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Author's notes: Warning: Language

People run for a wide variety of reasons and, depending on who and when they are asked, the explanation can span the gambit from the extremely unsophisticated all the way to the seriously complicated. Some people justify running as a simple, unpretentious method of exercise…which it certainly is…or they defend running as a community-minded means of taking part in a local charity event, which occurs often in most major cities throughout the globe. They may run to catch the bus that takes them to work each day. They may run because they’re late for an important appointment or they may run to be one of the first in line at a special sale. They may even run to escape that angry, growling Rottweiller which is rapidly gaining ground, making snarling snaps at their retreating ass. Regardless of the motivation, there’s no doubt the physical, mental, and emotional rewards of running are boundless, and many people strive to make it an essential part of their daily routine.

Tony DiNozzo starts his mornings, as many runners do, hitting the streets early, before the motorists and dog-walkers and eco-friendly commuters can get in the way of his normal path. He likes to be up while the world is still blanketed in relative quiet, even before the birds begin to stir within their nests, weaving his way down familiar pavement and blacktop and, finally, onto the marked trails of a nearby park, arriving when the sun is only remotely thinking about easing up over the far horizon to mark the start of a brand new day.

He runs every morning to stay in shape, so the next criminal down the line doesn’t do a credible Roadrunner imitation, leaving him in a floating puff of dust, making him look like some damn, pansy-assed fool in front of his friends and teammates. He likes that he can still hoof it faster than McGee…and takes perverse pleasure in making sure everyone, especially their boss, knows of his ability to surpass the younger probie in something so simple. He runs to keep his scarred lungs strong and sound and, specifically, to minimize the occasional worried look tossed his way whenever he happens to muffle a cough in front of his colleagues. He truly hates that some still might consider him fragile and does whatever is necessary to illustrate how fit and healthy his body has become since that damn plague incident years ago. He runs to fill that eerie void of time, when sleep has inexplicably vanished and his body can no longer stay abed, his mind churning endlessly upon things he’d rather forget. He wishes he could sleep longer each morning, to rest while he can and get those highly prized, elusive, eight recommended hours of slumber the rest of the world seems to manage, but, more than anything, he wishes for those invasive, unwanted, unwelcome thoughts to just shut the hell up and leave him alone.

Specifically, DiNozzo runs so the silence and solitude and repetitive motion of sneaker soles hitting ground can purge those fickle demons lurking in the dark, barely hidden recesses of his mind, flushing his brain of all the unwanted accumulation, temporarily easing the still-lingering ache of regret which remains from all the mistakes he’s made in his life…and he’s made many…, including the ill-timed and poorly handled departure of Jeanne Benoit. He runs almost religiously since she turned and fled from their relationship and his life, the mindless, rhythmic exercise the only thing he’s been able to find that, for a short while, soothes the distant, echoing hurt which still loiters in his thoughts after all this time.

DiNozzo snorts softly and shakes his head impatiently, instinctively remembering to look both ways before traversing a poorly lit street half-way between his apartment building and the community park that’s his destination. He doesn’t want to think about Jeanne now…he doesn’t want to think about anything…he just wants to run.

Purposefully clearing his mind, he goes through the motions of simply placing one foot in front of the other. A lot of people do their best thinking while running…or so they claim…but DiNozzo thinks that’s nothing but a huge pile of horseshit. Thinking while running just seems like too much work and, as far as he’s concerned, he rather give Ziva a free kick to his nads than have to ruin a perfectly good workout by spending it reflecting on past mistakes or meaningless self-evaluation or revisiting moments now long gone and impossible to recapture and rectify. No, running is so much better when his mind is blank and all he has to concern himself with is breathing, observing, and moving along at a reasonable pace…like now.

Turning a corner and pushing those grim thoughts all the way to the back burner of his brain, DiNozzo automatically takes notice of a couple of young joggers moving toward one of the park entrances and ups his pace. He’s not the only one who runs the gauntlet early each morning, can easily recognize the regulars who always turn out early, and he wants to get his circuit in before things get too crowded. On warm summer days like this, the park can get congested real quick. It takes close to forty minutes to make the complete tour of the runner’s path he likes, if he keeps to his regular pace, and another ten to get back to his apartment complex, so he concentrates on breathing steadily and keeping the rhythm smooth and easy.

Still, that persistent, non-threatening ache in his chest tenaciously holds on, it’s sharp, claw-like grasp digging in and obstinately refusing to let go. Frustratingly, the memory of Jeanne just won’t be silent this morning.

He knows there was just no good way for it to end between them, especially when everything they’d had was built on a lie, but it’s that one, singularly significant lie that periodically keeps popping back up to darken his mood when he least expects it, filling his head with a myriad of ‘what ifs’ and ‘almost hads’, reminding him of the possibilities now forever lost. He knows, at this point in his life, his chances of finding that ‘one special person’ is rapidly fading away with each passing day but, when Jeanne had arrived on the scene, he’d actually thought he’d been given a reprieve. He doesn’t carry a biological clock like many women supposedly do, their bodies and souls craving the connection which forms through marriage and/or childbirth, but he understands and appreciates the concept. For him, something is literally nipping at his heels right now and it isn’t some damn, slobbering, angry Rottweiller. It’s time itself…and there’s just no way to outrun it anymore.

He’s recently spent many a lonely night, contemplating the reasons he’s never put his foolish, philandering, Casanova characteristics aside and examining what he now refers to as his repeated failures at intimacies. No, that wasn’t exactly true. Not all were merely failures…some have been close to catastrophic in nature.

Losing his virginity at a relatively young age had caused a strange mishmash of emotional problems for DiNozzo, though at the time, he hadn’t considered it anything but an unexpected and very welcome windfall. What adolescent boy wouldn’t? The seventeen year-old daughter of one of his father’s business partners had gladly shown him a thing or two he’d never imagined…and he’d imagined a lot, like most hormonally driven males do…from just looking at the pictures on the glossy pages of a dog-eared, come-splattered, Playboy magazine he’d hidden from the maid under his mattress at home. But worldly Monica…sweet, luscious, instructive Monica…had quickly showed him the loose, messy, euphoric ropes of intercourse and then proceeded to break his tender, mostly innocent heart, leaving him confused and uncertain when she’d departed for college on the bulked-up arm of some well-known, rich, country club jock. He’d loved her…as much as any bewildered, naïve, young boy can love…and had thought they’d shared something special and lasting. But her abrupt exodus had sent him reeling and looking for some convenient, albeit, temporary comfort.

