By: Vanessa Sgroi
Anthony DiNozzo sighed loudly when the pounding came at his apartment door. Enjoying the waning afternoon of his no-call rotation weekend, he was indulging in a practice round of his newest, and highly secret, hobby—cooking. He’d collected a simple cookbook or two in bargain bins, and when the mood struck, Tony pulled one out and got to work. Some of what he concocted was actually edible. Some was not. But in the end it was all good; he did it as much for enjoyment and distraction as for production of sustenance. He figured that maybe one day, if and when he mastered something, he’d even invite people over.
So, when the pounding started on the door, he sighed and finished pouring chicken broth into a measuring cup before wiping his hands on the dishtowel tucked in the waistband of his jeans. “Coming!” he yelled as he stepped into the living room. Tony glanced at George, his orange tabby cat and dedicated shadow.
“Wonder who that is?” If Tony didn’t know better, he’d have sworn George raised an eyebrow in response to his rhetorical question. George mewed, padding toward the door.
When Tony opened the door, he was surprised to see Dalia Westerbrooke, his newest—and admittedly drop-dead gorgeous—neighbor, on the other side. Tony had asked her out the first week she’d moved in and she had, very sweetly but firmly, shot him down. In the eight months since, she and Tony had settled into a nice friendship sharing coffee, casual conversation, and an occasional pizza.
“Hey, Dalia. What’s up?”
“Tony! I’m so glad you’re home. I need an incredibly huge favor!”
“A favor? What—is your drain clogged again?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. Listen—my brother, Denny—you remember I told you all about him, right?”
“Uh huh…” Tony leaned a shoulder against the door jamb.
“Well, he fell at work, broke both legs! And his wife, Cora, she’s pregnant with their fifth—but she’s on bed rest…”
“And they need me—I mean, they want me to come to Kansas and help out for like a month.”
“Oh, so you need a ride to the airport? No problem.”
Dalia blinked, thrown off course by Tony’s question. “What? Airport? No! I need you to take Albert for me.”
“Yeah, you remember—Albert, my bird.”
“Ooohh, THAT Albert…” Tony remembered she’d told him she’d gotten the bird in her divorce settlement. “Well, gee, Dalia, I dunno. I mean, I work so much…”
“And I have a cat, remember?” DiNozzo pointed at George who was sitting patiently at his feet.
“Oh, that’s okay. Albert loves cats.”
“Please, Tony…there’s no one else. I’ll pay you!”
“You don’t have to pay me…” demurred the NCIS agent.
“So you’ll do it?”
Dalia bounced up and down. “Oh, thank you, thank you!” She threw her arms around him, wrapping him in a hug. “You’re the best! I’ll bring him right over!”
She was gone before Tony could utter another word.
Fifteen minutes later she returned pushing Albert’s cage in front of her, a small cardboard box resting on top. She wheeled him across the threshold and came to a stop. Dalia grabbed the box and pulled the items inside out, handing them one by one to Tony.
“I brought his food and some fruit I had all ready for him, a new cuttlebone, his spray bottle to mist him with, all of his favorite toys, his blanket, a bird book—It’s My Birdy, and I’ll Squawk if I Want To!...”
“This CD has all his favorite songs on it and this is a list of his favorite movies and TV shows. Albert likes to be out of his cage; he’ll love your nice broad shoulders. He needs sunlight, loves a good treasure hunt, and loves flock time—meaning he loves to hang out with me—I mean, you—while cooking or watching TV. OH and I have a harness for him if you wanna take him outside! I dunno—do you want me to get it?”
Resigned to the inevitable, Tony finally dropped his chin to his chest. “Uhhh…sure…why not?”
She scooted out again and returned minutes later with the aforementioned harness. She handed it to Tony along with a piece of paper. “Here’s an instruction sheet along with my cell number to reach me and the vet’s number, just in case.” With that, Dalia turned to Albert and made kissy noises. “Love you, Bertie Bird. You have fun with Tony, okay? I promise, he’ll take good care of you.”
Tony was surprised to hear the bird make kissy noises back and then toss out his own “Luv yuuu too.”
