Charlie Murdock was taller than Tony by about half an inch. He was an athlete, with a swimmer's build. His shoulders were broad with a narrower waist. He wore his Armani suit like a super-model. His Tag Hauer watch fit his style perfectly and his shoes were Italian leather. To Tony's eye they looked hand-made. Murdock was another "eligible" bachelor. Tony mentally saluted his willingness to actually dress for this event. It had taken all of Tony's will to just get the perfectly tailored suit out of his own closet. At least he could wear his gun with it. Tony took a sip of his champagne and cursed his name once again. He hated the fact that he couldn't actually beg out of these receptions. He prayed for a case to set off his cell or beeper. Any excuse to not have to chat with another society bimbo who thought marrying him would increase her social standard. He should take an ad out in the Post telling everyone that he was disowned. That might stop the invitations. Then again, it might not. His name was enough.
"I don't think we've been introduced," Murdock said with a public-relations smile. "I’m Charlie Murdock."
"Tony DiNozzo." They shook hands. "Say, would you be willing to do me a favor? Call my pager so I can get out of here?"
"Why would I want to do that? You look like the most interesting person here."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Smooth. Really. But there's a Duchess from Denmark and four college professors here. Any one of them is more interesting than I am."
Murdock raised his brows over warm chocolate eyes. "But you're the only one who's armed and isn't part of the security force. Or is your gun peace-tied?" He winked.
"My jacket *is* buttoned," Tony replied. "So, Mr. Murdock, how's the imports business these days? Economy dragging you down?"
"People will always pay for quality. And call me 'Charlie'."
Tony's lips twitched into a genuine smile for a moment. He saw Murdock's eyes dilate slightly and did a reassessment. "And what sort of quality dragged you out here today, Charlie?"
"There was an invitation and I didn't have anything better to do. My main goal in life is to retire early and become a rich playboy for the rest of my life."
"And how close are you to this retirement?"
"Maybe five years at the outside. And what is it that you do, Tony?"
"I'm a federal agent. NCIS."
Charlie blinked. "Crop Insurance?"
Tony shook his head. "Navy Criminal Investigative Services."
"So, you're military?" Charlie's brows rose.
"It's a civilian agency. Former MPs, cops, Secret Service, and FBI. And the new recruits we get directly from college, of course."
"I take it from the gun that you're not in an administrative position."
"I'm a field agent."
"And how did you get roped into this? And could I convince you to run away with me instead?"
"Second answer first, I'm out of here as soon as I can find a polite reason. And it's a family obligation." Tony frowned. "My grandmother would be heartbroken if I didn't go to these things, even though I hate it."
Murdock shook his head. "I need to be less subtle."
"Oh, was that you asking me to run away with for the foreseeable future?" Tony raised his brows. "Because no one's tried that in years. I'm too old to be a boy-toy."
"Meet me tomorrow for dinner and we'll set about fixing that."
"I can't promise that. I'm surprised I haven't gotten a call already. Probably fate just deciding to be contrary. Of course, if you were to suddenly say that this is a date, I'll probably get a call."
Charlie chuckled. "Then I can't call this a date, since I want you to stay."
Desdemona Patricks, the host's daughter slid between the chatting groups toward the two men. They both turned to her with almost identical attendant expressions. She laughed, a high musical sound. "I see you two have found each other. Charlie, you're going to break a lot of hearts if you take Tony out of circulation. Besides, last I heard Tony was in a relationship."
Tony felt his eyes go flat. "Desi," he said calmly, "that is not general knowledge."
"That you were going to move in with a female doctor? It surely was."
Tony rubbed at his temple. "She's not in the picture any longer. I'm not going to talk about it either," he headed her off. "Go spread your rumors. Tell them I've sworn off women."
She laughed again. "Right. As if there's a woman here who didn't try to lose her virginity to you."
"Operative word in the sentence is try."
"So if you've sworn off women, does that mean I have a chance?" Charlie asked swiftly. He invaded Tony's space casually. Tony smirked at him. "I'm taking that as a yes."
Desi shook her head. She pinched Charlie's cheek. "Good luck with that. Tony's a tough one. I should know. I'm one of the ones who actually did lose her virginity to him." She winked. "Which means that if you do catch him, I'll be horribly jealous that you got him to settle down." She left them while Tony was still laughing at her.
"Seriously, do I have a shot?"
"I never turn down an offer of friendship, but if you're looking for love?" Tony paused. "Let's say that I've been burned pretty badly recently, okay?"
"I won't break your heart. But let me have a chance. If there's no spark, we'll stop before we can ruin things. So, can I whisk you away to dinner tomorrow?"
