A big big thank you to Dixie Dewdrop (I'm so glad you like my explaination of the facts!) and the anonymous guest (you're right, Ziva did a background research on all of the team members, and a failed engagement could've been part of the research, though I'm not that sure… but I really don't think McGee would know too; as for the others, from what Ducky said in autopsy in thaty episode I've always thought he didn't really know the details of what had happened to Tony; same goes for Abby; while Gibbs, well… he knows everything XD Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my doubts, and I'm glad you enjoyed the chapter!) who reviewd last chapter and all of you who added this fic to favs or alerts or just read in silence. I'm glad you enjoyed the first chapter, and I hope you're gonna like the second (which is also the last) as well :)

Again, my biggest thank you goes to the greatest beta of the world, FrancyChan! :)


Chapter 2

He left… Lisa? Louise? Something-like-that's apartment while it was still dark, and got back home for a quick shower and change. He hadn't slept much - maybe one hour, but the girl whose name he couldn't remember had been worth it - and he needed something that made him look more rested than he was, to avoid the second wound of questions and stares. God, he really hoped Abby wasn't planning to ambush him and third degree him when he had his guard down, it'd been hard enough to avoid her for a whole day.

Problem was, though, that after ten years and a half on the MCRT all his collegues had learnt to identify and circumvent some of his masks - Abby with her hugs and persistence, Gibbs with his piercing stares and head slaps, Ducky with his patient comments and rare quiet he could summon when needed. And Tim and Ziva, with their questions. Because they'd understood as well how to make him answer, they knew when they could insist and when it was better to give up. Hell, even Jimmy (1) had learnt to decipher part of the DiNozzo code.

It was still early when he left home and got back into his car. Resolute not to make Gibbs even more suspicious, he decided to go for a drive before going to NCIS - hoping to spend enough time not to get there before his boss. It wasn't that he'd never got to the office before the former Marine: especially during those months when team Gibbs was a two-man team, Tony was often the one to be answer dispatch's calls about new cases - but the team leader knew that when it happened, it was because something was wrong with him.

He parked in his lot at the Navy Yard at oh-seven fifty-five, and satisfied he took the elevator to the third floor painting his trademark everything-is-peachy grin on his face.

Gibbs was not there, but his jacket on the back of his chair told him the former Marine'd just gone to his morning coffee run and Tony's plan worked. While he was taking off his backpack, Ziva got out of the elevator and gave him a long look before saying hello and taking her place behind her desk.

Damn. His plan was useless if Ziva had stared at him like that as soon as she got there. But he was pretty sure he didn't look that bad.

McGee arrived shortly after, but if he noticed anything, he didn't let on.

There were no usual morning banter among the three agents; the three of them started to work diligently, waiting for a case. When Gibbs got back with his Starbucks cup and sat behind his desk, the three of them kept on examining cold cases looking for new leads.

For almost four hours there were no jokes or pranks or silly comments by their SFA; the two younger agents kept exchange confused - and concerned - looks and search their leader's face if he wanted to take any measures. Not that there was any logic reason to take any measure: their colleague was just doing his job with professionalism like any man or woman should in office. But he just wasn't Tony. And all three of them knew that, if their team mate wasn't wasting time joking, it meant something was wrong with him, and that he was trying to avoid thinking about it by focusing on his job. As much as Tony's masks were worrisome per se, their absence was more: a DiNozzo who couldn't keep his façade was a DiNozzo who was at a loss to deal with whatever problem he'd to face, and that often led him to… dangerous solutions.

They all had noticed the dark shadows under their coworker's eyes the previous day, and could see they were even more evident that morning. They'd already seen DiNozzo looking like that, and it never ended well: after Kate, Paula, the disastrous conclusion of the Grenoiulle op, Jeanne leaving, Jenny, the Domino op, Rivkin and the trip to Israel, Dana Hutton, EJ's presumed death… (1) Tony had struggled to come out of the self-destructive spiral, and every time had been harder than the previous one.

On his part, Tony was aware of his younger collegues' concerned looks and his boss' too, but in that moment he didn't want to care: he was sleep-deprived and was already doing his best to keep his brain focused on the files he was examining, he couldn't at the same time make stupid joked to not to make his coworkers worry.

And after all, weren't they the ones who always told him to stop goofing around and start acting like a mature person?

He was forty; it was about time he acted like an adult.

"Maybe I got something" McGee broke the silence. He got up and pointed the remote towards the plasma between his desk and Tony's. "Scott Grey, ten years old. Son of Arthur and Jenna Grey, both in the Navy, he was kidnapped in February, two years ago" he illustrated showing them the kid's photo on the screen.

"I remember him" Gibbs grimly nodded, and they all empathized with him.

It had been an awful case, one of those that every member of law enforcement dreads and loathes with a passion. The kid had been taken from school, nobody had seen anything: one moment he was there, the other he was not.

They'd found his body two days after among the garbage in an alley. The autopsy revealed the boy had been beaten up for a long time before he was choked to death. That night, no-one of them had got home, too upset for what had happened and decided to find justice for the kid and his devastated parents. But after two weeks with no breakthrough, they had to give up the case, waiting for new leads.

"There's a similar case. Actually two: two kids, eleven and ten years old, kidnapped and found a few days after. The finding places were different and far between, but MO looks the same" McGee informed his collegues. There wasn't the usual excitement they felt when they found new leads for a cold case. The young man's voice was soft; his coworkers were listening quietly, looking sadly at the plasma. "Both were taken from school. And both…" McGee paused to push the button on the remote. On the plasma there now were the photos of the three victims: all three of them had red hair and green eyes.

"A serial killer with a definite victimology" Ziva summarized.

"Why didn't we link them together sooner?" Tony asked.

"They weren't our jurisdiction. The second victim's - eleven-year-old Bobby Summers'- parents have a restaurant here in Washington, while Alex McCoy's father works for an insurance company and his mother is a housewife. To link them together was Washington PD; they're investigating the cases as related."

"When were they kidnapped?" Ziva asked.

"Bobby vanished on the eleventh of February, last year, and was found two days after. Alex was taken… the tenth of February, this year, and found two days ago."

