Disclaimer: The usual.

A/N: This will definitely be it since I somehow managed to find a happy ending in the midst of all that angst. AU from "Bounce" and discards everything else afterward. It's also exclusively Tony POV, with hints of 3rd Person Omniscient leaking in at times...

I also consciously emulated the style of "Reap the Whirlwind" by dress without sleeves.

From the office and the awkward conversation with Ziva, Tony drove directly home.

Once safely inside his apartment, he let himself slide to the floor, his back resting against the closed door. Part of him ached over the fact that Ziva had not pursued him when he fled NCIS headquarters, that she did not call or even watch his departure from the window overlooking the parking lot, but the realist within him silently acknowledged that it was better this way. Just like Gibbs, he was destined (doomed?) to be alone for the rest of his life. He obviously couldn't give a woman like Ziva what she needed – who was he, after all, but a forty year old with no real financial prospects and so many emotional issues that he probably needed therapy for the rest of his life? Officer Rivkin was on the fast-track to a directorship; he could give her authority, comfort, prestige, wealth, all the things a woman like her needed and wanted.

It would have been a lie to say that he wasn't relieved in some fashion. Finally, he could stop pretending and start focusing on the grim future before him instead of constantly wallowing in might-have-beens. All that mattered was that she was happy and Rivkin gave her that. This was for the best.

Tony sighed and desperately hoped that repetition would make it so.

He left D.C. on his forty-first birthday.

The entire team was there to see him off, though with varying amounts of enthusiasm or disappointment. Gibbs was as gruff and unreadable as usual, wearing his perpetual scowl and sipping his coffee. Tony hoped he imagined the glint of dismay in the older man's eyes as he offered his hand.

"You'll do fine, DiNozzo." They were simple words, but made Tony feel thirty-feet tall, bullet proof and capable of leaping tall buildings.

"Watch your six, Boss," DiNozzo replied as he offered his hand. Instead of accepting, Gibbs reached out with his free hand and smacked Tony across the back of the head. It was the first time he had done so since before Jenny died and DiNozzo felt a surge of … something well up within his stomach.

"For old times' sake," Gibbs declared before taking the hand and shaking it. Tony grinned.

McGee stood there silently, his expression torn as he seemed incapable of deciding whether he should be smug or distraught. Given the deterioration of their relationship since Tony returned from agent afloat status, DiNozzo decided it should probably be the former. He wasn't sure when their jokes had turned cruel and mean, but was sure it was his fault. Everything was always his fault.

"You'll be fine, Probie," he told the younger man. "Keep an eye on everyone for me, will ya?" A suspicious hint of moisture appeared in Tim's eyes, but Tony pretended not to notice.

"Sure thing, Tony," McGee said. He tried to say something else but couldn't find the words and simply forced a smile on his face.

Abby stood alongside Probie, a fierce glare on her face. In the last two weeks, she had vacillated between being almost morbidly depressed and righteously angry. She'd figured out most of the reason he was leaving – a late night visit a week earlier while he was particularly sad and more than a little drunk had resulted in him losing a piece of his self respect in front of her – and hadn't bothered trying to hide her fury at his utter inability to fix this situation. She understood why he had to get out of D.C., or at least said she understood, but still thought he was taking the coward's way out.

Which, he had to admit, he was.

"Don't forget to call me," she ordered as she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. He wasn't sure, but he thought one of his ribs might have cracked.

"Whenever I can," Tony said. It was a lie and Abby knew it, but she said nothing else, merely gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and let go of him. Recognizing his cue, McGee draped an arm over her shoulder.

"The office won't be the same without you, Anthony, my boy," Doctor Mallard announced as he stepped forward to shake Tony's hand. "Do be careful out there," he continued with an understanding gleam in his eyes.

"I'll do my best, Ducky." DiNozzo smiled. "What?" he asked with feigned surprise. "No stories to tell?" The medical examiner chuckled.

"Another time, perhaps," he said as Jimmy stepped forward and offered his hand.

"Good luck, Tony," the younger man said. They exchanged a nod.

"Same to you, Agent Palmer." He smirked at the sheepish grin that flashed across Jimmy's face as well as the confused looks the rest of the team gave them. Forcing his expression to one of neutrality, Tony turned to the last person waiting to say goodbye.


She stood quietly, an utterly unreadable expression upon her face, and they silently regarded one another for a long, silent moment. Pain stabbed through Tony's chest, nearly causing him to wince, and he gave her a smile that he knew looked fake.

"Well, Officer David," he said with false cheer, "I'll see you around."

"We both know that's a lie," Ziva retorted softly. She took a step closer to him, placing her left hand upon his chest. "I will miss you," she said.

"That's a lie too," Tony said with a grimace. He looked away, suddenly longing for this to be over. "I hope he makes you happy," he told her, voice pitched only for her ears.

"So do I," she replied before leaning in to give him a soft kiss. It wasn't passionate like the ones they had shared while on that undercover mission all those years ago, but seemed more heartfelt nonetheless. Tony felt tears prickle his eyes and rapidly blinked them away. "Ani lo mevin otcha," she murmured under her breath.

"Ani yode'a," he replied with a sad smile. "Shalom, Ziva." And without another word, he walked away.

He didn't look back.

Within a week of arriving in San Diego, he had put three men in prison.

Unfortunately, all three were members of the NCIS team he was assigned to. Even before his plane had landed, Tony had suspicions that the men of the SD major crimes unit were dirty based simply on the casefiles he'd spent reading – there were too many unanswered questions, too many avenues of investigation that the team hadn't even bothered to explore which made them corrupt or blatantly incompetent. By the second day in San Diego, he was convinced that his first guess was the right one – none of them were quite as good at hiding their crimes as they'd like to think – and had sent a discreet report directly to Vance in D.C. carefully annotating the evidence he'd observed or discovered. At the end of the third day, his ostensible team leader actually dared to offer him a cut of their blood money. Carefully, of course – the man wasn't a complete idiot after all – but the sheer audacity of the act left him stunned.

On the fourth day, however, two things happened that changed everything. First, his review of their outstanding cases led Tony to find evidence directly tying the SD team to an arms smuggling ring operation operating out of the naval base, and second, Director Vance called him on his cell – it was still the Washington number – with the green light to take them down. DiNozzo moved carefully after that, but eventually succeeded in isolating the trio and arresting them individually without them being capable of warning their allies. Once the three were in interrogation – separate rooms, of course; suspects were never left together – they folded and turned on each other so quickly that even Vance was impressed. Before he knew what was happening, DiNozzo found himself promoted to Supervisory Special Agent and heading the San Diego major crimes unit, a team that, at the moment, consisted only of himself.

