Occasionally over the next few weeks Gibbs saw Tony looking at the photo of Alice and her family, and he realised the younger man was carrying it around in his wallet. But when Gibbs asked if he had contacted them, Tony shrugged and dodged the question. And when McGee saw him looking at the photo, Tony told him it had come from a frat buddy and tossed it casually in his desk drawer only to retrieve it later when he thought no one was looking.
So Gibbs waited. He let a few weeks pass before asking again, but again Tony shook his head and gave one of those infuriating half shrugs.
Finally Gibbs ignored the voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Ducky and told him to butt out. It might be butting in, he thought, but it was the right thing to do. He was damned if he was going to let DiNozzo short change himself on this.
He had read the letter carefully and made a point of noting the details of the photo. Early one morning, he made the call.
"Hey Fornell. Wanna repay one of those favours you owe me?"
Fornell phoned him back later in the week with an address, and that night Gibbs sat on his couch to write a letter.
You don't know me, he began, but I know the man who was your daughter's donor.
The response, when it came, was everything he had hoped for.
More than six months had passed since the transplant when the day finally arrived. Gibbs walked in to the bullpen whistling. He had already spoken to Vance and cleared it with him, and now there were just a few hours to go. He could sense his agents were antsy – his unaccustomed cheerfulness was unnerving them, and that only made him more cheerful. Finally it was midday. He rose, and they started to follow.
"Sit," he barked.
"Ziva, call Abby, Ducky and Palmer and tell them to get up here."
With that, he strode from the bullpen, leaving his agents staring at each other in stupefaction.
Abby, Ducky and Palmer duly arrived, but had no more idea why they been summoned than the rest of the team.
Abby chewed her lip nervously. "He wouldn't be ... you know, retiring, would he?"
Ducky shook his head. "Absolutely not."
"Perhaps he got married again?" McGee offered.
"Why would he tell us about it?" Tony scoffed.
Finally the elevator doors pinged and Gibbs' voice called out "Front and centre, DiNozzo".
Tony leapt from his desk to stand in the middle of the bullpen, craning his neck towards Gibbs' voice.
Gibbs' head and shoulders appeared above the partition and then he stepped clear. In front of him stood a small girl.
"Tony DiNozzo, meet Alice Powardy," Gibbs announced quietly.
Tony's mouth dropped open and he gazed, thunderstruck, at the child.
Ziva and McGee exchanged confused looks. Abby turned to Ducky, but the ME just chuckled and shook his head.
Gibbs admitted to a slight whisper of anxiety, but the message from his gut was stronger. Tony needed this, he thought. He needed living, breathing, smiling proof in the form of this little girl to finally make him understand the significance of what he had done and the generosity of his gift. That he had saved a life.
Gibbs looked down at the child in front of him. "Alice," he said formally, "this is Tony." He looked around the assembled team. "Alice here is just getting over leukaemia. About six month ago she had a bone marrow transplant from a donor."
Abby worked it out first. "Oh my god!" she exclaimed, staring at Tony. "Six months ago you had time off because you'd hurt your back! But you didn't hurt your back! You donated bone marrow!"
Tony had not taken his eyes off the child and hardly seemed to notice when her parents, her mother carrying Josh, stepped up to stand beside Gibbs. A gentle push from Gibbs sent Alice forward and without a backwards glance she walked over to Tony.
Craning her neck she gazed up at him. He bent his head to meet her eyes.
"Are you my donor?" she asked simply.
"I made this for you." She extended her hand, in which she held a large, bulky envelope.
Tony went down on one knee and took the envelope. He opened it carefully, and pulled out a round paper plate, surrounded by yellow ribbon, with streamers hanging from it. Tony held it between his hands, looking at it for a long moment. Finally he raised his eyes to the little girl.
"Thank you," he said quietly, his voice strained. "It's the best present anyone's ever given me."
Alice looked back over her shoulder and shot a bright smile at her parents. Then she turned back to Tony.
"Am I going to be big like you now?"
Tony laughed in surprise. "Well, I don't know." Grinning, he reached for her and then paused. "Can I pick you up?" he asked cautiously.
She nodded and extended her arms.
He put his hands around her waist, careful not to crush the plate, and effortlessly placed her so she stood on his desk. He studied her for a long time before responding. "You'll definitely be bigger than you are now," he said eventually, "but I'm not sure you'll be quite as big as me."
"That's cause I'm a girl," she responded solemnly. She pointed to the plate. "My mom put a pin on it so you can wear it."