He’d tried, at the time, to talk to his parents about his feelings for Monica, hoping for some kind, understanding support, but that had been a disaster just waiting to happen…and another hard lesson learned. His mother had erupted into an unexpected crying frenzy, almost bordering on the hysterical, when he’d confronted her and confessed his rejected affections for the older girl. His father…well, his father had roared out his anger, sent his confused, stunned son to his room with orders to never speak of the incident again, and immediately broken off relations with his business partner, accusing the man’s daughter of molestation and threatening persecution.

Of course, nothing had come of the incident but DiNozzo had learned early not to expect any support from his parents when it came to matters of the heart.

The relationship between his mother and father had always been far from perfect…this he knew by comparing what he saw or heard from his friends at school to what he could see for himself at home…but he’d been under the misconception his parents would be together forever. Sure, they’d argued a lot when one or the other of them drank and they’d gradually spent more and more time apart, his father going on long business trips and his mother camping out in some high-priced spa but, in his own immature and mostly fantasy-driven mind, DiNozzo’d never expected their affection or expectations for him would ever alter. The DiNozzo clan came from a long line of achievers, self-made millionaires on both sides of the family tree, people who stuck together through thick and thin and stayed married…no matter what.

He’d been so young, so idealistic and…oh…so very naïve.

When news had suddenly surfaced of his father’s indiscretions with his young, busty, gold-digging, executive secretary, the household and his mother had been thrown into a state of total disrepair. Drinking at all hours had become a prevalent activity and the sporadic, controlled, pre-secretary arguments had escalated into raging, screaming affairs that lasted well into the night. Worse of all, was the yawning chasm of silence that settled over everything after all the hurtful words had all been expelled and exhausted. DiNozzo had been at a loss at what to do for his parents during that hurtful time, confused again by the unexpected withdrawal of affection. There’d been photographs and news reports and classmates who’d whispered slanderous words behind his back, the teens merely repeating the words they’d heard from their own parents. But hardest of all for the young boy to understand, the two adults had retreated into their own shells and left their only child to drift aimlessly in the resultant, emotionless abyss of rejection.

DiNozzo had done everything he possibly could to make his mother smile again, dressing carefully in clothes he knew she’d like, sitting awkwardly on the edge of her large bed as often as he could, regaling her with tales from his school day, speaking of movies he’d watched, or explaining ideas he’d had…but never once had she responded to the boy or turned away from the wall to look directly at him. After several weeks had passed, he’d learned not to expect anything further from her.

His attempts with his father had been no better, the older man remaining stoically distanced, both physically and emotionally, leaving his bewildered son’s care to those who had no personal interest, openly disregarding the boy’s blatant appeals for attention and affection. DiNozzo became like a ghost in his own house, a pale, elusive reminder of a marriage gone wrong and of a love no longer shared.

The sudden, questionable death of his mother in an automobile accident and the subsequent total alienation of his father had been the final blow. The boy had hardened his heart and made a vow never to fall for the foolish whims of love again. There was just no way he was ever going to end up like his parents. He’d believed if he could just run hard enough…and far enough…he’d be able to escape their fate.

Boarding school had been a real eye-opener for DiNozzo. Away from home and out from under the relentless disregard of his father for the first time, he’d discovered he enjoyed the company of both males and females and could be friends and/or casual sex partners with either, finding it easier to wallow in the resultant physical comfort without complicating relationships with needless emotional ties. What was the point? In his short but significant experience, those you really cared for would ultimately turn away…or die…and he had no desire to ever feel anything like that again. No, he’d quickly decided to stay a ‘free agent’ and, in the process, protect his cautious, damaged heart.

College had been just as spectacular and he’d chased skirts and jogged after jock straps between the variety of classes, work, and athletics, learning to guardedly protect himself from those who were, in his eyes, nothing more than narrow-minded homophobes. Not that DiNozzo ever considered himself homosexual; no, DiNozzo thrived on the fact he could enjoy a larger selection by swimming in both ends of the pool and couldn’t help but feel sorry for those who limited themselves to merely treading with one sexual preference. In his mind, he doubled his chances of getting laid by being bi and he’d never found himself lacking for company when he desired it.

There had been several girls…young women actually…who’d looked for and expected more from him during that exciting time in his life but he’d quickly quashed those relationships as soon as he’d recognized their true intent, hustling rapidly into different territory, breaking a few hearts as gently as possible, and steadily building a reputation as a real Lothario. That label hadn’t bothered him at all…at the time. While many around him slowly began to form more lasting associations with partners, a few even taking the step of getting engaged, DiNozzo had been perfectly happy splashing away in his crowded pool, determined not to get sucked into a situation that would force him to drop his guard and get emotionally involved. He’d seen, firsthand, how unhappy his parents had been in their marriage, knew most of his friends came from divorced homes, and just couldn’t understand why two consenting adults would choose to ruin a perfectly good relationship by exchanging expensive rings and useless vows. Ultimately, the only winner in a situation like that would be the divorce attorney.

Fraternity life had opened new horizons for him and he’d found kindred spirits within that tightly knit, brotherhood alliance. Many had thought as he did and reinforced his beliefs. Yes, there’d been parties and panty raids and everything hard-working parents feared but there’d also been purpose and drive and lessons in respect and loyalty. He’d listened and observed and learned, opening his guarded heart to the friendship they offered, reveling in the deep connection they provided. The affection he’d felt for several of his frat brothers was as close to love as he’d ever allowed himself to get but there was never anything remotely sexual about those feelings. Combining sex with friendship, in his experience, was nothing but a sure recipe for pure failure.

And without a doubt, his biggest failure, so far, has been Jeanne Benoit.

Jeanne had been smart and funny and, in his mind’s eye, everything the perfect woman could and should be, focused on her profession but clearly willing to open her heart and her arms to a good man willing to give her the respect and affection she deserved. She’d been charming, delightful, beautiful, inside and out, and it hadn’t taken DiNozzo long to feel that old, dangerous pull he’d so resolutely turned from all his life. Resistance had cracked and slowly crumbled but old habits and lingering memories had prevented him from taking the next, logical step as quickly as he should have.

He’d actively resisted saying the ‘L’ word to Jeanne for as long as he possibly could and had been able to plainly see how his hesitation had deeply hurt her but had found it extremely difficult to speak words that, truthfully, had scared him totally shitless. In his experience, professing love was nothing more than a sure way to get your heart crushed and your soul shattered and he’d done everything possible to vigilantly protect himself from the likelihood of rejection.

It all boils down to rejection for DiNozzo.

Rejection has always been the antithesis of everything he craves in life and he does whatever he can to avoid being in that unwanted position again. Rejection strips away self-confidence and creates terrible feelings of inadequateness and worthlessness. Rejection makes him believe there’s something innately wrong with his personality or appearance or intellect. Rejection leaves him feeling adrift and hurt and terribly unsure of himself. Rejection has left him vulnerable and wounded and scarred.

