Hi...*blinks around and waves*...Sorry this story has taken so long to finish. Things have been a tad crazy. This is not beta'd. All mistakes are mine but I figured that you would all prefer me to post it rather than have it on my hard-drive for the next year. Thanks for all your messages and support and I hope you enjoy.

Cheeky. x

Chapter 21

Tony looked at the clock. It was 2am and he was still awake. He picked up the phone handset next to the couch and carefully dialed the international number. He absentmindedly rubbed his hand over his face as he impatiently listened to the strange chirping ringing tone; it eventually went onto an answerphone. He debated on simply hanging up, instead he left what seemed to be the same message he'd left all night around the world in various offices.

'This is Special Agent DiNozzo from NCIS in Washington. Your name was given to me by Trent Kort…'

His evenings had become a never-ending round of research and calling contacts from around the globe. And yes, he had even sucked it up, eaten major humble pie in contacting Kort. As much as he hated it, the CIA agent had tentacles everywhere and he couldn't overlook their Intel.

What had surprised him was Trent, after an initial bout of usual nasty sparing, had actually dropped his usual bullshit and listened and actually come through, provided him with a comprehensive list of contacts and even managed to locate Senator Grey's flight logs dating back years because although the dead girl had been killed when he'd been undercover he couldn't afford to assume that the girl had been snatched then. Gibb's words still resonated in his mind, telling him that she could have been passed around for God knows how long.

So Tony had pawed over the pages, matching up trips with reported business events, searching for patterns and trying to find something, anything, by looking through newspapers and trolling through the internet, looking at missing children cases around the globe that matched her profile.

Even in the days of international databases and DNA, not every country or region had a comprehensive police force. Poorer countries just didn't have the resources to pour into expensive labs and often police forces just simply didn't gave a damn. He had found that children went missing with depressing regularity in some countries, used as a commodity to the sex trade and were never found. It was the simple case that poor families didn't have money or leverage to bribe police chiefs to investigate.

The FBI was still working the case and unofficially, he had become an extra, invisible member of the taskforce. Sharing any information and leads he found, he suspected Fornell had had something to do with that or maybe they were just fed up of all the 'anonymous tips' that had come their way.

Tony just knew he had to do everything he could to help before it became another unsolved case file boxed and stored in The Hoover Building. The case was beyond cold and as each week passed less and less time was being spent on it. As much as it pissed him off, he understood it was all about priorities.

Didn't make it any easier, again he suspected that without Fornell at the helm, the case would have probably been shelved already and she would have become yet another Jane Doe.

Tony finished speaking and put the phone down, he piled up the crime scene photos in a neat stack as he did so. The photo of the bedraggled rag doll he'd found and abandoned on the verandah outside the house in the wood's lay on top of the pile.

Staring at it for several seconds he sighed wearily before closing the file in front of him.

He powered down his laptop and turned the desk light off, plunging the room from eerie blue into complete darkness.

He was just so damn tired.

Tony leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. Not worth going to bed now. An hour or two's shuteye would do before he'd shower and make another couple of hours of follow up calls in before making his way into the navy yard for eleven, a late start given to him by Vance as a reward for the day's ceremony apparently.

He was not looking forward to tomorrow. He felt oddly nervous, awkward, apprehensive at seeing Imee again but he'd smile, accept the commendation and pray it went quickly and without too much brou-ha-ha.

"Why aren't they here yet? Time is going so slowly. Why does it do that when you want it to go really quickly? It's like waiting for Christmas morning. What time are they coming again? What time did Tony say he was getting here? I can't wait, bet Imee is so damn cute, You said she was, Gibbs, said she was an adorable little firecracker. Oh I'm so excited…"

Abby had dressed specially, for the occasion all black, lace, crosses and hybrid skull-hearts and knee socks.

She bounced excitedly, fingers twitching.

Gibbs, Ziva, McGee, Jimmy and Ducky all shared a look; a look that said Abby should probably step away from the caffeine and sugar for the rest of the day.