McGee's answer was welcomed by the silence.

The four agents were lost in their thoughts for long minutes before the team leader recovered and started giving orders.

"DiNozzo, Ziva. Go and talk to the officers who dealt with the other two cases." They got up with their backpacks to obey. "McGee, retrieve everything we have on the Grey case." The younger agent nodded and got to work.

Gibbs stayed a few more second at his desk, staring at the plasma in front of him, where the kids' photos still were displayed.

He hated cases involving kids.


"I will drive" Ziva said when, after a quiet ride in the elevator, she and Tony got to the garage.

"Uh, no, thanks. I'd really like to get to destination alive" her coworker replied with a forced smirk. He was still thinking about the last minutes in the squadroom, the kids' photos, the ferocious particulars of their cases.

Ziva fake-pouted and got into the car on the passenger side, wondering how to best approach the subject she wanted to talk to her colleague about - while he was wondering how to avoid the second round of questions. It really wasn't the time to talk about his past private life, not in a moment when they had a children serial killer to catch.

"So…" Ziva began, but Tony interrupted her right away.

"Not now."

"You do not even know what I was about to say" the woman objected frowning. Her colleague threw her a sidelong glance.

"Not now" he repeated.

The former Mossad officer sighed.

"Then when?"

"Not now" Tony said for the third time, and Ziva understood she wouldn't be able to make him talk.

The rest of the journey was quiet.

They got out of the car in front of the Washington PD precinct, and DiNozzo strolled in followed by his collegue: as an ex cop - and since Gibbs didn't have enough patience to deal with police or, even worse, fight over jurisdiction - he was often the one his boss chose as a liaison with the police.

Well, not only with the police, it seems.

They met the detective who'd linked the civilian victims and, promising they'd keep him in the loop, they obtained the evidence and reports they needed.

With their car full of boxes - Abby would be happy to have so much evidence to examine - the two agents got back to the Navy Yard.

Luckily for Tony, Ziva seemed to have given up to her questions for now. But the SFA knew Abby wouldn't be as easy to contain when they'd meet her with the boxes.

Damn.

Right as he expected. Just like they'd arranged it - and Tony was pretty sure they really had - as after putting her box down, Ziva exchanged a look with Abby and hurried out of the lab, taking the elevator to the third floor before Tony could even turn toward the door. Having now full scope, the young forensic expert didn't even pretend she wasn't looking forward to have him there, and menacingly- well, menacingly for Abby, so it was more endearingly - pointed her finger at Tony and hissed: "Don't even think about running away before you've given me an explanation, Mister."

Tony sighed. It was pointless to play dumb, so he tried to sneak out in another way.

"It was already over when I started here at NCIS. There was no reason to talk about it."

Abby kept glaring at him.

"You were gonna marry her, Tony. And you didn't tell me."

Why was it so hard to think that Tony DiNozzo had been about to get married? Damn, if Wendy hadn't let it slip, they'd probably given up sooner!

The young Goth's eyes softened.

"Tony" she said quietly, taking a step ahead. "We are friends. Why didn't I know you'd had a girl named Wendy until a few days ago? I thought I was the only one you showed your 'women phone book'."

The agent snorted.

"Wendy's not on the book."

"I know. She… was special to you, wasn't she?." The man started, finally raising his eyes from the box and setting them onto the young scientist. "You were gonna marry her. She was special" she repeated staring at him straight into his eyes.

And Tony realized maybe the reason his coworkers - his friends - all seemed so shocked about him proposing to Wendy, wasn't just because they couldn't picture him engaged to someone.

"Yeah" he just replied. Then he took a deep breath and sat onto one of the stools before the work bench.


He hadn't seen Wendy in years. After that last letter where she'd apologized and told him she was leaving the East Coast, the woman hadn't called or contacted him in any way, and he had no way to know what had happened to her since she'd been fired.

He'd finished school, and with it every relationship with his father, who was no longer forced by the law to pay his expensive academy bill.

He'd won a scholarship for sports at Ohio University, where he spent the happiest years of his life: finally, after having cut all family ties, he'd befriended boys who studied and played sports because they wanted to, and not just because their cumbersome parents wanted them to; he'd joined the basketball team, whose coach had recognized in him a talent worth growing into something more; he'd played that decisive game against the Wolverines that'd crashed every hope he'd had to become a pro along with his knee, and got a degree in Phys Ed thinking that, after all, if he'd managed to get back onto his feet - in spite of what his doctors had told him - he could use his passion for the sports as a coach.

And then he'd saved that kid from the burning building, and for the first time he'd felt he'd made a difference. And he'd decided that was what he wanted to do. It was like returning to his first passion, the one born during those lonely nights after his mother's death, when he used to stay in his room, forgotten by everyone, with no other company that his TV - with no other company than Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, the PI who'd won the first place among his childhood heroes

He'd entered the Police Academy, graduated with flying colors and was recruited by the Peoria PD.

Four years - ad two PDs - later, he was in a Baltimore bar with his partner, Danny Price, drowning their last case horrors in alcohol.

"I can't believe it, it can't be!" Danny was saying staring at the ice in his glass, his expression already slightly inebriated.

"Oh it can" Tony insisted with a broad grin. He'd been at Baltimore PD for a few months, and he and Danny had bonded right away. With no families of their own, and having their native ones cut all their ties with them, they'd soon become family to each other.

"The Final Four?" detective Price asked, skeptical. DiNozzo nodded staring at his glass for a moment before downing it. "Holy shit!" his friend exclaimed and laughed.

Tony turned towards him, ready to tell him about his feats on the field, but he suddenly stopped.

"My partner! In the Final Four! You must have some photos, a video… something that proves you were there, don't you? Because you gotta admit it's… Tony?." Danny had gone on, distracted by the thought of his friend in the finals of NCAA, but when he'd turned towards him, he'd found DiNozzo staring wide eyed at something like he'd just seen a ghost - and he really hated this cliché. "Tony, what's up?"

He followed his friend's gaze to understand the reason behind his reaction, and saw, next to the door, a hot dark haired woman. "You know her?" he asked raising an eyebrow.

