A Simple Choice

Author's note: I like Tony. A lot. If you don't, this might not be the fic for you. There isn't any action and little dialogue; it's mostly just Gibbs' musings on his (in my opinion) favorite agent. It might be seen as out-of-character, though I find Gibbs to have tons of emotions. If you see him as only an unfeeling bastard, my version might be a tad too much. If not, enjoy!

"Why did you choose Tony?"

Gibbs heard the boldly demanding question as Ziva strode down the steps, uninvited, to his basement sanctuary. With a sigh, he put aside the sandpaper and stepped around the side of the boat. Knowing that this conversation was eventually coming didn't make it any easier. Looking up at his agent, he steeled himself against the pain hidden deep in her eyes. It was easier to avoid that pain than he thought, for side-by-side with it was a seething jealousy that threatened to destroy their entire team.

Ever since they had returned from Somalia, Gibbs' team had been 'off' – the barbs a little sharper, the digs a little deeper. Somehow, Ziva's general irritation with Tony had slowly morphed from the teasing flirtations that marked their early relationship into genuine disgust and derision.

Gibbs thought back to that fateful day on the scorching tarmac in Tel Aviv. Through forcing Gibbs to choose who should remain on his team, she had demanded his loyalty. Gibbs was sure that Ziva believed he would repay the allegiance she displayed to him and NICS in sacrificing her own brother to save Gibbs' life. Some small part of Gibbs did feel obligated to choose Ziva. Since Ari's death, he had held a soft spot in his heart for the Mossad agent. If she had forced a decision between her and any other agent, any other person, in the world, he might have had to take more time to think. But not when the choice was her or Tony.

There had never, as far as Gibbs was concerned, been a choice. Tony was his, irreplaceable and non-negotiable. This fact was not included in Gibbs' list of well-known rules but to those who knew him well, it was an unspoken certainty. That Ziva had obviously failed to notice this indisputable rule surprised Gibbs and showed that perhaps she was not as good an investigator as he thought. Anyone who really looked could easily see through his gruff treatment of his senior agent. Tony was his favorite, pure and simple. Anyone threatening that relationship – in any way – would have to pay.

That Ziva had hurt Tony, physically and emotionally, did not escape him. He was deeply sorry that Ziva lost someone for whom she seemed to care, but he did not blame Tony for it. In their often kill-or-be-killed world, Tony had made the only choice he could. Gibbs frankly didn't understand how Ziva of all people could not understand doing what had to be done.

So, when Ziva swept down the stairs and leaned into his personal space needing reassurances he couldn't give, Gibbs took a moment to brace himself. He knew that Ziva desperately needed something from him, a paternal concern lacking in her own father. Her need to have him as a father figure was something Gibbs did not begrudge, but it was a need he simply could not fill, at least not the way she wished. While he trusted Ziva in her role as an agent, he did not trust her in all areas of his life. He didn't fully trust her with those who meant the most to him.

Most important of all, he did not trust her with Tony.

Oh, he knew she would offer her life for them if under fire, for her personal code of ethics as a soldier would demand it. But there was a difference in trusting someone in the field and trusting them in life. He just couldn't bring himself to trust Ziva 100 percent. There were precious few people that Gibbs trusted with his life, his secrets and his team. He was lucky enough to work with a few of them. When push came to shove, though, whether in the field, the basement or the troubled hallways of his own past, there was no one – no one – Gibbs trusted more than Tony DiNozzo. And, because he couldn't trust Ziva not to hurt Tony, he just couldn't trust Ziva.

Gibbs believed that the truest measure of someone's heart is taken when times are hardest; Tony had proven to have a heart of uncompromising gold when Gibbs thought things were their darkest. In times of crisis, both life-threatening and not, Tony was always there. When McGee took his first life, when Ducky's mother needed care, when bullets started flying, when Gibbs himself needed an old-fashioned head slap, DiNozzo was always the one to step in where angels feared to tread. DiNozzo took care of his team, his true nature rushing past the goofy frat boy image when his people needed him.

When Ziva's people had needed her to step up – when Tony was hurting and needed his team to watch his six – Ziva had not forgone her own needs to help him. Instead, she had taken him down to the ground, pressing on a painfully broken arm and holding a loaded gun to his chest. Gibbs would never forgive that action – an involuntary movement from Tony, a split second of indecision, even someone walking out the door – might have caused her finger to twitch. Tony could have died; to Gibbs, her choosing not to pull the trigger did not lessen the unforgivable sin of holding a loaded gun against her partner in the first place.

Partners did not hurt partners. That was another rule so intrinsic to Gibbs' – and Tony's – nature that it did not need to be written. It was simply nonnegotiable.

And so, Gibbs thought through what he would tell Ziva. He found that he hadn't the heart to talk to her of trust; either she understood or she didn't, and no amount of talk would make her see that her actions against Tony could not be undone.

Instead, he thought of all the things he could say about his choice, about why he chose DiNozzo over David when it mattered most.

