Tony walked into the bullpen whistling a happy tune. He was in a good mood for the whole week even if they were on the cold cases. He didn't mind them, even though it meant sitting at his desk throughout the day. But it also meant everything was fine in the world, no murders, no gross crime scenes. And, it also meant he was working from seven to five. A normal work day. As rare as that happened.
And today he was actually praying it would stay that way because it was the visitors day. For the last three years, every Friday, he would drive to 'Silver Meadow', an estate in Berkeley Springs, not very far from D.C. It was a nursing home for Senior and Retired Citizens. If he were unable to come on Friday, he would come some other day in the week. If there wasn't a case, he would stay there throughout the whole weekend. With Ernie. His friend. His hero.
It was a secret. No one, not even Gibbs, his boss, knew of it. Hell, not even Ernie knew he was the one who was paying for his stay there. Tony sometimes thought Ernie suspected it, but since the old man never said anything, the payments remained as a secret between Tony and the owner of the estate. 'Silver Meadow' was for an exclusive clientele, but Ernie more than deserved it. In his mind, it was money well spent. It was the least he could do for the old man. A man who became his surrogate father. A man who listened to him, who liked spending time with him. A man who gave him advice when he was feeling low and abandoned. Someone who he could tell his deepest secrets and fears without being judged.
Tony still remembered that day when Ernie came claiming he killed his best friend during the war, wanting to be charged for murder. It was probably the only case they had trying to prove the innocence of the guilty part. To both the JAG prosecutor and Ernie himself. While Kate, McGee and Gibbs did that, he was on a 'babysit' duty. Even though, at first, he grumpily complied, in the end, he had a great time with the old man. He was in awe with the war stories Ernie told him. Not just war stories, though. Ernie had quite an interesting past. And the more Tony found out, the more he admired the man. He stayed the night at Ernie's house talking and remembering the old times. Looking at the photographs of Ernie and his late wife Dorothy. Tony confessed to him he wanted that kind of love someday. Love that lasts. The commitment. It was the first time he opened up like that to someone who he just met. It surprised the hell out of him, but at the same time it felt right.
Tony couldn't help the small chuckle that escaped his lips when he remembered the morning wake up call with marching band fanfare that threw him off the couch on the floor. He glared at the old man who just grinned at him, holding a cup of hot chocolate for him. When they returned to the Navy Yard, late that day, he watched Ernie and Kate dancing in the bullpen while the old man silently hummed the music. Tony knew, seeing the unshed tears, in that moment Ernie remembered dancing like that with Dorothy. Maybe even imagining it.
A couple of days later, after the case was closed, Tony found himself on the doorstep of Ernie's house. He didn't know why, but the idea of Ernie all alone in that house with only memories as company, broke his heart. It wasn't just Ernie who was lonely. Tony was as well. He just couldn't stay in his empty apartment. When the old man opened the door, and their eyes met, he pulled Tony inside and hugged him.
It was like coming home.
From that day, Tony spend every spare moment with Ernie. When he wasn't with Gibbs, that is. They watched movies together, talked, went to baseball and basketball games. Tony loved to cook for him. He finally understood what it was like to have a home. A family who loved and cared for him. It was Ernie who held him in his arms while he cried after Kate was killed. It was Ernie whom he confessed how he fell in love with someone who would never return his feelings back.
Tony didn't understand why today of all days memories of happy and even sad times with Ernie plagued his mind. He remembered that one night when he was alone in his apartment, with a broken heater, freezing his butt, but too stubborn to go to Gibbs' house and sleep on the couch, he suddenly heard a knock on his door. He was surprised to see Ernie, standing there, covered with snow.
''I had a feeling your heater was broken and judging how the temperature here is almost the same as on the outside, I was right.'' Ernie scowled. ''Come. Hot chocolate is waiting for you at my place. Pack your bag, you'll be staying with me.'' He added, then shook his head. ''Why do you do this to yourself? You know you're always welcomed.''
Tony was too shocked to say anything, a small blush forming on his cheeks. ''I didn't want to impose.'' He answered sheepishly.
