Guys, I don't even KNOW. This thing is a freaking monster, and it just HAPPENED. And it's weird and sad and I kind of love it, despite all the craziness. By the way, this is a two-parter, maybe three if it keeps going like it's BEEN going. Seriously, full thing's like 8000 words and I'm not even done. But, yeah, review and tell me if this is just too weird for me to have published. I kinda love it, just saying.

So, anyway, this is most definitely AU. The ages are screwed up a bit, as are the back stories, but things will hopefully become clear. Just keep in mind that I'm taking crazy amounts of allergy medication, and my mind is not entirely my own. Kay. Bye.

Disclaimer - Actually, I own like everything except the characters this time. So ha!

On the day Tony turns five, he comes to live in a house with a wrap-around porch and a big, leafy rhododendron bush and a soccer goal right in the front yard. The house is a dusky slate color that Tony calls gray and the girl on the front porch swing calls purple, right after she wrinkles her nose at him and declares him 'stupid' in a high-pitched, little-girl voice.

Tony doesn't like purple and he doesn't like the girl from the porch and he does not like being called stupid.

Tony wants to go home.

But the man who says to call him 'Gibbs' or 'boss,' but not 'sir' and not 'Mr. Gibbs' and definitely not 'stupid' (Tony knows because the little girl from the porch blinks and stares at her bare, dirty feet when Gibbs scolds her), says that this is Tony's new home, at least for now, and that purple is a manly color.

Tony calls the man stupid, too, but only after he's left standing alone in his big new room, and in a whisper so that only the smiling animals behind the picture frame can hear him.

Tony doesn't cry, because he's a big boy of five. He just throws his bag really hard against the wall and stamps his feet against the powder blue carpet on the floor and says a bad word under his breath, so not even the animals can hear.

The girl from the porch pauses in the hallway to eyeball him pityingly. Tony doesn't like it, because he's probably older and definitely taller than this girl (and he's a boy so he's stronger). She has no right to look at him like he's a baby she needs to feel sorry for.

He says the bad word again, louder, so that the mean girl can hear him. "Damn." He says it right out loud, and nearly frightens himself with his boldness.

"I'm Abby," says the girl finally. She has soft brown hair tied up in pigtails on either side of her head and her toenails are caked in dried dirt and shiny red nail polish. "'M sorry I said you were stupid. If you want you can borrow my second fav'rit teddy to keep you comp'ny."

The teddy is kind of raggedy, and one of the ears is stained with red nail polish, but it smells like bubble soap and Play-Doh and grass and sunscreen when Tony buries his face in it.

"His name is Arch'bald," Abby says solemnly. "And he's bestest friends with my bear Susie Mae. Which means that we have to be bestest friends."

This makes sense, so Tony agrees, and Abby makes him shake hands like they're grown-ups, and then it's official.

They let Arch'bald and Susie Mae have a playdate in the corner while Abby and Tony sit on the top bunk and bravely let their feet dangle through the slats of the railing, Abby's grass-stained, nail-polished feet shaking loose the occasional clod of dirt.

They tell secrets. Abby has a secret hiding place in the woods behind the house, and it can be his hiding place, too, if he promises not to tell anyone. She makes him shake her hand again, and it makes Tony feel both very silly and very adult-like. He likes it.

Tony tells Abby that it is his birthday and she claps her hands excitedly and almost falls down the ladder in her hurry to inform Gibbs of this wonderful, exciting, good, great news.

Gibbs smiles, slow and almost hidden, down at them both and asks Tony what his favorite dinner is.

Tony answers bashfully that once he ate choc'lit chip pancakes for dinner when Mommy and Daddy were out for a special adults' night, with all the whipped cream he wanted and baby M&Ms sprinkled on top, and Gibbs does the slow smile again and says he'll see what they can do.

Gibbs and the pretty lady with hair like that girly, consequently stupid, mermaid (the one from the movie that Tony was once forced to sit through while at the Pediatrician's waiting room) are not quite as liberal as Nanny Number Three with whipped cream usage, and there are no M&Ms, baby or otherwise, to be found, but the pancakes are positively oozing with chocolate, and they even stick an orange, partially melted candle into the stack.

