Dear Anybody Who's Still Reading This Trainwreck,

*attempts casualty* So how 'bout last night's episode, eh? Pretty intense, eh? *breaks down into a quivering ball of sniffly-snorts and sort of rocks back and forth on the ground for a while* Well, it seemed to shock me right out of my writer's block (which is a credit to its intensity, ohmylord) and I banged the rest of this out last night in a fit of stress-writing to stop myself from THINKING too much. So here it is, at last.

Amyway, this is the end. I'm sorry it took so long, but I'm fairly satisfied with it, albeit immensely insecure. So please read, enjoy, and review. I know it sounds cheesy, but this story has literally been a journey for me, and so special thanks to everybody who's stuck through it all with me as I procrastinated and rewrote and lamented this bizarre writing style I've adopted. Special thanks to Anonymous033, who made an exception to her no-AU rules and read this for me, and who I've neglected atrociously.

Anyway, without further ado...

Disclaimer: Disclaimed.

It hits Tony on the head one day, like bam, that he's sort of madly in love with Ziva. Like, a lot.

He's laying on the floor of his bedroom and she's sitting cross-legged on his bed and coloring in her toenails with a turquoise permanent marker, and he's trying to explain to her what exactly "that's what she said" means.

She's bewildered and he's not entirely convinced that she's not just feigning ignorance to watch him squirm, and then all of a sudden it sort of hits him that he wants to kiss her.

Not because he's emotionally damaged and not (just) because he's physically attracted to her and not because sometimes he's desperately lonely, but because she's coloring her toenails with a marker and because she doesn't understand why "that's what she said" is an innuendo and because she's laughing at his embarrassment and she's gorgeous when she laughs.

He doesn't kiss her, though.

He doesn't want to ruin it. Mostly, he just knows he doesn't deserve to kiss her, not after... everything.

He just takes up a purple marker and starts drawing awkward flowers on her toenails that sort of look like ameba, grinning wider when she leans over to touch up her big toe and her curls fall in his face.

Oh, god, he's screwed.

From: McGee (5:16)


A couple weeks into October, and everyone's talking about college, and Tony says nothing.

It's funny, 'cause when he was eight, a year seemed like an eternity, and here he is, almost eighteen, and the world is suddenly rushing at him headlong and it feels like only yesterday he was learning how to properly tie his shoes.

Senior year goes fast, says every old person ever, cherish it.

Time is such a bizarre thing, though, and Tony finds himself living for the golden snippets of adrenaline-quickened seconds where he's laughing with McGee or driving too fast or accidentally holding hands with Ziva.

Gibbs apparently tried to tell him, in probably the harshest, most roundabout terms ever, that Tony won't ever be able to move forward unless he turns his back to the past.

But if moving on entails forgetting Tim's awkward sense of humor and Abby's blindly good-hearted passion for the world, if moving on means ignoring the way his entire nervous system thrums when Ziva rests her head on his shoulder, then Tony thinks he could be content with growing old in the blue-painted bedroom of his father's house, never going anywhere at all.

Content, not happy, because the memories make something beneath his ribcage ache swollenly in a sort of painful reminiscence. Content, but there would be happiness, too, in those instances of vibrancy and laughter and thoughtless adrenaline.

It's all so much more complicated - guilty happiness and fears of the future and fears of the past - than it was when he was five and Abby offered him her bear and her friendship with a little hand tipped in dirty, sloppily-painted fingernails.

Still, he can't bring himself to regret taking that worn bear and that dirty little hand.

"What are you going to do with your life?" asks Tony one dismal, rainy afternoon in November as he and Ziva laze in warm, comfortable sloth on the couch downstairs.

He means the question to be ironic, but it doesn't come out sounding that way and Ziva sits up straight for a moment in contemplation.

"I do not know," she says after a minute, slumping once more, visibly troubled.

He hums his agreement and idly begins attempting to braid Ziva's hair, which results in some truly baffling snarls. "Join the club."

She persists in looking perturbed though, so much so that she thankfully does not even notice the entanglement of hair he has bestowed upon her, and Tony feels a little bad for her. He nudges her with his elbow.

"C'mon, it's not a big deal. Lots of people don't know until they graduate college. What'd you want to be when you grew up when you were little?"

Ziva bites her lip and says nothing.

