Another entry in the NCIS Last Fiction Writer Standing competition over on LJ: this one won Mod's Choice. :) Hope you enjoy.

NCIS characters etc do not belong to me. I just borrow them for my own nefarious purposes. Don't sue.

The morning dawns like most do lately; far too early and heralded by the shrill piping of his cell phone. For a moment he's stupidly hopeful, before the clawing fingers of reality and Caller ID shred the last remnants of his dreams.

"Dead Petty Officer," Gibbs barks amongst the crackle of static that only serves to remind Tony that the cell should have been replaced long ago. "Rock Creek Park. Fifteen minutes." Gibbs doesn't waste platitudes or acknowledge the date, the sudden silence the only signal that the call has ended.

Annoyance spurs Tony into action. The ache in his scarred lungs and abused joints as he descends the stairs and draws in the frosty morning with a pained breath tells him that the cell phone is not the only thing past its use-by date.

It's just another day.

He clutches his prize with small sweaty fingers, giddy with the excitement of the day. The card in his other hand is dog-eared, marked with smudges and the clumsy script of his fellow campers.

Happy Sixth Birthday, Anthony, it says on the front in coloured marker, ringed with balloons and shiny silver glitter.

The bus lurches and wheezes, doors opening with a hiss. He bolts down the stairs and up the long sweeping driveway that leads to the house. Plastic rattles madly inside its carefully-held paper wrapping as Tony bursts through the side door of the house and extends his loot proudly toward the figure slumped at the kitchen table.

"Look, Momma, look!" he babbles in her direction, bouncing around the kitchen. "I got a card and a present and everyone sang Happy Birf'day at snack time and look, it's baby monkeys that live in a little house and you put water in there and they grow big and I guess when they're big they can eat bananas but right now you have to feed them this funny powder and – "

He stops short as his mother groans and claps shaking hands over her ears, the excitement leaking out of him slowly like a balloon that's sprung a leak. Footsteps pound overhead, a heavy staccato rat-tat-tat that normally means he should hide in the closet and not come out until his mother or Maria come to get him.

"Sorry," he whispers, a hint of the lisp that infuriates his father returning in the wave of sudden creeping fear. "Sorry, Momma."

He flees, crushing glitter under his feet.

Maria helps him read the instructions and the Sea Monkeys remain their special secret for three whole weeks. Tony feeds them carefully and watches them come to life, tiny wormy things wriggling wildly behind the plastic casing that protects them from the world. He names the biggest ones – Superman, Batman and the Green Hornet among them – and creates wild crime-fighting adventures for them to have once they're grown up.

His superhero friends are discovered on his desk one Saturday afternoon and downed in one gulp by his julep-seeking mother before they ever get big enough to feed bananas.

They are the first and only pets Tony ever owns.

Tony drives to the crime scene like he always does, far too fast with the windows rolled right down. A big fat metaphorical middle finger to the gods of fate.

His ears ring with the bite and snarl of the road under his tires.

"Happy Birthday to me," he mutters as he swerves to avoid a slow-moving Range Rover, the words lost under the ensuing chorus of blaring horns.

He hasn't been invited to many parties since his eighth birthday, when his classmates and their parents were treated to the sight of his mother spinning crazed circles in the yard, a bottle of gin clutched in her pale bony fingers as if it were the only thing keeping her tethered to the earth.

Coloured scraps of wrapping paper and cheap dollar store toys are as alien in the DiNozzo household as approving glances from his father.

"You're late," Gibbs growls as Tony approaches. "Check the perimeter for signs of a struggle."

Tony doesn't point out that after almost a decade he doesn't need directions, mainly because he can't muster the energy to fake it today and he's half-afraid that something else will come out instead. In the distance, Ziva and McGee are bent over the twisted body in the middle of the clearing, cataloguing evidence and snapping pictures as if their lives depend on it.

Given the mood that Gibbs appears to be in today, perhaps it does.

