. Once he's ascertained that it's not broken, he pulls her to her feet. She can't walk on it, so he scoops her up as if she weighs nothing and proceeds to carry her back to her apartment.

Carrying her in that position only lasts so long, however, because Tony can't see his feet, and the last thing he needs is to fall and drop her. So he sets her down and she hops on one foot, leaning against him while he turns around so that she can leap up and he can carry her piggyback. She wraps her arms tightly around him, and he bounces her up and down like a little girl. She squeals with laughter, and the sound is music to his ears.

In the elevator, he backs against the metal wall but keeps hold of her legs. She hugs him from behind, small warm face burying into his neck.

"Thanks," she murmurs. He grins, turning his face so that it's dangerously close to hers.

"Anytime," he replies. They're frozen there for a few silent moments, and Kate feels like she should say something else, but she doesn't know what.

The elevator dings, signaling its arrival on her floor.
By May, they've discovered that Ducky's Italian place is actually horrible, and they get bored of a different one, so they start been going to Uncle Rice's, a Mexican joint downtown that's little more than a hole in the wall, but that has the most incredible guacamole either of them has ever tasted. They're no longer limiting these outings just to Fridays - they have dinner together about two or three times a week now.

They invited Gibbs once, but that was the most awkward hour ever, and it was clear that he would have much rather been at home working on his boat. Abby tags along plenty of the time - although never on Fridays, and Kate wonders if they're unconsciously keeping it that way. Abby brings McGee if they're on good terms, which is never certain. Kate loves spending time with Abby - the younger woman has an even more biting wit than she does, and together they happily gang up on Tony, who never really seems to mind. Even McGee joins in on the fun, seemingly growing a pair in Abby's presence. Those dinners are undoubtedly fun, but when Kate is honest with herself, she admits that she likes it much better when it's just her and Tony.

The day after Abby joins them for the first time, she yanks Kate down into the lab as soon as she walks through the door. She eyes her friend with a smirk on her face and a glint in her eye.

"You two are totally obvious," she says. Kate plays dumb.

"Who?" she asks innocently. Abby rolls her eyes, and Kate knows that she's not going to get away with that. "We're just friends," she insists. Abby pats her on the shoulder.

"Okay," she says.

Kate hasn't convinced Abby. She hasn't really convinced herself either.
In the beginning, he was simply DiNozzo. Gradually, he became Tony, but still DiNozzo when she was annoyed. That happened quite often, until she realized that it was a front and learned how to play along. It frustrates him much more when she doesn't respond at all, so she worked on not doing so. But every once and awhile, he still got to her, and she barked out a sharp "DiNozzo!" when she was pissed. Which, because he's so well-versed in the practice, was about once a week.

She doesn't think she's used his last name in months.

As the time passes, their routine changes, and Kate finds that she's strangely okay with it. She likes to think that Tony has had something to do with that.

Friday night dinners extend into watching movies sprawled out on her couch - everything from bloody horror movies to sappy chick flicks. After their runs, they end up the bakery next door to Kate's apartment, ordering pastries and laughing at how the calorie content practically cancels out all the exercise they just did. Then Kate takes a giant leap and decides that it's ridiculous for Tony to drive home at midnight only to be back a few hours later, so soon he's crashing on her couch on Friday nights.

He's anal about the weirdest things, like bottled water. He'll only drink Propel, which Kate can't stand, but she lets him store it in her fridge next to her Fiji. She stacks her tapes and DVD's on top of her television so that Tony can store some extra clothes and toiletries in the bottom drawer of her entertainment system. He's started trying to get her more interested in music, so there are a bunch of his CD's strewn about on the coffee table. She's hidden his favorite cookies in the back recesses of her closet shelf just in case she ever needs to bribe him. The second bottle of shampoo in the shower is his, as is the black razor sitting on the counter next to her blue one. He's got a coat in the closet and shoes by the door and when Kate looks around the apartment, suddenly it doesn't look like hers anymore.

It looks like theirs.
Even after being up until all hours of the night on Friday, a good long run on Saturday morning, and gorging themselves on baklava Saturday afternoon, they're still ridiculously wired, so on a blazingly hot July afternoon they decide to take a walk. Tony's palm rests comfortably on the small of Kate's back, his touch light. They end up downtown, where he drags her into a comic book shop. In retaliation, she takes him into a women's boutique and tries on dress after dress. The glint in his eye tells her that it's not exactly torture, and a happy flush rises to her cheeks. They insult each others' musical choices in a record store and race electric cars in a toy store before finally discovering a coffee house that does a weekly open-mic night. Sharing excited grins, they choose a back booth and order espressos, complimenting the good performers and ridiculing the bad ones.

The espressos don't really do much good in calming them down after all, so they walk out to Tony's car and drive back to his apartment, where he cooks her dinner that's better than anything they've had at a restaurant. Kate practically swoons, raving at how amazing the simple pasta dish is. She swears he blushes as he ducks his head and chuckles, reminding her that his mother was full-bred Italian and never had any daughters.

