AN: First off, I want to just say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who read and reviewed my last story. My computer crashed shortly after posting, and I wasn't able to reply to all my reviewers, and I'm really sorry! I was quite overwhelmed by the wonderful response to it, so THANK YOU so much! You guys rock! And just on another note, I have a number of much longer pieces I'm working on that I'd like to start posting, but would really appreciate a beta. I just can't properly write Tony and all his movie references and silliness when he's in his full glory, there's a little something missing, so I would be most grateful if anyone could help me with that.

AN2: Post-ep to 7x11 Ignition, Tony/Gibbs father/son. Tony was acting up a lot more than usual, really baiting Gibbs, who never caved and gave him the head-slap he was asking for, and I found that not only a little odd, but rather frustrating.

Disclaimer: I own nothing but my laptop and textbooks. And a few seasons on DVD.

Jethro wasn't surprised when he heard the quick tread of his Senior Field Agent upstairs, crossing the hall. With a brief stop in the kitchen, the younger man quickly appeared on the steps, his light footfalls turning into a thundering cascade as he half-tumbled down the wooden stairs before thumping onto the one Jethro had long-considered his. He knew Tony certainly considered that step to be his, if the neat initials A.D.D. carved into the rough wooden banister during his long recovery from the plague were anything to go by.

"Hey, Boss." Tony flipped open the lid of the flat, square box. "Brought pizza. You supplied the beer" he added with a cheeky grin. He slid a slice onto a plate, easily popped the cap off the beer bottle, indulging in a favourite game of his and seeing how far he could pop it, and took a long drink.

Jethro set down the knife he was using to whittle a doll's hand, and came over to Tony. He grabbed the other plate, slid three slices on, and retired with his beer to the stool at the workbench.

They ate in silence for several long minutes, until Tony had inhaled three slices and was starting on his fourth.

"What'd you think of McGee?" Jethro asked, unable to watch Tony eating any longer. Sometimes it really was disgusting, enough to turn anyone off their food. At those times, Jethro suspected that was on purpose, a skill honed (with great pleasure) in a frat house as a way of ensuring that he got more than his fair share of the goods.

Tony quickly swallowed and took a sip of his beer. "I think McJet-Pack watched a few too many sci-fi films as a kid."

Jethro chuckled. "Thought you said he didn't watch enough."

"Changed my mind after this latest case" Tony said, shuddering. "He sounded like a damn physics prof. I always hated physics."

"You were good at physics" Jethro reminded him. Tony's college transcripts showed excellent grades.

"Doesn't mean I liked it. Just knew it was mandatory to keeping my scholarship, staying in the program, and on the football and basketball teams. Hell of a good motivator." College athletes in his day had been required to maintain a minimum average of 75% to remain on the team. And he'd needed a minimum 85% average to keep his scholarship, without which he would not have been able to continue college.

"That it is" Jethro agreed. "But you still didn't answer my question."

Tony set down the next slice, and contemplated for a moment. "He did good. But he's not quite ready yet" he decided. "Of course, except for those four months when you were on your Mexican tequila bender, it's not like he's had any experience as Senior Field Agent or training new agents."

He was the only one who could get away with talking about Jethro's brief retirement the way he did.

As he had with Tim, Tony had also taken Ziva's training under his wing, and although he'd been wary of it at first, Jethro realised it had been a good move. Because whilst Tony's heroic rescue of Ziva had completely reaffirmed her trust in him, it was a two-way street, and she had a long way to go before he completely trusted her again, the way he once had.

Assigning her as his Probie had been a good way to do that, as Tony had had the chance to retrain her from the beginning, and make her work for that elusive element she'd spectacularly shattered so many months before.

"He deserves a chance as Senior Field Agent" Tony said. "It'd give him the confidence he needs. Get rid of the last of that uncertainty, wavering. And teach him to focus a little more instead of going off on his own interests. Of course" Tony mused, "he was a good choice for lead on this one, Boss, seeing as he was the only one who knew what the hell was going on."

"So you think he needs more experience."