Gibbs and the pretty lady and Abby and the one-two-three-four other kids all sing 'Happy Birthday to You' and Gibbs does the slow smile when Tony blows out his candle, and he decides that maybe Gibbs really isn't so stupid after all.

That night he goes to sleep on the bottom bunk (he's too small for the top, even if he IS five, says Jenny the mermaid with legs and a bad singing voice) with the scent of Arch'bald and summer and candle wax in his nose and birthday songs in his ears.

The animals in the picture frame smile through the glow of a cheerful night-light and Tony smiles back, happy.

...

Tony gets a roommate two months and seventeen days after he turns six, right as summer ripens and blossoms, red and rich, into fall.

His name is Timothy McGee, and he has nervous eyes and little-boy hands, and Tony is proudly promoted an upper-bunk occupant and guardian of this newcomer.

"How old are you?"

"F-five," says Tim, and blinks his very wide, frightened eyes. Tony feels very grown up in the presence of such fearful admiration.

"I'm almost five," pipes up Abby, appearing out of nowhere as is her custom. She is wearing no shoes and pigtails with red ribbons and faded jean shorts with dirt all over them. "And Tony's almost seven."

Tim cowers in the face of such maturity, but he smiles when Abby offers him her third fav'rit stuffed animal (it's a rabbit with very long, frayed ears and shiny black button eyes and a stain from the time they buried him in their fort in an attempt to trap the Easter Bunny) and even offers to share his pocketful of Jolly Rangers, pink and blue and slightly warped from the heat of their confinement.

Abby heartily crunches at a pale pink candy until Tim says with a shy smile, "It sounds like your teeth are breaking."

And then, oddly, she turns as pink as her candy and swallows very quickly. She accepts another candy when McGee offers it, green apple this time, and sucks it oh-so-delicately until it has withered away into nothing but a citric stain on her lips.

Tim returns Abby's gap-toothed grin (she's lost three teeth to Tony's two, a crushing defeat if he's ever known one) with that same, slightly flushed, look to his face, and Tony feels left out for the first time ever.

He doesn't like it.

...

It isn't until Tony enters the first grade, a proud seven-year-old with a Batman lunchbox and a brand new box of waxy-smelling crayons with all the tips, that he discovers that perhaps things are a bit more difficult than he had anticipated.

He uses his crayons to draw his family, just like the teacher says, but instead of a Mommy and a Daddy and two siblings and a dog, he draws Gibbs and Jenny and Abby and Tim and the five other kids at the house.

And at lunch he sits with a boy named Jack, who has the same lunchbox as Tony, and they talk about superheroes. Jack has a sandwich and an apple and two Oreos wrapped in tinfoil like a present, as well as a napkin with a heart and letters that spell 'I love you. From Mommy.'

The next day Tony wakes up early. He pads down to the kitchen in his bare feet and cotton pajama pants, the ones patterned with cheerful red airplanes, and he digs out a napkin and an inky blue pen.

But he doesn't know what to put. All he has of his mother is a faint blur, the memory of soft fingers and too-sweet breath and the dissonant tinkle of an out-of-tune piano.
Tony ends up watching the too-bright, gaudy cheer of the shopping channel, curled up beneath a thick blanket in his thin pajamas on the couch until morning breaks and footsteps start creaking overhead.

That day he opens his lunch bag to find, along with a whopping turkey sandwich and this weird, yummy lemon bar thing, a napkin covered in inky blue scrawl.

It reads simply 'Have a good day' - no signature, no hearts - but somehow it's better, even, than the lemon bars. Which is saying something.

...

Susie Mae gets married to a dashing stuffed hippo with severe gastro-intestinal issues, a gift from Gibbs and Jenny for Abby's seventh birthday.

Abby wears a shower curtain, patterned with rubber ducks in shower caps and smiling fish, secured about her figure with various clothespins.

Tim tells her she looks pretty. She blushes.

...

Tony's eleven years old, three weeks away from his twelfth birthday, and pretty much a total big shot when Ziva David comes to the house.

