AN: A little Christmas tale I've had in the works for a few years now. I finally made myself finish it, writing on Advent Sundays whilst listening to Christmas music. Hope you enjoy :)

AN 2: Set the Christmas after the S6 episode 'Silent Night.'

DiNozzo's don't cry Tony told himself firmly for the hundredth time that night. DiNozzo's don't cry. They didn't pass out or show pain or allow weakness either.

He had never been a very good DiNozzo.

Tony attempted to turn carefully in the bed, ever mindful of the IV in his right forearm, the blood pressure cuff wrapped around his lift bicep, and the stiffness of his aching, protesting body. He wanted nothing more than to bury his head under the mound of blankets piled atop him, and let the tears of anger and frustration and loneliness soak into his hospital-issue pillow. He didn't understand why this particular hospitalisation, this set of circumstances that had led to it, should, more than any other, result in his being so close to losing it. He'd been hurt far worse whilst both on and off the job, he'd suffered through far worse, far more personal attacks and come through fine.

Well, mostly fine. Not that he would ever admit to anything in the contrary.

He barely, however, managed to shift slightly further onto his front without setting off a new wave of agony, and knowing he was completely and utterly alone, he let the moan of pain escape his lips. Okay, moving was a really, really bad idea.

He had half a mind to press the call button and get the nurse to bring him something that would knock him out, and then he wouldn't have to lay here in the dark, the faint glow of Christmas lights seeping in under his door and through the window, the antiseptic body-odour smell of the hospital overpowering the voices of the staff carollers making their way from common room to common room.

He was alone in a room on the general medicine floor. There was no way he'd be getting any of that Christmas spirit, because special efforts were made for children and those who were dying or somehow really badly off.

He knew. He'd spent enough time in the hospital.

And now he was spending Christmas here, all alone. He wondered if McGee was at his family's yet, if all the extended family had come over as usual, and they were sitting around the fireplace in his parents' living room with the Christmas tree and Christmas music, cousins, aunts and uncles chatting happily, grandchildren playing, their voices loud with excitement.

He imagined Abby had left yesterday for New Orleans, to be with her family. Whilst it was guaranteed to be far from traditional (nothing to do with Abby or her family was ever traditional), he knew it would be filled with love and good food and laughter and loved ones, even if the music would be easier to hear due to the number of deaf people in the family.

He wondered if McGee or Abby had invited Ziva to come home with them, or if she was doing something with her own group of friends from the synagogue. Whilst Hanukkah might not be Christmas, the essence was the same; celebration of a miracle, of family and friends and done so with good food and drinks and presents in the presence of laughter and light.

Jimmy, he knew, had an aunt and uncle and several cousins an hour's drive from here, and after he finished singing in his choir's annual performance of Händel's Messiah, they would go home to a lovely Christmas Eve dinner, then Midnight Mass before coming home to light the candles on the tree, sing some carols, and open their presents in a manner reflecting his Austrian heritage.

Ducky would be celebrating with his mother, any lost souls he had found, and perhaps Gibbs. Tony wasn't sure.

What he was sure of was this: just like every other Christmas since he'd transferred to Baltimore after the murder of his best friend, he would be alone.

Tony had never known what a real Christmas was supposed to be like. The house he'd grown up in had been cold and loveless. Christmas had meant spectacular decorations that he wasn't to touch, and more formal parties than ever where he was dressed up, trotted out and paraded around in a manner reminiscent of a prize dog before being summarily banished to his room for the remainder of the evening, hoping against hope that he hadn't disappointed his father yet again, and wouldn't be adding more bruises to the impressive collection when his father finally came around from his hangover the following morning.

He'd hated Christmas.

Then, his first year at Ohio State, his room-mate, seeing how reticent Tony was about Christmas, had invited him over. Those had been the best two weeks of Tony's life.

He had been shocked. He hadn't known that anything like this even existed, outside the movies. Andy's mother had welcomed him with large kisses on both cheeks and a warm hug before scolding him on how thin he was and pushing a large plate of fresh Christmas cookies in his direction, along with a mug of eggnog. Andy's family had been large and boisterous, younger siblings bouncing everywhere, excitement rife in the air as the last of the preparations were made.