"More experience in a leadership position. He's been playing second-fiddle to me for far too long." Most teams didn't stay together like they had. Probationary Agents became full Agents, and were no longer content to stay at the bottom of the ladder; nor should they. It was a position reserved for the newcomers, and although Ziva was now their Probationary Agent, the team dynamic hadn't changed too much.

Jethro frowned. "Vance offer you something else?" he asked.

"You mean apart from his dislike?" Tony quipped, eyes dark.

Jethro stared.

Tony lifted a shoulder. "Yeah. MCRT in Miami. Would make good use of my Spanish, my Mediterranean heritage, and my knowledge of drugs and gangs and other such ugliness. Not to mention the sun and the beaches and the bikinis" he said with a leer and a wink.

"You don't have to keep the mask on with me, Tony" Jethro told him softly, and the look faded quickly.

"Yeah. Habit." Tony shrugged it off, his thoughts introspective.

"You considering it?" Jethro asked. He'd long ago known that Tony deserved his own team. The realisation that he'd been offered Rota and turned it down had been shocking, to say the least, but he'd understood the reasons. He'd also been more touched than he had the right to be, considering Tony was no biological son of his.

Tony shrugged again.

"That all you've got to say?" Jethro wanted to know. A quiet Tony was always something to be aware of. It wasn't worrying, but instead a sign that hinted at something deeper, perhaps.

"I don't know, Boss." Tony sighed. "McGee deserves Senior Field Agent, and he doesn't want to move to another team. He doesn't want to go back to cyber-crimes either."

"You don't want to move either. Why should you go?" Jethro asked.

"This sounds like an old conversation, Boss."

"It is" Jethro said pointedly.

Tony sighed. "Yeah." He looked away. "McGee did good. He's just green in that area, is all."

"You write that in your eval?"

"More or less, yeah."

They lapsed into silence again, and Tony inhaled another two slices and finished off his beer. Looking at the second bottle, he made his decision and opened it. Jethro gave him a pleased nod, knowing this meant the younger man would once again be crashing in the other bedroom that had long ago ceased being a spare. Its dresser drawers held Tony's boxers and t-shirts, its closet held his spare running shoes and some suits, its walls had been re-painted a colour of Tony's choice, and its once-empty shelves held various books, DVDs and other DiNozzo possessions.

"What's on your mind?" Jethro asked after some more silence.

Tony was quiet for a time, and Jethro gave it to him. Anthony DiNozzo was a complicated person, a combination of his natural personality, and the ugly childhood he'd survived, and Jethro was one of the few people who truly understood, and could handle him.

"Why don't you head-slap me anymore, Boss?" Tony cursed the childishness of his voice.

Jethro started, shocked. He really hadn't expected that. "That's what this is about?" he said with a laugh. He instantly realised his mistake.

Tony tensed, and shook his head, mask suddenly back in place, and it was Jethro cursing himself now as the younger man set down the beer and pizza, grabbing his plate to return it to the kitchen. "Sorry, Boss. It's nothing. I should just go."

Even after all these years, Tony was more insecure about his place in Jethro's heart than anyone would ever guess.

"Dammit, Tony, I didn't mean it like that" Jethro sighed. "You just came at me out of left field, there" he tried to explain.

"It was dumb" Tony brushed it off.

Jethro shook his head. "Not if it's bothering you. So, you wanna sit, and then I can answer this?" It wasn't much of a question, but he knew better than to phrase it as a direct order.

Tony hesitated a moment, then lowered himself back down, face still red, hating the vulnerability he'd just displayed.

Jethro set down his own plate and walked over to where Tony sat, settling himself beside his protégé and partner, the man he regarded as his son.

"You haven't really head-slapped me since . . . well, years. When you came back from Mexico, and the whole undercover thing." Tony's head was ducked, eyes lowered, but he still found the courage to say what had been simmering inside him for a long time now.

Only Jethro knew how badly that whole fiasco with Jeanne and Jenny still hurt the other man, but now wasn't the time. "Yeah. I know." It hadn't been a conscious decision, and it had taken him a while to realise why.