Ironically, the only other person he’s actually said, “I love you” to, since his mother’s passing and before Jeanne’s arrival, has been his boss, Jethro Gibbs, and that was only because the older man had arrived bearing a pizza while DiNozzo had, at the time, been tailing their new Mossad liaison, Ziva David. The declaration had been a casual, offhanded announcement and Gibbs accepted it as nothing more than his agent’s gratitude at being on the receiving end of some hot food. But, ironically, DiNozzo had laid awake later that same night…and many nights since…examining his feelings for Gibbs and trying to comprehend why he’d let something he’d always worked so diligently to contain slip out so easily. It just wasn’t like him and, he knew without a single doubt, saying something like that to Gibbs again would be nothing more than the precursor to a real heaping helping of rejection.

‘Shut the fuck up!’ DiNozzo bellows silently to his blathering brain, unable to comprehend why he’s having such a difficult time controlling his rampant, rambling thoughts this morning. ‘Just run, damn it…just run.’

The park is fairly well-lit, even at this ungodly hour, and DiNozzo knows the strategic illumination is a specific deterrent to muggers and flashers and those interested in a little one-on-one, carnal companionship. Still, if a couple of people want a bit of privacy, it can easily be found off the common paths and closer to the densely wooded areas that purposefully dot the park. He’s sporadically seen a few men lurking around in the evenings, when he’s had to change his running schedule because of work, but he seriously doubts that would be the case so early during the morning hours. Those types of people are almost like vampires to him, shunning the approaching dawn and hurrying home to do whatever the hell they do when not looking for a quick, clandestine session or an easy, anonymous grope in the dark.

DiNozzo smirks at the idea of vampires trolling the park for a little bump and grind. ‘Gives a whole, new twist to the idea of getting sucked bone dry.’

Still, deep down, he can’t really blame those who lurk about the park for their latent desires…just their questionable choice of venue. Sex in a public recreational area? He just didn’t get the allure. But everyone gets lonely, now and then, and needs to feel the reassuring touch of another human being…even if it is with someone anonymous, in the dark, and behind a bunch of bushes where God or anyone…or the police…could see.

Stepping off the paved lane and finding the dirt trail that begins his regular circuit, DiNozzo feels a small, aching flare of need himself. For more than a year, he’s carefully shied away from his usual, pre-Jeanne, dating strategies, astounding his co-workers and, quite honestly, himself, focusing solely on his work, and settling for the occasional hug from Abby or the sporadic head slap from Gibbs as his only source of physical contact. It isn’t much but, for now, it’s all he needs or desires. He realizes the urge to connect sexually with another human being won’t be long in coming. He’s a relatively young, healthy man and healthy, young men have definite needs. Plus, he’s becoming more lonely. In DiNozzo’s book, that’s an extremely volatile combination. Lonely + needy = a disaster just waiting to happen.

The dirt path beneath his feet is hard-packed from use but is still a hell of a lot easier on the ankles and knees than pounding away on rigid concrete. DiNozzo can feel the first trickles of sweat beginning at the nape of his neck, under his arms, and at the small of his back and knows he’ll be thoroughly soaked by the time he finishes his run this morning. The humidity is already high and the weathercaster’s guarantee of showers later in the day seems, for once, to be true. The air is ripe with moisture and, as he casts a swift glance skyward, he thinks he can detect a murky cloud or two already rolling in from the southwest.

‘Great,’ he grumbles silently, refocusing his eyes on the dim trail ahead, ‘nothing like rain to make a rare weekend away from work even more appealing. Guess I’ll just have to spend the day doing laundry and vegging out in front of the TV.’

Rounding a gently sloping curve while absently wiping the sweat away from his brow with the back of one wrist, DiNozzo almost doesn’t see the shadowy figure squatting on the path before it’s too late. Side-stepping quickly to prevent a full-out collusion, he stumbles awkwardly on the edge of an exposed root, and ends up going face-first into a nearby tree, catching himself at the last moment to take the brunt of the inevitable impact against one cheek and shoulder. He can feel the rough bark peeling away a thin layer of skin, rebounds off the gnarly surface like a basketball slamming against a backboard, and barely manages to land less than gracefully on his ass, truly appalled and embarrassed by his total lack of coordination.

“Oh, my God!” A voice is stridently speaking from somewhere to his right. “I’m so sorry! Pepper got away from me before I knew it and headed straight for this path. Are you alright?”

DiNozzo doesn’t know who the hell Pepper is…doesn’t really give a rat’s ass at the moment…and brings a hand up to gingerly touch his injured face, instantly feeling the warm moisture on the tips of his fingers. Perfect. Even in this low light and without looking, he knows he’s bleeding.

There’s a strong, steadying hand on his uninjured shoulder but DiNozzo raises his eyes only far enough from he ground to cast his baleful glare toward a small, dark ball of fur that’s avidly licking away at his sweaty hand, its happy, hairy, whiskered, little face belying the fact it’s just caused a near calamity and has massively bruised a human’s ego. This could only be the notorious, aforementioned Pepper.

“Well, can’t say I’ve ever been laid so low by something that uses it’s tongue as a weapon and isn’t as tall as my knees,” he huffs out a shallow laugh, still trying to catch his breath, finally looking toward the man now crouching protectively at his side. The honest, concerned expression in the kind, apologetic eyes makes him bite back any further comment about the stupidity of allowing a dog off it’s leash in a public park.

“Ah, crap,” the man breathes with sincere regret, getting a partial look at the injury, “you’re hurt.”

“Just a scratch.” He plays it down, not really wanting sympathy from this guy. “Nothing major.”

“Well, it may not feel major to you right now but, let me tell you, from my viewpoint your cheek and shoulder look pretty rough, even in this low light. Can you get up?”

DiNozzo considers the question only for a moment and quickly takes an internal check of his body. Everything seems to be fine, other than the cheek and arm. “Sure.”

The hand on his shoulder slips smoothly down to cup his elbow, helping him rise, the grip strong but cautious. DiNozzo can instantly tell he isn’t going to be allowed to stand on his own until the stranger is satisfied with his balance, so he widens his stance and straightens his spine. Once completely upright and steady, DiNozzo takes a deep breath and nods his confidence.

“I’m okay,” he assures, spreading his hands out to either side. “See?”

The stranger gives a quiet noise of disbelief but reluctantly releases his hold. “What I see is you bleeding.” He bends easily and picks up Pepper, tucking the tiny dog under one arm. “Man, I’m truly sorry about this.”

“Hey, like I said, it’s nothing major.”

