It's Complete! This is the final chapter in this strange tale that was supposed to take two, three months tops to write. Good lord, whole societies have come and gone in the time I took to write this thing.

For all of you who stuck with this story, I thank you. For all the words of encouragement, both for this story and for me and my family, you will never know how much they meant to me. I am grateful to all.

So, without further ado, I offer the final chapter. It's a long one. Happy summer to all Northern hemisphere-ites, and happy winter to all Southern hemisphere-ites!

Don't forget to sign your donor cards!

It had been a damn kind thing for Gibbs to have some of Tony's clothes tailored. Yes, it was odd having Mr. Chinni, his tailor, muttering prayers and words of pity while he was measuring the newly-thin Tony, most of which were in Italian, only some of which Tony understood. Still, it was nice having clothes that fit. Nice of Mr. Chinni to send along a couple crisp shirts, too. It was important to look good. You could fool a lot of people into believing your station in life just by wearing the right suit. Hell, his dad had done it for years.

Now, if Tony could just convince himself.

Though he was aware he had lost weight, it wasn't until Tony had pulled out the button-down shirt he found in his tiny closet, the shirt he had been wearing when he was admitted, that he realized he'd lost more than weight. The shoulder seams draped two inches below where they once had; the neck gaped open where it was once taut. If that weren't enough, the placard scratched against his incision, even though it was covered with a long, white dressing. He wasn't normally an undershirt kind of guy, but things change...

When Tim had lost all that weight, Tony took great joy in insinuating the cause-McAnorexic, Probulimic. "You're dieting like a high school cheerleader, McLaxative," Tony had teased. "The good news is, you'll be the only one on the squad with your virginity intact. Your mother will be so proud."

He was sure he'd be in for some ribbing. Tony thought he'd better start preparing for it. He wasn't at all sure he'd be able to brush off comments about his diminished physique as easily as he'd like. Truth be told, he could hardly look at himself in the mirror without the unfamiliar reflection singeing the still-raw edges of his nerves.

Tony clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. No use worrying about things he had no control over. Still, he wanted to be able to leave the place dressed as well as when he came in. It was important to him, in some absolutely inconsequential way. Not that he remembered that day. Nor many of those days preceding his collapse.

Glancing out his window, at a life that he would reenter in mere minutes, Tony dismissed the melodrama of what he had endured, what he would be experiencing in the future. The past was past, and the future would take care of itself, and if he could just keep repeating that, then he'd actually start believing it, and then maybe his pulse would slow down.

"Knock it off, would ya?" he told himself, and tucked in his shirt, the first time he'd done so in months, and the feel of his jutting hip bones against his palm brought him back twenty years, the last time he had been so thin. Of course, then he was fit. Now, not so much.

But he was alive, dammit, and that counted for more than a hill of beans in this crazy world. A lot more.

He had to start somewhere. It was time to go forward, just like Gibbs had told him so often, time to regain his life, and if all he could do was adorn the facade of style and grooming, well, then that's what he'd do.

Only a couple more items in the overnight bag that Gibbs had brought him-a belt, his watch, shoes. His wallet. God, it had been a long time since he'd bothered with that. Tony opened it and found just about twenty-two dollars. His license had expired, but the director had taken care of the paperwork. Nice of him. Slide it into the back pocket. Done.

Here, too, was just another thing that should have been so banal as to not require thought, but slipping the belt through his pant loops, a belt Tony was sure had never belonged to him, brought him to a complete stop.

He was dressing to go home. Home. Even the conjuration of that word took his breath away.

Tony scowled, let out a rush of air, and shook his head. "It's not a big deal. Had to get out of this joint some time."

Tony drew his Omega watch from the bag, another item he had not seen in months. He wasn't sure how the band would feel around his wrist, the last of his IVs having only recently been removed. He slid his hand through the opened stainless steel band, the metal clinking, a familiar sound, the sound of power and refinement, a sound Tony was pleased to hear once again. Without having to look, as casually as if it were just any day, he flipped the lock, and it clicked in place. He torqued his forearm, testing whether the Omega was going to bother the still raw puncture point that was covered by a thin bandaid, but it wasn't too bad. Having his watch on and all the normalcy that surrounded such a banal thing outweighed any discomfort. Actually, if he thought about it, it fit a little too well.

"Well, I just gotta say, the man is nothing if not thorough," Tony said to no one, adjusting the watch on his wrist, realizing that Gibbs would have thought of this as well-removing a link or two from the band so it wouldn't hang, so it would wear like DiNozzo was supposed to be thirty-five pounds lighter.

When the door opened behind him, Tony didn't bother glancing back. Gibbs had said he'd only be a couple minutes. "Ya 'bout ready, DiNozzo?"

Tossing his words over his shoulder, Tony answered with a quiet, "Yeah." Last, his shoes. Tony pulled them from the bag, dropped them to the floor-something he would never normally do. After all, you don't just disrespect Bruno Magli's Merola penny loafers, unless, of course, respecting a pair of shoes required bending over. Then, Tony discerned, respecting his comfort was much more valuable than a pair of shoes. Now, if Gibbs had packed the Jeffrey-West Chuckas, Tony might have made an exception.

He slipped on the soft shoes, and felt a step closer to normal. Gibbs grabbed the empty duffel and just waited.

One more look out the window. Done. He opened the bedside-table drawer, just to make sure it was empty. Swept the walls, just to make sure they were cleared. Peeked into the bathroom, just to make sure-

"Tony," Gibbs said, keeping his words quiet, "it's all in the car. I've got your coat. Time to go."

Tony locked eyes with Gibbs, and Gibbs straightened. In the silence, certain messages were conveyed between two friends, one message of support, the other of fear; one of acknowledgement, the other of acceptance. Tony drew in breath, narrowed his eyes, and said, "Let's go."

He had been preparing for the goodbyes, catching them as he could. After all, the ward was a busy place, and he knew he wasn't the only patient. And now, not even a patient, having signed all the discharge papers, having heard all the instructions. It wasn't as if he'd never see them again-hell, he'd be back in a week for his first outpatient appointment. But he wouldn't be living here anymore. God willing, he added as an afterthought...

So, it was hardly worth considering, these perfunctory goodbyes. A thousand patients had come and gone through these halls, probably tens of thousands. He was just one more. But when he and Gibbs walked out of his room for the last time, when Gibbs eased off and laid back, when Tony took his eyes off the floor and looked up, they were all there-Morgan, his occupational therapist; his surgeon, Doctor Tanner, with a different pair of overly expensive shoes; Carmen and Suzanne, the shift LPNs, who fought over which one Tony would choose to bring home; Meredith, the one nurse Tony wasn't as fond of, but her stethoscope was always warm. Jaynie. Ah, Jaynie...

Then there was Dorothy, and that's when it hit him.

She had brought him beef broth. Why that one lousy cup of dirty water had meant so much to him, he didn't know, but she had brought it, offered to help him drink it, and had done so with a look in her eye that was incredibly complex. It was "You're sick; I'll take good care of you; you will get better" all at the same time, and Tony knew right then that he was going to have to rely on that look.

And it was always there, sometimes accompanied by popsicles. Red. Saying goodbye to Dorothy was going to be a lot harder than he cared to admit. Thankfully, she was last in line. If he could hold it together and get to the end of the reception line, he just might be able to get out of this place with his last shred of dignity intact.

But first up, his surgeon. A couple good, manly handshakes, a heartfelt appreciation for his skills, a few reminders about what to expect, and with that dose of testosterone, Tony knew he could continue on through the line.

"Tony," said Morgan, her outstretched arms capturing his shoulders, "you have been a trip."

Tony took hold of her arms, jutted forth his jaw, and said, "And you have been mean, cantankerous, exacting and tenacious."

"It's what I do," she said, landing a kiss on his cheek.

A kiss that took Tony by surprise. He blinked, regained his bearings, and smiled. "Oh, okay. Wow. Well, that was nice. Thanks," he finally said, and she nodded. "No," he said, shaking his head, "I mean-thank you."