"Let me guess," says Tony, joking because he doesn't like the look in her eyes, "a knife-thrower at the circus? Or, no, a dentist?"

"A soldier," interrupts Ziva, slumped against him with her head turned pointedly away.

He pauses. "Seriously?"

"It was not an irregular occupation," says Ziva haughtily, "in Israel. My father encouraged the notion."

"Well," Tony says finally, "I wanted to be a garbage man until, like, last year. So obviously people change and stuff. What do you think you'd like to do now?"

Ziva stays silent, thumbing the mute button on the television remote and composedly turning her attention to a rerun of Jeopardy.

Tony watches her from the corner of his eye, thinking. She's so small and real and human, with her curly head casually leaning on his bicep and her mouth set firmly, and he doesn't like to think of her as a little girl almost as much as he doesn't like to think of her as a hardened soldier.

He pats her lamely on the head and resumes braiding/mutilating her hair.

"Hi, Tony, it's me. Tim, that is. Tim McGee. Um, listen, I was wondering - and it's totally okay if you can't make it, I mean, it's not like it's important, but it'd mean a lot if you could come... Whoa, I'm rambling. Uh. Sorry. This is why I usually just text people, um, phones make me really nervous...

"Anyway, uh, I don't know if I've ever mentioned it before, but my dad... He's not dead, by the way, I don't know if I've ever mentioned him to you, but he's not dead or anything, he's just... sick, so um I live with you guys and not with him... And by you guys I mean, Abby and Ziva and Gibbs, since you... I mean, since I don't live with you specifically... Anymore, anyway...

"Oh, right, so my father is being honored with some medal for some heroic actions in service - he was in the navy, before he... Yeah, but I wanted to know if maybe you would come to the ceremony? And if I could possibly borrow some of your clothes because I don't actually have any nice suits to wear and I don't want to make Gibbs spend money, 'cause money's a little tight right now, but my dad's a little, you know... tough about stuff like that, so...

"So I guess I'm gonna hang up now. Um. Please just. Just text me when you get this, don't call, because obviously I'm not- I'm not so good at this, this, talking thing. So. Yeah. Bye."

There's like twenty seconds of silence, and then a muffled "Oh" and then McGee hangs up.

Tony almost sends a somewhat spiteful text with the precise count of how many times McStutter says "Uh" in the length of the message, but reconsiders and sends a sincere, albeit awkward, congratulations instead.

It's a good move, because McGee's reply is practically dripping with relieved, apologetic smiley faces, and Tony's actually a little surprised by how anxious the younger boy seems.

He thinks about adding some further reassurance of some kind, perhaps asking if the kid wants to talk, but he doesn't.

He has no confidence in his own abilities to bolster self-esteem.

Instead, he enlists Ziva to snoop around McGee's closet, then sends the measurements she takes to one of his father's personal tailors along with a sizeable check.

Tony may not trust himself to help Tim, but he's pretty sure Giorgio Armani can't hurt matters any.

Tony's still pulling on his t-shirt as he shoulders open the locker room door after practice that day, only too happy to get away from the heated, smelly room and the thoughts that are crowding his head.

He's pretty sure Danny's taking 'roids, and he's pretty sure Danny's up for a hefty scholarship from some bigwig school out west, and he's pretty sure he knows what the right thing to do is, and he's pretty sure he's gonna screw things up either way. He's not sure what he's going to do.

He's distracted. He almost walks right into the coach, who's talking and laughing and grinning wide, though not nearly widely and charmingly enough to challenge Senior.

Senior, who's standing there. Senior, who's at the high school making small talk with Tony's coach.

Tony collects himself, straightens his shirts, and plasters on the widest smile of them all. "Hey, Dad," he says, grinning. "Why are you here?"

Here, as opposed to anywhere else, oh god...

"I came to watch you play," says Senior. "I must say, I was pretty impressed, Junior. I was just telling Coach Richards here, you could probably make something great of yourself, if you would ever just apply yourself. Why, he was just telling me that that Danny kid you hang around with sometimes, he's likely got a full ride coming his way-"

Tony winces, but keeps his mouth shut.

"I wouldn't abandon hope yet," says Coach Richards, grinning and digging an elbow into Tony's side. "From what I've heard, Danny's not the only one who's caught the scouts' attention."