Which was how he found himself sitting at a desk he still didn't really think of as his with a pencil and a notepad in front of him.

He decided that filling out the roster shouldn't be difficult: as in most things, Tony followed Gibbs' example and jotted down a quick list of the kinds of people he wanted. First, he needed a McGee to do that computer thing, then a DiNozzo for the fast thinking (but hopefully not the smart mouth), and finally a …

Grimacing, Tony scratched out the single letter he'd written – it was a Z, and just thinking about that letter made him angry and sad and depressed, all at once – before jotting down another name. Nikki Jardine wasn't normally the kind of person he would want to hang around with much, but she'd impressed him when they were in Iraq and with the War on Terror still raging, it would probably be a damned good idea to have someone on the team with her Middle East ties.

Picking up his phone, Tony quickly dialed a number from memory. It rang only once.

"Gibbs," came the harsh response, and despite himself, DiNozzo smiled.

"Hey, Boss," Tony said into the receiver. "Wanted to pick your brain for a minute."

"Four days, DiNozzo," Gibbs replied. "You've been there four days and already you need my help?"

"Not what you're thinking, Boss," Tony retorted. "You heard about Sanchez and his crew?"

"Yeah. Good work on that."

"Thanks, Boss." DiNozzo leaned back in his chair. "The director bumped me up to team leader but I don't have a team." His old boss grunted, but offered no other comment. "I need a McGee and wanted to know what you thought about Keating."

"Not as good," Gibbs said flatly, and Tony grinned at the compliment Tim didn't realize he was receiving. "Salvageable, though. If you pair him with somebody who can actually shoot and isn't afraid of his shadow."

"Keating it is," Tony said. He checked off the man's name. "I'm going to offer Jardine a spot too," he remarked.

"That's … not what I would've expected," Gibbs replied. He was silent for a moment, but when he spoke again, grudging approval had leaked into his voice. "You'll need somebody with her language skills and contacts to the Middle East. Good thinking, DiNozzo."

"Learned from the best, Boss." Tony stared at the pad for a heartbeat. "Problem is," he said darkly, "that leaves me with two agents who might as well be probies. I need somebody I can rely on, somebody who can watch my six…"

"Like you watched mine," Gibbs said. "Let me make a call." Without warning, the connection ended.

Two days later, Probationary Special Agent Dwayne J. Wilson walked into the squad room, a small travel bag slung over his shoulder.

"Special Agent Gibbs told me to watch your six," the younger man said by way of greeting. Despite his relative inexperience as a field agent, he looked more squared away than he had any right to be. He already appeared more capable than Jardine ever did when DiNozzo had worked with her in D.C. Tony took one look at the young man who had so impressed him months earlier and pointed to one of the empty desks.

"Welcome to the team," he said.

Both Jardine and Keating jumped at the chance to get back into the field, and by the end of the second week, Tony had his team assembled. It wasn't a perfect one, of course – Nikki seemed to have gotten worse with her whacky germ phobias, Keating was even geekier than Probie on McGee's worse day, and Dwayne was still learning the ropes – but it was his team. They weren't all longing for Gibbs to return from a Mexican hiatus, or looking at him as if he was a poor substitute for their real leader, or silently watching him as if they were expecting him to fall flat on his face. No, they were all his, to mold into a lean, mean investigating team, to obey his every wish. They were minions, really, like Oddjob to his Auric Goldfinger.

It was a heady moment.

Of course, Nikki had to ruin it when she broke out the disinfecting hand wipes and started trying to rub the plastic off of her keyboard.

Fortunately, dispatch chose that moment to buzz him, and Tony snatched up the phone before it had completed the first ring.

"Gear up," he snapped a moment later. "We've got a dead Marine."

"Right behind you, Boss," Keating declared, his familiarity with Gibbs' procedure comforting and off-putting at the same time. DiNozzo frowned – it was time for him to step out of his mentor's shadow.

"Don't call me boss," Tony ordered. "Dwayne, gas up the truck."

It took them nearly two months to find their equilibrium and carve out their niches on the team.

The role of full-time boss was one that Tony had to grow into, but his newfound zeal to prove worthy of being a team leader gave him more than enough drive to do so. He threw himself into the job so completely, so thoroughly that he spent more time in the office or in the field than he did in his apartment. If they didn't have something on the docket, he was reviewing cold cases – especially those left unsolved by the previous MCU – and demanding his people spend more time at the gym and the shooting range. For once, he didn't try to turn into Gibbs while in charge despite adopting many of his mentor's policies. Instead, he tried to find a middle ground between the smart-ass he used to be and the evil bastard that Gibbs was. It was surprisingly effective, and gave him newfound respect for all the people who had put up with his crap over the years. Eventually, everyone on the team – even Nikki, to his surprise – began shooting him that same look of respect tinged with awe that he remembered Kate and McGee and Zi … Officer David gave to Gibbs when the older man proved to once again be always right.

He still didn't let them call him 'Boss,' though.

To no one's surprise, Keating was the go-to guy for all things computer, but he gradually revealed an ability to ferret out lies during interrogations that almost seemed supernatural. Dwayne took to calling him the human polygraph, and the name was quickly shortened to just "Polly" by Nikki, much to Keating's dismay. Tony held off from using the nickname for nearly a month – it was too close to 'Probie' and that was McGee's name – but eventually caved when he realized he could barely remember what Keating's real first name was. As if to make up for his uncanny truth detecting super power, 'Polly' couldn't tell a lie to save his life. He stammered or blushed or fidgeted, but always – always – gave it away somehow.

Nikki's germ phobia, or mysophobia according to Keating and Wikipedia, continually bounced back and forth between being amusing and being annoying. While it slowed her work sometimes, it also seemed to have infected her – a notion that amused Tony more than it should have – with borderline OCD. She never let anything go, no matter how minor, which certainly had its benefits during investigations. Admittedly, it rather sucked outside of work, but DiNozzo solved that part of the problem by making sure he was never not at work around her.

She was still a slob, though, which was such a startling contradiction to her obsessive need to pick pick pick pick pick that it sometimes made Tony want to shoot her. No jury in the country would convict him once they found out what kind of a loon she could be.

Although he was technically the most junior of the agents, Dwayne quickly became Tony's de facto number two and, before DiNozzo knew it, a good friend. Wilson was everything Tony needed in an agent and a friend – he was a fast thinker, could be charming when he needed to be or intimidating when that didn't work, he picked things up very fast, and always looked out for his partner, whoever that might be at the moment. Keating started treating Dwayne as if he were a Hollywood action hero, and Nikki … well, Nikki was so infatuated with Wilson that Tony sometimes sent them off together just because it was funny to watch her try to keep from tripping over her tongue.

