Author's Note: This is it! The last chapter! I want to thank everyone who reviewed or alerted or favorited - it really means a lot! I apologize for the wait yet again; this chapter originally ended after the Jimmy/Abby/Gibbs scene, but I realized something was missing...Tony! So, I had to add on. Also, a big Thank YOU to my beta reader, ncismom, for helping me out! Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you enjoy the ending!


Chapter 6

Monday morning, as usual, came much too quickly. McGee and Ziva were already in the bullpen when Tony dragged himself in, carrying coffees for his teammates, as he usually did to start every week.

"Good morning, Tony," Ziva smiled as she took the offered coffee.

Tony gave her a small grin, unsure of how his teammates were going to react to the newly discovered information about his past.

"Morning, Zee-vah," he replied as he turned to McGee and produced another cup.

"Thank you, Tony," McGee said brightly, setting the coffee down.

"You are, oh, so very welcome, McMonday." Tony smiled again, quickly returning to his seat and looking for something to busy himself with. A case would be very welcome right about now.

Truthfully, he was a little afraid of his teammates reactions to his secret. It was a sensitive subject for him still, and while a part of him was glad he no longer had to hide, he was growing increasingly anxious around his friends as he tried to figure out exactly what they knew…and what they thought. Would they understand his reason for burying the past? Or would they resent him for once again leaving them out of the loop? More importantly, would they understand that he didn't want to make a big deal of it; didn't want to bring up all of those memories? Did they understand that he didn't want to be known as a basketball superstar anymore?

He slumped a little in his seat as he read and re-read the same sentence on the form in his hand. Tony feared the moment when his ninja partner would decide to saunter up to his desk and demand answers, undoubtedly shadowed by an uneasy McGee.

It didn't help that Probie had been staring at him non-stop for the past 10 minutes. He hadn't glanced up from his still-unread file, but he could sense it all the same. Tony knew there was no way he was leaving the office today without a team confrontation.

For his part, McGee was making less progress than Tony, not even trying to hide behind a pretense of doing work. He scrutinized his partner, amazing plays and impossible shots running through the back of his mind. He let out an involuntary wince as he recalled that devastating moment when the pile of players cleared to reveal Tony, helpless and in pain, lying on the ground, the raw emotion on his face bared before the entire world.

He blinked and refocused on the present, immediately grateful that Tony had not looked up and caught him staring. Now that would be fun to explain.

He didn't go back to work though; instead, he found he couldn't stop analyzing his friend.

Tony had been an amazing athlete; had shown discipline on the court, leadership among his teammates, composure under pressure, all things that he had brought into his job – though at times, some who didn't understand his 'process' might question the discipline part. He'd exhibited true strength and resiliency as he went through a career-ending injury in front of the entire nation, coming out of a week in the hospital with a new goal of 'helping people'. DiNozzo had reconnected with the man that had seemingly ruined his life, at a time in which each breath was a battle won, and beat the odds to not only survive, but to extend an offering of friendship to his one-time opponent.

And he'd never talked about any of it. Never let anyone know exactly how much he had been through to get to where he was today. Never told anyone of his triumphs on the court, or allowed anyone a glimpse at his selflessness off of it.

It was…odd to think that the Anthony DiNozzo that was sitting just 10 feet from his desk, was the same Anthony DiNozzo that had been mobbed by 20,000 adoring fans after sinking a perfect jumper to win the National Championship. He'd looked so young and talented, so happy and triumphant. The recollection played a stark contrast to the tense agent, hunched over his desk in an attempt to ward off approaches from his team.

It was so…wrong. He didn't deserve this. Not after everything that had happened.

But how was McGee supposed to handle this? Was he supposed to treat his partner any differently? No…no way – Tony would hate that. If they came at him too seriously, with kid-gloves, he'd be likely to bolt. Sometimes with Tony, you had to work hard to get to the sincerity.

He looked up at Ziva, who seemed to immediately sense that he wanted her attention, as her head shot up to lock eyes with him. He could tell she had a plan – probably a little banter to get through their senior field agent's defenses, to put him just off his game enough that their words might actually sink in, instead of bouncing off of his usually impenetrable mask with the help of a few self-deprecating jokes.