It had been unlike anything he'd ever known. He'd been allowed to sneak in the kitchen when Mrs. Eleanor had been cooking, and her good-natured scolding as he'd snitched some tasty morsels had been over-ruled by the obvious way she'd enjoyed his company. Mr. Heinz had never pushed him out of the way, often even including him in their excursions and duties. The selection of the Christmas tree was only ever done when everyone was home, and Tony hadn't understood it at all.

They'd driven to a large farm where, decked out in several layers of pants, borrowed hat, mitts, boots and jacket, he had watched as the five children and two adults spread out across the field that was easily knee-deep in snow and proceeded to argue for a good hour about which tree to get. Inbetween that, were snowball fights, snow angels, races, hide-and-seek, and a whole lot of pushing into snowbanks and chasing, with alliances shifting as easily as heads could turn.

Then, with the decision finally made, his opinion included, they'd let Tony hold the tree as Mr. Heinz sawed it down. They had trekked back, tied it to the roof of the car, and spent another hour gathered around the bonfire, drinking cranberry punch and hot chocolate whilst chatting with the owners and dodging yet more snowballs.

Decorating the tree had been another clearly-treasured ritual. Tony had never been allowed to help all the years he was at home, but here, everyone pitched in whilst Elisabeth played carols on the piano. The ornaments were a hodge-podge of straw stars and figures so common in Europe, various wooden figures, some beautiful glass balls, half professional and half hand-painted, and various other hand-made ornaments. Every single thing on that tree had had a story, a meaning, a sentimental value to someone in that room, and as the cat batted determinedly at the red hearts (purposely placed low by Matthias), Tony couldn't help but think that the white lights and inexpensive decorations made the most beautiful tree he'd ever seen.

He'd been absolutely horrified, on Christmas morning, realising that he hadn't a present for anyone. His frat house had had an exchange before everyone started going home, and his own group of friends had done the same. He'd bought an excellent bottle of wine as a thank-you present for opening their home to him . . . but as everyone gathered at a rather ungodly hour, sitting in their pyjamas around the tree, Tony had been feeling more than embarrassed.

Especially when not one, but several gifts had come his way.

Overwhelmed by the kindness and thoughtfulness that had gone into the gifts, as they were clearly not something quick and last-minute, he had fled the room in tears that hadn't been allowed to fall since he was ten years old.

Mrs. Eleanor had come after him and held him whilst he sobbed in a way that no other person had ever done before. And then, as he was gaining control over himself, Mikey, the youngest, had come in with the cat (whom Tony head-over-heels adored) and the wooden train his father had made him, and asked if Tony would like the train instead, if it would make him happy.

Only years of practice at hiding his feelings had kept Tony from completely losing it, as he knelt by the seven-year-old and thanked him profusely before taking the cat and reassuring him that he was indeed very happy with his presents.

He'd been back every year since.

Until that fateful year when Andy, who had become a lawyer and worked out of the DA's office, had been murdered for his good work in putting a rapist in jail.

After that, Christmas had lost all meaning. Tony had moved, and he had, after that, politely but firmly turned down all Christmas invitations, unable to face that happy family again.

And Christmas had gone back to a meaningless time for him, where he often spent the holidays working, figuring he may as well be there, allowing those who did have families to be with them.

It shouldn't have been a big deal. He was used to being alone and depressed at Christmas; it had been that way for the majority of his life.

But somehow, this year, hurt and stuck in the hospital, a place he hated more than anything in the world, and all alone, he found he could no longer pretend that it was nothing.

He swallowed hard on the sob that threatened to rise, telling himself he was being an idiot. Blaming the drugs for the sappiness and the melancholy. It was the easier solution than looking a little deeper.

