Author's Note: I'm still here! And I actually wrote something that wasn't a) a one-shot and b) for a writing challenge! I'm scared now. -)

This story takes place immediately after "Family" (season 5, episode 2), when Tony is still dealing with the fallout of his relationship with Jeanne. That's more to set the stage, though; the fic itself is shaping up to be mostly whump and friendship, with Tony/Gibbs father/son in later chapters if all goes as planned.

As always, feedback is very welcome!


After ten solid minutes of pacing, an inner lecture on how ridiculous it was to be avoiding Abby - Abby, of all people! - and several mental headslaps, Tony squared his shoulders and rounded the corner into Abby's lab. The usual dulcet tones of Brain Matter echoed through the room, but Abby herself was nowhere to be seen. After a quick peek into her empty office, he sighed and let himself relax. A temporary reprieve was better than none.

One of these days, he told himself as his fake smile faded, that little trick wasn't going to work and he was going to find himself with a permanent shit-eating grin plastered on his face. Every six-year-old knows - if you make a face long enough, it might freeze like that.

And if you play a role long enough, it might become reality.

His head was pounding in rhythm with the music. Like its owner, the remote seemed to be MIA, so he retreated into Abby's empty office. The room wasn't soundproof by any means but the thick glass brought the noise level from "Space Shuttle Launch" to "Son, would you PLEASE turn that down?" Just the right volume to shut out what remained of the world, Tony decided as he settled into her desk chair, propped his feet on her desk, and closed his eyes.

He was in the lab under the pretense of finding a pair of scrubs - he was still soaked to the skin after tangling with that stupid lawn sprinkler - but the real aim was to escape the prying eyes of his teammates. They'd been watching him ever since his miraculous return from the dead, and he'd seen their gazes shift from shock at his survival, to annoyance (or was it anger?) at his deception, to pity as they realized the full extent of what he'd lost.

The pity was the worst; it was the one thing Tony could not tolerate. He wasn't the one deserving of pity. Not after lying to everyone for months on end. Not after leading an innocent woman into falling in love with a man who didn't exist, then ripping the illusion from under her and replacing it with the ugly truth: her father was an international arms dealer, under investigation by multiple Federal agencies. And Jeanne herself? Sorry, sweetheart - looks like you're just collateral damage. You know how how it goes. All's fair in love and secret undercover bad guy-nabbing missions.

He could still see the paper in the fireplace, flames curling around Jeanne's words:

I'm not coming back. You need to choose.

In the warmth of that living room, surrounded by his teammates, wrapped in the glow of the fire and the rescue of a child, it hadn't seemed so hard. What choice was there to make? Could he really walk away from everything? Was he really, as Ziva said, willing to be Tony DiNardo for the rest of his life?

The answer, just those few hours ago, had been simple. It wasn't his life to live, despite the faintly soapy aftertaste the whole mess had left behind. He couldn't click his heels and become Tony DiNardo, film professor extraordinaire, and go riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after. He was Tony DiNozzo, Very Special Agent, Destroyer of Dirtbags. Anything else was just a game.

Except now, shivering in his wet suit in the empty office, he suddenly wasn't so sure. He tried to tell himself that there really hadn't been a choice. There was no place to go from here - he'd lied to Jeanne about everything.

Not about everything, a little voice nagged at him. Not the things that matter.

He hated that voice.

A gentle hand on his shoulder brought him back to the real world. He peered up through bleary eyes to see Abby looking down. "Tony! There you are! I was looking for you earlier – Ziva and McGee said you left really quick with Gibbs, and then Gibbs came back but you weren't with him. Are you OK?"

"Huh?" Tony's physically and emotionally exhausted brain couldn't quite keep up. "Oh - sure, Abs, I'm fine."

"No you're not - you're soaked! McGee didn't say anything about you guys taking a swim – how'd you end up so wet? You shouldn't sit around in wet clothes, Tony – I know you can't technically catch a cold from getting cold, but you shouldn't take chances, right? Come out to the lab with me, there should be some scrubs around that'll fit you."

Tony trailed behind while Abby produced a remote from somewhere, flipped off the music, then began to dig around in a cupboard. "The lawn sprinkler was part of their security system. Guess I got a little too close." He reached out and snagged the dry pants and top she tossed his way.

"Look at the positive side," she called as he ducked into her office to change. "They could have had a pack of really mean Rottweilers."

"True. Then this suit really would have been toast. Big pointy teeth tend to do a little more damage than water." Tony emerged rubbing at his hair with his damp t-shirt, which Abby quickly took and replaced with a dry towel. "And where have you been this not-so-dark and stormy night?"