Then Dalia was off in a whirlwind of beads, bracelets, and shiny dark hair. Tony closed the door quietly after her departure and turned to face his new houseguest. He walked to the cage.
“Well, Albert, it looks like it’s just you and me. Oh, and George the cat. And Kate the fish.”
Albert tilted his head and gave Tony a gimlet eye before nodding his head. “Albert is a pretty boy.”
“A pretty boy, huh?” DiNozzo eyed the bird’s pretty coloring. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Albert is a pretty boy. Albert is a pretty boy. Albert is…Albert is a pretty boy.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Well, Tony is a pretty boy too,” snarked the SFA.
“Albert is…Tony is a pretty boy.”
Tony’s eyebrows arched and he chuckled. Looking at George he said, “Hey, look at that, he repeated what I said! Too bad you can’t do that, Georgie; I’d be a rich man.” Tony ran a hand through his hair. “I guess I better go finish my dinner—our dinners—before it gets much later.”
After eating some of the dish he had prepared, which hadn’t turned out nearly as tasty as he’d hoped, Tony fed George then read through the instruction sheet Dalia had also handed to him. As he read it through a second time, he gathered what he needed and fed Albert.
“Good. Good.” The bird happily trilled that throughout his meal.
While Albert was eating, Tony grabbed a beer and settled on the couch in front of the TV. George quickly joined him. He turned to the channel to tune in to his guilty pleasure American Ninja Warriors. He liked to watch the episodes as often as he could and jokingly contemplated adding a little parkour to his workout routine.
“Warped wall. Warped wall.”
Tony glanced over at the bird. “Don’t tell me—this one of your favorite shows?”
“’merican Ninja Warrior!”
He grabbed Dalia’s list off the coffee table and scanned it. “Yep, there it is. Heh.”
George snoozed while Tony and Albert watched in mutual fascination. When it was over, Tony stood and stretched. He padded to Albert’s cage and covered it with the provided blanket. “Goodnight, Albert.” He flipped the living room light off. “Goodnight, Kate. C’mon, George, let’s haul ass to bed. Gotta work in the morning.”
It was the middle of the night when a bloodcurdling scream woke DiNozzo from a sound sleep. He was on his feet with gun in hand in seconds. The scream sounded again, and it was coming from his living room. It was followed by “…gonna murder me in my sleep! He’s gonna…”
Tony turned on the light and blinked in the sudden brightness. His gaze tracked to the birdcage by the window only to see George’s rear end poking out from under the blanket. “Oh, no!” He ran across the room, setting the gun down along the way then scooped George up and tore the blanket away in one move. Albert placidly sat on his perch blinking at Tony and the cat. Without warning, the bird screamed again and Tony jumped.
“…gonna murder me in my sleep! He’s gonna…”
Now that he was thinking somewhat more clearly, Tony recognized the line from a movie but couldn’t place which one. Shaking his head, he muttered, “Stop that, you crazy bird!”
“Albert is a pretty boy.”
“Not right now you’re not,” grumbled Tony.
“Tony is a pretty boy.”
Tony glanced down at his rumpled boxers and sleep-wrinkled skin. “Wrong again, Bertie Bird.” He suddenly heard a siren and it was coming closer. “Uh oh. I bet I know where they’re coming.”
He had just enough time to secure his gun, throw on a pair of sweats, and grab his badge before an authoritarian pounding sounded on the door.
“Police! Open up!”
DiNozzo threw the door wide, arms extended and badge in hand. Despite his non-threatening stance, the two uniformed officers were tense.
“Sir, we’ve had a report of screams coming from this apartment. Is everything all right?”
“Everything is fine, Officer. My name is Anthony DiNozzo. I’m a Special Agent with NCIS. That’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service. My service weapon is on the premises but is currently secured.”
The bigger of the two cops stepped closer, looming in the threshold. “Does anyone else live here, sir?”
“No. Just me, my fish, and my cat.” Tony pointed to his feet where George was gliding a figure eight around his ankles.
“You mind if we come inside?”
Tony shuffled backward without tripping over George and motioned for the police officers to come in. “Feel free to look around.” The smaller partner took him up on his “invitation” and headed off to do just that.