And so, two months to the day of his arrival in San Diego, DiNozzo found himself sitting at a table in a bar with his team, celebrating their closing of another case. Keating was almost drunk – apparently, two light beers well surpassed his tolerance – Nikki had enough of a buzz to temporarily forget just how germ phobic she was, and Dwayne was regaling them all with a retelling of his anticlimactic arrest of Petty Officer Sewell. Tony tuned the story out – he didn't really care that the petty officer literally crapped herself when Wilson pointed his Sig at her during her aborted escape attempt – and instead watched the faces of his team. His team.

It was the closest thing to a family he had, and right now, he couldn't be more proud of them.

"You okay, Bossman?" Dwayne asked, and DiNozzo realized that all three of them were looking at him strangely. He nodded and stood.

"Gonna head out," he replied. "Good job today," he added before glancing at Wilson. "Make sure they get home," Tony instructed.

"Will do."

Outside of the bar, the crisp California air washed away the fog that seemed to have shrouded his brain. Tony jammed his hands into his pockets and walked slowly toward his parked Charger. Sometimes, it was hard not to miss the Mustang, especially since he was living in sunny California, but on nights like this, when he was feeling particularly maudlin and lonely, all he could think about was a red GT, a raven-haired beauty, and a bloody floor.

No, it was far better that he didn't have the convertible anymore.

His apartment remained crammed with unpacked boxes, but DiNozzo paid them no mind as he tossed his keys into the bowl on the small island separating the living room from the kitchen. This wasn't home to him. He slept here, kept his clothes here, showered and sometimes ate here, but it wasn't home and probably never would be. Which was for the best, he supposed. People like him didn't have a home.

Collapsing on the bed, he closed his eyes and tried to push away all of the problems still lurking at the back of his mind. It didn't entirely work – it never did – but somehow, he managed to doze off, the vision of a dark-haired woman laughing at some stupid joke chasing him into slumber. His dreams were fitful as usual, and he came awake instantly when the phone rang.

"DiNozzo," he snapped into the receiver as he answered it. He glowered at the clock: three a.m.

"Got a dead one for you," the dispatcher said. "Navy captain in Balboa Park."

"Send the specifics to my PDA," Tony ordered as he rolled off the bed. He needed a shower first, and then a quadruple espresso, double caffeine, maybe with a side of Jolt cola.

And then he would call the rest of his team.

Three days later, his world turned upside down once more. It was a Friday.

The navy captain turned out to be the victim of an arms deal gone bad, though all of the evidence pointed toward him simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lifelong fitness nut who suffered from extreme insomnia, Captain Wallace Brown had been running in the park when he stumbled into the middle of an illegal transaction. Slugs from six different types of firearms were pulled from his body, and dozens of arrests had already been made as Tony's team – augmented by the rest of NCIS San Diego, of course – systematically dismantled what appeared to be a surprisingly large gunrunning organization.

One of the slugs had proven to be … hinky – Tony didn't understand the explanation from the unbelievably boring forensic scientist here in San Diego – so he had it shipped off to Abby via Overnight so she could do that thing she did. Mere hours after she received it, he received a summons from the lab, which was where he found himself now.

"What do you got for me, Abs?" DiNozzo asked as he entered the lab and saw the video link was already hooked up. The Goth gave him a big grin.

"Magic," she declared. Out of sight of the camera, the bland, uninteresting forensic scientist Tony had to deal with on a daily basis – honestly, who named their kids John Smith? Could there be a duller name? – rolled his eyes and DiNozzo shot him a sharp glare. "Are you ready to be thrilled?" Abby asked.

"Thrill me," Tony replied.

"So, all of the tests came up negative, right?" she asked rhetorically. "I mean all of them … which is like a statistical impossibility, I think. There should have been something that stood out."

"But there wasn't," Tony replied.

"Right! So I did some more digging and found something interesting." Her idea of 'interesting' didn't match his, and DiNozzo quickly lost track of the conversation as she started to spew out technobabble about metal composites and atomic masses, sounding more and more like she was a guest star on an episode of Star Trek: Voyager with each sentence. John Smith seemed to understand and quickly inserted himself into the conversation, speaking the same foreign language that sounded a little like pidgin English (but only vaguely.) Finally, Tony gave up.

"Is this going somewhere, Abs? 'Cause I've got bad guys to catch."

"Oh, right." She glanced down and Tony could hear the tap tap tap of her fingers upon the keyboard. A moment later, a rap sheet appeared on the screen. "Javier Vazquez," Abby said. "He's a Spanish arms dealer based out of Madrid but deals a lot in the Middle East." Her eyes narrowed. "Ziva had her husband call in some favors, but Mossad lost track of him about three weeks ago." She kept rambling, mentioning how McGee had backtracked IP addresses across four continents and did some doo-dad with a whatchamacallit, but Tony was able to focus only on a single word.


Oh, God, he was going to be sick.

"And he's here in the States," Abby finished. She was peering intently at her monitor and DiNozzo knew she was watching him for his reaction to that damning word. Dammit, he hated it when she played him like that. He blinked, frowned slightly, and then nodded.

"From your tone," he said, trying to make his voice sound as absolutely normal as possible, "I take it you already know where he's at." She nodded and smiled though it looked forced.

"Until two nights ago," she replied, "he was in San Diego. He landed in Dallas yesterday morning, and Gibbs already talked to Fornell about sending some FBI guys to pick him up." Abby's expression turned sour. "I think the boys at the Hoover building want to take this case over from you."

"They can have it," Tony said, "as long as I don't have to do the paperwork." He gave her a grin that didn't touch his eyes. "Thanks, Abs. Have Probie buy you a Caf-Pow for me."

He cut the video link before she could reply and fled the forensics lab as quickly as could while maintaining his dignity. Even before he reached the door, his cell phone began buzzing and he didn't bother glancing at the caller ID, knowing it would be Abby wanting to talk about Zi … about her.

And her husband.

You knew this was coming, you moron, he snarled at himself as he stood in the elevator. You walked away so she could stop pretending and be happy. Anger and despair surged through him and he smashed his fist into the unyielding metal wall. Once. Twice. Three times. The pain finally pierced the rage, the grief, and Tony winced at the sharp pain stabbing through his hand.

"Great," he muttered with contempt as he cradled he damaged limb and hoped hadn't broken it. Worker's comp didn't cover stupid.

"Just got off the phone with the FBI, Boss," Dwayne said the moment Tony entered the bullpen. His eyes narrowed at how DiNozzo was favoring his right hand, but the younger man didn't comment on it. "Seems they're taking over this investigation."