Senior doesn't quite succeed at hiding his surprise.

"Dad, I've got some homework," Tony begins, "and my car's here. If you don't mind, I'll meet you at home. See you Monday, Coach."

Senior lets him go with a nod and an awkward attempt at a shoulder-clasp. Tony puts his head down and walks a little faster.

"I'm having an identity crisis, and it is your fault," says Ziva without preamble, sliding into the passenger seat of his car.

"Most things are, these days," Tony agrees. He yelps when Ziva swats at his arm, even though it doesn't hurt a bit. "Ow!"

"You have some substantial guilt issues," Ziva informs him, "and I was joking. I am the one who is to blame, I suppose, for not pondering any of this until now."

"Pondering what?" Tony asks, skirting around her first comment.

"What I am planning on doing with my life."

Tony groans. "Can we talk about something else, please? This is literally all I've been hearing, from my teachers and my coach and now my dad wants to take an interest in my life for some reason-"

Ziva agreeably turns on the radio and asks if they can stop at CVS on the way home, so she can buy the hair dye that Abby has been harassing her about.

He immediately feels kind of bad about it.

That night, as Senior and a man in a suit with a briefcase laugh drunkenly downstairs, Tony sits with his back to the headboard on his unmade bed, fully-clothed, and plays with his cell phone to avoid meeting Arch'bald's liquid-black button eyes.

Eventually, the silence is too much, and he calls Ziva. She answers with a sleepy greeting before he can regret his actions and hang up.

"Want to come over and you can tell me about your identity crisis and I can listen and not making everything all about me for once?" he blurts out.

She laughs. "Tony, that is not necessary-"

"It kind of is, though," he says quietly, "'cause I was thinking about earlier, and now I feel like a jerk, and so now I guess I'm still being kind of selfish 'cause I want to ease my conscience, but also I would like to know what's going on in your life, because you're a really big part of mine... My life, that is."

There is a pause. "You may have just surpassed McGee in terms of incoherency over the telephone," Ziva laughs. "I will be right over."

For a while, they don't talk about it. Instead, they creep downstairs - tiptoeing redundantly, as if anyone could hear them over Senior and The Suit's roars of intoxicated laughter - and Tony trips over the coffee table in the darkened living room and Ziva's attempts at smothering her laughter dissolve into these bizarre, hiccoughy little squeaks that make them laugh all the harder.

Eventually, Tony blindly selects a DVD from his massive collection and slides it into the machine, to mask their conversation and provide a distraction if things get too heavy, and then sits back on his heels with a numbly pained little, "Oh," as the title screen to Titanic begins to play.

"Figures," he mutters, and turns to Ziva. "I can change it if-"

"It is fine," she says firmly. "It is just a silly movie. And Leonardo DiCaprio is very handsome."

He moves to sit next to her on the couch, and pretends it's because he can't see where she is that he sits as close as he does. They watch for a long while in silence.

"I hate this movie," says Ziva abruptly, vehemently. "I hate it. And I do not understand why Americans romanticize the sinking of a boat as much as they do."

"A lot of people died," Tony offers.

"People die every day," dismisses Ziva, "in all sorts of circumstances, and they are good people and they are bad people, but they are not remembered."

Tony thinks of Jenny sobbing into Gibbs' shoulders as he smirked down at her, while he and Ziva crouched behind the couch, so still that his feet both fell asleep spectacularly.

"Do you want me to turn it off?"

"No," sighs Ziva after a moment, putting her head on his shoulder. "Jack is too handsome for that."

Tony wants to let it go and just embrace the warmth of her head on his shoulder, but finds that he can't, in good conscience.

"Maybe the whole world doesn't always remember," he says hesitantly, "but people aren't just forgotten. The people they loved probably remember. Like, my mom-"

But, no, that's a terrible example, because he doesn't remember her. And Senior's memories are tearing the man apart from within.

And he can't mention Jenny. Not while they're watching this.

"I mean," he says, "do you remember your-"

He winces.

"I mean-"

He doesn't know anything about Ziva's background, which honestly just shows what a crap friend he is, and he really shouldn't-

Ziva pats him on the chest sleepily, and then she kind of just leaves her hand there. A tingling warmth radiates from that point outward.

"It is alright," she tells him calmly. "And you are right, of course. You are much smarter than you give yourself credit for, Tony."