It's late evening and Tony's wielding his brand spanking new lacrosse stick, hurling a bright orange sun into the soccer goal beneath the towering pine trees in the corner of the front yard while attempting to avoid either beaming one of the little 'uns or stepping on Abby and Tim, who are sprawled lazily in the grass, blowing dandelions and talking technology, when the car pulls up alongside the white picket fence.

A sullen-faced girl with a curly ponytail and olive-colored cargo pants slams the car door violently enough to make everyone in the yard flinch. There is a hard look to her face as she marches down the drive and towards the porch. The car, a dark sedan, peels off before she has even reached the wooden steps.

She doesn't spare a glance towards the yard, but had she turned her head she would have seen seven kids - three preteens, four toddlers - all doing a very good impression of deer in the headlights.

The thing is, the white picket fence with its border of rhododendrons is more than just a glorified cliché. It's like a force-field, only prettier, and the gray (okay, purple) Victorian is like a safehouse.

And outside the world goes round, filled with mothers whose hands shake as they pick out lullabies and drop tears on the piano and fathers who stagger home at three in the morning with a blonde on their arm and a new load of cash in their wallet, but inside everything is isolated and safe.

It's like their own little island, and the natives all stare at the foreigner as she knocks on the door with all the force in her tiny, stiffly angry body. There hasn't been a newcomer since McGee, almost four years ago, excepting the toddlers since they were mere babies upon arrival.

There's an ice cream truck tinkling in the distance, its tinny anthem punctuated by the increasingly violent raps to the front door. There's no answer - Gibbs and Jenny ran down the street to negotiate window repairs with the notoriously cranky Mr. Fornell, whose car received a mysterious hit from a certain orange lacrosse ball, and Tony has been left to man the troops until their return.

After all, he's the oldest.

Finally, his palms sweaty around the cool metal of his lacrosse stick, Tony forces himself to move towards the girl, carefully stepping over Abby and McGee's hands (which interlocked in a moment of fear around the time the car's tires screeched away) and scuffing at a white fluff of dandelion as he goes.

"Can I help you?"

The girl slams once more on the door, flat-handed and angry, and does not turn around as she answers, "Not unless you are Mr. Gibbs."

"He's not here right now."

She sighs and turns to face him with dark, defiant eyes that dare him to mock the faint streaks of tears that mar her tan skin. "When will he be back?"

Tony shrugs. "Um. Soonish? Can I, like, take a message or . . . ?" he trails off, feeling foolish.

The girl shakes her head impatiently. "I will wait." Her eyes flit about awkwardly for a second, and then she takes an uncertain seat on the white porch swing, crossing her ankles and fixing her eyes on her knitted fingers.

Tony sucks in his lips and leans against the porch railing, absent-mindedly fingering his lacrosse stick with slightly anxious digits. "So are you, like, coming to stay here?" he questions, feeling six pairs of nervous eyes drilling holes into the back of his head.

The girl shrugs and kicks angrily at a crumpled leaf, the movement setting the swing rocking. "I do not know."

"Oh . . . "

The ice cream truck is louder now, only a few streets over. Tony fixes his mind on it, wondering why on earth the truck is blaring 'Jingle Bells' in the middle of July.

The sun melts away behind the peaks of the fir trees, leaving the sky a dusky color like that of the house, and still Gibbs and Jenny have not returned.

"Um, Tony," says Abby in an uncharacteristically timid voice, appearing beside him and shifting anxiously from one bare foot to the other, "it's seven-thirty, and Michelle looks like she's gonna fall asleep, so . . . "

"Um. Right." Tony turns to survey the bunch of little kids who have managed to tackle and pin Tim to the ground, feeling both very mature and very stupid. "Yo! Time for bed! Everyone inside! Brush your teeth and . . . pee. And . . . Yeah. Now."

The kids go with very little protest, casting quick, fearful glances their way as they file past Tony and the stranger and into the house. Abby and Tim follow, the latter lingering hesitantly at the door. "Uh, Tony, they're gonna need help . . . I don't think Jimmy knows how to brush his teeth without swallowing the toothpaste yet . . . "

"Be there in a second," Tony assures him, and turns back to the girl. "I, um, need to go help with bedtime. Do you- D'you want to come wait inside?" he asks, hoping desperately that she will say no. He doesn't want some stranger with angry eyes penetrating the inner realms of their sanctuary. The porch is one thing, but . . .

