by Bluebird88

Disclaimer: I don't own NCIS or any of its characters or plotlines. No copyright infringement is intended.

Smack! Funny how no one even bothers to look up at that sound, anymore. It's become such a part of life at NCIS that Tony can't help thinking the other agents in the building would be a lot more concerned if they didn't hear it. It's bordering on ridiculous, really, the frequency with which his boss's hand makes contact with his poor, vulnerable head.

What does Gibbs think he's doing, for God's sake? Learning to play the drums? If NCIS needs a sound track, which really wouldn't be a bad idea at all, now that he thinks of it... Maybe even a Special Agent DiNozzo theme song? Now that has possibilities! Anyway, so Tony can understand wanting a little background music, but is the percussion really necessary? Really?

As it is, hardly a day goes by when his head doesn't bear the brunt of the boss's annoyance. Take a stroll through the bullpen at any given time, on any given day, and more often than not, that all-too-distinctive sound can be heard.

Smack! "Wake up, DiNozzo!"

Smack! "Cut it out, DiNozzo!"

Smack! "Focus, DiNozzo!"

Ah, yes. The soundtrack to the life of one Anthony DiNozzo. Tragic, isn't it?

Maybe he should think about growing his hair out. Might offer some more padding. But no, he's not the long-haired type. The thought of Probie's reaction alone is enough to turn him off that idea. McGeek provides him with fodder for ridicule, not the other way around!

But seriously. He's a Federal Agent. He has his dignity, after all. Too much of it, according to Ziva, but what does she know? Shouldn't he have more of a problem with the way Gibbs chooses to express his displeasure? Shouldn't he feel compelled to insist on being treated more like a competent investigator and less like a naughty puppy?

"It makes you feel wanted," Abby had told him once. And it's true. Because those few times Gibbs has been angry enough with him that he hadn't cracked him on the back of the head? Those are by far the worst. A quick slap, he can handle, no problem. It means he's screwed up, but they're moving on. Most of the time, the growled, "You do that again, DiNozzo…" isn't even necessary. Because Tony knows. And more importantly, Gibbs knows he knows.

But there have been a few times, just a few, when the expected slap hasn't come. Times when, instead of raising a hand, or responding to the fact that his Senior Agent's face is screwed up in anticipation, practically inviting him to find his target, Gibbs has just stared. And that's almost more than Tony can handle. He would do just about anything to never have that quiet, disappointed gaze directed at him again. So in a way, Abby's right. When the obligatory head-slap is neglected, Tony does feel like something's missing. Not that he would ever admit it.

"It's an American custom. Form of affection!" he'd told Ziva the first time she witnessed it, much to her amusement. What she doesn't know, though, is that Tony is starting to actually believe that that's true. That's not pathetic, is it? A grown man reading something like that into being whacked on the head? And hey, maybe he's wrong. Maybe all Gibbs does intend from the slaps is to shut him up. But somehow, he doesn't quite believe that.

Because while anyone else might only see a smack on the head, Tony sees much more. He sees the slight softening around the eyes that is the Gibbs-equivalent to laughing out loud. He sees the tolerant half-smile when he makes yet another bad joke or obscure movie reference. He sees the suppressed amusement sometimes, or the veiled concern in his boss's eyes. And sometimes, when he's really lucky, he sees something that just might be pride.

Besides, as he tells Probie, "There are head-slaps, and then there are head-slaps." And, for all he said that with the smug, superior little grin he reserves for when he wants to annoy McGee, that's true, too. Because not all Gibbs-slaps are created equal. And Tony considers himself something of an expert on the subject.

There's the "Knock it off and get to work, DiNozzo" slap, sure, but there's also the "Well, you're being a smart-ass, but that was really pretty funny" slap, with the accompanying eye roll and rueful little grin. Then, of course, there's the one he's gotten a few times – while in prison after being framed for murder, going crazy from a frustrating case – the one that says, "Easy, Tony. You're not in this alone."

And then there was the pop on the forehead when he was in the hospital with actual, honest-to-God plague. That one he'll never forget. Gibbs didn't go all sappy on him, thank God, but that quiet, intense, "You will not die" still tears at Tony a little every time he thinks about it. Because he'll never admit it out loud, but that gruff little scene may well have been the only thing that kept him from going crazy in there, thinking about his odds of surviving. Because it may have seemed like business as usual to the casual observer, but Tony had heard what hadn't been said. And that little shadow of a slap had brought just enough normalcy to the eerie isolation room to calm him down.

Besides, Tony knows one more thing no one else does: he remembers the first time his head and Gibbs's palm became so intimately acquainted. McGee and Ziva would probably assume it was because of one of his wise-ass comments. And technically, they'd be right. But there was more to it than that.

Soon after Tony had started at NCIS, they'd just finished up a case, a tough one. Tony had had his share of rough cases, of course, but for whatever reason, this one had really gotten to him. He'd done his best to hide it, presenting a smiling face to the world, but he hadn't yet known how perceptive Gibbs can be.

"You gonna be OK?" his new boss had asked him. Tony hadn't known him too well yet, hadn't been at all sure of his footing. So, of course, he had relied on his usual bravado, hiding behind a joke and a bright smile to avoid having to really answer the question. He was not about to do something to make his boss think he wasn't up to the job, after all. Tony doesn't really remember whatever wisecrack he made, but he will never forget Gibbs's response.

His boss had stared at him for a long moment, with that piercing gaze Tony would eventually learn to dread, and then very deliberately come up behind him and cuffed him on the back of the head. The blow hadn't hurt. In fact, by Gibbs's standards it was positively gentle. But it had been enough to get his attention, which was what had mattered. Tony had looked back at him with wide eyes, too stunned to do anything but stare. Gibbs, hand still on the back of Tony's head, had leaned in close and said quietly, for his ears only, "That act doesn't work on me, Agent DiNozzo."

He hadn't said anything more, but his hand had tightened briefly in what might be called a reassuring squeeze, had it come from anyone but Gibbs. And Tony had seen the understanding, the compassion in those piercing blue eyes. And though Gibbs had left with nothing more than a gruff, "Back to work, DiNozzo," somehow Tony had felt a lot better.

So yeah, maybe Tony does read just a little bit of affection into those ever-present smacks. Because he knows Gibbs. And the thing you have to understand about Gibbs is, it's not about what he says.

A/N: Feedback is more than welcome! I would love to know what you thought.