"Let 'em," Tony grumbled. He glanced at the clock on the wall and winced: it was barely past noon. "I'm going to go have my hand checked out," he said after a moment of consideration. His phone began buzzing again, but he ignored it as he awkwardly secured his Sig to his belt with only one hand. "If you need me," he said flatly, "call me."

No one commented as he made for the elevator, phone still vibrating.

The hand turned out to not be broken after all, for which Tony was immensely grateful. He had expected it would be hard to explain how he'd injured himself to the ER physician, but the dark expression on his face and the badge at his waist hinted at a story involving hunting down scumbags, so the doctor taped him up, gave him a prescription for some mild painkillers and sent him home without even a single question as to how he got into this state. Tony didn't bother picking up the drugs – alcohol would do fine, thank you very much – and surprised himself by managing to stick to the speed limit on the way to his apartment.

He wasn't exactly sure when Abby stopped trying to get in touch with him – it had to have been eight or nine p.m. his time – but was grateful that she had. Right now, he didn't want to talk to anyone. Especially someone who knew about his history – however fucked up it was – with Zi … with Officer David. No, right now, all he wanted to do was drink away the pain just like he had when Jenny died. Or Kate.

Sitting there on his couch, he stared at the bottle of tequila on his table for a very long time. Yes, getting shit-faced was in the plan, but here? Drinking alone was one thing, but drinking alone in the dark … well, that was just pathetic. And Tony DiNozzo was done being pathetic.

Things got a little … okay, a lot blurry after that. He vaguely remembered driving to a nearby bar he knew stayed open until four or five in the morning. The atmosphere was perfect for his mood – they were playing some truly atrocious country music on a dilapidated juke box, and the air was thick with the stench of cigarette smoke and misery – so he found a stool at the bar and proceeded to drink himself into oblivion.

Somehow, Dwayne showed up, though Tony would later have some pretty unreliable memories of the bartender stealing his cellphone and using it. Relief was stamped on the man's face when Wilson approached.

"He's been going on about some woman named Zena or something," the bartender said as Dwayne studied Tony.

"It's Ziva," DiNozzo slurred, though neither of them paid much attention to him so Tony closed his eyes and let the world slip away.

He woke in an apartment not his own. His head was splitting wide open from the inside and the inside of his mouth tasted like he'd gargled raw sewage. Fighting the urge to vomit, he rolled off the couch and used it to stand.

"You're alive," Dwayne said as he exited his bedroom. Tony winced and shot the younger man a dark look.

"No shouting," he murmured as he looked around slowly. "Toilet?"

"Through there," Wilson replied with a gesture. He was blissfully silent until Tony emerged from the bathroom. "Some woman named Abby keeps calling your cell," he said. "I answered the last time."

"And she told you." It wasn't a question, but more like an accusation. Dwayne shrugged.

"She … explained some things," he replied. "Sorry," he added after a moment of consideration.

"Shit happens," Tony growled. "I need you to take me back to that bar. Gotta pick up my car." Wilson nodded.

"Sure thing, Boss."

Everything changed after that. The realization that Ziva was well and truly gone killed something within him, and Tony threw himself into his work even more so than before. His already limited social life became non-existent – he was the first person in, the last one to leave, and spent most of his weekends with cold cases. The smile he'd once been so proud of became such a rarity that sometimes he thought he'd forgotten what it was like to be happy. He ceased spending off-duty hours with the team entirely and didn't bother to offer an explanation.

But then, one wasn't really necessary. Jardine had worked with her when she was in D.C., and Tony had recruited Nikki for a couple of the practical jokes he'd played on his old partner back before life turned to shit. Since Dwayne already knew some of the specifics, Keating was the last to find out and suffered the brunt of Tony's misplaced temper until the other two clued the geek in. Whether it was an unspoken agreement or one they'd hashed out over beer and pizza, the team simply did not offer condolences or clichéd well wishes as DiNozzo let himself vanish into the shell of a bitter man.

Not wanting to see or hear the sympathy in the voices of the people he used to work with, Tony severed all personal ties with D.C. and went out of his way to avoid interacting with members of his old team for any reason. If they had to coordinate with the MCU team in Washington for a case, DiNozzo invariably sent Dwayne or Nikki to do it. He didn't care if they spoke to the people in D.C., only that he didn't. If anyone disagreed with his decision, they wisely kept it to themselves.

And the first time he heard Nikki refer to her as 'Officer Rivkin,' he knew it had been the right choice.

For the first time in his life, he realized that he finally understood Gibbs. Everything that made his old boss a mean bastard suddenly made perfect sense, and Tony marveled yet again at the older man's willpower. How had he gone on after Shannon and Kelly? This wasn't even close to the kind of loss that Gibbs had experienced, and DiNozzo was struggling. If he'd been in Gibbs' shoes and it had been Zi … if it had been her who had died … God, he didn't think he'd have been able to keep from eating a bullet.

Still, life went on. There were murderers and rapists and thieves to catch, and Tony's happiness – or rather, his lack thereof – wasn't a factor in the grand scheme of things. So he forced himself to adapt.

A year passed.

His forty-second birthday passed while they were on a stakeout, and Tony didn't even realize it until three days after the fact. When he caught sight of the calendar and realized what day it was, he merely shrugged and returned his attention to the evidence they'd amassed against a Marine first sergeant working for gunrunners with ties to Hamas. The empty ache that always accompanied thoughts of Israel mixed with the special hate he'd developed for arms dealers, leaving him angry and exhausted at the same time.

He received two commendations for his team's work over the last year, which almost made up for the FBI botching the Vazquez arrest and letting him escape to Mexico where he promptly disappeared. To his surprise, Fornell contacted him personally with the news and then calmly informed Tony that heads would roll; two days later, a pair of FBI special agents assigned to the Dallas/Fort Worth area were arrested for accepting bribes and sentenced to a very long time in prison.

At some point between the Vazquez investigation and his forty-second birthday, Tony became NCIS' unofficial expert on illegal arms dealers. He wasn't sure if it was the universe's idea of a joke – the images of Rene Benoit's lifeless corpse always came to mind – or just some sort of odd coincidence, but suddenly, he was receiving phone calls from NCIS agents across the globe for his advice about their investigations when they had ties to gunrunning. Even Central Intelligence began returning his calls – no one was more surprised about that than Tony himself – and he managed to build a surprisingly decent relationship with the CIA's own expert in illegal arms dealers, despite their mutually … antagonistic past. Tony compared his unlikely friendship with Trent Kort to that of the relationship between Gibbs and Fornell. Across the nation, federal law enforcement agencies began to use the name DiNozzo in the same tone as Gibbs, and new words like 'driven,' and 'unrelenting,' and 'resourceful' were being used to describe him in those circles.