"I'll meet you wherever. Just remember that I'll probably be coming from work." The agent paused for a moment. "And my work is not confined to nine to five. I might have to reschedule."
"You can't scare me off that easily. If you're not interested, you really need to stop smiling at me like that."
"I didn't say I wasn't interested, just warning you that I'm not as available as you are. Dinner tomorrow. Where?"
"I'll call you after I make the reservations. Wear a suit."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Don't break the bank to impress me."
"Date tonight?" Gibbs asked, cocking his head to the side. He and Tony were alone in the office for the moment.
"Yeah." Tony shrugged. "Not too sure about it."
"So I shouldn't expect a turtle-neck tomorrow?" The older man smirked.
"I didn't say *that*." Tony smirked back at him. "Am I going to have to cancel?"
Gibbs paused. "Do you want an out?"
"If I beep you with a 411 will you call me?"
Gibbs nodded. "And when Trish calls again?"
Tony winced. "I got it. Don't worry. She divorced you and Fornell. Even I can learn from that."
The older man smirked. "She's persuasive."
"She reminds me of my second step-mother." Tony pulled a face and Gibbs snorted, lips twitching. That got him a bright smile from Tony. He loved that smile. Maybe Tony was doing better. He'd missed the bantering edge of their partnership with the recent strains. He still trusted Tony to have his back, but it had been hard recognizing how badly he'd hurt the younger man. He missed his Tony. He missed the man who invited himself over when something in his apartment went sideways, brought steaks and beer on random Tuesdays because he was bored, and came to hold suicide watch from the basement stairs after a bad case. He kept looking up from his newest project expecting to see Tony on the stairs, but he wasn't there. "Why did you marry her again?"
"Have you looked at her?"
"Oh, man, Gibbs, you are such a sucker."
"So was she," he said wistfully.
Tony's jaw dropped. "I am telling Abby you said that."
"She'll never believe you."
Charlie looked at his watch again. He'd taken his seat and ordered the wine to start their meal by the time Tony showed up. He looked slightly frazzled. "I work in Anacostia," he stated. "Seven is probably pushing it from here on out." He settled into his seat with a smile.
"Well, you did warn me," Charlie conceded with a smile. "In any event, I've ordered the wine."
Tony nodded. He accepted the menu with a smile for the waitress. The older woman smiled wryly at the attention. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Hot tea with cream," Tony replied. She nodded and left them to peruse. "What's your favorite here?"
"Solid and dependable choice, hmm?" Tony scanned the pages rapidly. His eyes narrowed. Their server returned with tea for Tony. She poured the wine carefully to fill half a glass for each of them. "Thanks, Betty. I'll have the salmon steak with rice."
Charlie grinned. "Medium rare filet minon with red potatoes."
Betty nodded. "And for an appetizer?"
"I'm good," Tony answered easily.
"Just some bread."
"I'll go ahead and get this in and bring you some bread to tide you over." She smiled at them in a vaguely motherly way.
Charlie studied his date. Tony looked a little harried, but there was a smile on his face and his eyes were kind. They looked at each other until the bread came. "Well this is incredibly awkward," Tony stated. "I don't know if I should start with a line or just ask you about work."
"Does that line really work?"
"You're going to have to tell me."
The businessman smiled at that. "It's working so far. Why are you so resistant to this?"
Tony sighed. He took a sip of wine. "I made a mistake and fell in love during a deep cover operation. Broke her heart and mine when I told her the truth." He shrugged. "I don't think I'm ready to jump back in with both feet. Good choice on the wine."
"It's my favorite. You seem to know a lot about me, but I don't know much about you. Your reputation is shrouded in mystery."
Tony rolled his eyes. "I've got a name that a lot of women want. If I do get married to someone who figures in the society pages, my father will let me back into the family. But I don't want that. The whole upper-crust BS. It drives me insane. Good clothes. Good food. Plenty of time to get into trouble, sure. All the rest of it? Parties and schmoozing and all that? It's not my scene."
"But you still go."
"It's family. I like my grandmother. It's just the rest of them who aren't talking to me."
"What unforgivable crime did you commit?"
"Told my father that I didn't want to take over his business," Tony lied easily. "And I still don't understand what you want from me?"
"I want you to fall completely in love with me. Run away and join me in traveling the world when I retire in five years. And generally let me spoil you rotten."
Tony cocked his head to the side. "And if I won't give up being a cop? What then?"
"Then you let me spoil you. See me as often as you can. And let me keep you in good clothes, good food, and let me try to convince you to run away with me at least once a month."