Vance smiled as he glanced towards the doors, "She is a firecracker, trust me, she is. And here is the little lady of the moment now."

Imee and her mother, accompanied by a security guard, entered the crowded hall. A vibrating little girl, who clearly rivaled Abigail's level of excitement, walked into the room, eyes large as she took everything in.

She had on a neat scarlet dress and polished black shoes, both new and especially bought for the occasion. The girl's mother clutched her daughter's hand as she stared around at all the suits in the room, managing to look both terrified and proud in equal measure.

"Mrs. De Guzmán, welcome," Leon Vance stepped forward and held out his hand in greeting. The small, busty woman relaxed visibly, faced with someone she had met before.

"Dakila, please, Mr. Vance. It's good to see you again. I wanted to thank you for the hotel you have booked for us. It's wonderful, so fancy. "

"It's good to see you too. And It's our pleasure, Ma'am," Vance held his hand out solemnly to Imee. "And how are you Miss Imee? Ready to join my agency yet?"

"Not yet silly, I'm still in school!" Imee giggled as she shook his hand, her bright eyes swung towards the group surrounding her.

"Hello, Special Agent Gibbs," she said shyly as her eyes flicked over each person and landed on the gruff agent who she remembered, who had been kind and had smiled at her, comforted her, bought her a delicious hot chocolate and tucked her up in a blanket on the couch on that cold winter night many moons ago.

"My I present the rest of my team. Ziva and Tim. And his is Doctor Mallard and Jimmy," Gibbs introduced everyone in turn, formally and with great importance as if she were the President himself.

Each stepped forward and greeted her. Jimmy shyly, Ziva with a flick of her head and a soft smile, McGee looking like a Labrador puppy. Ducky went off on his usual ramble, proclaiming that both, as friends, should call him thus and what an honor it was to meet them both.

Gibbs didn't get as far as introducing Abby as a flash of black swooped past and hugged Imee and a rather bemused but thrilled to be included, Mrs. De Guzmán.

"Hello, hello, hello, I've been so dying to meet you both." From behind her back she produced a bunch of black roses for Mrs. De Guzmán, which made her even more bemused and a Gothic equivalent of a Barbie Doll, complete with dog collar and purple-black lipstick for Imee, which she looked absolutely thrilled with.

"Does it come with a can of mace in the purse?" McGee whispered to Ducky, unfortunately loud enough for Vance and Gibbs to hear. Both gave wry but indulgent smiles to the Goth as she swung round and glared at Tim but nothing could tarnish her excitement as she gabbled excitedly, drawing each into the conversation in the way that only she could, off at a tangent yet making perfect sense to herself.

Gibbs surreptitiously checked his watch for the umpteenth time as people were starting to pointedly sit and get settled, also checking their watches.

"It's getting late, got to start soon, we have several awards to hand out this morning. You don't think Tony is going to bail on this, do you, Gibbs?" Vance spoke to the team lead as the group made their way down a row of chairs and sat, talking amongst themselves.

"He'll be here, don't think he'd let down the girl," he said with more confidence than he felt.

There was no doubt about it; people were getting restless, checking watches.

Vance sighed. "Can't wait any longer. I've got to get this thing started, Jethro, I've got a conference call in 40 minutes."

Gibbs nodded as Vance made his way over to the podium to begin the ceremony with or without the man of the hour. He got Tony's details up on his cell and was just about to press dial when the doors opened and DiNozzo strode into the room, smoothing down his tie. He waited at the back. Gibbs walked over.

"You cutting it fine. Didn't think you were coming?'

"Almost didn't." DiNozzo responded as he watched as fellow agent slunk up on the small stage to coyly accept the award and shake Vance's hand to applause.

Gibb's slid his eyes sideways and stared at is second in command. DiNozzo stared ahead, aware that he was under scrutiny yet not giving into it.

"Why?" Gibbs asked.

A vein throbbed in Tony's jaw but he didn't answer.

Gibbs sighed internally but didn't press it. At least he'd shown up.

DiNozzo's was the last award.