He remembered last year, when they'd all gathered to watch It's a Wonderful Life in MTAC, because they'd all been held up by that case and unable to get home until the next day. And so he'd put on the holiday cheer so expected from him and made up a DiNozzo family tradition, and revelled in the joy of not being alone the whole time, of being able to cuddle with Abby and tease McGee and both flirt and annoy Ziva whilst listening to another of Ducky's stories, ganging up on and with Jimmy, in the steady presence of his boss.

"Wimp" he cursed himself, shifting again in a futile effort to get comfortable. He was getting chilled, and he wondered if it was the dropping temperature, his decidedly depressive mood, or the blood loss.

He had just made up his mind to ring for the nurse when there was a soft knock on the door, and a sliver of light fell across the floor as it was cracked open.

"Ssshh" someone hissed.

"He's probably asleep, Abby, we should come back tomorrow" McGee's voice said.

"He's probably not" Abby's voice retorted.

He started as he heard Gibbs' deep rumble from behind, unable to discern what was said. Was he dreaming?

"I shall see if he is awake." This from Ziva.

"Why you?" Abby demanded.

"Because I am quieter than all of you" she hissed.

"Actually, you're all pretty loud" Tony croaked, wishing he could see them, but the nurses had positioned him on his side, facing the window, to avoid bedsores as he'd been on the other side most of the day. Between the pillows they'd settled him with and the pain, as he'd found out earlier, it was impossible for him to turn.

"Tony!" Abby squealed and ran into the room and around the bed. Her arms encircled him and she drew him into a huge, but oddly gentle hug. He could barely lift one arm to return the gesture, but it didn't seem to matter.

People were filing into the room, and he tried to turn his head to see, but it wasn't willing to co-operate. He huffed frustratedly.

"Easy, Tony" Jethro's soft voice came, as he took the seat beside his Senior Field Agent. His appraising gaze swept over, not liking what he saw, and he knew they had been right in coming.

"Boss? Abs, what are you guys doing here?" he asked, confused. They'd all been leaving, last he'd heard.

"You don't think we would leave you alone at Christmas now, my dear boy?" Ducky's cultured tones came out.

"But you all have families, plans" he said, trying to see what they were doing. A soft glow that could only be associated with those white Christmas lights he loved filled his room, and he felt something deep inside his heart start to thaw, something he suddenly realised had been frozen for a very, very long time.

"You did not think we would leave you alone here, in the hospital over Christmas?" Ziva asked in surprise. Although she celebrated Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration had at its foundation the same spirit of miracles and family and giving as its Christian counterpart, whether its story came from the Torah or the Bible.

"Of course we wouldn't!" Abby cried, and a large kiss landed on his temple before the bubbly woman returned to whatever it was she was currently doing.

"You're family too, Tony" Jimmy said softly, coming over. He placed a white candle settled within a pine-bough and red-ribbon arrangement on the empty night table, then struck a match, lighting it. He gently squeezed Tony's shoulder before returning to the activity and noise Tony couldn't see.

Tony was suddenly very glad the lights were dim as his eyes watered, and he wished he could turn away from his boss, who always saw everything. The older man reached out and echoed Jimmy's gesture, opting to leave his hand there.

"You cold?" he asked suddenly, feeling the slight tremours.

"Yeah" Tony admitted.

"Why did you not say so?" Ziva asked, coming over, apparently having heard. She unfolded a large, holly-pattered fleece blanket and spread it over his body, nearly tucking him in. "Better?"

"Thank you" he whispered, catching her eye to let her know how much he appreciated it. Then he decided to ruin the moment in typical DiNozzo fashion. "Care to join me?" he asked with a wink, lifting the covers.

Ziva lifted an eyebrow. "I would need you to be in much . . . better . . . shape" she said with a suggestive smile, before returning to the decorating.

"I think we're done" Jimmy's voice said, interrupting his equally suggestive reply.

"Yup. Let's move the bed" McGee agreed.

"What? Whoa, careful there!" Tony began protesting as Ducky grabbed the IV stand and Jimmy easily unlocked the brakes before they shifted his bed ninety degrees against the wall, so he had a view of the entire room.