But Tony didn't answer. He took his wallet, picked a fifty dollar bill and left it on the counter next to his empty glass; he stood up and without uttering a word - without giving any sign he'd even heard his partner talking to him in surprise - he went to the dark haired woman.

Wendy paled as well when she saw him; then she smiled, and her face cheered up.

"Tony!" she exclaimed closing the distance between them.

The young man didn't say a word, but when she gently touched his cheek, he closed his eyes inhaling her scent.

They stood like that for long seconds. When Tony reopened his eyes, he returned her smile.

"I missed you."

They spent their night buying drinks to each other and catching up.

Wendy told him she'd taken her car as soon as she'd left that letter under his dormitory room at the Academy and drove all night trying to figure what to do. The next day she'd found herself in Baltimore, and stayed there for the following ten years, working as a private piano teacher to pay herself the journalism lessons, her dream. She hadn't managed to enter the environment she really wanted, but she'd written pieces for some minor magazines.

She told him that she'd never forgotten him. That she still thought about him sometimes. That she'd wondered what'd happened to him.

It was two in the morning when they'd left the bar, laughing, holding to each other - perhaps just so they didn't fall - and took a cab to her apartment.

There was no need for words: Wendy took Tony's hand and led him through her living room and corridor to her bedroom. Beyond the threshold, she reached up and kissed him, like it'd been ten hours and not ten years.


"Cop" Wendy whispered tracing the word on his naked chest with her finger.

Tony held her close, kissing her hair. God, how much he'd missed her.

He didn't say anything, just basking in her closeness, in her skin, smooth and soft under his fingers, in her breath tickling him. He wasn't sure what to answer, actually - was it a question? A comment? A critique? As long as Wendy was there in his arms it didn't matter.

"I like it" she finally said, and they just lay there in silence for long hours, holding each other, naked among the covers. Maybe they slept, at some point. But when they woke, it was like not even a second had gone by.

Tony knew Danny'd ask him a lot of questions about the mysterious dark-haired woman as soon as they'd meet at the precinct - and he also knew he was gonna be late - but he didn't care.

Wendy was back.


"Does it sound like a cheep '90 comedy if I say it felt like not a day had passed, uh?" Tony tried to joke, forcing himself to smile.

Abby didn't laugh. She had an odd expression and looked like she was gonna hug him - well, it wasn't odd for Abby to hug. In the end, she opted for the Abby Sciuto that didn't come out often, but her friends knew was there, under the eccentric forensic specialist and her excessive energy.

She nodded. Smiled.

And Tony was so grateful.

Smiling back - with a real smile, now - the agent god up and left the scientist to examine the evidence.

When he got back to the squadroom he found McGee and Ziva in front of their computers. The boss was nowhere to be seen, and honestly the Senior Field Agent was relieved: he didn't think he could face Gibbs' piercing looks right after Abby.

The break was short-lived. The former Marine climbed down the stairs from Vance's office just when he was sitting behind his desk, and entered the bullpen demanding a sitrep.

"According to witnesses' statements, all three kids were kidnapped when they came out of school. Different schools, though. There are no immediate links between their parents or themselves… except their appearance" McGee started.

"No ransom demands were made" Ziva went on. "No suspicious phone calls. Nothing strange in the previous days. Nothing."

"He randomly chose them" Tony deducted.

Gibbs stared at him for a long moment.

"No victim is ever randomly chosen, DiNozzo" he corrected, and the agent half-smiled.

"Right, Boss."

Gibbs kept staring at him for a few more seconds, enough to make him uncomfortable - enough to make clear it wasn't because of his comment about the choice of the victims - then turned towards the informatics expert.

"McGee."

"Yes, Boss" was the quick answer.

"Take Ziva and go and talk with the witnesses of the two last kidnappings."

"Uh… I read the police reports, nobody's seen anything" the younger man objected frowning.

"Rule Number Three, Probie: don't believe what you're told, double check" Tony explained before the Boss could glare at anyone.

"Uh, right. On it, Boss" McGee said grabbing his gear as Ziva was doing the same.

"I'm gonna check if Ducky's already examined the autopsy reports" DiNozzo offered after the younger agents disappeared behind the elevator doors. He had no intention to stay alone with Gibbs, and he didn't wait for the former Marine's answer before standing up and hurrying towards the inner elevator.

Not that a trip to the morgue was much safer: Ducky had already shown, a few days before, that he was just as interested as their other coworkers in the mysterious almost-Mrs-DiNozzo. And trying to avoid the inquisitive looks of a Psychology graduated was almost as hard as avoiding Gibbs'.

Damn.

"Hey, Ducky!" he said as soon as the doors opened.

"Oh, Anthony!" the elderly coroner greeted him raising his eyes from the autopsy photos he was examining. "I was under the impression that you were trying to avoid me for as long as possible. I gather you are running away from Jethro and decided I'm the lesser of two evils, hm?" he said knowingly.

As I was expecting.

Where was Palmer when he needed him?

Luckily, as if on cue, the ME assistant entered the autopsy room, saving him from answering - and giving him an odd look.

"You had time to review the police reports?" the agent asked, now more at ease, ignoring the elderly doctor's question.

Ducky sighed.

"The young victims show the same kind of injuries. All three of them were beat angrily and then choked to death" he sadly illustrated. "The second victim had deep cuts caused by glass shards. Abigail shall tell you more about them."

Tony nodded. He regretted avoiding the questions about Wendy: it didn't matter how painful thinking about her was, thinking about what those children had had to endure before dying was a lot worse, and reminded him about things he didn't wanna think about anymore. (3)

"The beating doesn't seem led by a rational thought" the coroner went on, "while the conclusive asphyxiation was… accurate."

The agent raised an eyebrow in question.

"Quick and as painless as possible" the ME elaborated on.

"Remorse?" Tony asked. Remorse. It didn't change what that monster had done.

"Possible" the answer was. "More apparent on the last victim than the previous ones."

They stood in silence for a few minutes, and then Tony took a deep breath to prepare himself to ask the next question - and hear the answer.

"You get an idea about his psychological profile?." Apart from him being a monster.