When dinner is through, Kate insists on helping Tony clean up. They move surprisingly well within the small space, chuckling when they bump into each other. Tony rinses the plates in the sink and Kate loads them into the dishwasher. When the last plate has been put in place, she feels something wet hit her back. Looking up, she sees Tony grinning down at her, wetting his hand under the faucet to flick water at her again. When she simply rolls her eyes instead of retaliating, he gapes, watching her carry a second bottle of wine and two clean glasses over to the couch.

"You disappoint me," he informs her, following her into the living room nonetheless.

"You annoy me," she responds, popping the cork and filling both glasses to the brim, handing one to Tony. He drops down beside her and they clink their glasses together, sipping them in silence. When his is empty, Tony inspects it for a few moments, then looks over at Kate.

"We should do this every week," he says. Kate nods happily.

"We should," she agrees.

This bottle goes down much faster than the first, and halfway through Kate starts to feel light-headed. Tony looks like he's handling it fine, though, so she keeps quiet as they drain it to the last drop. The wooziness and exhaustion hit her like a freight train and she knows she's drunk. She leans over, draping herself across Tony's lap.

"I think I had too much," she murmurs, burrowing her face in his neck. Tony chuckles, stroking her back as her eyes slowly flutter shut. Kate fights to stay awake, but she knows that it's no use - hard alcohol will get her sloppy drunk, but wine only makes her want to pass out. She clings to Tony like a life preserver, not really caring what he's thinking. He's solid and warm and he smells amazing, and she presses her whole body against his side. Tony's breath is coming out in shallow pants, and he's nervously clenching and unclenching his fists, determined not to do anything that he'll regret. He feels Kate's grip loosen, her breathing gradually becoming slow and even, and he breathes a sigh of relief, knowing that she's fallen asleep. Carefully, he extracts himself from her grasp, disentangling her arms from around his neck and arranging her on the couch, propping a pillow under her head and finding a blanket in the closet.

She looks so young when she's asleep, and Tony finds himself gazing down at her, breath catching in his throat. Forcing himself to move, he kneels to drape the blanket over her, hands resting on her shoulders as he leans forward to drop a kiss on her forehead.

When he wakes up, she's still there, and he has the fleeting thought that he could get used to this. Pushing it to the back of his mind, he shuffles into the kitchen to make breakfast.
She's amazed at how little changes between them at work. They've always made a good team, but lately it seems like they're more efficient than ever. They can read each other better - can have entire conversations just by looking at each other. They've even gotten good enough that Gibbs doesn't notice it. Abby does, but Abby notices everything - that's what makes her so good at her job. She never says anything, just smirks and gives Kate that knowing look that she's growing to hate.

But they still bicker and tease, and occasionally even legitimately fight. This isn't even limited to the office - at least twice a week, Kate threatens to kick Tony out of her apartment. Or leave his, now that she's spending Saturday nights in his spare bedroom. They fight about stupid things, like whose turn it is to pay for lunch; tease about the usual things, like each other's lack of luck when it comes to the opposite gender. Outwardly, it's as if nothing has changed.

Inside, they both know better.
Kate's first birthday as a member of NCIS is one of the best she can ever remember having. Tony sleeps over the night before so that he can be up early to cook breakfast for her - waffles with strawberries and whipped cream, which he dollops on her nose and licks off while she giggles, turning as red as the berries.

At work, Ducky kisses her on the cheek and congratulates her, reminding her that wisdom comes with age. McGee shyly presents her with a Whitman's sampler box, stammering that his mother had told him no self-respecting woman would ever turn down chocolate. What surprises her the most, however, is the joint present from Gibbs and Abby. It's sitting on her desk when she arrives, elaborately wrapped with black paper and silver ribbon - clearly Abby's handiwork. Kate studies it for a moment, eyeing the card attached.

"Just open it!" Abby exclaims exasperatedly. Curious, Kate peels back the paper to reveal an intricately-carved wooden cabinet. "Gibbs made that," Abby says proudly. "Look inside." Tugging on one of the brass handles, Kate finds herself looking at three rows of shelves, all filled with small glass vials labeled in Abby's spidery scrawl. The smell is intoxicating, even with the vials corked tightly shut. "My favorite scents," the other woman brags.

Kate is speechless. Abby chatters on about how she threatened physical harm and the revealing of several embarrassing stories if their boss didn't come through on his end of the deal. Finally, Kate reaches over and puts a hand on the overly-animated woman's shoulder, trying to still her for just a moment so that she can give her a warm hug.

"Thank you," she says sincerely. Abby's eyes light up and she grins broadly.

"I told you she'd like it," she throws at Gibbs, who's coming down the stairs just then. Gibbs only nods.

"Happy birthday, Kate," he says gruffly. "Now get to work."

Tony takes her out to lunch at her favorite Italian place, and informs her that for the duration of the day, the words 'carbs' and 'calories' don't exist. They share an enormous plate of pasta and an even more enormous dish of spumoni. By the time they get back to the office, Kate feels like she can't move. Waiting for the elevator, she complains to Tony, but he nudges her with his shoulder and reminds her that there's still dinner to come.