"In the ballistics lab." Abby made a face. "I got some new gel in last week, and it seemed like a perfect time to try it out. And I promise, I wasn't imagining any specific person's face on the target." She looked at Tony a bit closer. "You look like you might need to come back and not imagine any specific person's face on the target."

Tony managed a slight smile. "Don't tempt me, Abs."

Abby studied him for a moment, as if she were trying to make up her mind about something. Just as he was beginning to squirm a little, wondering why on earth he'd ever thought she wouldn't see exactly what was floating around the mess he called a brain, she seemed to come to a conclusion.

"Yep. You definitely need a vacation." She grinned. "Lucky for you, I'm about to GO on vacation. You can come with me!"

Oh. Vacation. Much better than the buck up, bucko speech he was gearing up for. "Sure. Where are we going?" Not that it made much difference. At this point, anything sounded better to Tony than sitting in the bullpen, trying to avoid the stares and witty comments from his teammates. He knew McGee and Ziva were only teasing him…sort of. There was an edge to their joking that made Tony cringe every time he heard it. I was on assignment! he wanted to yell. I wasn't doing it to screw with you!

"Nevada."

Tony's ears perked up. "Nevada, as in Vegas? You're going to Vegas and you didn't invite me?"

"I just did," Abby said. She shifted a bit, chewing her lower lip. "And…well, I'm not exactly going to Vegas."

"What else is in Nevada? Wait – you're not doing one of those Outward Bound, live off the land, kill iguanas for food things, are you?"

"Tony. Do I look like the Outward Bound type?"

He shrugged. "You've surprised me before."

"I own a parasol."

"Good point. So," he said, hopping up to sit on the edge of the counter. "Where are we going?"

Abby pulled herself up to join him. "Well, I have this friend who owns an alpaca farm a couple of hours from Vegas. She's been begging me to come visit, and I had some time, and I've never seen an alpaca but I really like llamas and they're kind of similar, so…"

"Alpaca farm?" Tony burst out laughing. "Oh, man, that's good, Abs. I needed that. Alpaca farm – beautiful! Seriously, where..."

Tony's laughter died away when he realized that Abby wasn't joining in. "Wait a minute…you are serious."

She nodded, pigtails bobbing.

"You're really going to Nevada to…see alpacas?"

"Not exactly – I'm going to see Tina. The alpacas are kind of a bonus."

"A bonus?" Tony got a mental image of himself in cowboy boots and chaps, sitting aside a large, furry, cranky creature. That bounced. A lot. He shuddered. "Don't they spit?"

"That's llamas. At least, I think it is." Abby swung around to face him. "C'mon, Tony, it'll be fun! Vegas is the closest airport, so I'm going to rent a car and drive out. The scenery is gorgeous out there, and I bet you'll love the farm! And you'll really like Tina."

Tony cocked his head. "Tina, huh?"

"Don't get any ideas, Mister." Abby socked him in the arm. "She's fifty."

"Mmmm, an older woman."

"You're horrible, Tony!"

"Yeah." His face shuttered. "So I've been told."

"Oh, God." Abby leaned over to wrap her arms around him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean – "

"It's fine," he said. "Besides, maybe I am."

"No, you're not," Abby said. Her voice was uncharacteristically harsh. "You are not, Tony. It wasn't your fault – you were under cover. They know that. Everyone knows that."

"Yeah, I know." He forced the smile back on his face. "Don't worry about it."

"So you'll come?"

Tony sighed. Visiting an alpaca farm in the middle of the desert fell somewhere between "wrestling a pissed off bear" and "running into Jeanne carrying a knife in a dark alley" on his list of preferred activities. "Abs, thanks for the offer, but you're going to see your friend. You don't need me tagging along."

"Tina won't mind."

"And it's really late to get a plane ticket. Aren't you leaving tomorrow?"

"There's always great last-minute fares to Vegas."

"OK, but I need to ask Gibbs for the time off, and I think he already went home."

"He won't care. Especially if I ask him."

Tony thought quickly. "I'm pretty sure I'm allergic to alpacas."

"Anthony DiNozzo." Abby hopped down from the counter, tugging Tony down with her. "You are coming with me. Period. End of discussion." He started to protest again, but her jaw was set, and he sighed. When she put her mind to it, Abby could out-stubborn even Gibbs. "I'll get your ticket. You go home and pack."

"Abs, you don't have to – "

"You can pay me back. I want to make sure you actually GET it. Now, go." She began steering him toward the door of her lab. "Go home, get packed! I'll pick you up at 6 tomorrow."

"Six AM?" Tony squeaked, but a glare from Abby sent him scuttling out the door. "OK, OK, I'm going."

What did I just get myself into?