"The rage - the fury - shown by the bruises and injuries left by the beating totally contrasts with the way he killed his victims. My opinion is that he lashed out whatever problem was plaguing him against these kids, and then he felt sorry."

"How convenient" the agent snorted.

Ducky couldn't blame him, but was surprised that the younger man had voiced that thought.

"The greater accuracy while killing the last victim suggests that he somehow… improved, maybe practicing after murdering little Summers" the elderly ME said, and Tony held his breath for a moment, thinking about the implications - could there be more victims? - "or maybe - and think this is more the case - he studied."

"You're saying he's a med student?" Palmer exclaimed, horrified by the thought that some of his peers could be a kids serial killer.

"A med student, or a wanna-be-student. There isn't the same rigor of someone who actually practiced, but I think he must have some theoretical knowledge, at least. Moreover, all three victims were kidnapped in the same week of February, which suggests it's an important date to the killer. The too young victims also have a strong physical resemblance: it suggests they were a substitute for someone to their killer. It also explains the rage in the beating."

"Male?" the agent asked softly. He suddenly felt the need to run away from autopsy. He was ready to talk about Wendy with anyone, Gibbs included.

"I think so. Young, not more that twenty-five."

Tony nodded.

"Thanks, Ducky" he said feeling suddenly tired, if because of the horror of their current case of because he'd slept five hours in two nights, he wasn't sure.

He turned to leave the morgue, but Palmer's voice stopped him.

"Wait for me, I'm coming with you: I gotta take some bullets to Abby for agent Balboa" he said hurrying to the counted on the other side of the room and back to him with a jar with two bullets in his hand.

Ducky waited for them to leave before allowing himself to smile: he was so proud of his young assistant. He just hoped that Tony would open up to him.

"I still can't believe I'm getting married in three months!" Palmer cheerfully exclaimed while he and Tony waited for the elevator. He had a broad grin that made him look even younger than he was, and looked so happy he could start to sing.

Tony shook his head, but he was smiling as well. He was happy that Jimmy had found a girl like Breena, they were a beautiful couple. Really, an embalmer and a medical examiner, what couple is better-matched? He chuckled to himself.

Palmer threw him a wanna-be-hidden glance, but the agent saw it and the smile disappeared from his lips.

Never underestimate Palmer, he thought, wondering if he'd look weird, giving up on the elevator and taking the stairs.

"I mean, I'm getting married! With Breena!" the kid went on, faking nonchalance. "She's so… beautiful… She doesn't look like the kind of girl who'd look at someone like me. But she has…." He paused, his expression dreamy. "You know, when I find a jewelry store I still feel like entering and buying a ring. It takes a while for me to remember I've already done it. When she said yes…"

"Jimmy, if you wanna ask just do it" Tony interrupted with a weary sigh.

Palmer stopped talking and turned towards him while the elevator doors opened.

"I don't wanna ask. I want you to talk if you want to" he answered looking at him straight in the eyes.

Tony walked into the elevator followed by the assistant ME.

"I couldn't believe it either, when she said yes" he said, leaning against the elevator wall, hands in his pockets, eyes on the floor.

Palmer pushed the button to Abby's floor. Tony reacted with a lopsided grin.

"One floor won't be enough if you really want me to talk" he said.

The younger man looked at him for a second, while the doors closed.

"You wanna talk?" he seriously asked.

Tony seemed to weight the question - or the assistant in front of him - for a moment, and then he pushed away from the wall and flicked the stop switch. The lights changes. Palmer raised his eyebrows.

"Don't you think agent Gibbs is destroying the elevator brakes enough?" he worriedly asked, trying to laugh.

Tony smirked.

"I'll tell him what you think of his… habit" he teased.

Palmer paled, horrified.

"No! I was joking, I swear! Agent Gibbs can do whatever he wants with the elevator…"

The SFA laughed out loud.

"Relax, Jimmy: the elevator company guys resigned themselves to come for the maintenance once a month instead than a year."

The younger man visibly relaxed and leaned against the wall opposite to Tony. The agent closed his eyes for a second, gathering his thoughts - and his nerve - to talk.

"I didn't even know that rings had sizes" he began.


Just as he'd suspected, Danny asked him a lot of questions as soon as he saw him: who was the mysterious woman, where'd they met, why hadn't he told his partner, what'd they do the whole night - and he winked while he was asking this particular question - what he want to do now.

The latter question was both the easiest and the most complex: Tony wanted to make up for their lost time together, wanted to spend with her every free second he had, didn't wanna leave her ever again.

They started to date again, and it was beautiful being able to do so openly. They dated like a normal couple, holding each other like two teenagers, having dinner together every time they could.

Danny witnesses some kind of metamorphosis of his partner, and if he didn't lose the opportunity to tease Tony - as every good friend would - on the other hand he was honestly happy for his partner.

After few months, Wendy insisted to introduce her boyfriend to her parents and, since he couldn't do the same for her, Tony organized a dinner with Danny and the girl he was then dating. He even decided to try and cook - he practiced the previous days using his partner as a guinea pig, and Danny told him he was probably the only Italian who couldn't cook pasta.

A year and a half later, Tony was out in the street waiting for an informant when he noticed a guy coming out of a jewelry store with a happy smile and a square box in his hands, and was overwhelmed by the urge to enter. Fifteen minutes later he wore the same silly expression and, there was a bordeaux velvet box in the inside pocket of his jacket.

He met the informer - after scolding his expression in something more apt to talk with a junkie - and then called Wendy; he told her he'd pick her up at eight and take her to a special place.

At five past eight, the woman saw her handsome cop chivalrously opening her the door of his Mustang. He was wearing for the first time a dress shirt and jacket above his jeans - she was pretty sure they belonged to Danny, but didn't omit telling him how beautiful he looked, enjoying his embarrassed look.

It was the date every romantic woman - and every human being - dreams of: Tony took her to a fancy restaurant, helped her to sit like a perfect gentleman, asked for the wine, told her a lot of compliments. And after the dinner he gave her the velvet box.

The ring revealed to be a bit too small and he awkwardly promised to take it back and have it resized the very next day, but Wendy was so happy she kept staring at the little ring and its solitary white stone crying and smiling at the same time.