When Gibbs sends them all on their way, they swing by Tony's so that he can pick up his tools and a cooler full of groceries. Back at Kate's, he instructs her to start putting the food away while he dumps his hammer, nails, level, and tape measure on her bed and sets about hanging the cabinet on the wall just above the headboard. He's cleaning up when he realizes that there's no noise coming from the kitchen. Deciding that that can't be good, he emerges to find her rooting through the bag he brought in with the cooler. She holds up two boxes wrapped in shining red paper.

"What are these?" she teases. He snatches them away, stuffing them in a drawer and shooing her out of the kitchen, telling her to entertain herself until he's done. Her idea of entertaining herself, however is hopping up on the counter and asking lots of questions - what is this for, what does that taste like? Tony ignores her at first, but she finds the pine nuts and starts idly throwing them at him, and those things are too damn expensive to waste, so he takes them away from her and starts answering. But that just makes her ask more questions, and he finally groans in frustration, which predictably makes her laugh, and demands to know if she's ever cooked in her life. She admits that being the youngest of five, by the time her mother got down to her, she knew all the tricks, and was able to get out of anything she didn't want to do. Tony has no problem believing this. Nevertheless, he informs her that someday he's going to teach her to cook. She nods and reaches for the pine nuts again, not believing him.

Making sure he's not leaving anything that might burn or boil over, he grabs her around the waist and throws her over his shoulder, smacking her ass as it's sticking up in the air. She squeals, beating his back with her fists, though he knows that if she really wanted out, she could easily kick his ass. He throws her down onto her bed, grabs a pile of magazines from her nightstand and drops them on top of her, instructing her that if she leaves the room before he deems it okay, she won't be eating anything tonight. Surprisingly, she obeys, only poking her head out to ask sarcastically if she's allowed to use the bathroom.

When he finally allows her to come out, she has to admit that it's completely worth it. He serves her fettuccine with a pesto sauce, home-made garlic bread, and Caesar salad. He even has desert - baked pears with raspberry sauce. Kate groans when he brings it out, insisting that she can't eat another bite after everything else she's had today. Tony shrugs and digs in himself. A few minutes later, she's stolen his fork and eaten half of it, then blames it all on him. She declares that she can't move, but he reminds her that first of all, that's what she said earlier, and second of all, she has presents to open. That gets her up, and she bounds eagerly over to the couch as he pulls the boxes out of the drawer he stashed them in earlier, the excited grin on her face making the decision for him to leave the dishes until tomorrow.

Tony hands her the first, smaller box and she rips off the paper, teasing him about the wrapping job. Inside, Kate finds a copy of the Kama Sutra. Raising an eyebrow, she shoots him that "give me a break" look that's so familiar to him now. He grins shamelessly in return, sliding her the second package.

"This better not be handcuffs," she mutters, eyeing it warily before opening it, slowly and carefully. When she sees what's inside, she lets out a small gasp. "Tony..." she murmurs.

Out of the box, she pulls a dress. It's a deep crimson color, with a plunging, draped neckline and a flowing skirt that comes about to mid-thigh. Kate trails her hand across the fabric. She doesn't need to try it on to know that it will fit like a glove - she tried it on several weeks ago, on a return trip to the boutique near Tony's apartment to choose a gift for her cousin Lynette's third wedding shower in as many years. She knew Tony had liked it - she practically heard his jaw drop before she had even gotten completely out of the changing room. But despite his insistences, she hadn't bought it. It was a very sexy dress - and Kate didn't own sexy dresses. She had nice dresses, conservative dresses. This dress was completely out of her league, no matter how good it looked on her.

She starts to protest, but Tony won't have any of it. "I promise I'll find a chance for you to wear it," he says. Kate smiles - a warm, genuine smile, laced with a heavy dose of fondness for the man sitting next to her. Before she can talk herself out of it, she scoots closer. She kisses his cheek and hugs him tightly, breathing him in. She can honestly say that no man has ever done this much for her. In fact, she doesn't know that she can say that any iperson/i has ever done this much for her. All she can say is:

"Thank you."

Abby has been Kate's friend since day one. Gibbs, on some distant level, she considers a friend. She still has friends from the Secret Service that she's in contact with. Her brothers and sisters are not only family, but friends. What she can't for the life of her figure out is when Tony suddenly became her best friend - the one person whose presence is never unwelcome, who will comfort her when she's hurt or lonely, who will listen no matter what she says, who can always make her smile, who will tell her the things she doesn't want to hear.

But she wouldn't have it any other way.

Over time, their routine dissolves. The coffee shop cancels open mic night, then goes out of business completely. Sometimes they stay at Tony's Friday night and go running on one of the paths near his building. They get up later and later each time, and as the weather gets colder, sometimes don't even go at all. They abandon the concept of choosing a different meal every time they go out to dinner on Fridays once they discover a Cajun place that they adore. Nevertheless, they're still essentially spending every weekend together.

Tony takes up teaching Kate how to play poker, appalled that she doesn't already know how to play. Blackjack and spades have always been her games, but Tony doesn't know how to play either of those, and by some twisted logic that she doesn't have the energy to argue with, he reaches the conclusion that she needs to learn poker rather than the other way around. Unsurprisingly, she's a fast learner, and soon she's beating him. It makes it much harder because they know each other's facial expressions and nervous ticks so well, but that only makes it more fun. Kate is better at bluffing, but Tony has an uncanny ability to mentally calculate which cards have been played and what the odds are that certain cards will be turned. Their styles are so wildly different that it makes the games completely unpredictable.