Vance listed Tony's bravery and courage, and briefly detailed how he'd done everything in his power to keep a little girl warm on what had been one of the coldest nights recorded.

The applause was deafening. Gibb's watched as Tony pushed off from the wall and walked up to the podium. He accepted the medal from Vance as fellow agents heckled and catcalling from the floor, expecting DiNozzo's usual high jinx and humor when collecting an award.

The room quickly silenced when they realized that this serious and somber DiNozzo was a different animal. The lack of high beam grin and grandstanding was unsettling.

"Thank you."

That was it.

Two words only, spoken quietly.

Then he simply walked off the stage to a smattering of applause, not because people were deliberately snubbing but that they were bemused. Was that it? Most were still waiting for the clown to appear with the grand joke. By the time they realization that the hilarity was not going to make an appearance the moment had passed leaving everyone confused.

Vance's eyes sought Gibb's.

There silent conversation wasn't the only conversation going on. Murmurs broke out around the room.

DiNozzo quickly passed the lines of chairs when someone broke ranks. Delores from Human Resources leaped up, stopping him mid flight and enveloped him a huge, squeezy bear hug much to his surprise.

Desperate to break the depressed air that had settled around the room Abby gave a loud 'whoop'. After a pause, relieved woof whistles rent the air as people clapped enthusiastically to make up for the lackluster affair on the podium.

Eventually people stood and started to move towards the doors, and probably onto the water coolers so they could dissect what they had just witnessed.

Free of Delores' clutches Tony made his way to where his team now stood and the hubbub of congratulations waiting for him.

"Good job, DiNozzo." Gibbs nodded at the medal. Tony held his gaze for a moment and shrugged self-consciously, faltering as he saw Imee.

Memories and images slammed into him from that night in the woods. Flying through the plate glass window of the doors. Trying desperately to protect her, keep her warm at all costs and the feeling of utter the camaraderie of war that shouldn't really have existed with a kid, let alone this little scrap of a girl.

Imee stared shyly up at him, craning her neck at his height.

"How you doing, Scully." DiNozzo gave a half smile.

"I'm great, Mulder," Imee smiled, a little giggle escaped her lips at their private joke, happy that he remembered.

"I want you to have this, Special Lady, for your extreme bravery, for displaying a cool head in a crisis and for being the best partner a special agent could have in the field." Tony handed over the small, sleek leather box with its medal nestling on its blue velvet bed. "I can't honestly think of anyone who deserves it more."

Imee looked aghast at the box, then at her mom, then around the group as if it were some joke at her expense, before looking back up at DiNozzo. He placed it in her hand and watched as she reverently opened the box. Her eyes wide open as she stared upon the shiny gold medal with its brightly colored ribbon.

"Mom?" She looked back at her mother, obviously fully expecting her to quickly tell her to give such a precious item straight back.

Mrs. De Guzmán raised her eyes to Tony, questioning him silently, baffled as to why he'd want to part with such and item.

He nodded emphatically; she turned back to her daughter.

"It's beautiful, Darling, you must treasure it forever."

The little girl started to thank Tony but her voice broke before she could finish as she fought to hold back the tears that suddenly overwhelmed her. She lost the battle and flew into his arms with a choked sob.

Tony caught her and hugged her close. Breathing in the scent of her shampoo and the faint smell of strawberry milkshake.

The room and people melted away and he was straight back in the wood, freezing cold and hurting with this scared but spirited little girl. The feeling of desperation at having no plan, not knowing how the hell he'd get them both out of it

"I've got you, Sweetheart. It's okay," he held her tightly, the tension easing from his body until he wasn't sure who was comforting whom.

Ducky cleared his throat, an emotional 'hurumph' to cover the fact that he was welling up and tilted his head towards the door.

Gibbs nodded in agreement and efficiently ushered everyone towards the doors, including a pouting Abby, leaving Tony, Imee and Mrs. De Guzmán to have some alone time.

It would be cathartic for them to talk.

Tony definitely needed it.

Gibbs shut the doors with a satisfied nod as he watched DiNozzo tightly hug the sobbing girl.