Turning instinctively so his back is to the nearest lamppost, allowing the light to spill across the stranger’s face, DiNozzo gets his first real good look at the contrite man and is pleasantly surprised by what he sees. Anticipating some nerdy-looking, lightweight dog-walker, this tall, fit man now facing him is the last thing DiNozzo expects to see so early this morning. Thin, wire-rimmed glasses cover the dark, regretful eyes but the sweet, remorseful, lop-sided smile shows a white flash of straight teeth even in the dim lighting. DiNozzo quickly ascertains they are of comparable height and weight and the strong, muscular legs falling from beneath the hem of much-washed, jean shorts speak silently of regular physical activity.


DiNozzo is secure enough in his sexuality to appreciate the view but knows it’s rude to stare too long. Dragging his assessing eyes back up and meeting the stranger’s frank gaze, he sees a quick flash of sadness appear in the man’s expression before it’s quickly replaced with a more reserved look. The NCIS agent feels a small pang of regret but swiftly tosses it aside. He isn’t looking for a casual hook-up and this guy sure doesn’t seem the type to want anything like that anyway. Besides, the yappy-looking dog tucked under the arm just screams of female involvement because, in DiNozzo’s mind, no self-respecting man would ever own a dog like Pepper…except, maybe, McGee. He almost grins at the thought of his colleague scooping poop for a mutt like this but immediately quashes it down.

Before he can speak again, sudden movement from under a nearby bush makes DiNozzo flinch and silently wish for his weapon. He whirls, amazed as two medium-sized canines move to flank the stranger on either side, the dogs immediately dropping to their hindquarters to sit, looking expectedly up to the man in something almost resembling adoration.

“What the…?” DiNozzo breathes softly as he takes a hesitant step back.

“Oh, they won’t hurt you,” the stranger is quick to assure, deftly snapping a leash onto the collar of the small dog and bending to place it down near his feet, next to the others. He gestures at the newest arrivals. “These are mine, too. Well,” he nods to Pepper and tries valiantly to clarify, “technically, that little rascal belongs to my daughter but I get stuck with the early morning walks anyway.” He shrugs and gives a small, resigned sigh. “What are you going to do?”

“Yeah,” DiNozzo still isn’t certain of the circumstances but he doesn’t want to seem too much like a big wuss, “what are you going to do?” He’s never had much luck with animals but always thought dogs were pretty cool and these newest two are obviously very well-trained…not like that long-haired, fuzzball currently tugging frantically at the leash, trying its best to reach a small stick just out of reach. He eyes the two watchful, oddly marked dogs and offers a hesitant smile. “What kind are these? They’re really beautiful.”

The stranger’s grin returns ten-fold and it’s almost like the sun has suddenly decided to rise. DiNozzo feels a pang of attraction but resolutely pushes it down. Where there’s a daughter, there has to be a wife.

“They’re Border Collies,” the man says with obvious pride, squatting to stroke his hands lovingly over one of the alert animals. “Merle, to be exact.”

DiNozzo cocks his head to one side, a little baffled by the response. “Both of them have the same name?”

The stranger looks a bit confused for a moment and then smiles again, huffing out a kind laugh. “No. I mean their breed is Merle Border Collie. This one,” he tilts his head to the dog he’s petting, “is Finn and this one,” the dog on the left perks up when the man turns its way, “is Fiona.”

Slightly embarrassed, DiNozzo grins sheepishly, unconsciously flexing his injured shoulder. “Guess you can tell I’m a little canine-illiterate.”

The stranger’s eyes cloud, completely ignoring the self-depreciating remark. “That shoulder is hurting, isn’t it?”

“Ah,” DiNozzo waves off the astute observation, “I’ll be okay.”

“That’s not what I asked,” he rises and the dogs immediately get to their feet, still flanking their owner, alert and ready. “Look, I don’t know you from Adam but I feel responsible for what happened. If I hadn’t taken Pepper off his leash this never would have happened. I’ve gotten so use to Finn and Fiona being so obedient, I forgot how hard-headed that little rascal can be.” He looks momentarily torn but quickly makes a decision. “I only live a block away and I’ve got all the necessary medical supplies on hand. Why don’t you come home with me and I’ll fix you up.”

DiNozzo balks at the offer. Walking into some quaint, homey, little abode filled to the brim with domestic bliss…complete with dogs, a daughter, and a wife…just isn’t high on DiNozzo’s to-do list nowadays, even if his shoulder and cheek do hurt like a real son of a bitch. He shakes his head.

“Nah, that’s okay,” he sighs, not wanting to sound ungrateful. “You’ve got your hands full with the dogs and I’m not all that far from my home.”

There’s an awkward moment of silence. The stranger eyes DiNozzo carefully and then speaks bluntly. “Bullshit. You’re a terrible lair. I can tell you’ve been running for a while and, if my guess is right, you’re just partially into your regular workout. If you keep going now, you may just aggravate the injuries further. Please,” he steps forward and touches the injured man’s arm lightly, “do me a favor and let me make this up to you.”

“Well, I don’t…” DiNozzo waffles, not knowing whether to be offended or grateful.

“I’ll throw in a mug of fresh-brewed coffee and some home-made cinnamon rolls. How’s that sound?”

That seals the deal for DiNozzo’s stomach, which decides to grumble and gurgle loudly at the suggestion of food. Looking downward toward the traitorous region, he pokes the area with a finger and sighs with feigned resignation.

“Guess that’s your answer,” he grins sheepishly at the grinning stranger.

“Good.” The man extends his hand and offers another bright smile. “I’m Dan McKenna.”

DiNozzo immediately takes the offered hand into his own and returns the gesture, feeling a tiny flutter of pleasure in the pit of his belly at the simple touch. “Tony DiNozzo.”


Dan McKenna doesn’t know whether he’s just being a good Samaritan or if he really needs to have his head thoroughly examined. Certainly, he’s sorry about the situation and knows the guy needs to have his injuries treated but he generally isn’t in the habit of inviting strangers back to his home without knowing a little bit more about them other than their name. The voice of reason is telling him he’s making a huge mistake, taking chances that any sane man would immediately reject but his conscience is gently speaking to that tiny, disloyal, soft spot of his heart, murmuring kindly but determinedly, letting him know this is the right thing to do.

Plus, he kind of likes this guy.

There’s just something about this particular man that communicates silently to the part of Dan that’s been lonely and in need of a real friend, the part which repeatedly reminds that he needs to get his act together and *really* needs to just get on with living right now…if not for his own good, than certainly for the good of his daughter. Time is marching on and he can’t afford to ignore it any longer.