''You're an idiot. Now, hurry up.''
Since then, Tony often stayed the night in the spare bedroom of Ernie's house.
When Ernie got sick and couldn't walk anymore, ending up in a wheelchair, Tony found a solution. It took a while to finally convince Ernie to sell the house and move to 'Silver Meadow', where he would be well taken care of. But, what Ernie didn't know was, that it was Tony who actually bought the house. He wanted to have a home to go to, and Ernie's house was a home to him. Since Ernie had no family, the house would go to the state, and Tony didn't want that. True, he was rarely there, but he hired a girl that cleaned the place once a week. It was a spontaneous decision, something that even Tony himself didn't quite understand.
''Why are you so happy?'' Ziva asked with her eyebrow raised, breaking the memory trail and returning Tony to the present.
''Sure. So, what's her name?'' She continued to probe, smirking.
''Whose name?'' Tony asked in confusion.
''The girl you were with last night. Because that is the only reason why you are whistling.'' McGee quipped.
''Well...'' Tony smiled, falling into his frat persona, but he was silenced when Gibbs arrived, carrying his first cup of coffee, and barked.
''I believe you have work to do.''
''Yes, boss.'' The trio answered promptly.
It was the 'Police Academy' soundtrack, Tony's ringtone of the week, which broke the silence in the bullpen two hours later. Without checking the ID caller, Tony answered.
''What?'' Tony choked out, his eyes filling with tears.
It was the tone of Tony's voice that caused Gibbs, Ziva and McGee to look at the fourth member of the team, never before hearing him that broken. Gibbs frowned, noticing the slight shake of Tony's hands and the sudden paleness on his face.
''But...He was fine the last time I was there. Three days ago. How? When? What happened?'' Tony continued with his questions, his voice cracking, and to everyone's shock, tears started to fall down his face, but he seemed oblivious.
''I'll be there soon.'' He promised, ending the call, then got up, taking his gun, wallet and badge from the drawer.
''Tony? What's going on?'' Gibbs asked as he stood up and walked toward his SFA, before either McGee or Ziva could utter a word, still shocked at Tony's show of emotions.
''Nothing. I have to go. I'm taking a day off.'' Tony answered, wiping the tears away, looking anywhere but at Gibbs.
''DiNozzo!'' Gibbs barked, capturing Tony by his upper arm just before he was leaving.
''Let go of me!'' Tony hissed, trying to free himself, but Gibbs held him tight in his grip.
''No. Tell me what...''
''I don't have to tell you anything!'' Tony interrupted him. ''I'm leaving, and you can't do anything about it. Fire me, see if I care! Now, let me go!'' Tony spat, lifting his head and glaring at Gibbs.
Realizing that Tony wouldn't say anything and seeing the distress in his eyes, Gibbs caved. ''Okay. But, I'm coming with you.''
''Fine.'' Tony said.
Taking his badge, wallet and gun, Gibbs rushed after Tony who was waiting for him next to the elevator. ''Continue with the cold cases.'' He ordered, looking at Ziva and McGee, who nodded.
''Where to?'' Gibbs asked, when they entered his car.
''Berkeley Springs.'' Tony answered, fastened his seatbelt, and turned toward the window, not seeing anything.
During the ride, Gibbs send worried glances toward Tony, his heart breaking at the site. The young man had his arms wrapped around his waist, as if he was protecting himself, silently crying. He didn't know what to do, what to say, but desperately wanting to hug him and never let go. He loved Tony, had been in love with him for years, but never saying or showing anything, afraid of the answer. So he kept loving him in silence. From the distance. Only a couple of times had he thought that the young man could love him back, but there was always something that turned his hope into dust. It was never the right time. He was content just to have him as a friend. He had to be, because the alternative, the thought of losing him, would probably kill him.
''Mark said he died. Last night in his sleep.'' Tony whispered, half an hour later.
''Who?'' Gibbs asked gently, shocked to hear Tony so broken.
''Ernie. Ernie Yost.''