It was almost enough to make him forget a dark-haired woman with soulful brown eyes who he couldn't quite forget but could never have. Almost, but not quite.

His team, too, was starting to earn the accolades they deserved. Wilson was in the running for agent of the year after a string of heroic acts that actually sounded like something out of Probie's books. Keating was actually getting serious about the girl he had started dating several months earlier, and Nikki was slowly getting over the whole germ phobia with a little bit of help from Dwayne – or D.J. everyone was beginning to call him. All three of them had gelled into the crack investigative team he'd hoped they could become, and were visibly enjoying their jobs. Even if his personal life was utter crap and was likely to remain that way, Tony was happy for his team.

Naturally, it didn't last.

A month after his birthday, the universe imploded around him. It was Wednesday.

Keating was the first. He was at a football game with his girlfriend – fiancée, really – when a car bomb exploded, killing them both instantly. Four civilians were critically injured in the blast, two of whom eventually died from their wounds, and over a dozen others were hit by flying debris and glass. It was over so quickly that Polly never knew what hit him.

Barely an hour later, before the team even knew they had been targeted, Nikki was killed in a shooting meant to look like a drive-by. To her credit, she went down fighting – investigators found six spent casings from her sidearm and two bodies with matching slugs from her weapon would later turn up in the San Diego Zoo where they had been dumped. Jardine died outside a movie theater, in agonizing pain. Her last action on this planet was to hit speed dial number one on her cell phone in a desperate attempt to warn D.J.

As it turned out, Dwayne wasn't able to pick up the phone because he was already involved in a gunfight with the hit squad sent after him. Unlike the other members of his team, though, Wilson wasn't alone – he was on a date with one of San Diego's finest, and they had gone to a local cop bar for beers and pretzels. Dwayne was grazed twice, but remained otherwise uninjured. One of the cops took a round to the thigh, but forensics would later prove that the bullet came from his drunken partner's pistol, not from any of the six masked foreigners armed with submachine guns.

The hit squad died to a man.

Which left only Tony.

DiNozzo received the call about Keating fifty-three minutes after the explosion, and was out the door of his apartment a mere five minutes later, gun and phone in hand. He tried to contact Dwayne first, but the call went straight to voicemail. Next was Jardine, and Tony's blood ran cold when she didn't pick it up either. In that moment, he knew.

Halfway to his car, his gut began twisting and snarling, forcing his steps to falter as he glanced around to find the source of his unease. He saw the threat a heartbeat later – a man sitting on the roof of one of the buildings next to his apartment with a bulky, cylindrical tube on his shoulder. DiNozzo recognized it once: FGM-148 Javelin, a man-portable anti-tank guided missile used by both the Army and the Marines. More importantly, he recognized the man.

Javier Vazquez.

Seconds later, the world exploded around him and the fist of God slammed into his body. Oblivion, blessed oblivion, swallowed him.

wooo – hiss


wooo – hiss


"What the hell happened, Wilson?"

wooo – hiss


"Somebody came after us."

wooo – hiss


"They got Nikki and Polly."

wooo – hiss


"And DiNozzo?"

wooo – hiss


"Anti-tank missile hit his car."

wooo – hiss


"The doctors said he crashed three times on the table."

wooo – hiss


"Who the hell did this?"

wooo – hiss


"Calm down, Ziva."

wooo – hiss


"I don't want to calm down!"

wooo – hiss


"I want to kill someone!"

wooo – hiss


"McGee, get the director on the phone."

wooo – hiss


"Tell him I'm taking over this investigation."

wooo – hiss


"On it, Boss."

wooo – hiss


"Wilson, take Ziva to DiNozzo's apartment."

wooo – hiss


"It's a crime scene now and I want the whole place swept."

wooo – hiss



wooo – hiss


"I'll be here watching him, Ziver."

wooo – hiss


"If they want him, they'll have to go through me first."

wooo – hiss


wooo – hiss


"That wasn't a request, Agent David."

wooo – hiss


wooo – hiss


wooo – hiss


"Damn, Tony. You just can't do things the easy way, can you?"

wooo – hiss


Awareness slowly returned. He was asleep but not, conscious but still insensate. It was like floating through a featureless fog that he couldn't quite see. Or taste. Or touch. He had sensation but no feeling, a clear indication that he was doped up on the good stuff. Or he was dead and just hadn't figured that out yet.

Voices filled the air around him, muted but distinctive, and as he crept closer to waking, he began assigning identities to them. His memory was shot through with holes – he could remember faces, but not names – and he desperately hoped it was only because of the drugs coursing through his veins.

"His apartment was clean, Gibbs," a female voice declared. It was tinged with an accent he couldn't quite place – at times, it seemed almost Hispanic, but at others it sounded Middle Eastern. She sounded stressed, tense and very worried. In his mind's eye, he could see black hair, brown eyes and a torn left earlobe.

"Something else, Ziva?" an older, masculine voice asked. This man sounded stern and powerful, as if he were a living embodiment of authority and justice. He would have silver hair, this man, and would be uncompromising.

"Not really," the woman named Ziva replied though it was obvious she wasn't telling the truth. When the silence stretched out, broken only by the hiss of the respirator and the steady beep of the heart monitor, she abruptly sighed. "His apartment barely looks lived in," she said.

"He isn't there much," a third person stated. His voice was very familiar, and Tony – that was his name, right? – had sudden memories of sitting at a bar alongside the younger man, drowning their respective sorrows with cheap alcohol. "He spends most of his time at the office and only goes home to change or shower."

"Sounds like you, Boss," a fourth voice remarked.

"Do you have something add, McGee?" Gibbs demanded. He sounded angry and dismayed, sad and resigned, all at the same time.

"Director Vance wants you to call him," McGee said. "And Agent Fornell is outside with his team."

"What the hell for?"

"We're here to help, Jethro." A new voice announced. "The FBI let Special Agent DiNotzo down with Vazquez once before, and I'm here to make that right."

"It was Vazquez?" the third person – Dwayne something? – asked. He sounded furious, as if he were on the brink of spontaneously exploding.

"We have good intel that he re-entered the country two nights ago on a forged visa," the voice that must have been Fornell stated. "Your team cost him a lot of money-"

"Almost a billion dollars, to be precise," another voice said. This man sounded British.

"What the hell are you doing here, Kort?" Gibbs growled.

"Glad you could make it, Trent," Dwayne said at the same time.

A second later, everyone was talking or shouting, and Tony grimaced. His ears hurt.