This guy…Tony…is funny and bright and seems like a decent, honest soul, like someone he could talk to if the need arose. He’s athletic and fit and, honestly, not too bad on the eyes either. Speaking of eyes…

Dan finally notices the almost-nervous glances Tony keeps casting back toward Finn and Fiona and smothers a grin with one hand. No need making the guy feel any more ‘canine-illiterate’ than necessary. The collies are just doing what comes naturally to them, herding the humans toward their goal, their individual positions to either side and slightly back recognizable to anyone knowing the breed. Finn and Fiona don’t care about anything but the job of getting the men home safely. He nudges Tony slightly with his nearest elbow and keeps his voice low.

“Don’t let the dogs know you’re unsure of the way to my home,” he instructs, a wry grin slipping out, “or they’ll have their noses at your heels for the rest of the way there.”

“News flash here, Dan,” Tony offers back just as quietly, eyes shifting to the rear once more, “I *don’t* know where you live. They won’t bite, will they?”

“No. Well…” he quickly amends and watches as Tony’s wide, green eyes swiftly shift back to him, “they may nip a bit.”

“A bit?” DiNozzo asks with a tinge of panic. He hastily looks back toward the dogs and pitches his voice with a feigned sweetness that sounds terribly insincere, even to his own ears. “Good doggies. Nice doggies. Best doggies this side of Lassie.” His eyes track uneasily back to Dan. “They know about Lassie, right? I mean, Lassie was a collie, too. Right?”

Dan barks out a quick laugh and something inside seems to break completely loose. It’s official: he likes this stranger, no doubt about it, and wonders why he’s resisted making friends since his arrival in DC. He’s always had friends and acquaintances in the past, both from work and from his neighborhood, so this strange opposition toward forming new bonds has been perplexing…and draining.

“Lassie wasn’t a Border Collie,” Dan informs gently, pushing those puzzling thoughts aside for now. “And aren’t you a little young to remember Lassie?”

A grin momentarily splits DiNozzo’s face and Dan thinks it’s a pretty remarkable sight. He feels comfortable with this man, certainly like they’ve known each other for more than just a few minutes, and he takes a few seconds to enjoy the relaxed, easy sensation.

“Busted.” DiNozzo shrugs and then winces as the movement brings a new twinge to his injury. “Actually, the last episodes of Lassie were filmed in 1973, so I got to enjoy all those great black and white episodes I missed as I got older.” He places a hand over his heart and pulls a mock-serious face. “Syndication is my best friend.”

Dan can’t help chuckling again at the comical confession…and he can’t help feeling a closer affinity to Tony. He’d spent many a day parked in front of his parents’ old television set, too, when he’d been a lad in Arkansas, watching numerous shows, but, unlike Tony, he hadn’t had the opportunity to see Lassie reruns until he’d been a teen. But those episodes had made a lasting impression anyway. When no one else seemed to understand a young boy’s dreams, Lassie had been there for Timmy. Dan had wanted to be like Timmy more than anything in the whole world. Those early shows and that gentle canine had spurred a life-long love and respect for animals and set him on a direct path to help them.

“Yeah, me, too.”

DiNozzo doesn’t hide his surprise…or his pleasure. “See, I knew we had things in common.”

Dan smiles back and tilts his head to one side. “When we reach the park entrance, bear to the right. We’ll stay on the sidewalk until we reach the next corner and then we’ll cross over.”

“Okay. Thanks for the heads-up,” DiNozzo replies…and then instantly lets out a startled yelp, jumping a bit closer to Dan. “Hey!” He looks down into the upturned face of the dog that just nipped an ankle. “I was moving.” His eyes track back to his human companion for confirmation. “You saw…I was moving.”

Dan snaps his fingers and the dog behind Tony is instantly at his side, looking up for instructions. He merely points to an area on his opposite side, far away from DiNozzo as possible, and watches as the dog moves into position, it’s face alive with intelligence and, possibly, a hint of mischief. He smiles without meaning to and for some reason, it surprises the hell out of him. He knows his animals and, rightly so, his animals know him, and it’s been a long time since Fiona has purposefully herded another human being closer to her master.

Reaching into his pocket and pulling a ragged-looking tennis ball from the confines, Dan hefts the orb and tosses it a short way ahead, watching as Fiona dashes to claim it proudly. The dog waits patiently, head low and eyes tracking intensely as the two humans and her mate close the distance, only moving again when the small group is abreast with her position.

“She’s sure full of herself,” DiNozzo comments casually but keeps close to Dan, eyes trained on the dog, his uninjured shoulder occasionally bumping gently against his companion’s.

“Yeah, she sure is,” Dan quips without further explanation, strangely comfortable with the new arrangement.

They travel the rest of the distance in relative silence and, just as Dan promises, his home is located comparatively close to the park. It’s an older, simple but attractive two-story house, complete with a picket fence surrounding the yard and potted plants on the porch. As they get ready to climb the wide stairs leading toward the front door, DiNozzo hesitates, bringing the odd ensemble to a halt.

“Look,” he shifts from foot to foot, “are you sure this is okay? I mean,” he rakes his fingers nervously through his hair, “won’t your wife be concerned when you bring a complete stranger home so early in the morning?”

A flash of hurt passes quickly over Dan’s face. “No.”

And that’s all he says before turning away. DiNozzo gives a one-sided shrug, intuitively knowing no further clarification will be coming, wondering silently about Dan’s succinct answer. He doesn’t like the wounded look he glimpsed, no matter how quickly it was gone.

When the door is unlocked, the dogs agilely hustle around the obstacle of human legs and swiftly nose past, heading for some unknown territory away from the entry. DiNozzo casually scans the foyer as he waits for Dan to shut the door behind them, taking in the warm, wooden flooring and the side table that houses a variety of family pictures he knows will ultimately make his chest ache. A small lamp illuminates the photos, spilling light across the surfaces, revealing the smiling faces of the happy family. A tight knot forms in the pit of DiNozzo’s stomach.

There’re pictures of Dan and a woman…probably his wife…in one of those traditional portrait settlings, both adults smiling at some unknown cameraman, and one of the wife holding an infant. Both the woman and the child are quite remarkably beautiful, all shiny, dark hair and large, dark eyes, and there’s a glow of happiness that fairly radiates from the young woman’s skin. It’s not just happiness he sees reflected there. DiNozzo can recognize the emotion, even if it’s something he no longer believes in.

He has to look away. Maybe he’ll be brave enough to examine the rest of the pictures later. Much later. Maybe.

“The kitchen is this way,” Dan says softly, tilting his head in the direction of the back of the house, snapping DiNozzo’s wandering mind back to attention. “Come on…let’s get you fixed up.”

DiNozzo doesn’t need to be told again because the rich, sweet, tempting scent of cinnamon rolls has his stomach instantly growling again. “Oh, man,” he whispers, swallowing a fresh wash of saliva, “I think I’ve just died and gone to heaven.”

