This story began two years ago as a Christmas one-shot and there have been quite a few requests for an epilogue since its conclusion. And while I'd long said no, I've quite accidentally written it.

With this posting, I also conclude my fanfiction career. It has been a lovely five years getting to know so many of you (and even visiting a few!) so I do not retire lightly. Thank you for your long-suffering patronage and may the plot bunnies be with you.


Symbiosis

Epilogue

"Have you ever been dumped on a holiday?"

Running three identification programs simultaneously, McGee shouldn't have time to voice such an insipid question. But he does, heedless of the only audience available for response. The one to his left no longer speaks in the language of conquest. Following is the momentary silence of contemplating monks broken by the snap of a stapler. A hint of Tony's profile is caught between unsteady towers of witness profiles.

Finally, after McGee has incubated three grays, comes the reply. "One cheerful Christmas morning."

"What was her reason?"

"No ring under the tree."

The shuffle of pages and refocused eyes indicate how little attention Tony intends to give this discussion. The one McGee's not finished chewing. Mouse clicks and neck cricks pass before he tries again.

"So she decided it was 'marry you or martyr you?'"

"Some girls are sensitive about the collapse of their holiday expectations."

"But not all of them, right?"

This is the hook in Tony's jaw. Curiosity trumps Gibbs' deadline. "You anticipate the naughty list this year, McRalphie?"

"Don't know about naughty."

It turns uncomfortable, exactly as history predicted. DiNozzo's not the sort of dog to release on command and McGee feels the rubber walls of a squeak toy forming around him. Pivoting in his chair, Tony offers an undoctored dose of squirm-inducing stare.

"Because the top of that list is reserved for me, probie."

"You don't think settling down got you a reprieve?"

There are extra LED lights powering Tony's grin wattage. "Santa used a Sharpie."

It's a samurai to behead the conversation, evidenced by the man's definitive swing back to his station. Because Santa's global list is a sticky note compared to the library of dossiers the CIA generously donated. Tony refills his precious stapler like the performing of a sacrament, clocks four glances to his partner's empty desk. Willing her rescue from whatever he's decided that Tim is undertaking.

Approximately nineteen minutes, two coffees and a hit of eye drops later, McGee's clearing his throat. Trying to get spackled words off his plaster tongue. Or at least the first one, which will start with but and go nowhere from there. The throat clearing continues. Tony's drawer is pulled open hard enough to displace the time continuum and a lozenge is sent sailing past Tim's stack of papers. Unneeded, but appreciated as a gesture all the same, McGee is compelled to open the wrapper. A corner at a time, like Charlie Bucket opening a chocolate bar. And now he's thinking in films. Damn.

The crinkle is ongoing and Tony's patience fractures. "Fine. What are you really worried about?"

"That I'll never have another chance."

"And you have one now?" It's a gentle scoff, which gives it no tender landing.

"Not for, you know, the eternal bits. I'm just looking for more than a continuation of the last failure."

"Which you'll suggest somewhere between breakfast and gifts?"

"Ummm... Yes?"

"No."

Mild annoyance has shifted into something colder, an inconvenient crevice obeying in the earthquake and dividing into a bottomless canyon. The cough drop becomes sticky as it waits between the warmth of Tim's fingers.

"You don't pencil in the next level, McKay Jeweler. You don't plot out a timeline and schedule 'let's-get-it-right' at quarter to noon unless there actually is a ring under the tree."

"I wasn't going to set an alarm by it," McGee grumbles.

The bullpen is essentially quiet, if the dozens wandering around the team's designated portion of the seasonally decorated universe are discounted. Which is difficult during sneeze season. Having made a study in all the ways to eavesdrop, it would serve Tim right to have his abysmal chances at romantic success broadcast over the Yard's gossip frequency.

Meanwhile, Tony is coupling the head shake of the disappointed with a series of huffs that breed in the lungs of the married. Expelling demons, disapproval and Dr Ruth. The prickly gift of experience is forthcoming. Tim tries not to meet it with an eye roll.

"Most women," Tony begins, "and trust the man who has dated half the current qualifying population, don't want to be turned into line graphs and pie charts."

Visions of headbanging sugar plums wearing his declaration in molted silver no longer dance in Tim's head. The confection might now be holding picket signs. The dejection on his face would have, in the past, been sufficient to satisfy Tony's need for victorious smugness. Instead, the senior agent simply fiddles with his wedding band.