He thought of all the things he could have said about Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo.

In that curious moment of decision, when a split second holds years of memories unfolding at their leisure, Gibbs thought about DiNozzo. He saw the mosaic comprising his complicated second in command unfold, layers upon layers hiding the heart of the man. He thought of the times DiNozzo stood in front a bullet … or knife … or bomb … without so much as blinking an eye. He also thought of all the times DiNozzo faced catastrophe with a smile, disconcerting foes enough to always find a way to wriggle out of death's grasp.

He saw the agent who survived an illness with an 85% chance of certain death. He also saw that same agent, just a week after surviving this illness, saving his teammates in a selfless act of courage. Yes, DiNozzo had thrown himself out of harm's way and climbed up a steep hill with little extra damage to an already-battered body. This feat, while standing testament to an indomitable spirit, in no way lessened the fact that he had, for all intents and purposes, sacrificed his own life for his team. He had thrown himself on the proverbial hand grenade – an act that, if performed by a soldier, often warranted the military's highest honors. His surviving the feat had been an unexpected miracle.

Another image of DiNozzo, this time bloody, worn and tied to a chair in a nondescript hotel room still threw Gibbs, for he remembered too the rage and loss of control shining from those emerald eyes as his agent kicked his captor into submission. He also saw the same agent, again bloody and bruised – a common enough theme in his memories to make Gibbs sigh – standing in a sewer holding his own captor captive. That DiNozzo refused to relinquish his hold on the woman who had tried to kill him, even when he knew it was Gibbs and Kate who had found him, still troubled Gibbs.

He also remembered a DiNozzo who planned a secret mission to avenge, and then save, the very woman questioning his worth in Gibbs' eyes. He would never forget seeing DiNozzo through his sniper scope, strapped to that chair being beaten and drugged, yet never, ever bowing to defeat. Gibbs sometimes wondered if DiNozzo's fighting spirit could ever be defeated and then prayed that he would never find out that answer.

Juxtaposed with these moments of undeniable heroism were a thousand more – of insights made between seemingly random facts, of comments made that got the team thinking outside the box and solving cases thought to be unsolvable, of sliding in and out of countless elevators and cars with that jaunty salute of "On your six, Boss" ringing in his ears. Special Agent DiNozzo was definitely Gibbs' Saint Bernard in every way – loyal and courageous, fiercely protective of his NCIS family, independent yet easily trained with a gruffly affectionate hand.

He also thought of all the things he could have said about Anthony DiNozzo, Junior.

Anthony DiNozzo, Junior was even more complicated than the devilish yet loyal agent appeared to be. This man was deeply flawed, troubled by a past Gibbs had yet to unearth. Anthony Junior was the man who worked odd hours of the morning rather than facing the nights alone. He was the man who endlessly bragged about romantic conquests, yet strangely had very rarely – short of a fabricated romance while undercover – been seen with a date. Anthony was the man who had nearly died more than once under Gibbs' watch, yet had never been visited by a concerned family. He was also the man that rarely requested vacation time or asked for holiday leave.

"Anthony" was the name that his agent, Tony DiNozzo, only used when he was under emotional duress – when revealing his true identity to Jeanne after his world came crashing down, when chastising himself for poor choices, when berating himself for real or imagined failings. Anthony was a person Tony simply did not like, yet could never escape. Anthony was the sad, lonely child too often abandoned by those he loved. Anthony was the broken little boy hidden deep in the protective folds of Tony's ferociously dynamic personality.

That boy had no protection against the depth of rage Ziva had visited on Tony after Michael's death, for this was the boy that had never been taught his own self worth. Anthony expected to be treated as Ziva treated him; for her failure to comprehend that, Gibbs could never fully forgive her. Nor would he ever feel for her the depth of love he held for Tony. Yes, love. Though he would probably never admit it to his agent, Anthony pulled at his heartstrings and stirred feelings he thought had been lost with Kelly. Whether Tony knew it or not, the part of him that would always be Anthony needed him and Gibbs intended to be there. That boy deserved someone to watch over him and Gibbs gladly took on the mantle. That was why, when he finally told Tony how proud he was of him, he made sure to use his given name, for he knew that the boy had never heard those words of support. That he had become such a formidable man of character impressed Gibbs beyond description.

Then, he thought of all the things he could have said about his friend, Tony.

He thought of that irrepressible smile, the one that really had gotten him the job just as he told Kate. He flashed on so many images of Tony – hugging Abby through breakups and makeup's, sitting on the floor with Ducky's Corgis because Mrs. Mallard was worried they were lonely, hosting impromptu Christmas parties so that agents on-call never felt left out of the festivities. He thought of the jokester who often went too far with pranks, but never failed to rally when Gibbs gave the call. He thought of the man who needled McGee incessantly, but then dropped a promising friendship with a kindred spirit simply because the man hadn't liked Tony's erstwhile partner. He also remembered Tony's haunted expression when they lost Kate, and how a wounded Tony had reached out to McGee in a time of need. Gibbs wondered if any of them had reached out to Tony in his.

