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Gibbs had been struggling since he woke up in the hospital to remember the last fifteen years of his life. It was mind boggling trying to grasp just how much of his life he'd lost. A day or two wouldn't have been a big deal. He'd have expected that. But fifteen years! Jesus Christ. How as he supposed to handle that?

Just seeing himself in the mirror was proof enough that the doctors and staff weren't lying to him. When had he gone gray? Or decided to let his hair grow? It hadn't been that long since before he joined the Marines.

Taking care of his hair had been a piece of cake. Little time with a razor and it was back in order. Fixing the gaps in his memory was proving to be more of a challenge.

Talking with Ziva had helped fill a few holes. Enough that he knew what Pin Pin had been up to and what the hell happened in that laundry room. But it wasn't enough to convince the powers that be to handle the problem differently. Nineteen lives lost. God that hurt. He suddenly better understood why Franks felt the need to retire...leave ...quit. Whatever.

He was almost ready to do the same. He couldn't though. Not until he had more answers.

By all accounts he'd been an agent for fifteen years. Surely there was a reason he'd stayed with it so long. There had to be something that kept him at NCIS. He didn't know everything, but he was positive there had to have been plenty of shit that happened which would have made him want to quit over the years. The miserable pricks letting a ship blow up and permitting nineteen men to die when it should have been prevented could not have been the only time he'd been this close to turning in his badge and gun.

So why had he stayed? Why was he still an agent? Why had he put up with all that bullshit?

Gibbs hated not knowing. He needed answers. He wasn't asking Jenny. No way in hell. He remembered having sex with her...sex, not making love. He'd made love to only one woman in his life and that was Shannon. Sex with anyone else was just a raw physical need, instinctive and satisfying, but never the same thing he had with Shannon. Of that he was sure. Was probably why he'd been married and divorced three times...if what Jenny said was true.

He had the personnel files of his team neatly stacked in front of him. It would have to be one of them. He had to trust them or they wouldn't be part of his team. Gibbs took a deep breath and started with the one on top.

Ziva. He shook his head. She was too new. He remembered that much. She'd known him for a year. She couldn't fill in the missing gaps. At least not where it counted. He could read his own damn file for most of what she'd be able to tell him. It would fill in the 'what' and 'when'...but wouldn't really tell him the why of his own motives.

Ducky. The Englishman had claimed to know him the longest; he should have been the logical, obvious choice. Yet, Gibbs still couldn't remember much about the ME. He really only had flashes; random images and isolated facts, nothing that really flowed or seemed concrete enough to work with.

McGee. He considered the younger agent's file for a moment. Gibbs shook his head. Nothing immediately came to mind when he thought about him, except that McGee was a good agent but still a little green. Gibbs knew he wasn't as new to the team as Ziva. McGee's file told him that much. Unfortunately, the history between them wasn't much more than two or three years. And he couldn't shake the feeling that the younger man had a hell of a lot of faith in him. Gibbs wasn't sure if it was pride or prudence that made him hesitate to confess any weakness which might shake McGee's faith in him.

Abby. He dismissed her for the same reason. He had fond, paternal feelings for her similar to how he felt about Kelly. Not the same, but close. He didn't want to hurt her by admitting he didn't remember much about her. Loud music, lots of caffeine, a fondness for the bizarre and macabre, but he really couldn't remember how they met or when. He was stuck by a familiar flash of pride by what he read in her file. She was damn good at what she did.

He sighed softly reaching for the last file. Anthony DiNozzo. He was the most seasoned agent on the team, Gibbs' second in command. He'd been with Gibbs for nearly 5 years, if the file in front of him was accurate.

Gibbs studied the photo. The picture didn't do him justice. He knew DiNozzo was far too animated and energetic for a still shot to really capture his essence. Shannon had been like that. Only half their wedding photos had turned out because she was constantly in motion, little more than a white blur in most of them.

He really couldn't figure out why he knew he trusted Tony. If they were good friends, shouldn't he at least of come to the hospital? But then he knew how he felt about Abby and she hadn't come either. After not knowing Ducky, and then getting so upset with Jenny, Gibbs wondered if the doctors had restricted his visitors. If the doctor hadn't, the nurse might have. She certainly hadn't thought much of Franks smoking or getting him a steak to eat. Ziva had snuck in during the night. She was used to covert operations; maybe Tony hadn't been able to get in.

Gibbs checked the address listed, growling a bit in frustration as he wrote it down on a bit of scrap paper. He likely had known it by heart at one point; now he was so afraid of losing the information again he had to write it down. He wondered if Ducky's mother felt this same sort of irritation and fear.

Gibbs frowned. And then smiled. He'd remembered something. Ducky's mother was still alive. She was a little on the senile side but otherwise in good health. She'd made a pass at him not too long ago.

Gibbs laughed softly. He grabbed the slip of paper he'd written DiNozzo's address on and his jacket. It was late but he was sure the younger man wasn't in bed yet. He didn't know why he was so sure, but he was going with his gut.

As he drove to DiNozzo's place, Gibbs had a feeling of déjà vu. It was oddly reassuring and disconcerting at the same time. He'd obviously been to the younger agent's home although he couldn't clearly remember when or why. He even knew a short cut.

Gibbs scanned the building parking lot. None of the spaces were labeled, but he had no trouble picking out the older Mustang that had to belong to DiNozzo. Something about the car triggered another flash of memory; a high speed chase on the plasma screen at the office, a beautiful classic car rolling over...totaled. For some reason the memory brought with it a feeling of loss and regret. It wasn't his car. Of that Gibbs was certain.

He shrugged off the strange memory as he touched the hood of the Mustang. Gibbs could feel the residual heat from the engine, heard the faint pings as it cooled. Tony hadn't been home for long. He frowned. It was nearly midnight. The other man should have been home hours ago.

Gibbs climbed the stairs, wincing as his bruised body reminded him that just a few days ago it had been forcibly introduced to a steel bulkhead. Getting caught in an explosion hurt like hell, no doubt about it. It had the first time too.

He hesitated on the landing, suddenly unsure if he should knock. Gibbs glared at the door, hating the uncertainty in himself and his welcome. He was startled when the door opened but he managed to cover it.

"Hi." Tony blinked, looking at him in surprise. He obviously wasn't expected to see Gibbs standing on his doorstep.

"DiNozzo." Gibbs noticed the younger man had a duffle bag slung over one shoulder. "You going somewhere?"

"I was. But it can wait." Tony shrugged, lightly tossing the bag to the side. "You need something?"

"Yes."

The curt answer didn't seem to faze Tony at all. Green eyes studied blue for a moment. He just stepped back and opened the door wider. "Come in."

Gibbs glanced around as he entered. The place felt familiar. He vaguely recalled being here before. He had a key. He remembered searching the place for clues to Tony's whereabouts. The memory came with feelings of anger and confusion.

"You want something to drink?" Tony asked, heading for the kitchen, either politely overlooking or oblivious to Gibbs hesitation in the hallway.

"Coffee." The hospital had restricted his intake to one cup a day. Bastards.

"Figures." Tony chuckled. "I'll have to make some."

A fresh cup would be worth waiting for. Gibbs sat at the table, watching Tony start the pot. The younger man's moves were graceful and sure.

Tony pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge. He offered it to Gibbs along with a small bottle of pain killers. Tony's lips curled into a slight smile when Gibbs gave him a questioning look.

"Never really seen you in pain, but I'm guessing you got a headache from hell."

"Yeah." He hadn't noticed until Tony mentioned it. He pried the top off and shook three out into his hand. 'Grunt candy' Marines called over the counter painkillers. Aches and pains were just a natural part of the job.

"Concussions are like that." Tony shrugged. "Had enough of those to know."

Gibbs nodded slowly as more flashes of memory came to him. A bunker, a woman in a wedding dress left to die, Tony's cry of pain as she attacked him with a lamp. Another woman who wasn't really a woman, a bar, Tony on the floor.

Tony pulled down a mug off the small wooden tree that sat on the counter. He filled it, offering it to Gibbs before taking a seat.

"Aren't you going to have a cup?"

"Had enough coffee the last two days to last me awhile."

"You don't really like it all that much," Gibbs stated with conviction.

"Not at much as you do, no." Tony smiled. "Usually only have a cup in the morning."

Gibbs took a sip. The coffee was dark, strong and bitter. It was just the way he liked it.

"So, what can I do for you, Boss?" Tony cocked his head to one side, gaze steady. "Besides making coffee for you."

Gibbs sighed. He wanted to rub his face but knew that would be more painful than it was worth. The still healing burns kept reminding him of their presence.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to maintain eye contact. "I still have some gaps in my memory."

Tony nodded. "Kind of figured that."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. He thought he'd done a good job of covering when he'd been at the office.

"You came off the elevator with Ziva. Guessing she introduced herself to you." Tony smiled ruefully. "Hoped that when I sent her to talk to you it would jar some memories."

"You sent her?"

"Yeah." Tony sighed, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table, chin resting on his hands. "Needed you to figure out what the hell was going on with the case. There were just too many missing pieces and time was running out. Thought one of us might have better luck than Ducky or the Director had in jogging your memory. Would have come myself...but I was team leader in your absence."

The weight of the decision to send Ziva rather than go himself was readily apparent in troubled green eyes. Gibbs found himself better understanding how Tony had come to be his second in command. The kid was good; dedicated and determined. The image of a St. Bernard unexpectedly came to mind.

"When you showed up, I figured it worked. More or less. Just not completely."

"Howâ€""

"You called McGee by the wrong name. Betting you didn't know that until he corrected you."

Gibbs stifled a wince. The thought he'd covered that slip reasonably well. He couldn't help feeling a sense of satisfaction that his senior agent had been observant enough to catch the slip. No one else appeared to have.

"Once you knew who he was, by process of elimination, you knew who I was." Tony looked away. Gibbs could tell having been forgotten hurt the younger man. He couldn't shake the feeling he had hurt Tony more than once over the last few years. What he didn't understand is why he felt guilty about it. He usually didn't care if he trampled on the feelings of his male subordinates. At least he never had while in the Marines.

Tony cleared his throat, gaze once more on Gibbs. "Abby was the only one left on the team you hadn't seen or spoken to yet. So when the girl in pigtails hugged you there was only one person she could be."

He grinned, eyes losing their shadows and lighting up with amusement. "Don't really understand how you could forget someone like Abby, but then anything is possible, I guess."

Gibbs grimed. "She's definitely one of a kind."

"So's Ducky." Tony's countenance shifted as his own grin faded. "You didn't really remember him either did you?"

"Not then." Gibbs shook his head. He sipped his coffee. "He'd told me that story about being left on the bus when I woke up in the hospital."

"He'd mentioned that." Tony nodded, sitting back. "I did the math after you'd left."

"I've gotten some back," Gibbs admitted quietly, "just not all of it."

"If you need to fill in holes, you'd do better to ask Ducky." Tony's tone was reasonable, encouraging. "He's known you longer."

It was an argument Gibbs already had with himself. Tony was the one he wanted to provide the details. He had a good reason for it. "I think you understand me better than he does."

Tony's forehead wrinkled in confusion as he stared at Gibbs. "You must have me confused with someone else."

"I remember you." It wasn't a lie. He did remember Tony....sort of. He remembered trusting the younger man, feeling comfortable around him. He just didn't know why. 'Got your six, Boss' echoed in Gibbs' head for a moment. It inspired a level of reassurance and comfort nothing else had since he woke up in the hospital.

Tony folded his arms over his chest. "You should go talk to the Director. She's known you--."

"No!" Gibbs declared decisively. He was not talking to her. Not just no, hell no.

"O...kay." Tony stretched out the word, eyeing him warily. It was clear he was surprised by Gibbs vehemence. It was also clear he wasn't going to ask why Gibbs was so adamant.

"Abby?" Tony suggested hesitantly.

Gibbs turned the mug around in his hands, staring at the dark liquid. "I don't want to hurt her feelings by telling her how little I remember about her right now."

Belatedly he realized he was causing the same hurt to Tony. That might be why the younger man was attempting to refuse, why he was offering other people in his stead. Gibbs glanced up trying to read Tony's __expression.

Tony's jaw tightened, eyes darkened with something Gibbs couldn't quite read. The look was gone a second later when Tony smiled. "Abby is definitely a little sensitive about stuff like that. She was seriously pissed and very disappointed when she thought you forgot her birthday."

"I didn't forget." Gibbs protested, certain of that fact. He snuck into the lab to leave her gift on the desk.

"No you didn't." Tony agreed, chuckling softly. "She just thought you did."

Gibbs cleared his throat, uncharacteristically nervous. "So...you'll help me out?"

"What do you need me to do?" Tony asked without hesitation.

"I don't know." Gibbs shook his head, hating feeling lost and uncertain. He had no idea what brought memories to mind and what didn't. So far there hadn't been any clear pattern to triggering them. He said as much, frustration and anger leaking into his voice.

"Maybe spending some time around familiarâ€""

"I'm missing fifteen fucking years, DiNozzo," Gibbs growled. "Nothing is familiar at this point. I barely recognize my own home."

He got up and started pacing Tony's kitchen. "I pass people and I catch myself wondering if I should know them. Do I work with them? Should I know their names? Are they friends or enemies?"

Gibbs wasn't sure why he felt so comfortable spilling his guts to Tony but he couldn't stop himself. He'd been struggling with this internally with no one to really talk to. No one willing to listen who wasn't trying to force him to recall details of vital importance. This was his life, not a case.

"If I hadn't looked it up, I wouldn't even know my own address for God's sake. I got a boat...a boat in the basement! Did that ever make sense? I don't have any idea who my neighbors are. I don't have any idea where the hell the grocery store is and there's no food in my house."

"You're not much of a cook so the grocery thing might not be a big deal," Tony offered quietly.

Gibbs rounded on him with a glare, eyes spitting fire. "I'm serious, DiNozzo."

"So am I, Boss." Tony stood and faced him, not intimidated by his fierce look. "It's a lot to remember...so how about we focus on the important stuff, and let the minutia wait."

Gibbs sighed. He wished he'd asked for something stronger than coffee to drink. "I just wish I could get the hell away from here. Go somewhere that I wasn't supposed to remember. That no one even knew who the hell I was so I wouldn't have to worry if I should know them."

Tony bit his lower lip. He seemed to be mentally weighing his decision before nodding to himself. "If that's what you really want...I can do that."

Gibbs blinked. He hadn't expected Tony to take him seriously, but the idea was very appealing. Get away and just try to figure out who Leroy Jethro Gibbs was now without worrying about how he'd gotten that way. Maybe find a reason to stay with a job he wasn't sure he even wanted any more. He raised an eyebrow. "You got a place in mind?"