"We'll see you in a couple days," she told him, and ended it with a wink.

Going forward, Tony shook the hands of nurses, orderlies, even the carpenter he had befriended when the man was going room to room, changing over the new haz-mat dispensers.

Jaynie was next. Jaynie, the last woman his old heart had fallen for. She took him in with a coy smile and coquettishly batting eyelashes, and he her with half-veiled eyes. "The offer still stands, Jaynie," he told her, holding open his arms, an invitation he had so often given her.

"I might just take you up on it," she said, reaching up to hug him, again startling Tony with another show of kindness. He had to bend over to hug the diminutive nurse, but it was worth it.

He should have tucked his face into the supple skin at the base of her neck, told her that her words, her soft, comforting hand had meant the world to him in those minutes waiting for surgery, the harrowing hours after surgery. But it was too close for him. Too near the tipping point, so, uncoiling his arms from around her, Tony said, "I think we could be very happy together."

"Oh, you," she said, demurely swatting his arm.

"So you'll think about it? Yeah, you'll think about it," he said, grinning. Turning to Gibbs, he added, "Boss, she's gonna think about it."

Gibbs rolled his eyes, and shifted Tony's coat from one arm to the other. The fact that Dorothy was next in line was not lost on Gibbs. Nor was Tony's sophomoric attempt at making light of the situation. Gibbs knew it was just his senior agent's way of dealing with the enormity of it all. So he gave Tony his space, but kept shuffling on down the line, prompting Tony to do the same.

When Tony reached the end of the receiving line, when he came face to face with Dorothy, he smiled, a tight, closed-lip smile, and tried to swallow.

Dorothy clamped down tight on her burgeoning emotions. The truth of the matter was he was just another patient. Just another set of records. It was her job, after all, to be kind, to be a comfort.

But once in a great while, a patient arrived who made a lasting impression-whether through personality, through courage, through the quiet, dark hours of the night, when the world was asleep, save a battling man and a nurse far past the hours of her shift. And maybe it had started as a kindness shown to an old friend, a sort of repayment for all the comfort Gibbs had shown her through her own quiet, dark hours that seemed to surround the demise of her marriage. Whatever the case, here was this man, so much more than just a chart, standing before her, ready to go home, a remarkable concept given what she had seen him go through, and she knew her life now included a new friend.

"Dorothy," Tony said, more of a whisper than a voice, his eyes bright with emotion.

She shook her head. She would not do this, not in front of the others. Dorothy pulled a wheelchair closer to Tony, and said, "One last ride."

And he smiled at her, knowing the game all too well. "Why not?" he said, lowering himself, quirking an eyebrow to glance at her sidelong. "After all, it's been one helluva ride so far."

Pushing off, Dorothy said, "Yes, it has."

Those who had gathered called out their goodbyes, rushed by him, clapping his shoulder, capturing his hand, moving on with their rounds. Gibbs followed behind, never infiltrating this important moment that Tony alone had to see through.

At the end of the hall, Tony reached back and grabbed Dorothy's hand. "Hang on a minute," he said, and Dorothy brought the wheelchair to a stop. Tony pushed himself up and out of the chair, squared off his shoulders, and turned to face the long corridor.

Patients with family members shuffled down the hall, IV poles grasped in their hands; nurses and doctors sailed by each other, weaving in and out of rooms, some floating orders and laughter behind them; monitors beeped and intercoms broadcast; orderlies pulled trays of food from their carts. A portable ultrasound machine was wheeled into Mrs. McCarthy's room. Sweet woman. Had a DNR. Only a matter of time...

Without taking his eyes off this place he knew so well, Tony said, "Hey, Dorothy. Let me walk to the elevators."

Pride thrummed inside Gibbs, and he waited to see if Dorothy would try to deny Tony this one favor.

"Sure," she said.

One last look down the bright hall; one last time to consider all the months and days and hours spent within its walls. Tony clucked his tongue against his cheek, peered at Gibbs, who gave him the courtesy of averting his eyes, and then he was ready to go.

"So endeth the career of Very Special Patient Anthony DiNozzo," he said, punching the automatic door opener. Through the double doors, around the corner, and to the elevator bay, the three remained quiet, knowing that at any minute Dorothy would require her patient, at least for the next few minutes, to sit back down. Months of practice had taught Tony that trying to fight with a nurse was an exercise in futility, so without being asked, Tony thanked Dorothy and took his seat once again.

Once inside the elevator, the Musak infused the enclosure with the soft sounds of the eighties, and Dorothy asked, "You have all your phone numbers?"

"Yup," Tony said, watching each floor's number light up and go dark.

"You know when to call?"

"I wanna go with when the Riunite's on ice, but..." A quick slap to the back of the head, and Tony said, "I've missed you, Boss."

"Answer the lady," Gibbs told him.

Smoothing down his hair, Tony said, "Whenever I have a question. Whenever I have a fever over one-hundred degrees. Whenever there's swelling in my feet and ankles. Whenever my weight goes up precipitously."

"And when shouldn't you call?" Dorothy asked, as the elevator doors slid open. Tony flipped through all the information he had been given, and not once did anyone mention anything about when not to call. The look of consternation on his face made Dorothy smile, so she bent over and whispered into his ear, "You should not call to get Jaynie's phone number or schedule."

With a hearty laugh, Tony said, "Well, yeah."

"But I'm working on it," she said, pushing him out of the lift and into the hospital's lobby. "Your car ready, Jethro?" Gibbs lifted a hand and pointed to the dark blue sedan, parked right outside the doors. "Why don't you put your coat on, Tony? The cold air is going to shock your system without it."

"I'm a big boy, Dorothy," Tony told her.

"DiNozzo," Gibbs said, and handed Tony his coat.

Tony took one look at Gibbs and grabbed hold of his coat. "What I was saying, Dorothy, is I'm a big boy, and being a big boy, I like to wear big boy coats." Dorothy helped him slide into the long, wool overcoat, turning down the collar in the back. Then they were out the door.

He needed more time, a few extra yards, to figure out what he was going to say to her, but all of a sudden, they were in front of the car. Dorothy activated the brakes on the wheels, and Gibbs gave Tony a hand.

Once on his feet, the cold air slapped Tony's face, and he closed his eyes against its brusqueness. His shoulders rounded toward his ears, and he squirreled his fingers into the sleeves. Outside. The smell of exhaust assaulted him, and he coughed. The sun's glare burned his eyes, and he squinted. A breeze whispered by him, and he wavered.

"Ya okay?" Gibbs asked.

Caught off guard, Tony chuckled, and said, "You'd be surprised how few gusts of wind blow through the CCU."

Goodbyes were important, Dorothy knew, but so was staying away from frostbite. She rubbed her hands together, and said, "Okay, well." Gibbs pressed a kiss to her cheek, a hand to her back.

"Thank you for taking care of my agent," Jethro whispered in her ear.

"You just don't screw up my work," she said, which made him laugh. Gibbs opened the passenger side door and waited. And waited.

Dorothy rubbed her arms, and said, "Get in the car, Tony."

One last task to take care of, and Tony knew it would be the hardest. He turned to her, bobbled his head, and tried to smile. "That anxious to get rid of me, are ya, Dorothy?"

She would have none of it. Dorothy wrapped her arms around him, and pressed her warm cheek to his. And whether it was the cold, or perhaps the sadness of saying goodbye, Dorothy began to shake. "Take good care of yourself."

As for Tony, he clutched his hands to her back, ground his teeth together, and tried to breathe. "What would I have done without you?"

"You would have been fine."

"I doubt it."

"You're not done with me," she told him, her voice cracking, betraying the stoicism she hoped to portray. "I'll be here when you come back for your appointments."

"I'm counting on it," Tony told her, and forced himself to let her go. "Thanks for the popsicles."

"You know where to go if you ever need one," she said, giving his hand an embrace. "Tony?"

"Yeah, Dorothy."