It was a start.

Work moved forward as it always did.

Dead bodies, missing weapons, missing money, missing people, rapes and kidnappings.

It was definitely business as usual at the naval yard for the team.

Things had settled down but the team was still slightly off and the reason was the spark had been removed from its center.

Gibbs glanced over at DiNozzo who was busy doing the requisition forms for the week. His pen diligently flying over the pages as he concentrated and that was the problem. They had no active case. This was their unofficial downtime. Oh they still worked but days like this should be a more relaxed time for the team.

It wasn't working out like that.

Old Tony would have been ragging on McGee, harassing Ziva and generally goofing around.

This Tony was nose to the grindstone. He was flat, lifeless, and lackluster. He'd lost that signature DiNozzo unique immature sense of joy that managed to amuse and decompress the team.

Simple as that.

The Grey case had seemed to have irreversibly taken its toll and Gibbs was at a loss as too how he could fix it. He had thought that time would be the healer but that hadn't been the case.

Gibbs sighed to himself.

He glanced at the clock and closed the file he'd been looking through.

"Go home people."

Ziva and McGee set about their comedic scramble of screen shutting down and bag grabbing before they all but ran to the elevators, calling their 'goodbyes' as they went.

DiNozzo was slower.

"See you later, 8pm wasn't it?"

"I did, ordering in some ribs and pulled pork. That do you?"

"Hell yes. I'll bring the beer." DiNozzo gave a sloppy salute and headed off.

Gibbs shut down his PC and turned off the desk lamp.

Dinner had become a regular event between them.

They ate in companionable silence, occasionally chatting about inconsequential things but never touching on anything remotely personal. He'd tried but DiNozzo totally shut down.

Didn't stop him from continually trying though.

8pm had long since come and gone. It was now 9.30 and still no sign of DiNozzo. The food was keeping warm in a low oven and Gibbs was pacing.

He'd already left several messages and he tried to quell the worry. DiNozzo was often late but his lateness usually ran to five or ten minutes.

He was just on the point of grabbing his keys and driving over to Tony's apartment when he heard the purr of DiNozzo's car pull up outside.

Gibbs huffed and sat down, picking up a chisel and a half carved balustrade he'd been working on, setting the scene for a tableau of a completely unconcerned person.

"You're late," he said as he heard Tony's steps pad down the stairs.

Gibbs expected a complicated and convoluted tirade of words explaining what had held the man up.

Instead he got silence.

He took off his glasses and turned away from his bench.

Tony had settled halfway down on the stairs and was looking at his hands.

"We found her, Gibbs," DiNozzo said softly.

Gibbs didn't need to ask whom the 'her' DiNozzo was referring to. She had haunted Tony's every waking hour since he'd discovered her buried amongst a tangle of brambles all those months ago.

"She went missing from Romania eighteen months ago. Her name was Rahela." Tony rubbed the back of his hand as he spoke. "Rahela, it's the Romanian version of Rachel, pretty name huh."

Gibbs poured a good measure of bourbon into two mugs and walked over, handing one to Tony. The man took it and knocked it back in one.

"Her parents were travelers, Boss; apparently they'd set up camp temporarily in a place called Gheorgheni with five other families. Rahela walked into town to buy some candy with her older brother and a couple of the other kids, they somehow got separated and she was never seen again."

Gibbs removed Tony's empty mug and substituted it with his.

"Thanks, Boss. I found out that the Senator had stopped there briefly on a fact-finding mission so I faxed her details and a photo to the police station months ago on the off chance, honestly didn't expect to hear anything back. I mean it was worth a shot. Turns out there was a delay due to the language barrier but contacted Fornell weeks ago. Toby didn't say anything, probably didn't want to get my hopes up. We'd been there before, thinking we were on a hot lead and then it turned to nothing."

Tony paused and stared at the amber liquid in his mug before taking a sip.