His mouth fell open in shock, and he stared, speechless.

White Christmas lights were draped across the window and walls. On the table sat a small Christmas tree with presents underneath. Santa and his reindeer were flying on the wall by the door, and a manger was on the opposite wall beside the window. Several red candles flickered in the constantly ventilated room, and a sprig of mistletoe hung over his head. Tony grinned wickedly, thinking of the possibilities.

"You guys are amazing" he said, his voice hoarse this time with emotion as he fought to get the words out. He blinked back the tears again, but this time fighting back the emotions of joy and wonder that threatened to overwhelm him. He couldn't believe how touched he was by the simple kindness of not being forgotten . . . and of the wonder of, for once, coming first. "Thank you" he said, wondering if he was going to lose the battle. He didn't realise how hard he was squeezing Gibbs' hand, or how tightly the other man was gripping his shoulder, anchoring him firmly here in this dream-like reality.

Abby flew over to him again and carefully gathered him in her arms. He buried his face in her shoulder as the others quickly tried to look busy, giving him a moment of privacy to compose himself. And he knew, somehow, that this would be one moment of weakness that would never be used against him. He wondered, how these people he'd come to think of as family, these people who had all grown up in households that, whilst maybe not perfect or ideal, had always, always known that they were loved and cherished, even if that was expressed in some unorthodox way, how these people could understand what it meant to him to feel that way too. "Thank you" he whispered in her ear, knowing it would never be enough.

"You really thought we wouldn't come?" she asked him in disbelief.

"Well, yeah?" He could tell his 'no duh' answer wouldn't go over too well.

"You're family too, Mister!" she scolded, echoing Jimmy's words as she carefully smacked his arm. "I owe you a good head-slap for that!"

"Careful now, Abigail, for once it is an uninjured part of his body. Do let's keep it that way, eh?" Ducky chided, his voice light.

"Not true" Jethro spoke up. "His jaw." His lips tightened as he took in the swollen, ugly bruise that stood out starkly against Tony's waxy complexion.

The sound of Christmas carols filled the room now as McGee plugged in the CD player they'd brought, and Tony let his eyes wander the room, taking it in. "This is really amazing, guys. I really appreciate this" he said sincerely as Abby pulled back, making sure to catch each set of eyes.

Ducky patted his uninjured arm lightly as he settled himself on one of the less uncomfortable plastic chairs, looking on whilst Jimmy double-checked the IVs and infuser.

Tony took a careful breath, well aware of the not-so-good state of his lungs and their protection, and realised just how tight his death grip on his boss was. "Sorry, Boss" he breathed, releasing so quickly it was like he'd been burnt. Red heat flooded his face.

"Don't be an idiot, DiNozzo" Jethro said under his breath, recapturing the hand briefly before letting go, smoothing a gentle hand along Tony's forehead, tenderly brushing the hair from his eyes.

"Are you getting enough oxygen, Anthony?" Ducky asked, noting only the nasal cannula tucked behind the young man's ears.

"It's fine, Ducky" Tony assured him. Whilst he hated the oxygen mask with a passion, the terrifying feeling of being unable to breathe was far worse, and he accepted its presence, when necessary, as the lesser of two evils.

"Pulse ox is 96" Jimmy reported dutifully, and Ducky nodded and sat back, at ease.

"We should sing some carols" Abby said brightly. "Jimmy, where's your guitar?"

The young man finished with the IV as McGee came in, panting under the weight of three more chairs. "Had to steal them from the empty chemo suite" he panted, face flushed with exertion.

"McGee!" Abby cried. "You stole from the poor people with cancer?" She sounded outraged. "People who are sick and dying, who are so weak they need a friend or relative to come with them to the appointments, to hold the emesis basin as they retch and wipe their brows and support them on their way to the car, and you would be so cruel as to take the chairs for the only support those poor people have?"

McGee's eyes widened; he clearly hadn't thought about Abby's response to that statement. "Nobody's getting chemo on Christmas Eve, Abby" he protested, but his voice was weak, as though he'd just realised his error.