He'd follow along, and hope that when it came time for him to say something meaningful, he will have found the right words to say.

NCIS – NCIS – NCIS – NCIS – NCIS

Tony was tense. It had been twenty minutes. Twenty minutes of dead silence. What were they waiting for? He couldn't work like this, without knowing what they were thinking. It was nerve-wracking; he found himself praying for a dead body.

"So, Tony, how was your weekend?" Ziva finally asked, breaking the silence. Tony was proud to say that he kept his features neutral; it had taken all of his training not to jump at the sound of her voice. Took you long enough, he thought as he slowly looked up at his partner.

She had folded her hands in front of her and was resting her chin on them. Her gaze was harmless, but Tony wasn't taking any chances. They weren't going to get him to spill his guts. No way.

"It was great, just great. You know, the usual…"

"The usual?" Ziva asked, hiding a small smile.

"Yep, you know, hangin' out, watching movies…there was a Magnum marathon all day Sunday!" Tony said, with almost too much enthusiasm.

"Sounds…fascinating." Ziva didn't sound quite convinced.

"Oh, it was…it was," Tony said, reverting his attention back to his emails.

"Don't you want to know how our weekend was, Tony?" McGee asked, apparently going along with Ziva's lightly-teasing approach.

Tony looked up. "Hmm? Oh, um, nope, not really…" he said in a distracted voice.

"You don't? You always want to know, Tony," McGee pressed. Tony could actually tell that his probie wasn't exactly comfortable with how they were digging; neither was he, for that matter. But, he could also tell that his teammates meant no malice by it, it was just a part of their dynamic.

Tony played along, pretending to be offended. "I do not always want to know," he said indignantly.

"Yes, you do," Ziva confirmed.

"Okay, okay," Tony raised his hands in mock surrender. "How was your weekend?" He cocked his head and said the words deliberately, as if to show that his interest was forced.

"It was fine, thank you," Ziva replied.

Tony gave another small smile and a short nod, and then started filling out some forms he'd been procrastinating about all week.

"You know," Ziva said, after a small respite, "we watched a very interesting TV special on Saturday night."

Tony slumped a little. This was what he had been afraid of. Here came all of the comments, all of the pitying looks, all of the questions that he didn't have the right answers to. Oh, well, he'd better get it over with now.

He gave a fake smile, leaning back on his chair and throwing his hands behind his head, trying to look relaxed. "Oh, you did? How…nice."

"Yeah, Tony," McGee chimed in. "Abby and Jimmy showed it to us."

"Well that was hospitable of them," Tony's voice had gone up a couple of octaves. He had been initially fine with his team watching the segment about him, but it now it seemed like a big mistake, allowing them to do it. He'd never live it down.

"You were…a very good basketball player, yes?" Ziva had now approached his desk, and he could see McGee getting up out of the corner of his eye.

"I was okay," Tony allowed, not wanting any more to be made of it than was absolutely necessary.

"You were more than okay, Tony," McGee corrected.

"Why thank you, Probie. Would you like an autograph or a photo-op?" Tony was clearly stressed.

"We just, wanted to say, that we are proud of you…and that, although it is…a shame…that your career ended so soon, we are…happy, to know you." Ziva spoke, her every word was sincere.

Tony had not been expecting that. Some teasing about the uniforms, maybe. Or apologies about his career ending, or something. Not that. He studied Ziva carefully.

"Thanks," he finally said.

She nodded. "You are welcome," Ziva quietly replied, and with a kind smile, she left his desk.

McGee was still standing there, however.

"I need a pen if you want me to sign something, McStarstruck." Tony cracked, now slightly more at-ease since Ziva had left.

McGee gave a small chuckle. "I don't need an autograph, Tony. I just…"

Tony exaggeratedly raised his eyebrows in expectance.

McGee let out a breath. "You were a really good player, Tony…"

"Yes, I think we've already established that," Tony prodded, but his voice was not unkind.

"Just, let me-" McGee stumbled, frustrated.

"Sorry." Tony sincerely apologized.

"I couldn't have done that—what you did…" he began, but Tony had to interrupt, he couldn't resist.