"Shut up!" Ziva snapped. The conversations ended as quickly as they began. "Take it outside! Now!"

Despite himself, Tony couldn't help but to smile. A moment later, however, his drug induced fog swept consciousness away once more.

"I'm fine," Tony said several days later though everyone knew it was a lie.

He had finally woken to find half of his old team – McGee and Ziva – firmly ensconced in his hospital room, both openly wearing their bulletproof vests and watching every person that tried to enter with dangerous scowls that sent the nurses scurrying away as quickly as possible. Gibbs visited twice over the next day and a half, once to drop Dwayne off to replace McGee and then later to switch the two younger agents out once more. The silver-haired senior agent was fairly close-lipped about the state of the Vazquez investigation, which prompted Tony to suspect it wasn't going as well as Gibbs would like.

At no time, however, did anyone even suggest Ziva leave and DiNozzo didn't know what to make of that. So instead, he pretended to sleep and discreetly watched as she prowled the hospital room like a guard dog or dozed in an uncomfortable-looking visitor's chair. They didn't talk much – Tony was generally too doped up to carry on anything resembling a coherent conversation, and she seemed more focused on making sure the resident physician wasn't actually an assassin in disguise – and as a result, an atmosphere of thick tension descended upon the room.

Nearly two weeks passed before the doctors began slowly weaning him off of the high-end painkillers, and Tony spent most of the time he was awake tallying up the significance of the injures he'd sustained thanks to the anti-tank missile and his exploding car. Both of his legs were broken, his right knee was screwed up even more than it had been before (an actual knee replacement looked to be on his horizon rather than an ACL or MCL reconstruction), his right arm was fractured in three places, more ribs than he cared to think about were broken, and the hearing in his right ear came and went.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Though the doctors tried to pretend that he could make a full recovery in time, DiNozzo could already see his active field agent status circling the drain. Physical therapy would take time, perhaps years, and he was already in his forties so his body didn't heal quite as quickly as it used to. His poor diet over the last year had consisted of coffee, stress and Chinese takeout when he actually remembered to eat, and that certainly hadn't helped. As much as he didn't want to think about it, he knew that his time on a major crimes unit was now rapidly dwindling.

The loss of two agents hit him hard, and he couldn't help but to start second-guessing himself. Was there something he could have done differently that wouldn't have resulted in Nikki and Polly – Daniel, he reminded himself sharply. Keating's name was Daniel – on a slab in the morgue? Dwayne seemed to recognize his foul mood and brought the case files with him the next time he visited, despite Ziva's clear displeasure.

With nothing to do but brood or sleep, Tony studied the case reports with an intensity that focused on obsession. That it gave him something else to focus on apart from how Ziva's hips swayed as she walked was an added bonus. Plus, it meant he didn't have to talk which was a good thing.

The feel of her eyes on him caused Tony to glance up from the Vazquez's bank statements – both foreign and domestic – and catch her watching him. She flushed slightly before frowning tightly and dragging the chair to the side of his bed. He couldn't help but to notice that she had chosen his left side, and wondered if she knew about the problems he was having with his right ear.

Of course she knows, you idiot, he told himself. His chart was right there at the foot of his bed and he had vague memories of her in conversation with someone who sounded like Ducky. Maybe it was Ducky. Tony's brain still felt like Swiss cheese at times.

"Gibbs is very impressed with how well you trained Agent Wilson," Ziva said without preamble. She didn't look at him, kept her eyes locked on the closed door of the private hospital room, but there was … something about the way she was sitting that caused Tony's stomach to twist.

"Dwayne's a good kid," he replied without thought. After a moment, he continued. "Better than I was at his age. More focused, more intense, fewer issues." He smiled tightly. "Give him a couple of years," Tony said, "and he's going to be running his own team."

"He respects you," Ziva said.

"Don't sound so surprised," DiNozzo snapped bitterly. "I'm not a total failure."

"I did not mean …" She exhaled softly and looked away. "He is worried that you have given up," she said after a long moment of silence. "Gibbs will not say it, but I believe he thinks this too."

"Does it look like I'm giving up?" Tony retorted, gesturing with one of the casefiles as he spoke. Ziva pinned him with a look.

"Yes," she whispered, "it does." She glanced down. "Agent Wilson took me to your apartment," she said with a frown, "and that was not the home of the man who used to be my partner. That was the home of a man who has only his work to live for."

"I had to grow up sometime," Tony replied. He tried to hide his discomfort with this entire conversation … and why the hell was she interested in having it now? Glancing at the door, he found himself desperately wishing for McGee to return from his coffee run.

"Tony, your apartment looked like Gibbs' house." Ziva gave him a look he couldn't begin to decipher. DiNozzo grunted – which was a mistake as it turned out. Grunting hurt.

"Everybody's been telling me since I joined NCIS how much I resemble him anyway." He shrugged and that hurt too. "Guess I got tired of waiting. At least I didn't need to lose a wife and daughter to realize that me and happiness don't go well together." Tony leaned back on his hospital bed and closed his eyes, hoping that she would get the hint and let it go.

But of course, she didn't.

"I am worried about you, Tony," Ziva said. "From what Agent Wilson has told me," she continued, "it sounds as if you are burning the torch at both ends." DiNozzo started to correct the error – burning the candle, Zee-vah. Not torch. – but he caught himself at the last minute. "You do not have a life outside of work and for a man who thrives on social contact like you do, that is quite troubling," she said.

"I'm fine, Officer Rivkin," he said tightly, hoping she didn't see how much it hurt to use that name. To his surprise, she flinched and looked away.

"My name," she retorted, "is David. And it is Agent now." Tony blinked and fought the urge to ask the first question that sprang to mind.

"You're not with Mossad anymore?" he asked.

"My … usefulness as a covert operative became rather limited," Ziva remarked wryly, "after my face was plastered all over ZNN. The new director of Mossad terminated my employment once my father retired." Her expression turned momentarily bitter. "I received a very nice severance package including U.S. citizenship and a diplomatically veiled request to stay out of Israel for at least the next ten years. Director Vance pulled some threads to get me special agent status."

"Congratulations," Tony said carefully. "How did the husband take that?" Ziva's face closed up and she looked away.

"We are … not together," she replied. "I am waiting to receive my get from Michael." She must have interpreted his expression as one of confusion and rushed to explain. "It is a divorce document."

"I know what it is," DiNozzo replied. He gave silent thanks to the fact that he was no longer attached to a heart monitor. "What happened?" he asked cautiously. "If you don't mind me asking, that is."

"We cheated on one another," Ziva stated flatly. "He did so in body, I did so in mind." She shrugged. "It is for the best," she said, her words sounding so much like what he had been telling himself for over a year that Tony didn't know how to respond. Instead, he looked at her, and she looked at him, and they said nothing.

