A/N: Well folks, here we are at the end at last...it's been quite a ride! Thank you to everyone who stuck with me through this whole story, which was only supposed to be about 10 chapters when I started back in June. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
I make no apologies for the sugaryness of this chapter...I had the ending in mind from the get-go, hence the double-play on words in the title. *grin*
I'm signing off now for a month, because I'm participating in NaNoWriMo. But never fear, I will re-surface in December for more Tony & Louisa adventures!
Warning: Spoilers up to current season, but especially episode 2x22 - 'SWAK'
Disclaimer: Canon characters belong to DPB, CBS & Co. No copyright infringement is intended.
Friday, December 17, 2010 8:27 p.m.
In an effort to show fiscal restraint, the NCIS staff "Yuletide Party" was being held at the Navy Yard, in the largest meeting room the agency could provide. Staff had worked all day to decorate the stark space, and everyone agreed they'd done not too bad of a job. It looked and sounded quite festive by the time they were done. There were symbols of various faiths around the room – a Christmas tree and a Menorah being the most prominent among them. The DJ was the husband of one of the clerks in HR. A modest array of hors d'oeuvres was laid out, and the cash bar was open for business.
"Merry Christmas, Timmy!" Abby squealed, maneuvering her beau under the mistletoe and giving him a deliberate kiss full on the lips. McGee was practically bowled off his feet, but he didn't complain, a smile sneaking out from behind Abby's big black pigtails even as he struggled to maintain his balance.
It had been two months since the Junior Field Agent and the Forensic Scientist had picked up their relationship again, almost where they'd left off some eight years ago. They'd danced around each other for what seemed like ages, and Tony figured it was about damn time – the tension in the lab had been palpable in the months leading up to Abby's final admission that she still had a 'massive crush'. Everyone agreed they made a cute couple... and Tony was happy, because it took some of the attention away from him and Louisa.
Gradually, the chatter on the NCIS grapevine about the latter pair had changed its slant. Whereas in the beginning, it had consisted mainly of speculation about how many days 'this one' was going to last compared to the others, people were now starting to believe that Tony DiNozzo was actually in a 'normal' relationship, and therefore interest in the whole thing was waning. No-one seriously believed the SFA would ever settle down, but at this point there simply wasn't anything worth gossiping about; that is, until the big bust-up they were all certain would arrive sooner or later.
Louisa looked radiant, in a gold lamé blouse, black slacks and gold 3-inch heels. Tony had worn his best dark blue Zegna suit this day, and had simply loosened his tie and removed his jacket for the evening's festivities. They made a handsome couple, and it was duly noted that they had settled into a comfortable and natural relationship – happy to be together, but no longer joined at the hip. She seemed completely at ease among Tony's co-workers, and made small-talk with everyone from Hannah the payroll clerk, all the way up to the Director.
Vance knew the importance of these symbolic events, and even though he never felt quite comfortable 'mixing with the masses', he did it anyway. It was a good opportunity to keep his finger on the pulse of what was going on in the bullpen. After all, he couldn't very well count on Gibbs, Granich, or Balboa to keep him informed. Knowledge was power, and those three knew it, every bit as well as Vance did. They each had their own little empire to run, and the less interference from the Big Chair, the better.
Gibbs was not present this evening. Gibbs was not a party animal. He was a lone wolf, and Vance supposed he was at home in his basement, working on his boat and drinking bourbon, perfectly content. This did not impress the Director – the Supervisory Agent should be with his team; at the very least, he should make an appearance, wish them Happy Holidays or whatever damned politically correct thing one was supposed to say these days.
But Team Gibbs was used to it – they knew their boss' habits, they knew his absence didn't mean he didn't care. They'd already exchanged gifts and pleasantries this afternoon, as he was packing up to go home. Tony had personally handed him his bottle of Jack Daniels – by now an annual tradition – just as he was about to step onto the elevator heading down to the parking garage. (DiNozzo hadn't entrusted his annual Christmas gift to the post office since 2005, when he'd learned to his horror that Gibbs had received a box of Honey Dust instead due to a screw-up in the mail system).
As was their habit, the Team drank their first toast to Gibbs. After that, it was every man for himself.
Ducky was looking particularly cheerful tonight; his secret paramour was now revealed to be none other than Special Agent Karen Mitchinson, and Abby was all a-twitter over this development. Mitchinson was a good 20 years younger than the stately ME, but she was an 'old soul' as Abby put it, and somehow, they seemed to fit together regardless of the age difference. When the dancing started, they showed everyone how it was done, stepping out to an elegant foxtrot while the rest of the assembly cleared the floor and watched in rapt attention.
