All the usual disclaimers apply: I don't own the show, the characters, or anything except the words on this page.

This is set just before Tony knocks on Jeanne's door at the end of "Grace Period". Feedback is always welcome, so please feel free to let me know what you think.

Giving in gracefully

It had started with a lie. All the best things in his life had. He'd lied to Gibbs the day he'd met him in Baltimore, yet now he worked for Gibbs and would fight the world to stay at the other man's side. Funny how things turned out.

Tony DiNozzo sighed, leaned back in the seat of the car, and looked up at Jeanne's apartment window. He'd lied to her at the beginning; he was still lying to her, and yet he was planning to tell her the truth about this one thing. He'd managed to avoid this situation for his entire adult life. He'd avoided reaching this point with Jeanne too, even though he'd been aching to say something for days, maybe weeks; but sometimes Fate conspired against you and forced your hand.

Paula Cassidy had died earlier that day. Tony didn't want to believe she was gone, but he knew she was. No-one could have survived that explosion, and he knew she wasn't the exception to the rule. Ducky had confirmed it, and Ducky would never lie to anyone on Gibbs' team. The other teams were never quite sure what to make of Ducky and his rambling, eclectic discourses, and tried to avoid him where possible. That just made it easier for Gibbs to make the coroner an unofficial permanent member of the best NCIS team there was. And Ducky was a friend, too, so Tony knew that Ducky would only tell him the truth, no matter how much it hurt the other man to do so.

The clean-up was still ongoing, but Gibbs and his team had been ordered away from the site by Director Shephard. Sometimes Tony absolutely hated that woman; she'd been the start of his lying to Jeanne, and now she'd prevented him from seeking justice for one of the closest friends he'd ever had. He'd been more involved in the hunt for Kate's killer than he would be for those who'd murdered Paula, and that fact hurt. It made something deep inside him ache, ache with loss, with anger and with a burning need for vengeance. Deeper even than that ache, Tony admitted that he felt an overwhelming urge to confess one simple truth to Jeanne, and Paula's death made the urge almost unstoppable.

Gibbs saw too much, too often, and he'd pointed out a few home truths to Tony earlier. They'd been waiting for the EMTs to clear them to leave the site, and Gibbs had come over and lowered himself to sit next to Tony on the sidewalk. The older man had settled himself slowly, shifting his feet off the curb and into the gutter, until they rested neatly next to Tony's feet. Tony hadn't felt the need to say anything, but Gibbs had felt the need to check on the younger man.

"You still with me, DiNozzo?" The question was nonchalant, almost an afterthought, but the stillness in the older man made it clear that the answer was of vital importance.

"Sure, boss. Just doing a little thinking. And before you say it, yes, I do know how to think." Just a hint of bitterness leaked through, showing Gibbs how badly Tony was hurting. What other people thought was usually the last thing on Tony's mind, especially when things went so spectacularly wrong.

"Wasn't what I was thinking, DiNozzo." A gentle smack to the back of Tony's head emphasised the point. "Was more interested in getting your opinion on something else."

Tony's eyes widened fractionally at that. He knew Gibbs trusted him, or he wouldn't still have been on the other man's team. But he also knew that Gibbs didn't need anyone's advice on anything. Gibbs always knew what to do, what to say, even when the situation was beyond bearable, and normal seemed as far away as the Arctic. The thrill of thinking that maybe something had changed drew Tony's attention back to the present, away from memories of dancing with Paula, of laughing at shared jokes, of reading emails from around the world and knowing that he had a friend who was always willing to listen to his problems and nag him back onto the straight and narrow.

"My opinion. Sure, whatever you need, boss." The smile was weak and half-hearted, but Gibbs appreciated what it must have cost. "It's not for me, DiNozzo, so don't get too carried away." Tony's smile faded a little, and Gibbs winced internally. Would nothing ever strip the younger man of his insecurities? "It's kind of philosophical, actually. Sort of, thinking in the abstract. Care to give it a shot?" The gleam in Gibbs' eyes implied that Tony wouldn't take him up on the dare, and it was a dare. That look was intended to throw down a gauntlet, and Gibbs knew Tony couldn't bear to let anything get the better of him.

A quick nod started Gibbs off. "Say you have a friend, a good one. And spare me the snappy comeback, DiNozzo, you know what I mean." A quick half grin took the sting out of that statement, and Tony shut his mouth with an almost audible snap. "Your friend is about to make a mistake, and you want to help. What do you do?"

As an abstract puzzle, this was the perfect way to set Tony off and running. Gibbs knew Tony loved puzzles, loved the figuring out they involved, working out motives and motivations, and finding the answer before most people had figured out the questions. It was why he was so good at his job, no matter that he frequently acted like the office clown. Tony was thinking now, considering angles and options. Gibbs mentally ran a countdown; four, three, two, one … and bingo!

"Okay. I need a little more information here. Male or female friend? Nature of problem, personal or work; how long have I known them; have I seen this coming for a while, or not?" Seeing nothing but honest curiosity now, Gibbs heaved a mental sigh of relief. The first thing you had to know with Tony was that he didn't deal with death well. Not a bad thing, you'd think, but Tony tended to let the immediate aftermath drag him down into a depression that left him vulnerable to the demons hidden in his childhood. Gibbs had learned in Baltimore that the trick was to distract Tony immediately, and let the reality sink in over a few days. His childhood traumas never seemed to have as much impact the next day. Ducky had never approved of how Gibbs manipulated Tony when something like this happened, but Gibbs always figured it was easier to deal with Tony's anger at being handled, than it was to try and stuff Tony's demons back in their boxes and seal the lids again. So he meddled and manipulated with a clear conscience.