After driving her back home, Tony found he couldn't restart the car. He sat in the dark behind the wheel outside the building where she lived, reliving in his mind her expression while answering his question.

She'd said yes.


"Are those really for Balboa?" Tony asked to change the subject nodding towards the bullet in the jar Palmer was holding.

"Err… no. They're doctor Mallard's, a souvenir by a Russian spy when they were both captive in Vietnam. Or Korea. I can't remember" the younger man awkwardly answered.

Tony laughed out loud flicking the switch back. Rocking slightly, the elevator started moving again to the forensic lab floor.

The agent left the car with a nod that hid his gratitude to the assistant coroner. The younger man smiled back pushing the bottom to the autopsy floor.

With a deep breath, Tony entered the lab, for once devoid of its usual ear-splitting music, and found the young scientist talking to Gibbs about her findings.

"Ducky says the second victim had injuries caused by glass shards. Forensic analysis by police scientists suggest they're from a tumbler: there were alcohol traces. Scotch" the young expert was saying.

"He was drunk while beating up the kid" the former Marine concluded. "Or he was drinking."

Abby sadly nodded, catching Tony's gaze when he entered the lab, and turned back towards the computer.

"Uh… There were no fingerprints on the bodies, so the killer was wearing gloves. I'm examining evidence from the last scene and comparing the results with the other two. Since it's so recent I think I can find something the police haven't had the time to find yet."

Gibbs grimly nodded.

"Ducky profiled our man" Tony told them approaching the counter and trying to ignore their looks. "No more than twenty-five, med student or wanna-be-student. He thinks the choking is a sign of remorse, while there was anger when he beat the kids to a pulp. It looks he thought it to be perfectly normal until a second before choking them" he said, unable to keep the disgust from his voice.

Abby glanced at Gibbs.

The former Marine sighed. He hated cases involving kids.


Talking with the witnesses again was another dead end. The three agents were now re-examining the videos of the cameras from the places surrounding the dumping scenes.

At twenty-one fifteen, Gibbs sent his agents home, stopping their protests by pointing to them that passing out from overtiredness would be of no help to the little victims and their families. He threw his Senior Field Agent a meaningful glance, and the younger man answered with a fake smile standing up and taking his backpack, ready to obey.

For some reason, the team leader knew DiNozzo wasn't going home that night either.


The real problem of spending more nights without a sleeping for real was that, no matter how much he tried, hiding his exhaustion from his teammates depleted his already scarce energy.

Determined to find justice to the three brutally beaten and murdered kids, Tony decided to allow himself at least a few hours of sleep to be able to focus the next day.

Just… not home. Not alone, with his thought free to wander between Wendy and the atrocity of their current case - and of the memories it'd re-awakened.

Not re-awakened, DiNozzo. Those memories'd never gone to sleep, uh?

Stopping his thought before they could go exactly where he didn't want them, Tony parked next to a bar, removed his tie and combed his hair in the rearview mirror. When he was satisfied of his transformation from cop-at-the-end-of-the-day to I've-dressed-up-for-the-occasion, he climbed out the car, locked it and strolled into the bar.

Nine hours later, contented for the good night's fuck and sleep, he left Mary's - he even remembered her name, this time - place and got back home to have a shower and change.

He even managed to get to work after McGee and Ziva, and joined his coworkers in the examination of the videos.

Gibbs spent half morning with Vance and the victims' parents and when he entered the bullpen he was obviously in a bad mood. Unfortunately, none of his agents had any news for him yet.

They worked the entire morning on the surveillance videos, but without a description for neither their suspect nor his vehicle, the chances to find something were close to nothing. Problem was they had no lead.

Ducky had joined the police medical examiner to have a look at the last victim before he'd be given back to his parents, so the four agents hoped his return would provide their case the lead they needed. Or that Abby's 'babies', as she called her machines, would. Until then, though, they could do nothing but check the witnesses' statements and videos again and again.

Ziva offered to go to the Chinese take-out for them all. She got back a little later with two large plastic bags and gave her team mates their cartons.

"Pause!" she ordered while putting the almond chicken on McGee's desk. The young agent started and raised his eyes onto her.

"Eh?" he asked, not too smartly.

"The video, McGee! Rewind it!" the woman answered losing her patience, pointing at the screen.

Frowning, the young man complied, while the two senior agents stood up and approached them.

"Here, stop" Ziva said pointing at a man walking the street next to the dumping site of Bobby Summers. The young man was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and…

"He's a redhead!" Tony exclaimed running to his computer. Neither Gibbs nor McGee seemed to understand what their teammates found in the kid on screen, but their hopes for a lead rose.

DiNozzo opened the video he'd checked that morning and after a little fumbling with the keys he managed to put it on the plasma next to his desk.

There was the same guy, wearing jeans, t-shirt and jacket.

"He is also in the video I was watching" Ziva explained.

"And he's a redhead, it could be the reason why he chose those victims" Tony added.

"So the kids would be… himself?" McGee speculated.

Gibbs stood in silence, thinking. That guy could be on those video out of coincidence, but those were different place, far from each other. And he didn't believe in coincidences. He ordered the three agents to follow the redhead kid through the video to try and retrace his movements and, with a little luck, find a vehicle.

"And send a screenshot of his face to Abby" he told McGee before picking his cell phone to call Ducky.

Now reanimated by the turn of events, the three of them got back to work, the cartons of food getting colder, forgotten next to their computers.

Gibbs' phone rang after a fruitless hour later.

"Coming, Abs" was all the team leader answered.

The three agents exchanged a knowing look and followed their boss without a word. They wanted to listen to whatever Abby'd found.

"Wow, the complete team" the scientist greeted them with a half-smile.

"What you got?" Gibbs asked.

"A DNA" she answered, proud of herself. She summoned the info on screen, but no name or photo appeared.

"Abby?" the former Marine urged.

"I didn't say 'a name', Gibbs, just 'a DNA'" she pointed out. "Under the third victim's fingernail the police gathered a sample of skin. I have a DNA, and it's gonna be useful when you get a sample to compare" she said. The four agents couldn't hide their disappointment, but the young woman kept smiling. "Anybody wanna know what else I got?" she asked with a broad smile.