"Can we clarify that the object of your panic is, in fact, a woman who treasures spontaneity over footwear comfort?"

"The very same," McGee says.

"And you're going to recommend legal permanence without her input and on a holiday not known for zombie hordes? Halloween passed, by the way."

"So?"

"That boat wasn't just missed. It's sitting in dry-dock off the coast."

This notion, without the snark, has certainly occurred to McGee. Usually at three am. The question it will drag from chapped lips signifies that the world has already seen the DiNozzo apocalypse and is still open to negotiation.

"What should I do."

"Sometimes," and here comes that pensive seriousness again. "Sometimes if you're late getting onboard, you gotta jump off the pier after it because once it hits the horizon, the earth goes flat and the ship falls off the edge."

"Did you just compare Abby to a doomed ship?"

From pensive to pissed in a land speed record. "You're trampling my metaphor, probie. I'm just saying, there's no such thing as a window of opportunity. It's a cartoon mouse hole. And it gets smaller with every screw-up so you can't wait until..."

That was a thought heading somewhere personal. Which is why Tony sucks the almost-conclusion down into the safety of silence and throws his eyes back to documents of retinal destruction.

"What just happened?" Asks a desperate man clutching the edge of his seat.

Tony shrugs. "Gumball Machine of Wisdom ran out."

"Refill it," says an interloper. "It was dispensing something interesting."

McGee watches as Ziva takes her seat, neatly arranges her folders and picks up the phone receiver. The day is pushed forward, the case taking shape, taking hours, taking a life. Taking back justice.

Three days before Christmas and at the close of a miraculously short case, McGee's not surprised to catch Ziva depositing an early present on Tony's desk. She could have presented it at home, but they're less about one-upping than meaningful timing these days. It's sweet, yet above reproach. Ziva turns to her observer, tosses out the challenging grin that Tim couldn't reproduce with a diagram and then ventures into her own metaphoric attempt.

"From land, boats appear slow. But do not misjudge their speed. Catch it while it remains in sight."

Tim's not sure it's wise to deflect when Ziva seems determined to make a point. So he avoids slinking off to his chair and instead gives the pitiful doubt voice.

"If it falls off the edge of the world without me?"

"Then make sure you're manning the life boat."

"And if it's a no?"

Something flicks in the dark of her eyes that owes nothing to brightening florescents above, set on a dimmer to appease the environmentalists. It's a trait she and Tony share, the facial shift when private thoughts are trying to go verbal. Like ill-fitting gears gaining inertia and plunging forward.

"We are often called upon to make something of no," she tells Tim. "Yes is not always easier. Ask Tony."

"I would, but his gumball machine's empty."

She glances to the gift on her partner's desk, perfectly wrapped despite the tricky shape.

"I have seen to that issue."

Hope lives in the example they've set, every messy, tangled stretch of it. "You guys did good, you know."

"Because we are experts at making much of no."

Ziva's smile is a slow climb, like a sluggish sunrise finding its way. One hand, a dreadfully skilled appendage, lingers involuntarily against her body. At her stomach. Not hovering over the past, McGee realizes, but cradling the future. A yes.

"Really?" Tim whispers.

The elevator chimes behind them. The freight train that is Agent DiNozzo registers the gift, McGee's face and Ziva's hand in a single sweep.

"Ninja sucks at secrets." Tony sits at his desk, traces a finger along the bulbous sphere at the north of his present and then tilts his head at McGee. "You happy to see me or is that a box in your pocket?"

It's three days until Christmas at seven-twenty-six in the morning. The day and time has no significance, lacks a line graph and employs not a zombie horde. Meanwhile, the duo before him are charting a better storyline than Tim could have drafted for their literary counterparts. And the proof of their solidified symbiosis curls just south of Ziva's smile. Even with an unholy host of no, Tony and Ziva have rammed their own yes down destiny's throat. No longer needing the life boat.

McGee grips the oars to get the feel. Maybe it will be no, but it won't be a failure. He'll just have to learn to make something of it. Thus he heads to the lab, a small square weighing down the left side of his pants. On the cuff of his sleeve is placed his beating heart. He trusts Abby not to trample that metaphor.

And he's trusting Santa to add his name to the nice list. In Sharpie.