His mouth quirks lopsidedly. "Yeah, well... Tell that to my guidance counselor. She's pretty much resigned herself to prepping me for a job in the burger-flipping business."

"You will find something," Ziva says confidently, "that makes you happy, and then you will be successful. You just have to look for it."

"And you?"

She sighs. "I suppose I would be acting hypocritically if I did not say the same sentiment applied to me."

"You don't think it does?" he asks.

Ziva purses her lips, thinking. "I was not raised in a manner," she says slowly, "that gave much reason to search for other lines of work."

Tony tries to picture Ziva in military fatigues, and finds the image both alarmingly sexy and disturbing, because that Ziva is different from the one whose cheek rests on his shoulder. That Ziva's face is sharper and her eyes are harder and there is a gun on her shoulder and a ticking bomb counting down her days, promising that this one will die young.

"But that was a long time ago," he says, maybe just reassuring himself.

"Yes," she concedes, "but it is a difficult mentality to shake. I was not even aware it was still a part of me until you asked me what my plans for the future were, and I realized I had none. I do not believe it was ever a part of my father's plans for me to live a long life."

Tony is speechless. "What kind of monster-"

She shrugs. "A bureaucrat."

"But he doesn't own you anymore," he says fiercely. "You get to decide what you want now. You get to pick what makes you happy."

"Yes," Ziva agrees, "it is my burden now."

"It's not supposed to be a burden," he says, surprised.

"I did not mean it like that," she explains apologetically. "It is just... It was easier before."

"It always is," he sighs, and finds there is not really anything more to say.

McGee's father looks nothing like him. His face is hard and his back is straight, and he inspires fear despite the canella in his nose and the bloodless bags beneath his unforgiving eyes.

McGee stands next to him. His lanky form, encased flawlessly in the finest charcoal Armani suit, towers over his father. And yet he is dwarfed by the erect, prematurely-aged man in the wheelchair.

The ceremony is long and filled with speeches proclaiming Admiral McGee's valor and bravery, all skirting around the current pitiful, wheelchair-ridden state of their honoree.

The admiral insists on standing to receive the medal, and Tony cringes in a kind of second-hand embarrassment.

Perhaps the elder McGee means it to be a victorious sight, but instead it is gruesome; a skeleton swimming in a dress uniform it once filled with muscle, shaking on fragile legs and wheezing, even as the admiral's hard eyes and chin are set in pained determination, loathing the weakness it has become.

Tim stands at his father's side, eyes wide and agonized in his round, childish face. He tries to take the man's arm, to ease the struggle of standing, but is shaken off vigorously. He shrinks away and into himself.

Afterwards, there is food and champagne, but Tony ignores it in favor of seeking out the McGees, father and son. He wants to quickly introduce himself to the Admiral, perhaps crack a few jokes to put some sincerity behind the fixed smile on McGee's face, and then get the hell out of here before he bumps into Gibbs.

He eventually locates them in a secluded hallway outside the banquet hall, but it seems an icy-eyed Gibbs has beaten him to it, exchanging clipped words with the stiff-jawed Admiral as Abby, looking as respectably arrayed in a neat black dress as any teenage girl in pigtails and a dog collar could, comforts a clearly shaken Tim a couple yards away.

The pigtailed girl looks up and, for once, does not scowl when she meets Tony's eyes. Instead, she widens them pointedly at him and then turns back to McGee, murmuring soothingly:

"Look, see, it's Tony. Even he stopped being a dirtbag long enough to come and see you. I bet he's jealous of your suit."

"I gave him that suit," asserts Tony, and hesitantly draws nearer. "Looking sharp in your suit and tie, McTimberlake. So far you haven't put good old Giorgio to shame."

"-my son, disappointing though he may be-"

Abby's hands tighten on the boy's charcoal suit jacket as Tim smiles half-heartedly, almost a cringe. "Don't think you're getting away with giving this to me. I'm going to find some way to pay you back," he promises.

"-don't deserve to call that boy your son-"

"Please, that old thing? You can keep it," scoffs Tony carelessly. "I've had it lying around for years."

"-you're the one who let him grow up weak-"

"In my exact height and size?" Tim retorts.

Before Tony can answer, Gibbs says very coldly, looking down at the mean-eyed man in the wheelchair before him, "I think you're confusing your son with yourself, Admiral."