Gibbs grunted something that sounded like impatience, and Abby got back to the keyboard with a huff.

"I compared the photo McGee sent me with our archive. Not all the archive, of course, it would take days, but I narrowed the research by age and hair color. Did you know the redheads are just two percent of world population?"

"Abby" Gibbs warned.

"Ooookaaay. Anyway, I couldn't find him, he's not in the Navy nor military and he doesn't work for us. This one was obvious, but my program just searches among our employees too. This is what I don't have. What I do have is other traces of scotch. Our man loves drinking while beating his victims. What's new, though, is that now I know that he drinks expensive stuff. I was able to retrace it to the brand and…" she left her sentence pending and summoned new info on screen. "There are just three stores in the tri-state area that sell it" she proudly announced turning back towards them with a half-pirouette that should've been impossible on her platform boots.

"McGee, Ziva" Gibbs ordered and they hurried to obey the unvoiced command. "Good job, Abs" he told the young woman kissing her on the cheek.

She contentedly smiled, returning to her computers and her Caf-Pow cup next to them, while the two senior agents left the lab.

"You ok?" the team leader asked when the elevator doors closed behind him and his SFA.

Tony started. Too focused on the break in the case, he'd followed the boss without thinking and he was now trapped in the metal cabin with him with no way to escape Gibbs' questions and looks. It took his brain a few seconds to register his boss' question and expression.

"Uh?" was his not very articulate answer. "Yeah, I'm fine" he answered finally understanding that his boss was talking about their case. He even managed to smile, relieved.

The former Marine nodded.

"I was thinking" Tony started a few minutes later, when he and Gibbs sat at their desks waiting for their teammates. The boss raised an eyebrow. "How old you think our suspect is?"

Gibbs stared at him for a second, not understanding where his second's question was going.

"Eighteen, nineteen" he slowly answered.

"He'd need a well counterfeited ID to buy alcohol…" the younger man pointed.

"… let alone some particular brand you can find in just three stores in all DC" Gibbs concluded.

They sat in silence turning this consideration in their minds. The shrill of the team leader's phone shook them out of their reverie.

"Gibbs" he answered. He listened for a few seconds and then turned towards DiNozzo. The younger man raised his head in hope. "Good" he said before hanging up.

"They have a name?" the Senior Field Agent asked right away.

"Better" the boss answered.


Erik Drake, nineteen years old, worked part-time as a storage keeper in the second store where McGee and Ziva entered. The store owner asked the kid to take him the register of their customers, and the agents immediately recognized him from the video they'd spent their whole morning watching.

The kid didn't even get suspicious when his boss told him that they weren't clients but NCIS agents; his first thought was 'NC-what?' and two seconds later he found himself handcuffed in the feds' car on his way towards the Navy Yard. Half an hour later he was sitting in one of the uncomfortable metal chair in the Interrogation Room; waiting.

Gibbs entered with a thick folder in his hands. He sat opposite to him and spread several photos on the table. He didn't say anything, he just waited for Drake to lower his eyes on the pictures of the children on the scenes, wince and turn hurriedly towards the wall.

"That's your work" the former Marine told him, his voice cold.

In Observation, the three younger agents watched the interrogation. Ducky had returned confirming their hypothesis, and was now in Abby's lab listening to Palmer updates.

They had no fingerprints to link Drake to the three victims, and they had no foundation to demand a DNA sample to compare to the one found under little Summers fingernails; only a confession could give them the certainty that he was the right man. Well, they didn't actually need it to be certain: Gibbs believed him to be guilty, and that was enough for his team, but law needed something more.

Meanwhile, the kid kept looking at anything but the photos on the table. His arms were tight around his body, and he had an odd expression - guilt?

"Scott Grey. Ten years old. He used to attend the elementary school of the Naval Base in Norfolk and take piano lessons in the afternoon. He used to dream of entering the Julliard, when he'd be older" Gibbs said pointing the first victim's photo without averting his gaze from the kid in front of him. Drake tightened his self-hug but nothing else showed he'd even heard. "Bobby Summers. Eleven years old. He used to play basket after school and in the evening he used to look after his two-year-old sister while their parents worked at their restaurant" the agent went on switching to the second photo. The kid didn't look at it either. "Alex McCoy was ten. The first of his class. He'd won a prize for a science project, one of those lava-spilling volcanos. He was so proud of himself because he'd made it all by himself. His dad promised he'd take him fishing next Sunday to celebrate."

This seemed to shake the kid. At the word 'dad' he started and his eyes flicked to the photo of little McCoy for a second. His expression changed: there was no guilt anymore, his eyes were now colder, more similar to the brutal murderer he was.

Bingo.

Gibbs raised his eyes towards the camera.

"What do we know about his father?" Tony asked his teammates seeing the team leader's signal.

"Uh." McGee tapped something on his PDA. "Peter Drake, fifty-eight. He has criminal records for brawl, assault, child abuse. He's now in prison - again. Two years ago his wife died for an OD."

"And his son started beating and killing children" Ziva added.

Meanwhile, Gibbs was showing the suspect other photos of the last victim: one with his class, one next to the volcano that had made him win; one with his parents. In the latter, the kid had a broad proud grin; he was wearing the first place cockade, and his mother was kissing him on the cheek while his father, on his other side, had a proud look and a hand on his shoulder.

Drake tightened his jaw.

"Why beating and killing a ten-year-old himself?" Tony asked.

McGee searched on his PDA.

"His father first conviction was when Erik was ten and a half. Bar brawl. He was arrested and spent his night in lock-up. He had no criminal records yet, he could've gone home the next day, but one of the guys he sent in hospital was a cop; Drake was sentenced to six months."

"Yeah, but why lashing out against himself?" Ziva asked. "Why not against his father?."

The other two agents were wondering the same thing. But then Gibbs started fiddling with McCoys' photo, and Drake tensed even more.

"Maybe he wasn't lashing out against himself?" McGee conjectured.

"What happened to his mother after his father conviction?" Tony asked.

"She was admitted to hospital for… and OD. The first of many, it seems" the younger man answered.