She should be more professional, she scolded herself. She shouldn't have become so attached, so full of empathy for this man. She snapped her fingers, pointed accusatorially at him, a lousy diversion from her true feelings, and said, "Now remember, you're iron is still low. You're gonna feel weak. Don't try to be a hero."

"I'm no hero." Tony took a deep breath, wanting to say so much more, but words never seemed to capture it all for him. So he smiled, tapped his heart, and lowered his eyes.

"Ready?" Gibbs asked, sensing his agent needed this interruption.

"Yeah, I think I am." Tony eased himself into the passenger's seat, Gibbs assisting him. Once his feet where safe within the confines of the car, Gibbs shut the door, gave Dorothy one last goodbye, and rounded to his side of the car. Tony turned to his window and watched Dorothy scuttle toward the hospital and warmth. He smiled and hoped she knew how thankful he was.

"Okay," Gibbs said, closing his door. He reached to the backseat and pulled a small travel pillow into the front. "Here," he said, carefully lifting Tony's seatbelt from his chest. "Put this under the belt. Dorothy's orders."

Tony paused while considering the need for such a thing, but then tucked the pillow between him and the belt. Probably should have taken the same precautions for years driving with Gibbs. And Ziva.

Gibbs clicked in his belt, and they were off. Once on the main avenue, Tony craned his head to see the whole building. He counted up five floors and tried to guess where his room had been. Somewhere up there, nonetheless. He wondered if there was someone up there just taking their first steps, or waiting for a heart. Or dying.

Tony reached his fingers down to the seat controls and eased the seat back. Each bump in the road seemed to be a fist cracking against his sternum, and Tony closed his eyes. So much of pain, he had been told, is just the fear of the unknown. Since he was told that the ride home would be uncomfortable but that it was nothing to worry about, Tony concentrated on breathing, still an amazing thing to him.

Somewhere along the line, he had drifted off, and when he woke up, they were on the MD-355. Everything seemed to be a blur to Tony, and so he said, "Aren't ya going a little fast, there, Gunny?"

"Actually," Gibbs said, "I'm going under the speed limit in your honor."

"Huh," Tony said, closing his eyes against the vertigo. "Guess all that time flat on my ass..."

"Couple more mile, and we'll be there," Gibbs told him, noticing the tightness in his face, the pale complexion. He wondered, just for a minute, if they needed to turn around. Nope, they were going forward today, and for the foreseeable future.

He took the corner to Tony's street in an easy, slow turn and rolled along while trying to find a curbside parking spot. Fortunately, one was available just two doors down from Tony's brownstone, and Gibbs took great pains to ease the car into the spot. Once in park, he turned to Tony and waited for the man to make the next move. "Home, DiNozzo."

"I'm not gonna lie, Boss," Tony said, lifting his head off the seat to scan the sidewalk ahead, "there were a couple times when I didn't think I'd see this ol' street again."

"You're here now."

"Then I guess it's time to go home," Tony said, releasing his seatbelt. Gibbs exited the car and jogged to meet Tony at his side. He opened the door, and reached in to help leverage Tony out of the seat, not normally an offer Tony would take, but the ride had tired him more than he thought possible. So he took Jethro's hand, clamped the other to the top of the door, and slowly, carefully pulled himself from the car.

Once standing, Gibbs nodded, patted the man on the shoulder, and said, "Got about fifty feet from the door. Ready?"

"Fifty feet," Tony repeated, knowing exactly how long that was in the CCU's hallway, but it seemed a whole lot more out here on the street. "Yeah. Yeah." He yanked at his collar to straighten it, all the while keeping his focus peeled on his front stoop. His hands rushed over the front of his coat, smoothing it down, a habit he had picked up years ago and hadn't quite lost. He tugged on both sleeves, twisting his hands to make sure the fit was correct. "How do I look?" he asked Gibbs.

"What does it matter?" Gibbs wanted to ask, but he knew this was all part of the process for Tony. So he motioned to Tony's hair, and said, "You need to do that...whatever it is you do to your hair."

Tony's hands went to work, patting down the side, pushing up the front, pressing down the crown. "Good?" he asked, and Gibbs nodded.

"No rush. We'll just take our time," Gibbs told him, pivoting toward Tony's home.

"Yeah. On it, Boss," Tony said, taking the first step toward his stoop, a step that held for him all the hope he kept hidden safe for so long. In his mind, he had envisioned striding toward the door. Oh, he'd probably be a little sore, but all that was behind him. He'd done all that therapy; walked all those yards through the halls of the hospital. Hell, he'd been cleared for steps. What was fifty, measly feet?

His footing was slow, much too deliberate. He kept his chin level, his shoulders back, just like Morgan had taught him-good posture is your best friend. Morgan and his dad would've got along. But no one had told him that even the heft of a wool overcoat would feel like weights pressed into his shoulders, and Tony struggled to maintain his posture.

His sidewalk was quiet this time of the day, and for the lack of hustle and bustle, Tony was thankful. He quickly realized he wasn't ready to take to the street, making a hole through the crowd with the assuredness of his cadence. Those few people who were walking the same path passed the two men without giving any thought to why they were walking so slowly. A woman trailing behind a miniature poodle, festooned in Burberry, sailed around his right, and Tony sighed.

"Ya okay?" Gibbs asked.

"Thought I was walking pretty fast in the hospital," Tony told him, feeling as if he were climbing through snowdrifts. "Guess not."

"We've got all the time in the world," Gibbs said, snaking a hand around Tony's arm, just to make sure.

Two men in their first business suits, fellow trendy inhabitants of the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, eyed the older. silver-haired gentleman walking abreast with the well-dressed younger man, their arms entwined as if on a leisurely stroll, and made the assumption that this was one of "those" couples who helped increase the property tax in the neighborhood. A quick nod of the head as they passed, and Gibbs chuckled, having read their expressions, their furtive glances.

"Did I miss something, Boss?" Tony asked, eyes glued to the thirty feet that separated him from his front door.

"Nope," Gibbs assured him, and increased his hold on Tony's now trembling arm. "You're doin' just fine."

He had run innumerable miles on these sidewalks, had sweated through the summer's blistering heat and winter's penetrating cold, always ending in front of his brownstone, winded but satisfied. He'd smile at the pretty women walking by, careful to show them a little skin, his tight abs, and then he'd take the steps to his door two at a time. At the top, he'd look back to make sure they had watched. Yeah, they watched. They always watched, and he'd offer them a killer smile before whisking inside the building.

These were the sidewalks where he'd come home late from work, a pizza box balanced on one hand, a slice caught between his teeth while he fished through his pockets for his keys, only to buzz one of his neighbors to let him in. They didn't mind. It was nice to have a cop in the building, even if he had a habit of misplacing his keys.

But these sidewalks were a mountain range to him now, a forbidding landscape of cold geography and ascents, and the thin air of this range burned his lungs. Still, he persevered.

"Just about there," Gibbs whispered, and Tony appreciated the acknowledgment that this simple walk to his home was a whole lot harder than either of them thought it might be. And slower. God, demoralizingly slow.

Two more yards, a mere six feet, and Tony was overcome with a distinct sense of achievement. He could look up and see his living room window. He'd made it, something along the way he wasn't at all sure he'd be able to do. Three feet, and he was standing at the base of his stoop.

At the bottom of twelve steps. Crestfallen, Tony squinted his eyes and stared at the uppermost step.

Fifty feet had taken its toll on him, and they had been flat. Twelve concrete steps would... Tony closed his eyes. Breathe, he ordered himself.


He tried to smile, to laugh it off. "When did these steps get here?" he said, convincing no one, particularly not Gibbs.


"I'm okay," Tony whispered. There were things in life that had to be done, and this was one of them, he surmised. Truth be told, he wasn't at all sure he could do it. Twelve steps.

"Let's just rest a while," Gibbs said, sliding his arm around Tony's back, his hand into Tony's. "How's your pulse?"