Each game eventually leads to Tony suggesting strip poker, to which Kate responds by a roll of her eyes. They play for money sometimes, or for odd things that Tony brings, like gumdrops or little plastic toy soldiers. Kate likes it best when they play for those gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins that he seems to be in endless supply of. Not only can she always convince Tony to give her his share even if she loses, but they're also a very nice weight and size for chucking at his head when he starts to get obnoxious, complaining that she takes too long.

Usually they'll play a game or two a night. But some nights, they play until all hours, game after game, often losing count. There's something oddly intimate about playing poker in the middle of the night, when the world is dark and silent. Even Tony calms down, examining his cards with a look of utmost concentration. It gives them an opportunity to study one another, and Kate soon finds that she has every line and surface of Tony's face memorized. Not that this stops her from doing it anyway. She finds him endlessly fascinating, keeping a close eye on him as if he's suddenly going to change on her. Because even though she's learned not to be afraid of change, there are still some things that she stubbornly refuses to imagine ever being any different. Tony has become one of those things.

They drink beer when they play - somehow it seems wrong to drink anything else. Kate watches Tony raise his second bottle to his lips, tilting his head back to expose his throat. A droplet of condensation drips onto his cheek and trickles down, following the trail of his collarbone. Kate watches it until it evaporates, and Tony has to snap his fingers in front of her face to remind her that he's still waiting for her to decide whether to call or check. She apologizes and checks.

Tony wins the round.
Kate isn't a very high-maintenance woman. She knows that she doesn't need much makeup to look decent, and her clothes are stylish yet casual. Getting ready for work in the morning takes little or no effort - she eats breakfast, showers, blow-dries her hair, chooses an outfit, dabs on a touch of mascara and lipstick, and she's out the door. The entire process is done almost entirely on autopilot - no thought involved. So when she can't decide what to wear one morning, she's surprised.

She's debating between a black skirt and red sleeveless shirt or a pair of black pants with a white tank top and a tan suede blazer. It's only when she pauses that she realizes she's considering which one Tony would find more attractive. Definitely the skirt, she concludes. The more skin the better, in his opinion.

She wears the pants.

When she arrives, Gibbs chides her for being five minutes late. Sighing, she makes her way over to her desk. Looking up, she finds Tony giving her the once-over.

"You look nice today," he says. And Kate can't help but blush as she wonders what would have happened if she had worn the skirt after all. Maybe tomorrow.

Kate drives all the way up to Alexandria for Christmas with her family, her trunk piled full of presents and her back seat crammed with luggage. Tony calls her not even fifteen minutes after she's stepped out of the office to ask her if she's been naughty or nice. Rolling her eyes, she hangs up on him, feeling a lot like Gibbs. But then she feels guilty, knowing that he's probably sitting in the office killing time to avoid going home to an empty house, so she calls him back and they talk almost the entire way to Alexandria. When Kate pulls into the driveway, she studies the intimidating white house, and briefly considers inviting Tony to come stay with them. Pushing that thought to the back of her mind, she says goodbye and starts unloading.

Marcie's new boyfriend Rick is with her. He's pleasant in a very dull way, with a round face, cheap cologne, and overly-starched polo shirts. Mike's wife Melanie is the same energetic woman he married nearly ten years ago, her smile warm and her eyes sparkling and her belly swelling with their third child. The other two are quiet and well-behaved, with their mother's dark hair and their father's emerald eyes. Brian and Justin, who've been living together out in Pittsburgh, are dating a pair of twins with long blonde hair and breasts that are so cosmetically-enhanced it's comical. They sip glasses of wine as they sit side-by-side in the corner and scowl, watching their boyfriends try to control Gus, Brian's son from his previous marriage, who's a little monster.

Kate watches from the sidelines, having already received her mother's disapproving look for not bringing a significant other, and wonders if this is really what she wants - the husband, the kids, the white picket fence. When she was younger, it was the only option she thought she had. Now she's not so sure.

She goes shopping with Marcie, kicks Justin's ass at basketball. Goes jogging with Brian, helps her mom make dinner. Drives her dad downtown for a doctor's appointment, shows Mike how to fix his virus-ridden computer, baby-sits for Gus. By the end of the week, she's having dreams of Abby's lab and wishing Gibbs would get an emergency call. Funny how the place she feels most out of her element is her own home.

On Christmas Day, Marcie hands her a small package wrapped in brown paper with her name and no return address. Not that she needs one - she'd recognize Tony's barely-legible scribble anywhere, though she really doesn't want to know how he got her address here. She thanks Marcie and takes it upstairs, closing the door before she rips it open.

Inside is a cheap Halloween costume, on the front of the plastic bag printed a woman in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. Taped to it is a note that reads: "Just in case you no longer have the original." Grinning, Kate pulls her PDA out of her bag and taps a quick message to him before heading back downstairs to see if Melanie needs any help with the kids.

