One Step at a Time

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: This is probably the most obvious possible interpretation of this challenge, but I just couldn't help myself. Not betaed.

They called it the dating game and Tony was an expert at it.

Not that he always won, of course. What game would be fun if there was no challenge to it, no uncertainty as to success? And winning didn't always mean getting the other player into bed, either. The goal depended on the player. Sometimes winning meant scoring a single date. Sometimes it meant a handful of dates, or a roll in the hay, or a very particular roll in the hay.

But whatever the objective, Tony had a better than average chance at getting there. He knew how to challenge the aggressive ones and how to seduce the shy ones. More importantly, he knew how to tell the two apart. Not every woman--or man--who seemed shy and uncertain really was.

They were playing the game, too.

Hell, that was what made it so much fun. The rules changed depending on who was involved. Oh, you could make a few generalizations, work out a few reliable strategies, but you had to be able to adapt on the fly, too. You had to learn when the other player was stepping outside the box you'd mentally put them in and respond properly anyway.

Tony had had a few pretty spectacular failures in his time. Having his picture posted on the herpes website had certainly added a few moves to his rerpetoire that he'd never expected to need. He was careful.

But he'd had a few pretty spectacular successes, too. Definitely worth bragging about, even if not everyone appreciated the skill involved. McGee was an amateur player and Tony didn't think Kate had known there was a game being played at all. Ziva sure as hell did, but while sparring with her was good practice, Tony wasn't interested in playing it all the way out. He had the feeling that the only things that would be considered winning with Ziva would cause him more trouble than they were worth.

Besides, Tony wasn't about to do anything to jeopardize the game. The game had been going on for four years now and every lesser round of the dating game since had become small moves in the game. If there was an Olympics of dating, this was it, because the other player in this game was Gibbs.

They'd started it the moment they met, each recognizing a certain look in the other's eye. When they'd closed the case they were working and Gibbs had offered him a job, Tony had known that the stakes had gone up, but he hadn't been able to resist the challenge. What was the worst that could happen? He'd have to get a new job? Like he hadn't done that a few times already.

That wasn't the last time the object of their particular game had changed. Sometimes Tony would reach whatever goal he'd set only to find that no, it wasn't enough, he'd put too much into playing to settle for such a small victory. Sometimes it was Gibbs who would shoot him a look, a clear challenge that if Tony wanted to see if he could do better on the next round, he was welcome to try.

After this much time, the game was as much unspoken as it was spoken. A pizza, a slap on the back of the head, an arch grin, a flaunted date. Then there were the oblique things, things that one or the other of them were suddenly allowed to know or see or hear when they'd been off limits a moment before. And the obvious things: invitations tendered and accepted, or not; requests made and granted, or refused.

There were times when Tony worried that he'd gotten himself in too deep, that he'd taken on a player out of his league. Gibbs was good, so good that Tony had to wonder how he'd let three women get away from him. But for all his worry, Tony never quite managed to convince himself to give up the game, to call it done and stop playing. And damn it, if anyone was worth the effort, it was Gibbs.

No, he was in this one for as long as it took.

But as he rode down in the elevator with Gibbs, the two of them on their way out to get a drink for the first time, Tony caught Gibbs's eye and got the distinct feeling that the goalposts had moved again. Following Gibbs to his car, Tony found himself grinning, already looking forward to figuring out where they were headed next.