Tony pressed two cold fingers against his carotid and felt for the steady thumps. It was slower than he thought it would be, which was good. "Around 80, 90. 'Bout where it should be."

And when he looked over his senior agent, saw how Tony's eyes were sealed tight, how his brow was pinched toward the center, how his Adam's apple rose and fell, how his fingers reached out to strangle the handrail leading up the steps, Gibbs pulled his phone from his pocket, dialed up one number, and waited. Two short tones later, and Gibbs quietly said, "Yeah, why don't you come on down, give us a hand."

If Tony was aware of the call that had been placed, he gave no indication. He held tight to Gibbs and to the handrail, while his mind was elsewhere, on a documentary he and Jeanne had watched about a group of people climbing Mt. Everest. It had bothered him for weeks that a few of the people on the expedition had made the decision to turn back within a stone's throw from the summit. How do you do that? he had wondered. How do you live on a mountain for weeks, months, climbing every damn day, and then decide to turn your back on your goal? They said they had known their limits and that cooler heads had prevailed. Tony had thrown a handful of popcorn at the screen, deriding them. "Ya don't climb Everest with your heads! Ya climb it with your hearts!"

Here he was, within a stone's toss of the top of his world, and Tony was sure he had reached the end of his limits.

"Hey, Boss," came the familiar, soft voice. "Tony."

Tony's eyes snapped open, and there standing before him was Tim. In an instant, the surprise to see his friend was gone and the reason for his appearance was clear. Tony found himself caught between relief for the extra help and shame that he needed it. He looked down to see that Tim had offered him his hand in salutation. Tony released the breath he had unknowingly been holding, nodded his head, pried his hand off the handrail, and placed it, shaking, in Tim's. "How ya doin', Probie?"

"Good," Tim told him, never releasing Tony's cold hand, only shifting his grip. He moved to his friend's side and entwined his arm with Gibbs' across Tony's back. "It's cold out here. What say we get you inside?"

Tony nodded, capitulating to the assistance. Gibbs and Tim did most of the work; Tony only needed to move his feet. His shoulders began to rise, then his hips, and so too, for whatever reason, his eyebrows.

"Oooh," Tony mouthed, the pull and yaw on his ribcage a bit uncomfortable. One foot up, then the other, and they were on their way.

"I hope you're hungry," Tim said, watching Tony's feet shimmy onto the next landing. "Ziva's been cooking all day. Well, for days, really."

"Ziva's here?" Tony asked, lifting his foot, adjusting his grip on Gibbs' hand.

"Yeah. Ziva and Ducky and Abby and... Oh, careful," he said, as Tony's toe caught the edge of one landing.

"DiNozzo?" Gibbs whispered, coming to a stop while Tony found a more solid footing on the step. Tony licked his lip, felt a sheen of perspiration on his neck and forehead, and the cold air immediately cooled him. He breathed through rounded lips and nodded.

"Let's go," he told them.

Tim and Gibbs kept their eyes peeled on the ground, careful to give Tony the room he needed to ascend these concrete steps.

In his grip, Gibbs felt Tony's hand begin to sweat. "You doin' all right?"

Tony lifted his left foot to the fourth step, and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay," which was only marginally true.

Tim shot Gibbs a look, asking without words if anything needed to be done-call an extra person down to help, call an ambulance...

"Come on, McSherpa," Tony said, chiding Tim and bolstering his own flagging resolve.

Tim chuckled, took the next step up, and with Gibbs, did the same for Tony. And the next. "Yeah, so, like I was saying, we're all here, happy to have you home."

"I'm not home yet," Tony reminded him, closing his eyes. "Okay."

"Yeah, but you will be," Tim said, stepping up once more.

"No," Tony said, shaking his head. "I mean, okay, let's take a break."

Gibbs stopped, one foot up, one down, supporting his agent. "How ya feeling?"

Tony thought about minimizing how he truly felt, but why bother? "Little lightheaded."

"Need to sit down?"

Tony closed his eyes; sucked in his upper lip; pulled his hand from Tim's and took his pulse. Still low, remarkably. This was what Morgan had tried to tell him, that the excitement, the expectation of going home was going to be exhausting.

"You'll need to rest, more than you think you do," she had said, having dealt with more than one bullheaded man in her career. "The worst thing you can do is overdo it. This isn't spring training."

He promised her and himself that he would put his pride away during his recuperation, but that did not include sitting on the frozen concrete steps of his brownstone.

"No," he told Gibbs, taking Tim's hand once more. He took a deep breath, then one more, and soon the dizziness subsided. Nodding, Tony said, "I'm okay now."

"You're sure, DiNozzo?" Gibbs said, assessing the agent's condition.

"Yeah, Boss," Tony told him. He lifted his eyes, counted the remaining steps, swallowed hard, and breathed. Five more. Halfway home. Tony gathered his strength and pulled his foot up to that next landing.

Again, the men lifted their friend by the hand, whispering words of encouragement. It was in silence, in concentration that they closed the gap, and when they reached the top of the steps, Tony stopped. Breathed. Pulsed both of their hands. He closed his eyes and put it all away-his exhaustion, his fear, the fatigue and ache in his body. He was just about home, when simple mathematics said he shouldn't rationally be home at all.

The door to his building creaked open, and there standing behind it, her eyes reverently lowered, her long fingers holding fast to the edge of the door, was Ziva.

Tony let go of his friends' hands, thanked them both, reached for the large metal handle on the door, to the stone and wood door jamb, and stepped into the quiet, softly lit vestibule of his apartment building.

"Welcome home, Tony," Ziva said, giving him all the room he needed. Tony let go of the door, took a good look around him, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the diminished light.

Home. Yes, he was home. He turned his face to Ziva, reached out a finger or two, but couldn't for the life of him make his voice work. Ziva touched his hand. Words were unnecessary.

Two more steps, and Tony was outside his apartment door. It too crept open. Tony tilted his head to look inside his home, pushed the door completely open, and smiled.

He had been so used to seeing them all in the various rooms of his hospital stay, that to see them here, in his home, was strange. But here they were-Ducky, with his elbow resting on the kitchen counter, a soft smile gracing his lips; Abby, fairly bouncing, her hands in a tight knot next to her mouth; Palmer, that lopsided grin on his face, inexplicably clapping his hands.

"Relax, Palmer," Tony said, stepping into his apartment, "it's not like a won an Oscar or anything."

Abby was the first to traverse the space between them. "Can I hug you? I mean, like, really hug you?"

"Why do you think I came home?" he said, lifting his tired arms to accept her.

Abby stepped into his embrace, but caught both Gibbs and Tim's gesticulations to be careful. She resolved to keep her hug brief and light. Nothing, however, would stop her from enjoying and imprinting this moment on her heart. She closed her eyes, smiled, sighed. "I'm so glad you're home."

"Me, too," he told her, finding his strength ebbing. "Abby, I, uh..."

Abby released him, and only then saw the fatigue that surrounded him. She took him by the hand and led him to the couch. Gibbs stopped them midway and helped Tony out of his overcoat.

Jimmy Palmer almost gasped at how emaciated Tony had become over the months, and at how the ordeal had seemed to age him. Rather than let Tony see his expression of disconcertion, Jimmy pivoted to meet Tim at the door, ostensibly to shake his hands, but truly to shake off his own rattled soul. Tim patted the man on the shoulder and nodded that he understood.

His friends moved slowly around him, kept their voices low. Ducky, Tony had figured, must have told them how to behave in his presence. From his position seated on his couch in the living room, Tony answered their questions, allowed Abby to place pillows around him, under his arms, under his feet on the ottoman. Light conversation floated around him, only some of which Tony took part in. He accepted a plate with food on it, all of which looked and smelled delicious, but none of which Tony had the appetite to eat. He sipped a glass of milk, in appeasement to Ducky.

"You must keep up your strength, my boy," Ducky said, taking a seat next to Tony, watching the others pairing off in conversation.

