Tony waited until they had to work a weekend to pull the prank. With the bullpen nearly deserted he was more likely to catch his intended target.

He came in early to put his plan in motion. Life size Santa doll liberated from a store display - check. Toy water pistol - check. Extra large coffee - check. The Santa and the water gun he arranged in the ladies room. The coffee went on Ziva's desk.

"Did you get this for me?" Ziva asked suspiciously when she arrived and found the steaming beverage waiting for her.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"What? I can't do something nice without getting the third degree?"

She took a sip and sighed with pleasure. "So is this some kind of fig leaf, Tony?"

"Olive branch. But feel free to strip down and use it as a fig leaf. It would be a nice bonus."

He ignored the evil look she gave him but kept tabs on her coffee consumption. At the rate she was going she would be in the bathroom by 0900. Perfect.

He was only off by about fifteen minutes. Right around 0915, Ziva left her desk and headed down the hall. Tony jumped up to follow her.

"DiNozzo."

"Yes, boss."

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Bathroom."

"Your own I hope."

"Always, boss."

"Hmmph," Gibbs grunted but let him leave.

He scurried down the hall and took up his position just outside the ladies room door. It was not long before he was rewarded by a shrill screech ... and then a gunshot. Uh oh.

"TONY!!!"

This was not good. She sounded very angry.

"Uhm, do you need some help, Ziva"

"I'm going to kill you! Slowly and painfully."

By now Gibbs and McGee had arrived, alerted by the sound of gunfire. Gibbs took a moment to glare at Tony and then pushed past him into the bathroom. Tony followed, using Gibbs as a shield between himself and Ziva. Once he saw the scene inside he couldn't help himself and he let out a chuckle. Even Gibbs had a small smile tickling the corners of his mouth.

The Santa was still where Tony had left it. Pants down around its knees and seated on the toilet, the water pistol wedged between its hands. The only difference was that Santa now had a bullet hole right in the middle of his forehead. Fortunately, Ziva had used her backup weapon, a small .22, so the bullet had lodged in the figure's plastic cranium and no damage had been done to the room itself.

"Well, you seemed to have successfully subdued Santa," said Gibbs with a remarkably straight face.

"Are you just going to joke about it? I thought it was an intruder, a pervert. This was so childish ... Irresponsible ... inappropriate ..." Ziva sputtered as her anger short circuited her English and she ran out of words. "May I kill him now Gibbs?"

"I will handle Tony. You need to write up a weapons discharge report."

"That's one report I'd love to read," sniggered McGee, earning himself an evil glance from Ziva.

"Go. Now." barked Gibbs. "Not you DiNozzo," he added when Tony turned to leave with the others.

"Sorry, boss."

"No, you're not." Gibbs paused to give Tony an appraising glance. "Any chance you're gonna grow up sometime soon?"

"I just ... uhm ... I just saw the Santa and I couldn't help myself."

"I know." Another thoughtful look before he shook his head in mock disgust. "Next time lose the toy gun. That was overkill."

"That's it?" Tony had expected at least a serious dressing down. "Just 'lose the gun'"

"No. You can also get this crap out of here before you give some secretary a heart attack and I have to book you for involuntary manslaughter."

Gibbs understood, thought Tony as he carried the mutilated Santa out to his car. Gibbs had always understood. Tony really couldn't help himself.

It had started back when he was a child. Alcoholic mother, overbearing father, it would have been a nightmare if he hadn't found a way to cope. Early on, Tony had discovered that nightmares were far less scary if you could find a way to make them funny. Demons, even real life demons, dissolved in the face of laughter. Some people said that it was love that made life worth living, but Tony knew that it was laughter that made it livable.

This was what Gibbs understood. The more Tony cut up, the more juvenile he seemed, the harder he was trying to cope with something wrong in his life. That was why Gibbs hadn't disciplined him for the Santa incident. He knew it meant that life was already punishing him enough.

The rest of the team was a different story. To be fair, they were the ones that usually suffered the brunt of Tony's shenanigans. Still, after working closely together for so many years, you'd think they'd gain some insight but they didn't have a clue.

When he returned to the bullpen this became painfully obvious. The atmosphere was downright frigid.

"Jesus, Tony. You really stepped in the shit this time. What did Gibbs do to you?" asked McGee.

"Nothing."

"Nothing!" Ziva snarled. "I'm stuck filling out this weapons report, which will probably require me to get recertified on the range and you get nothing."

"Well, I suppose Gibbs will have to put a note in my file."

"Where it can join all the other notes that must be in there," was Ziva's comeback.

"You're one to talk, your file has to be thicker than mine." As soon as the words left his mouth he regretted them. Ziva winced and a haunted expression crossed her face.

"Tony, that was uncalled for," said McGee, jumping to her defense.

"No, McGee. He is right. I should not be the one tossing rocks."

"Throwing stones." Tony corrected her out of habit, but he cringed at the hopeless tone in her voice. For all his efforts, he was getting slapped in the face with the very thing he was trying to escape. Ziva. Ziva was the problem and he didn't know how to fix it.

McGee gave him a look. One that said he couldn't comprehend why the guy who had moved heaven and earth to rescue her now seemed determined to break her down. He was not alone. Abby didn't understand it either and in typical Abby fashion had taken him to task about his behavior. Of course she thought he was in love with Ziva. Wrong. Very, very wrong.

Sometimes even Tony didn't understand why he was so angry with her. He hadn't felt this way last year. Through all of the trouble he had stayed on her side. More than anyone else he knew what it was like to leave your family and the carnage it caused. Been there, done that. Even in Israel, even when she had pulled her gun on him, he had not felt this way. He understood that she used anger and violence as a shield. It was just her way.

It had started when they rescued her. In fact, it had started as soon as he saw her in Salim's interrogation cell. Despite being told she was dead Tony had always harbored the hope that they would find her somewhere in the camp, spitting and snarling like a cornered cat. He had not considered she might be a broken woman.

The moment Salim lifted the sack from her head he had looked into her eyes and he had known. She had given up. It was not the torture. The Mossad had prepared her for that. There was nothing the terrorists could do that was worse than what she did to herself. Given months in a cell to think, she could not hold up under the accumulated weight of her past mistakes. When faced with her own fallibility, when forced to admit she had been wrong, she curled up inside herself and decided to die. How was he supposed to trust someone who didn't trust herself. How could Ziva watch his back when she was bent and broken by her past actions.

McGee and Ziva could continue their little mutual admiration society. Ducky and Abby could cluck and fuss over her possible PTSD. Gibbs could go on playing father confessor. None of that would help.

He would keep making his wisecracks, playing his pranks and generally yanking her chain. It was just what he did. At least he'd be laughing instead of crying and maybe, just maybe, someday she'd find it within herself to really fight back. Then he would know he had truly rescued his partner.

"Laughter conquers all," he muttered to himself as he looked over at Ziva. But the sight of her hunched over her keyboard, hard at work, was to much to resist. He grabbed a rubber band and sent it winging across the bullpen.

"Tony, I am not in the mood for this," said Ziva when it hit her in the ear.

Tony just smiled.