"I was headed there when you caught me at the door."

"I've never been there?"

"Never." Tony smiled. "Can guarantee no one there will know you and you won't know them."

"Some fancy resort hotel somewhere?"

Tony laughed. The sound was deep and rich. Gibbs had no idea if he'd ever heard it before but he wouldn't mind hearing it again.

"No...not fancy. Not a resort. Bit more on the rustic side." Tony grinned. "Actually, it's more you than me when I think about it."

Gibbs nodded, instinctively trusting Tony. "I've got a bag in the car....I think."

"You usually do." Tony stepped over to the counter. He dumped the remaining coffee into a travel mug, offering it to Gibbs. "Might as well finish that."

Gibbs followed him to the door. "You must pack in double time," he said when Tony stopped to pick up the bag he'd dropped by the door. The younger man hadn't been home very long when Gibbs pulled in.

"This one is always packed."

Gibbs smiled. "You learn that from me?"

"No." Tony shook his head. "Started that when I was twelve." Tony made a shooing motion, ushering him out the door before he flipped off the lights and locked the door.

"Twelve?" Gibbs took a sip from his cup, walking in step with Tony toward the Mustang and his sedan. "You planned to run away from home or something?" Kelly had threatened to do that once in awhile when she was mad.

"Or something."

There was a tightness in Tony's voice, something hard and brittle. It hadn't been there before. Gibbs wondered if this was yet one more thing he'd forgotten. "Did I know why before...before my accident?"

"No." Tony gave him a tight smile. "Wouldn't worry about it right now. You got enough on your plate."

It was a polite brush off, but a brush off nonetheless. Gibbs nodded, respecting the obvious boundary line being drawn. He had lines of his own.

Gibbs grabbed his bag from the trunk of his car. He tossed it lightly to Tony who placed it in the trunk of the Mustang. He set is own bag in next to it.

Tony handed Gibbs his cellphone before he started the car. "You might want to call some people. Give them a heads up so no one sends out a search party."

Gibbs squinted at the phone. His fingers tightened around it, knuckles whitening. He couldn't remember anyone's phone number.

"Ducky is number five on the speed dial." Tony's matter-of-fact tone lessened his embarrassment and anger. "Abby is number four. McGee is three. Ziva is two." There was a moments hesitation before Tony said softly, "Two used to be Kate's."

"I remember her."

"Good." Tony nodded once as he started the car. "She deserves to be remembered."

"Should I tell them where we are going?" Not that he really knew where they were headed, but he figured Tony would mention it as some point.

"Wouldn't tell them...unless you want them to track you down."

"Not for a few days." He needed some time to get things sorted out first before he dealt with his entire team's expectations.

"Okay." Tony neatly backed out of his parking spot. "Just tell them you are going to take some time to get your head screwed on straight. Tell them you'll call every day so they won't worry."

Gibbs nodded. That should work. He needed this. Hopefully they would understand as well as Tony seemed to.

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs woke from a light doze, somewhat surprised to find he'd even nodded off. He squinted out the passenger side window, unable to make out much in the predawn darkness. Blue eyes drifted to the dash, checking the time. Just a little after three.

Gibbs grunted. He'd been sleeping for about an hour then. He stretched, wincing when his shoulders and back protested.

Music filtered through the speakers. Gibbs was pretty sure it had been old rock and roll when he nodded off. Now it was...Gibbs frowned. He wasn't sure he could even label what was playing. It wasn't bad, just nothing he'd ever really heard before. At least it wasn't the ear splitting music that Abby usually had blaring in her lab. He smiled realizing he'd remembered something else. Her favorite band was Plastic Death.

"What are you listening to?" Gibbs asked, wondering if he should know what Tony's favorite style of music was.

"Rusted Root." Tony answered, glancing over.

"Rusted Root?" Gibbs repeated, eyebrows rising.

"Name of the group." Tony clarified with a shoulder roll that wasn't quite a shrug. "Kind of a blend of rock, Latin and African rhythms."

"One of your favorites?"

"Not really." Tony lightly tapped his fingers on the steering wheel keeping time with the music. "But it's good driving music."

Gibbs filed the detail away for future reference. He looked out the window again hoping to catch sight of a road sign. "Where are we?"

"About half an hour or so from Grottoes, Virginia."

Gibbs had never heard of it, or at least he didn't think he had. "That our ultimate destination?"

"Pretty much." Tony grinned. "Or at least as close as you'll find on a map."

Gibbs watched the road for several minutes. He didn't know what else to say. Small talk had never really been his forte. He had expected Tony to fill in the void, but the other man seemed content to hum along with the music, fingers still tapping the steering wheel matching the drum beat.

What Gibbs remembered of Tony seemed to involve a love of movies and an almost compulsive need to discuss them. Gibbs had memories of movie references being made at the oddest time, sometimes germane to the situation, other times not. He wished he had more to go on. At least the silence wasn't uncomfortable. Tony clearly didn't mind if he had nothing to say, and didn't seem to expect him to talk.

Tony yawned and rubbed at his eyes. Gibbs studied him. The younger man had likely been awake for at least twenty-four hours, probably more. Just because he hadn't looked tired when Gibbs showed up at his apartment didn't mean he wasn't.

"You okay to keep driving?" He hadn't seen anywhere to stop but then he hadn't been looking for one either.

"I'm good." Tony shifted in his seat, executing an abbreviated stretch. "Not the first time I've made this drive a little short on sleep." He chuckled. "Actually, now that I think about it, I've always made this drive that way."

The question Gibbs wanted to ask was what the hell was in Grottoes that made the trip worth it, but he settled for a simple, "Why?"

Tony bit his lower lip. "Probably because I still haven't gotten the balance down right."

"Balance?" Gibbs frowned.

"Yeah, balance. How much I can take and how much I should before I take a break. Still working on getting it down pat. You'd think by now I'd have a better handle on it, but that stupid last straw is always so hard to see coming."

The reference to a last straw sounded familiar but before Gibbs could ask him to explain further, Tony braked suddenly. He swerved, narrowly missing a slow moving, frightened whitetail. "Damn deer," Tony muttered. "Always forget how many there are out here."

Tony scanned the shoulder of the road ahead. Gibbs did likewise, looking for the tell-tale shine of eyes. Gibbs belatedly realized the last time he could recall doing that was when he'd gone camping with Shannon and Kelly.

"Totaled a car on this road once." Tony commented quietly as he accelerated to the previous speed, drawing Gibbs back to the present. "Glad the Corvette was in the shop and I was stuck with that shitty little rental car. Never would have thought a hundred pound deer could do so much damage."

Tony flexed his fingers before roughly running them through his hair. Gibbs was suddenly struck by a strange desire to find out if his hair was as soft as it looked. He blinked, realizing he did know what Tony's hair felt like. Although, he wasn't clear on just how he'd come by that knowledge. His palm and fingertips tingled with the remembered sensation of baby soft, silky strands against his skin. He wanted to reach out and touch, test his memory. Gibbs shook his head, banishing the weird urge, forcing himself to focus on the younger man's comments.

"When did total the car?" Gibbs frowned. He didn't remember anything about Tony having hit a deer. Not that it meant much with still so many holes in his memory.

"Nearly ten years ago now." Tony shook his head. "Damn. Where does the time go?"

Ten years ago Gibbs had just about as much experience at NCIS as Tony had now. He was Franks' senior agent. And Franks called it quits, leaving Gibbs to handle the team on his own. Gibbs jaw tightened. He wasn't sure if he thought he'd been ready or not. At the moment, he wasn't sure if he was ready now to be the team leader his people needed.

Gibbs was pulled from his thoughts as they drove through Grottoes. It looked like any other small town in America. It was somewhat comforting in that familiarity even though Gibbs knew he'd never actually been there before. He smiled when he spotted a Dairy Queen. Kelly had loved DQ.

His smile faded. He hadn't been in one since Kelly was killed. He caught Tony sending him a concerned glance but ignored it. He wasn't about to tell the younger man why the sight of something so innocent made him grind his teeth.

Just outside town, as the houses were spaced further and further apart, Tony turned left. Gibbs estimated they went another fifteen miles or so before the road ended in the driveway of a two story, white Victorian home. The light above the front door was on, illuminating the wrap around porch. A swing hung from one of the cross beams, and a couple of wooden rockers completed the picture of a charming, older southern home.
Tony parked the Mustang next to the late model Ford truck and turned off the car.

"We staying here?" Place was certainly big enough to be some sort of bed and breakfast. But it wasn't quite the 'rustic' Tony had mentioned.

"There's plenty of room, but no." Tony chuckled. He pointed east, out into the darkness behind the house. "About three quarters of a mile or so that way. Thought it might be better to wait to head up there until the sun was up and we could see better."

Tony got out of the car, stretching to his full height arms overhead. He shivered a bit in the early morning chill. Gibbs got out as well, feeling the same relief he always felt after being confined for hours. It felt good to move.

He glanced up when he heard the front door open, the screen door creaking. Gibbs eyed the man who stepped out, unsure of their welcome. It was four in the morning, after all. Most people weren't too happy to see visitors at that hour.

The man was Gibbs' height, broad shouldered but wiry. Gray hair at his temples suggested he was older than Tony, but probably only by a few years. He walked out on to the porch and leaned against one of the support posts.

"Hey, Mike," Tony called out with a grin, lightly bounding up the three steps to the porch.

"Tony," Mike' smile was wide and friendly, brown eyes warm. "You made good time."

"Not much traffic."

"That's because most people have enough sense to be asleep this time of day." Mike laughed, pulling Tony into a hug. Tony returned it with obvious affection.

Gibbs felt an odd stab of what he could only call jealousy. The closest he could remember coming to a physical display of friendship was smacking the back of Tony's head. It didn't even compare to what he was seeing now. Yet, Tony was the person he'd come to when he needed help getting his memory back. And the younger man hadn't even hesitated. Clearly, they were more than just coworkers. They had to be.

"You make enough breakfast for one more?" Tony asked when he pulled back, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate Gibbs.

If his presence surprised Mike, the man didn't show it. He just nodded. "Always make plenty."

"Mike, I'd like you to met Jethro Gibbs." Tony made a graceful wave of his hand from Mike toward Gibbs. "Gibbs, this is Mike Capanzini."

Mike extended his hand. "Pleasure to meet you."

Gibbs nodded, shaking Mike's hand. The handshake was strong and firm. Gibbs noticed Mike's palms and fingers had calluses. Whatever the man did for a living he definitely used his hands to do it.

"C'mon in." Mike turned and led the way into the house. "You planning on staying long, Tony?"

"Just a few days." Tony followed Mike, moving easily. "Don't have time for much more than that."

Gibbs breathed in deeply when he entered the kitchen. The fragrance of bacon and fresh coffee filled the room. The dark stain of the oak furniture and cabinets was offset by soft yellow walls and the blue-gray slate tile floor, giving the room a sense of space and light. It was definitely masculine, but inviting and warm at the same time.

"Make yourself at home." Mike gestured to the table where two place settings were already arranged.

Gibbs realized he hadn't been expected when Mike moved to the cupboards, pulling out another plate to add a setting to the table. Evidently Tony hadn't told Mike he was bringing a guest. He hesitated to take a seat, but Tony just shot him a 'sit down already' look. Gibbs sat. It was a bit too late to argue if he should be here. And if Mike had a problem with another guest, Gibbs figured he'd say something.

Tony worked around Mike, helping to put food on the table. He deftly handled a plate of pancakes, one of bacon, and a bowl of scrambled eggs. Mike added a carafe of coffee and a bottle of orange juice. He also brought a bowl of what Gibbs recognized as grits.

Tony made a face as he took his seat. "Can't believe you eat that stuff."

Mike rolled his eyes. "Just because you don't like gritsâ€""

"Gabe doesn't like them either."

"Gabe doesn't like much of anything." Mike snorted.

Tony laughed. "He likes the gnome."

"My point exactly." Mike spooned a helping of grits on to his plate. "Baby brother has no taste at all."

He offered the bowl to Gibbs. Gibbs took it after a moment's hesitation. He hadn't eaten grits in years, but he didn't dislike them. They just weren't offered in MRE's and Shannon hadn't cared for grits so she didn't make them.

Mike offered him the eggs, while Tony helped himself to the pancakes. He took two before offering the plate to Mike. "Sammy tap new trees this year?"

Mike nodded, taking the plate and offering Tony a small jar of what had to be maple syrup. "Yeah." He placed two on his plate before passing it on to Gibbs. "You'll have to get up to see him. It's turning into quite the little operation."

"Tried to get up north last month but work just got a little nuts." It was just a statement of fact. Tony wasn't complaining. Gibbs wasn't even aware he could tell the difference until then.

Tony glanced over at Gibbs. "You want coffee?"

"Please." Gibbs held out his mug. Tony filled it, his and Mike's while he was at it. He left the carafe within easy reach for Gibbs. Gibbs sipped his coffee, pleased to find it as strong as he liked it.

"Be sure to try the syrup," Mike said as he offered Gibbs the pancakes. "My brother makes it." There was an obvious note of pride in Mike's statement.

The former Marine assumed the brother who made syrup was Sammy. Gabe was obviously another sibling, the youngest of the family, Gibbs guessed based on Mike's referral to him as 'baby brother'. Gibbs almost wished he hadn't asked Tony to take him somewhere that know one knew him and he didn't know them. He felt out of the loop listening to Mike and Tony talk. Yet, at the same time, it was a relief not to feel any pressure to add to the discussions.

"I haven't heard from Zeke." Tony poured himself a glass of juice. "He doing okay?"

"Loves the job, hates his coworkers." Mike shook his head. "Don't know if he'll stick with it or not."

"Damn." Tony deftly cut his pancakes into neat, bite sized squares. "I thought he'd have better luck in California."

"Yeah, Momma did too." Mike nibbled at a piece of bacon. "She's talking about going out to visit."

Tony blinked, mouth dropping open in surprise. "Really?"

"Shocked me too given how much she hates to fly."

"You going with her?"

"Depends on when she decides to go." Mike shrugged. "If I can't go, Sammy or Gabe probably can. Thought about asking you."

"I'd love to go." Tony's eyes lit up, clearly pleased to have been considered. "But work is a bit too unpredictable to plan for much right now."

Gibbs hid a wince. NCIS had never been a nine to five job. It would be even less so for Tony if Gibbs quit.

