AN - I wasn't expecting people to be quite so surprised about how Tony reacted - I guess I just always see him as someone driven by his emotions. Having raised so many expectations I hope my ending of choice doesn't disappoint. The Christmas story is almost done. Should be able to start posting that on Friday.

It wasn't the first time he had argued with Gibbs. Tony knew he was one of the few people that the ex-marine allowed the leeway to follow his gut and speak his own mind. It wasn't even the first time he had hit him. He'd lost count of the number of times they had sparred in the gym over the years. On one memorable occasion, Gibbs had even taken him down in the middle of autopsy to demonstrate how to break a man's neck. But they had never crossed this line before. There was only one thing he could do.

"You'll have my resignation in the morning." He turned away, feeling numb and utterly defeated.

"DiNozzo, Freeze!"

The parade ground bark stopped him in his tracks. He owed Gibbs. More than his career, more even than his life. If Gibbs wanted to beat the crap out of him, he'd stand there and let him. Head bowed, he waited as Gibbs circled around him, feeling his stupid, treacherous body shaking with emotion and adrenalin, ready to take whatever was coming.

Instead of the blow he was expecting, the ex-marine stepped right up into his personal space and put his hands tenderly, almost reverently, on either side of Tony's face and gently tilted his chin up. Rather then the anger he was expecting, the blue eyes were soft with concern.

"It's alright." A calloused thumb caressed his cheek.

Tony shook his head silently, feeling the tears pool in his eyes, the unexpected compassion, ripping away his defences more surely than any anger or violence would have done. How could this be alright?

"I hit you.." He choked out.

"I know." Gibbs smiled.

"And you're .. okay with that?" Tony was thoroughly confused. Shouldn't Gibbs be slapping him silly? Or at least yellling? Or something?

"When my CO came to find me after Shannon and Kelly were murdered, I dammed near broke his jaw," Gibbs admitted. "Poor guy was trying to tell me that in time I would be able to love again. Let other people into my life. Find new reasons for living. Back then, I thought he was full of crap. Never figured I'd live to see the day I'd have to eat my words."

"Oh," Tony blushed, slightly as the true meaning of Gibbs words sunk in. Embarrassed, he sniffed and tried for somehting close to normal. "That's alright, Boss. You don't have to say anything. I know how you feel about me."

"You let me be the judge of that, DiNozzo," Gibbs countered gruffly. "You think, I want to be having this conversation every time you think you've screwed up, or the next time you get your own team, or whenever you finally get around to giving me grandchildren?"

"Grandchildren?" Tony squeaked.

"I need you to listen to me, Tony," Gibbs patted his cheek to focus him. "Are you listening?"

"I'm listening, Boss." Tony nodded fervantly.

"I might be a grade A bastard sometimes but the difference between me and your father is that I love you."

"You do .. what?" Tony was proud that his voice only sounded slightly strangled. He wasn't exactly sure what he had been expecting but it certainly wasn't such an unequivocal declartion of .. well love.

As his Boss dropped his hands and tipped his head on one side regarding him steadily, Tony waited for a typical Gibbs like response. Perhaps, a raised brow or an unreadable look, maybe even a head slap. A well trained Federal Agent should never need telling twice, even when he really needed it.

"I said," Gibbs' smile was tolerant, as he repeated patiently. "I love you."

"Oh," Tony tried to process that, as a blush of pleasure rose up his neck and across his pale features, turning his ears an embarrassing shade of bright pink. "Well, good."

Turning on his heel and striding ahead, Gibbs let a fond grin spread across his face at the younger man's reaction. He'd always figured that DiNozzo knew that he loved him. After all they'd been through he wouldn't be much of an investigator if he hadn't worked that out. But he had never actually said the words before.

Still, they weren't done with this yet.

Gibbs just hoped that he'd said enough, because if this didn't work, he didn't have the first clue about how to get DiNozzo to admit the thing that had really been eating at him all this time. And the way the pain and the guilt was tearing him up inside he would be no good to Gibbs or NCIS.

"It should have been me," Tony's voice came quietly from behind him. "If you hadn't come back from Mexico, it would have been my team taking that surveillance duty. We both know I don't have the seniority to get my people out of weekend call. So, it would have been me, sending Ziva and McGee in there. Watching them die."

"Loving people isn't enough to keep them safe," Gibbs stopped but didn't turn. "You know that."

"Not my first rodeo," Tony agreed. Thinking of all the friends and colleagues had had lost. People died. He knew that. "Paula asked me when I had become so caring."

He was surprised at how much the comment had hurt. He had cared about her. Enough to ignore Gibbs warnings, enough to disregard rule twelve, enough that whilst they were dating, he had stayed faithful to her, even when she was deployed. Not that he'd ever told anyone that, not even her.

"You care, DiNozzo," Now Gibbs turned back, closing the space between them. "You think I would have given you my team, if you didn't?"

"What if I'd killed them?" Tony met his gaze squarely, but his expression was anguished at the fear that he could so easily have betrayed Gibbs' faith in him. "You gave them to me. You trusted me to take care of things, to watch their six. What if I'd let them die? Would you even have been able to look at me?"

Gibbs shook his head as he reached out and rubbed his hand across the back of DiNozzo's neck, letting the soothing contact re-enforce his words as he spoke soft and low.

"It wouldn't have been your fault, any more than it was Cassidy's. She made the best decision she could, based on the Intel she had. Hell, I probably would have made the same decision myself," Gibbs clenched his jaw, feeling his hand tighten almost possesively around Tony's neck before adding the unbearable part. "Except, I would have been burying three Agents."

Tony blinked in surprise, he hadn't thought of it like that. But Gibbs expression left no room for doubt. God, he was an idiot. He should have realised that the ex-marine would be fighting his own demons over this.

"You know, Boss," Habit and instinct combined to try and lighten Gibbs mood. "If this is supposed to be a pep talk, I gotta tell you, I'd give it a C," He paused, considering. "Minus."

In response, Gibbs tipped his head in wry acknowledgement, before reaching up and slapping him lightly on the back of the head.

"You're not dead yet, DiNozzo."

"I'll try and keep it that way." Tony promised.

"So, are we done?" Gibbs demanded. "Because I need coffee."

Together they made their way down the steps and across the road to where Gibbs was parked. As the ex-marine fished his keys out of his pocket, Tony circled around to the passenger side, before leaning on the roof to look across at his Boss.

"What?" Gibbs asked.

"Sometimes, I don't know why you put up with me." He admitted awkwardly.

"Yeah well, that's another difference between me and your father, DiNozzo. I know a good investment when I see one."

"Love you, too, Boss." Tony grinned.

As they climbed into the car, Tony pulled the list from his pocket. Looking at his father's still uncrossed name, he came to a decision. Pulling out his lighter he touched an edge of the paper to the heat, watching as it blossomed into flame, before winding down the window and letting the final embers drop from his fingers.

Life was also too short to tell someone you loved them, if you didn't.