AN – OK, so I'll admit it wasn't orginally going to end exactly like this but do you think what Tony said in "Last Man Standing" came out of no-where? Grins.

Gibbs pressed his lips together as the words hung in the silence between them. He'd pretty much figured it would kick off with something like this. He knew how important this kinda stuff was to DiNozzo. He would bet his boat that his senior field Agent kept a mental tally of the number of times he told Ziva 'good job' or tousled McGee's hair. He'd also bet the younger knew exactly how many times Gibbs had reamed him out for something. But, despite his lightening joy at the least word of praise, Gibbs knew damned well that DiNozzo somehow never managed to take those words so much to heart.

"Yeah, because Tony is so formal." He scoffed fondly.

"You hugged him," Tony accused, even as he hated how childish it sounded. "You just strode into the Director's office and hugged him, right in front of her, grinning from ear to ear like he was some kind of favourite nephew. You've never hugged me like that."

It wasn't as if Gibbs had never hugged him. In the past seven years there had been times when he was sick, or injured, in serious trouble, or emotionally adrift, when the feel of warm, calloused hands on his neck and back as he was pulled into a quick, hard, hug, had been the only thing keeping him grounded. As time passed he'd even become daring enough to return the favour. But it had always been a 'life or death' kind of thing. Hell, he'd taken it hard enough when Gibbs had shaken Stan's hand. This thing with Langer was in a whole different league.

"Yeah well, better get used to it." Gibbs' offhand comment surprised him. "'Cause I'm not planning to, either."

Tony paused, looking closely at Gibbs expression as the man simply brushed aside the possibility that he would have occaision to hug him like that. The ex-marine might be a demanding bastard but he wasn't a deliberately cruel man. There was something going on here that he was missing. In general, Gibbs was pretty good at showing him affection, but it was more in the day-to-day things, a look here, or a smile there, knowing his favourite pizza or how he liked his steak, giving him a ride to work, or a roof over his head, always being there when he needed him. In the last seven years Gibbs had become the one constant in his life and he couldn't imagine not having him around.

"Ah," He realised softly. "You haven't seen Langer in a while, huh?"

"Nope." Gibbs agreed easily. Until Langer had rung him out of the blue, he hadn't seen or spoken to his former Agent since he made the move to the FBI. It wasn't that he hadn't liked him well enough he just hadn't felt the need to keep in touch. He couldn't imagine just cutting Tony loose like that.

"And that's never going to be us?" Tony knew he sounded a little desperate but he felt the need to spell it out.

In answer, Gibbs simply looked at him. Tony managed a sheepish look as he reached out and wrapped his fingers around the other man's wrist, lifting it up and guiding it to the back of his head so that Gibbs could cuff him lightly like an errant pup. Tony forced a smile, even as he absorbed the impact. What did it say about him that he could only understand love when it came with a firm hand and a hard ass attitude? The ex-marine was a man of his word, why did Tony feel the constant need to test him? What if one of these days he actually managed to drive him away? Maybe, Gibbs had been right yesterday when he'd said there was a reason none of his relationships had lasted.

"I don't know, Boss," He made a face. "Maybe, you'd be better off with a guy like Langer. He doesn't have half the .."

"Hey!" Gibbs' tone was sharp, but his hands were gentle as they cupped either side of his face, one thumb caressing a vulnerable cheek bone. "You see Langer here anywhere? I haven't been watching his six for the past seven years. I chose to keep you in my life. And even if I retire again, or one of us gets re-assigned, or the whole world goes to hell in a hand basket and I get called up as a reservist, you will always be part of my life. Are we clear?"

Tony had to swallow hard at the depth of devotion in that blue eyed gaze. His own father had never looked at him like he was that important. That someone he respected and admired as much as he did Gibbs could feel that way about him was truly humbling. God, how he loved that man, and, for once, it seemed like his loyalty and devotion was actually reciprocated.

"Crystal, Boss." He vowed with all his heart.