"Well, I know that, McGee! It's been obvious since day one that you have no Hops!"

"That's not what I meant and you know it!" McGee exclaimed, exasperated. Across the bullpen, Tony could see Ziva smirk at their brotherly bickering.

"Anyways," McGee valiantly pressed on, in spite of how difficult Tony was making it. He supposed Tony was doing it unconsciously, as a small defense against how uncomfortable he clearly was with the subject.

"I just wanted to say, that I'm glad to count you among my closest friends, and that…you're one of the strongest people I know. So if you…ever need to talk or anything…I'm here." He looked steadily at his partner, hoping that Tony wouldn't crack a joke.

But Tony was looking right back at him, an odd expression on his face. He finally seemed to snap out of it. "Thanks, Tim. That, uh, means a lot." He gave a quick nod, as though embarrassed.

As Tim turned towards his desk, Tony let out a long breath. "Well, now that that's over with…" he muttered.

"Oh, we're just getting started, DiNozzo," Gibbs announced, striding into the bullpen. "Grab your gear, dead sailor at Norfolk."

"Finally!" Tony was so glad to be done with cold cases.

Gibbs stopped in front of his desk and glared.

"Sorry, boss. Not that a dead sailor is a good thing…" Tony backpedaled.

Gibbs's glare did not let up. McGee and Ziva hurried past him to hold the elevator. For a moment, Tony was confused as to why Gibbs was so concerned about his eagerness to get to a crime scene, before he realized, Gibbs had been listening in. This was about the other thing.

"Everything's good, boss," he assured. "They know, and…everything's still good."

Gibbs gave a nod and a smirk. "Good." As he turned on his heel, Tony was right behind him as always, just as the team was behind Tony.

NCIS-NCIS-NCIS-NCIS-NCIS

Late that afternoon, Tony went down to Abby's lab. The case was looking to be a pretty quick one, but he wanted to make sure the evidence was backing their theory up.

"Abs! Do you know if Jimmy's around?" Tony asked as he walked into the lab.

"Here!" came an excited voice, a little too close to his ear. Tony jumped.

"Palmer! Personal space! Geez!"

Jimmy immediately backed off. "Sorry! Abby told me you would be down soon and I wanted, well, we wanted, to talk to you, so I figured I would wait right by the doorway."

"Abby told you I was coming?" Tony was confused.

"Of course I did! You come visit me every Monday afternoon around this time!" Abby bounced out of the back room.

"I do?"

"Yup! I write down all of your visits in my 'Tony Log' so I can predict when you're coming!"

"That's…" Tony tried to be polite, but couldn't find the word.

"Flattering? Well, you're welcome! Now, we have to talk Mister!"

"We do?" Tony asked, hoping he wouldn't have to talk about basketball yet again.

"Don't worry, I'll be quick, I swear!" Abby promised, dragging him into the back room, and then shutting the door once Jimmy joined them.

Tony tried to put on a smile as he faced them. "Well, I'm here. So, uh, what do you need?"

Abby turned completely serious. "Tony, we watched the TV segment that ESPN did."

Tony gave an exaggerated nod, urging her to continue.

"First of all, you looked awesome out there, as always, so don't worry about that…"

"I was worried," Tony feigned solemnity.

"And the end of the video…was kinda sucky, considering its content," she continued.

"That's to be expected…unless you're a Michigan fan," Tony tried to joke.

"Hey!" Abby punched him. "Even Michigan fans were upset…no one wanted that to happen!" Thankfully, Palmer jumped in before the floodgates opened.

"But," he placed a comforting and restricting hand on Abby's shoulder, "we just wanted to tell you that it was well-done…a very good tribute to you, and that McGee and Ziva really understand what happened now."

"We just want you to know that we are all here to support you and that we think it's a good thing that everyone knows now and we don't ever want you to feel like we pity you or we blame you or anything…" Abby was starting to get emotional.

"Hey, hey," Tony said softly, wrapping her in a hug. "It's fine. Everything's fine…"

"You mean it? Like real fine, not 'Tony fine'?" Abby sniffed.