"I just – it was, you know . . ." Tony trailed off, embarrassed. He pulled anxiously at his long, elegant fingers, a nervous tell.

"You always took it as a sign of affection" Jethro said. It was how he'd meant it as well, a form of communication that both men, who religiously avoided words and emotions, could understand.

"Yeah. And I thought you meant it as well, so when you stopped . . ."

"You thought I didn't care anymore" Jethro finished. "Ah, hell, Tony." He dragged a hand across his face.

"At first I figured you didn't remember me properly, and that was okay." Well, not really, but he'd buried that years ago. "Then I figured you knew I was lying to you, and then after that you knew for sure I was lying and you were mad, and then I figured after L.A. not only were you mad, but you didn't trust me . . ." Tony's voice trailed off. He hated dredging up those times.

"You know that I wasn't mad, right? That I still trusted you?" They'd had this conversation out a while back, but Jethro had to make sure. Not only were these the sort of doubts that could get someone killed in the field, but he couldn't bear the thought that Tony no longer trusted him. It sent a painful stab through his heart.

"Yeah. Yeah, I know that Boss." He did, and the tone of his voice was enough to convince Jethro that he did as well.

"Things were different when I came back from Mexico" Jethro began, and a glare cut off the snide remark that was about to escape Tony's lips.

"Right. Shutting up, Boss." Tony pretended to zip his lips.

"I came back expecting everything and everyone to be the same, and you had all grown without me. I came back to find Tim was no longer a scared Probie and Ziva no longer a Mossad assassin and you were suddenly my equal.

"I know we've always been partners, but you were suddenly at the same level as me, and at first I didn't know how to deal with that, because I couldn't push you back to where you'd been. And then, it didn't feel right to head-slap someone who was my equal in every sense of the word" Jethro explained, hoping it would be enough. It was already more words than he could remember uttering at once in . . . well, a really long time.

Tony was silent, taking that in, and Jethro decided to hasten the process by reaching out and clasping Tony's thigh, his gaze on the beer in his other hand.

"Jeez, Boss. You couldn't have just said something?" Tony got out, his voice a little more choked than he would have liked. He swallowed, and lifted his beer to his lips, covering the moment.

"You remember who we're talking about here, DiNozzo?" Jethro chided gruffly.

"Yeah, how could I forget. Man who lost three wives to lack of communication" Tony teased.

"They'll just be the first in a long line of people to tell you I'm no good at expressing myself."

"Neither am I" Tony admitted. "That's why I needed the head-slaps. And that's why when they disappeared, well . . ." He shrugged.

"You started provoking me" Jethro finished with a grin.

"I wondered how far I'd have to go to make you head-slap me. I counted at least four in this last case alone."

"I counted five" Jethro countered, thinking of how the young man had baited him at every opportunity. Had been doing so for a while.

"See, I'm getting rusty."

Jethro squeezed Tony's thigh again gently. "You know the lack of head-slaps have only been a sign of respect?" he asked. "You know it says nothing about my feelings for you."

"I do now" Tony nodded, and he really believed it too. "You really think I'm your equal?"

"You've been working under me so long, I sometimes forget that" Jethro admitted. "But you've been my equal for a long time now" he acknowledged.

Tony blushed. "This mean I can head-slap you now?" he asked cheekily.

Jethro removed his hand and delivered a swift smack to the back of DiNozzo's head, ending with a gentle caress before letting his hand fall back to his own lap, the gesture saying so much more than his words ever could.

"Gotcha. Right Boss" Tony grinned happily, easily translating the Gibbs into the emotions the older man couldn't express.

A companiable silence fell over the two partners as they sat together, each perfectly understanding what the other had been conveying.

Tony was the first to break it. "So, that lawyer Boss . . ." He wiggled his brows suggestively, eyes lighting up. "Any plans?"

"Seems some people's kids never grow up" Jethro grunted, knowing what those words would mean to Tony. He followed that up by swiftly raising his hand. The smack echoed quietly in the basement, followed by a gruff laugh and a loud complaint of "Ow!"