"I know, Duck," Tony told him, forcing himself to down the contents of the glass. When it was finished, he handed it to the waiting hands of Ziva, who took it without comment, with only a quick smile and a flash of her dark eyes.

"I am sorry I was unable to come up the last few days," Ducky said. "Doctor Hampton came down with the flu, and I owed her a favor, so I took over some of her duties."

"Nice of you, Duck," Tony said.

"Yes, isn't it," Ducky answered back, quirking an eyebrow, and Tony instantly understood that now Ducky was free to call upon the pretty medical examiner to ask other favors, favors that would include red wine and candles.

"I have much to learn from you, Obi Wan," Tony said. "Oh, hey, remember when I was having those dreams about Jeanne?"


"I think I resolved the issue."

"Pray tell, do explain."

Tony rested his head against the back of his couch, and said, "I watched 'The Wizard of Oz' a couple nights ago."


"It's like the Wizard says-'The heart will never be practical until it's made to be unbreakable.'" Tony blinked, his eyes heavy and sore from such a long day. "I broke her heart."

"Yes, but-"

"Maybe this is my penance," Tony said, cutting off his friend.

Ducky frowned and peered at Tony over his glasses. "That hardly seems equitable."

Tony closed his eyes, and said, "At the very least, I know what the dreams are about."

It bothered Ducky that this man still ached for a decision based on orders so many years ago. He wove his arms over his chest, leaned in toward Tony, and said, "I believe a more applicable quote might be 'A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.' Look around this room, my boy." Tony opened his eyes and begrudgingly took in the scene-Gibbs stealing a second helping of food; Ziva slapping his hand; Tim synching Tony's iPhone with his computer, with Abby's arms coiled around his neck, looking on and offering assistance. Even Jimmy Palmer seemed amused by Tony's new heart-rate monitor. "Perhaps your time in the hospital taught you more about what you have than what you have lost."

These people, Tony thought, my friends. What did I ever do to deserve them?

Ducky watched as Tony's face blossomed with color, as his eyes filled with tears. He stuffed a tissue into Tony's hand and stood up.

Tony wiped the rough tissue across his eyes, and then held it tight to his mouth. A whole life in flux, he pondered. For years, he had lived under the arrogance of entitlement, the selfish, solipsistic mode of his father's world. "I believe in the Golden Rule, Boy," Senior had told him. "And he who makes the gold, rules." The Jesuit brothers at his Catholic boarding school had taught him "Better to give than receive," all while giving him knots on his head from their thick, heavy rings.

But, these people, all gathered to celebrate Tony's homecoming, these people had taught him a harder lesson-the very hard, very deep meaning of appreciation. Gibbs had taught him that, in his own way. If a man can, he gives what he has, not out of obligation, but out of duty to his fellow man. The heart beating steadily inside Tony's chest, allowing him to be in his own home once again, was a constant reminder of what another had selflessly given him. The constant pulse through his body, a constant reminder of his overwhelming appreciation.

It was better to give than receive, Tony decided, because giving was easier. Receiving, well, receiving took real courage.

And so he found himself overwrought by it all. This, too, he had been told might happen-careening emotions out of the blue. Yes, blame it on the Prednisone, the psychology of surviving heart-transplant surgery. But, he knew it also had something to do with how full of appreciation he was, of that breathtaking acknowledgment that people cared about him.

Abby looked up from the computer and caught Tony pressing a white tissue to his eyes. She jumped to his assistance, but Ducky stopped her with a look. Shaking his head, he conveyed to her that Tony needed to be left alone. That he was fine. Gibbs looked on, so did Ziva. A hush came over the room.

"Forty-nine BPM," Jimmy exclaimed, raising his hands in victory. "Beat that!" It wasn't until the quiet that infused the room caught up with him that Jimmy understood what was happening. He looked from face to face, finally settling on Tony's. "Oh. Oh, Tony, I'm..."

"Don't worry about it, Jimmy. Been a long day. Months, really," Tony forced his voice to say, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head. "Forty-nine BPM? That, uh... You might want to get your thyroid checked, Autopsy Gremlin."

Jimmy shifted his attention to Ducky who placed a hand on his shoulder, forgiving him for his outburst. "What did I miss?"

"No more than the usual, Mr. Palmer," Ducky said, gathering his coat. "I believe it is time we allowed Anthony time to rest."

"Yup," Jethro agreed, wiping off his hands on a dishcloth. "Just about that time."

Ducky slung his coat over his arm, and offered Tony his hand. "Something tells me Mr. Palmer's heart rate is beating considerably faster now," Ducky teased in a voice only Tony could hear.

Tony shook his friend's hand, chuckled, and said, "Thanks for being here, Duck."

"I wouldn't have missed this for all the world, Anthony." Clapping his hand on their conjoined hands, Ducky silently offered his acknowledgment of this day's bounty. "Well," he said, taking a deep breath. Ducky slipped into his coat, straightened his posture, and issued forth an order. "Now, do be a good lad-Sleep, even if you're not tired."

Tony nodded, and managed a tight, "Got it."

One last good-natured point of the finger at his friend, and Ducky turned, scowled at his assistant, and said, "If you think you can tear yourself away from the gadgets, I'll drive you home, Mr. Palmer."

"Right, Doctor," Jimmy said, struggling to find the armholes in his coat.

"He's a brilliant anatomist," Ducky said, marveling along with the rest at Jimmy's ineptitude with the simplest tasks. "It's the animated that gives him pause."

Abby and Tim also scrambled to find their coats. After a brief search, Abby realized Gibbs was holding hers open, awaiting her slender arms. "Gibbs," she smiled, gliding into her long, faux-fur coat, "always the gentleman. Thank you, kind sir!"

As much as he wished they would stay, Tony knew sleep was rushing to him. He shoved his fists into the cushions, making an attempt to rise, but Tim stopped him with a broad palm across his shoulder. "Don't get up, Ton."

There was a moment when Tony thought he might dismiss Tim's suggestion that he remain seated. But, when his knees seemed loose, when his elbows trembled from being locked-out, Tony demurred. Nodding, he sat back and simply said, "Thanks for coming, you guys."

"We'll stop in tomorrow," Abby said, handing Tim his coat. "Sleep. And don't forget to eat something. Ziva made some amazing food."

"I will," he told her, his eyes crinkling with a smile.

She cupped his face with her gloved hand and looked deeply into his bloodshot eyes. She thought she should say something meaningful, poetic, philosophical. Something that would cap off this wonderful day. She bit the corner of her ruby lip, blinked, and said, "If you need anything..."

"I know."

"I mean anything."

"Got everything I need, right here," Tony told her, patting his chest. "But if I can think of anything else, I know who to call."

Ziva kissed his forehead, a thing he thought he should be inured to, but something about the maternal nature of it, the tenderness always touched him, and always left him unable to speak.

"Glad you're home, Ton," Tim said, touching Abby's arm, gently reminding her that they were trying to get out of the man's home before he collapsed.

Tony cleared the knot from his throat, and said, "Me, too, Tim. Thanks, again, for the, uh...ya know."

Tim waved him off, nodded, and pulled a crooked grin. "Any time."

Gibbs held the door open for the group, shaking hands with them as they left, patting Ducky on the back, a gesture of appreciation. With the door to Tony's apartment still ajar, Gibbs turned, rolled back his shoulders, and said, "You have my number."

Nodding, Tony said, "Yup."

"Don't be afraid to use it."

Tony locked eyes with the man, quirked a tight smile over clenched teeth, and bobbed his head. Words would not come.

And Gibbs understood. He chucked his fingers under his own jaw, winked once, and was out the door.

As if the final ounce of his energy had left with Gibbs, Tony dropped his head to the back of the couch, scrubbed his hands over his face, and sighed.

"Well," Ziva said, propped against the kitchen counter, her arms woven across her chest, "you certainly know how to clear a place."