"Yeah, figured that. I'll let you know when she's planning to go, just in case." Mike didn't sound surprise or upset. "If you can swing it, okay. If not, just make sure you get Thanksgiving and Christmas off this year. No excuses this time. Momma wants the whole family together." He pointed at Tony with his fork. "She was not happy you missed Mass last year."

Gibbs frowned. Something about Mike's statement struck a chord. Tony asked for time off, just a day or two really, but they had a case, so Gibbs said no. He'd already granted McGee leave to be with his family. And Ziva was too new for him to trust completely as his sole back up. He remembered saying, 'You don't even like your family, DiNozzo. Your plans don't involve more than the lady du jour. Cancel them. And get your ass back to work.' Tony hadn't contradicted him or even hinted that he might have other plans.

It shamed him to think he'd never even considered that Tony might have good, long term friends he wanted to share the holiday with. Or that other people might have wanted his company as much as Gibbs did. Gibbs blinked, stunned by that revelation. It wasn't only the job that had him keeping Tony around. He hadn't wanted to be alone for the holiday either, with only a half finished boat to keep him company. Of course, he'd never said as much to Tony. God, I really am a bastard, Gibbs thought to himself.

Gibbs ate in silence, watching and listening to Tony interact with Mike. They didn't leave him out of the conversation, but neither tried to force him to participate. It wasn't until they were finished eating, clearing the table when Mike leaned closer to Tony, asking him something in softly accented language Gibbs didn't fully recognize. It sounded a bit like Italian but different; a dialect perhaps.

It was the look in his direction which clued Gibbs in that whatever was being said was about him. He was surprised it had taken this long for Mike to ask what was likely the most obvious and pressing question. What was Gibbs doing here with Tony?

Tony shrugged one shoulder and said something back in the same language. Mike muttered something, giving him an exasperated look. Tony laughed. He patted Mike on the shoulder and said something that made the older man chuckle.

Green eyes met blue easily, offering no explanation or excuses for blatantly excluding him for a moment. "You ready, Gibbs?"

For what? Gibbs thought, but he just nodded. "Whenever you are."

"Dinner is at six if you're interested," Mike said, directing the comment to both of them as Tony headed for the door. "And if you could kill that gnome on your way out, I'll be forever grateful."

"Not a chance, buddy." Tony snickered. "I will not be party to your evil plan for slaughtering innocent lawn ornaments."

"There is nothing innocent about something that ugly and you know it." Mike stepped out on to the porch with them. "Was nice meeting you, Jethro."

"Was nice meeting you as well." Gibbs was startled to fine he wasn't just being polite, he genuinely meant it. Meeting Mike had definitely been an eye-opening experience. "Thank you for breakfast."

"Was my pleasure." Mike smiled and waved, closing the door.

Tony stepped off the porch, moving to where a small garden gnome sat forlornly overlooking a portion of the flowerbed. The little statue wasn't so much ugly, Gibbs thought, as decidedly out of place. It didn't match anything else, and certainly didn't suit the man he'd just met.

Tony picked up a small rock nearby, turned it over, and pulled out a key from a hidden compartment. "Should drop this," he hefted the rock, bouncing it in his hand, "on Gipetto."

"Gipetto?"

"The gnome." Tony grinned, teeth flashing brightly in the faint light of early dawn. "Gabe named him. Mostly I think to piss of Mike. Now that he's got a name, it's harder to kill him off."

"It's not alive," Gibbs felt compelled to point it out, amused in spite of himself.

"Neither are boats, but we name them too." Tony chuckled. "And we referred to them as though they were alive." He placed the fake rock back where he'd gotten it. "Probably wouldn't do much damage to Gipetto anyway."

Tony headed for the car, opening the trunk. He offered Gibbs his bag before shouldering his own. Tony closed the trunk and led the way to two track dirt path that began at the edge of the driveway.

"How long have you known Mike?"

"Known Mike just about seventeen years. Kind of hard to remember there was ever a time when I didn't know him." Tony grinned. It was the same look he got when he got a sudden insight or made a new discovery that pleased him. "We've got more time in as friends than we do as strangers."

Gibbs paused, unsure if he should keep asking questions. It wasn't like he would be equally willing to open up about his past. But in for a penny, in for a pound. If Tony didn't want to answer more questions he'd tell him so. "How did you two meet?"

Tony adjusted the shoulder strap of his bag, settling it more comfortably as he walked. "I was getting ready to head for Ohio to start college when my uncle Salvatore died. Didn't understand it then why he'd leave me two hundred acres of land in Virginia, and in some ways I still don't understand, but I'm damn glad he did. Glad I was smart enough to hang on to it too."

Tony stopped at a field stone fence. He used the key he had in hand to unlock the gate, waving Gibbs on through in front of him before pulling it closed. "Mike had just finished getting his bachelors degree and had come into some money. He bought the house he lives in, which belonged to an elderly relative then who was headed for a nursing home. Never quite understood how exactly they were related and I keep forgetting to ask. Not that it matters. Anyway, as you no doubt noticed, his place borders the land Uncle Sal left me."

Tony neatly ducked under a tree branch, not slowing down at all as the trail began winding its way uphill. "Mike's property actually surrounds mine on three sides. I'm up against Shenandoah National Park on the other. Uncle Sal had an easement worked out for access years ago, back when he first bought it. Mike and I just basically renewed it when we became the new owners. Been friends ever since."

Gibbs frowned. He didn't recognize anything Tony said as something he'd heard before. "Did I know this?"

"Nope." Tony shook his head. He stopped to look directly at Gibbs. "Told you, you've never been here."

That was small consolation and a piss poor excuse, Gibbs decided. He should have known that his right hand man had a good friend who clearly thought of him as part of his family. He should have at least thought to ask about something that was important to Tony.

"Don't sweat it, Boss." Tony smiled, patting Gibbs shoulder. "No one know at the office knows about this place or Mike and his family."

Gibbs made eye contact and held it. He was honored to the first one Tony shared this part of himself with. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Tony looked away, a faint blush rising to add color to his cheekbones. "C'mon, it's just a little further."

A few minutes later they crested the hill, and entered a clearing. Standing like silent sentinels around a small, well maintained cabin were what had to be old growth oaks, maples and a few pines. They dwarfed the cabin with their height and size, keeping the early morning light at bay.

Tony opened the door, walking in to the shadowed interior. Gibbs followed, stopping just inside the doorway to let his eyes adjust. A stone fireplace dominated one wall, barely glowing embers in the hearth added warmth and light to the room.

Tony dropped his bag on a mission style leather couch, before he moved to added wood to the fire, brining it back to life. "Mike must have lit a fire not long after I called last night. Takes the chill off."

Gibbs nodded, stepping further into the room. The open beam work of the ceiling impressed him. He could see the tongue and groove work, and the wooden pegs. The whole structure had been put together without nails.

Tony pointed to the open door on the opposite wall from the fireplace. "Bedroom is in there. Feel free to use it." Gibbs could just make out the bed frame. It was the same mission style as the couch and chairs in the main room. A brightly colored quilt covered the bed.

Tony yawned widely, belatedly covering his mouth with one hand. "I'm going to crash on the couch for a few hours."

Gibbs scowled. "I'm not going to take the bed." It was rude to force someone out of his own bed. Shannon would be appalled.

Tony arched an eyebrow. "Look...wasn't that long ago you were caught in an explosion and then spent a few days in a coma. Take the bed. Trust me, you're back will thank you for it." He smiled winningly. "I'll sleep there tonight and you can have the couch if it makes you feel any better."

Gibbs glared. "Maybe I'm just not tired, DiNozzo."

"Yeah and maybe the moon really is made out of green cheese." Tony snorted. "Boss, just go lay down for awhile or something." He pointed to the small bookshelf under one of the windows. "Pick out a book to read."

Gibbs fought off a yawn. He was tired and he ached but didn't feel like admitting it. And he didn't care how much like a cranky toddler that made him.

"Boss, I've been driving all night. Please...can we not argue about this?"

Gibbs was ready to dismiss it as the childish whine the request was when Tony rubbed at his eyes. His features suddenly seemed very pale, standing out harshly in the firelight. It was obvious Tony was tired. He deserved to get a little sleep.

Feeling foolish for making such an issue of Tony's effort to be nice to him, Gibbs stalked over to the bookshelf. He grabbed the first book he found and walked into the bedroom.

"Sleep tight." Tony sang out. Gibbs stifled the urge to smile. Tony was irrepressible. It was endearing.

"Gibbs?"

"Yeah?" He looked over his shoulder.

Tony tossed him a small pill bottle. "Something to take the edge off."

"Thanks." He couldn't keep the gratitude out of his voice, nor did he want to. He was stiff and sore and his body wasn't shy about letting him know how much it would appreciate it if he laid down for awhile.

He couldn't believe he'd forgotten how often Tony had just what he needed. Maybe he hadn't really lost sight of that fact. He'd gone to Tony for help.

"Get some rest, DiNozzo."

"Will do, Boss."

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs woke, blinking as he stared up at an unfamiliar ceiling, trying to remember where he was and how he'd gotten there. Bits and pieces came to him in random order: driving at night, Virginia, breakfast with a stranger, cabin, DiNozzo. He nodded to himself, slowly putting things together.

He yawned, headed cocked to one side as he listened for sounds of life. The faint patter of rain against the roof was the only noise to break the silence. Gibbs wondered when it had started raining. He glanced at his watch, squinting to see the numbers clearly. It was almost noon.

He stretched, enjoying the feel of high quality sheets and a top of the line mattress. He smiled fondly. Only DiNozzo would bother making sure some basic creature comforts were not forgotten in a place that probably didn't even have running water.

The Ibuprofen he'd taken before he laid down had worn off, but at the moment, Gibbs felt pretty good. He rolled over on to his side, snuggling under the quilt. A dull thump made him raise his head, looking for the source of the noise.

The book he'd grabbed earlier had fallen from the bed onto an area rug on the floor near the bed. Gibbs didn't even know what the title or what it was about. He'd only realized he couldn't read it after he lay down. He didn't have his glasses.

Gibbs gave the book a dirty look. It wasn't the book's fault he'd forgotten he needed glasses to read now. Although, he knew his forgetting them wasn't exactly a new occurrence. He'd been misplacing pretty much since the day the doctor proscribed them.

Gibbs sighed. It was more proof that it really had been fifteen years. Damn.

Gibbs grimaced as his bladder started demanding attention. It was likely what had woken him in the first place. He cursed, pushing back the warm blanket and getting out of bed. He swayed for a moment, gripping the bed post until his legs were solid under him. Damn concussions. They were never a one day deal.

He pulled on his pants. His shoes were at the foot of the bed. He sat on the nearby bench to pull them on. He hadn't noticed any other rooms to the cabin so it was likely going to be a trek outside to find the head.

Gibbs headed out into the main room. The fire had burned down to just a few embers but they were still enough to put off some heat, making the room noticeably warmer than the bedroom had been. Tony was curled up on the couch, looking surprisingly small for someone of his height and size.

He looked very young to Gibbs. Too young to be the seasoned agent Gibbs knew him to be. Gibbs frowned as an image of Tony asleep at his desk came to him. He knew he'd seen Tony doing that several times. He remembered marveling as how the younger man really could sleep just about anywhere and in some of the most uncomfortable looking positions.

Look down at Tony, Gibbs couldn't help smiling. At least he looked comfortable here. He eyed the blanket sliding off the edge of the couch. Gibbs assumed had come from the chest that appeared to be serving double duty as a coffee table. He hadn't seen the blanket lying around when they'd entered earlier. Gibbs reached down to pull it back up to cover Tony.

Tony's hand shot out to neatly capture his arm at the wrist with a surprisingly firm grip, halting his movement. Bleary green eyes studied him, brow furrowing in confusion. Tony blinked. "Boss?"

"DiNozzo." Gibbs kept his tone neutral, waiting for the younger man to wake more fully.

"Sorry." Tony immediately let go, his hand moving to rub at his eyes. "What time is it?"

"Almost noon."

Tony grunted an acknowledgement, eyes drifting closed again. "You need something?"

"The head."

Tony nodded. He made a vague hand motion toward the door. "Follow the path north. It's 'bout 50 yards or so."

Gibbs shrugged into his jacket, glad he'd been wearing one last night. The rain had tapered off to more of a heavy mist, but the air was still chilly. The path through the trees was obvious. It led directly to an outhouse.

Gibbs grinned. The outhouse looked like a miniature version of the cabin. He was pleased to find a plastic bottle full of water, a bar of soap, and a hand towel on the shelf under the eaves near the door. Also on the shelf were a small bowl and a mirror propped up against the wall. Gibbs rubbed his chin. Shaving could wait for a bit.

On his way back to the cabin Gibbs stopped at the edge of the clearing. He took a slow, deep breath, filling his lungs to capacity. He released it with a satisfied sigh. The air smelled fresh and clean, with a hint of wood smoke.

Gibbs rolled his shoulders, working out a few kinks. He did a few stretches as well, wanting to limber up a bit. He felt pretty good, all things considered. A cup of coffee was all he needed now. Gibbs slipped into the cabin, closing the door quietly behind him. If there wasn't coffee to be had in the cabin, maybe Mike wouldn't mind him stopping by for a cup.

"You find it okay?" Tony was sitting on the couch, a mug in one hand, blanket loosely wrapped around him.

"Yeah." Gibbs had expected the younger man to have gone back to sleep. He pointed to the mug. "That coffee?"

"Hot chocolate." Tony nodded toward the fireplace. "Coffee is perking."

Hanging from a wrought iron hook over the fire was a camping style coffee pot. Gibbs arched an eyebrow. The set up seemed a little archaic for Tony to be willing to use or even know how.

Tony smirked. "Yeah, I know. It's not really me." He shrugged before taking a sip from his mug. "The place was built before they had electricity and it's never been wired for it. Uncle Sal said the guy he bought the place from cooked everything in the fireplace. Can't quite see doing a turkey in there, but Momma C said it could be done."

"Momma C?"

"Mike's mother." Tony clarified. "She says it's not much different than cooking with gas. Well, other than that whole push button instant flame and fine temperature control thing. Since I can't cook worth a damn, I'm taking her word for it."

Gibbs picked up the empty mug sitting on the trunk. It was a match to the one Tony was holding. He used the hot pad on the mantel to pull the coffee pot to him, filling the mug. Straitening up, he glanced around, frowning slightly. There was no sink or kitchen in the cabin, and it didn't appear to have any plumbing. "Where'd you get the water from?"

Tony pointed out the back window. Only a few feet from the house was an old red hand-pump. Gibbs had seen one like it at his grandfather's place when he was a boy. Several minutes of working the handle would result in fresh, clear, cold water.