Tony can hear Dan’s chuckles and bites back his own grin, steeling himself to meet the wife. Taking a deep breath, he braces himself and gets ready to lay on the old, reliable, smooth DiNozzo charm…

…and is brought up short by the sight of a young, dark-haired girl carefully smearing the tops of a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls with a thick, creamy layer of gooey, white icing. All the dogs, Pepper included, are sitting primly in a semi-circle around her sock-clad feet, watching the activity with avid attention. She turns to greet Dan but stops when her eyes fall on DiNozzo and Tony can see the wire of an iPod dangling from one ear. She looks boldly at this stranger in her home, eyes traveling lazily from his head to his toes, and then arches a saucy eyebrow.

“Should I break out my mace, Dad?” She asks pointedly, ignoring the dollop of icing that falls from the knife to the floor. Pepper is there in an instant, lapping away until there’s nothing left but a spot of wet, shiny linoleum under its tongue. The other two dogs look on almost indulgently.

“Be nice, Ripley,” Dan warns sternly but places an affectionate kiss on the dark head. “Your dog,” he cast a baleful gaze downward, “got away from me in the park and almost caused a collision between Tony and me.” He gently nudges the animal in question with the toe of one shoe but the little dog remains steadfast, continuing to happily tongue the floor. “Tony took a dive and hit a tree and I’m going to fix him up.”

The girl gives the stranger one more assessing look and shrugs, turning back to continue her task. “Looks like the tree won that confrontation,” she mumbles toward the plate of rolls. “I would have just let him lay there.”

Dan sighs and looks imploringly toward Tony. “You’ll have to excuse Ripley, Tony,” he says candidly, stepping toward an adjoining room, “she’s a bit of a grouch before she has her morning shower and breakfast.”

“Hey, that’s okay. I’m the same way.” Tony is at a bit of a loss and slightly off-balance but tries to be cordial as he waits for Dan’s return. He’d been expecting a fully grown woman, a mother and wife…not this…this…surly bit of miniature female. Still, he thinks he can connect another way and goes for what he knows best. “You know, you’ve got a great name. One of my favorite movie characters is…”

“Look,” Ripley turns around, points her knife in his general direction, and eyes him suspiciously, “my dad brought you here to fix you up, that’s all. I don’t have to make small-talk with you, I don’t have to treat you like a long, lost friend, and I sure don’t have pretend I like you. Got it?”

DiNozzo is momentarily stunned by her bluntness but swallows his pride and nods. “Yeah. I got it.”

“Good.” Ripley turns back to the counter. End of discussion.

“Here we are,” Dan says brightly as he re-enters the kitchen area, unaware of the tension between the two people he left behind. He’s now holding a medical kit the size of an extremely large tackle box firmly in one hand. “Let’s get you all fixed up and then we can relax and have some coffee and rolls.”

Tony nods but can’t help his baffled expression. The sheer size of the container is enough to make him wary. “Think you got enough dynamite there, Butch?”

“What?” Dan asks as he places the handled box on the kitchen table, momentarily puzzled by the strange question.

DiNozzo sighs and shakes his head. “Never mind.”

“Wait, that’s a movie reference,” Dan states with a bit more confidence, smiling shyly as he guides DiNozzo to a seat at the round eating area in the middle of the airy kitchen. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, right?” He waits for Tony’s nod before continuing. “I watched that with my dad when I was a young. He was a huge Paul Newman fan and my mother gave him a bunch of videos as a birthday present one year. The thing is, we didn’t even have a VCR at the time.” He smiles gently at the memory. “We went right out and bought one that same day and watched movies well into the night.”

DiNozzo looks up at the wistful, happy face and resolutely pushes back his own memories of childhood. No need to rain on anyone’s parade today

“Sounds great but that doesn’t explain why you have this honking-big, refrigerator-sized medical kit in your house.” He eyes the item with a mixture of suspicion and trepidation. “What’s with that? You got an elephant hiding around here somewhere?”

Ripley gives a very unlady-like snort as she continues her work but keeps her back to the men. It makes DiNozzo feel inordinately pleased to get some type of reaction from her, even if it’s just a simple, short, pig-like sound.

“No, no elephants. Yet,” Dan smiles with a hint of mischief, giving the large container a fond pat. DiNozzo likes the way the brown eyes sparkle and can clearly see where Ripley gets some of her spunk. “It’s my traveling kit, in case I have to go out on a call.”

“A call?” DiNozzo inquires, still not putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.

“I’m a veterinarian, Tony,” Dan says amicably, snapping the lid open and reaching inside to remove a few necessary items, laughing outright at the appalled expression on the other man’s face when he purposefully removes a set of wicked-looking, stainless steel, canine nail trimming instruments…and places them aside. “Now,” he rubs his hands together gleefully, “let’s get these wounds cleaned and bandaged.”

“You’re a real funny guy, Dan,” DiNozzo says dryly, hard pressed to keep a straight face when Ripley giggles outright. He’s prepared to play the fall-guy as long as necessary, especially when there’s laughter involved.

For the next ten minutes, DiNozzo sits stoically in his seat, listening silently as Dan and Ripley discuss their individual plans for the day, letting their conversation wash over him, soaking up the simple domesticity of the situation. He only winces once, when a small sliver of bark has to be dug from his throbbing shoulder, but he remains resolutely mute. He wordlessly accepts Dan’s sincere murmur of regret, knowing the hurt isn’t intentional, stealthily watching the inner-workings of this man and his daughter in their kitchen.

There’s obvious, deep affection between the two, any fool can plainly see it, and DiNozzo is definitely no fool. He knows this is how a father is supposed to treat his child, even if the child in question is sometimes irritable or rude or petulant in her own pubescent way. Dan remains calm and speaks softly as he interacts with his child and does nothing overt to embarrass his daughter in front of their guest as he gently reprimands her intermittently inappropriate behavior. DiNozzo tries to remain as unobtrusive as possible as the duo exchange words but his gaze is continually drawn back to Dan’s face each time the other man leans near.

It’s a nice face, attractive, full of character and kindness, but it’s the sharp, clear, brown eyes that keeps drawing DiNozzo’s full attention. There’s something in their coffee-hued depths that calls silently to him, something that promises to soothe the deep, abiding, unwanted ache still lingering in his soul. It would be so easy to openly flirt with this man and reveal a bit of his true nature, so easy to lose himself in the depths of those beguiling eyes, and so easy to enjoy the feel of that solid body under those deceptively casual clothes. So damn easy.