“Special Agent DiNozzo…”
The cop’s gaze narrowed. “Special Agent DiNozzo…care to explain the screaming that was reportedly coming from this apartment?”
“Would you believe me if I told you it was a bird?”
This time Tony pointed at Albert in his cage. “Officer…” Tony paused, gaze seeking out the man’s badge. “Officer Grant, meet Albert. I’m bird-sitting for a friend. He’s the one doing the screaming.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Just then the second cop made his way back into the living room. “All clear,” he announced.
Grant nodded his head. “The agent here was just telling me it was the bird that was doing the screaming.”
At their twin looks of skepticism, Tony said, “It’s true! Look, it’s Albert’s first night here, and I think…I think the cat scared him.”
“Uh huh,” muttered Officer Grant, rocking back on his heels.
“Maybe I can show you.” Tony picked up George and approached the cage.
Albert fluttered his wings. “Albert is a pretty boy. Tony is a pretty boy. Albert is…Tony is..” Albert bobbed his head and did a little dance. “Woo hoo. Luv yuuuuu, Bertie Bird.”
Tony sighed. “Or maybe not.” He eased George to the floor. “Look, guys, I’m really sorry you were called out for no reason.”
Still eyeing the bird, Grant said, “Well, it has been one of the weirder ones.”
“Thanks for coming.”
The officers just reached the door when Albert let loose with another scream. Both LEO’s spun around wide-eyed. A rather smug-looking George sat down next to the cage. Albert, for his part, started to laugh. Grant shook his head and focused on Tony. “You might wanna do something about that.” With that last bit of sage advice, the cops left.
DiNozzo rubbed his eyes with his palms then shooed George down off the table. “Okay, okay. Joke’s on me. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you two choreographed that.” Tony moved to re-drape the blanket around the cage. He bent over and wagged a cautionary finger at George. “Okay, bad cat. How about we leave Albert alone.” He yawned. “Back to bed.”
“Bad cat. Bad cat. Hahaha.”
“Up, up. Up, up. Up, up.”
Tony groaned and rolled over. Cracking an eye, he glared at the digital readout next to his bed. 5:00 a.m.? That’s a whole hour before my alarm, damn it.
“Up, up. Up, up. Up, up.”
“Okay, Albert,” he called as he sat up. “I’m awake.” Tony stood and shuffled into the living room. He immediately uncovered the bird’s cage. “Listen, it looks like you and I are gonna have to have a talk.”
Albert merely bobbed his head and threw a throaty wolf-whistle in Tony’s direction.
DiNozzo ran a hand down his face. “You know, it’s too early for this shit.” He continued into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. While it was brewing, he threw on sweats. “Guess I’ll go for my run. You guys behave while I’m gone.”
Thirty minutes later, Tony returned, sweaty and panting, to find George sitting on top of Albert’s cage while the bird squawked movie-fueled death threats in the cat’s direction. “George,” muttered Tony, “I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of NOT behaving!” The cat jumped down and followed Tony into the kitchen.
After downing a cup of the hot, dark nectar of the Gods that was coffee, Tony fed George, fed Albert, and fed Kate before heading to the shower. Clean and dressed for work, the SFA figured he’d head in early, ultimately deciding that stopping for a breakfast sandwich and another cup of coffee sounded like a perfect plan. As a precaution, he locked George in the bedroom for the day, offering profuse apologies as he did so. On his way to the door, he passed the cage where Albert was dancing and singing “Kate, Kate the fish…” over and over.
“Albert, you are one weird bird.” Shaking his head, Tony grabbed the copy of It’s My Birdy and I’ll Squawk if I Want To! to take with him.
A wolf-whistle followed him out the door.
DiNozzo slumped, chin in hand at his desk, his fingers wrapped tightly around a tall paper coffee cup. He’d initially enjoyed the peace and quiet his early morning arrival had proffered, but now he was looking forward to his co-workers arrival to deliver the jolt that caffeine hadn’t quite been able to accomplish.
Ellie Bishop was the first to arrive. She glided past his desk and dumped her backpack and a plastic bag full of snacks on her desk with a grunt. Relieved of her burden, she turned and waved. “Mornin’.”
