Reminder: Some characters will appear in roles that have no correlation to their roles on the show. This is an AU story.

Again, I have taken a few liberties with the medical and legal details to keep the story flowing and to avoid scouring medical and legal journals. SMcG

In loco parentis

Chapter 9.

Still shell-shocked by the outcome of the custody hearing and Gibbs' abrupt departure, Kate, Abby, Jackson and Ducky had taken a seat in the ICU lounge.

"I just can't believe it," Abby sniffed, "If the judge had seen how totally great Gibbs is with Tony, she would never had ruled against him."

"I couldn't agree more, Abigail," Ducky said, "however, in Judge Harland's defence, in most cases such as this, custody is granted to a family member. They believe the child will be less traumatised by staying with relatives."

"Not in this case," Abby lamented. "It's so not fair!"

"McGee and Mitchell haven't given up, Abby," Kate said. "Once we have proof that the DiNozzo's paid to have Tony and his father murdered, Gibbs will be on the first plane to Switzerland to bring Tony home."

Kate turned her attention to Jackson, who was staring blindly out of the window and looking older and more frail then she had ever seen him. She knew his heart was aching for his son and the little boy who had come to mean so much to them. Rising from the couch, she stood beside him and placed her arm around his shoulders.

"Come on," she smiled sadly. "I'll drive you home. You'll want to be there when Gibbs gets home."

Acquiescing with a nod of his head, they started for the door when the pounding of running feet grew louder and McGee and Mitchell appeared breathlessly at the door.

"We got it!" McGee exclaimed breathlessly. "The proof…the warrant…we got it! Where's Gibbs?"

He looked at the shocked faces of his colleagues and a feeling of dread overwhelmed him.

"The hearing's over, Tim" Kate said. "The DiNozzo's were awarded custody. They took Tony to the airfield 30 minutes ago!"

"Bentley Airfield's right across town. Maybe we can still stop them from taking off," Mitchell suggested.

"Where's Gibbs, we've been calling his cell." McGee asked.

"Jethro was dreadfully upset," Ducky replied, "he didn't tell us where he was going. Are you able to trace his cell, Timothy?"

"It's switched off," McGee said not hiding his frustration. "Any idea where he'd go?"

Ducky, Abby and Kate shook their heads.

"Your guess is as good as ours," Kate added. "He could be anywhere."

"It's a long shot, but I have an idea where Leroy might be," Jackson said before sharing his thoughts with the others.

"That's on the way to the airfield," Mitchell replied.

"Let's go," Kate said briskly, "Ducky, you're with us, we might need your help with Tony."

"Of course, my dear," he replied, falling into step with the agents he turned quickly for the door.

"Wait!" Abby exclaimed. "What about us?"

"Stay here," Kate said, allowing a smile. "If this goes well, Tony will be back here before you know it."

As Kate turned to follow her team mates down the corridor, Abby pulled Jackson into a crushing hug.

"They'll get him, Jack," she whispered, "just you wait and see. They'll bring Tony home."

Refreshing the two small vases with pink roses and sweet peas, Gibbs knelt beside the simple marble headstones that marked the resting place of his wife and daughter. His heart ached with the still raw pain of their loss. He wiped the fallen leaves and twigs from the polished marble and gently traced his fingers over their inscribed names.

"He's gone," he whispered hoarsely. "I lost him."

Gibbs had never claimed to be a perfect man. He'd taken lives without remorse and countless times he'd stepped over the blurred line of right and wrong in the name of justice. Since Shannon's death, his three ex-wives laid testimony to the fact that he was far from an ideal husband. Yet, if he was honest with himself, the only aspect of his life that he excelled at was being a Dad. He possessed an inherent natural rapport with all kids, an ability to win their trust and their confidence. To him, nothing was more important or more fulfilling than making a positive difference in the life of a child? After so many years alone he was more than ready, to open his heart and his home to Tony…but his petition for custody had failed and now the boy was on his way to Switzerland and out of his life.

Heaving a sigh that came from deep within his soul, he closed his eyes as his mind conjured an image of his girls. Shannon's bright eyes flashed with her signature feistiness and she balled her fists at her hips. At her side, Kelly's beautiful smile faded into a concerned frown. And though logic and reason claimed it impossible, he concentrated on the images and heard the much-loved voices.