"Heartless, absolutely heartless, McScrooge" Tony piped up, rather enjoying the young man's discomfort. His Probie had toughened up a lot lately, but he was still far too easy to tease like this. And really, the man had walked straight into it.

Jimmy's muffled laughter could be heard in the corner as he shut off the CD player and began quietly tuning his guitar.

Abby simply put her hands on her hips and glared, that look that was as much anger as pleading, that could get any grown man to do anything she asked, especially when she chewed on her bottom lip, brow furrowed, eyes sparking dangerously.

"Come on, I'm not walking all the way back there, carrying these chairs, and then going looking for other ones" McGee protested. "They're all occupied! Everyone's visiting on Christmas Eve." He sounded rather petulant.

Tony shifted and winced, closing his eyes for a moment and breathing through the pain stabbing through his torso. The fists and bats had done quite a number on him, and he rather suspected he wouldn't be comfortable for several weeks, until the deep bruising they'd inflicted finally healed.

Jethro, as always, was über-aware of his pain. Tony had long since stopped marvelling at the fact that the older man could read his normally excellent mask so well, and he'd even almost stopped wondering at the fact that the man cared enough about him to bother. "How bad, DiNozzo?" he asked, not bothering to ask if the younger man was in pain. For Tony to show it, meant it was pretty bad.

"It's okay, Boss."

Being fluent in DiNozzo, Jethro knew that 'okay' meant really bad, and he contemplated pressing the call button, before wondering just how long it was going to take to answer it on Christmas Eve. Best go out and drag a nurse in here himself.

"Allow me, Jethro" Ducky said, rising to his feet. "I've always said one catches more flies with honey." He whistled softly under his breath, stopping to help the hapless Tim with his pile of chairs, and they both exited the room together.

Jethro grumbled incomprehensively under his breath, feeling his Senior Field Agent's smirk. "Don't even say it" he warned, knowing it was far too late to tell him not to think it.

"Wouldn't dream of it, Boss" Tony replied cheekily, and Jethro found he suddenly didn't mind the joke made at his expense if it made Tony feel a little better. He did, however, refrain from the head-slap, instead making a mental note for when Tony was well and Ducky wouldn't hurt him for administering the well-deserved missive.

"Jimmy, what are they up to?" Tony asked suddenly, nodding at the two women, whispering in the corner. "Do we need to beware?"

Ziva turned and glared.

"What makes you think I can hear?" Jimmy asked, finger-picking to warm up both the instrument and his fingers. Tony could hear little snatches of melody that would emerge from beneath the young man's fingers. He looked suddenly nervous.

"You can tune a piano. Means you have damn good hearing."

"No, that means I have a good ear. There's a difference" Jimmy corrected.

"Not much" Tony said, wincing as he shrugged. Damn, had to remember not to move that joint, or any other one, really. Even talking hurt. Apparently, he had a hairline fracture to the mandible. He'd been terrified, for a short while, that they would have to wire his jaw shut. That really would have been the last straw, but luckily x-rays had shown it really was a minor fracture, if rather painful for the next little while.

"Tony, leave Jimmy alone" Abby ordered.

"Yes Ma'am." He wiggled his eyebrows at her, wondering if there was any movement he could do that didn't hurt. This really, really sucked.

Ducky came back in, followed by the tiny little blonde nurse, who looked so cute and innocent, he imagined all patients figured she was a pushover. Underneath the bubblegum pink reindeer scrubs, though, was steel in the form of a soprano voice that turned booming and dancer's arms that propped on tiny hips, and baby blue eyes that snapped and sparked dangerously.

Emily came straight to his bed, smiling at the room's transformation. "Hey, sweetie" she said, automatically reaching out to feel his forehead. After all, she had four children. "Bad, eh?" She glanced at the monitor that recorded his sats, automatically noting his pulse-ox, heart-rate, and BP.

"I've had worse." Tony tried to squirm away from her mothering ways, not understanding why she was doing that. He blushed as he caught Ziva's all-too-interested gaze.