"Not sure how deep the well is." Tony rolled his head from one side to the other, stretching his neck. "I get the water quality tested periodically just to be sure it's safe to use. Other than being a little high in calcium from the limestone around here it's always come back clean."

Tony curled his feet under him, wrapping the blanket more securely around himself. Gibbs remembered Kelly doing the same thing Saturday mornings when she watched cartoons.

Gibbs sat on the opposite end of the couch, his back to the armrest so he could face Tony easily. He took a cautious sip of his coffee, pleasantly surprised to find it much better than he expected.

"You sleep well?" Tony asked, looking just a little smug.

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "Yes, I did."

"Good." Tony grinned.

It was annoying that he'd been right, but Gibbs couldn't really begrudge Tony for acting a touch superior. The bed was definitely comfortable. He did feel better for sleeping for several hours and the painkillers had been a damn good idea.

Gibbs sipped his coffee, enjoying the warmth and flavor. "How often do you come here?"

"Not as often as I'd like." Tony smiled ruefully. "Probably not as often as I need to."

Gibbs scowled, not pleased with the obviously honest but unspecific answer. "I thought you said you hated nature."

"No," Tony corrected quietly, "I said I usually prefer to experience it via television. And that I'd never been camping or hunting." Green eyes made a sweep of the room. "This is not sleeping on the ground in a tent or laying in wait for some furry animal to kill."

Gibbs snorted. "Semantics."

"Semantics are important."

"Bullshit."

"Flowers have a fragrance. Food has an aroma. Skunks have a stench." Tony grinned. "Without semantics, they'd all just stink."

Gibbs chuckled in spite of himself. He realized with some amazement that Tony often made him want to laugh. He'd smiled more in the last few years than he had since Shannon and Kelly's deaths.

"How did we meet?" Gibbs asked abruptly, determined to fill in the missing pieces.

"Dead sailor in Baltimore," Tony answered, not put off by the non sequitur. "I was in homicide at the time. So the case was initially assigned to me and my partner."

"Your partner...Levi...Lovittâ€""

"Levitson." Tony supplied the correct name. "You hated each other on sight. He was a former Army Ranger."

Gibbs nodded. He couldn't quite picture the man but he had an impression of him as being big, like a linebacker, and tough as nails. The man hadn't wanted to give Gibbs the case. He was an ass; Gibbs clearly remembered that much about the man.

"Sailor was part of what looked like a serial killing. Already had two bodies killed the same way when the sailor was found." Tony grimaced. "Levitson wasn't keen on the idea of losing any evidence that might catch the son of a bitch."

Gibbs knew Tony hadn't been keen on it either; he was just better at trying to find common ground for them to work together. It might have come to blows between Gibbs and Levitson if Tony hadn't been there to soothe ruffled feathers. That willingness to work together, and never losing sight of the objective to put a killer behind bars no matter who got the job done, was something Gibbs hadn't appreciated immediately at the time.

"Different killers," Gibbs said, remembering that detail. The sailor's killer was a copy cat. A damn good one at that. Tony was the one to first propose the theory of a second killer. His instincts and thinking outside the box had impressed Gibbs even as Levitson had been a real jackass about making Tony prove he was right.

"Yeah." Tony eyed him. "You remember now?"

"The medical examiner." Gibbs didn't quite ask, but he wasn't completely sure either.

Tony nodded. "She had everything she needed to make it look like the same killer." He grimaced, looking into his mug. "Never figured Monica for the vindictive and violent type, but I guess that whole 'beware of a woman scorned' thing had to come from somewhere. She was definitely proof of that."

Gibbs grip on his mug tightened as memories of the end of that case made themselves known. Tony had confronted Monica with what they knew, accusing her of copying the murders to disguise another. She drew a gun on him. Tony just smiled and kept talking, confident she wasn't going to pull the trigger. Gibbs hadn't been so sure. He'd been ready to double tap her in the chest when she finally lowered her weapon and surrendered.

Tony's smile hadn't faltered until Gibbs smacked him upside the back of the head. "What the hell was that for?" Tony had asked, indignant. Gibbs had wanted to tell him it was for scaring the shit out of him, for risking his life like that, but he'd settled for glaring at the younger man instead.

"You offered me a job a week later," Tony said, pulling Gibbs from his reverie.

"Why did you take it?" He recalled Tony having gotten along well with his coworkers and was respected by his boss. Gibbs hadn't really expected the younger man to accept, but he'd made the offer just the same. Tony had good instincts, was sharp and had all the people skills Gibbs so obviously lacked.

Tony looked away, gaze shifting to rest on the fire. "I'd been there two years."

He said it like it should explain everything. Gibbs couldn't bring himself to tell Tony it didn't. He opted to let it go rather than ask for more information.

Tony uncurled from the blanket enough to lean forward enough to put his mug on the trunk. The white cotton sleeveless undershirt the younger man was wearing revealed the nice definition of his arms. Gibbs eyes narrowed as he noticed a scar on Tony's upper right arm. He unthinkingly reached out and traced the scar with one finger.

"This is fairly new...isn't it?" The skin was still a dark pink, a distinct line against the darker cream complexion around it.

"Last six months or so, yeah."

Gibbs traced the scar again, noting the faint puckering at one end that he recognized as being the result of popped stitches. He pulled back when Tony shivered. Tony readjusted the blanket, once more concealing his arms from view.

"Wasn't any big deal, Boss. Just a bullet burn."

"You left. After you got hurt, you left." Gibbs frowned, surprised by the accusation he could hear in his voice. He wasn't even sure why he was angry, why he felt betrayed. "You never take leave...and you just left."

Tony winced, not looking at him. "Not because of my arm."

Gibbs growled, unhappy with getting another honest but uninformative answer. Tony had left. No phone calls, no messages, nothing. His eyes narrowed, glaring at his senior agent. "Why?"

Tony shook his head, green eyes shuttered when he looked at Gibbs. "You didn't know then. You don't need to know now."

"God damn it, DiNozzo." Gibbs slammed his coffee mug down on the trunk, rising to his feet. "Do not play games with me."

"I'm not." Tony faced him squarely, shrugging free of the blanket.

Gibbs eyes narrowed, understanding the move for what it was; Tony was freeing his hands to either attack or defend. It was what Gibbs would have done. What struck him as most significant was Tony didn't look afraid of him. Wary maybe, cautious, but not scared or uncertain, and he definitely wasn't backing down.

Gibbs knew if it came down to it, he could kick Tony's ass. He'd done it before. He knew he had at the gym in the boxing ring, in the morgue demonstrating how to snap a man's neck. But he didn't want to, didn't want to be confrontational, didn't want to alienate or hurt Tony. Damn it, Gibbs swore silently, I like him so why the hell am I being such a prick? Gibbs took a deep breath and forced himself to back off. They weren't at the office, this wasn't about a case, or proving who was right or wrong. Kicking Tony's ass might make him feel better, for a moment, but it wouldn't get him the answer he wanted. It would likely ensure he never got it.

"I'mâ€"" Gibbs took another deep breath, hesitating before finally getting it out. "I'm sorry."

Tony blinked, whispering, "Wow." He shook his head, eying Gibbs suspiciously. "You know, it's twice you've said that to me. I feel like I should be looking for more signs of the apocalypse. Four Horsemen on the horizon. Falling stars. Maybe a dragon or two."

Gibbs fought off another smile, enjoying the bit of humor Tony managed to infuse once more into their conversation. He also suppressed the desire to tell him apologizing was a sign of weakness. Franks said it all the time. When the hell had it become his own motto?

Gibbs sat down, rubbed a hand over his face, wincing when still healing skin reminded him it was tender to the touch. He sighed. "I shouldn't have askedâ€""

"You didn't ask," Tony's lips curled upward, "you demanded."

"Semantics." Gibbs could feel a smile of his own forming in spite of his efforts to stop it.

"Told you they were important." Tony laughed softly. "You wanted to know then and I didn't tell you. Not a bit surprise you'd still want to know. You're like a dog with a bone. Nice to know you always have been."

The last was said with an odd blend of respect and annoyance. Gibbs could feel his face warm. Most people found his tenacity infuriating when directed at them, not worthy of admiration. Tony was definitely one of a kind.

"Why make it a secret?" Gibbs cocked his head to one side, studying the younger man, unable to just let it drop even though it was probably a good idea to. He didn't think Tony kept many secrets; maybe that was why he felt betrayed, why he felt so lost when Tony had left. He didn't want there to be anything he didn't know about Tony.

"It's not a secret. At least not in the 'I tell you and I'll have to kill' you kind of thing." Tony shrugged. "It is just private." Green eyes met his easily. "I'm sure you understand private. Probably a hell of a lot better than most."

Private. Yeah, he got that. Private to him covered most of his past...his service record and his purple heart, his wife, his daughter, his loss. It was embarrassing to realize he hadn't even considered what might be private, too personal to share for Tony.

Tony said no one else from the office had ever been to the cabin or knew about Mike's family, yet he willingly, without any hesitation, shared it with Gibbs. He felt something ease and expand inside him, something wasn't even sure he could name. He also felt like an idiot for pushing for more than Tony was willing to give, for demanding more when Tony had already given him so much.

"I really am a bastard," Gibbs muttered to himself.

"It's okay. Not like I didn't already know that." Tony smiled. "You always said that's what the second 'B' stood for."

"Didn't think you'd hear that," Gibbs sat back in surprise, expression shifting toward sheepish.

"I got good ears."

"And eyes." Gibbs realized with another moment of insight. "Better than 20/20."

Tony's smile broadened, clearly delighted with Gibbs' spontaneous recall. "Way you are remembering things you'll be back to normal in no time."

Gibbs nodded, but for some reason the idea didn't excite or reassure him much. He wanted his memories back, wanted to fill in the blanks, but Gibbs wasn't sure what the hell 'normal' for him was. Or if he even wanted to go back to 'normal'. Some how he was sure 'normal' didn't include very many moments of time alone with Tony. How the hell could he miss something he'd never had? Strange.

"You okay?" Tony gave him concerned look, brow furrowing as he gave Gibbs a once over.

"I'm fine."

Tony nodded slowly. He was obviously just humoring Gibbs, but the older man was glad he let it go. He didn't want to snap at Tony, and he knew he would if pressed. He wonder if Tony knew and backed off accordingly. Shame Ducky never learned to do that. He usually persisted, forcing Gibbs to walk away.

Tony got up, stretching like a lazy cat; his movements languid and graceful. It was decidedly appealing. Gibbs realized with some astonishment he liked watching Tony, that he'd been doing so for a long time, since before he'd even offered him a job.

Gibbs realized he'd made a habit of hiding where he could watch without being seen. It wasn't about making sure Tony was working or trying to catch him goofing off....he liked to watch him. He'd often done the same thing with Shannon, eyes always drawn to her no matter what she was doing.

Tony bent down to pick up his jeans from where they lay in a rumpled pile on the floor. Gibbs couldn't help noticing how nicely the boxer briefs he was wearing showed off his ass. He looked away. It had been years since he'd seriously looked at another man that way.

He bit his lower lip. No, it hadn't been years. He'd just forgotten that little detail along with dozens of other things. He'd noticed Tony was attractive the day he'd met him. For all he knew at this point, it might well have been one more reason he offered him the job.

Tony pulled on his jeans, sliding impossibly long legs into the well worn denim. Gibbs forced himself not to stare. Tony was his subordinate, his second in command, a coworker. But then he'd evidently already violated his own personal rule about sex with teammates at least once if what he remembered about Jen Sheppard was as accurate as it seemed. Maybe she was the reason for the rule. He really didn't know.

Tony pulled on his sneakers, tying them sloppily before shrugging into an Ohio State sweatshirt. "Going to hit the head."

Gibbs nodded. "I'm...ah...I'm going to take a walk."

"You want company?"

"Nah." Gibbs shook his head. "Just need some time to myself." He needed to do some thinking.

"If you head West, there's a trail that will take you on a loop that goes a couple of miles," Tony offered. "Crosses over into the park but it will bring you right back here."

"I'm not going to get lost," Gibbs ground out.

"Didn't say you were." Tony held up both hands, palms out. "You're a big boy, badass Marine and all that. Was just a suggestion."

Gibbs refused to apologize, even though he felt like he should. There was no call to snap at Tony. Not really. Just because he needed to get his head screwed on straight didn't mean he should take off DiNozzo's for trying to watch out for him.

"I'll be back in a few hours." That should give him plenty of time to think.

"I'll see you then."

It was not quite a promise but very close to it. Gibbs knew if he took too long, Tony would come looking for him. It was distinctly comforting to know the younger man had his six.

"I'll be on the trail." It had been a good suggestion. He didn't know the area. And if he got into trouble, Tony would know where to find him.

"Copy that." Tony smiled. "Try not to get eaten by any bears, Boss."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. The younger man was definitely irrepressible. And he liked that. Liked that a lot. Maybe too much. Maybe not enough. Gibbs didn't know for sure yet. But it was definitely something he needed to figure out.

TBC

Chapter Text

Rain clouds broke up and collided at infrequent intervals, alternately blocking the sun and letting it shine through. The wind picked up and died down at unpredictable moments, making Gibbs glad he'd worn his jacket. His brisk pace wasn't quite enough to keep him warm when the windy moments coincided with heavy cloud cover.

He glanced skyward, frowning in annoyance. It was as though the weather couldn't quite make up its mind. Gibbs could sympathize. He felt like his thoughts were just as chaotic as the weather.

He hated not knowing his own mind. It was frustrating. He wanted to punch something. Gibbs seriously eyed one of the trees, pulling back his fist before slowly uncurling his fingers. Hitting a tree would be stupid, hurt like hell and wouldn't solve anything. He sighed and continued walking.

Gibbs remembered being interested in men. When he was young, before Shannon, he'd experimented. Hand jobs, blow jobs, one night stands; just a little fun, stress relief, nothing that spoke of commitment or could be considered serious.

Hell, man or woman, he hadn't been serious about anyone but Shannon. From the moment he'd met her, she was all he ever wanted. She'd been his whole world. Her and Kelly. But then they were gone and he was on his own again.

By all accounts he'd grieved and moved on, gotten married again...three times. He closed his eyes, taking a slow deep breath. It seemed impossible, but he remembered the weddings. All three wives had looked stunning in their white dresses. And each one looked like Shannon...red hair, blue eyes, pale complexion, beautiful smile. But that was where the similarities ended. It was all superficial. Certainly not enough to build a life together on, and definitely not enough to hold one together.

