Disclaimer: My characters? No.

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Just as he'd expected, Tony found the door to Gibbs's house unlocked. He didn't bother checking the living room or kitchen, nor did he call out to signal his presence. Instead, he went straight to the basement. Gibbs glanced up as Tony descended the stairs, but it didn't interrupt the rhythm of sandpaper against wood.

"How's Ziva?" Gibbs asked, his eyes back on the boat.

"Undermining the medical degrees of all those around her," Tony replied. He took off his jacket and slung it over the staircase before rolling up his sleeves. "They'll let her out tomorrow."

Gibbs nodded at the good news as Tony took position at the boat's stern. He leaned back against the staircase and crossed his arms over his chest. He was ready for a fight.

"You wanted to see me?"

No message had been relayed, but they both knew it had been sent.

"We've got a big problem, DiNozzo," Gibbs stated seriously.

"How so?" Tony asked, overacting his naivety.

Gibbs kept his eyes on his boat. "She's clouding your judgement."

"Pretty sure I acted properly," Tony shot back, anticipating the argument. His voice was level, but Gibbs heard the anger—directed at him—in his tone.

"Explain it to me," Gibbs invited, reflecting the anger back at Tony.

"Suspect fired on federal agents," Tony stated. "Relying on expert backup from my team, I acted as decoy. Team takes out suspects. Suspects neutralised. Textbook."

Gibbs glanced up at him to see if he really believed that. He found Tony's eyes boring into him, daring him to fight his assessment. For a moment, Gibbs was struck by how different this man looked to the agent he knew. This DiNozzo was serious. Confident. Adult.

"That's not like you," he finally said, eyes returning to his boat.

He heard Tony snort. "What? Having balls?"

"You would have waited for orders before," Gibbs replied.

"You want me to wait for your orders every time?" Tony asked, his trademark sarcasm now seeping into his words. "Haven't you been teaching us to anticipate?"

This time, Gibbs stopped sanding. He looked pointedly at Tony. "You want to start a discussion on my rules, DiNozzo?" he challenged.

Tony didn't flinch. "It's one of your better known rules. Didn't you say once that it's your job to teach them to us? Drum them into our heads?"

"I thought I had," Gibbs returned. But maybe not, he thought to himself.

Tony's mouth twisted in a bitter smirk. "You have," he said, addressing the unsaid but definitely heard comment.

They held gazes for a silent moment, both fully aware of what they were really talking about, before Gibbs went back to sanding. He kept his mouth shut, confident that he could break the younger agent. He didn't.

"You're an excellent agent, DiNozzo," Gibbs finally said, breaking the stalemate only to deliver a blow. "But you were thinking with the wrong head tonight."

Whether Tony anticipated it or not, he didn't take the bait. "I was thinking like you," he shot back. "If I hadn't drawn fire, you would have. Eventually."

"I wouldn't have popped up like a damn Jack-in-the-Box," Gibbs returned gruffly. "I would've put more thought into it."

Gibbs hadn't expected that to be the comment to spur Tony into action. The younger agent advanced on him, his fists clenched at his sides.

"Too much thought is what caused all this," Tony practically hissed. "They had us pinned for two goddamn minutes, all the while aiming at McGee and Ziva. You and I had the opportunity, Gibbs, but we didn't take it. Ziva got tired of waiting for us."

Gibbs's head shot up at the accusation. Satisfied with the direct hit, Tony braced his hands on the timber skeleton and leaned in, directly across from Gibbs.

"What was your plan, boss?" he asked, as if interrogating a suspect. "Let them run out of ammo?"

"You saying I didn't lead?" Gibbs growled.

"Yes," Tony replied, no hesitation.

"So you thought you would?"

"Ziva led," Tony pointed out. "I followed her."

Gibbs leaned in to mirror Tony's position. "You confident you did the right thing?"

"Yes. And I'd do it again," Tony hit back. "I made my choice, and you could put me in a loop and I'd do it again and again. Every time. That's how confident I am that I did the right thing. And don't try to push guilt on me. It's Ziva. The end."

Gibbs heard the warning. He ignored it. "Would you have done the same for McGee?" he challenged.

"Without question," Tony replied, confidence all over his face. Gibbs actually believed him. Still, this wasn't over. Tony was too close to his partner, and Gibbs had to manage the situation.

"How long?" he asked.

Like McGee, Tony didn't answer right away. Unlike McGee, Tony knew exactly what Gibbs was asking. But if Gibbs insisted on prying into the secrets of Tony's heart, Tony was damn well going to make him ask properly.

"How long what?"

"How long have you been dating your partner?" Gibbs asked, point blank.

Tony almost smiled. "I'm not."

Gibbs resumed sanding and decided to go for the raw nerve. Anything to shake the truth out of him. "Ah, so you're just screwing her."

Tony blinked as if slapped, then tightened his hands on the boat frame to stop himself from throwing a punch. "Apologise," he demanded in a low, dangerous voice.