"Of course…wait, what's 'Tony fine'?" Tony released her from the hug and held her at arm's length.

"You know, when you say you're fine and you're really bleeding out of every orifice? That kind of fine," she supplied.

Tony was indignant. "I do not do that!"

Both Abby and Jimmy nodded. "Yeah, you do," they said together.

Tony shook his head, his mouth open in comic disbelief. "I have not, ever, bled out of every orifice…and I resent the implication that I have!"

"Oh come on, Tony! We all know you have the worst luck in the whole agency!" Jimmy exclaimed, making him the next recipient of a punch from Abby.

"I…do not!" Tony protested.

Abby once again approached Tony for a hug, sending Palmer a glare over Tony's shoulder. "We're just making sure you're doing okay because we love you, Tony."

Tony awkwardly patted her back. "Um, thanks, I guess. Well then, good talk…" He tried to back away.

"Wait!" Abby grabbed his arm. "So everything is okay for real? You're not gonna go feel bad or sad or guilty or troubled or perplexed or discombobulated or upset or dismayed or-"

Tony gently put a finger to her lips. He tilted his head so that his gaze met hers. "I am fine, Abs. I promise. But, thank you, for everything. I mean that," he said. He had never been more sincere in his life.

He then turned to Palmer. "That goes for you too, Black Lung! You're the best friend a guy could ever have!" Though his tone was lighter, he was no less earnest.

"I've gotta get back up to Gibbs before he has a coronary, but I'll see you two soon!" he said, giving them a genuine smile before departing.

Abby and Jimmy looked at each other, a grin lit up each of their faces. "He's back," Jimmy raised his hand for a high five.

"Oh Jimmy, he was never gone!" Abby brought her hand up to his.

"We make a pretty good team, you know that," he commented.

"We sure do," she answered, still smiling.

"Too bad, one of us has to lose the bracket pool."

"Yep. Too bad."

They still hadn't made eye contact.

"Hey! You think it's gonna be me!" Jimmy accused, his smile now completely gone as he turned to face Abby.

"Oh Jimmy, I know it's gonna be you," Abby's smile got bigger as she skipped back to her machines.

"You can't know that!" he protested.

"Palmer. I know everything. Now, go, you're distracting me!"

"No! I will not go until you admit that either of us has a chance."

"You should probably leave now, Palmer…" Abby warned.

"I am not going!" Palmer said petulantly, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

"I suggest you listen to her, Palmer," Gibbs interrupted, having entered completely unnoticed by the assistant.

"Uh, Agent Gibbs, I uh, Abby thinks that…" Gibbs just glared. "I'm gonna go now," Palmer said, scurrying out of the lab.

"Hey Gibbs!" Abby greeted, having known the whole time that Gibbs was there.

"Abby," Gibbs returned.

"You think I'm gonna win the pool, right?" She asked, looking up at him expectantly.

"Sure do, Abs."

"Exactly, because it's never a good idea to root against Tony and his Buckeyes! In fact, I'm making that Abby's rule number 7, in honor of Tony's number!"

And with a kiss on the head, Gibbs replied, "I think that's a real good rule, Abs. A real good rule."

NCIS – NCIS – NCIS – NCIS – NCIS

Later that night, Tony let himself into his apartment, balancing his favorite pizza in one hand and awkwardly jamming his keys into the lock with the other.

He hadn't been expecting to get home for dinner that night; the crime scene had been a messy one, and in his experience, messy was equated to long and arduous. However, this time, 'messy' had been more like 'sloppy'. Their killer hadn't even taken the time to wipe down the murder weapon that he dropped at the scene. They'd put out a BOLO and he'd been picked up by Metro a few hours later on a traffic violation. A half hour in the interrogation room with the tag team of Gibbs and himself, and he'd pled guilty to the murder of his cheating wife. Open and shut – just what he'd needed today.

And to top it all off, Gibbs had allowed them to hold off their reports until the next morning, so he'd gotten out at 1800 – the earliest he'd left the office in about 10 years.

He'd used the extra time to go on a nice run; nothing like the solid pounding of shoes on pavement, the steady rhythm of his hard breathing, and the crisp March air to clear his thoughts.