Tony took a long sip of coffee before saying, “Mornin’” in return.
“Wow. Rough weekend?”
“No—rough night last night.”
“Oh. Maybe I don’t want to hear this.”
“You wouldn’t believe…”
The elevator dinged and a whistling Timothy McGee strolled into the bullpen. “Good morning!”
“What’s got you so happy this morning, McJaunty?” grumbled Tony.
“Nothing. It’s just a nice day, that’s all.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Mondays are never nice days.”
McGee eyed his tired-looking colleague. “Well, Sunday sure wasn’t by the looks of you.”
“Tony was just about to tell me about his rough night last night,” Bishop remarked.
“Oh. Uhhhh…I really don’t think we want to hear this,” warned McGee.
Scowling, Tony muttered, “Not that kind of night. Geez. My neighbor asked me to watch her bird.”
“Her bird? That’s not a new euphemism, is it?”
“No, it’s not a new euphemism. It’s an actual bird. Albert.” Tony went on to explain the events of the night before. When he finished, he downed the rest of his coffee before saying “So yeah, I don’t know if I’m cut out for this baby…errr…bird-sitting gig.”
McGee shook his head. “You’re a big, bad agent—it can’t be that bad.”
“Bloodcurdling screaming in the middle of the night? Nah, not bad at all,” snarked Tony in return.
“Maybe he just has to get used to your cat,” Ellie offered with a smile.
“Yeah, that beast you call a cat.” He resisted the urge to rub his right butt cheek as memories of a certain orange tabby’s claws raking it expanse surfaced. A quick burst of phantom pain throbbed.
“Aw, Timmy, you know George loves you. He was just playing. He thought you were a giant mouse.”
A thoughtful look crossed DiNozzo’s face. “Hey, Bishop, maybe you could take…”
Ellie waved her hands. “Noooo. Sorry. Husband’s allergic.”
“McGee! C’mon, do a partner a favor, huh?”
“No! No way. I don’t like birds.”
“Not since I watched that movie when I was a kid…”
“Movie? You mean, The Birds?”
“Yeah…so no on taking what’s his name…”
Gibbs arrived in the bullpen at that moment. Knowing it was a long shot, Tony started, “Hey, Gibbs, how would you like…”
“But you don’t even know what…”
“Don’t have to—answer is still no.”
“DiNozzo…does the word ‘work’ mean anything to you?”
“Boss, he’d be really good company for you—you know, since you live all alone…”
When Gibbs just offered a steely-eyed glare, Tony slumped. “Right, work. On it, Boss.”
With no active, emergent cases at the moment, the team was working on some cold cases and the clean-up of a variety of paperwork. It made for a long, and boring, day. Around mid-morning, Tony slipped away, ostensibly heading for the vending machine with a detour to Abby’s lab along the way.
Seeing Abby standing in front of Major Mass Spec, Tony sauntered up next to her. “Hey, Abs…”
“Tony!” Abby gave him a one-armed hug, wrinkling the papers she had in one hand.
“You need help with anything? Anything at all?” begged Tony.
“Mmm, trying to get away from the paperwork, huh?”
“How’d you guess?”
Abby laughed. “Maybe because you’re down here in the middle of the day practically begging to help me. And you only ever do that when you’re facing the dreaded paperwork.”
“Yep, so busted, Buster. Besides I don’t have anything for you to do.”
“Hey, speaking of help…”
Abby swung to face him, pig-tails twirling. “This is about the bird, right?”
Tony’s eyebrows arched toward his hairline. “Well, yeah...how’d you know?”
“A different kind of little birdy warned me.”
“McGee or Bishop?”
“Mmmm. Neither. But good try.”
“Oh. Well, I was hoping…”
“My Aunt Cora-Beth had a bird once.”
“And…and nothing. She had a bird once. Named Tilly. She liked to dance. Tilly that is, not Aunt Cora-Beth.”
“Soooo why won’t you bird-sit Albert?”
“I just told you.”