And with that he turns and walks away, putting a fatherly hand on McGee's shoulder as they go. Tony trails just behind and aches, because he remembers what that warm, comforting weight felt like.

Once they reach the foyer of the hall, Gibbs nods to Abby and says, "I'll meet you in the car, just gonna grab a doggy bag."

Abby leads a numb-looking McGee out with some soothing words and an awkward half-smile over her shoulder at Tony just before the door closes behind her.

And then Gibbs turns to look at Tony.

"How you been, DiNozzo?"

His insides shriveled and icy, Tony whips out the trademark DiNozzo grin and shrugs. "Can't complain."

The light blue eyes analyze his face briefly like an X-ray. "College?"

Tony moves one shoulder restlessly. "Probably."

Gibbs nods. "Good."

And then they both pause.

"Well, it was nice seeing you," says Tony - a lie - and then he gets out of there while he still can, lest the words, the questions he really wants to ask - why don't you want me anymore - break free.

"You're a good kid," says Senior, weighing heavy on Tony's shoulder as together they make a teetery, weaving trip from the study to the nearest couch.

He leans over and vomits before Tony can come up with a reply.

Wendy asks if he wants to try things again, but Tony says no, thank you, and is not even a little bit sad about it.

He's been feeling a little less lonely these days - not so much that he has more company, but that he craves that company less - and he actually likes Wendy quite a bit as a person, enough to know she won't ever be happy with someone who doesn't have all the answers. He, meanwhile, doesn't even know what he's questioning.

Wendy shrugs and says, fine, that's okay, see you around? And he says he hopes so, and means it.

He comes home from basketball practice to a house that smells of sick.

Tony just shrugs off his backpack and takes the stairs in twos, locking himself away for a night of procrastination that promises high stress and low productivity.

It's almost midnight when he gets a bizarre and fierce craving for peanut butter, and it's only once he's in the kitchen with a spoon in the peanut butter jar and a quart of milk to his lips that he sees his father.

He chokes, and the milk spills all down his front, and his stomach turns queasily because it is not a pretty sight.

There's a lot of vomit and there's some blood and Senior's favorite glass tumbler is in shards on the hardwood floor, and facedown in the midst of it all is a lump in a designer suit.

After the initial shock fades, he's really not terribly surprised, and that part is perhaps more horrifying than even the scene before him.

Sitting in the muted waiting room at the ER, Tony sees in an article in a week-old newspaper he's perusing to avoid meeting anyone's eyes that La Grenouille was killed last week.

They call him Renee Benoit, of course, and say he died under mysterious circumstances abroad, which are still being investigated by the government, and that he was a philanthropist and an art enthusiast and that he leaves behind a loving daughter and a grieving community.

So after that Tony reads an IKEA catalogue instead.

Gibbs shows up half an hour later with coffee.

Tony never figures out how the man caught wind of the situation. He doesn't ask; he doesn't talk at all.

He sips his coffee - too bitter because Gibbs objects to sugar - and waits.

Gibbs sits beside him and he waits, too, in silence.

Senior's sitting up when Tony's finally allowed to see him again, leering flirtatiously at the blushing young nurse who's doing something to one of the many tubes sticking out of him.

He grins sheepishly. "Hey, Junior."

Tony waits for an apology.

Senior turns back to the nurse, "All I'm saying, angel, is that a shot of the good stuff'd take the edge off things better than any pain medication. Just some hard stuff. For medicinal purposes, of course." And he winks.

Tony sits down in the uncomfortable plastic chair, fingers knotted together until his knuckles are white and his fingertips are purple.

He's so mad he can't speak, so instead he lets Senior wink at the nurse and rattle on about how it was just some indigestion, how he can hold his liquor and how the doctors are damn fools if they think a little booze once in a while's gonna put a dent in the DiNozzo kidneys, because apparently that's a hereditary thing so bonus for Tony, and then the nurse says Tony has to go home, so he does.

Gibbs is in the waiting room, silent. He follows Tony out into the dim parking lot, silent, and then taps him once on the elbow and leads him to a familiar car where he and Tim used to squabble over shotgun.

Tony says nothing when the car stops in the driveway of the purple house, just kicks off his sneakers at the front door because the rule has always been no shoes indoors.