Much as we love to see you, Gunny, what the heck are you doing here? That little boy came into your life for a reason – he chose you - are you really going to let those…those dreadful people take him away and ruin both your lives? You're a good man, Jethro and you're a great Dad who can offer that boy what no one else can.

Her eyes softened as she exchanged a smile with their daughter and hugged her close.

You have a second chance, honey; you have to take it. You get him back and you keep him close…he's your family now.

The repeated sound of a car horn blasted from the parking lot obliterating the serenity of the sacred cemetery grounds and drawing Gibbs from his musings. Standing, he saw the dark agency sedan parked next to his canary yellow Dodge Challenger. Momentarily torn, his mind replayed Shannon's words.

You have a second chance, honey; you have to take it. You get him back and you keep him close…he's your family now.

He was running before he realised he'd made the decision to do so. McGee met him at the cemetery entrance, quickly bringing him up to date. He checked his watch knowing that the scheduled take off was only 10 minutes away and his heart thumped painfully against his ribcage as he called out to his team.

"McGee's with me. Stick close and stay sharp," he said as he slid behind the wheel, gunned the powerful engine and floored the accelerator.

Making their way toward the airfield, the needle on the odometer jumped to 70 mph, as the team leader narrowly missed clipping the rear bumper of a red Prius in front. Gibbs cut right across the path of a Capital Cab that blasted its horn with righteous indignation, then he veered across three lanes and onto the ramp for Bentley Air Field. Behind him, Mitchell ignored the furious gesticulations of the driver of a green sedan as he followed Gibbs' reckless lead.

McGee snapped his cell closed.

"The director's persuaded the air traffic controller at Bentley to delay the flight as long as he can. He can only buy us a few minutes, Boss."

"That's all we'll need," he replied definitively.

They arrived at Bentley Air Field in time to see the private jet taxiing toward the end of the runway in preparation for take-off. Urging every ounce of power from the car's engine, Gibbs sent the Challenger crashing through the barrier onto the runway. Mitchell followed closely behind as both cars sped toward the jet. In a matter of minutes both cars had executed a sharp turn and effectively blocked the aircraft's path.

Not knowing whether there would be gunplay, Kate ordered Ducky to stay in the sedan until he received the all clear. Then, brandishing their weapons and badges at the stunned pilots looking down from the cockpit, the four agents ordered them the power down the engines and open the door. McGee and Mitchell cleared the forward part of the aircraft, ordering the shocked crew and medical team onto the tarmac where they were searched for weapons and found to be unarmed.

Kate and Gibbs went aft, storming into a private cabin at back of jet where Nicholas and Christina were seated for take-off.

"Where's Tony?" Gibbs growled, his voice low and menacing.

Nicholas pointed across the aisle to a smaller room.

"You got 'em?" he asked his senior field agent.

"Oh yeah, I got 'em," Kate replied.

Gibbs retraced his steps and burst through the door of the starboard cabin where Tony lay pale and unmoving on a hospital bed. A doctor stood frozen in shock as he adjusted the IV drip rate.

"Federal agent, step away from the boy!" the former marine snarled.

"What's the meaning of this?" the doctor blustered.

"Move!" Gibbs yelled as McGee appeared at the door.


"Help Kate and get Ducky in here," he replied as he moved forward and carefully disconnected the IV.

"Wait," the doctor protested. "You can't do that."

"Watch me," Gibbs hissed and with his Sig still trained on the doctor, he sat beside the boy and cupped a hand to Tony's face. "Tony? Tony, can you hear me?"

An incipient panic clawed at his chest when the boy didn't even twitch an eyelash. He tapped his trembling fingers against the young face.

"Come on, Sport, wake up for me? Tony, open your eyes."


"Duck, he's not responding, I can't wake him."

Ducky moving forward to take Gibbs' place at Tony's bedside.

"Let's take a look at you, my boy, hmm?"

After listening to his respirations and checking pupil reaction, Ducky gave Tony's sternum a hard rub, frowning when still there was no response.

"Duck?" Gibbs asked anxiously.

"He appears to be very heavily sedated," Ducky replied turning to the other doctor. "How much sedative did you administer?"

The doctor looked warily at Gibbs and handed the ME Tony's chart.

"I was told to keep him sedated for the whole flight," he said.