You bring the handcuffs, and we'll see what we can do about that. I'll be back in a few, so stay out of trouble. If you get bored, I happen to know McGee's home address.
Playing poker with Tony's friends, Kate feels like she's back in college. The six of them are hunched over a worn and beaten card table set up in the middle of Tom's living room. Tom's the one in the Delta Chi t-shirt that's far too small for him, she recalls, and Chad is the one to her right with the glasses and far too much gel in his hair. She can't remember the names of the other two to save her life. Tom produces a deck of cards that look like they've seen better days and proceeds to shuffle them, while Tony distributes bottles of Heineken and passes around a bowl of potato chips. Kate wonders wryly if there's a keg in the bathtub as he drops down beside her, slinging an arm around the back of her chair. She shoves him away.

"No cheating," she warns, waving a finger in his face. His buddies laugh loudly, and Kate fights the urge to groan. She's never been a fan of fraternities - not even when she was in college. Tony had just better be glad he talked her into leaving her gun at home, because she's sorely tempted to use it when she catches the blonde in the green polo shirt peering down the front of her tank top as if he's never seen a pair of breasts before. Which may actually be the case, she thinks snarkily, looking him up and down. No, that was mean, she decides. Tony must be friends with him for a reason. Then again, he's never been the best judge of character.

These guys play for money - a thirty-dollar buy-in. Kate looses the first few hands on purpose. Tony sees exactly what she's doing, but he stays silent. The blonde is all in after three hands and looses. Tom follows soon after. They dig another round out of the refrigerator and Kate sips slowly, watching the others get progressively more and more sloppy. Chad is the next one to go out, but his friend - Jake, that was his name - lasts quite awhile longer, having a lucky streak of pocket pairs. But he loses to Tony's straight and it's down to him and Kate.

They've never played like this before - a serious game, with something more than gummi bears in the pot. But both of them are intensely competitive people, and neither are willing to back down. The other guys gather around the table as if the game's a spectator sport, taking sides and placing bets. Kate and Tony ignore them, staring one another down as they contemplate their next move.

It's a long, tough game, and they stay at pretty much even until Kate starts losing, folding good hands and raising even though she doesn't have anything. She knows just how to sit, how to set her mouth and eyes, so that Tony thinks she's actually trying. And he laps it right up, becoming predictably cocky. It's always been his downfall, and tonight is no exception, even after watching her use the exact same tactic on his friends. He starts betting higher on worse hands, and before he knows it, Kate has stolen the entire pot out from underneath him with a straight, and he's left sitting in shock with a pair of aces.

Kate gleefully pockets the cash, letting the guys congratulate her. She's still smiling as she wanders into the kitchen to reward herself with a fresh beer. She pulls a bottle out of the fridge and takes a few sips, leaning against the counter as she studies the pile of dirty pots and pans in the sink. After a few minutes, Tony enters. He stands directly in front of Kate, invading her personal space, and pulls the bottle from her hand, stealing a sip.

"Gross, DiNozzo," she complains. He frowns.

"You haven't called me that in a long time," he says. He gives her back her beer and leans forward, grabbing the edges of the counter and effectively trapping her. Kate's surprised that he noticed.

"No, I haven't," she agrees. Tony watches her drink, and she meets his gaze the whole time. When she's about halfway finished, he blurts out:

"Jake thinks you're hot." Kate raises an eyebrow.

"Really." With a grin, he nods.

"Well, maybe I'll just have to go give him my number," she teases. Tony frowns a little.

"Why? You'd go out with him?" he asks. Kate feels herself start to smile, and she raises the bottle up to her lips to cover it. After taking one last swallow, she sets it on the counter and nudges Tony with her hip.

"Let's get out of here," she says. "This money's burning a whole in my pocket. You up for a shopping spree?" Tony grins. Threading her arm through his, Kate pulls him out into the living room to say their goodbyes.

Abby and McGee have had one of their famous fights, and are currently ignoring one another. Abby, meanwhile, has discovered a yet-unfound love for her forty-year-old dentist. Tony doesn't even pretend to understand how her mind works, but he does encourage the relationship - after all, anyone is better for her than the probie. Her first few attempts are unsuccessful, but Abby is nothing if not persistent. Undaunted, she simply states that she'll try harder next time. Tony asks what she plans to do, pretty sure he'll regret hearing the answer.

"I'm thinking the ice cream approach might work well in this situation," Abby says, spinning around in her chair and sipping her soda as they wait for the computer to finish running the necessary tests on several vials of blood. Tony frowns, his brow furrowing questioningly at the response. "There's something inherently sexual about watching a woman eat ice cream. Don't ask me what it is, I just know it's true - I've tested. From a cone, with a spoon - doesn't matter."

Tony laughs and tugs at her pigtails. He doesn't know where on earth she comes up with these things. After pointing out that a dentist probably wouldn't be very impressed with a patient eating all that sugar, he wanders off to find Gibbs.

That night, Kate pulls a pint of Caramel Fudge Swirl out of the freezer as Tony slides "Man on Fire" into the DVD player for the thousandth time. She drops onto the couch right beside him, draping her legs over his lap as she hands him a spoon. The movie starts, and in the flickering light of the television, Tony watches her lips curl around the spoon, her tongue dart out to lick away a melting drop.