Gibbs' eyebrows furrowed, trying to place the name, then his eyes widened when he remembered. ''Corporal Ernie Yost? The one who came to us claiming he killed his best friend? The recipient of Medal of Honor? That Ernie Yost?'' He asked in shock, looking at the man sitting next to him, who still hadn't moved.
''You stayed in touch with him?'' Gibbs asked in shock. ''That was years ago.''
The one word answers from Tony troubled Gibbs, but he also knew what the young man was going through right now. The rest of the drive passed in silence, the only sound that was heard was sniffs that Tony tried to hide.
Thanks to Gibbs' fast driving, they got to Berkeley Springs in record time. Tony guided where to go next, and a couple of minutes later, Gibbs read 'Silver Meadow' on the iron gate. He parked the car, and without a word followed Tony inside the house.
''Tony! I didn't expect to see you that fast.'' A man in his seventies walked toward them and pulled Tony in a brief hug.
''Well, Gibbs was driving.'' Tony tried to smile but to both Gibbs and Mark it was actually a grimace. ''Mark Welder meet Leroy Jethro Gibbs, my boss. Mark is the owner of the estate.'' He introduced the two men who were looking at each other then shook their hands.
''It is nice to finally meet you, Agent Gibbs. Even under this circumstances. Tony talked about you, even Ernie mentioned your name a couple of times.'' Mark said with a small smile.
''I wish I could say the same, but Tony never mentioned you or Ernie, for that matter.'' Gibbs scowled at his SFA, but the young man paid him no mind. Instead, he looked back at Mark and asked.
''Where is he?''
''He is still in his room. Maria found him when she brought breakfast and the medication this morning.'' Mark explained sadly. ''When she couldn't wake him up, she realized... Anyway, she called me and I called you. I'm so sorry, Tony.''
''I need to...'' Tony choked.
''Go. We'll be right behind you. Say your goodbye.'' Mark said, watching the Italian walking away, then when he was sure Tony couldn't overhear, turned toward Gibbs, noticing the expression on his face. Expression he recognized in an instant. ''Ernie was well loved here, the moment Tony brought him. And Tony...every time he comes to visit, it's like a party here.'' He smiled at the last part.
Gibbs was silent for a moment, taking in everything Mark said. ''Tony brought him here? When?''
''A little more than three years ago. At first we all thought they were related, father and son, you know. But, Ernie told us everything. How they met. But, to tell you the truth, I would love to have someone like Tony as my son. He truly loves Ernie, and Ernie loved him back. He was here every week, missing only when there was a case. You should've seen how they interacted, the love was palpable.''
''Tony is one remarkable person. I know.'' Gibbs said proudly. ''He gives everything without asking anything in return. I just wish...'' He sighed.
''I wish he told me about this. I mean, I didn't even know they stayed in touch. Learned about it when you called.''
''What's done it's done. You know now and you can help him with the loss.'' Mark advised.
A couple of minutes later, Mark and Gibbs walked into Ernie's room and their heart broke seeing Tony kneeling by the bed, holding Ernie's hand and sobbing.
''Tony?'' Gibbs said gently, kneeling next to the young man, placing his hand on Tony's shoulder.
''I was supposed to come tonight.'' Tony whispered. ''Spend the weekend. He is gone, Gibbs. He is gone.''
''I'm sorry, Tony.''
''I have to make arrangements for the funeral.'' Tony said, a couple of minutes later. ''He would like to be buried next to Dorothy.''
''If you'd like, I could help you with that.'' Gibbs suggested.
''You would?'' Tony asked, finally looking at the ex-marine with such hope and pain radiating from him, that Gibbs found himself pulling the young man into his embrace.
While Gibbs made some calls, Tony started packing Ernie's stuff, when he found a letter addressed to him. Taking a deep breath, he sat on the balcony and opened it.
My dear Anthony
Thank you for your company for the last couple of years. You were like a son I never had, a son I always wanted. You made my last years of life worth living, after my darling Dorothy died. I'm truly honored to call you my friend... my son.
I truly believed my life was over, but then you came. Like a lost puppy looking for a shelter. I saw the loneliness in you that mirrored mine. I will always treasure the time we spend together, even after I'm gone. The games we saw, the movies we watched, the long talks we had. I know what you did for me, paying for my stay here, buying my house. Yes, I know about that. It is also your home.