"Dear God, man, it's nine hours to Geneva," Ducky exclaimed.

"What the hell's going on?" Gibbs snapped.

"It's alright, Jethro, young Anthony's vitals are strong but I'd firmly recommend we get him back to the hospital post haste."

Mitchell appeared at the door to the cabin.

"The aircraft's secure, Boss, The director has more transports on the way."

"Get this guy outta here and get ready to drive us to the hospital."

Gibbs reached for the boy, mindful of the heavy bandaging on Tony's back and the callipers bracing his legs. He wrapped the small limp form in a blanket and carried him down the aircraft stairs toward the car looking around for his senior field agent.

"McGee and I have got this, Gibbs," she said, anticipating his orders.

Nodding his thanks, Gibbs carried his precious cargo and joined Ducky in the back seat of the Challenger. As they started back to the hospital, Gibbs closed his eyes and held Tony close. Resting his cheek against the top of the blonde head, he momentarily lost himself in the wonder of the warm weight in his arms and how the boy's head fit perfectly in the crook of his neck. He placed his lips next to the boy's ear and whispered.

"I gotcha, Tony, I gotcha."

Upon their arrival at the hospital, Tony had been whisked out of Gibbs' arms and into a trauma room for thorough examination. Now, almost an hour later, Gibbs stared intently at the closed doors, willing them to open with news of Tony's condition. Abby, Jackson and Ducky had long ago given up any attempt at small talk as the silence mushroomed between them.

Gibbs shot to his feet as Doctor McNally pushed through the doors and approached them, a mixture of relief and frustration on his face.


"Tony's fine, his condition is stable," he said. "He was given a much higher dose of sedative than I would've prescribed but I don't believe there was any intention to harm him."

"Special Agent Gibbs is concerned Anthony may have been given something more…sinister," Ducky stated. "You ran a tox screen, of course?"

"Of course," McNally confirmed with a nod. "Only drugs in his system were sedatives, antibiotics and anti-convulsing meds."

"So…he's gonna be okay?" Abby asked tentatively.

"He's still a very sick little boy," the doctor stressed, "but no worse off for today's adventure."

"Can we see him, Doc?" Jackson asked.

"He'll most likely sleep through the night," McNally told them. "We'd like to monitor him down here for another 30 minutes before transferring him back to his room. You can wait for him there if you'd like."

Another hour passed and Tony was settled back into his room. A foldout bed had been pushed to the far wall for Gibbs. After a brief reunion with the sleeping boy, Abby and Jackson had left for the evening - the scientist promising to locate Tony's things and return in the morning with Paddington Bear, the Jungle Book and Tony's jazz lullaby CD back in the morning.

The shadows of early evening slithered up the side of the building as the indigo sky swallowed the rooftops across from the hospital. As evening turned into night, Tony slept on. Gibbs watched the cavalcade of nurses come and go and, although it wasn't on the agent's agenda, the emotion of the last few days overwhelmed him and he gave in to his body's demand for sleep.

The muted lighting from the corridor indicated the late hour when the first of Tony's heartbreaking screams pierced his consciousness. He was at the boy's side in an instant, gathering him into his arms and speaking soothing platitudes as a nurse silently signalled from the door that she was calling the doctor.

As the screams morphed into heart-wrenching sobs, Gibbs heard the boy calling for his mother and his heart ached for the grieving child. The sobs subsided until all that remained were hitching breath sounds as the small body trembled from the residual effects of the nightmare.

"Hey, Sport," Gibbs said with a gentle smile.

He attempted to change positions but Tony grabbed fistfuls of his shirt and frantically pulled him closer.

"It's okay, I'm not going anywhere. Just wanna take a look atcha, make sure you're okay."

He waited until Tony relaxed his grip and he turned his body until he could see the boy's face. Glistening green eyes, filled with confusion and misery, looked too large for the small face, blotchy with emotion. Gibbs reached for some Kleenex and gently wiped the tears from the flushed cheeks.

"Tony…do you remember me?" he asked.

Sensing the movement behind him, Gibbs knew the doctor was watching from the doorway. A moment passed before Tony nodded his head shyly. He opened his mouth twice to answer before finally his lips formed a word.

"Gibbs," he whispered.

Gibbs' heart soared and his smile lit up the darkened room.