He hits paydirt quickly - spent shell casings tucked amongst tree roots, one of which Tony is pretty sure has a good enough fingerprint to gain them a lead or three with Abby's assistance. He's not sure whether perps are getting stupider or he's getting smarter.

He's not sure that it matters either way.

Ziva and McGee stay well out of his way for the duration of the search, and it's probably for the best.

Maria sneaks a blue-frosted cupcake into his lunch bag on his tenth birthday, and he eyes it with as much suspicion as his adult self will someday survey every hand-addressed envelope.

He trades the sugary treat for a stack of well-worn Marvel comics; procures a piece of coloured paper from the craft cupboard when the teacher isn't looking. Later that night, his desk a mess of paper scraps and tiny balls of Sellotape, he surveys his handiwork proudly.

The crumpled package gapes at the edges where the paper refuses to close properly. The ribbon is crooked and creased with false starts and do-overs. He pretends that someone hasn't thumbed through the comics a dozen times; that they're just for him.

It's still a much better present than the boarding school enrolment letter he gets from his father.

The investigation crawls on; a too-familiar dance of two steps forward, one step back. It's infuriating and strangely comforting all at the same time.

The fingerprint turns out to match those of a John Doe who's been dead for weeks, well before anyone shot Petty Officer Jackson twice in the head and left him to lie crumpled and cooling amongst piles of trash and leaf litter.

Abby doesn't quite look at him as she delivers the news. She mostly talks to Ziva, who stands unusually quietly at Tony's side.

"What are you doing tonight?" Ziva asks him when they're in the elevator.

"Hot date with a bottle of McCallen," he answers without inflection. He doesn't look at her.

There's no room for a plus one tonight on his pity party invite.

He wakes up on the morning of his twelfth birthday alone in a hotel suite in Hawaii. His father's bed is undisturbed. The suitcase is still there, but the briefcase and the father are not.

Room service take his order for three hundred dollars worth of food and movies, all without blinking. Fries, ice-cream, steak and movies for forty-eight uninterrupted hours.

It's the best birthday he's ever had, until his father gets the hotel bill.

McGee does his computer thing, and the service records of the deceased pop up on the plasma. Tony blinks at the date of birth. Does the math.

Jackson would have been twenty-eight today.

The cloud lifts a little. He figures there are worse ways to spend a birthday. The proof of this lies on one of Ducky's tables, ribs spread open like an offering.

Tony gets caught up following leads, blocking out the hum and bustle of the bullpen. He doesn't look up from his desk until late, when he suddenly realises the bullpen is empty of people and their personal belongings, and the snarling twisting feeling in the pit of his stomach drives him to his feet and out the door.

He stops celebrating his birthday after he leaves home for good.

He tells himself it's easier that way.

The apartment looks like it's been the victim of a confetti and balloon bomb when Tony arrives home at midnight on his forty-something-th birthday, and for a moment he just stands in the doorway blinking stupidly at the decorations.

He nearly drops the scotch.

Abby pops up from behind the couch with a Cheshire Cat grin and the weirdness of the day starts making more sense. Some hotshot investigator he is. Alice down the bloody rabbit hole.

"I know you don't do birthdays, but you looked like you needed a party this year," she says, twisting her fingers nervously as though she's expecting a rebuke.

He's speechless. Stammering. "How– "

"Picked the lock," McGee says with a proud grin.

He doesn't believe that even Ziva is that good. "Including the supposedly un-pickable deadbolt?"

Gibbs pops his head out from the kitchen. "Nope," he says with an expression that's almost a smile. Keys jangle from his outstretched hand, and Tony's not really surprised somehow.

There's a cake with gooey balloons on it, horribly off-key singing, and generally all the things he's avoided for years. There are presents from everyone – even the often-absent Palmer. Gibbs gives him some kind of woodwork tool. McGee gives him a Mighty Mouse computer mouse.

It's undoubtedly the best birthday Tony's ever had.

Thanks for stopping by, and extra thanks if you leave me a note on your way out the door! More LFWS fics to come soonish.