It's right then that he knows he's wholly fucked.
Suddenly, Tony finds himself noticing little things that he never paid attention to before - like how Kate licks her top lip when she's nervous, but bites the bottom one when she's excited. He eyes her when she stretches, waiting for a flash of her toned stomach. He watches her walking in front of him, her slim waist and gently swinging hips.

Part of him feels bad about this. He's looking at her, thinking about her, like he does most women. But from the beginning, Kate has been different. He likes her, respects her. Undeniably, he's attracted to her, but if he had to choose between a one-night stand with her or a lifetime of friendship, he has to admit that he'd choose friendship. And that is what sets her apart.

She's smart and she's strong, and girls like that don't have time for goofballs like Tony. But Kate is someone that he wants by his side - to have his back, to make him smile. And for that, and he'll gladly sacrifice the uncertainty of what could be for the security of what is.
Tony organizes two more poker nights before Kate decides that he needs to meet some people who have mentally progressed beyond the age of nineteen. On New Year's, she informs him that he's coming to a party at her friend Sara's house. She brings up this idea when he's in a good mood, stuffed full of Chinese take-out and in the middle of one of her "amazing" back rubs - his word, not hers. He lets out a groan as she digs into a particularly hard knot and mutters that he's surprised she has friends. She jabs at him with her thumb and he yelps, and when she threatens to do it again and he agrees.

A week later, she worries that maybe inviting him wasn't the best idea. But by then the decision has been made, the RSVP sent, and Kate knows better to show up to Sara's without a date. So she sucks it up, and promises physical harm if Tony doesn't behave himself. At this, he flashes her a charming grin.

"I always behave," he replies. Kate groans.

"That's what I'm afraid of."

Somehow, he talks her into wearing the dress he bought for her. She's a little uncertain at first, but the look on Tony's face when she opens the door makes it completely worthwhile. She has to admit that he looks damn good as well. Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea.

Sara's house is packed, and Tony winds his arm around Kate's waist to make sure they don't get separated. They find Sara almost immediately - her strident voice and brassy blonde updo are hard to miss. She kisses Kate's cheek and looks Tony up and down, giving her friend an approving look. After a few minutes of polite chatter, she's swept away by her husband to greet a few new arrivals. Tony bends down to murmur in Kate's ear:

"Poor guy." Stifling her laughter, she elbows him.

"You promised to be good," she reminds. He grins unrepentantly, but he's the perfect gentleman for the rest of the evening, charming the hell out of all of her friends. While he's in the middle of a sports debate with some of her Secret Service buddies, Carolina grabs her by the elbow and drags her off to the side to talk.

"Marcie said you had a new boyfriend," she says. "She didn't say he was so cute!" Kate gapes.

"Marcie told you that Tony and I are seeing each other?" she exclaims, mentally running through the ever-present list of ways to kill her sister.

"Well, she said you two were inseparable. I guess we just assumed..." Carolina trails off, probably worried that she got Marcie in trouble. But Marcie's big mouth is always getting her in trouble, she should be used to it by now.

"Tony and I work together," she corrects. "We're really good friends, but we're not dating." Looking up, she sees him coming towards them. Carolina follows her eyes.

"Well why the hell not?" she mutters before he's within earshot, then wanders off to find her husband. Tony's hand finds its place at the swell of Kate's hip and she has to admit that sometimes she wonders the same thing.

Midnight comes sooner than either of them expected. The whole room starts counting down, and Tony gets this completely unreadable look in his eye. Kate freezes, mentally panicking. When they reach zero, he bucks tradition and presses a kiss to the graceful curve of her neck. Her pulse flutters under his lips, and she rings in the new year bathed in the heat of his body and the heady scent of his cologne.
Kate has always loved wintertime. As January approaches, she watches the days get shorter and the gentle snowfalls grow harder and heavier. As soon as it reaches snowstorm proportions, she calls Tony and demands that he come over. He complains that he's in the middle of something. She asks what, and when he can't come up with anything, she takes a page out of Gibbs' book and hangs up on him without saying goodbye.

Ten minutes later, she's watching out the window when his car pulls up. Unable to hide her gleeful smile, she bundles up and races down the stairs so that by the time he gets to the front door of the building, she's waiting around the corner with a snowball in hand. It bounces off his shoulder and he whips his head around. She ducks behind the brick, but she's not fast enough.

"Oh, you're asking for it," she hears as she takes off at a run. A large, lopsided snowball whizzes past her ear as she seeks cover behind an oak tree, and when she turns around he has one more in each hand. She sticks her tongue out as she forms several of her own and shoves them in her pockets. Then she charges.

The battle lasts a good two hours, and by that time they're both wet and shivering. Tony follows Kate up to her apartment, past the elevator with the hand-scrawled "Out of Order" sign tacked across it, taking advantage of their positions by pulling a carefully-concealed snowball out of his pocket and shoving it down the back of her jacket. She shrieks, turning around and beating at him with her gloved fists. Laughing, he grabs her by the waist and hoists her over his shoulder, carrying her up the last two flights of steps and complaining the whole way about how heavy she is. She smacks his ass in retaliation.