His hands slid from his face to his chest, and Tony held his breath a moment. Realizing that, no, she hadn't left with the others, he chuckled. Of course she would stay. Why should anything change? "Yeah, the crying jag always does the trick," he said, rubbing his fingers across his eyes. He should be more embarrassed, he thought, and maybe tomorrow he would be, but now, lethargy seeped into his body from every angle. "If that hadn't done the trick, I was going to pull out my family vacation Super-Eights."

"Ah, yes," she laughed, crossing the room, "the video history of you alone in a vast assortment of hotel rooms."

"It wasn't video in those days, my little digital friend," Tony said, closing his eyes. "It was film. You'd be surprised what a cute little boy with a handheld camera can get away with."

She snickered a little, then smiled at him, a tender gesture that told him she could see through the obvious attempt to mask his exhaustion. "Would you like to do this here on the couch, or would you like to move to your bed?"

Tony opened his eyes to look at her. She had set him up for any number of lascivious comments, but he was just too tired. He shook his head, and said, "I think I'll just take a nap here."

Ziva piled the pillows Abby had brought out to him against the armrest of the sofa and began to help Tony shift his position. But Tony held her off, saying, "I got it." However, turning brought more pain than Tony had expected, and his face contorted.


He held up his hand, stopping her, and tried again. When he began to lower himself, the fatigue of the day coupled by the long car ride home overrode any need for self-reliance. "Yeah, okay," he sighed, and Ziva's hand rushed to cradle his head. He moaned, and she pulled an accent pillow from against the couch and pressed it to his chest. Tony clutched it tight to his sternum, and allowed Ziva to assume the greater portion of the work.

"You have done too much today," she scolded him, resting his head on the pillows.

"Any less, and I would have been at a standstill," Tony told her, trying of his own accord to shift his legs up onto the couch. Ziva took over that responsibility, as well. His breath left him in staccato bursts. "Ooooof. God..." He dug his head deep into the pillow, trying to straighten out his torso. Ziva grabbed hold of his hips and helped to reposition them, which, any other day, would have made him stop and grab her hands, pelting her with a look. Today, it was all he could do to keep his teeth from chattering through the discomfort.

"When's the last time you took some pain medication?" she asked, ripping the afghan from the chair, unfurling it over Tony.

Tony crushed shut his eyes, licked his lips, and said, "Um, I don't know." He concentrated on breathing through his nose, and soon enough, the worst of it siphoned away. "Couple hours before I left the hospital."

"Then you are due," she said, stepping to the kitchen where his medication lined the back of his counter. She had memorized each bottle, had taken it upon herself to know his medications as well as he knew them. Probably better. She grabbed the third vial from the left, shook out one long pill, filled a glass with water, and returned to Tony's side. "Here. Drink this."

"Yes, Boss," he said, downing the pill with the contents of the glass. Once through, he plopped back down on the pillow and closed his eyes. Ziva brought the glass back to the kitchen.

"You don't have to stay, you know," he said, and Ziva wiped her hand on a towel.

"I know, but I'm going to," she told him, returning to his side. She sat on the ottoman, close to him, her hands on her knees. "You shouldn't be alone on your first day out of the hospital."

He opened his eyes and his mouth to contradict her, but had nothing. Reaching out, Tony grabbed one of her hands, and said, "Okay."

"Tony," she said, running her thumb against his cool hand, "how are you?"

He didn't want to burden her with the truth, but he owed her this much. At the very least, he owed her his candor. "I'm overwhelmed...I suppose. My apartment is so...clean."


"And, between you and me and the wall, I didn't think I'd come home."

Ziva dipped her head, nodding. "I know."

Tony turned, blindly peered into the innocuous corners where walls met ceiling, finding it increasingly difficult to focus, and said, "It's just gonna take some getting used to."

There was something she needed to know. She knew what her answer would be to the same question, but needed to hear Tony's answer. "Are you afraid?"

"Comes and goes," he said, without the obfuscation and fanfare Ziva thought she might hear.

"When does it come?"

"At night. It's always worse at night."

"I know," she said, and he knew she did know. "I can imagine tonight will be difficult."

Although he was well aware analgesics didn't work that fast, Tony felt his body quickly giving into sleep. He closed his eyes, rubbed the heel of his hand over his aching brow, and said, "The thing is... I've spent the last few months hooked up to monitors, having nurses check on me all day and night." His hand dropped heavily to his stomach, and he breathed deep, which made him cough. Which made him ache. Ziva waited for it to pass. "There were times when I would have given anything for them to leave me alone. There were other times when...well, when I was pretty damned happy they were there. I don't have any monitors anymore. It's all up to me, and..."

"That is frightening," she said, nodding her head in sympathy.

"Yeah," he said, knocking their hands to her leg, absently watching their union. "Right up there on the Freak-O-Meter."

"You were near death before you went to the hospital, and yet you were able to monitor your health enough then to stay alive," she reminded him. "Now you are well. Or you will be. This should be a piece of pie."

"Cake," he corrected her. "Cake..."

"Besides," she said, sliding off the ottoman and onto the edge of the couch. She never let go of his hand, only shifted so that she could also encircle his legs, her tired head resting on his raised knee, "what's the worst that can happen?"

"Oh, I don't know," he said, licking his lips, slowly, lethargically, "I could go to sleep one night and pull a Humphrey Bogart."

"Humphrey Bogart died in his sleep?"

"No. Or at least I don't think he did. Can't remember," Tony said, rifling through his hazy memory for Bogie's cause of death. He shook his head, and went on. "No, Bogie was in a movie, 'The Big Sleep.' I was making an allusion to-"

"So you die peacefully in your sleep," she said, sliding her hand under her cheek, cushioning it atop Tony's knee. "We should all go so easily."

Tony thought about her words, about the graceful acceptance of death, and supposed she was right. He cleared his throat, wiped his hand across his face, and said, "Better than being shot in the head."

"Or having your home blown up in an aerial attack."

"Or being asphyxiated."

"Or being stoned to death."

"Or overdosing on rat-poisoned heroin."

"Or having your car fire-bombed."

"Or choking on your own vomit."

"Or... What?" she said, pulling her head off his knees. "Who chokes on their own vomit?"

Tony blinked, then said, "I thought we were talking about the way rock stars died."

"No," she cried.

"What are you talking about then?"

"Common ways in which people die."

"Really was an enchanted childhood, wasn't it?"

Ziva rolled her eyes and raked her fingers across her tight forehead. "Why do I bother?"

"Because," he said, waiting for her to meet his earnest eyes again, "I'm one of your seven."

Ziva's features softened then, and the juxtaposition of this day and that one desperate night took her breath away. She sighed, lowered her voice, and nodded. "Yes," she said. "Yes, you are."

"But you're still going to worry about me," he said, closing his eyes, finding deeper comfort in the pile of pillows.

Ziva folded the edge of the afghan over, away from his face, and admitted, "I suppose I always will."

"You don't need to," he said.

"This is not something I need or do not need to do, Tony," she said. "I simply do. I worry."

Close now to sleep, Tony let go of her hand and draped one arm across her legs. "My therapist told me something. She said that I can't control whether people are going to worry about me, but I can control my own life." He cleared his throat, and began to breathe that shallow, easy breathing of sleep, and when he spoke again, it was a near whisper. "She told me that if I do everything I can to take care of myself, people won't worry about me as much. So, Ziva," he said, opening his eyes one more time to make his friend a promise he intended to keep, "I swear I'll take care of myself. I promise to... do everything I'm supposed to do, and that I'll always be honest with you about how I'm feeling. If I'm worried, I'll tell you. If I'm not worried, I'll tell you that, too." Tony crooked his little finger around Ziva's, and said, "You have my...pinky-promise...promise. I promise."

Ziva grasped onto his words, bit her lip to keep from giggling at how tired he was, and said, "Okay."

"Okay," he whispered, closed his eyes, and let his head drift to the side. "And now, I'm gonna..."

"Go to sleep," she whispered, watching as slumber washed over him, as his mouth slung open, and a peace came to his world. And to hers.