I have my last advice for you. Life is short. Take everything from it, before it's too late. Tell him how you feel. If he doesn't return those feelings back, at least you'll know. And move on. Don't be afraid of taking the chance. A chance to be happy.
I'm also leaving my Medal of Honor to you, Anthony. I know you'll treasure it forever.
Your surrogate father.
When Tony read Ernie's last words, he started sobbing again, and that was how Gibbs found him. He sensed warm arms around him, providing comfort, and he buried his head into Gibbs' chest.
After a while, Tony ran out of tears, and he lifted his head. Their eyes met, and he blushed, realizing what he'd done. Before he could utter a word, Gibbs put a finger on his lips, silencing him.
''It's okay, Tony. I understand.''
Two days later, they were in the Ball's Bluff National Cemetery. Everyone came to pay their last respect to the hero. Mark and the rest of Ernie's new friends from 'Silver Meadow' left first after the ceremony, giving a comforting hug to Tony. Ziva, McGee, Abby, Palmer and Ducky were also there, but they didn't say a word, knowing what Tony needed the most. A silent comfort and support. Remembering.
Abby bounced her way upstairs to the bullpen, feeling bored and lonely in her lab. She stopped in confusion, looking at Ziva and McGee who looked troubled for some reason. When they told her about Tony's phone call, his tears and the outburst, how he and Gibbs left without saying a word where, and how they weren't answering their phones, she and McGee traced them via GPS in Gibbs' car. When it showed their destination, they were more confused than ever.
''Do you think Tony's dad died?'' Ziva asked.
''No. Tony wouldn't shed a tear for that man. Trust me.'' Abby said angrily, thinking of what she found out about Senior when Gibbs told her to search Tony's life when they met in Baltimore so many years ago.
Both Ziva and McGee knew not to ask any more questions about that subject. A few hours later, Gibbs called McGee to find the best mortician office. When Abby insisted on knowing what was going on, Gibbs told them to come to his house in the morning and he would explain everything then.
They were shocked and sad hearing what Tony kept from them, and Gibbs all but ordered them to leave things alone, saying Tony needed their support, not anger. That he would confide in them when he was ready. Before the ex-marine could stop her, Abby ran up the stairs, toward the guest room where she knew Tony was sleeping occasionally, and her heart broke at the site. He looked so young and small, sleeping in an almost fetus position, his face wet from crying.
''Take good care of him, Gibbs. He needs you.'' She whispered, sensing him behind her.
''I will, Abbs. I will.'' Gibbs promised, his own eyes filling with tears.
Standing next to Gibbs, in his black suit that intensified the paleness of his face, red eyes from crying, and dark circles underneath, Tony tried his best not to fall apart. He was oblivious to the tears that were falling down, and the looks his teammates threw his way, looks of surprise and sorrow. But, when the casket went down, he couldn't hold it anymore. His knees buckled, and if it weren't for Gibbs's strong hands, he would've fallen down. He couldn't stop the sob that escaped, and once he started, he couldn't stop. Gibbs whispered calming words, holding the young man firmly in his arms.
Their relationship changed overnight, both Tony and Gibbs were aware of that. They were closer, closer than ever before. They weren't afraid anymore, afraid to show how they felt. Tony showed Ernie's letter to Gibbs when they arrived at Gibbs' house when they returned from 'Silver Meadow'. Gibbs asked who was the 'he' that Ernie wrote about, and Tony blushed, averting his eyes away from the ex-marine. It was an answer good enough.
It was already nighttime, when Tony started shivering. He and Gibbs were the only ones left, still wrapped in each other arms. He looked up toward the sky and saw one twinkling star. A sudden calm feeling washed over him, and he smiled.
''Goodbye, Dad. And thank you.'' He whispered, then sensed a firm grip on his hand.
Their eyes locked, blue met green. Who moved first, neither of them knew, but in the next second, their lips met in a sweet kiss.
Above them a star was twinkling.