Once Tony has stolen the keys out of her pocket, he carries her inside and throws her down on the couch, stripping off his soaking coat and shoes. "I get the shower first," he declares. Kate leaps to her feet, but by the time she reaches the bathroom, he's down to his jeans and socks and she runs right into his bare chest.

"Sorry," she mutters, her face flushing. Turning, she pulls a towel out of the linen closet and shoves it at him.

He exits the bathroom without a word, and even though they've been out in the snow all afternoon, Kate relishes the stream of cold water. But when she gets out, she starts shivering.

"Geez," Tony mutters, handing her a mug of hot chocolate he's made. He guides her over to the couch and pulls her body against his.

They never even get around to turning on the television. Kate falls asleep with her head pillowed against Tony's chest, his heart beating a steady rhythm against her cheek.

Valentine's Day is a horrible holiday, Kate thinks on the way to work. She thinks this every year, but it never makes it any less true.

Abby and McGee are back together, but they've never been big on the PDA, so they're bearable as far as Kate is concerned. McGee stammers and blushes when Abby asks if he's the one that put the vase of black roses on her lab table. She grins widely when he admits to it, and gives him a quick peck on the cheek before handing everyone small white cards taped to enormous chocolate bars. Inside the cards are lists of all sorts of euphemisms for sex - from the cheesy to the perverse to the downright bizarre.

Ducky simply shakes his head. Gibbs squeezes Abby's shoulder and thanks her for the chocolate, wisely ignoring the card. McGee blushes. Kate laughs. And Tony takes great joy out of reading the list out loud. He gets only about a quarter of the way through before getting smacked in the head and yelled at to get to work.

When the clock strikes six, Tony and Kate both go back to their respective homes alone, knowing well that anything said or done on this day is bound to be beyond awkward. They're slowly moving past the 'just-friends' state, but once they're past it, they don't know where to go or how to get there, so they're constantly taking one hesitant baby step forward only to leap three gigantic steps backward. Yet Kate can't shake the wistful thought that getting something on Valentine's Day would have been nice. But as soon as she allows that thought to fully form, she shoves it to the back of her mind where it belongs.

Back at home, she's ready for a hot shower and a glass of wine. As she climbs the stairs, she can practically taste the leftover rice and curry that's sitting in her fridge.

When she reaches her door, she pauses. There's a huge wicker basket on the floor in front of it, wrapped in cellophane. Clear, so that she can see the bottle of champagne, box of chocolates, bubble bath, massage oil, and candles inside it. She doesn't even look for the card, because there's only one person that would do something so ridiculously cheesy.

At the office the next day, neither of them mention it. But Kate leaves several of the chocolates sitting on Tony's desk, and when he finds them, he pops them in his mouth one by one as he grins at her, licking his lips lasciviously. She blushes, looking down at her computer screen. It takes her far longer to finish her report than it should.
In March, her twin brothers Brian and Justin celebrate their thirtieth birthday. Their mother organizes a huge party under tents in the backyard, with over-the-top decorations and a huge cake and two entire tables dedicated to presents. Kate drags Tony along with her for company. He complains, but he's admitted before that he actually enjoys himself at these gatherings - he doesn't have much of a family to speak of, so he likes being around hers.

As with New Year's, he's exceedingly charming to everyone she introduces him to. But this time, they get even more instances of people asking how long they've been together. Kate supposes it has something to do with the way they stay physically connected at all times - her hand in the crook of his elbow, or his arm around her waist. They fend these questions off with smiles and shakes of the head, which is fine until they reach Kate's mother, who initially refuses to believe that the pair are not involved, and then moves on to demanding to know why they aren't. Tony smiles politely throughout this exchange, and he can tell that Kate is a half-step away from losing her cool. Just in time, the older woman spots Marcie, and excuses herself. Tony phrases his response in the nicest way possible.

"They really seem to want you to get married," he says. Kate snorts derisively.

"Don't you know?" she chides. "That's all that matters in life." Tony throws an arm around her shoulder and hugs her against him. Kate leans into him, looking up at the house. "Let's go inside," she murmurs. Tony's brow furrows in curiosity, but he lets her take his hand and lead him inside, past the bustle of the catering crew, and up the stairs to a closed wooden door. She pushes it open and Tony follows her inside.

It's a bedroom - one done up completely in pink. The walls, the drapes, the bedspread, the pillows, the lamp, the chair...all different shades of pink. He wonders whose it is until he spots a teddy bear on the bed holding a small satin heart with the name "Katie" embroidered across it.

"Never pegged you for the girly type, Kate," he says, wandering around and checking out the rest of the room.