With a quick tug on his crisp, white cuffs, a playful smirk plastered to his lips, Tony DiNozzo sauntered out of the elevator and into the bullpen.

Where no one noticed.

It wasn't like he was unexpected. They'd all talked about it, this, the day of his glorious full-time return. Sure, he'd been in two weeks earlier to have his new ID picture taken and to begin working a few hours a day, just to get his sea-legs back, but this was THE day...

He hadn't wanted balloons, or a banner with "Welcome Back, Tony" emblazoned in big, garish letters, but he wouldn't have said no to it, either. He just hoped someone, at the very least, would have met him at the elevator doors.

"Way to make a guy feel welcome, people," Tony said to no one, and when no one answered back, Tony decided to make his own grand entrance.

An attractive young thing with a tight skirt scurried by, her arms full of files, and Tony smoothed down his tie. "Buon giorno," he said to her, and she smiled back. "Come ti chiami?"

The young lady blinked, and said, "I'm sorry. I don't speak Spanish."

Tony laughed, opened his mouth to correct her, but simply breezed on. Leaning a shoulder into the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, Tony said, "Mi chiamo Molto Speciale Vice Direttore Anthony DiNozzo."

"Oh!" she said, jostling her files to free one hand. She pointed to the inner set of desks, and said, very slowly, very loudly, "They. Can. Help. You. Over. There. Over there."

Tony's brow knit in confusion. If this was an example of the new crop of recruits, his job was going to be harder than he thought. Nonetheless, Tony smiled, and said, "Grazie."

When she walked away, when Tony took one furtive glance at her legs, he propelled himself away from the wall, checked the knot in his tie and carried on toward the bullpen desks. If they wouldn't come to him, he'd go to them.

Tony swaggered up to Ziva's cubicle, perched his arms on the wall, and said, "Come stai?"

Without looking up from her computer, Ziva simply answered, "Bene, grazie. E tu?"

Put off, Tony pushed away from the cubicle wall, straightened his back, and strutted into the inner sanctum, an indignant scowl on his well-shaven face. He would not be bested, not on his first day back, so he turned on his heels, leaned over her desk, and said, "Piacere di conoscerla, Ziva David."

Ziva glanced up at him and took a deep, dramatic breath. She splayed her hands on the top of her desk, set her jaw, and said, "Si. Il piacere e mio, Antonio. Ancora." When Tony stood mute, his eyes blinking with confusion, she tilted her head, raised one indignant eyebrow, and said, "Vedo che hai preso lezioni di italiano."

Tony didn't know how to answer her, Ziva's words having sailed by him in a blur. He narrowed his eyes, buried his hands in his suit pockets, and said, "Buono?"

Ziva chuckled, resumed her work on the computer, and told him, "E meglio di una lingua prima dominare."

"You always gotta go there, don't ya, Probationary Agent David," he said, viewing her sidelong and with as much feigned contempt as he could muster. He yanked a pen from the cup on her desk and stuffed it in his breast pocket, just to show her. "And in my mother tongue."

"English is your mother tongue," she reminded him.

"And there too, sometimes, you're a motherless child," Gibbs said, cruising into the bullpen, a fresh cup of coffee in his grasp.

"Morning, Gibbs," Tony said, strolling behind the man, following him to his desk. "I was just regaling Ziva here with my newly acquired language skills."

Gibbs sat down, reached to turn on his computers. He straightened his collar, and said, "Sounds like you could use a few more lessons, there, Molto Speciale Vice Direttore DiNozzo."

Tony's eyes grew wide. Could Gibbs have overheard his conversation with the young woman? Nah... Maybe?

"Hey, Ton," Tim said, taking his seat behind his desk. "I thought I heard your voice."

"Hey, there, McGee," Tony answered back. "I thought I smelled virgin." When Tim looked up at Tony and then at Gibbs, Tony closed his eyes and smacked a hand against his own head. "Can't really say stuff like that anymore, can I?" he asked Gibbs, who was busy taking a call. "Listen, uh, Tim..."

"Welcome back, Tony," Tim said, waving him off, silently reveling in the banter.

Replacing the phone on the cradle, Gibbs said, "You're wanted in MTAC

Caught off guard, Tony chuckled. "Boy, they don't believe in dinner and a movie, do they?"

"Nope," Gibbs said.

Tony took a moment to smooth down his hair, and Ziva and Tim shared a smile. "Probably should get up there, then."


Tony ran a hand across his tie, and headed for the steps. But first, a quick side trip.

"Ah, Wall," Tony said, spreading wide his arms, pressing them to the brushed chrome wall and all the photos attached. "I think I've missed you most of all."

"DiNozzo," barked Gibbs, and Tony jogged to the steps.

"Right," he called back, taking each step with purpose. Knowing Ziva would be watching, Tony raised his voice just loud enough to be heard, and without even the slightest pause in his pace, said, "You'll notice how easily I'm taking these steps, Miss David, and I know you know what that means. Yeah, ya do."

From her desk, Ziva simply rolled her eyes and expressed her disgust. But he had been right. She had been watching Tony climb the stairs, as if eight months earlier he had not been lying on the floor in front of her, life seeping out of him. For this grace, for this return to something like normal, Ziva bowed her head, sighed, and smiled.

And then he was inside the MTAC, striding down the ramp that led to the video screen.

"Good to see you, sir," the tech called out to him.

"Good to be seen, Newsome," Tony answered, taking the center spot in the room. He straightened his tie, rolled back his shoulders, yanked both cuffs of his shirt, and stretched out his neck. One last check to his hair, and Tony motioned that he was ready for the video conference.

The screen crackled to life, each pixel holding tightly to the next. A slightly balding man sat at his desk, engrossed in writing something. Tony cleared his throat, and said, "Good morning, Assistant Secretary McWilliams, I-" A quick upturned palm, and Tony was brought to a halt. Not his first time on this particular circus ride, Tony waited, knowing this was what Gibbs liked to call "pissing to mark your territory" behavior. Tony checked the button on his suit coat, the time on his watch. Shared a look with the Newsome the tech at the desk, and stood his ground. What made it all the more aggravating was this man and Tony had spent a number of years at the same New England boarding school, and the fact that McWilliams was sitting behind a massive, oak desk did not diminish the fact that he remained the same whiney, self-righteous, spoiled over-achiever that he was while he still wore braces and headgear.

Finally, after a good thirty seconds went by (Tony later would tell the others that he caught the Assistant Secretary of the Navy mouthing the countdown), the man looked up, tossed his pen to the desk, and assumed the position of the highly put-out.

"Good morning, Assistant Secretary," Tony said again, narrowing his eyes.

"First day back, I hear," McWilliams said, pulling a file to the center of his desk.

"First full day, yes," Tony told him. "I'd like to-"

"We have a situation involving a petty officer imprisoned in Kabul," he said, flipping pages in the file.

"I've looked through the file, Mr. Assistant Secretary," Tony told him, "and if you don't mind me saying so-"

"I do mind you saying so, DiNozzo," the man said, glaring at Tony through the security of a video link. "We need to get something straight from the get-go about this new appointment of yours."

Tony knew it was coming, the smack-down of supposed subordinates, the rush to assume the alpha-dog position, but since his acceptance of the Director's offer to become the new Assistant Director of NCIS, Tony had been preparing himself for just such a meeting. He crossed his arms over his chest and broadened his stance. "Ya know, Chad," he said, wagging a finger at the man who now shared the same pay-grade as Tony, "although it's true that I serve at the pleasure of this administration, and believe me, it is a pleasure, I do not plan to be a pleasure to work with. Now, I have been placed in this position for a reason, and part of that reason, aside for my obvious good taste, is to be read-in on situations such as the one concerning Petty Officer Derra, as well as to offer my considerable expertise regarding such situations, which, I might add, includes years of field work. You, on the other hand, having been sent to DC by the great citizens of Rhode Island yea these past fifteen years, have never spent a day in the field, and, in fact, I'm fairly certain you wouldn't be able to find the field if your limo skidded off the expressway and landed in it. " The Assistant Secretary of the Navy, eyes afire with anger, began to speak, and Tony stopped him with a dismissive hand. "Now, I know that's hard to admit, but that's the reason I'm here: to help you when you find yourself far afield of your area of expertise, which, if memory serves, is more akin to a polo field. How's your sister, by the way?"