"I will wait out here," she says decisively, prodding the floor with the toe of her sneaker to keep the swing's gentle momentum. "Thank you."

He retreats as fast as he possibly can without flat-out running, wishing he could slam the door and lock it behind him. Instead he just closes the screen door, letting the sounds of the unseasonable ice cream man's ditty and the creak of the front porch swing waft in with the summer breeze.

Gibbs comes home fifteen minutes later, grumbling and calling Fornell rude names until Jenny thwacks him on the back of the head in admonition. They tuck in the little guys and set Abby, Tim, and Tony up with a TV show, and then they usher Ziva David into Gibbs' office.

Over the sounds of the SpongeBob theme song, Tony hears the rhythm of Gibbs' irate pacing and muffled, angry sobs.

...

It's the only time he hears (or sees) Ziva David cry.

Even when Abby skirts around her with distrustful eyes and flat-out snaps at her to go away when the Israeli girl stumbles upon their secret clubhouse in the hydrangea bramble behind the house, she doesn't cry.

She doesn't cry when she loses to him at Monopoly Junior or when she falls down the stairs and bites her lip so hard it bleeds.

She doesn't cry when she steps in a pothole and sprains her ankle while playing soccer with Tony in the middle of the street, barefoot.

She doesn't cry when she slices her fingertip open while 'cutting a bagel,' though Tony thinks she might just have been fooling around with the knife for fun.

She doesn't cry when Tony 'accidently' pushes her off the footbridge and into the creek they discover, way back behind the house, while exploring. She just laughs and grabs his ankles and pulls him in, too.

She doesn't even cry on movie night when Bambi's mother dies, even though Abby and McGee are sniffling into their respective fists and Jenny is bawling into Gibbs' shoulder. (Tony mists up a little too, but only because he got popcorn grease in his eyes, not because he's thinking about his own mom or anything.)

Basically, by the time summer comes to a close Tony has established:
a) that Ziva David is incredibly reckless, and b) that Ziva David is really pretty cool.

(They both cry at the end of Titanic, but nobody knows about that, because they sniffled very quietly from their hiding place in the shadows behind the couch, so as not to hurt their dignity or alert the sobbing Jenny and the wryly amused Gibbs to their presence.)

...

Abby warms up to Ziva after a while, and soon they're like the Four Musketeers in their bright, prickly fort with the sunshiny petals that turn your skin to yellow if you rub them between your fingers.

It's kind of the perfect summer. They explore and they sneak into each other's rooms at night to whisper and giggle and Gibbs once even lets the four of them walk all the way to town together - by themselves - to buy ice cream.

Of course, Ziva insists that Gibbs was discreetly tailing them in his car the entire time, but Tony prefers to relish in their alleged independence.

And then fall comes.

Tony is sitting at the dining room table, begging Ziva to just give him a summary of the first three chapters of 'The Giver,' because seventh grade is freaking hard, and this book makes no sense, when the doorbell rings.

Tony ignores it, just continues pelting an annoyingly unperturbed Ziva with pretzel nuggets, and lets Abby scamper down the stairs to answer the door, as she takes an eager, nosy delight in doing.

The ten-year-old - who has taken to garbing herself entirely in black, much to Jenny's concern and Gibbs' amusement - swings the door open wide, and then stops in her tracks. From his perch on the table, Tony sees her stiffen.

"Um. Hi."

And then that voice drawls, "I'm looking for a Mr. Gibbs."

"Um, okay," Abby says in a small voice, stepping back to allow him entrance. "He's right upstairs. I'll go get him. Wait- wait here, please."

It's him. He's thinner and clean-shaven and he's not swaying on his feet, but Tony knows it's him. He slides off the table silently, goes to stand at the threshold where the dining room meets the foyer, and tries not to breathe as the familiar green eyes rove the room, finally coming to a rest on the slim, brown-haired boy.