“But that didn’t make any…you know what, forget it. Forget I asked. Let me know if anything comes up that I can help with.” Tony spun on his heel and headed for the door. Just before he reached it, Abby spoke.
“She flew away one day. Tilly, not Aunt Cora-Beth, of course. She flew away, and Aunt Cora-Beth was never the same afterward.”
With Abby’s words ringing in his ears, Tony made a beeline for Autopsy. Waltzing in, he donned his best bright smile. “Hey, Ducky! How would you like to take care of a bird named Albert?”
Looking up from the clipboard where he was making notes on some case findings, Ducky returned the bright smile. “I think not, my boy. At my age, I find I rather enjoy the peace and quiet.”
DiNozzo’s gaze roamed the Autopsy suite. “Is Jimmy around?”
“Now, Anthony, you’re not seriously thinking of burdening the expectant couple with such a responsibility at a time like this?”
Tony shifted from foot to foot. “Well…it would be good training!”
“Pish tosh. They have all they can handle at the moment, and you know it, young man.”
“Yeah,” Tony sighed, “you’re right.”
“Now the question is—why don’t you want to continue to bird-sit Albert? After all, your neighbor entrusted his care to you.”
“I know. But what if…what if I’m not the right person? I mean, what if something happens? I don’t want Dalia to end up like Abby’s Aunt Cora-Beth.”
Tony waved a dismissive hand. “Never mind.”
“If I remember correctly, it was not too long ago that you did not think you were cut out to be responsible for your cat, George. And if I am not mistaken, that has turned out splendidly.”
Tony sighed again and patted the medical examiner on the shoulder. “You know what, Duck-man. You are absolutely right. Thanks.”
Tony paused outside his door and listened. Complete silence reigned within his apartment. Unlocking the door, he shoved it open and went inside; dropping the plastic bags he carried just a few feet from the threshold.
“Luuuucy, I’m home!” He called out in his best Ricky Ricardo imitation.
“You got some ‘splainin to do,” Albert called back and Tony laughed.
“Lemme guess, I Love Lucy is on your favorite TV show list. Wonder what else is on there. I’ll have to look again.”
DiNozzo hurried across the living room and opened his bedroom door allowing George to streak from his ‘cell’. Halfway across the room, the cat stopped and sat, giving Tony his best cat glare.
“My apologies, oh prince of the realm,” Tony said.
George’s gaze shifted to the bird cage just behind Tony. Assuming pounce pose, George swished his tail a few times and leapt, landing on the table next to the cage.
Tensing, expecting a scream or a string of murderous invective from Albert, Tony was surprised when nothing happened. He blew out a relieved breath and relaxed enough to go quickly change his clothes.
When Tony re-entered the living room, Albert turned on his perch, eyed the cat up and down while nodding his head. “Meow.”
The slightly poleaxed look on George’s face sent Tony into a fit of laughter. “Didn’t expect that, did ya Georgie boy?” Tony rubbed the cat’s head. “C’mon, let’s all have some dinner.” On his way to the kitchen, DiNozzo sprinkled some fish flakes into Kate’s bowl.
After dinner, Tony gathered the plastic bags he’d dropped by the door. “Albert, have I got a surprise for you!” After his earlier talk with Ducky, Tony had decided to embrace his neighborly duty and had read through the bird book he’d taken with him to work. As a result, on his way home, he’d stopped at a couple of stores.
Emptying the bags, Tony lined up a number of toys, books, and other items with which to keep Albert entertained. He went to the cage and opened the door. Slightly apprehensively, he held out his hand. “Albert, out?” Much to Tony’s surprise, Albert gracefully climbed onto his hand then he inched his way up his arm and came to rest on his shoulder.
Bertie leaned down and said in Tony’s ear, “What ya doin’?”
“Albert, you and I are gonna have some fun.” Tony opened the two packages of tissue paper he’d bought. Easing down on the couch, he picked up some of the tissue paper and began to rip it. He tossed a few scraps to George to keep him entertained then encouraged Albert to start ripping. Soon there were strips of paper everywhere and Albert was chortling, singing and bopping all through the mess. The bigger the mess became, the happier Albert seemed to be.
Tony was sprawled out on the floor with Albert on his chest when a knock sounded at the door.