The man smiled. It made his eyes sparkle. "You're focused. I'll grant you that. I won't give up being a cop. It's a part of who I am. I work strange hours and stay up late obsessing over details. I have nightmares and generally am a junior bastard. My boss is a world-class bastard. I'm still learning the technique," he said solemnly. "But if you want to keep me fed, I'm not going to object. I'm just as happy with a pizza and a DVD as I am with this place."
"Now, tell me about you."
"I have a business that I've managed to make profitable selling software innovations to inventory control specialists. I've got three or four more projects with them before I'm willing to just retire and live off of my pension and investments. I like sailing. I have a boat of my own and a small plane that I love to fly. My favorite movie is Serendipity because I am a die hard romantic who believes in love and chance."
"My favorite is Psycho because Hitchcock is a genius." Their food arrived then. Tony picked at his fish. "Charlie, I'm still not sure about this."
"You were disowned." Charlie's eyes narrowed. "Because you're bi?"
"Because I didn't want to go into business, marry a trophy wife, and have a son to carry on the legacy of my family name." Tony rolled his eyes. "No one would have freaked if I'd had a boy on the side, so long as I was discrete."
Gibbs raised a brow. "You're in early."
"Yeah. Well." Tony chewed on the end of his pen. He stared down at the file on his desk. Gibbs leaned against Tony's desk and sipped his coffee. It would be at least half an hour before Ziva and McGee showed up. Silence was the most effect interrogation technique against the younger man. "It went well. Really well."
"No! It's not good." Tony threw down his pen. "I shouldn't recover this quickly. I should still be heartbroken and moping. I loved her."
"Yes." Tony glared up at his boss.
"Then you'll remember her fondly. That doesn't mean you have to mourn the relationship."
"Shouldn't it take me more than a few weeks to be ready to go again?"
Gibbs shrugged. "No 'should' in this sort of thing, DiNozzo."
"Right." Tony ran a hand through his hair, making it settle into messy spikes.
"How long have you been here?"
"Since three. Couldn't sleep."
"I get that." Gibbs nodded. "Go get some breakfast."
Tony smiled. There was a brush of just-visible darkness under his eyes that looked like Abby had gotten to him with her make-up kit again. "Can't let the kids guess." The young man stretched. He was almost out of the pen when he turned. "Boss?"
Gibbs looked up from his booting computer, reading glasses perched on his nose. "What is it?"
Gibbs nodded his head toward the elevator in dismissal.
Tony stared at the roses on his desk, but they didn't change color. They were still a warm mix of white and pink in a vase that looked like a soap bubble. He was glad they weren't red. That would have been too much, but the pink was disturbing in its own way. "They won't bite, DiNozzo," Gibbs snapped. "Back to work."
Gibbs' voice was like a tug on his mind's leash and he turned his attention back to the case at hand. It was smuggling rather than murder, so he found it less thrilling. It was paperwork and tracking and he wanted to go undercover or interview people. Something more active than searching through shipment logs to find discrepancies and timing issues. The ringing of his phone perked him up. Human contact was good. "DiNozzo," he answered.
"Charlie, pretty flowers, but not my thing." He felt the smile prick up the edges of his mouth.
On the other end of the phone there was a warm laugh. "My assistant seems to believe that no woman would hate flowers."
"Forget to tell her something then? The vase is impressive. And I can give the flowers to the director's secretary. She'll love them."
"Aw, come on, baby," Charlie teased. "Don't you love me?"
"You sent flowers to my office. You got points for the wine last night, but the flowers hurt your standing today."
"No private calls on work time," Gibbs snapped. Tony rolled his eyes at his boss.
"You heard the man."
"Dinner, to make up for the flowers. Tomorrow at eight?"
"Depends on whether I'm working or not." Tony glanced back at Gibbs. His partner shrugged. Damn, that meant he had to make a decision. "Later." Tony hung up without letting Charlie get in another word. Better he know now what sort of man he was getting involved with. Gibbs raised his brows. Tony mirrored his shrug. McGee and Ziva looked between the two of them.
"New girlfriend?" McGee asked. He kept his voice low.
Tony snorted. "One date. Last night. And today I've got flowers on my desk." Tony poked at a rose with the back of his pen. Ziva's brows rose, but she didn't ask any questions. Gibbs glared and Tony went back to his work. His boring, endless, manifests and books.
"So, flowers are a no go," Charlie said. He poured a glass of wine as Tony sat down. "But eight is better than seven I see."
"Paperwork searching is McGee's forte not mine. I can recognize a double book, but computer tracking is not my thing."