And in that moment, when DiNozzo was about to ask Ziva something they would both regret, McGee returned.

With three different federal agencies in hot pursuit of him – the CIA, the FBI and of course, NCIS – and nationwide BOLO identifying him as a cop killer, it was only a matter of time before Javier Vazquez made a mistake. That error in judgment came two days later on a Thursday.

It was also the last mistake Vazquez would ever make.

In his defense, Vazquez wasn't a fool: he somehow managed to sneak all the way into Tony's room without being noticed by the three FBI agents, six LEOs, and two undercover CIA spooks assigned to protect one Anthony DiNozzo. He also managed to circumvent the three video cameras in the area – two covering the hallway and one inside the room itself – without alerting the two NCIS tech geeks watching the feeds.

Which left only one last line of defense standing between Tony and Vazquez in the form of a five foot seven brunette named Ziva.

Tony woke to the sound a fight and froze at the sight of Ziva ruthlessly beating the shit out of Vazquez. There wasn't a hint of remorse or pity on her face as she drove the gunrunner back across the room, using every available hard surface as a weapon. Vazquez tried to say something – it was hard to tell whether it was a curse or a plea – but Ziva broke his jaw with a flurry of elbow smashes and knee strikes that were almost too fast to see. Her efficiency was beautiful in its brutality, an instant reminder of the training she'd received.

And then, it was over. Vazquez pulled a gun, Ziva twisted his hand, breaking the arm in the process, relieved him of the pistol, and shot him once in the head. He topped, his face a bloody ruin, and she took a step back from the unmoving corpse, her face a mask of unconcern.

Exactly thirty seconds later, Gibbs exploded into the room, flanked by Dwayne Wilson, Tim McGee and two FBI agents Tony didn't recognize. Their guns were drawn.

"All clear," Ziva announced in a calm voice as she ejected magazine from the pistol and cleared the chamber. She offered the gun to McGee who wisely holstered his own sidearm and pulled on a pair of gloves before accepting the weapon. From where he was lying on the bed, Tony could see the expression on Gibbs' face and knew what the older man was thinking: Vazquez never had a chance. This hadn't been self-defense; it had been an execution.

And, thinking of Nikki Jardine and Daniel Keating, Tony realized he was okay with that.

The days flashed by after that. Dwayne was reassigned to D.C. – on Tony's glowing recommendation and Gibbs' specific request – and was now working for the major crimes unit, watching the older man's six (and McGee's) just as he'd covered DiNozzo's. Ziva was taken off of active field service while the internal affairs investigation went through the motions of determining whether she had used excessive force against Vazquez or not. The wheels of bureaucracy ground along slowly, though, and Tony knew she had to be frustrated at being sidelined. They talked only intermittently, with lengthy, uncomfortable pauses littering their interactions as both of them seemed unable to start a conversation that could completely change their relationship, one way or the other.

For Tony, each day was an exercise in frustration. Between a painfully intense physical therapy regimen and mandatory counseling sessions with a shrink, he found himself dealing with almost perpetual agony, both physical and mental. He struggled with depression as his career prospects became decidedly grim: permanent nerve impairment in his right hand meant he likely couldn't handle a pistol with any real accuracy, and the damage to his right knee meant he would probably walk with a limp for the rest of his life.

And then, three weeks after Vazquez's death, he received an unexpected visitor who changed everything.

"I've been reviewing your progress," Leon Vance told him once he entered Tony's hospital room. If the director had anything to say about DiNozzo's unkempt appearance, he kept the comments to himself. "Frankly," Vance said, "it doesn't look good."

"No, sir," Tony replied. He shifted awkwardly in the wheel chair that had become his principal mode of transportation in recent days. Not for the first time, DiNozzo lamented his lack of real relationships; he could have checked himself out of the hospital a week ago if there had been someone available to help him get around while his legs were still healing. Unfortunately, everyone knew and trusted was across the country in D.C.

"I don't think you're going to be able to return to the field, Agent DiNozzo." Vance didn't look or sound happy about the fact, which Tony silently took to be a compliment. The director had never hidden his dislike of DiNozzo's antics in D.C., and Tony still suspected Vance blamed him for Jenny's death.

"I know," Tony said after a moment. Unconsciously, he began glaring at his damaged hand.

"Have you given any thought to what you'll do?" the director asked. He was watching DiNozzo with his arms crossed, as if he were studying a puzzle. Tony shook his head.

"Not really, sir. I've been focusing on PT and getting a clean bill of health from the shrink."

"How's that coming along, by the way?" Vance wondered. Tony gave him a slight frown.

"Evidently," he quoted flatly, "I have extreme commitment issues stemming from the highly dysfunctional family environment I was exposed to during my formative years." He glanced away, trying to ignore the flicker of amusement that washed across Vance's face.

"Well," the director said, "good luck with that." He placed his briefcase on the small table, popped it open, and pulled a file out. "I may not be able to assign you to an active team, Agent DiNozzo," he remarked as he placed the file before Tony, "but that doesn't mean I'm ready to put you out to pasture just yet. Take a look at that and give me a call if you're interested."

He was gone before DiNozzo could reply, so Tony flipped the file open. Instantly, his eyebrows shot up and he glanced at the open door leading out of his room.

Suddenly, things didn't seem so bad.

The next several weeks flew by.

Having something to look forward to in terms of his career dramatically improved Tony's mood, so much so that the shrink asked some leading questions implying concern over a drug habit. Once DiNozzo explained the job opportunity that had fallen into his lap, she visibly relaxed before once again starting in on Tony's yet unresolved anger at Jenny for the mess she'd gotten him involved in with Jeanne.

Physical therapy remained difficult, though he pushed himself with as much intensity as he had after blowing out his knee in college. The therapist – a rail-thin woman with a hatchet nose who Tony strongly suspected to harbor Nazi sympathies; how else could he explain her … aggressiveness during the PT sessions? – was grimly pleased at his progress, though she seemed less likely than even Gibbs to offer a compliment. If anything, she started to push him even harder … hence his Nazi suspicions.

To his delight, Tony was finally released from the hospital and allowed to return home, which resulted in a whole new set of problems. Getting up and down the stairs leading to his second-story bedroom was a task in and of itself, and the urge to jump into the shower grew with each day, despite clear instructions to keep his casts dry. Packing up his belongings for a move was yet another challenge with his injuries, and he ultimately decided to put it off for a little while longer.

In the end, he didn't have to do anything.

"So," Gibbs said to him over the phone two weeks after his release from the hospital, "I hear you're going to be moving again."