Gibbs nodded sharply satisfied that part of his message, at least, had got through. As for the rest, well they had the rest of their lives to work on that. Part of Gibbs figured it might take almost that long, but he didn't mind, he liked a challenge and DiNozzo, sure as hell, was worth the effort. Moving over to the door, he had put his hand on the handle when he realised Tony wasn't quite done yet.

"I do love you, Boss."

The quiet sincerity in those words almost undid Gibbs. This wasn't the Tony that covered his emotions with a joke, or a self-depreciating comment, always wary that anything he said might be used against him. This was the rarely glimpsed, vulnerable young man, who ached to love and be loved. Who craved far more than beer and sex, a sense of belonging, of family.

"Hell, I knew that, DiNozzo," Gibbs' own voice was a little tight. He swallowed hard. "I was just waiting for you to realise it."

"I'm a slow learner." Tony managed. "Still, don't know why you didn't kick my ass to the curve those first few months at NCIS."

Gibbs considered that. There were a number of ways he could answer that question, because he had seen a bright and intuitive detective with a great deal of potential, or that he had recognised in the talented young man a kindred spirit who was in danger of loosing himself to a mixture of burn out and depression, if someone didn't take him firmly in hand, or admit the simple truth that he had enjoyed his sense of humour and admired his guts in standing up to him. But he realised there was actually only one thing Tony needed to know. Turning around, he crossed the room, and put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing firmly to re-enforce his words as he looked into his eyes.

"You sure you don't know?" He raised a brow.

He had said it before, in a thousand different ways, every time he had bought him lunch when he was hungry or sent him home when he was exhausted. He had said it with his eyes when he had acknowledged a job well done, or in a moment of shared amusement. He had said it with his hands, every time he had cared enough to head slap him back on course, or tended his wounds with a gentle touch. But he knew better than just to come right out and say it. This was something Tony needed to realise for himself.

"Because you love me too." Tony acknowledged.

"Knew there was a reason I hired you." Gibbs grinned. "Always, have. Always will. That's how it usually works."

"You really mean that?" Tony grinned brightly, joy shining in his eyes at the unequivocal endorsement, his attempt to school his expression at his Boss' sardonic look not fooling either of them. "Of course, you do. I knew that."

Gibbs shook his head fondly. He didn't doubt that at some level Tony had always known. But his own insecurities had never let him quite believe it. And Gibbs own fears that if he pushed too hard, or asked too much of his senior field agent, that DiNozzo's commitment issues would come to the fore and he would take off, had only added to the confusion.

"We need to have this conversation again?" Gibbs kept his tone light, but his expression was deadly serious.

Tony didn't pretend to misunderstand him. They both knew that they had danced around this issue for far too long. Tony couldn't imagine having a better father than Gibbs and he knew the older man saw in DiNozzo the son he had never had. In the last few months alone, Tony had been on the point of resigning when he believed Gibbs had been killed in that house explosion and Gibbs knew he would have retired for good if those charred remains had been confirmed as Tony's corpse. Enough was enough.

"No, we're good," Tony smiled fondly. "Dad."

Gibbs nodded sharply, feeling a sense of completion as he looked into DiNozzo's eyes. He didn't imagine that everything would be plain sailing from now on. In their line of work you never knew what was around the corner and niether of them were the type to back away from trouble. But whatever came they would face it together.

Even if they were thousands of miles apart.

"Wait, till I tell Abby that you actually apologised to me." Tony said gleefully.

Yup. Gibbs grinned. Everything was going to be alright.

AN - Having written this I now feel the need to re-visit this conversation by writing Tony's departure for the Sea Hawk post Judgement day. I haven't seen "Last Man Standing" yet - but to the best of my knowledge there is no reference to Tony's departure as it picks up 126 days later. I'm also thinking of writing something where Gibbs gets called out to help Tony during those 126 days - if there is anything in canon that I need to include to faciliate those please let me know!