"Atta boy," he said. "You had a bad dream but you're safe, okay?"

The tousled head nodded again.

"You wanna talk about it?"

This time the head shook frantically and his chin began to quiver.

"That's okay…you don't have to talk."

His brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to form words and then leaned heavily against the pillows, exhausted and weak. A few more moments passed before he tried again, this time with more success.

"C-couldn't w-wake up," he managed.

"Just now?"

He shook his head again, frustrated but not defeated.

"Before…t-tried, but c-couldn't." His green eyes, huge and frightened, locked onto Gibbs'. "N-nick, not t-take me!" he said, breathing rapidly. "P-please not take me."

"Hey…and no one's gonna take you," Gibbs said holding him tightly. "I'm right here, okay? No one's gonna take you. Shh."

The former marine held the boy close until his breathing evened out and his head lolled onto Gibbs' shoulder.


McNally, who had been watching with interest from the door, quickly walked to the bed and checked Tony's vitals.

"It's okay, he's just sleeping," he said. "With the amount of sedative he's had I'm surprised he woke at all."

"He's speaking," Gibbs said.

"It's a good sign," McNally smiled. "It means that the disturbances to areas of his brain that are responsible for speech may not be as severe as we first thought. We'll know more when we can examine him later – for now, you both need to rest."

Buoyed by the first positive news he'd received since Tony was injured, Gibbs' fatigue dissipated. He was under no misconception that Tony had a long and arduous recovery ahead of him and he knew that total recovery was, at best, a long shot. But he was determined to celebrate each small step along the way. Leaning forward, he placed a kiss on the sleeping boy's forehead.

"Good job, Tony," he whispered.

Jenny Shepard paused at the door to Tony's room and allowed the image in front of her to warm her heart. Gibbs was sprawled on the bed with Tony snuggled against his chest, both sleeping contentedly among the tangle of IV's, Foley catheters and EEG cables. In her role of hospital counsellor she dealt daily with tragedies that saw families devastated by illness or death. As she looked at the small boy, securely cradled in Gibbs' strong arms, she prayed that there would be a happy ending for them both.

She startled when she noticed the piercing blue eyes watching her and felt her cheeks flush with colour. Quietly clearing her throat, she straightened her shoulders and entered the room.

"Good morning. You look like you need this," she said quietly, placing coffee and danish on the tray table.

Gibbs nodded his thanks before trying, unsuccessfully, to manoeuvre himself out from under Tony who squirmed, rubbed his face against Gibbs' shirt and settled back into sleep.

"Ducky told me you guys were back with us," she whispered, gently brushing the bangs from Tony's forehead. "How is he?"

"Bad dreams and a few seizures. He seems settled now," Gibbs said, taking a long drink of coffee and savouring the flavour. "Doc's running more tests today."

"Oh?" she frowned. "Has his conditioned worsened?"

The agent's lips formed a small smile.

"He spoke, Jenny. He knew me, knew my name."

Jenny's face brightened with genuine delight.

"Gibbs that's wonderful," she replied. Her smile faded and she looked apprehensive. "When Ducky told me what happened, I spoke with Child Services. I hope you don't mind but I asked to be assigned as Tony's case supervisor. He's a special boy and I'd like to ensure that he has every support while he adjusts to his new placement."

"New placement?"

Her smile was back.

"Judge Harland wants to speak with you and Tony as soon as he's up to it."

"Think she'll grant custody this time?"

"Once she sees you two together, how could she not?"

Abby and Kate arrived at the hospital shortly before zero ten hundred. Having retrieved Tony's belongings from the luggage compartment of the jet, they were keen to return them to the boy. They were disappointed to find Tony still sleeping.

"The seizures take a lot out of him," Gibbs stated.

"I thought they were giving him anticonvulsant meds," Kate replied.

"They're having trouble stabilising him."

"Oh, poor baby," Abby cooed.

"There's something else," Gibbs said, his lips twitching with the hint of a smile. "He spoke last night…knew who I was."

"Oh my God, that's, like, the best news ever!" Abby whispered excitedly. "I knew he could do it!"

"That's great news, Gibbs," Kate said.

The former marine was warmed by the joy and relief reflected in both women's eyes.

"He's having trouble forming words but the doc's gonna run some more tests this afternoon. He's pretty sure it's just temporary."