DiNozzo sighs softly again, pushing that ridiculous idea away, reminding himself of the child nearby, now blending away at some kind of fruit smoothie…and of the wife yet to be seen. No, there was no room available for him in this house or with this man.

He’s suddenly surprised, as are Dan and Ripley, when one of the dogs pads silently in his direction and gently lays its head on one of DiNozzo’s bare knees, the unusual, different-colored eyes staring up at him with open intelligence. The expression is fairly disconcerting, almost human in understanding and kindness, and DiNozzo just doesn’t know how to react to this new situation. He feels compelled to touch the animal, to stroke the soft-looking coat once or twice and connect flesh to fur, but doesn’t know if that would be acceptable to the humans or the dog. He raises his stunned, quizzical gaze toward Dan, intending to seek some guidance, but what he sees reflected in the other man’s face immediately stops him stone cold.

There’s surprise and shock and, worse of all, grief. DiNozzo knows intuitively this reaction doesn’t bode well.

Ripley is suddenly fleeing from the kitchen, little Pepper hot on her heels, her long, dark hair flowing out behind her like a veil of thick, glossy, chocolate fabric. She not able to escape quick enough because both men are able to hear her soft, choked sobs before she’s completely gone and the sound makes DiNozzo’s stomach clench tightly in agony. He has no idea what he’s done or what that sound must do to her father but he feels compelled to apologize.

“Dan, I’m…I’m sorry. I…”

“No, Tony,” he manages with a ragged sigh, laying a hand on the uninjured shoulder, “it’s okay.”

DiNozzo huffs out an unsteady breath. “Well, excuse me if I don’t believe you.” He shakes his head in confusion and looks distractedly down at the dog still occupying one knee. “It’s not every day I manage to make a young girl cry,” he slowly, carefully, covers Dan’s hand with one of his own, enjoying the brief contact and trying to convey his regret with the simple touch, “or make her father extremely sad. What’s going on?”

Dan nods, pursing his lips into a thin line, and gently slips his warm hand out from under DiNozzo’s, moving to pull a chair closer so he can sit directly in front of the puzzled man. His fingers hesitantly reach toward the dog between them but, much to DiNozzo’s surprise, the animal slips agilely away before any contact can occur and curls up under the table with her mate, safe within the haven of wooden chairs and human legs, it’s moist nose pointing back toward DiNozzo’s direction. Dan watches for only a moment before sitting back and rubbing at his temples.

“Look, Tony,” He attempts to begin his explanation, dropping his hand away from his forehead and moving to fiddle with the hem of his t-shirt, studying the fabric as if it holds all the secrets of the universe, “this is fairly complicated and I’m not sure you really want to hear about it.”

DiNozzo shrugs as casually as he can, even though his insides are practically churning with curiosity. “You don’t owe me an explanation. I think I’ve intruded enough in your life and should just go.”

“No.” Dan’s head flashes up, his eyes wide with raw emotion. “Don’t go.”

The man abruptly seems to realize how commanding his words sound and immediately looks contrite, dropping his chin to his chest in mortification. DiNozzo studies the embarrassed, down-turned face as best as he can, watching the stubbled cheeks pink and heat with the suffusion of fresh blood, and decides to cut him some slack.

“Well, I haven’t had that cup of coffee you promised me yet,” he says quietly, tilting his head to one side, waiting to see what will happen…and hoping he’ll be able to lighten the mood. “I think it would make taking that swan dive into that tree a little easier. Bruised my ego a little, too, you know.”

There’s a world of conflicting emotions in Dan’s eyes when they rise but DiNozzo only sees the pleased, open relief shining his way. Every thing else can be ignored…for now.

“Swan dive, eh?” Dan asks softly, offering another subdued but very boyish grin. “I think you’re deluding yourself there a little, Tony. From my vantage point, it was closer to a belly flop.”

DiNozzo grins easily and nods his agreement. “I think you’re right.”

Dan hesitates briefly, nods back, and then pushes up from his seat, walking the short distance to the counter nearest the sink, reaching into the elevated cabinets to retrieve two heavy-looking mugs. He pours the fresh, hot, aromatic brew and brings it silently back toward the table, the handles of the two cups held easily in one of his big hands. He snags a small container of milk from a shelf in the fridge on the way and places everything within easy reach of his guest.

DiNozzo spies the sugar, spoons, and napkins already on the table but cants his head back toward the plate of cinnamon rolls abandoned on the countertop, using his best pleading expression to try and seal the deal. “Don’t suppose you’d be willing to part with one of those, too, would you?”

The pitiful expression gets him another grin…and a brief, slight squeeze to his good shoulder. The simple touch is not expected and sends a swift rush of warmth and contentment through the agent. DiNozzo knows he can’t push any kind of relationship with this stranger, should be perfectly satisfied with the friendly, minimal gesture, but that lonely, needy, repressed aspect of his personality wants to break free. The human contact is nice and so sweet but his body craves much, much more. He realizes he needs to drink his coffee and get the hell out of here before it’s too late, before he does something to make an even bigger fool of himself.

The platter of cinnamon rolls is suddenly in front of him and all coherent thought goes right out the window. They’re huge and gooey and oozing with all that creamy goodness Ripley was so carefully applying earlier…and DiNozzo’s traitorous stomach elects to growl again. Loudly.

Dan laughs good-naturedly at his companion. “My God,” he grins as he takes his seat again, “feed that animal before it decides to crawl its way out of there!”

Both men dig in, using napkins instead of plates, and DiNozzo woofs down his whole pastry before Dan can even get half the way finished with his. It’s warm and flaky and so very good, aptly filling that hollow, gurgling cavern in his belly. Lazily licking the icing from his fingers and humming softly in satisfaction, he adds sugar and milk to his mug of coffee, stirring the hot liquid contentedly, and carefully taking a sip when he just can’t wait any longer. His face is a mask of pure bliss when the mug is finally placed back on the surface of the table.

When he ultimately looks back toward Dan, he’s startled by the open desire he sees directed back to him from those sultry, molten eyes. DiNozzo swallows convulsively at the sight and licks his bottom lip, suddenly extremely nervous of the situation. This is something unexpected…and pretty terrific. He likes this look on the other man and, as anticipated, the sensation goes straight to his dick.

“Ah…” he breathes without breaking eye contact, feeling his resolve begin to crumble, “I should go.”

Dan slowly shakes his head, never looking away. “I think you should stay.”

“Ripley may come back…”

“No,” his voice is like thick honey but the open desire is now tinged with a slight mixture of pain and confusion, “she’ll stay upstairs until I go to the clinic around nine.”