Once again, this new Tony, so righteous and mad as hell, caused Gibbs to look up in surprise. Not even a year ago would Gibbs have expected to face this darker, battle scarred man, even if he knew this Tony had always been inside. It spoke volumes about what they'd all been through.

"Set me straight," Gibbs told him. He wouldn't apologise, but he'd hear Tony out.

"I haven't laid a hand on her," Tony said, shaking his head for emphasis.

Again, Gibbs found himself trusting Tony's honesty. "Don't," he warned. "Pay attention to those rules I drummed into your head. Number 12 exists for a reason."

Tony let go of the boat and slowly paced around the stern. "Yeah, but it's got nothing to do with me and Ziva. Or Abby and McGee. It's got everything to do with you."

Gibbs looked at him carefully. "That so?"

"So it is."

Gibbs dropped the sanding block on the workbench against the wall and took a seat. "What have you got, DiNozzo?"

Tony leaned against the workbench, four feet from his boss. On any other day, he would never have taken it this far. But since they were doing such a fine job of clearing the air, Tony saw no reason to stop.

"You made that rule for yourself," Tony said. "Because of Jenny. You were partners, and you fell in love with her. And then when it all went to hell, when she chose her career and broke your heart, you made up that stupid fucking rule."

Gibbs narrowed his eyes but said nothing. Out loud, anyway. His eyes sent a clear warning that Tony was on the thinnest of ice. Tony heeded the warning only slightly, softening the anger in his tone. After all, the heart wants what it wants. Even Gibbs's heart. The man couldn't help what happened.

"You were surprised, right?" Tony went on. "By how hard you actually fell. You didn't think you'd ever love someone that much again. But then suddenly, you did. You just didn't know it until it was gone. And if the heartbreak wasn't enough to kill you, suddenly the guilt was there alongside it. And I bet you said it to yourself right then, Gibbs: Never date a co-worker."

Gibbs focused his thoughts on Tony's investigative technique, rather than his painfully accurate words. That way, he wouldn't leap up and kill him with his bare hands.

"You probably drummed it into your own head like you did to me," Tony said. "When Jenny showed up as Director, you weren't going to put yourself out there again to be hurt. And hey! You even had the perfect excuse to give her. Leroy Jethro Gibbs's world famous rules: never date a co-worker."

Tony stepped in towards him, and stooped to look him in the eye. "You know what the problem was with that, Gibbs? Jenny knew she'd made a mistake when she left. And she was willing to make up for it. That woman loved you with all her heart, Gibbs," he said gently, wanting the message to get through, before hardening again. "But you had too much pride. You were too arrogant. You made an excuse."

For a moment, Tony was sure he was about to get a fist in his face. But then the anger in Gibbs's eyes flickered out, and regret took its place.

"I'm not going to make an excuse," Tony told him. "And I won't accept the burden of yours on my shoulders. I know the rule is meant to protect us, but I won't let it stop me from finding out what I could have with her."

They stared at each other for long moments, Tony ready to defend himself more, and Gibbs struggling to find the higher ground. It would be so easy to smack the cocky son of a bitch and write him off as a waste of eight years. But in the end, he swallowed his hurt and bitterness.

"You in love with her, Tony?"

Tony finally relaxed at the sound of his first name. He knew then that Gibbs would not disown him. He leaned back against the workbench and rested his hands beside him. Open body language now.

"Yes. I'm not even too terrified to tell her," he boasted with the ghost of a smile. "I'd tell her ten times a day."

Gibbs looked at him curiously. "Have you told her even once yet?"

This time, Tony let the smirk come over his face. "Yep."

"What'd she say?"

Tony smiled wider. "I know." When Gibbs returned the smirk, Tony added, "Trust her to pick that moment to go all Han Solo on me."

Gibbs sobered once more, as his mind drifted to loves lost. "If you really love her, Tony…ten times a day won't be enough."

Tony nodded knowingly. "I'm getting that feeling, yeah."

"Two words of warning," Gibbs said, trying to wrestle control of the relationship back into his court. "Keep it out of the office."

"That was the plan," Tony said obviously.

"And stand strong, Tony. No matter how hard it gets. Because if you give up…" Gibbs shook his head. "I know you, DiNozzo. The punishment you unleash on yourself will dwarf anything Ziva could possibly dream up."

Tony nodded. He'd already considered that, and knew it to be true. "Thank you, boss."

He picked up Gibbs's sanding block and held it out. Gibbs took it with a nod of thanks, and Tony tiredly passed him on the way to the stairs.

"It's not how I imagined it," Tony said, turning back. "But this talk had to happen."

Gibbs nodded once. "Yea. Hope you got it out of your system, DiNozzo. Because that's the last time you'll ever speak to me like that. Got it?"

"You bet, boss," Tony said, and started up the stairs. He slid his jacket back on. "I'm going to get some sleep."

"DiNozzo," Gibbs called before he took another step. "I lied. You should be proud of yourself tonight."

Tony didn't know is he was referring to the shooting, or to having the guts to tear strips off him. Frankly, Tony was proud of both.

"I am."

The end.

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A/N: Would love to hear your thoughts. If enough people like it, I might add a couple of chapters.