Kate watched as Gibbs sat by Tony's bed, one hand resting on the boy's chest, unconsciously rubbing in soothing circles as he and Abby discussed Tony's progress. Slipping into profiler mode, she noted the calmness and contentment that she had never before seen in her team leader. Despite the enormous challenge of Tony's recovery and ongoing care, Gibbs was relaxed and oozed paternal pride, protectiveness and affection. She smiled to herself – it was a good look on him.

Abby and Kate left to share the good news with the team and Gibbs had no doubt that it would spread like wildfire around the Navy yard. Despite being fiercely protective of his private life, for once, he found he didn't mind a bit. Opening the manual on child fostering, Gibbs spent the next two hours continuing his required reading; pausing when he sensed he was being watched.

"Hey," he said to the sleepy boy in the bed. "Good sleep?"

The reply came in the form of a small smile and a nod.

"You thirsty?"

Another nod had him out of his chair and holding a glass of watered down apple juice to Tony's lips.

"Nice and slow, okay?" he said as Tony sated his thirst and leaned back against the pillows.

"Tony…do you know where you are?"

The boy looked around warily.

"Hospital," he whispered.

"That's right." Gibbs watched as Tony looked worriedly at the IV and the equipment beside his bed, no doubt remembering similar machines at his mother's bedside. "Those machines are giving you medicine."

"Am I…am I dying, too?" His eyes filled and the little blonde head drooped forward in an attempt to hide the traitorous tears.

Gibbs felt his gut clench painfully. This child had already experienced so much death and sickness in his short life. He eased two fingers under the boy's chin and lifted his head until their eyes met, and then he wiped the tears with a gentle swipe of his thumb and looked into their green depths.

"No, Sport, you're not dying," he replied around the lump in his throat. "You were badly hurt by some very bad men. But they're gone now…they can't hurt you anymore. Do you understand?"

The silence grew between them until the tears flowed again and Tony cried.

"What's going to…to happen to me, A-agent Gibbs?" he sobbed. "Who's going to look…look after me?"

Gibbs felt his heart shatter into little pieces but he took a deep breath and continued.

"Tony…it would make me very happy, if you would come and live with me at my house," he said, trying to gauge the boy's reaction. Tony immediately stiffened in his arms.

"Your house?" he croaked.

Gibbs gazed at the boy staring back at him, mouth open, green eyes huge and shimmering with tears. Had he made a mistake? Had he misjudged Tony's feelings? One way or another, he had to know.

"Listen to me, Tony, because this is very important," he said, clearing his throat vigorously and praying that he could find the right words. "Many years ago…I lost my family, too. If you decide to live with me, there'll just be the two of us. But if you'd rather live with another family, we could-"

"No!" Tony cried and Gibbs' heart stopped. Was it too soon? Had he hit the boy too hard with this?

Tony continued to stare at him and Gibbs shifted uncomfortably under the intense gaze.

"You…you want me?" Tony whispered.

"More than anything," Gibbs replied.

"Keep me…keep me safe?"

"I'll keep you safe, Tony," Gibbs vowed.

The staring continued, as the boy remained unmoving, unblinking, and searching for the truth in the man's eyes. He was seemingly unaware of the tears that were streaming down his cheeks, so Gibbs took the opportunity to wipe the boy's face. He looked even younger than his eight years as the agonising silence dragged on.

"If you don't want to live with me, you just have to tell me, okay, Sport? No one will be angry or upset with you. All that matters is you and what you want."

The blonde head drooped again and Tony spoke so softly that Gibbs didn't hear what he'd said.

"Tony…I didn't hear you."

The boy tentatively lifted his head.

"I said…I'd like that," he whispered. "I'd like to live with you."

Unable to hold back any longer, Gibbs gathered the boy into his arms and hugged him tightly, revelling in the feeling of the little arms hugging him back just as tightly.

The new arrival at the door cast a shadow over the book he was reading and Gibbs looked up to see Director Vance standing at the door.

"Mind if I come in?" he said quietly, in deference to the sleeping child.

"Please," Gibbs replied, nodding to the extra chair.

As he gazed at the boy in the large bed, Vance's dark eyes softened from those of an agency director to those of a father. His forehead creased into a frown as he looked at the equipment beside the bed.

"He's back on the EEG?" he asked.

Gibbs nodded.

"Having trouble stabilising the seizures," he said, unable to hide the concern in his own eyes. "He's sleeping off some more tests."

The director's attention remained on the boy.

"Reminds me when Kayla was in the hospital when she was three. She's fine now, was just one of those things, but I've never felt so scared or so helpless in my life."

Gibbs' eyes narrowed in concern.

"Everything alright, Leon?"

"Everything's fine," Vance replied. "Just wanted to get out from behind the desk and thought I'd drop by and meet the little guy who cost me my best agent."

"Bad timing – had a big day, he just dozed off."

"Sleep is good –it's healing."

"So…you just dropped by?" Gibbs asked, not buying it for a second.

"I wanted to tell you that the DiNozzo's have been charged with three counts of conspiracy to murder. They're both facing a minimum term of 30 years per conviction."

Gibbs remained silent but the muscles in his jaw tensed visibly.

"And I've approved the next four weeks annual leave – any idea when you're taking Tony home?"

"Don't see the judge for two days, Leon. There's no guarantee she'll grant custody this time."

"I heard the last hearing was a close call in a two horse race," Vance said. "One of those horses broke a leg – of course you'll get custody."

"I'll believe it when the judge signs the papers," Gibbs said, feeling a stirring of apprehension.

Vance placed a file on the table in front of Gibbs.

"McGee asked me to give you this. It's the police and background check on your physical therapist. Makes for interesting reading."

"She got a record?" Gibbs asked, snatching up the file and reading the first few pages.

"You gotta be kidding me; she's one of those Davids?"

"If by 'one of those Davids' you mean the daughter of Director of Mossad, Eli David then yes, she one of those Davids," he replied.

"You knew?"

"Not until McGee gave me the file."

"Have you met her, Leon?"

"I've heard her father speak of her – that's all."

"What can you tell me?"

Vance shrugged.

"I don't think Eli was too happy that his only daughter decided to move to America. But you gotta give her credit; takes a lot of guts to set out on your own and leave your family behind -especially when your old man is Eli David. All that matters is that she's well-credentialed and she's good with Tony – the rest is incidental."

Gibbs' concerned blue eyes flicked to the sleeping boy.

"If you're worried, take her on a trial basis. If it doesn't work out, you have an escape clause," he said as he rose to his feet. "I gotta get back."

"You process my resignation yet, Leon?"

"I'm a busy man, Gibbs, I've had other priorities," Vance replied sternly, a small smile ghosting across his lips. "Look after your boy."


"Do I have to talk to her?" Tony asked for the umpteenth time.

"Yep, you do," Gibbs replied casually.

"But why?"

"Because Judge Harland is a very smart lady," Gibbs replied. "Her job is to decide what happens to children who can't live with their parents anymore."

"Like me?"

"Yeah, Sport, like you," Gibbs smiled sadly. "She's gonna come by to meet you and she'll ask you some questions. Tony…it's very important that you tell her the truth. If you tell her that you'd like to live with a nice family with other kids, then the Judge will do everything she can to find one for you and make sure you're happy."

Tony's eyes grew wide and he dropped his chin to his chest.

"Don't you want me anymore?"

Gibbs took a gentle hold of the boy's chin and tilted his face until their eyes met.

"I want you…more than you'll ever know," he said. "But the Judge needs to know what you want. This is about you and no one's gonna be mad, if you decide that you'd rather live with a real family."

Tony screwed up his face. Gibbs had noticed the facial exercise seemed to go hand in hand with thinking.

"But you…you have a real family – Abby and Kate and McGee and…and Jimmy and Ducky and Grandpa Jack…aren't they family?"

Gibbs tousled the blonde hair.

"Yeah, Sport, they're family."

A quiet knock at the door and Tony's small body went rigid. Jenny Shepard entered with the diminutive Judge Phylicia Harland. The judge was all business as she greeted Gibbs with a firm handshake but her eyes softened and a radiant smile brightened her face as she was introduced to Tony. She spent a few minutes trying to relax the boy, asking about his interests and his school and patiently waiting for the boy to form his answers. Moments later she turned to Gibbs.

"Why don't we start," she said. "Agent Gibbs, if you and Ms Shepard would wait outside, we'll let you know when we've finished."

Nodding his head, Gibbs rose to leave but Tony grabbed him in a firm hold, his panic building until he was on the brink of hyperventilation. No amount of cajoling could calm the boy, whose EEG started to fluctuate wildly. The judge decided to compromise.

"Under the circumstances, perhaps Agent Gibbs should stay," she said with a wry smile.

"I'll be in the visitor's lounge," Jenny replied, mouthing 'good luck' to Gibbs as she headed for the door.

Jenny entered the lounge and found Jackson and the extended MCRT waiting anxiously inside.

"Is it over?" Abby asked, bounding to her feet. "It can't be over already, can it? That was, like, way too fast. Please tell me nothing went wrong."

"Abigail!" Ducky scolded. "Let the poor woman speak."

Jenny smiled. "They've just started. The judge has agreed to let Gibbs stay while she speaks with Tony."

"That's a good thing, right?"

"Yes, Abby," Jenny smiled. "That's a very good thing."

The hands of the clock on the wall dragged themselves around the face ever so slowly as Abby paced the small room like a caged lion.

"What's taking so long!" she asked for the tenth time. "You don't think…what if she says no…what if Judge Harland decides that Tony should be placed with another family and they take him away again?"

The door to the lounge opened and the judge stepped in, slightly taken aback by the number of people who immediately shot to their feet.

"Ms Shepard," she said. "May we speak in your office?"

"Certainly, Judge," Jenny said as they stepped outside and walked toward the elevator.

Another moment passed in silence before Abby turned to the others.

"I'm going in," she said.

"I'll go with you," Jackson replied, awkwardly getting to his feet and steadying himself with his walking stick.

Together they walked down the corridor to Tony's room. They each took a deep breath and slowly opened the door. Tony was sobbing inconsolably with his arms wrapped around the agent's neck as Gibbs murmured softly to him. Realising they were no longer alone, Gibbs looked up, with unshed tears in his eyes. Abby gasped loudly as her hand flew to her mouth.

"No!" she exclaimed.

"S'okay, Abs," Gibbs choked out.

"No, Son, it's not okay," Jackson growled. "If that darned woman can't see that you and Tony are perfect for each other, she's in the wrong line of work!"

Gibbs and Tony exchanged a startled look that faded to a knowing grin.

"What do ya think?" he asked, gently clipping the boy under the chin. "Should we tell 'em?"

The blonde head bobbed shyly.

"Judge Harland has agreed to give me temporary guardianship while Tony's in the hospital," Gibbs said.

"And then?" Jackson and Abby asked in unison.

"Full custody when I've completed the foster carer's course and home modifications."

Abby and Jackson hugged each other before joining Gibbs and Tony in a group hug. The Hallmark moment was quickly extinguished when Abby drew back her fist and punched Gibbs in the shoulder.

"Ow! Abs! What was that for?" Gibbs whined.

"That's for scaring us half to death," Abby said, starting to pace again. "There's so much to do. I have to tell the others, that is, unless you want to tell them. And I have to start making plans. I need to send invitations…"

"Abs? Invitations to what?" Gibbs asked.

"Invitations to Tony's gotcha party, silly," she replied, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"His what?"

She looked from Gibbs to Jackson, taking in their blank looks before sitting on the bed next to Tony and taking his hand.

"Hey, short stuff, you know what a gotcha party is, right?"

Tony's eyes were wide as saucers as shook his head.

"Well, when you get home from the hospital, we'll have a gotcha party. You know why?"

"Why?" he whispered, totally captivated by the charismatic scientist.

"To celebrate that…we've gotcha and we're never giving you back!" She wriggled her fingers teasingly and then started tickling him.

Tony squealed and let go a delightful giggle that echoed in Gibbs' heart as a rare unbridled smile formed on the agent's lips. The little boy's laughter peeled away some of the hurt and grief he'd wrapped around his emotions for too long. He was immediately overwhelmed with a craving and a bone-deep longing to hear more. He made a silent vow to hear the sound of laughter in his home on a regular basis. As he basked in the intoxicating giggles, his mind replayed the words of a much-loved voice.

Keep him close…he's your family now.

Decided to leave the story here in case I decide to write a sequel. Thank you for your reviews and alerts. I hope you enjoyed it. SMcG