"The ground crumbled underneath him. A moment he had his family, a moment later his father is in jail, his mother is in hospital and he's lost everything" the senior agent concluded. He sighed. "His father has records for child abuse… he was the child, wasn't he?"

There was no need for McGee confirmation, they'd all come to the same conclusion.

"No-one of the victims had a violent father of an addicted mother. They were perfect family. Like his one before his father went to jail" Ziva went on. "He was… envious."

The informatics expert nodded.

"He's lost everything when he was ten, while this kids, though they looked so much like him, still had their lovely families."

"We still have to find out how he found them."

"In the store's client register there are the schools of the victims" Ziva remembered. "They supplied the cafeterias with water and drinks."

"He could've seen them while he was delivering supplies, noticed something they said or did, or just their resemblance to himself. Then he decided to kidnap them and… blow off the steam on them" Tony grimly concluded.

McGee sent to Gibbs' phone their hypothesis and the info they'd found, and the team leader gave the camera a brief nod - a silent 'good job, guys' - before returning to the interrogation. He kept playing with the photo for a while, pushing their young suspect on the edge of his self-control before starting to rattle things about his life.

McGee kept sending info to his phone - they hadn't had enough time for a real briefing, since what was meant to be the search for a witness had turned into an arrest, but as long as it was just reading texts Gibbs seemed content to use a little technology; Tim not so much, since he had to stick with texts, because of their boss' old-fashioned phone.

Less than half an hour later, young Drake exploded. He jumped to his feet, sending his chair crashing noisily on the floor, and started yelling against his father for ruining his life, against the unfairness of life, against his shattered dream of attending med school, too expensive for him, against everything and everyone. Gradually, his yelling diminished and the kid let himself slide to the floor against the wall next to the mirror, crying.

On the other side of it, the three agents followed the scene.

"In the end, he choked them out of remorse. To save them from the torture he himself inflicted them."


It was late in the night when the reports of that horrible case were completed and Gibbs sent his agents home. He watched them tiredly turning off their computers and lamps and taking their things.

"Home, DiNozzo" he stressed when his senior agent stood up as well to take the elevator. He was him pause and then hurry after the others.

Finally alone in the bullpen, he sighed. He really hoped his agent would follow his order - and that he'd recognized it as such - and go home. It'd been a long week, and they all needed a break. He even had a half-idea to ask Vance to take them off-rotation for the week-end, but he wasn't sure it'd be a good idea.

Hoping he'd taken the right decision, he got up, turned off his computer and lamp as well and went back home and to his last project, a doll's house for the daughter of a neighbor. It was the first time he built a doll's house since Kelly had gone. He'd decided a long time ago that he'd never made miniature pieces of furniture if his girl couldn't have them anymore, but the neighbor's daughter had a nice and happy smile, too similar to Kelly's for him to not to see their resemblance. For him to not to want to make something for Kelly again.

He was carving a little sofa to match the armchair when he heard his front door open and footsteps through his living room.

He almost held his breath when the basement door slowly opened. But the footsteps stopped, went back, stopped again, approached the basement door. And went on.

Gibbs didn't raise his eyes from what he was doing, waiting for his visitor to take his usual spot at the bottom of the stairs. But he didn't. He stopped on the top and sat there, in silence.

The team leader sighed. Probably he should've be glad he'd come in the first place, in spite of everything. But he'd hoped for something more.

Tony sat in silence on the top step for almost an hour while Gibbs worked on the doll's house living room. Every minute that went by, unbeknown to the other man, each one of them wondering if he shouldn't be the one to finally say something, because the quiet of the nights they'd often spent in the basement had never been so tense; but every time one renounced because it'd been his agent who'd come to his place, while the other… just renounced, waiting to understand why he'd came there.

In the end, Tony took a deep breath and closed his eyes, allowing the words to flow on their own.

"When I found out about Danny, I felt the ground crumble underneath me" he started. Gibbs imperceptibly paused while sanding the round coffee table and closed his eyes in gratitude for a second. "He was my partner; and he was my friend; he was the first person I'd ever got close to for real. Finding that he'd lied to me, that he was a dirty cop… But I decided not to turn him in. I couldn't. But that left me with few choices. The easiest, the one I preferred, was giving up it all, moving and finding a new job. It was the best choice. And the choice Wendy liked better."


"A safer job, where I don't have to fear that every time someone rings my doorbell is to tell me you're not coming back evermore" the woman said when he told her his idea. She looked honestly concerned for him, and reached up to caress his face. The ring was beautiful on her finger.

They were in the middle of the organization for their wedding, which should be in six months, and they had yet to decide where to go. Tony being about to be unemployed - he was planning to resign as soon as possible - brought a big problem: money.

"Maybe a well-paid job" she chuckled sliding her hand on his chest with a mischievous grin.

"As a gigolo, maybe?" he teased and she laughed out loud giving him a fake-punch. "You know that one way or another I'm gonna take care of you. I'll find a job soon, we'll get married, move together and be happy forever" he promised.

"How did I manage to find such a sweet and romantic man?"


"For years I believed that was the problem: her leaving her job. Probably she just did it for me, because she understood how I cared about this job. Maybe she thought she could give up hers… but she finally realized that it wasn't worth it, that I wasn't worth it. The house here was ready, we were about to get married… and the evening prior to the wedding she came to me and gave me the ring. No explanations. A pathetic excuse I can't even remember anymore and ten minutes later she'd left Baltimore, changed her phone number and vanished. There had to be a reason, right?" Tony said miserably.

Gibbs kept working on the miniature pieces of furniture, but he wasn't focusing on the job at hand. He remembered all too well the evening Wendy'd left the younger man, because it'd been the first time he came to his boss' place. He'd sat on his porch steps, waiting for him to return from work, and when he'd seen him he'd smiled like nothing happened and showed him a six-pack of beers. To celebrate the end of FLETC, he said. They'd entered and spent the night watching the game and, before leaving, like he'd just remembered, Tony said that Wendy'd left him. It was the first time Gibbs had witnessed how good the kid was at acting - at pretending.

"But now she's returned and told me… told me she wasn't ready for the one" the younger man concluded, confused and… upset.