The house is quiet, the green digits of the cable box blinking a solemn 3:20. The bunk above McGee's is empty when Gibbs wordlessly sends him on his way. He sprawls across the coverlet, socked feet sticking through the slats at the foot of the bed, because apparently he's grown or something, and waits for sleep to come.

Ziva comes instead, silently ascending the ladder and sliding her cold feet under his legs as she huddles against the footboard.

Neither says anything, but she squeezes his ankle with her thin fingers every time his breath hitches, and to that odd rhythm he falls asleep.

Abby has made him chocolate chip pancakes when he wakes up at half-past one that afternoon. She heaps with whipped cream and happy-colored sprinkles and refuses to meet his eyes across the table when he offers a rusty thank you.

They let Senior out of the hospital three days later with a strict warning and an appointment with a liver specialist.

Gibbs is waiting at the front door of the house. He and Senior go into the office. There is no boisterous laughter or clinking glasses or toasting. Senior's face is flushed red when the front door closes quietly behind the lean, silver-haired man.

Tony retreats, because his father looks remorseful, and he doesn't want that anymore. He doesn't know what he wants.


Except there is a letter, amidst the sheaf of unopened envelopes in their mailbox - several of which are angry-looking bills - that is addressed to him from Ohio State University.

Tony's fingertips thrum with his pulse as he clumsily slits it open, and he thinks he might want this.

It's Senior's idea. He turns as Tony pulls his father's car into a space before the specialist's office, and says, "Why don't you stop by your mother's while I'm being seen, Junior?"

He closes the door before Tony answers, and the rosary beads on the dashboard jingle a little.

Tony waits until he's sure Senior's not watching him to pull out again.

The cemetery is quiet, but not silent. There are birds and sounds of the nearby highway. The thin early spring sun is an unobtrusive presence overhead.

Tony crouches a bit awkwardly before an expensive-looking headstone (Jenny's was a far cheaper affair) with the family name on the plaque and a cluster of sunshiny daffodils lying at its base.

It's quiet; he doesn't quite know what to say, because right now he doesn't really have any answers to give or even any questions to ask. He needs someone to tell him what to do.

His mother offers nothing, of course, dead fourteen years. There is a little peace, though, and he relishes that.

Finally his calves begin to cramp so he gets to his feet and picks his way back through the graves and the clumps of flowers and tokens that adorn them, and the flash of the silver spikes of a dog collar suddenly catches his eye.

And there is Abby, a comical sight in her schoolgirl-porno skirt and pigtails, pale arms wrapped around heaps of flowers and a lacey black parasol tucked haphazardly between her elbow and her hip.

Tony, occasionally a gentleman, takes the parasol for her and courteously holds it above her pigtailed head.

She looks surprised, then apprehensive, then hesitant. And then there is a tentative smile. "Thanks," she says, nothing more.

"Visiting someone?" says Tony, hurrying his pace; he'd forgotten what a workout it was to keep up with Abby's long, energetic strides.

Abby looks confused, then looks down at the mound of blossoms overflowing from her arms, and smiles again.

"Well, not someone so much as everyone," she says ruefully. "I like to stand in and keep the graves looking pretty when there aren't loved ones around to do it themselves."

This is a typical Abby sentiment. It makes Tony almost sad even as he wonders at her goodness.

"That's nice of you," he offers lamely.

She shrugs, and a few riotously-colored petals cascade in her wake. "It makes me sad when people forget other people."

Tony says, "You did the ones at my mom's grave, then? The daffa-whatsits?"

"Daffodils," she corrects, and pauses momentarily to shift all the blossoms into a precarious one-armed grip. She roots around with her freed hand and retrieves a yellow flower, which she hands to him. "Were they your mom's favorite?"

He frowns. "I don't know."

Abby shrugs and begins to walk once more. "I just assumed, 'cause your dad always brings daffodils when he comes, so-"

Tony follows, twirling the crisp green stem beneath his forefinger and his thumb.

"He does?"

She nods. "We run into each other sometimes, but I don't think he really remembers me." She looks at him without turning her face to him, green eyes under mascara-d lashes. "You didn't know?"

He shrugs and the parasol. "We don't really talk."

"It's a shame when stuff like that happens," says Abby casually.

Tony stops short. Abby continues on for a second, then whirls and hops back beneath the sheltering shade of the parasol.