Looking back on it, with the emotional distance his recent bout of amnesia gave him, Gibbs could honestly say he wasn't surprised any of those marriages ended badly. What did surprise him was that he'd ever been naïve enough to think they stood a chance. Had he been that damn lonely? Had he been so desperate he'd made three women stand-ins for the love he'd lost?

Gibbs shook his head. There wasn't anyone he could even ask those questions too. He didn't know, and he was confident he'd never admitted to anyone else how he might have felt about his three wives. That didn't even begin to cover the people he'd dated in between. And to top it all off, for the first time in years, he was being forced to acknowledge an interest in a man.

This attraction to Tony was something he'd obviously been feeling for the last few years. It definitely wasn't new. Of that much he was certain. It was just his remembering it now that made it seem new.

Christ, what a mess. He rolled his eyes, walking faster. Could his life get any more complicated?

Tony didn't look anything like Shannon. Yet Tony had more in common with the love of his life than anyone he'd been interested in or involved with since her death. He was intelligent, articulate, entertaining, athletic, warm, optimistic and damn good looking.

Gibbs scowled. This wasn't helping. Tony was on his team for God's sake. Tony had faith in him, trusted him. He shouldn't...couldn't abuse that.

Would it be abuse if Tony was interested in him the same way? Was willing to break rule 12 and take a chance? Gibbs blinked. Where the hell had that thought come from?

As far as he knew Tony was a skirt chaser. He remembered clearly Tony admitting he'd had a lot of short term relationships. But 'short term' didn't mean exclusively women. Gibbs' own sex life was a good example of that. One night stands were the definition of 'short term'. They didn't have to mean Tony was only involved with or interested in women.

Just because he talked about women and didn't mention men didn't mean anything either. Gibbs never told anyone he had a few one night stands with men. He didn't talk about those things for a number of reasons. His family had been one. His career was another.

Tony's not talking about an interest in men didn't mean he had a problem with the idea. The younger man declared prejudice in any form was ugly, denying being homophobic even has he teased McGee about being gay. Tony's mocking McGee with regard to his masculinity hadn't been cruel or mean. It was his normal way of harassing the junior agent. Gibbs thought it was good for McGee. The younger agent needed to learn how to be comfortable in his own skin. Learning how to handle Tony's teasing and pestering was also giving him the skills he'd need to stand up to suspects and his superiors when necessary.

The name Voss made Gibbs pause, stopping to put together the pieces. He frowned as details of the case slowly came back to him. Tony had been upset about kissing a woman who was really a man. But he wasn't as upset as Gibbs expected a true homophobe to be.

The issue wasn't really about homosexuality. Transgender was another matter entirely. Hell, Gibbs had no issues with gays or lesbians, but the idea of changing one's gender still made him flinch. And kissing someone who'd killed a friend was definitely enough to bother anyone.

Gibbs remembered pointing his gun Voss. His aim had been dead center on his...her...whatever...forehead. He'd been pissed about Pacci's death, but Voss' attack on Tony was what brought that rage to the forefront. He'd have shot her and not felt guilty about it. No one hurt one of his. No one.

Gibbs' hands clenched into fists. That hadn't been the only time Tony's life had been in danger. Images flashed in his mind's eyes: Tony being pushed from a plane; Tony leaning forward over a steering wheel, lots of blood on the window; a sewer and a woman intent on mayhem; blue lights and glass walls, no way to reach him time running out; a rooftop, blood on Tony's face, Kate staring sightlessly up at a cloudless sky.

Gibbs shuddered. He reached out for a tree, needing the support to brace himself. Maybe this was why he'd never consciously acknowledged being attracted to Tony. The thought of losing him nearly sent Gibbs to his knees.

While Tony was mentally off limits, he could ignore the low grade hum of attraction. He could pretend that Tony wasn't his type. Gibbs could write it off as something else. He could overlook the desire to be more than just Tony's boss.

Gibbs grimaced, pushing himself away from the tree and started walking again. He suddenly realized Tony leaving without saying anything a few months ago had been a trigger. He was okay pretending that he wasn't interested in the younger man as long a he always knew where he was. As long as the job and Gibbs were the main focus of Tony's life, he could ignore the stories about girlfriends, coeds and actresses Tony thought were goddesses. As long as he knew Tony would be there, on his team, within easy reach, he could subjugate the hunger for more.

Gibbs ruthlessly abused his authority. He had made Tony stay late, come in early, cancelled leave. He did whatever it took to make certain Tony was where he belonged... with Gibbs.

But Tony doing an end run around him to get a week off, leaving without telling him where he was going, changed the dynamics. Gibbs was forced to come to terms with the idea that he wasn't the only person whose wants and needs mattered. Tony could leave any time he chose to. If Gibbs couldn't force Tony to stay...he had to make sure he wanted to.

He struggled with how to accomplish that task without giving away his true feelings. Gibbs stopped by Tony's place a few times for dinner and a movie. The memory of those all too infrequent evenings made him smile. It was almost painful to be so near and yet maintain the reserve the tentative friendship they'd established required. But he wouldn't have missed them for the world. Gibbs had forgotten how enjoyable sharing a meal could be. And he loved Tony's commentary on the movies. What was annoying and inappropriate at the office made him laugh in Tony's apartment. It had been so tempting to just show up every night despite the agony of having to keep his distance.

Tony never once mentioned his visits at work. Gibbs liked to think the Tony considered them special, not to be shared with the rest of the team. But for all he knew Abby, McGee and Ziva dropped by to spend time just as often as he did. He had to bite his tongue several times to keep from letting jealousy take control of his mouth and demand to know who else Tony welcomed into his home so easily. Gibbs stifled the instinct, not wanting to jeopardize the budding friendship between them. Now that he had it, he didn't want to lose it.

Gibbs handed out a few more compliments and tried not to ride Tony quite so hard. He didn't think he'd done a very good job with it, since no one seemed to notice any change in his behavior. It was so hard to not fall back into old habits.

He let Tony take the lead on a few more things. Gibbs tried to show his faith in the younger man's judgment and abilities. He attempted to let him truly fill the role of senior agent on the team, but couldn't quite bring himself to relinquishing control completely. Except for one case when it was simply impossible not to.

The former cop showed he had damn good instincts when it came to the school hostage situation. He'd figured out how to let Gibbs know the boy's mother was dead without actually saying so. He'd kept the director from forcing his hand and ordering the death of a child. Tony found a way to end the conflict that was decidedly creative. Gibbs didn't care if his inspiration had been a movie. It worked. That was all that mattered in the end.

Gibbs strode uphill, pushing himself to go faster. Even if Tony was interested in men, that didn't mean automatically mean he'd be interested in Gibbs. Just because Tony was his type didn't mean he was Tony's.

Gibbs shook his head. He had ten years on Tony. Not an insurmountable number. Other couples had bridged similar age gaps, but Tony had always expressed an interest in younger women. He might find older men as unappealing as he seemed to find older women.

He grimaced. Not like he could just ask, "DiNozzo, if you were into men, what sort of guy would turn your crank?" God, he didn't even want to try and picture how Tony would react to that. Fear...anger...denial? All were far from ideal, and none were what he'd be hoping for.

It wasn't strictly verboten to ask about an agent's sexuality, but damn close. Gibbs was positive if he broached the subject Tony's initial reaction might just be to start polishing his resume. Assuming he didn't bust Gibbs one across the mouth first.

"Hell, he's been at NCIS longer than he's been anywhere else," Gibbs mumbled to himself. "Don't want to be the reason he leaves."

Tony's earlier comment about having been in Baltimore for two years being the reason for accepting Gibbs' job offer suddenly made sense. It was like Tony had an internal time limit, a clock ticking that told him it was time to go. So what the hell made NCIS special? Why did he break form and stay?

Gibbs wished he had Tony's file with him so he could check if what he thought he remembered was accurate. He couldn't recall any of Tony's previous employers expressing any dissatisfaction with his performance. All of them seemed genuinely sorry to see him leave.

He had no idea what made Tony decide to leave those other positions, and none of his superiors seemed to know either. He had no idea why Tony stayed at NCIS. Damn. How the hell was he supposed to keep him on his team if he didn't know what made him want to be there?

A feeling of déjà vu hit Gibbs. He'd worried about a similar lack of insight before; when Tony had taken that week off. Gibbs hadn't known why he'd left or where he went. At least now he knew where he went, but Gibbs still didn't know why. Gibbs grimaced, realizing anew not all the gaps and holes in his memory he had were from the explosion.

He wondered if the rest of the team knew why Tony had left then. Did any of them know why Tony stayed with NCIS? Gibbs snarled. It made him angry to think Tony trusted someone else more than he trusted him.

Several large drops of water rained down from a large oak tree, hitting him squarely on the head, and forcibly reminding Gibbs of where he was. It made him smile. Tony said no one else from the office had been to the cabin or knew about Mike and his family. Tony trusted him enough to share this refuge. That counted for a lot.

But if Tony trusted him with this, why not the rest? Gibbs shook his head. Trust worked both ways. He trusted Tony to watch his six on the job but never told him about Shannon and Kelly. Tony was smart enough to know Gibbs was excluding him from certain things, harboring secrets and shutting him out. He was smart enough to understand the lack of trust doing so implied and respond accordingly.

Gibbs grimaced. He wasn't going to get by with half measures any longer. He couldn't keep holding Tony at arm's length about his past and feelings while expecting the younger man to be an open book. Hell, he shouldn't have been able to get by with them for this long.

He was damn lucky Tony was willing to accommodating for Gibbs short comings. Anyone else with his instinct, knowledge and skill would have pushed to head his own team a long time ago.

Gibbs nodded to himself. Even without all the pieces, he knew he didn't want the next five years to go the way the last five had. It was time he took more of a risk. He'd have to make the first step, suspecting Tony couldn't or wouldn't.

Gibbs followed the trail as it made a sweeping curve back toward the cabin. He wasn't sure he's solved anything. He knew more than he had when he started, and he'd made some sort of decision. Forming an action plan would take a little longer, but his sore body and aching head were letting him know that walking much further wasn't really a good idea. He'd been walking for nearly two hours; too much longer and Tony would come looking for him anyway.

It was heartening to know Tony cared enough to come looking for him. Hopefully Gibbs could figure out how much Tony cared. Did he care for him just as his boss, as a friend, with an eye for something more? There had to be a way to determine that without ruining what they had now, or sending Tony off looking for a new job.

As Gibbs navigated the slippery downward slope he suddenly realized he'd made another decision. Keeping Tony at NCIS was only important if Gibbs was going to stay. He laughed quietly to himself. He hadn't ever seriously considered quitting. The powers that be might be assholes, but the men and women in the service needed someone to look out for their best interest. Gibbs was needed. And he needed to be there.

He wasn't ready to retire. Franks might be able to hang out on the beach doing nothing, but Gibbs couldn't see himself doing that. Maybe in a few years...if he had someone to share it with. But alone, bitter and angry...no, hell no. If he was going to that, he'd have done it when Shannon and Kelly were killed.

Unfortunately, that upped the ante with finding out how Tony might feel. He wanted them both to stay at NCIS. So he'd have to be careful. Do this right. Whatever the hell he did. Gibbs was damn glad he'd had a lot of practice handling stressful situations.

"Don't fuck this up, Marine." Gibbs ordered himself in a harsh whisper. He wasn't sure he'd get a second chance. Doing it right the first time was the only option.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Tony set up another dried piece of wood on the one he'd been using as a chopping block. He hefted the single-edge eight pound maul, eyeing the block before making a smooth, powerful swing. The block split with a sharp crack, neatly divided in half.

He set up one of the halves, splitting it again, again and then once more. The box of kindling was looking a little empty. Tony figured filling it would be a good use of his time while Gibbs was taking a walk. It gave him something to do besides worry about the older man.

Gibbs said he needed some time to think. As long as he wasn't gone too long, Tony figured he could afford to give him some space. It was after all the whole reason he'd brought Gibbs to the cabin. He knew the older man well enough to know he needed to move to work through his thoughts. Gibbs always seemed to think best on his feet.

Tony glanced at his watch. He'd give Gibbs another hour before he went looking. Wasn't that long ago Gibbs was in the hospital. And it would be like him to over do it, push himself too fast, too soon.

Tony sighed and set up another block. Last year, Mike had asked him if he could cut down a few trees. He wanted to experiment with woodworking on his lathe and there were several diseased maples on Tony's land that looked like they had the potential for interesting grain patterns. Mike had been hoping for birds eye or tiger wood. Tony had agreed to let his friend cut several trees, not minding if the forest were thinned a bit. Anything Mike couldn't use Tony told him to just pile up for firewood behind the cabin.

Even with the recent rain, the wood was dry enough to split and burn easily. At this rate he'd have enough to more than fill the kindling box. He might have to move on to splitting some of the Ash for the fireplace. Most of the blocks would fit easily enough at their current size, but they were a bit harder to manhandle into the cabin than Tony cared for.

The faint sound of off key whistling stopped him in mid swing. Tony grinned in welcome as spotted Mike strolling casually around the corner of the cabin. He dropped the maul, leaning casually against the handle the way he might a cane.

"You are tone deaf."

Mike snorted. "I am not."

"You couldn't carry a tune in a bucket," Tony stated firmly.

Mike rolled his eyes. He held up a six-pack of beer. "Keep that up and I won't share."

Tony's gaze narrowed, reading the label. It was his favorite. He held up his hands in surrender. "Deal."

Mike smirked. "You are so easy."

Tony grinned. "Least I'm not cheap."

Mike laughed. "Not sure that's much of a trade off."

Tony picked up the maul and swung it easily so that the blade stuck in the chopping block. He picked up his sweatshirt and shrugged into it. He'd taken it off earlier as the exertion warmed him up. Glancing skyward, he thought it would probably rain again before the day was over.

Mike offered him a bottle before taking a seat on one of the blocks. Tony twisted the top off, taking a seat for himself so he could face his long time friend.

Mike pointed to the maul. "Good to see you still know how to use that thing."

"Thanks for sharpening it."

"No problem." Mike grinned. "Not like you're the only guy using it."

"Ever altruistic." Tony kept his tone dry. "That's what I like about you."

Mike laughed. He twisted the top off his own beer, brown eyes glancing around the area. "Where's your buddy?"

"He's taking a walk."

Tony idly wondered just how Gibbs would react to being characterized as his 'buddy'. They were friends...sort of. Not like he and Mike were friends or even him and Abby. Tony figured there was a bit too much supervisor and subordinate in their relationship for him and Gibbs to qualify as friends. But lately...before this last case, it had seemed like there was a bit more there.