Tony turned the plate over in his hand. "Oh yeah, I see the pin," he said slowly. He shot a glance at Gibbs, who simply raised his eyebrows and smirked, enjoying DiNozzo's first encounter with the single minded determination of little girls.
Tony looked back at Alice, who smiled at him, revealing fewer than the full complement of teeth. She neither blinked nor looked away and her smile never wavered.
Finally he caved. "Ok," he sighed. Raising the plate to his jacket lapel, he fumbled with it for a moment before turning to face Gibbs, whose smirk widened into a laugh when he saw the plate had been made into a medal, with the words "My Hero" written in big wobbly six year old letters in the middle of it.
Tony finally seemed to notice the people standing at Gibbs' side. He raised his eyebrows.
Gibbs caught his look. "Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, meet Sam and Lucy Powardy, and their son Joshua."
Sam Powardy stepped forward and extended his hand. "Thank you," he said hoarsely. "For...". Words seemed to desert him, and he simply shook Tony's hand again.
Tony nodded, understanding what the man didn't say.
Then Lucy stepped forward and to his surprise gave Tony an awkward one armed hug, her other arm still holding her son. "Thank you so much," she whispered against his ear. "Oh no, I promised myself I wasn't going to do this ..."
She drew back and Tony saw the tears in her eyes.
"Don't worry," her husband assured Tony, "she cries at coffee commercials." He gave his wife an affectionate smile.
"Only once!" his wife disputed with a snuffling laugh. "And anyway I think I can be excused this time!"
Sam looked back to Tony. "We really can't say it enough. We were... they'd told us...," he glanced at his daughter. "It was her last shot," he said quietly. "Neither of us were matches, no one in our families was. When Josh was born, we so hoped he would be, but he wasn't. So when they told us they'd found a donor, it was like a miracle, to have another chance. The doctors said not to get our hopes up, but I just couldn't help it. During the transfusion, I sat there looking at that damn bag, hoping. I tried to pray but I just kept saying "please" over and over again. And when they told us her blood counts were improving, that it was working ..." He stopped, tears now starting in his eyes. "Damn, now I'm doing it too!"
"Please, stop," Tony protested, clearly discomforted. "Really, anyone would have..."
"Anyone didn't," Lucy interjected. "You did."
Tony looked at his feet, shoved his hands into his pockets and balled them into fists. "I... I didn't know that you...," he stammered. Then he stopped and his head shot up. "How did you find me?" he asked, eyes narrowing.
The Powardys glanced over their shoulders at Gibbs.
Tony stared at the team leader. "How?" he asked simply.
"Fornell. I gave him the details from the letter. He tracked 'em down."
"Even though I told you..."
Tony glared. Gibbs glared right back. Finally Tony huffed in exasperation, let out a small laugh and shook his head.
"Please don't be angry with Agent Gibbs," Lucy Powardy begged with a smile. "We were so pleased to get his letter. We had to wait till Alice's immune system was strong enough, but there was no way we weren't coming. We understood you were a little shy about being thanked..." McGee's snort earned him a thump from Abby, "but we just had to tell you in person. To let you meet Alice, so that you'd know." She reached out and gently touched the paper plate medal attached to Tony's shirt. "That's from all of us," she said softly.
This time Tony didn't look away. Instead he looked back at the smiling little girl standing on his desk, and returned her smile.
Gibbs spoke up. "I've booked us all a table at Houlihan's to celebrate, and we've got the afternoon off," he announced.
They glanced at each other surprised. Gibbs pointed up to the walkway above the bullpen and as one they looked up to see Vance leaning on the rail, smirking. He gave them a small wave.
Gibbs glared at the assembled team. "Well, c'mon." They scrambled for their bags.
Tony carefully lifted Alice down from the table and went to remove the medal.
"DiNozzo," Gibbs barked, and the agent froze. "Don't even think about it."
Tony gave him a pathetic look, but Gibbs didn't budge. Tony glanced down at Alice, who beamed up at him and took his hand.
They had only taken a few steps to the elevator before the child bolted away. "I'm pushing the button," she cried, rushing ahead of the agent. "Mom, can I have pizza for lunch?"
Her mother laughed. "Since she got better all she wants to eat is pizza," she explained with a shrug. "And I just can't bring myself to say no."
AN : Another big thank you to Iantalia and Twinx, without whom this story would not have been posted and who talked me through an underwear crisis.
Thank you also to all the reviewers – I have been genuinely astonished by the number of reviews for this story, and every one of them was greatly appreciated.