"Anyway, it took a lot of going back and forth and delays, Fornell thought they'd dropped it. Romania just doesn't have the budget or technology but apparently they were pretty professional and weren't going to let the case go things just move slower over there. Luckily the chief only saw a little girl and was not swayed by the usual stigma attached to gypsies. They had the DNA confirmation through two hours ago. It matched their missing girl. We found her, Boss."

Gibbs watched DiNozzo. For someone who'd supposedly resolved an issue that had been haunting him, he didn't look like a weight had been removed from his shoulders. What he did know was that Tony seemed to have run out of steam but Gibbs knew that there was something else he wanted to say.

Something he was wrestling with.

Hmmmm. Whatever it was could wait until DiNozzo was ready.

"Food…." Gibbs stated as he nodded up the stairs.

DiNozzo seemed relieved as he stood. "Sounds good, Boss."

They ate in silence. Licking their fingers, alternating with taking swigs of beer.

Tony seemed to unwind a little as the food disappeared and the beer sunk lower so Gibbs struck.

"Out with it."

Tony stopped mid chew and dropped the rib he held. He wiped his hands on a paper serviette and took a deep breath.

"I need some time off."

"Okay. When?"

Tony swallowed. "Um, that's the thing. From tomorrow, need to take a week, maybe more."

Gibbs narrowed his eyes when no explanation was forthcoming. He drained his beer as he stared at DiNozzo. He whipped his hand over his mouth and made a decision even though he didn't know what the hell the man had planned. Whatever it was. He just hoped it helped.


"Huh." Tony blinked rapidly.

"I said 'okay', DiNozzo, you got wax in ya ears?"

"Just like that?"

"Yup. I'll even sort the paperwork for you. "

DiNozzo gave a relieved smile. "Thanks, Boss, I mean that."

"No problem, now finish your damn food," he groused but gave a half smile as he said it.

"Thanks Bob. I appreciate you coming in this early to open up for me. Needed to get this as soon as possible, couldn't wait." Tony signed the book, adding his comments to the box underneath.

"No problem Tony, my son is still talking about the signed basketball shirt you got him." The man chuckled. "Made me a damn hero in his eyes."

"My pleasure, glad I could help." Tony stuffed the large padded envelope under his arm.

He walked out into the sharp, frosty dawn.

One more stop and one more favor to ask, then he'd go home and pack. He should just about have enough time before he had to catch his flight.

Once again, Kort proved surprisingly useful but even so it had taken him several days of cross-country searching and investigating to yield any results.

Finally he was on the right track.

Tony pulled up his hire car on the bumpy lane and got out. He walked round to the trunk and opened it, pulling out his gym bag from next to his suitcase, very much aware that there were now many hostile eyes staring at him, watching his every move.

A big man blocked his way as he turned around. Several men flanking his rear as back up. Arms crossed aggressively, all eyeballing him, looking him up and down.

There was no way around it. Even in casual clothes he screamed 'establishment'.

Tony locked eyes with the man and calmly introduced himself, politely asking if he spoke English.

"Vhat you vant?" The man nodded warily, on the defensive.

DiNozzo spoke softly, explaining why he was there.

The man's aggressive stance dropped all hostility melted away.

He nodded towards a large white caravan.

"Okay…I go viz and translate." The man said in thickly accented English."

The group of men parted as they passed.

The many eyes still followed as he walked, a dog scampered over and barked at him and trotted along side.

Outside the van DiNozzo took a deep breath, composing himself before he tapped on the door. A careworn, blond woman opened the door and stared at him. Her husband appeared at his shoulder.

The big man spoke quickly, obviously repeating the reason for the swallowed nervously, waiting until the man fell silent before reaching into the gym bag.

He pulled out the now pristine dry-cleaned rag doll and held tentatively it out to Rahela's mother. Not sure he was doing the right thing, coming here.

The woman gasped and her eyes filled with heavy tears. She rapidly started muttering quietly in Romanian, her husband's arms swept around her.

Tony couldn't understand what she was saying and the man didn't translate.

It didn't really matter because the way Rahela's mother sobbed as she hugged the rag doll to her breast, as if she never wanted to let it go, didn't need translating.

The End

*blows kisses*