Gibbs stopped by his place for dinner a few times, even sat through a couple of movies. Tony never really knew when he'd show up or why. He cherished those moments, grateful for the time alone with Gibbs. But he was leery of becoming used to them, afraid he'd read more into them than they warranted.

Gibbs was just being...nice. It wasn't normal for him, but it didn't mean Gibbs wanted or expected any more than a little company either. His mysterious red-head hadn't been seen for awhile. Maybe Gibbs just didn't want to be alone. Everyone got lonely, right? It wasn't like Gibbs stopped by every night. Even though Tony wouldn't mind if he did.

Mike's eyes narrowed, his piercing gazed fixed on Tony. "You want to talk about it?"

"About what?" Tony tried not to fidget, unsure of what Mike was asking.

"About why you're here." Mike arched an eyebrow. "I'm guessing it's got something to do with Gibbs looking like nine miles of bad road."

Nine miles of bad road was a fairly accurate description of Gibbs. The still healing burns on his face made him look a bit like he'd gotten too much sun. And he was moving stiffly enough to suggest he'd been injured in some fashion.

"Not be the first time you've brought some one here...but it usually isn't something you do on a whim, Tony. You've talked a lot about Gibbs, but I didn't think I'd get the chance to meet him. Certainly not here." Mike sipped his beer and his expression clearly said he was willing to wait as long as he needed to for Tony to explain.

Mike knew Tony used the cabin as a place to recover, to regain strength, to settle his thoughts, calm his spirit. He often referred to Tony as only showing up when he seemed to be one of the walking wounded. Tony rarely came to the cabin when things were good in his life. And because of that, it was very rare he shared the place with anyone else.

"Our last case....We were trying to make contact with an undercover agent." Tony sighed. It sounded so simple. And it should have been that easy. In hindsight, they should have known better. He never should have let Gibbs go alone.

"There was an explosion."

Mike's posture stiffened. His eyes suddenly focused on Tony with greater scrutiny. "You get hurt?"

"No." Tony shook his head. He took a long pull of his beer. "I wasn't there." He could hear the guilt in his voice and winced knowing Mike could hear it as well.

"Betting you weren't too far away."

"Far enough." The docks had been a safe place for Ziva, McGee and Tony to wait, but they were too damn far to do Gibbs much good as back up. He should have argued harder against the idea when Gibbs laid out the plan.

"Gibbs was closer to it, I take it?"

"Same room." Tony winced. "Lucky to be alive."

He closed is eyes, struggling to keep his breathing even. When he'd entered the ship's laundry room, Tony had thought Gibbs was dead. There was blood and debris everywhere. He was glad Ziva was the one to check for a pulse. He hadn't trusted his own ability to confirm once since that drunken sailor, passed out in his truck, had startled him badly by sitting up when Tony thought he was dead.

Getting help for Gibbs had been of critical importance. Tony made sure the former Marine was taken to the best trauma center in the area. He'd never thought of his boss as mortal. Ever. The man was more like a force of nature. He was been a constant in Tony's life, and someone the younger man always expected to be there. Tony couldn't picture life without him. It made his gut tighten and his chest hurt just thinking about how all too human and vulnerable Gibbs had looked strapped to a backboard.

A light touch on his arm made Tony open his eyes. Brown eyes searched green. "You okay?"

Tony took a breath, and nodded. "Getting there."

He better understood why Gibbs so often threw himself into his work. Tony would have been useless at the hospital. The best medical staff in the world was far more capable than Tony, much better equipped to help Gibbs than he'd ever be. His time was better spent tracking down the bastard that had put Gibbs in a coma in the first place. It was the only way he could help, the only way to be productive, to make a difference.

It hurt to not be able to see the man after he'd woken up, but Tony was acting team leader. He had to do what he knew Gibbs would expect of him. Letting him down was unacceptable even if Gibbs couldn't remember who the hell Tony was.

"Gibbs was in a coma for three days." Tony cleared his throat. "I was...I was acting team leader."

"Was that a problem?" Mike asked quietly. "You being in charge, I mean?"

Tony had confided in Mike in the past that he was wary of being placed in position of authority. It wasn't that he didn't want to advance, or was unwilling to work hard. For all his bravado and devil-may-care attitude, Tony worried about fucking things up. He didn't want to get anyone hurt or killed. Nor did he want to fail at putting together the pieces of a case. Letting the 'bad guys' get away with it wasn't something he ever wanted to have to live with. That lack of confidence was one of the reasons Tony usually left after two years. That two year mark was typically about the time his superiors started hinting at promoting him or assigning him more responsibility.

Until working for Gibbs, Tony never had much confidence in his skill or ability to be in charge. Gibbs had shown him how to lead. Given him an example he could follow. Gibbs trusted him. And that counted for a lot. It was worth the risk to stay.

Tony half smiled, shaking his head. Looking back on it, he might have had to justify his behavior to his teammates but none of them questioned his right to be in charge. He hadn't been able to tell them that acting like Gibbs was a way of being close to the older man. That he felt more competent to handle the job if he acted like the man he always had faith in. It was easier to just put it in terms they could relate to. And honestly, they were all conditioned to respond to Gibbs' mannerisms. There was no point in disrupting what worked. No reason to fix what wasn't broken.

Seeing Mike was still waiting for an answer, Tony shrugged. "I did okay."

"Just okay?" Mike arched an eyebrow. "I'm sure you did better than that."

The statement was delivered with a quiet confidence and surety that nearly made Tony blush. Mike never had any doubts about Tony's ability to do anything he put his mind to. It was another thing that made Mike so different from nearly anyone else Tony had ever met.

Tony shook his head. "Nineteen men died."

"Your fault?" Mike asked softly, no blame in the question, just honest curiosity.

"I don't know." Tony sighed heavily as he considered the question. He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "Ultimate decision wasn't mine. But if I'd have found the clues sooner...was smarter....put it together faster...maybe things would have been different. But I didn't have all the information. No way to find it. Gibbs knew but he wasâ€""

"In a coma."

"Yeah." Tony took a sip from his beer. Time had been running out. His gut kept telling him there was no way he'd be able to put the pieces together fast enough; there was just too much missing. Tony couldn't pin down why or how he knew there was a deadline, but he'd never questioned his instinct.

"And even when he woke up, Gibbs had retrograde amnesia." Tony ran a hand through his hair. He swallowed hard, unconsciously focusing on the moment when the Director told them Gibbs had woken up thinking it was 1991, that he didn't remember any of them and that his doctor would tell them when they could visit. It was like getting suckered punched, only it hurt a hell of a lot more.

"Damn." Mike cursed softly, drawing Tony back into the conversation. "Sounds like a lose, lose all the way around."

"Not entirely." Tony grimaced. "Gibbs got enough of the pieces back to figure out the case." That Gibbs had recovered in time to give them what they needed was a minor miracle. It was a miracle squandered.

Tony sighed, rubbing at his eyes again. "There was time to stop those men from getting killed...But they wouldn't listen."

"They?" Mike asked.

"The powers that be." Tony didn't bother to name them all. Most wouldn't mean anything to Mike anyway.

"God, Tony...I'm sorry."

"Me too."

Mike hesitated, toying with his beer bottle. "You ever consider quitting?"

Tony smiled tightly. "Couple of times."

He hadn't recently. Not since the last time he'd been at the cabin. Things had been good for months. The thought of leaving Gibbs, never seeing the older man again, was really too painful to contemplate, especially when things seemed to be getting better between them. Tony knew it was foolish to hold out hope for more, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. He'd been carrying the torch for too long to really give it up.

"Think Gibbs is considering it," Tony admitted. He knew all too well what that look in Gibbs eyes meant when he'd left the office. He'd seen it in his own eyes too often not to recognize it.

Mike pursed his lips. "That why you brought him here?"

"Not exactly." Tony smiled wryly. "I was on my way here when he showed up at my place." Part of Tony's decision to come to the cabin had been based on his need to figure out what he'd do if Gibbs chose to leave NCIS. He wasn't sure he could stay if that happened.

Tony shrugged. "He said he needed help to fill in the blanks and wanted to just get away for awhile. So I brought him with me."

Mike cocked his head. "Thought you said he got his memory back?"

"Not all of it. Not yet." Being here seemed to be helping, but Tony wasn't sure it would be enough. "He lost fifteen years, Mike."

"Damn." Mike sat back, blinking. "That's... a bit...wow."

"Yeah." Tony sipped his beer.

"Fifteen years," Mike breathed out in an awed whisper. "God...I'd still be married."

Tony snickered. "Now she would be worth forgetting." Mike had only been married for six months. Tony still wasn't sure what the hell his friend had seen in the woman. She was nothing like the women Mike usually dated. But then lots of alcohol and a trip to Vegas had been involved.

Mike reached out and smacked Tony on the thigh. "Not like you've got room to talk. You got your own share of bad choices."

"Hey, I have never been that committed. Never even got close to exchanging rings." The only person he'd ever thought about making that sort of commitment to didn't think of him in those terms.

"No but fifteen years ago you were serious about dating that schmuck." Mike pointed a finger at him. "That blond...what the hell was his name?"

"Seth." Tony supplied, his jaw tightening at the reminder of what he considered one of his worst mistakes.

He rubbed his left shoulder, feeling the scar Seth had left him with. Tony felt like a fool for not realizing Seth had only really been interested in him because of the DiNozzo name. It was hard to remember ever being that naïve.

Their relationship had just passed the one year mark when Seth found out Tony wasn't going to get a dime of his daddy's money. He'd been livid. In a drunken rage, Seth attacked Tony with a broken bottle, screaming about Tony leading him on with promises of the good life and ruining his chance at getting what he deserved for putting up with Tony.

Tony was giving serious consideration to a career in law enforcement at the time, so he never reported the incident. Tony never even went to the hospital for the injury, unwilling to risk any sort of paper trail. He was afraid of how it would look if anyone found out his male lover had attacked him. If it was one thing he could say he learned from his father it was the value of discretion.

Fortunately one of his frat brothers was pre-med. Tony had convinced him to supply some antibiotics and give him a tetanus shot without ever telling him why he needed them. The wound had healed well enough, leaving the ragged scar as a permanent reminder.

"Shit...I'm sorry, Tony. I shouldn't have brought him up." Mike's tone was genuinely remorseful. "I didn't meanâ€""

"I know you didn't." Tony made the effort to smile. Mike wasn't the sort to hurt people he cared about on purpose. "Seth wasn't one of my stellar moments...and you tried to warn me about him then."

"Yeah well, you tried to warn me about Bette too." Mike shook his head. "I was too damn dumb to listen."

Tony held up his half empty beer bottle. "Here's to learning from our mistakes."

Mike tapped his bottle against Tony's. "Amen, brother, amen."

"So what did you come out here for?" Tony asked, determined to change the subject, knowing Mike would let him. He hadn't been expecting to see Mike until dinner time. "Don't get me wrong...I'm grateful for the beer, but I could have had one when I came down later."

"About dinner," Mike hesitated, biting his lip. "You remember Heather?"

Tony frowned, trying to place the name, and then grinned when he did. "That the pretty little brunette you've been too afraid to ask out on a date?"

"I was not afraid." Mike glared. "I was just...waiting for the right moment."

Tony made a go on motion with his hand. "I'm assuming you brought her up for a reason."

"She said yes."

"You finally asked her out? Sweet." Tony laughed, delighted Mike had taken the plunge. "You going out tonight then?"

"Want to, but I'd invited you guys to dinnerâ€""

"I can't believe you worried about that." Tony stared at his friend. "Oh, don't tell me you are looking for an excuse to back out? You chicken shit." Tony pointed a finger at Mike. "You will not use me as reason to back out on a date with the woman you've been raving about since the day you met her."

Mike fidgeted a little. "I haven't been raving."

"Right." Tony snorted, grinning at the obvious embarrassment Mike was displaying. "How about glowing then? Making cow eyes? Getting all tongue tied? Love sick?"

"Shaddup."

"Only if you promise to take her out tonight and have a good time."

"Deal."

"And you thought I was easy." Tony snickered.

"You are easy."

"Takes one to know one, buddy."

Mike laughed. "I'll leave something in the fridge for you."

"Lasagna?"

"Just for you, sure."

"Yes!" Tony ignored his friend's put upon sigh, pumping his fist into the air. "You do love me."

"Of course, I love you." Mike rose to his feet, leaning down to kiss Tony's forehead. "Love all my brothers."

Tony raised a hand to shove Mike away. Mike caught it and pulled Tony to his feet, tugging him into a hard hug. Tony returned it, patting Mike on the back.

"Thanks man," Tony whispered. "For everything."

"Any time, Antonio." Mike pulled back, and placed a kiss on one cheek and then the other. "Whenever, whatever. All you have to do is call."

Tony stepped back and froze when he saw Gibbs leaning against the corner of the cabin. He had no idea how long the older man had been there, what he might have heard and what he would think Tony's interaction with Mike. And just as quickly, Tony decided he didn't care. Mike was his friend; Tony had never been ashamed of him and he sure as hell wasn't going to start now.

"You have a nice walk, Boss?" Tony asked nonchalantly.

"I did." Gibbs nodded, smiling politely, if a little distantly at Mike.

"Good afternoon, Gibbs." Mike greeted him easily, clearly not perturbed by the former Marine's silent appearance.

"Mike." Gibbs nodded in greeting. Blue eyes sharpened as they regarded Mike, almost as though he was sizing him up. Tony wasn't quite sure what to make of the look. It wasn't hostile but it wasn't warm either.

Mike glanced toward Tony. A twinkle of mischief was readily visible in brown eyes. He wasn't offended by the look or intimidated by it either. When Mike spoke, it was in the Italian dialect his family often used, Piedmontese. "I think he's jealous. Should I kiss you again and find out for sure?"

Tony rolled his eyes, punching Mike lightly in the arm.. His friend knew about his crush on Gibbs. He also knew Tony fully expected it to go nowhere, something he'd gently been pushing for Tony to actually be brave enough to confirm rather than just assume Gibbs wan't interested. There was no way Gibbs was jealous...digusted possibly, unnerved maybe, or annoyed perhaps, but not jealous.

Without thinking about it Tony responded in the same language, ignoring Gibbs for the moment. "You are so not funny, Mike."

"Heather thinks I am."

"She's already biased." Tony snorted. "She'd have to be to agree to a date with you."

Mike's over done affonted dignity dignity made it hard for Tony not to smile. "Momma says I'm a good catch."

