A/N: Sorry for the long wait, RL got in the way (as usual). Thank you so much for all the reviews and support, and I hope you enjoy (and review)!

Disclaimer: If I owned NCIS, I'd buy a unicorn.

The six minute drive to Tony's house is one Gibbs can execute perfectly with two broken arms and a blindfold. He's not quite certain when he would need this skill, but seeks comfort in knowing the option is there.

Fearless leader though he may be, he is petrified at the thought of DiNozzo leaving – maybe quite not as immobilized as he would be with two shattered bones and a blindfold, but still up there.

Not just because he would lose the best agent he's ever had (or because he would miss the regular trips to Bethesda – he's ready to start relationships with at least four nurses) but because he knows his heart will shatter if the man who is just shy of being his son leaves. It is a terrible thing to lose a child, but it's a sin to lose two.

Logically, he knows that DiNozzo Senior is still alive and kicking, and understands the implications of this unfortunate fact perfectly. Because no matter how many times Senior claims to love his son, Gibbs has seen first-hand what grief does to a man. It transforms them into wild beasts that may care one moment and rage in a fury the next, beasts whose unpredictability makes them more dangerous than their violent tendencies.

He claims to love his son, but his love is conditional. If Gibbs gets a nickel every time Tony spouts out one of his "DiNozzos Don't" rules during the next year, he expects he'll be buying a Corvette in matter of weeks.

And Gibbs knows he's not perfect, knows that if he's trying to be Tony's father he's failing miserably. But Tony plays the good son role as if his job description is the fifth commandment. He'll honor anyone who could pass as a mother or father.

Said senior field agent opens the door to his apartment, looking disheveled yet wholly unsurprised to see his boss at seven in the morning.

"Hey, boss. We catch a case?" The innocuous question would have been reasonable to someone who doesn't know Tobias Fornell.

"Yeah, right, DiNozzo. Stop pretending you didn't get a wakeup call at five from a guilty FBI agent."

"What can I say? The man likes me more than you, and, let's face it, can you blame him?" Tony smirks, but Gibbs knows better than to believe all is right in DiNozzo land.

Tony begins to whine about how he could have had Cindy over (Gibbs has a strong feeling her name had been Miranda last night), and why can't Gibbs call before he comes, and really, it's so early even the worm catching early birds aren't up, and –

"I'm sorry." They're the only words Gibbs knows that have the power to shut Tony up, and no matter how hard they are to say, that is completely priceless. Gibbs refuses to think he has any other motives behind saying them.

Tony shuts up.

Mouth agape, he sinks into the nearest piece of furniture – his umbrella stand – and stares at his boss, completely disregarding the polka-dotted parasol (Cindy/Miranda's?) digging into his back. Gibbs, hit by an even stronger feeling of guilt, wonders at his ability to be such a bastard that his loquacious colleague would be so silent at hearing an apology from his lips.

But he can't fool himself. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses, and one that he calls the former but knows is the latter is his inability to apologize, especially to this man. A parent never wants their child to know their shortcomings, to know that mommy or daddy isn't actually the kind of superhero who flies over buildings and saves the world on a day to day basis.

Kelly had died thinking her fearless father was perfect, the one man in the world who could always save her world, who would never break her heart or bones. She was wrong.

And he knows it's not the same thing with Tony, knows deep down that DiNozzo's not his son but perhaps deserves an apology (several, really) even more than if he had been. Somehow, though, apologizing to the brash ex-cop would mean facing his own fallibility.

He doesn't want to remember abandoning his team or lying to them or keeping secrets. True, they're just a team in the dregs of the federal alphabet soup, but Tony's invested enough time, enough nights away from Cindy or Miranda or whichever girlfriend he makes up each week, to earn the right to something more.

Some things, after all, are better left said.

"I mean it, Tony. I'm sorry, and that's a long time coming. I never apologized for leaving and I never apologized for coming back, and I don't know which is more worthy of acknowledgment. Jenny and Ducky both warned me to at least thank you, and I couldn't even manage that. Hell, even Fornell made a feeble but nonetheless heartfelt attempt to get me to talk to you, and I should have realized what an ass I had been."