"I wasn't," she replies, sitting down on the bed and just soaking it all in. "My dad thought all girls loved dolls and the color pink - hated the fact that I didn't." Further inspection reveals to Tony traces of the real Kate underneath all the frills and lace - a well-worn science book on the desk, a stack of rock CD's atop an old, dusty boom box. These Tony shuffles through with a teasing grin thrown in Kate's direction. He examines the pictures tacked up to the wall, and finds that it's quite easy to pick out the vibrant brunette with the mischievous smile. Even back then, it was clear she was as energetic and full of life as she is now. Smiling fondly, he looks over at her sitting gingerly on the edge of the lacy pink bed. To him, she still looks that young sometimes - times like now, when her hair is pulled back and she's wearing virtually no makeup, dressed in a simple tank top and jeans.

Tony knows lots of women who would never be caught dead without perfectly-applied makeup and carefully-chosen outfits and accessories. Not Kate. Kate rolls out of bed first thing in the morning and she's still gorgeous. She's always gorgeous, in his eyes, but he doesn't think she even realizes it. He likes that about her - that she's confident enough to show herself to him at her worst, never worrying that he'll think less of her just because she doesn't look perfect.

Feeling Tony's eyes on her, Kate looks up, catching him staring. A slow smile spreads across her face and she tilts her head to the side almost imperceptibly. In four strides, Tony is sitting next to her. She nibbles her lower lip for a moment, and when she releases it, she's leaning towards him. Tony freezes, but she doesn't let that stop her - she leans even closer, and before he knows it, their lips meet.

At this point, Kate's not at all surprised how natural it feels to be kissing him. Tony's hesitant at first, but then she feels his tongue sweep across her teeth, begging entry, and she allows it, dueling with her own. She bends backwards, pulling him with her, and he settles on top of her on the bed, his hand reaching up to cup her face as he tries to press even closer.

Footsteps pound down the hallway and they jump apart as if they've been burned, regarding each other warily. Together, they climb off of the bed and down the winding stairs, pausing only to wish Brian and Justin a happy birthday once more before heading straight for Kate's car. The entire drive back, they don't speak a word.

Abruptly, their routine comes to a halt. Tony hasn't seen Kate outside of the office for over two weeks. He longs to say something, but nothing seems right. Ducky, Abby, and McGee are placing bets at how long it will be before he apologizes for whatever it is he's done and Kate lets him off the hook. He hates that they automatically assume that it's his fault.

But, really, it is. He can come up with a thousand reasons why they shouldn't have done what they did. Unfortunately, none of those change the fact that it's happened anyway, nor do they help him figure out what he needs to do next. He really should have stuck to his guns and left well enough alone.

Funny how all logic goes flying out the window as soon as he's in Kate's presence. He'd take that as a sign if only he could admit to himself what it's a sign of.

As soon as the team finds out that the son of the dead Marine whose death they're investigating was regularly beaten by his father, Kate knows it's going to be tough on Tony. He works day and night, falling asleep at his desk for hour-long intervals when his body simply can't take it anymore. Gibbs observes this without comment, knowing better. Instead, he brings him coffee in the morning and doesn't disturb him when he falls asleep, even if it's in the middle of the day.

By the time their leads finally start hitting paydirt rather than dead ends, they're all exhausted and over-worked. Kate and Gibbs snap at each other and Ducky is unusually quiet. Even Abby is uncharacteristically somber.

The case culminates with the arrest of the father's killer - his C.O, who became frightened when the Petty Officer discovered his homosexuality that he would be exposed and lose his job. The boy is placed with the Petty Officer's best friend, married with two children of his own.

Kate drives Tony home. He sits silently in the passenger's seat, no doubt going over the photos of the boy's small, battered body in his mind. Kate knows that his own father never beat him, but that with the alcoholism and the temper, it was always a very real fear. Halfway to his apartment, she makes a U-turn, taking him instead to hers. He doesn't even seem to notice until they're pulling into her parking space and she's turning off the engine.

"You're not staying alone tonight," she says quietly. Tony nods numbly, following her inside and into the newly-repaired elevator. She reaches over and takes his hand as they ascend, squeezing it firmly with her own and entwining their fingers.

Inside the apartment, Kate hands him a clean t-shirt and pair of boxers and pushes him gently towards the shower. He comes out smelling clean and looking slightly better, and makes a beeline for the couch. He lies down and stares straight at the ceiling, eyes wide open. Kate watches him for a minute before she steps into the bathroom to take her own shower. When she's finished, she finds him in exactly the same position, still wide awake. She walks toward him, and his eyes shift to watch her approach.

"Get up," she says.


"Because you're staying in my room tonight." Tony shakes his head.

"No, I'm not kicking you out of your own bed," he says. Kate smiles.

"You're not."

It takes him a minute to process this, than another to determine that she's completely sincere.

"I don't think that's the best idea," he says hesitantly. Kate takes his arms and pulls him to his feet, wrapping her arms around his waist once he's standing and kissing him squarely on the mouth.

"I do."

Tony doesn't know what to say to that. So he follows her into her bedroom and lies down beside her, tensing up when she pulls the covers over them and sidles up next to him. But the heat of her body letting him know that she's right there beside him, safe and secure, comforts him, and he soon finds himself rolling on his side, spooning her from behind and pulling her as close as he can. Despite everything, she's here beside him - his partner, his friend, his...what?

Tony doesn't know. But what he does know is that when he wakes up tomorrow, she'll still be here, and they'll have plenty of time to figure it out.