"Abby, I'm sorry-"

She looks down at her armful of flowers, and carefully picks free a few more sunshine-yellow daffodils. "Here, why don't you go give those to your mom? I'll finish up here and meet you at the car. We can get ice cream and start talking again."

He smiles. "Sounds good."

She smiles back, and the sun is a little more yellow in the sky.

"We could start a detective agency," says Tony.

Ziva throws popcorn at him.

"Lots of college kids don't know what they want to do before they graduate," says Tony seriously. He wants to take her hand, but doesn't. "I don't know what I want either, most of the time, and you're only a junior so you've still got time. And you're good at everything, so... "

"Hmm," says Ziva, with her brow furrowed like she's thinking. She looks up abruptly, "Speaking of college, were you planning on telling me about Ohio State or simply anticipating that McGee would hack the database?"


She grins at him, brow smooth and worry gone. "You are accepted, yes?"

"Yes," he agrees, and he can't help but grin, too.

"Hmm," she says. "Maybe we will cross paths."

He grins wider. "You think?"

Ziva shrugs. "Stranger things have happened."

He wants to kiss her, but instead he grabs her hands and twirls her around the living room until she bangs her shin on a table and starts cursing in Yiddish or something.

It's a rush of adrenaline and air and anticipation, and for a second he's not standing still.

It's a good day.

There are good days:

He goes back to the cemetery with Abby and they dedicate an afternoon to making the oldest, most neglected of graves the most beautiful.

He plays video games and watches action movies with Tim, and they talk about girls and cars and not feelings, because they're men.

He takes Ziva to his senior prom and leers so she can't tell that he thinks he might be in love with her, and afterwards they rent a hotel room and watch Law and Order SVU and Suite Life On Deck and call room service for champagne and cheese fries at three in the morning.

They spend the next week calling each other suggestive names like 'sweetcheeks' in an attempt to encourage McGee's thriving suspicions that they slept together.

The day he tells Senior about OSU, his old man beams and brags and offers to take him out to dinner, but instead Tony makes chocolate chip pancakes and they eat in companionable quiet.

Those are the good days.

There are bad days, too, of course, the days when Tony puts intentional barbs in his words, because he has power when he belittles Tim. He and Abby go to Jenny's grave and Abby cries and gets angry when he can't make himself vocalize his emotions, and he ends up driving away in a rage.

He asks Ziva about the past and she ices him. She spins speculations about the future until he feels motion sick. He sits next to her on the couch sometimes and agonizes over whether or not to take her hand.

Senior gets drunk a couple times. It's uncomfortable when he's apologetic and hung-over the next morning, but it's worse when he laughs as Tony yells accusations at him like he is the father and Senior the petulant child.

Still, there are not so many drunken nights, and Tony's beginning to understand that life is painful in its good and wildly sweet in its bad, and that to avoid one is to avoid the other, but to shrink back from both is to be paralyzed. So he keeps going.

The night before Tony turns eighteen, he pulls his car into the heavily-chalked driveway of the house with the wrap-around porch and the big, leafy rhododendron and the soccer goal right in the front yard.

Everything smells of ozone from the morning's sun shower and of heaven itself because Gibbs is barbecuing, but in the basement it smells only of sawdust and stale bourbon.

Gibbs doesn't look up as Tony slowly descends the stairs, busily sweeping loose sawdust from the floor in the same easy, definitive motions that he sanded his boat.

"I finally figured it out," says Tony.

"Did you now?"

"Well," he falters, "nah, Ziva had to explain it to me and she was really metaphorical and girly about it, so. No, I didn't really figure it out exactly because I'm still lost. But I think it's gonna be okay."

"So what're you doin' here?"

"You invited me over, remember?" Tony deflects.

"What are you doing down here?" Gibbs stresses.

Tony hesitates, leaning against the railing and breathing in must and sawdust. "I guess I just need you to tell me... that it is gonna be okay."

"Don't need to," says Gibbs shortly, and keeps sweeping.

Some of the tightness between Tony's shoulder blades lessens. "Okay. I just- okay."

Gibbs looks up at last, leaning against the broom and crooking an eyebrow dryly. "Anything else I can do for you, DiNozzo?"

"How'd you get the boat out of the basement?"