Tony opens his mouth for a token protest, but Gibbs beats him to the punch.

"You were a good leader then, and you're a good leader now. What's more, you are a good man, Tony. It's not just your job description, it's who you are. I never said it because I didn't think I needed to, and that is one of the few regrets I will always carry."

Winded from the unusually long speech, Gibbs stalks off to the kitchen for a glass of water (or something stronger, though the beginnings of a hangover are already settling in) leaving Tony to gape after him.

But Tony's been left behind one too many times, so he runs after him and pours cranberry juice for both of them.

"No beer, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asks wryly, hoping the effects of his late night session with "Jack" aren't obvious, but knowing they are (and when had he developed the liver of an eighty year old?)

"I think you've had enough already. Did you get any sleep at all last night?" It's a question not many would ask – after all, when Gibbs sleeps, the monsters wake up – but this man knows him too well to think he's invincible.

But Gibbs refuses to have talked that long in vain.

"Stop deflecting. I know your supposedly precious feelings weren't really hurt by that damn photoshoot gone wrong, but I also know you more than anyone deserve some credit for an exemplary job that no one ever thanks you for."

Tony blinks. "I knew it would be a thankless job when I signed up, Gibbs." Seeing his boss's (for once) patient face, he continues.

"It's just, I thought I could at least rely on support from my team. But McGee and Ziva have given me nothing but grief ever since, well…" He hesitates, but the unspoken words are written on every frown line he didn't have so many years ago in Baltimore.

"Since I went to Mexico. I know, Tony, and I should have stopped it – hell, I shouldn't have started it in the first place, but I needed that vacation. Maybe I could have come back a little sooner, or not insisted I was leaving for good, but -" He stops at Tony's agitated gesture.

"It's not that, not at all, Gibbs. I've certainly done too much leaving of my own to have the right to blame you for that. It's just," he bites his lip, and Gibbs knows what he's going to say the second before the words reach his lips, "You'll do? They thought – we thought – I was only just good enough." More hesitation. "Am I?"

The two words shatter Gibbs' heart; juxtaposed with the brash words of the bullpen, they are nothing less than a crime – one that Gibbs has been committing for the last ten years or so.

"Look, Tony. I can't get rid of all your self-doubt in a day – or a decade – but I sure as hell will try, because some things just happen to be worth it. You are worth it. You are not "just good enough," you are the best thing that's happened to NCIS – and me – since electric percolators were installed in all the coffee makers.

Gibbs sighs, seeing the still doubt filled face of his protégé. He's already used up his word quota for the day, but the kid is worth it (and, like paid leave, he still has some leftover words from his exceptionally bad days.)

"I chose you in Israel, didn't I? Knowing Ziva had killed her brother to save me, knowing she thought of me as a surrogate father, I chose you. You - " here he pauses, trying to make the words sound more eloquent but not knowing how, " You are my son in every way that matters, Tony. You are the one who makes my life worth living. I go into work every morning with a smile – metaphorically, of course – because I look forward to seeing you, not McGee, not Ziva, certainly not Vance."

Tony's features rapidly shift from utterly astonished to completely delighted, but Gibbs isn't done.

"I don't know why I waited all these years to tell you, but - " DiNozzo, apparently, decides he actually is done.

"But you have been telling me, boss. All those head slaps and pizzas and the rare but all the more meaningful words of praise meant something. Actions speak louder than words, and yours were practically shrieking. Still, it's really nice to hear the words sometimes, and I know that's usually more my style than yours. So, thank you, even if those words are even more inadequate than usual." A small hesitation. "And if honesty is the hip new thing in town, I feel the same way. I love you too, boss."

There is no nauseatingly sugary expression on either face, no sobbing into each other's shoulder or even a hug, merely two men stating what deep down, they had already known.

But it's on rare occasions like these when a word is worth a thousand pictures, not the other way around, and sometimes a hug (or a slap to the back of the head) can't quite convey the message the way a simple "I love you, son" can.

A/N: Couldn't resist the fluffy ending Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear from you!