"Don't lie" Jethro snapped, forcefully quelling the urge to head-slap the younger man. "You don't need to be in pain to be strong, DiNozzo" he whispered quietly into his second's ear.

Tony shivered at the tone his boss suddenly adopted. "I hate how they make me feel" he protested.

"I know, honey, but we've got a pretty good handle on your peculiar reaction now, so it shouldn't be too bad" Emily reassured him. "Besides, pain will only delay your healing. The faster you heal, the faster you get out of her, the faster you get back to work."

There was a glint in her eye that Jethro appreciated. She sure had DiNozzo down pat, and he knew who he would call for reinforcements next time he needed them, because he knew there would be a next time. This was Tony, after all.

Tony knew he'd been played, knew he'd been out-manoeuvred by a master, and with a scowl, he gingerly raised his arm, a symbolic action giving her permission to inject the painkillers.

"It won't put you completely out" she reassured him, screwing the syringe into his IV port. "I know you still want to enjoy your company, and the beautiful decorations. It'll just take the edge off a little."

"Could do with a little less edge" Tony admitted, feeling the iron-clad tentacles of pain begin to loosen slightly. He let out a ragged breath, careful not to aggravate his bruised and broken ribs. A coughing fit was really just about the last thing he wanted at the moment.

"There." Emily recapped the syringe and tossed it into the sharps container. Unlike Jethro, she didn't hold back, letting that motherly instinct out, and her hand came once again to his forehead, smoothing the too-long locks from his eyes. "Gibbs" she said straightening, "don't hesitate to call if the pain doesn't get any better."

"Aren't you supposed to tell me that?" Tony demanded, embarrassed at the way Ziva was smirking.

"I'd be wasting my breath" she said cheekily. "Your father can't bear to see you in pain, and he'll make sure you follow my instructions to the letter."

The same warm feeling he always got when someone mistook the older man for his father shot through Tony, and he opened his mouth to correct her. Ducky caught his eye, and the older man gave a quick shake of his head. Following his gaze, Tony painfully tilted his head sideways and caught a glimpse of the expression on his boss' face.

For a brief moment, he was absolutely floored. Gibbs' face had, in that moment, been stripped of all its masks, and he gazed at Tony with a mixture of longing, pride, and . . . was that love? In all his life, Tony had never experienced that particular paternal expression directed at him, and he gulped and swallowed hard, not knowing what to do with the emotion that suddenly welled inside him and the knowledge that he suddenly possessed.

It was not something Tony would have ever, ever, in a million years admitted to anybody, but since he'd first laid eyes on his boss all those years ago in Baltimore, he couldn't help thinking that the man would have made a great dad. After his background check revealed Gibbs' past, he'd realised the man had made a great dad, and vowed never to approach the topic again, as the hurt was written all over the senior agent. But in his deepest, most secret fantasies, he'd always put Gibbs into the role of his father, pretending that the unwavering support, loyalty, ability to read through his bullshit and masks, and unnerving intuition when it came to knowing what he needed was just that – a father who'd lost his child trying, in some unorthodox manner, to recapture that special bond.

In his head, Tony had always strictly told himself that it was stupid, no one would love him like that, his father's cruel words always ringing in his head. Gibbs was just being Gibbs, he would care for any of his team if they needed him to, it had nothing to do with his personal feelings towards Tony, but rather his obligation to his team, and his leave-no-man-behind mentality. Never having had experienced that unconditional, absolute love of a parent for their child, he'd never truly believed that anyone, never mind the man he'd unconsciously cast in that role, could or would feel that towards him.

And now, with the throw-away comment by a caring nurse, he was suddenly face to face with the only thing he'd ever truly wanted staring straight back at him.

The moment was brief, broken as Emily stepped over to admire the Advent wreath Jimmy had brought. "This is a wonderful thing you guys are doing here" she told them sincerely. "It's beautiful, and I know how much Tony appreciates it."

"I don't think you can" Abby spoke up. "No offense, or anything, really! It's just, you don't know Tony like we do, and he really thought we'd all up and leave him alone in the hospital on Christmas Eve!"