Fighting back a smirk, Tony countered, "She says that about Gabe too."

"I take it back." Mike mock glared at him. "I don't love you. Never did."

"Too late." Tony's answer was a sing-song tease. "Way, way too late."

"True." Mike agreed, smiling warmly. He handed Tony the remaining four beers still in their cardboard carrier. "Might was well keep these. No point in them going to waste."

"Okay." The well water would be cold enough to keep them cool. Tony wouldn't mind having another later on.

Mike switched to English. "I'll see you later."

"I expect details." Tony smiled, waggling his eyebrows. "All the good stuff."

Mike flipped him the one finger salute. "Don't hold your breath."

Tony's smile grew into a bright grin. "Spoil sport."

Mike smiled at Gibbs as he walked past him. "Glad you are enjoying your stay."

Gibbs seemed to hesitate for a moment, as though unsure just how to respond. "Thank you."

Gibbs gaze narrowed as he watched the Mike leave. He gaze came back to Tony. "Why was he here? And what was that last bit about?"

Tony was used to his boss' abrupt manner, questions that bordered on being an interrogation. But he wasn't about to translate the substance of his conversation with Mike. He didn't have to. Tony could easily offer the reason why Mike had stopped by. "He's got a date tonight. Girl he's been trying to trying to hook up with since he met her three months ago. Mike just wanted to make sure we'd be okay fending for ourselves if he took off."

Gibbs nodded. Tony figured it was his imagination that that made it seem as thought the older man's shoulders lost some tension. Could be he was just still a bit jumpy over everything that had happened recently, expecting the worst.

"Grottoes have a decent restaurant?" Gibbs asked. "You aren't the only one who can't cook worth a damn."

Tony set the beer down on the block he'd been sitting on. "Mike's got lasagna in the fridge." He picked up an armload of kindling. "So dinner will be ready whenever we are."

"He's a good friend to you." Gibbs statement was more of a question.

"The best." Tony tossed his armload into the large wooden box that fit neatly under the eaves. He threw in another armload, not surprised to find Gibbs working with him. Between the two of them the job was completed quickly.

Tony kept an armload to carry inside, dumping it in the tin box near the fireplace. Gibbs went into the bedroom. Tony heard a rattle that had to be the pill bottle he'd given the older man earlier. He was glad he'd thought to grab those before leaving his place. He looked up when Gibbs came back into the main room.

"You want a beer?"

"Sure." Gibbs took the bottle, eyeing it. "Your favorite."

"Mike knows my preferences better than McGee." Tony shrugged. Gibbs knew his preferences better than McGee too, but Tony refrained from pointing that out. He still wasn't sure why Gibbs cared or bothered to learn them.

Tony settled in on the couch with a sigh. He wouldn't mind taking a nap but didn't want to say that out loud, uncertain of how it would be received. He glanced out the window. It was raining again.

"You got anything here to do besides read?" Gibbs sounded uncharacteristically hesitant. He almost sounded embarrassed. "I...ah...I forgot my glasses."

Tony nodded. "Got a few games, I think." He got up and opened a small cupboard. He usually stayed at Mike's if he wanted to do more than rest or read, but they did occasionally hang out at the cabin.

"I got cards." Tony rummaged around. "Cribbage board. Dominos. Checkers. Backgammon."

"Backgammon is fine."

Tony set the scarred leather case on the wooden trunk coffee table. The game had belonged to Zeke. He'd given it to Tony when he'd gotten a new backgammon set for Christmas one year. It was Zeke's favorite board came. Sammy preferred Monopoly and Gabe's favorite was scrabble. Mike liked dominoes or mahjong.

While Gibbs set up the board, Tony lit the kerosene lamp that sat on the mantel. A little more light certainly wouldn't hurt.

Tony glanced around the room, taking in everything, memorizing the moment. He added it to the mental index he had of his times alone with Gibbs. Whether Gibbs stayed with NCIS or left, Tony was glad he'd brought him to the cabin. If he never got more than this, Tony was glad he had this much. It wasn't enough, not really, but it was better than nothing.

"You want to start?"

"Sure." Tony rolled the dice.

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs was surprised to find himself enjoying the challenge presented by a simple game. He didn't often take time just to play, typically focused on finding better, more productive ways to use his time. At the moment, he couldn't think of anything better to do than spend time with Tony.

Gibbs eyed the board. He knew the basics, but winning at backgammon required more than just rolling dice and moving discs. Strategy definitely played into it. And Tony was better than he expected at logically planning his moves. The younger man had already won the first game.

Gibbs wasn't sure he could remember the last time he'd actually played a board game. They just seemed too much like a frivolous waste of time to him after he joined the Marines. In the service, the men in his unit had favored card games like poker. They didn't want to be encumbered by anything heavy or unwieldy like a game board. They often traveled light, taking only the necessities with them, so anything that didn't fit into a shirt pocket wasn't going. Having a wife and daughter to support, Gibbs didn't bother with gambling. His money was better spent elsewhere.

He remembered Shannon playing board games with Kelly. Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and other kid stuff that Gibbs hadn't really bothered with. The time he spent with his daughter had always focused more on physical things like fishing, woodworking, or horseback riding. Things he felt he was good at, activities he was confident he could teach her the ins and outs of.

Gibbs rolled the dice and planned his next move, trying to figure out how to counter the moves Tony had already made. His mind was less on the game than on what he'd seen and heard outside earlier. Coming back from his walk, determined to find a way to make a new start with Tony, he'd heard voices. They were too soft for him to make out more than the general sound at first. He only knew Tony was outside speaking with someone.

He had instinctively lightened his step, moving cautiously around the corner of the cabin. Gibbs had reached for his gun, but kept himself from actually drawing it when he saw it was just Mike talking to Tony. He wasn't close enough to hear exactly what was being said but both men seemed relaxed and comfortable, at ease with each other.

He was familiar enough with Tony's mannerisms to know he was teasing Mike. Mike didn't seem to mind, accepting it with good grace and evidently managing to hold his own by the way Tony reacted. It was good to see Tony laughing so openly, looking so happy.

Gibbs had snarled silently, lips pulling back to bare his teeth when he clearly heard Mike say 'I love you'. His fists clenched, anger and disappointment raging through him. Mike hugging Tony and then placing a kiss on each of his cheeks had Gibbs grinding his teeth. Had he lost before he even got a chance?

He'd just leaned up against the cabin for support, forcing himself to remain calm and look unaffected, when Tony spotted him. To his surprise the younger man appeared startled but not guilty. It wasn't like he'd done anything wrong, but Gibbs had been expecting more of a reaction from Tony. After all, it wasn't every day his boss caught him with another man. He was almost casually defiant when he asked Gibbs if he'd had a nice walk. Mike had seemed unconcerned, greeting him like nothing had happened.

Gibbs had been unable to keep himself from sizing up Mike. But a quick review of the scene in his head made Gibbs realize there had been nothing even remotely sexual about Mike's interaction with Tony. It was really just the same sort open affection he'd seen earlier when they'd pulled into Mike's driveway. Mike wasn't a rival...at least not in the romantic sense.

Mike saying something in that other language had made Gibbs suspicious. He knew he was a topic of conversation between the younger men, but he also knew he wasn't the only topic. Tony's expression told him that. They had definitely moved on to teasing each other again about something. Gibbs couldn't decide if he was annoyed or relieved that he hadn't been their focus for long.

Finding out Mike had a date, with a woman, was a huge relief. Until a little demon in Gibbs' head pointed out Mike didn't have to be exclusively straight any more than he was. His dating a woman didn't mean Mike and Tony weren't 'fuck buddies'; except the limited interaction Gibbs had seen between them so far were more fraternal than anything else. It made him think they were brothers more than lovers. If that were the case, then the physical display of affection really was just as innocent as it looked.

If he didn't already have a headache, all those turbulent thoughts certainly would have given him one. He was very grateful Tony had thought to bring painkillers. Ordinarily, Gibbs would have just blown off the need, toughed it out, but he wanted a clear head as he tried to figure out what to do.

His attraction to Tony wasn't new to him...not really, but it sure as hell would come as a surprise to Tony. He couldn't just jump the younger man. Even if Tony were willing and open to that, Gibbs didn't want him to think it was some sort of byproduct of recent events or worse yet just a one time thing. Gibbs wanted more. He wanted something comparable to what he had with Shannon, and that was going to take some work to achieve.

He'd been tempted to hide in the bedroom, unsure of himself and how to proceed. He'd sighed deeply; hiding had never been his style. Lying there staring at the ceiling or out the window was not an option. So Gibbs forced himself back out into the main room. He suggested a game, offering the lack of glasses as his reason rather than admit he didn't want to be alone, that he just wanted to spend time with Tony.

If Tony thought it odd, he didn't say anything, just moved to find something for them to pass the time doing together. Gibbs thought his recent memory loss was probably giving him a lot of latitude. And he wasn't ashamed to take advantage of it.

Tony stretched, relaxing back against the couch with a yawn. The younger man had taken a seat on the floor, apparently finding it a more comfortable place to play from. He seemed content, watching Gibbs move a few discs in response to the number on the die.

Sharp green eyes took in every action, assessing the board with an intensity that reminded Gibbs of watching a cat toying with a mouse. Tony took a sip from his beer before rolling the dice himself. Gibbs had a feeling the younger man had already planned his moves, knowing beforehand what he'd do no matter what the result the dice came up with.

"When we head down for dinner, don't forget to call the others," Tony said casually as he took two more white discs from the board. At this rate, he was likely going to win again. Half his pieces were already off the board.

"Could call them now." Gibbs unclipped his cell phone from his belt, glancing at the display. He had forgotten he even had the thing.

"Doesn't work here very well around here." Tony shook his head, neatly explaining why Gibbs' phone had been so quiet. "Someone suggested putting up another tower in the area a few years ago. Mike said the town fathers got their knickers in a knot and killed the deal before it even got past the talking stage."

Gibbs nodded. He hesitated to roll the dice, holding them loosely in his left hand. Tony was talking so maybe he should do his part to keep the conversation going. It really wasn't Gibbs strong suit, but he was willing to try.

"You play this game a lot?" The question seemed like a safe starting point.

"Not as much as Zeke." Tony smiled fondly, eyes warming to a moss green. "It's his favorite game. Took me a long time to get good enough to even think about beating him."

Gibbs didn't feel so bad about losing. Tony was clearly not a novice at the game. He obviously had more practice and experience than Gibbs did.

"Zeke...that's one of Mike's brothers? The one in California?" Gibbs thought he remembered Mike and Tony talking about him at breakfast.

"Mike, Sammy, Zeke and Gabe." Tony finished his beer, setting the bottle aside. "Kind of feel sorry for Momma C. Not a girl in the bunch. She did get a daughter-in-law when Sammy got married two years ago. And Gabe's been talking about buying his girl a ring. About damn time." Tony shook his head. "He's been dating her for the last five years."

"What about Mike and Zeke?" Gibbs tried to keep the question casual. It wouldn't do for Tony to wonder why the answer was so important to him.

"Mike was married once...for six months." Tony huffed out a soft laugh. "Momma C hated her as much as the rest of the family did so no one was sorry to see her go. Don't think Bette cared much for Mike's family either. He's dated off and on since then but nothing serious. Kind of hoping he and Heather really click. Can't believe it took him three months to finally ask her out. God...There are glaciers that move faster than he does."

Gibbs digested that bit of information. Tony was happy about this Heather and Mike finally dating. More proof that Mike wasn't a real threat to his trying to establish more with Tony. Although, Gibbs was vaguely uneasy now as he considered how things might go if Mike didn't approve. Clearly Mike mattered a great deal to Tony. He might not think much of Tony being involved with men in general or Gibbs in particular. Gibbs wasn't sure he had made the best impression on Mike.

Tony shifted, sitting up a little more, drawing his knees in, forearms crossed over them. "And Zeke is gay, so it will be just one more son for Momma C if he ever does really settle down."

Gibbs blinked at this new revelation. He forcefully stifled the hope it engendered about alleviating one concern. "Mike and his family okay with that?"

Tony gave him a hard look. "Why wouldn't they be?"

Gibbs belatedly realized how his question might have come across. "You know me better than that, DiNozzo." He automatically reached out and smacked Tony across the back of the head. "I'm not a bigot."

"Sorry, Boss." Tony gave him a rueful smile. "Justâ€""

"I know." Feeling a need to explain himself further, Gibbs added, "I wasn't trying to imply anything, Tony. It was just a question." He toyed with the dice in his hand before setting them on the box. "I only met Mike this morning. Not all families are accepting of children or siblings having an alternative lifestyle."

"Yeah, I know." Something bleak took up residence in Tony's eyes, leaching the color. Gibbs frowned, wondering what caused that look. A moment later it was gone.

"No one in the family has a problem with Zeke being gay." He grinned, good humor restored with a speed that Gibbs found dizzying and gratifying in turn.

Gibbs stifled his desire to grin back. If Mike was okay with his younger brother dating a man, odds were good he wouldn't object to Tony doing the same. One possible hurdle down. Of course, Gibbs still didn't know if Tony would even be interested in men.

Tony laughed softly, drawing the older man away from his thoughts. "I'm pretty sure Zeke would prefer not to get dating advice from his decidedly straight brothers tough."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow, lips twitching as he tried not to smile. "Not much help?"

"No." Tony snickered, eyes sparkling with amusement. "But then I don't think they really mean to be either. More fun to harass him than help him."

That sounded like most brotherly interactions. Gibbs remembered similar situations between him and his buddies when he was in the service. He realized with some astonishment that he'd lost touch with a lot of them after joining NCIS. He'd cut a lot of people out of his life when Shannon and Kelly died, and he threw himself into his work.

It was still something of a mystery how he'd managed to get remarried once, let alone three times. But it did explain how he'd ended up sleeping with Shepard. Convenience and desperation made for strange bedfellows.

"Did you ever meet any of my ex-wives?" Gibbs asked. He was suddenly curious what Tony thought of the women he'd been willing to promise forever to and what it said about Gibbs that he married them.

Tony raised an eyebrow but didn't seem otherwise surprised by Gibbs' abrupt change in topic. "Just the last one. Ex-wife number three."

Gibbs nodded slowly. "What was she like?"

"You really don't remember?" Tony asked quietly, head cocked to one side, eyes narrowing in concern. "I thought you were getting more of it back--"

"I am getting more back." Gibbs was quick to assure Tony. "I remember her, but I can't remember why the hell I married her," he confessed with a sigh. "The woman I remember doesn't seem much like someone I'd have asked to be my wife."