The man laughed a little, and leaned the broom against the wall. "Gather the troops. It's time to go."

"Throw me a bone, at least! Does one of the walls come loose, or-"

They drive with the windows down and the night air pouring in, all crammed together so that Ziva's leg is pressed to his - and so is Tim's on Tony's opposite side, but that doesn't have quite the same effect.

It's late, nearly midnight, and Abby can't decide whether or not she wants to listen to a Screamo cd or a Stuart Little book-on-tape, so they alternate between chapters and songs, and Gibbs just smirks when they all complain.

Behind them is the trailer, and on that, covered with a tarpaulin, is the boat, a discernable lump in the dark.

The ocean is gray and dappled with crisp white foam from the day's storms, choppy with little waves as the big, noisy fishing boat they've borrowed from Mr. Franks-who-sounds-like-a-cowboy skims across the water's surface.

It's breezy and cold and the wind carries ocean spray in its every gust, whipping Ziva's hair into a raucously-curling halo and making McGee mutter about pneumonia. Gibbs is quiet at the dash.

Once they've sufficiently distanced themselves from the shore, Gibbs kills the motor and they sit in an eerie, rocking silence of lapping water and McGee sniffling pitifully for a length of time that might have stretched a minute or a millennium.

Something suddenly must signal to Gibbs that the time is at hand, because he gets to his feet and nods at Tony as he moves to the smaller, tarpaulin-wrapped bulk at the ship's stern.

It takes the combined efforts of Gibbs, Tony, Ziva, and Abby to heave the wooden structure overboard while McGee clears his throat and shakes his head woefully like he is already certain that he has contracted some form of influenza, possibly a pneumatic plague.

The small wooden boat bobs in the choppy water alongside the large fishing vessel, but does not sink. Of course it doesn't; after all, Gibbs made it, and Gibbs does not err. Ever.

They wait some more. And then all at once there is a crack of brilliance on the white-tipped horizon, and even McGee gets dismally to his feet to watch its progression.

Gibbs says lowly, "Go," and they all lean forward and shove the small wooden boat out and away.

The Jenny bobs and dips, but it does not sink, and as they watch it slowly dance away, rising and falling over the crests of the waves that set their larger vessel rocking like a lullaby, Ziva's hand fumbles around and secures Tony's own.

They all stand together, backs to the rising sun, and watch in quiet as The Jenny gets smaller and smaller in the darkness, a pinpoint that dwindles away and is suddenly gone.

Tony's gut registers something like shock, but Gibbs just claps his hands together in weary satisfaction and starts the engine. McGee begins a quest for lozenges, but stills his rummaging like a frightened animal when Abby sighs contentedly and settles her sharp little chin on his shoulder.

The sun bursts forth in earnest as the boat skips back over the waves to the shore, and Ziva gives Tony a squinty-eyed grin as they turn, hands clasped, to face it head-on.

It lights the low-lying, gray rainclouds a shade that can only be described as purple.

"Happy?" inquires Ziva, shouting over the roar of the engine and the waves, squinting in the sun.

Tony can't find the words.

I hope it turned out okay.

I'm sort of numb that I've finally come to the end of this monster, so bear with me as I write you a small novel of an author's note.

Firstly, I'd like to apologize for all the delays that have accompanied each of my updates, not only on this story, but everything. Real life happens and stuff, you know, but mostly I've just been struggling with some hefty writer's block and consequent self-esteem issues regarding my writing and the direction I want to take it in. I'm working on it. I'm not giving up, but it's taking time.

Next I'd like to thank anybody who's still reading, because I know I don't deserve you wonderful people. Thank you for your patience, which I'm sure I've tested!

And to everybody that's left me encouraging reviews and PMs, I love you. I haven't exactly been faithful with my replies. (Who am I kidding, I haven't replied to like anything in months.) However, I have read and smiled over every one, and they mean SO much to me as I flounder around with my words and nibble anxiously at my cuticles.

So I guess that's it. I hope you've enjoyed. Thanks for sticking with me this long, and if you wouldn't mind, drop me a few lines on your way out to let me know if you think I've ended this catastrophe on a semi-successful note, whether you've been reading all along or have just stumbled your way in. (In which case, hello, I'm a flake).

And I guess that's it. Thanks, everyone. Hopefully I'll see you around :)

Less than three, Styx