Anthony DiNozzo, Senior, grins. "Junior! Long time no see!"

...

"He's your guardian," says Gibbs flatly, eyes on the pan of fragrant bacon sizzling before him on the stove.

"He's never even home!" Tony bangs a fist against the fridge, knocking loose a couple of magnets. "What kind of guardian is that?"

"Maybe he's cleaned up his act," McGee suggests quietly from where he is placing silverware on the long, oak table.

Abby shushes him immediately, putting her hands on her hips and glaring. He shrugs, offers Tony an apologetic smile, and continues with his work.

"Tim's right," Gibbs says over the violent hiss of bacon.

Abby turns on McGee, pigtails whirling indignantly. "You see! Look what you did!"

"I was just saying!" McGee protests, and it is a testament to how much he has matured that he does not falter under Abby's accusations. "We don't know that he hasn't changed."

"We don't know that he has," Tony counters, flopping down sullenly in his seat and watching Gibbs deftly transfer the bacon to a plate.

"Actually," says Ziva crisply, entering the room carrying several pieces of paper. "We do. In order to regain custody, he had to fix up his home and clean up his act. He was inspected by a social worker."

"Oh."

Ziva shoots him a small, sympathetic quirk of lips and slides into her seat. "Maybe he really has cleaned up his act."

Abby stands up abruptly, her chair screeching against the tile and banging into the wall. "It's like you guys want him to leave!" she wails, her first sobs echoing as she runs from the room.

She locks herself in her room. They eat dinner in sulky silence.

...

"Just until the end of the school year," begs Tony, tears silently falling onto the pillow he is clutching with stiff fingers in his lap. The phone is cradled between his cheek and his shoulder, and the position is beginning to make his neck ache. "Dad, you can't uproot me in the middle of the year!"

After a moment, Senior sighs. "I guess I do need a little time to finish cleaning up my act," he says begrudgingly. "I'll work something out with Mr. Gibbs, okay, Junior?"

Tony manages to shoot Ziva, who is sitting Indian-style on the powder blue rug below and watching him with careful, guarded eyes, a bleary grin and two thumb's up. She radiates back her own smile, a rare burst of pure emotion on her stony face, and he basks in its glow.

"Yeah, Dad. Thanks," he says, his voice tremoring with the sincerity of his gratitude. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"Don't forget who your real family is," says Senior sharply. "Now let me talk to Gibbs."

Tony signals to Ziva that he'll be right back and tears down the hallway to Gibbs' and Jenny's room. He throws the phone to Gibbs, beams at Jenny, and hurtles back to his room.

Ziva must have informed Abby and McGee of the news, because all three of them pile on top of him in a laughing, triumphant heap and topple him to the rug.

"It's only until the summer," Tony says finally, stretching out onto his back and grinning at the smiling animals in the old picture on the wall.

"That's months away," Abby says happily, reaching out and taking his hand and squeezing.

That night they sneak down to the living room and watch old vampire movies on TV, biting their knuckles to stifle their screams and sneaking spoonfuls of ice cream from the freezer.

Afterwards they are all too sleepy and stiff with fear to even contemplate returning to their darkened rooms, so they cuddle together on the couch and drift off. Ziva falls asleep with her head on Tony's shoulder, his head resting on hers.

The next morning they wake early, in order to avoid detection by sneaking back to bed, to find that someone has switched off the television and draped their huddle of tangled limbs in a thick blanket.

The house is quiet and dim. They make chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast (or, rather, Tim makes pancakes while Tony and Abby criticize his flipping technique and Ziva pretends she is not sneaking handfuls of semi-sweet chips from the bag when no one's looking) and no one burns the house down.

Pretty much, it's an amazing night, because they're young and they're friends and summer is months and months away.

...

They have snowball fights and drink hot chocolate and load in the presents at Christmas, and they try not to count down the days until school ends.

For once it's dread and not eager anticipation that swells and the numbers dwindle.

...

Tony turns thirteen five days before school ends.

They make chocolate chip pancakes and sing to him, but that night he lays awake, staring at the ceiling and listening to McGee's quiet snores as his stomach churns.