"I don't know him as well, no, but I think he can be a bit of an idiot" Emily agreed, shooting a smile in the direction of the bed.

"Just a bit?" Ziva quipped.

Emily chuckled. "I'll be back to check on him in a little while, but I think I'll know pretty fast if something's wrong."

"You can count on that, my dear" Ducky agreed from his chair at the foot of Tony's bed.

She grinned and left the room, closing the door behind her.

Jethro's bright blue eyes slid back to Tony's bruised, swollen face, and Tony felt suddenly . . . well, not nervous, but all the same, his jittery stomach knew that something huge had just happened, something so monumental that the entire world should be just as off balance as he was, and yet everything was continuing on as though nothing had transpired.

Then, without a word spoken, Jethro reclaimed the hand Tony had waved at the nurse and squeezed gently, giving a soft nod that acknowledged the shift that had just occurred in their universe, and that easily, without a single need for the emotions to be put into words, the moment was properly closed.

Ducky, it seemed, was the only one who realised what had just transpired between his two good friends. Ziva was threatening Jimmy, Abby was fiddling with the decorations and slapping Jimmy's hand as he attempted to peek at presents, and then the door opened again, and McGee puffed in, red-faced and panting, with four chairs. He dropped them with a clang that made Tony wince in pain.

"Where did these ones come from?" Abby demanded.

"Paediatric chemo ward" McGee said, deadpan. Tony made a mental note to congratulate his Probie when Abby wasn't there to witness it. Ducky lifted an eyebrow, settling in for what he was sure would be an interesting scene, whilst Jimmy unobtrusively moved his chair out of the line of fire.

"McGee!" Abby gasped, shocked and horrified, thoroughly ready to launch herself at him.

"Just kidding" he backtracked hastily. "Really" he continued, seeing the expression on her face. "They're from the outpatient dialysis room. Nobody's having outpatient dialysis now. Honest, Abby" he pleaded, face paling as the dark-haired Goth advanced on him.

"Timothy" she began.

He backed quickly away. "Look, Abby" he began placatingly, hands braced in front of him.

"Jimmy, is your guitar tuned?" Ducky wisely interrupted.

"Aw, Ducky, it was just getting interesting" Tony protested, and this time Gibbs' hand did come down, ever so gently, on the back of his head. It was really more of a caress than anything.

"Abigail, leave the poor boy alone. It is thanks to his efforts you have a chair to sit upon" Ducky pointed out."

Abby pouted and crossed her arms, glaring daggers at her latest victim, before huffing out a loud sigh. "I'm not forgetting this, McGee" she warned, stomping over to a chair and plopping down into it.

"I'm sorry, Abby" McGee told her contritely. Thank you he mouthed to Ducky when the young woman's head was turned.

"Don't count on it a second time" Ducky told him sotto voce.

Jimmy turned off the CD played and strummed the guitar gently. "Tony, you get first pick" he said.

"What? No, you guys organised this, you're giving up your Christmases, let Abby pick first." He was aware of the honour Jimmy placed upon picking the first carol for the evening.

"You're hurt, Tony. You pick first. I give you my pick" Abby said magnanimously. "Pick!"

"Okay, okay." Tony bit his lip, and decided, for once, to let the mask fall by the wayside for a while, and let his true self shine through. "O Come All Ye Faithful" he said softly. It had always been a favourite.

"I love that one" Jimmy agreed, and fitted the capo, strumming a few chords until he had the right key. "That should work." He picked the introduction, and then the verse began.

Ziva didn't know the words, but she had a lovely, strong alto voice. McGee was a little tone deaf, but Ducky chimed in with a good bass that easily picked out the bass' voice, whilst Jethro and Abby sang the melody. Jimmy had a beautiful tenor voice, and sang that line. Tony couldn't sing too well, thanks to his ribs, but he hummed along, trying not to ruin the three-voice harmony the two doctors had set up, and he closed his eyes briefly at the beauty of the moment.