"I don't know who you-"

"It is my goal-no, it is my mission to make sure NCIS is the first agency on your lips when this country is in need of our very special talents," Tony told him, checking his cufflinks. "However, and I do say this with all the respect due to a man who is in his position because his family once supplied schooners for the Spanish-American War efforts, I will help you from letting your considerable lack of experience working under SecNav from putting our agencies and the people within those agencies in harm's way. That, Mr. Assistant Secretary, is why the former SecNav placed me in this position of Assistant Director of NCIS." Leaving McWilliam's broadcasted face for a moment and turning to Newsome, Tony added, "Now that was a guy who knew his fields. Mostly Mrs. Field's Cookies later in his career. He was getting a little fleshy there." Turning back to McWiliams and his furious expression, Tony went on. "My point is-"

"You cannot talk to me like that!"

Tony scoffed, and said, "Actually, I can, and, oh, wait...hold on...What? There it is! I did. Get used to it. Now, I'm going to go back to my office and schedule a time later today when you and I can get down to the business of this petty officer and his case. When we reconvene, we're going to begin this relationship on a more common ground, for the good of those we serve. Chad, you have a spectacular morning." With that, Tony motioned for Newsome to cut the transmission. Once the screen went blank, Tony took a deep breath, checked the knot in his tie, turned to Newsome, and said, "How are the wife and kids, Charlie?"

"Fine, sir," he said, smiling with respect at his new boss. "Thanks for asking."

"Any time," Tony said, striding out of the MTAC.

Once outside the door, Gibbs met him and walked down the steps with him. "How'd it go, Mr. Assistant Director?"

"Oh, you know," Tony said, gliding down the stairway, "he said his thing; I said mine. We admired each other's suit. The usual."

Gibbs smiled a lopsided grin, and at the bottom of the staircase, offered his hand to Tony, "It's good to have you back, Tony."

Taking Gibbs hand, Tony said, "Thanks, Boss."

"I'm not your boss, Boss," Gibbs reminded him, and with a pat on the arm, stepped away from Tony.

Tony stood in amazement at Gibbs' words, the reality of it all, apparently, having not quite settled in. Nonetheless, Tony regrouped, bounded over to Tim's desk, picked up his coffee cup and took a swig. Tim, aghast, looked on nonplussed.

Tipping his head back to hold a mouthful of coffee, Tony garbled, "Is this caffeinated?"

"Yes," Tim growled.

Tony let the coffee dribble back into the cup, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and said, "I forgot. I can't have caffeine. Sorry, Tim."

"I'll try to make it decaf next time," Tim snapped, tossing his coffee into the trash. "Are there any other of your dietary concerns I'll need to self-impose for your comfort, Tony?"

Tony squirted hand sanitizer into his palm, whisked it over both hands, and said, "No, only the one. So, you guys wanna have lunch at around one? My treat."

The three silently assessed each other's willingness and found they were in agreement. "Yeah," Tim said, "that would be great. You can repay me for the coffee."

"Thank you, Tony," Ziva said, with a quick, shallow bow of her head.

"Don't thank me, thank McGee. I've never had this much money in my... Well, at least in the last twenty years," Tony said, moving with ease and grace through the bullpen. "Oh, and, Ziva, wear that Vera Wang number."

Narrowing her eyes, a coy smile on her lips, Ziva said, "Is that an order, Mr. Assistant Director?"

"Probably one of those 'red-light' moments, right, Gibbs?" Tony asked.

"Oh, they don't come much redder, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, rifling through his files.

"Right. Have to remember that for the future," Tony said, his forehead pinched in concentration, his hands deep in his suit pockets. He turned to Ziva, and asked, "How about if I wear it?"

"Then I'll sue you and the agency for creating a hostile work environment," Tim said.

"Reporting for duty, Director DiNozzo," came the voice behind him.

After a quick, stylized half-pirouette, Tony found Abby saluting him, her pigtails flapping from side to side. "That's Assistant Director, Abs, and it's not appropriate to salute me."

"Then, can I, like, hug you?"

"Well, I'd have to check the protocol books, but..." Before he could finish his sentence, Abby's arms were locked around his neck, almost toppling him. Tony laughed, regained his balance and hugged her back. "This is all I ask, people. Would it have killed you to show a little love my way?"

"Don't say that," Abby said, disengaging her embrace to point a finger in his face. "There will be no more use of the 'K' word in this...general vicinity," she said, motioning to the area around Tony's former desk.

When Ziva understood to what she was referring, she said, "It's only a piece of carpeting, Abby."

"One that should have been removed," Abby told her, stomping on that spot where Tony laid so many months ago.

Tony wrapped an arm around her shoulder, telling her, "I'll make it my first order of business. That, and a cappuccino maker in the break room."

"Oooh, I like me the new BADOC," Abby said, her eyes a flirtatious, subversive squint.

"BADOC?" Tony asked.

Tim hated himself for knowing what it meant, but supplied the answer anyhow. "Big Assistant Director on Campus. Although, Abby, in this case it should really be 'on Base.'"

"BADOC, BADOB, I'm gonna let you make that call, Probie, but know that I'm good with either one," Tony said, leaning against his former desk. "So, one o'clock for lunch?"

"Sure!" Abby told him.

"Not if you don't let us get our work done, Mr. Assistant Director." Striding away from the bullpen, Gibbs crooked his finger over his shoulder, and called out, "Abby, you're with me."

"Okay, so we'll catch-up over lunch," Abby said, clomping her way to the elevator doors.

"Come on!" Gibbs said, holding the doors open for her.

"One o'clock. My treat."

"Welcome home!" she managed to yell before the doors to the elevator closed.

Smiling, Tony sauntered over to the stairs. "Good to be home," he said to himself. Halfway to the middle landing, Tony turned to the bullpen and said, "Okay, people, let's be careful out there." When a few audible groans issued forth from the cubicles, Tony tried again. "How about-Let's keep the streets safe for seamen and... Yeah, I can see how that wouldn't work." Continuing his ascent of the metal stairway, Tony snapped his fingers, turned near the top, and said, "Here-NCIS: We handle our privates with care."

"Mr. DiNozzo," the Director said, appearing out of nowhere at the top of the steps. "A word in my office."

"Absolutely. Right away, sir. I was just on my way there," Tony told him smiling, finding his palms beginning to sweat. Down below, Tim and Ziva labored to control their laughter.

Once at the top of the stairs, Tony leaned against the railing, looked down at the bullpen, at his team, at that particular spot on the carpeting where Ducky and Gibbs had kept him alive, at his now empty desk, and shook his head. Who would have ever thought how his life would change in the matter of a year? Certainly not Tony. And for that change, for all the miracles, both big and small, practical and impractical, that had come to his life in the last year, Tony was humbly grateful.

Standing on the mezzanine of NCIS, about to enter this next chapter in his life, Tony took one more moment to look over the bullpen, and when he did, he realized another advantage of having an office upstairs.

Seated at her desk, an awareness washed over Ziva, which piqued her curiosity. There was a disturbance around her, and she scanned the area. Her attention flew to the floor above, where Tony stood, smiling down at her, his hands cantilevered over the railing, his feet crossed. He cocked an eyebrow her way, and her eyes flew to the buttons on her shirt. She made quick work of buttoning the one that had left her decolletage so carelessly exposed, and then glared at him, murderous intent in her eyes, and he just crowed, tossing back his head in laughter. Perks of the position, he thought to himself, pushing away from the railing, still amused by Ziva's reaction.

Strutting toward the Director's office, Tony straightened his tie, and said, "Ah, yes. It's good to be the Assistant Director."