Tony was a rock – never showing fear, doubt, pain. He carried the team on his broad shoulders, offering support through loss, death, Gibbs' wrath and the plain daily drudgery of a job filled with paperwork. He constantly rallied the troops through his endless optimism and Peter Pan mentality. Gibbs wasn't sure any of them fully appreciated how important that gift of levity was in a job often mired down by human brutality.

In NCIS' top team, Gibbs was the head and Tony was the heart.

His mind's eye saw Tony dive down into a freezing cold bay to fish Gibbs and Maddie from the bay. Yes, many agents would have tried the feat, but Gibbs believed that only the strength born of deep and abiding friendship allowed Tony to save them with plague-scarred lungs.

Gibbs thought of so many nights when his friend would make his way to Gibbs' house, pizza in hand. Beer and bourbon for the nights that were really bad. In those nights, sometimes watching movies, sometimes building the boat, sometimes simply sitting quietly together unwinding from troubling times, a rock-solid friendship had been born.

Tony came to him when his father's casual disinterest cut so deeply, when Dana's loss hit so hard. Gibbs took care of him, no doubt. But that care was returned to Gibbs two-fold. He thought of Tony checking on him each time Mike Franks breezed in and out, knowing that the other man's vendettas stirred up difficult emotions. He keenly remembered Tony's support when Kate had been lost, again supplanting his own grief with the need to help Gibbs. Tony had known that Kate's death brought Kelly's back with a vengeance, and Tony had patiently sat for hours in a silent and solemn basement, offering support with none of the clumsiness sometimes evident in the younger man.

With the usual pang, Gibbs thought of Tony's annual visit on the anniversary of Gibbs' worst nightmare. If not on the day, then very close to it, Tony would arrive at Gibbs door, dressed for travel and refusing any of the other's efforts at saying 'no.' After the first year, Gibbs simply didn't try anymore. They would get in Tony's car and drive nearly five hours, often never saying a word. Upon their arrival in Stillwater, Tony would sit quietly in the car while Gibbs visited the graves of his wife and daughter. Gibbs would then get back in and they would make the same solemn trek back to DC. They never spoke of it, but Gibbs knew that Tony would be there, solid and steady, year after year. He had never let him down. Gibbs knew Tony had his back in this as in all things.

Just as Tony understood Gibbs, he himself understood an irrefutable fact about Tony that most people just couldn't grasp. While all of them covered each others' sixes in the field, Tony took it so much farther. In this and countless other ways, Tony watched out for his team in the field and out – he wasn't willing simply to die for them; he was willing to live for them.

Finally, Gibbs reflected on the night he had found a younger DiNozzo, hunched over his desk eating a deli sandwich while working cold cases, on his first Thanksgiving weekend with NCIS. Gibbs had questioned his new agent, discovering along with his easy dismissal of plans a quiet loneliness he did not expect. Gibbs had not had plans either, merely stopping by the office to collect his cell phone. He still wasn't sure what had prompted him to sweep DiNozzo's sad little sandwich in the trash and haul the younger man to a 24-hour diner for the 'home-cooked' special. He didn't know what prompted him that first year, but he knew what brought the two of them back to that same diner year in and year out for nine years now.

A most-unlikely friendship had sprung up between the intractable Gibbs and the irrepressible DiNozzo.

That friendship had weathered more than a few storms, some brought on by Gibbs' own folly. It had withstood undercover assignments, renegade episodes and unspeakable loss. Gibbs was sure – completely confident in a way he couldn't quite explain – that there would never be a time that he wouldn't trust Tony with everything he held dear.

He wasn't sure what it was about the two of them that made such good friends of men who did not easily keep friends. He also knew the reasons didn't much matter. He and Tony had something special, pure and simple. Tony got Gibbs, in a way that only Shannon had ever managed. Tony understood how to read the head slaps, the gruff reprimands, the occasionally uncalled-for moodiness.

Gibbs sometimes needed to be a bastard just as Tony sometimes needed to be a fool. Understanding that about the other, each simply allowed leeway when needed. But only so far. Tony was more than happy to call his friend out when Gibbs crossed the bastard line, just as his head slap pulled Tony back from his line. They called each other on their behavior, fixed it and then forgot it. As far as Gibbs was concerned, that was just about as close to perfect as friendship could get.

So in the end, he gave the only answer he could when Ziva demanded to know why. He knew this answer would send her back up the stairs for good. But in the end he wouldn't lie, not even to spare her feelings.

"There never was a choice, Ziva," he said finally. "I chose Tony …. because he'd never ask me to choose."

With that, he turned back to the boat and began his slow sanding. He was not surprised to hear the front door softly close a short time later. After all, Ziva could see and hear the truth in his answer; Tony would always be his first choice. Always.

The End