Ziva arrived about 9:30, fashionably late, looking radiant in a slinky red dress, and hanging on the arm of a man Tony didn't recognize. But Louisa did.
"Hi Ziva! Hi Joe! Happy Hannukah!" Louisa ran over and wrapped her arms around them each in turn, and Ziva returned the hug warmly. She was actually smiling, Tony noticed, somewhat amazed. He hadn't expected to see his partner here tonight – she was a bit like Gibbs that way, often eschewing parties. But just lately, he'd noticed a change in her. Now that she was an American citizen, one of 'them', she was trying harder to fit in.
Tony gnawed on a chicken wing, and strained to hear the conversation.
"It looks like the party is in full swing," Ziva remarked. "You look gorgeous, by the way." She eyed Louisa up and down admiringly.
"So do you. Is that why you're late?" the petty officer joked.
Ziva shook her head and smiled. "Joe did not get off his shift until 20:30, and he had to get home and clean up after that." Louisa nodded. The very idea of the ninja chick dating a construction worker was beyond imagination, and yet here he stood, all 245 pounds and 6'3" of him.
The city had been ripping up the street outside Ziva's apartment, a job that had seemed to go on for weeks on end, and every morning Joe would greet her with a friendly tip of his hard hat as she walked past to her car. After the first couple of days, they'd started chatting... just the usual, casual and friendly banter one would expect in such a situation. But Joe could tell there was something special, something 'exotic' about this woman, and he wanted to know more. When week two rolled around, he'd plucked up his courage and asked her out for coffee. No-one had been more surprised than Ziva herself when she'd accepted the offer. A couple of days later, she had invited him in for dinner when the crew was packing up. After that, there had been no turning back. But, knowing that DiNozzo would find this incredibly rich fodder for teasing and annoying her, she'd kept it quiet. The only person she'd told was Louisa, when he'd arrived some six weeks earlier to pick up Ziva after a therapy session...
Louisa had started group therapy around the end of July, to complement her individual sessions. She'd been shy and nervous at the idea of baring her soul to a group of strangers, but as she'd walked in the door, to her amazement her eyes had lit upon Ziva, and she'd made a beeline for the empty chair next to her. Tony had not told his girlfriend much about Ziva's ordeal in Somalia (he didn't really know much anyway, since she'd been so tight-lipped about it). But her presence in the room told Louisa that the wounds went deep.
Over the subsequent months, they'd become fast friends. Even though their experiences had been very different one from the other, the very fact of having been abused, and having been helpless to resist, gave them an understanding of each other that no-one outside that world could comprehend. Ziva had been attending the group for over a year, and had been considering scaling back or stopping entirely; but when Louisa had arrived on the scene, she'd changed her mind, realizing that this woman needed the reassurance of her presence.
Louisa introduced Joe to Tony, who put his considerable investigative skills to work, and within ten minutes he knew almost everything there was to know about Joe's relationship with the former Mossad agent. Tony predicted it would last no more than a couple of months. Louisa reminded him sternly that this was precisely what everyone had said about the two of them, in the beginning.
They danced. They ate. They drank. Vance said a few words. They danced some more – Tony and Louisa drawing attention with a tango, much to everyone's delight. When asked where he'd learned to dance like that, DiNozzo was not entirely forthright, but he credited Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance in 'True Lies' as his inspiration.
The party remained in full swing until around 0:00 hours, when gradually people began to disappear, mostly in pairs. There was time for one last slow dance, and Tony made the most of it, holding his little petty officer close and rocking her gently to the music.
After everything wrapped up, there was one last thing he had to do this evening.
Saturday, December 18, 2010 1:23 a.m.
Gibbs knew, without looking up, that someone had entered his space. Despite the sound of plane against wood, despite the strains of 'Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer' that filled the air from the old transistor radio, he could detect the footfalls approaching the top of the basement stairs. And he knew it could only be one of two people.
"I knew I'd find you here, Boss." Not Ducky. Tony.
His hands rested against the hull as he set down the plane and glanced up at the staircase with just the hint of a smile.
"Louisa gone home?"
"Yeah, I dropped her off on my way over… we missed you tonight." Tony descended the stairs and looked over the latest boat shell with fascination. He was still mystified at his boss' penchant for building boats down here, and then somehow removing them.
Gibbs closed his eyes and shook his head, grinning. "Not my thing, and you know it."
"Yeah, I know. I brought you some eggnog."