DiNozzo knows he’s in deep shit now, knows they’re both in a huge world of trouble, but he just can’t seem to muster the strength to stand up and move away from the table…or the temptation. He knows there’s only one more hurdle to jump…an enormous, insurmountable hurdle…but he’s not sure if he’ll be able to pick himself off the ground if the answer trips him up and slams him down.

“Won’t your wife be wondering what’s going on in here?” He wrestles the question out of his suddenly dry mouth.

“She died three years ago.”

And in an instant, those five, terrible, horrifying words inexplicably make everything all right. DiNozzo’s breath catches in is chest, letting his sorrow and sympathy for Dan and Ripley’s loss show on his face, even as he reaches across to grasp the other man’s hand tightly in silent support. Those brown eyes are swiftly awash in tears, the lashes spiked and wet, but DiNozzo refuses to let him look away, refuses to let him suffer alone.

“Tony, ” he manages to choke out, his face flooding with embarrassment for the second time this morning, “I…”

“It’s okay, Dan,” he soothes quietly, not needing to hear anything more, all thoughts of himself and his own desire vanishing in a heartbeat. “It’s okay.”

And it is.

They sit in companionable silence at the table, listening to the birds begin to stir outside and watching as the sun begins to rise beyond the kitchen’s large window. It seems the rest of the world is finally awakening. It takes awhile before Dan finally pulls himself together but neither man seems concerned. DiNozzo gets up once to refill their mugs with the remaining coffee and is surprised when the dog under the table follows him to the counter and waits patiently by his side until he returns. Inexplicably, the canine curls up at his feet again. He looks toward Dan for some kind of explanation for this odd behavior.

Dan smiles sadly at DiNozzo and shakes his head. “I don’t know if I have an answer for you because, I gotta tell you, this is beyond me.” He shifts in his seat and rubs a hand across his eyes before speaking again. “This is Fiona.”

“Yeah.” DiNozzo nods kindly but looks at the other man in mild confusion and concern. “Dan, I met your dogs in the park. Remember?”

Dan gives one of his lop-sided smiles and huffs out a shaky breath. “I’m sorry. Of course I remember.” He dips his head and looks down at the animal. “Let me try this again…with a little more sense. Fiona is…was…my wife’s dog.”

“Oh,” DiNozzo replies quietly, trying to understand what this means. “So, Fiona was close to her?”

“It’s more than that. She followed Megan…my wife…everywhere she could. I mean *everywhere*. Collies are extremely dedicated to their owners, Tony, and Fiona was a one-woman dog the moment we brought her home.” He smiles sadly down at the dog, obviously lost in memories. “When Megan died,” he has to stop to gather his resolve, “when Megan died, Fiona mourned…as much as any animal can…and refused to be comforted, by me, by Ripley, hell, by anyone. She somehow knew Megan was never coming home again and she turned away from everyone who approached her.” He hesitates again and frowns. “When she came to you, willingly put her head in your lap, it was…it…”

DiNozzo reaches out to stop the obviously hurtful words, briefly
letting his fingers skim across the sorrowful man’s hand. “It’s okay, Dan. It’s okay. I’m just some stranger in her home and she’s probably just curious about me, that’s all. Maybe she’s protecting her territory.”

“No,” the vet is shaking his head in denial, “it’s more than that. Even Ripley could sense it. And look,” he gestures toward the reclining animal close to DiNozzo’s shoes, “she’s perfectly happy at your feet right now. I’ll wager she’d follow you around if you got up again.”

DiNozzo has no desire to test that bet and remains firmly seated. He doesn’t know what this is supposed to mean in the greater scheme of things but he doesn’t want to rock the boat anymore than he already has. He glances over to the clock on the wall near the doorway and, as much as he’d rather not, knows he needs to get going soon.

“Look, I know you have to get to the clinic soon,” he sees Dan’s eyes all but fly toward the clock and knows the other man has been oblivious to the passage of time, “but maybe you’d like to meet me for a drink sometime. I’d like,” he pauses and purses his lips together, gathering a bit of courage, “I’d like to see you again.”

Dan looks down at the smooth surface of the table and nods. “I’d like that, too, Tony. I think I’d like that a lot.” He raises his face and offers a small, shy smile. “More than you know.”

Relief washes over DiNozzo. He wants to keep on talking and to touch the man one more time but holds back, intuitively knowing this is not the time to push for anything else. He’s been accepted, not rejected, and it makes him feel far better than he has in a very long time.

“I’ll give you a call,” he says, reluctantly pushing to his feet, stepping aside as Finn and Fiona rise too.

“I need to give you my number,” Dan says quickly, hastily fumbling in a pocket for something to write on.

“Nah,” DiNozzo says easily, waving a hand casually to one side and grinning, “I know where you live. I can look it up.”

Dan finally stands as well, looking a little nervous and, as far as DiNozzo is concerned, too damn cute for his own good. “Okay then. Let me walk you to the door.”

Both men pause when they finally reach the front porch and, before he can say his goodbye and turn to leave, Fiona pads forward and pushes her nose into one of DiNozzo’s dangling hands, giving the warm skin a swift, wet lick and waits for some reciprocation. The startled man glances toward the dog’s owner for guidance again.

Dan’s smile is bittersweet as he shrugs. “She likes you, Tony.”

“Well, I’m a pretty likable guy,” DiNozzo offers in an effort to lighten the mood.

“Yeah,” Dan smiles with more intensity, “you are.”

The two men gaze silently at each other for a few moments, their eyes communicating more than words ever could. It feels good and DiNozzo is loathe to leave but a passing paperboy carelessly tosses the daily news toward the front door and nails the NCIS agent in the back of the head, abruptly breaking the silent tableau.

“Sorry!” The kid yells as he peddles his bike rapidly away from the scene of the crime but both men can clearly hear the laughter in the youthful voice.

Rubbing the spot usually reserved for Gibbs’ smacks, DiNozzo bends and picks up the offending item, stepping forward to hand the folded paper to Dan. “Here you go. Special delivery.”

Dan bursts out laughing and takes the newpaper into his grip, smacking in once against his leg. He shakes his head. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had that all planned.”

“I’m good,” DiNozzo begins with a cocky grin, “but I ain’t *that* good.” He steps back and nods. “I’ll call.”

“I’ll talk to you then.”


“Bye, Tony.”

As DiNozzo exits the property and turns in the direction of his own place, he decides the day is shaping up much better than he’d originally thought it would. Screw the laundry…that could wait. Screw the DVDs…at least for a while. And screw running. For some reason, he just didn’t feel the need anymore. Maybe it was time to slow his pace and try a different type of exercise…like dog-walking…with a friend. Yeah, that sounds pretty damn good.

Even as a gentle rains begins to fall, DiNozzo refuses to pick up his pace. And, for the first time in and really long time, there’s just no need to rush.