He's so wrapped up in his worries that he doesn't even hear the door open, doesn't notice the crack of light that slides across the ceiling, until Ziva has already gracefully and silently ascended the ladder.

"Hi."

"I did not get you a birthday present," she says guiltily, settling down opposite him on the bed and sliding her icy cold feet beneath the comforter.

He shrugs. "That's okay."

"I could not think of anything that you'd want," she continues, "that I could give you."

Tony looks at her, his best friend, with her dark halo of curls tussled and her eyes troubled, and decides to be honest. "All I want is to stay."

"I know," she sighs, pulling up her knees and tugging down her t-shirt to cover her thin, sun-browned limbs like canvas over the frame of a circus tent. In the dark, he can just make out the bright red lettering of the advertisement for some bagel shop emblazoned on the front. "That is all I want, too. But that is not something I can give you, yes?"

Tony just shrugs. It's not logical, he knows, but it's what he wants. More than anything.

"I wish I could run away," he voices a few moments later, fixing his eyes on the blurred light of the lamp-post through the window. "You and me, we could run away and- and live in the woods or something. Like in that movie."

Ziva makes a noise, quirking her mouth into a half-smile, that might have been a laugh had it had time to ripen. She doesn't answer.

But in Tony's mind, the idea is blooming. He's only thirteen, after all - just a kid - and he's desperate and feeling brave in the darkness. "We could do it," he says slowly, but with much more energy. "Ziva, we could. Out the window, and we could follow the creek. Gibbs says it leads to some lake in the national park-"

"I thought," says Ziva finally, "that you wanted to stay here."

"I do. But, I mean, if I can't stay here . . . I can't go back to my Dad, I can't."

But she doesn't understand. Or maybe she does, better than even he, because she simply stretches her legs and scoots to sit beside him, propped up against the headboard.

She's only twelve, he's barely thirteen, and they're best friends forever; they fall asleep sitting up, holding hands, and wishing their solution was as simple as running away.

But there really isn't a solution at all.

...

Ziva David does not cry when she hugs Tony goodbye. Her unpainted fingernails dig into his back through the fabric of his shirt and she exhales with only a hint of a shudder, clinging to him fiercely for a second or so before releasing him.

He doesn't cry either. He did when Abby and Ziva crept into his and Tim's room (only Tim's now, he supposes) the night before, when they all huddled in a circle in the shadowed recesses of the lower bunk and held hands and promised never ever ever to let go.

He has Arch'bald bundled safely between two fleecy sweatshirts in the bottom of his bag, McGee's phone number scrawled in permanent marker across his palm, and the raised welts of Ziva's clenched fingernails marking his knuckles.

Abby attacks him next, with a flying hug and a choked sob, dirty blonde pigtails drooping sadly. "You're my bestest friend," she tells him, her sharp chin digging into his shoulder, her entire body trembling in his arms, "forever."

He blinks hard, and squeezes her harder, but he doesn't cry. His dad is watching. He can't.

He and McGee get caught awkwardly between a hug and a handshake, and eventually manage to hug each other at an arm's length. "Take care of the top bunk," Tony says in stony mock-seriousness. The younger boy cracks a smile.

Jenny hugs him. The little kids cling to his legs, crying because everyone else is, not really understanding. Gibbs shakes his hand and squeezes his shoulder and tells him to call if he ever needs anything.

They follow him out to the porch, waving and crying and trying to smile because he's going to a better place. (They said the same thing about his mom, when she died. He tries not to think about it.)

Ziva isn't on the porch. He waves until his arm muscles burn and they all fade away, and the last thing he sees is Abby tearfully waving one of Susie Mae's battered paws in the air.

His father smiles, pats his shoulder, and turns on some boring radio talk show about the stock market.

So, reviews will motivate me to finish this gargantuan baby... Do you like it so far? I think I should be able to wind it up in a second chapter, a good chunk of which is already written. Three chapters at the most, I promise. I've got finals coming up and stuff - the last thing I need is another multi-chapter fic on my plate.

So tell me who your favorite character is, what you liked, what you didn't. Favorite lines/sections? Comments, complains, everything. Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed! :)