Tony held up a carton that he'd scooped from the staff party. Gibbs nodded approvingly, moving to the workbench and tipping out two small jars of nails and screws. Reaching down to a shelf below, he pulled up a half-empty bottle of bourbon, and poured a generous portion in each jar. DiNozzo topped them up with the pale yellow liquid, and they each took one.
"I don't think I've ever tried it with Bourbon." Tony examined the jar from all angles, then decided to go for it. He drank deeply, licking his lips and nodding in surprise at the pleasant flavour. "Cheers."
"Feliz Navidad." Gibbs drank his down in one gulp. "Usual suspects there tonight?" he inquired.
Tony nodded. "Ziva's got a boyfriend."
"Yeah, Joe. I know." Tony gave him a 'How the hell do you do that?' look, but Gibbs looked inscrutable as ever. "Did Louisa have a good time?"
"I think so. God, she looked gorgeous tonight, Gibbs," Tony gushed.
"Aw, hell, DiNozzo, when you gonna ask her?"
Tony stared at Gibbs in astonishment. "Ask her what?" he questioned, but he knew full well what his boss was talking about. The question was unexpected, and he didn't have an answer. Gibbs looked at him pointedly, not needing to say word one to get his message across. Tony sighed. "I know. I won't deny I've been thinking about it. But… I can't figure out how to tell if she's really 'the one'…"
Gibbs poured them another round, and handing Tony back his jar, motioned for him to sit. "Tony… I don't believe there's such a thing as 'the one'. Who you pick is important, but not nearly as important as the effort you put in."
Tony leaned forward, hanging on every word his boss uttered.
"It's kinda like building a boat," Gibbs mused, stroking the hull of his partially-completed craft lovingly with the palm of his hand. "There's any number of hard or soft woods I could use… maple, mahogany, cedar, teak… as long as I use the right tools, the right technique, put a lot of care and patience into the workmanship, I'll end up with a beautiful boat. It'll look a little different, depending on which material I choose, but one isn't necessarily better than another. On the other hand, if I use cheap tools, or I try to rush the job, I could use the best wood there is and the end result will still be a crappy boat. Might not even be sea-worthy…
"Marriage is kinda like that. As long as you pick good quality raw material, how you treat her is much more important than who you pick." He looked Tony dead in the eye. "I don't have to tell you… Louisa's good quality."
Tony couldn't recall Gibbs ever waxing philosophical in this way. Maybe it was the eggnog?
"I can't believe I'm getting marriage advice from a man who's been married four times."
Gibbs made a face. "I got it right the first time," he pointed out. He thought for a moment, and his expression softened. "When you do, there's nothing quite like it."
DiNozzo downed the last of his drink, and rose to his feet. "Thanks, Boss. Merry Christmas."
Tony went into his sock drawer and retrieved a flat box, about 5" x 7". He flopped onto the bed, removed the lid, and began to riffle through the contents… a few family photographs… various coins from Italy... petals from the rose he'd laid on his mother's coffin… a red velvet pouch with a black draw string. He pulled it out, loosened the top and let the contents fall into his palm. A ring. His mother's ring. The ring his father had given her, the day he'd asked her to marry him. By tradition, left to Junior when she had died.
He gazed at it in awe. It was stunning – white gold, studded with diamonds all the way around – a 'veretta', symbolizing the eternity of love. He wondered whether his parents would have stayed together, if his mother hadn't died. It had been a rocky relationship, there was no doubt… plenty of arguing, plenty of tears, and more than once, a household object flying through the air. Lots of alcohol to lubricate it all. And yet, he knew deep down that Louisa was right – his father had been wracked with grief when he'd lost his wife. At the heart, there had been love there. Maybe things would have settled down over time… maybe they would have eventually found a way to co-exist peacefully and happily.
Tony fingered the ring, examining it carefully. It was a little big for Louisa's tiny hand. But surely they could make it smaller? He reached into his pocket and pulled out another ring… one he'd secretly lifted from her jewel box last week. She didn't wear this one often – with any luck, he'd be able to slip it back in its place before she noticed it was missing – but when she did wear it, it was always on the fourth finger of her right hand, so it had to be pretty close to the right size. He slipped it into the bag along with the veretta, and headed out to I. Gorman Jewellers.
Later that evening, he went back to the jewellery store and picked up the newly-cleaned, now-size five engagement ring. The store clerk let it drop into his palm from the velvet bag, and he examined it in the light. It was perfect; and one week from today, on Christmas morning, surrounded by her family, he would drop to one knee and slip it onto her finger, making sure that she first read the inscription he'd lovingly selected to be engraved inside the band: