This tag's been rolling around all week in my head but the real world didn't allow me to start writing it till yesterday. I hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: mild swearing but nothing you won't hear on cable. Oh, and I still down own any of 'em...


It bothered him.

It bothered him as he sat beside her and removed staples from redacted documents and cracked jokes in his best game show host voice. As he carted the full shredder bags to the recycling chute. As he wished her good night and watched her speed off, leaving him alone with nothing more than his nagging thoughts.

Ziva was obsessing over Gibbs' life, and Tony was obsessing over hers. He wasn't all that surprised therefore when he suddenly found himself outside the familiar house without consciously deciding on his destination. His sudden moment of panic over interrupting Gibbs with a woman receded quickly when he saw the driveway was empty, but he still entered the unlocked door and crossed the softly lit kitchen with deliberately heavy footfalls.

"You alone down here?" he called out from the top of the stairs.

"Who else you expecting?" came the gruff reply.

"Wasn't sure if you were...entertaining," Tony offered, clomping down to the last step and leaning against the railing to examine the workspace. He was surprised to see that Gibbs had a rocking chair up on the table, carefully sanding the seat. "That's not a boat," he observed.

Gibbs shot him an impatient glare for stating the obvious, but Tony just shrugged. "Nice change of pace, that's all."

Gibbs returned to his sanding, and Tony quickly picked up on the slight tension in the man's movements. He wondered if its cause was the same reason he was there.

"So that's two cases in so many weeks that we've crossed paths with PsyOps. You foresee that becoming a pattern?" He intended for the question to sound casual but his voice betrayed him and cracked at the end, drawing a sigh from Gibbs.

"Geez DiNozzo, you that upset over that damn game show host comment?"

"No," he answered quickly. A little. "Just wondering if we'll be seeing a lot more of Dr. Ryan. She brings an interesting - dynamic - to the team."

Gibbs stared up at him again with a warning glare so blatant that Tony almost tucked tail and left. Instead he cleared his throat and made a wide circle around the older man, heading for the bottle or bourbon stashed beside the paint thinners.

"Ziva send you here to see if there's really a bounce in my step?" Gibbs asked sarcastically and Tony couldn't help but chuckle.

"You really do hear everything, don't you?"

"If you all spent as much time on your work as you do dissecting my personal life, we'd solve our cases in half the time. Don't know where this belief comes from that I need to be paired with every single female over the age of forty we encounter."

"Well we exclude the murdering ones," Tony offered fairly, falling silent as he took a long sip. "So you're saying there's nothing between you and Dr. Ryan?" he asked then, emboldened by the warm sting of liquor sliding down his throat. The words registered with his brain a few seconds too late, and he waited for Gibbs to turn around and yell at him to get the hell out, possibly chucking the sanding block at his head.

But Gibbs just shook his head, smirking slightly because he knew the younger man couldn't see it. "I'm saying it's none of your damn business."

Tony came back around the table to sit on a stool across from him. "No, you're right. It's not. But Ziva is strangely invested, and I don't want her to be disappointed...again. She's had enough of that lately."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow, but Tony just dropped his eyes to the mason jar in his hands before continuing.

"It's just...she was acting very un-Ziva about all of it. I get the feeling that she has given up on her own happiness so she's suddenly throwing all her energy into you finding it."

Gibbs shook his head, running a hand over the seat and checking for rough spots. "Nah. That's not it."

"You don't think she wants to see you happy?"

"Ok, that's not all of it," he amended. Tony was regarding him curiously now, and Gibbs sighed. Usually Tony was the more perceptive one when it came to understanding Ziva, but it looked like he had to spell it out for him. "The two of us are too similar. Always have been. She needs to know that people like us can still find something...worthwhile."

Tony pondered that one for a long minute. "So if there's hope for you and Dr. Brain Gamer, then there's still hope for her," he sighed. "That's pretty convoluted thinking."

"Yeah because the rest of us are so logical and well-adjusted," Gibbs grumbled.

Tony scoffed, rolling the last of the amber liquid around the base of the jar as he considered what Gibbs had told him. He was right; of course he was right. Now it seemed blatantly obvious what Ziva was doing. But Gibbs wasn't exactly a great role model for healthy relationships. Hell, none of them were.

Something of his thoughts seemed to cross his features - that or Gibbs was just doing his normal mind reading thing - because he spoke again even as he gently turned the rocking chair over, resting it against the side of the table to examine the runners. "She's lookin' in the wrong direction. I'm not the one who can help her with this."

Gibbs was staring at him expectantly now, impatiently, and Tony couldn't help the hard, self-deprecating laugh. "Well I'd be no better..." he answered automatically

He could tell Gibbs didn't buy it, and if Tony were being honest, he didn't really believe it either.

Believe...

Do you believe?

Her words echoed softly in his mind. It was the question of a child or a dreamer. Or an X Files aficionado. The hopeful query hadn't fit coming from the mouth of an ex-assassin ninja that had seen firsthand the worst of humanity. And yet he sensed the seriousness, the longing behind Ziva's bold question. Because she wanted to believe. And in that moment he realized what a stretch it must have been not only for her to admit it to herself, but aloud, to him. And to trust that he would answer her with equal sincerity.

It was a mark of how far they had come. From their early conversations about 'love' and other dangerous emotions - the mocking comments, the sexual innuendoes, the joking deflections. With Jeanne and Rivkin, the exchanges had grown more serious, but they were tainted with such pain and jealousy.

And now. They'd already navigated the likes of EJ, Ray, and Wendy in the past few months alone, providing sound advice and quiet comfort to one another. And yeah, Tony would certainly never claim either of them to be experts on love or relationships, but somewhere along the way, they'd learned how to be exactly what the other needed.

"Huh," he said quietly to himself after several long minutes.

"Yeah," Gibbs offered gruffly, and Tony met his eyes. A silent understanding passed between them and Tony just nodded. Ziva didn't need Gibbs and Ryan to hook up to validate her desire to believe. He'd make damn sure of that.

You cannot expect a person to keep things bottled up inside forever, can you?

Her second question had been niggling at the back of his mind all night and suddenly it transformed and took on new meanings that he hadn't considered before. But he pushed it back aside, for later, when he was alone and Gibbs wasn't studying him so knowingly.

"Well, okay then…" Tony said lamely, staring around the dimly lit space and wondering where they would all go from here. "So Dr. Ryan…"

Gibbs swore under his breath, grabbing for the empty mason jar in front of Tony and plunking it back down on the shelf. "Didn't I tell you to get the hell out of my basement once already this year?"

"Well technically it was last year since it was Christmas…"

"DiNozzo!"

"G'night boss," Tony smirked, but it morphed into a more genuine, grateful smile that the older man couldn't miss. Gibbs watched him go, waiting until he heard the front door close softly above him before letting out a low chuckle.

He wondered how long it would take Ziva to notice the new bounce in Tony's step.


Thanks for reading!