The team leader finally put the little cupboard on his table and turned on his stool towards the stairs. Tony was still sitting on the top, elbows on the knees, head bowed.

They stayed silent for long minutes.

"Why you assigned me as liaison agent with the press?" was the phrase that broke the silence. And Gibbs was expecting it, had been for days, actually. He'd seen it his agent's eyes the few times he'd met his gaze, in the shadows under his eyes due to sleep-deprivation, in his excuses not to be alone in the bullpen with his boss.

"Because you loved her" he answered.

Tony snorted.

"It's been almost eleven years" he retorted.

"And you still love her" was the former Marine's quick answer.

The agent finally raised his head and for the first time turned toward the basement, meeting his boss' eyes.

"So you wanted to play Cupid?" he tauntingly asked.

"No. I wanted to give you the chance to gain closure. To finally open the new chapter of your life that you've put off for almost eleven years."

"No offence, Gibbs, but my life is my business" Tony snapped.

"Eleven years, Tony. Eleven years, and what's the first thing you've done as soon as you've found yourself alone with Wendy?"

The younger man didn't reply. He was sure McGee hadn't told the boss anything, but somehow he seemed to always know everything. He snorted; after eleven years he should've been used to the former Marine's almost psychic powers. After all, that man had built for years boats in his basement and had managed to get at least one of them out - it was now in the evidence garage at NCIS, and Abby secretly went to see if it was still there once a week, to be sure it hadn't vanished.

"I'm sorry."

If he hadn't heard him with his very ears he would've never believed him.

"What happened to Rule Number Six?" Tony asked with a nervous chuckle.

"It doesn't count between friends" Gibbs replied and then, sensing his agent's discomfort he added: "Not when it's been three days since last time you've returned home and you've made a joke or a stupid movie quote."

Tony laughed.

"I thought you hated my movie quotes. And by the way, did you know the Duke says 'Never apologize, mister, it's a sign of weakness' in 'She wore a yellow ribbon'? Did you copy from him or was it him who copied from you?"

Gibbs shook his head, picking the mini-cupboard again and resuming carving shelves.

"Thanks" the younger man said after a long silence. "Don't misunderstand me, seeing her again was… devastating. And working alongside of her was painful. But at least…." He paused, searching the right words. "I had my closure." He snorted a brief laugh. "You were right. As always."

Gibbs wasn't so sure. He'd never wanted to cause him pain, even if his intent had been good. But he was happy Tony had somehow forgiven him.

He put the little cupboard and the knife on the table and stood up.

"You eaten yet?" he asked his agent.

"Uh, no, I just… went for a drive before coming here" Tony awkwardly answered.

Gibbs let the obvious lie go: he didn't wanna know what his agents had done for real in the hour between he'd left the Navy Yard and he'd come to his place.

"I have a coupl of steaks in the fridge."

The younger man seemed to lighten up. He stood up dusting off his pants and followed his boss - who halfway reached up and slapped him across the head.

"And I'd never copy from a John Wayne movie."

"Got it, Boss."


Author's notes

And we reached the end!

Thank you all for resisting till here! I hope you have a little strength left to leave me a little review :)

Now, on with the (long) explanations!

Explanations:

(1) Somewhere during fourth or fifth season, and in the 6x16 'Bounce', Tony and Palmer are shown to have developed a pretty good friendship while Gibbs was in Mexico. I don't know why the authors keep forgetting about the things I love, but I have no intention of forgetting: my Jimmy isn't just Ducky's funny sidekick: he's part of the team. Poor boy, he's just been added to the opening sequence after ten years! XD

(2) Reading fanfictions, I hate when I can't remember what episodes are being referenced. So here's a little list (with explanations nobody-cares-about) of the episodes I named:

Kate dies in 3x02 'Kill Ari - part II': I like thinking that her teammates haven't gotten over her death that easily. I was really sad when she died, so much so that I couldn't stand Ziva at the beginning XD I like when on the show they still think about her, sometimes

Paula Cassidy (who Tony flirts with in 1x08 'Minimum security'), dies in 4x19 ('Grace period'). Tony is really upset for her death and the episode ends with him going to Jeanne's to tell her 'I love you', crying. My favorite episode ever.

The Grenoiulle op, after being the main story arc in season four, ends with Tony's car explosion and Rene Benoit's death in 5x01 'Bury your dead'.

Jeanne leaves at the end of 5x14 'Internal affairs'. I watched again and again the heartbreaking scene in front of the elevator ('Was any of it real?' 'no' ç_ç).

Jenny dies n 5x18-19 'Judgment day'. Tony feels guilty because he and Ziva were supposed to be her protection detail. During the investigation, Tony goes to autopsy and drinks, a habit he hints at during the second episode of sixth season.

Domino op covers the first part of season six and ends in 6x09 'Dagger' with Michelle Lee's death. There's a scene I love where Tony vents his frustration while in the elevator with Ziva because he thinks the deceit that caused the two of them to be injured was set by Vance; a little while later he finds out there was Gibbs behind it (and he gets mad again, in autopsy).

Rivkin's death and the trip to Israel are happen in 6x25 'Aliyah'. Our beloved DiNozzo fells guilty again, first because he killed Ziva's friend/lover, and then because she stays in Israel. His guilt will drive him to investigate when she disappear and to try and avenge her death… but then they find out our beloved Mossad agent was alive and captive in Somalia (7x01 'Truth or consequences').

Dana Hutton (7x21 'Obsession') was a journalist Tony felt obsessed by during a case. Watching her closely (and I just noticed it after reading a wonderful fancition here on FFN) she looks like Jeanne. I know, I know, it's just the fangirl in me, but I wanna believe Tony was obsessed by her because of this (supposed) resemblance.

EJ vanishes and is believed dead in 9x01 'Nature of the beast', and comes back (and leaves for good) in 9x12 'Housekeeping'.

(3) Oh, yeah, I'm one of those fans who loves imagining Tony's childhood as awful. Well, it's not my fault if the authors hinted of a crappy childhood for six seasons before signing Wagner on and falling in love with him enough to clean Senior's records, is it?