"Either gender, it doesn't matter to the solution. Personal problem, you've known the friend as long as I've known you, and you've had suspicions for a while. It's most likely not life-threatening, but we both know there's more kinds of damage than just the physical." Gibbs had put a lot of thought into the clues. Just enough to get Tony hooked and lead him to the logical conclusion.

Tony gazed into space for a while, and Gibbs could almost see the cogs turning inside that highly intelligent brain. This would take as long as necessary, so Gibbs let his mind wander back to his own memories of Paula. She'd been a strong woman, and dedicated to her work. Honest, upright, willing to take responsibility, and sure enough of herself to put Tony in his place when he needed it, but still willing to be the young man's friend. He would have been proud to have her on his team, but there'd be no chance of that now. Regrets were always there, in their line of work, and this was just one more to add to a very long list. But if Tony followed his lead here, that would be one less thing to regret in the future.

Tony shifted slightly on the sidewalk, pulling himself more erect, and Gibbs pulled his attention back to the here and now. Tony had made a decision, and Gibbs was eager to hear it. "So? Spill, DiNozzo."

"How do you even know I've got an answer for you, boss? There's not much information to go on." A sideways glance at Gibbs showed a rare grin on the older man's face, and Tony grinned in reply. "Okay, okay. I'm assuming that we'd be really good friends, me and this 'philosophical' creation of yours, so I'd be likely to speak my mind. I'd want them to do the same for me. So, I'd lay out the problem, as I see it, and then ask them what they intended to do about it. If I didn't like the answer, I'd probably say so, and browbeat them into doing something helpful to solve the situation."

Gibbs nodded once. "Pretty much what I thought, too. So tell me, DiNozzo, what did Paula tell you about your girlfriend?" Tony flushed slightly and Gibbs laughed gently. "I'm sure she could see the change in you, and I'm pretty sure Paula was bright enough to guess the cause." Tony ducked his head, suddenly finding his shoes a source of riveting entertainment. "I would think that she told you not to waste the chance, to miss an opportunity to have what so few of us ever manage."

Tony shrugged one shoulder. The last thing he wanted to do was think about Paula. But he had to admit that Gibbs was right. Paula had wanted him to grab the chance in front of him, to be happy and to have someone in his life who loved him. Someone that he loved. He'd been avoiding that admission for a while, but avoiding it didn't make it any less true. He loved Jeanne. Refusing to say the words out loud wasn't fair to her, or himself. Sometimes, you had to take the chance.

"But what if it all goes wrong? What if …" Tony was afraid, more afraid than he'd ever been facing down drug dealers, terrorists and even the plague. Those things could only kill you, something like love, gone wrong, could maim your soul.

The warmth of Gibbs' hand on his shoulder was a welcome surprise. "Then, you come to your friends, and we see you right again." The bald statement was enough to shock Tony's gaze to meet Gibbs' eyes again. "You know my past, Tony, and you know how it ended. But I wouldn't have given it up for the world. Neither should you."

Tony thought about that for a moment. It wasn't right to treat love as a threat, but he'd learned as a child that love wasn't necessarily always a good thing. His father had loved him, as long as Tony did what his father wanted. A little rebellion, the odd refusal to abdicate his own judgement, and that love had been removed. Was it any surprise that he felt threatened by something that left him more vulnerable than he'd been since before he'd been a teenager? But now he had something he hadn't had back then. He had friends, true friends who'd stand by him, led by the man sitting beside him, telling him that even the worst imaginable loss on earth could be survived with the right friends by your side.

Nodding once in decision, Tony shifted his weight to stand. On his feet, steady again, he offered a hand to Gibbs. The searching gaze rested on his face for a long moment, before Gibbs allowed a rare, honest smile to surface. Grasping Tony's hand, he rose easily to his feet, and led the way towards the EMTs. Pushing Tony ahead of him, he waited until they'd both been cleared before speaking again.

"I'll take you home now, DiNozzo. Don't show up at the office tonight. You've got other things to do." The warning was clear, but the comforting glance offered silent support. Tony nodded in acceptance.

And now, he was sitting outside Jeanne's apartment, trying to work up the courage to get out of the car. If he stalled any longer, someone was likely to call the police and report him for loitering or stalking, but even that possibility wasn't enough to drive him to Jeanne's door.

He considered what Gibbs had said, and left unsaid, earlier in the day. The one essential truth he'd learned, was that if you loved someone, you had to tell them. It wasn't fair to deny them the truth. Everyone deserved to be loved. Jeanne especially. She was a wonderful woman; smart, funny, honest, fun to be with, and she loved him. Him, the one person his father had told him no-one would ever love. For that alone, she probably deserved the truth.

That spurred Tony to make the trip from the car to Jeanne's front door. He hesitated another moment there. He had a feeling that things wouldn't end well for them. After all, everything had started with a lie. And just because starting with a lie once before had led to the best friendship in his life, didn't mean that this would end as well as that lie had. But no matter how things played out, he loved Jeanne, and she deserved to know that. Taking one last breath to settle his nerves, Tony knocked on Jeanne's door and waited to see her face. When the door opened, the words were suddenly easier to say than he'd anticipated.

"I love you, Jeanne."