They worked their way through everyone's favourite Christmas carols, with Jimmy adding a few from the Germanic tradition, and Ziva delighted them with some Hanukah songs. Ducky and Jimmy did a lovely rendition of 'I Saw Three Ships' and 'Good King Wenceslas' that they'd been working on in autopsy, and during 'The First Noel' Jimmy took the soprano descant, singing falsetto. The young assistant was astonishing them all with his musicality and talent.

Tony felt himself beginning to drift. The glow of the candles and Christmas lights, the laughter and music and . . . love . . . combined with the painkillers was creating a heady combination his body could no longer fight. His eyelids grew heavy as Abby tried to teach Ziva the words to 'Jingle Bells', proclaiming everyone had to know that popular children's carol. McGee then piped up that, in that case, they should teach her 'Rudolph', and between his fingers picking out the Carol of the Bells, Jimmy chimed in that he always liked 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.'

"Mom banned it from the house, though, after we sang it with the five-year old neighbour kid. He had nightmares for two weeks."

They burst out laughing, and it should have hurt his head, but it was so filled with warmth and fun and affection, that it somehow didn't.

"Pain okay?" Jethro asked gently, leaning over the man who had, somehow, over their years together, become so important to him.

"Yeah" Tony grinned loopily, and Jethro knew the drugs and atmosphere were doing their work. Hopefully the younger man's sleep would be free of nightmares tonight, on this most special of nights. "Abby's ears are . . . does she have candles in her ears?" he wanted to know.

Ducky chuckled, glancing over at the large Gothic, lighted Santas that hung from the lab tech's ears.

"We don't have a real Christmas tree, we can't sing 'O Christmas Tree' she was protesting.

"It's about the spirit of it" McGee argued. "We never had a real tree, but we always sang 'O Christmas Tree'."

"You never had a real tree? Oh, Timmy, that's so sad!" Having enjoyed more than her fair share of the eggnog supply, Abby leant over and hugged her friend tightly around the middle.

"Are you supposed to have a real tree?" Ziva asked, confused.

Jimmy settled the debate by playing the opening chords. As the carol wound down, Abby rose and came over to Tony, leaning over. "Hey, Tony" she whispered, seeing he was fading despite his best efforts. It reminded Jethro of a child desperate not to go to sleep, lest he miss the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny or, in this case, Santa Claus.

What made it so heart-warming, and at the same time so tragic, was that Tony was clinging to consciousness because this was the first Christmas he'd ever spent with his family, this special group of people he'd gathered about himself and chosen, people who truly cared about him and for him, and that they'd gone so out of their way to do such a seemingly simple thing made Tony loathe to miss even the smallest moment of the magical feeling they'd created in the normally ugly, sterile hospital room.

He wanted this moment to last forever.

But his eyes were having none of it, and they were sliding slowly, inexorably, shut, despite his attempts to the contrary.

Jethro leant over the young man he'd taken under his wing so many years ago. They may not have acknowledged it until tonight, but Tony had been his son since he'd brought him back with him to NCIS. "Sleep, Tony" he spoke softly, carding his hand gently through the silken strands. "We'll still be here tomorrow."

Tony's eyes fluttered. "You gave me tonight . . . you should give your family tomorrow." He meant all of them. He already knew that his boss would be at his side when he awoke, just as he always had been. Tony had never once awoken alone in the hospital, not since joining NCIS.

"I am with my family" Jethro whispered, purposely ignoring Tony's intent. He wished he could soothe the hurt from Tony's body as easily as he could soothe the sleep.

Jimmy began playing 'Silent Night' softly, singing it in its original language, just as it had been written, in a church where the mice had eaten holes in the bellows of the organ, and the other voices in the room joined in quietly as the Advent candle burnt low.

Tony's eyes finally shut, and his body relaxed in sleep. Jethro's heart warmed as he realised Tony's hand was still holding tightly to his own, and he squeezed gently.

On his guitar, Jimmy picked the last line again. "Schlaf in himmlischer Ruhe."

AN 3: Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever you celebrate, everyone!