He actually found himself relieved that McGee and Ziva knew his secret; not that he'd actively kept that information secret, but he certainly hadn't made any efforts to tell them. It was private – something that he had always dealt with by himself, and something that he didn't need outside input on…or so he had thought.

To know that all of his close friends were aware of it, and that all of them respected his wishes to, for the most part, leave it alone, was significant. It was evident that they understood him, respected him – and the knowledge was finally enough to put him at ease.

Basketball was no longer a part of his life, but NCIS was. All that he'd lost in that final game, while it could never be replaced, had at least been made up for in a different way. Even all those years ago, he'd known in his heart what he wanted to do – help people. And he was doing it. While he may never have the feeling of an entire campus mobbing him after a heroic play, now, at the end of a case, he felt the warmth and the satisfaction of bringing closure to loved ones, or the relief of saving a person's life and allowing them to live their dreams.

They were different sorts of feelings. One, more intense, more…fleeting – the feeling of sinking that final shot, of being hoisted up on the shoulders of the very city that you'd carried all season. The other: deeper, more gratifying and profound – the feeling of saving lives and giving victims second chances, and the feeling of locking away forever, those that choose to hurt the innocent. Despite their differences, they were both…fulfilling – it had just taken about 20 years to recognize that.

Better late than never, he thought to himself as he set his gear down, settling down on the couch with his pizza and a beer.

He fingered the remote aimlessly as he chewed. It was 2000. The National Championship game would be starting any minute now.

Abby and Palmer were probably about ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight; he'd been hearing their bickering all day about who would win the pool. Obviously it would be Abby, and not just because he'd knew she could take Jimmy in a fight any day. Abby would win the pool because she had his Buckeyes, and while he hadn't watched college basketball in 20 years, he was confident they'd come out on top.

Maybe McGee and Ziva were there as well, returning to share in the tradition that Abby and Jimmy had started years ago.

His finger hovered over the power button. 20 years was a long time. Was it enough?

What would happen if he clicked the button? Would he be unaffected? Would he be struck down by memories, crippled by the 'what if?' that hovered over his head? Would he actually enjoy it, embrace seeing the young talent on his old team, reminding him of the good times he'd had?

He didn't know. Truly, he didn't.

He set down the remote. Now was not the time.

For once, the decision didn't seem like a cop out, didn't seem like an excuse to bury his memories. Instead, it was a promise to himself: Not now, but one day.

One day he would turn it on. One day, he would reconnect with his old sport, with his old stomping grounds. However, it wouldn't be like this – alone, after he'd just stressed for an entire week about the tournament.

No, it would be with his teammates, with Gibbs. He'd let Abby know, let her throw one of her over-the-top parties, and he'd face it with his team to support him. He'd never been a fan of having an audience to his emotions, but his friends weren't an audience, they were a support system, and for once, he felt confident in letting them all in.

He missed basketball, and for the first time in a long while, he realized how much he wanted to come back to it; all it had taken was 20 years of avoidance, an annoying ESPN segment, and the help of his team.

Anthony DiNozzo, #7, star point guard, was long gone, but Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, #2 to the legendary Leroy Jethro Gibbs, and heart of the DC MCRT, was here to stay.

Next year, maybe he'd even allow the two to meet.

~END~


Thank you so much for reading, and for all of your support throughout this story. Please leave a review and tell me what you thought!

To answer inquiries about an epilogue...yes, I did leave it open for one. Possibly with Tony finally watching a Final Four or National Championship game with his team. I don't have a timeline on this because I don't want to rush it and ruin the feel for this story, but if you have this on your story alerts, you will know about it the second it's posted.

As for other stories. I am working on a Tony-centric, serial killer novel, in which a case from his past in Philly comes back to haunt him. You can look at my profile for more details, but it will be called "Uncovered" and will feature competent, angsty, and whumped Tony, solving the case with the help of his team. I'm also working on outlining a "5 Times" fic about Tony, told from the perspective of McGee. Look for these 2 fics in the future (I will basically post as soon as I finish).

Again, thank you so much for reading - I really hope you all enjoyed. See you around soon!

Peas,

Stephanie