"Back to D.C.," Tony replied. He was glaring at his left leg and desperately wishing for a coat hanger or something to scratch the otherwise out of reach itch currently driving him insane. "Vance already tell you?"

"Officially, no." Gibbs chuckled, and DiNozzo could hear the sounds of traffic. "Word is Doctor Pitt wants you to finish your physical therapy at Bethesda."

"Yeah," he said, "Brad doesn't trust the docs out here, not with my past history."

"Got a place lined up yet?"

"Nope." Tony grinned. "Think I could crash at your house, Boss?"

"I'm not your boss anymore, DiNozzo," Gibbs replied. He threw open the front of Tony's apartment without warning, his unexpected appearance causing DiNozzo to jump in surprise. "But if you need to," he finished, snapping the phone shut, "you can. For a little while."

"Don't do that to me!" Tony grumbled. He tried to slide his legs off the couch he was reclining on, but Gibbs gave him a glare before dropping into the recliner next to him. "A little warning next time, Boss? I didn't know you were going to be in San Diego."

"Neither did I," Gibbs said. He glanced at the open door before whistling sharply. "Get your asses in here!" he snapped.

A moment later, the Team appeared, all bearing gifts. Dwayne was carrying pizza, Probie had several bags with the KFC logo stamped on them, Palmer struggled with a cooler that clinked and clanked, Ducky had a bottle of wine tucked under one arm, Abby had … an umbrella, and Ziva…

Well, Ziva brought herself, and that was enough.

Tony didn't know how to react as they all began talking at once – well, except Gibbs and Ziva, of course. Those two just watched with fond half-smiles as everyone swarmed DiNozzo with well wishes and greetings. To his surprise, D.J. and Palmer seemed the most frenetic of the bunch, with the latter almost bouncing off the walls with his excitement. Abby, by way of contrast, seemed calm, collected, and surprisingly laid back. In fact, she reminded Tony of the way she used to be, back when Kate first joined the team and before Scuito started mainlining caffeine.

Everyone was full of news it seemed. Palmer had finally graduated medical school and would be taking over from Ducky in the summer when Doctor Mallard retired. McGee's first book was going to be a movie – DiNozzo wasn't sure about the casting decision for Special Agent Tommy; sure, he'd liked that Weatherly guy fine in the show with the lovely Ms. Alba, but could he really bring his 'A Game' for Deep Six? Abby admitted that she'd seriously cut back the number of Caf-Pows she drank on doctor's orders – Ducky's, as it turned out – and D.J. was nearly vibrating with pride that he'd been named Agent of the Year.

"Why are you really moving to D.C.?" Abby asked as she sipped from a wine cooler. "I don't buy the whole 'Doctor Pitt said so' excuse." She was studying him with a speculative look, and Tony gave her a grin.

"New job," he revealed. Only Gibbs didn't look surprised, and Tony continued. "Once I'm given the all-clear from the physical therapists," he said, "I'll be heading up a new FLETC program teaching rookies how to conduct investigations so they aren't so … probie-like when they hit their new departments."

As one, all eyes shifted to Ziva – she looked visibly surprised – and Tony started to frown. He shook the moment off, intent on keeping the atmosphere almost festive.

"So, tell me," he said, "how is it that you're all in California?" He pronounced like the Governator, which caused McGee to roll his eyes.

"I told the director the team needed some time off," Gibbs replied, sipping his coffee. "He made a few calls, arranged for us to bump a flight out here. Said it was the least he could do."

"And," D.J. interjected, "he told us we could help you move."

"Those boxes aren't getting packed by themselves," Gibbs said, a tone of command in his voice. Three heavy sighs – Dwayne, Palmer and Probie – prefaced the junior agents (and new doctor) standing up. Tony smirked.

"Appreciate it, Boss," he said before leveraging himself up as well. He accepted the crutches from Ziva. "But first," Tony said, "I need to hit the bathroom."

He had to cut through his bedroom to visit the john, and when he emerged, Tony was surprised to find Ziva standing on the other side of his bed. She was facing away from him, but he knew exactly what she was studying. Three small framed photos were resting atop the dresser. One was a group shot of the old MCU team in D.C., taken about a week before that whole Y Pestis nightmare screwed everything up, the second was a team photo he'd taken himself (so he wasn't in it) the night he returned from agent afloat status, and the third was a candid shot of his San Diego team from two or three weeks before the Vazquez affair ripped them apart.

"You still have these," Ziva said with some surprise. Tony bit back a groan when he realized she'd found the bikini photos that he'd taken of her a few hours before Jenny died.

"Yeah," he replied, limping to the bed and collapsing atop it. His still healing legs were beginning to complain and his right arm felt like it was on fire. He fumbled for the bottle of painkillers on the night stand and gave her a thankful nod when she took it from him. Tipping out two of the pills, she handed them to him and Tony swallowed them dry.

"Did you request the FLETC assignment?" she asked, her eyes boring into him and a strange look on her face.

"Director Vance offered," Tony replied, "and since I don't have a lot of options right now, I jumped at the chance." He smiled. "It may not be exactly what I want, but at least this way I might be able to keep some probies from getting killed." He narrowed his eyes. "Why are you so interested?" he asked hesitantly.

"Because I was wondering …" She trailed off, glanced away and bit her lower lip. "Internal Affairs decided I used excessive force on Vazquez," she said. Tony glowered.

"Not from where I'm sitting," he retorted, causing her to brighten slightly. Ziva gave him a shy, almost bashful look.

"The director had to pull me out of the field," she revealed, "but he pulled some threads to keep me from being fired. I am transferring to FLETC in two weeks." Tony's eyes widened. "I will be teaching recruits how to survive in the field. They might even let me have some self-defense courses."

"Pulled some strings, Zee-Vah," Tony corrected without thinking. Her face lit up, though he wasn't quite sure why. "You'll be at the Maryland facility?" he asked. She nodded.

"Maybe I will see you around sometime," Ziva said with a hopeful smile. He returned the grin.

"Maybe you will." They were silent for a long moment as they stared at each other. A thick strand of her unruly hair fell into her face and Tony instinctively reached for it with his left hand, tucking it carefully behind her ear. He hesitated before cupping her face. When she leaned into his hand, DiNozzo felt his heart skip a beat. Maybe … maybe it wasn't too late after all.

"Are you two done grab-assing yet?" Gibbs demanded. He was standing in the doorway of the bedroom, his arms crossed but an amused glint in his eyes. Behind him, most of the team could be seen, comically trying to peer past him and see into the bedroom itself. Tony smiled but didn't look away from Ziva's brown eyes.

"No, Boss," he replied. "I don't think we are."