Albert spread his wings and waved them about. “Knock, knock. Who’s there?”
“Well, let’s go find out.” DiNozzo carefully got to his feet, allowing Albert to resume his position on his shoulder. He padded across the floor in his bare feet and pulled the door open to find Gibbs’ on the other side. “Oh, hey, Boss! What’re you doing here?”
Gibbs’ keen gaze traveled over Tony taking in the mussed hair and strips of tissue paper clinging to Tony’s body. His gaze finally locked on the bird. “Should I ask?”
Tony stepped back and motioned for Gibbs to enter. He shrugged. “Albert and I were playing.”
Jethro’s gaze roamed the messy room. “I can see that.” He eyed the cat who was rolling around on his back in the middle of the torn tissue paper. “Looks like George is having a pretty good time too.”
“Yeah. They actually get along. Wanna beer?”
Before Tony could move toward the kitchen, Albert hopped from Tony’s shoulder to Gibbs’. The SFA smiled. “Hey, Boss, I think Albert likes you!”
Gibbs side-eyed the bird with a wary frown. “As long as he doesn’t shit on me…”
“Poops. Poops. Wanna shower, hmmm?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gibbs grumbled at the bird.
When Tony returned with two beers, Gibbs was seated on the couch with Albert perched on his head and George curled in his lap. Setting a beer in front of Gibbs, Tony settled back in his recliner. He started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” muttered Gibbs.
“I was just thinking if Kate the fish could walk, she’d probably be over here in your lap too. You apparently turn into Dr. Dolittle when you’re inside my apartment.”
A reluctant smile graced Gibbs’ face. “It’s my magnetic personality.”
“Can I…can I watch my show?”
“What show, Albert?”
Tony grabbed the remote and turned on his television. “Okay, whatever it is.”
“Gimme kiss. Gimme kiss.” Albert made some kissy noises. “Gimme kiss.”
“Well, Boss?” Tony grinned and pointed at the bird.
“Not a chance.”
“Albert…Albert is a pretty boy. Tony is a pretty boy too.”
At that, Gibbs laughed out loud. “Birds of a feather…”
After that second night, things fell into a comfortable routine for Tony, Albert, and George. With a continued relatively light caseload, Tony was able to come home from work each evening and play a few games with both the bird and the cat. A few nights he even put Albert on his harness and ventured outside.
The original four weeks turned into six weeks, but soon Dalia was back and at Tony’s door to claim Albert.
“Bertie bird! Mama’s hoooome!” Dalia took him from his cage and gave him a kiss. The bird kissed her in return. “Tony, I just can’t thank you enough!”
“No thanks necessary, Dalia. It’s actually been pretty fun. If you ever need a bird-sitter again, I’ll be glad to.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! You know, I just might take you up on that. And you know, you can always come and visit. I’m only at the other end of the hall.”
Tony smiled. “And I might just take you up on that!”
She gathered up her stuff and pushed the cage to the door, Bertie still on her shoulder. “Bertie, say goodbye to Tony.”
“Bye, bye! Bye bye!”
“Bye, Bertie—you crazy weird bird you.”
“Luv yuuuuu, Tonyyyyyyy.”
Tony cleared his throat and said a little self-consciously, “Love you too, Bertie Bird. Bye, Dalia.”
After Dalia and Albert were gone, Tony picked up George and they settled on the couch. Lying flat, Tony settled the cat on his stomach.
“Finally! Things will get back to normal around here. Sure is gonna be quiet now, hey George?”
The cat stared at him, looking rather forlorn.
Tony rubbed George between his ears and sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’ll miss him too.”
George stuck both front legs out and stretched his paws toward Tony’s face.
Tony fingers moved to scratching under George’s chin. “But we can always go visit him. Maybe…maybe we can go tomorrow night. How about that? That’d be fun, right?”
George mewed in agreement.
Tony sighed again just to make noise. His apartment was a little too silent. “Hey, George, maybe we should get a bird.”
George slow-blinked a baleful look at him.
“Yeah, yeah—okay—maybe not.”
Grabbing the remote, Tony clicked on the TV.