"Guessing what you remember about her would be after stuff went sour," Tony commented quietly.

It was as good a theory as any. What he remembered was a shrew of a woman who threw things at him. She was capable of ranting and raving for hours about what a bastard he was.

"Tell me what you thought of her," Gibbs requested.

"She's a lovely redhead." Tony shrugged one shoulder. "Think all your exes are."

He bit his lower lip, giving Gibbs an uncertain glance before continuing. "In spite of being very attractive....she has an edge to her. Kind of like the Director actually. Independent. Strong. Type of lady who could take care of herself and makes damn sure you know it."

Gibbs pursed his lips, thinking about Tony's decidedly careful description. Maybe that edge was the attraction. It was something Shannon didn't have. She wasn't hard or bitter. Neither was Tony, even though Gibbs suspected he might have good reason to be.

"When I met Ellie, you guys were basically signing the papers. She was...well, I guess the best way to describe her would be intense. Maybe a little hostile."

"A little hostile?" Gibbs snorted. That was one hell of an understatement. "She was mad as hell. Still is. She calls on our anniversary. Rips into me about everything I did wrong. How I ruined her life! She left me after less than a year, how is that ruining her life?"

Gibbs shook his head, running a hand through his hair in frustration. "We've been divorce for almost five years. You'd think she'd be more than happy to just forget about the marriage and me all together."

"You're damn hard to forget. Know that all too well," Tony muttered, a definite note of pain in his voice.

"What?" Gibbs gaze focused sharply on Tony, unsure if he'd heard the younger man correctly or exactly what he meant.

Tony's eyes widened. He clearly hadn't realized he'd spoke aloud until Gibbs responded. Gibbs had the distinct impression if Tony could back away he would have, but his position on the floor, back against the couch, prevented him from going anywhere.

"Just...her leaving doesn't mean she didn't still have feelings for you. Well, okay so maybe not quite the feelings you hoped for. Like say apathy or a desire to avoid you. But she must have cared enough to say yes when you asked her to marry you. Stuff like that doesn't turn off over night. Or so I've been told. Wouldn't know anything about that personally. Not a thing." Tony was almost babbling in his haste. "I mean, she probably just needed to vent. Anniversaries do that to people. They get weird. Starting thinking about stuff lost and dreams they never quite got...stupid shit. It doesn't--"

"Stop." Gibbs effectively halted the flow of nervous chatter by placing his fingers against Tony's mouth. "Just relax."

Tony pulled his head back, watching him warily. "Relax?"

"I'm not your boss here." Gibbs thought maybe that would be a good place to start; he hoped so anyway. He wanted to be able to talk to Tony, to share with him. Wanted the younger man to do the same, the way he did with Mike. If they were ever going to be more than just coworkers, he needed to start somewhere. This felt like the best place to begin.

"I'm not angry with you." Gibbs cleared his throat. "And I'm not going to lose my temper over an honest comment you clearly didn't mean for me to hear."

Tony's eyes narrowed. "Your...not?"

"I'm not." Gibbs made eye contact and held it. "We're friends. Friends should be honest with one another."

"O...kay." Tony seemed pleased by Gibbs declaration, but he still fidgeted, as though he wasn't quite sure what more to say or do.

"Just be honest, Tony," Gibbs said quietly. "I'm not asking for more than that."

"Honest." Tony bit his lip, looking away before once more making eye contact. "I can do honest."

"Good." Gibbs nodded accepting Tony's answer. Although, he couldn't shake the feeling Tony might have crossed his mental fingers before making his last statement.

"We okay here?" He knew he was being uncharacteristically gentle, but he didn't like the way Tony still looked ready to bolt.

Tony gave him a rueful look. "Don't take this the wrong way, Boss, but it freaks me out when you're nice."

Gibbs nearly winced, catching himself at the last moment. "Why?"

"Because it's not you."

"You saying I can't be nice?" Gibbs growled, torn between being insulted and disappointed. His being nice 'freaked' Tony? Shit. This wasn't going the way he hoped at all.

Tony shook his head, clearly not bothered by Gibbs sudden switch from gentle to curt. "Not that you can't...just that well...you are usually more... brusque."

"Brusque?" That was probably the most courteous way anyone had every described him.

"It works for you." Tony smiled shyly, eyes dropping, a bit of color rising in his cheeks. "Definitely makes you memorable...and I like it."

"You like it?" He sounded like an idiot, and Gibbs could feel his own face warming.

"Wouldn't have stayed at NCIS if I didn't. Hell, it's a big part of the reason I'm still with NCIS." Tony shrugged, finally moving to get off the floor, coincidently putting more space between him and Gibbs.

Gibbs wanted to protest, to keep Tony from moving, but stayed still. He didn't want to push his luck. He'd already come further than he expected. He focused on the fact that he was part of the reason Tony stayed at NCIS.

"You may not remember it yet, Gibbs, but I've learned a lot from you." Tony smiled warmly. "I'm a better agent, better investigator than I was. That whole 'no nonsense, lead by example' thing you got going really works."

It was a nice compliment, but Gibbs wasn't entirely sure he could take full credit for Tony's improved skills. He had to be reasonably decent cop or Gibbs never would have hired him. He remembered seeing the potential in Tony.

"What about out of the office?" Gibbs asked. "What am I like then?"

"You're a workaholic, Boss." Something unreadable took up residence in Tony's eyes as he sat on the couch, facing Gibbs. "We don't exactly hang out together after work."

There was a barely discernable note of disappointment and longing in that statement. Gibbs got the distinct impression Ton was also trying very hard not to say too much. Tony was obviously determined to stick to the truth...at least as he saw it. Gibbs wished Tony had less control. Probably the first time I've ever wished that, he thought with a wry internal smile.

"I remember having dinner with you." Gibbs felt compelled to point out. He wanted confirmation that what he remembered had been real, and not just wishful thinking.

Tony raised an eyebrow. "You remember that?"

"I remember that." Gibbs smiled, pleased to be right. He felt warmed by the smile Tony gave him in return.

"Your place. Take out or delivery mostly. We watched Casablanca once. And something action thing with Bruce Willis in the jungle--"

"Tears of the Sun." Tony's smile widened, any remaining shadows in his eyes vanishing. "You thought it was okay, in spite of all the stuff they got wrong."

"You only started dropping by recently." Tony told him hesitantly. "I know we kind of touched on this before coming here...but you really should probably ask Ducky about your personal time. He'd know more than I would. He was the one who introduced you to your second wife."

"Diane?"

"That her name?" Tony frowned. "Hunh. Never knew it. Just always called her wife number two."

"She's actually wife number three."

Tony looked confused. "No...that's Ellie. The one I met."

Gibbs debated silently with himself about revealing a bit of his past. He needed to volunteer things if he and Tony were ever going to have more, or be more, than what they were right now. He wanted Tony to be honest; he had to do the same.

Gibbs took a deep breath, "My first wife...Her name was Shannon. It would be almost fifteen years ago she and our daughter, Kelly, were killed."

Tony sat back. Gibbs could almost see the wheels in his head turning. "Fifteen..." Tony swallowed hard, green eyes sympathetic when they met blue. "I am very sorry for your loss."

Gibbs nodded slowly, accepting the genuine offer of condolences. Tony made it sound as though Shannon and Kelly had died only a few days ago, and in some ways, to Gibbs they had. The pain of their loss was once more a dull ache, not nearly as sharp as it has been when he awoke in the hospital. His rage and despair no longer completely colored his memories; Gibbs could smile when he thought of them.

"How did theyâ€""

"They were shot."

"Shot?" Tony looked surprised. He had probably assumed they'd been killed in an accident. "Did they get the guy whoâ€""

"I did."

Tony's eyes widened. "They let you work a case that personal?"

"It was before I joined NCIS." Gibbs shook his head. "I took him down. Permanently."

He took a breath, bracing himself for what he expected to see in Tony's face. There was no way the younger man could misunderstand exactly what he meant by 'permanently'. To his relief, Tony didn't seem shocked or appalled. It was almost as though he expected Gibbs to have taken matters into his own hands and saw nothing wrong with it.

"Sometimes right and wrong aren't well defined by the law. The letter and the spirit of it occasionally differ." Tony's expression was open and honest; he wasn't trying to placate Gibbs with some meaningless platitude.

Gibbs hadn't anticipated such easy acceptance, at least not right away. He thought he'd have to justify and explain himself more. Gibbs was damn glad Tony wasn't judging him or his actions. He wasn't sure how he'd have handled it if Tony had reacted differently.

He found himself wondering what Tony would say if he told him about falsifying evidence in the Danforth case. Would the younger man see it as right to lie to keep Merrill in the Corps? Seeing him ousted for helping out his best friend would have been a crime. Merrill could save a lot of lives with what he could teach those young men going to Iraq.

He dismissed thoughts of Danforth and Merrill. They weren't important now. What mattered was how much more should he tell Tony about his wife and daughter. All the details of what happened to his wife and daughter, or what he'd done weren't really necessary, but he felt the need to give them to Tony anyway. It felt right to finally talk to someone abut this. He'd carried it alone for a long time, never feeling strong enough tell to anyone about it. Franks knew...but they never talked about it.

"The guy who shot Shannon and Kelly....he was a drug dealer." Gibbs jaw clenched. A more useless type of human being he had yet to encounter. They were death peddlers, each and every one of them.

"He was smuggling shit across the Mexican border. I was overseas when Shannon saw him kill a Marine in a deal that went bad. She was the only witness to what happened."

"No witness protection?" Tony asked softly.

"Didn't do any good." Another Marine had died along with Shannon and Kelly.

Sharp green eyes met blue as Tony leaned forward. "Franks told you who it was and where to find him...didn't he?"

Gibbs started. "How did youâ€""

"No other way for you to know." Tony shook his head. "I hope to hell if it ever comes down to it, I'm man enough to kill the son of a bitch myself." The younger man's hands fisted. "It wasn't right for Franks to pass the job off to you."

"Wasn't like that." Gibbs glared at Tony.

"No?" Tony arched an eyebrow. "You sure Franks didn't use you to do what he wouldn't do himself?"

"Franks couldn't touch him. No jurisdiction in Mexico." Gibbs ground out.

"You found a way around that."

"I wasn't interested in seeing the fucker go to trial!" Gibbs hissed, eyes blazing.

"Franks wasn't either." Tony pointed out. "If it was about the letter of the law, he never would have given you the information to find the guy and hunt him down."

Tony's eyes narrowed. "And don't tell me Franks couldn't risk his career doing the deed himself. That's bullshit. He sure as hell risked it when he gave you what you needed to take the bastard out. If anyone found out, he'd be looking for a job. We both know that."

Tony gave him a fierce, measuring look. "Would you have given a grief stricken family member information on a case so they could exact revenge? Tell me if you'd do that."

Gibbs blinked. He'd been tempted, but never had, not once. It was his job to see justice done, not something he could or would pass off to another. Families who lost loved ones should have the time to grieve and not have to worry about seeing wrong doers punished. They should be able to trust him to see to that for them.

Killing the bastard that had killed Shannon and Kelly hadn't made Gibbs hurt any less. It hadn't made the loss any easier to bear. In some ways, it just made things even worse. At the time all he wanted was revenge. He couldn't let that miserable excuse for a human being get away with killing the most important people in his life. It never occurred to him then that Franks giving him the chance to balance the scale was wrong in more ways than just legal.

Tony nodded. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

Gibbs grimaced. He made the right choice in coming to Tony. The younger man might not know as many details of his life as Ducky or Shepard, but he sure as hell knew Gibbs. Tony didn't just know him, he understood him as well. And he liked him anyway. Tony was definitely a rare individual.

"When did you get to be so smart?" Gibbs asked with a smile.

Tony smiled back and shrugged one shoulder. "Learned from the best."

Gibbs laughed softly. "Suck up."

Tony preened slightly. "Got my nose just the right shade of brown, Boss."

"Yeah, you do." Gibbs reached over to lightly cuff the back of Tony's head. He let his fingers linger for a moment, turning the gesture into more of a caress than a head slap. He was pleased when Tony leaned into the gesture, accepting it as easily as he had the hug and kiss from Mike.

"Thanks," Gibbs whisper, hoping that one word would express his gratitude for some any things.

"Any time." Tony dropped his eyes, another light blush rising to color his cheeks. He cleared his throat. "What you say we finish the game after we eat?"

Gibbs recognized the question for what it was...a chance to take a little breather from what had turned into a far heavier conversation than either of them had likely expected or had been prepared to handle. He nodded, rising to his feet. "I could eat."

Tony stood as well. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing toward the bedroom. "Might want to grab a change of clothes to bring with, if you want to take a shower."

A hot shower sounded perfect. "Be with you in five."

"Take all the time you need, Boss." Tony smiled warmly. "Not going anywhere."

Damn right you aren't, Gibbs thought to himself mentally imbuing that innocent comment with greater meaning. Tony was his, even if he didn't know it yet.

TBC

Chapter Text

"You want me to call McGee for you while you call Abby?" Tony asked as he opened the gate that separated his property from Mike's. It only seemed fair that he help contact the rest of the team and let them know Gibbs was alive and well...or at least recovering.

Gibbs raised both eyebrows. "Mike has more than one land line?"

"No." Tony laughed. "But you can get signal for a cell phone from his porch. No where inside the house, mind you, just the porch."

Tony rolled his eyes just thinking about the oddities of cell phones. He'd never quite figured out how exactly modern science could be capable of landing a man on the moon but couldn't get even cell phone coverage. It was one of life's little mysteries.

"Should have you call Abby."

Tony shook his head. "Think that's one you'll have to do yourself."

"Yeah, I know." Gibbs grimaced. "She's going to be upset."

Upset? No, Abby would probably be closer to pissed, maybe even livid. Tony just nodded letting the understatement pass unquestioned.

Even though Gibbs had called and left a message with each team member before they'd headed out for the cabin, Abby was bound to be more than a little upset over his sudden departure. A message wasn't the same thing as talking to her directly, and Abby was one to make an issue of the distinction. Especially in light of how terrified she had been thinking Gibbs was going to die, remain in a coma forever, or never remember any of them at all. It was a fear Tony could relate to all too well.

Tony's response to his extreme emotions had been to adopt Gibbs' mannerisms, to focus on the job and check his feelings at the door as much as possible. He hadn't quite mastered the stoic professionalism Ziva had displayed but he understood where she was coming from. But a frightened Abby often waffled between hyperactive and scatter brained to incredibly focused and angry. Her lashing out at Ziva had been a good example of how affected Abby had been. Under normal circumstances, Abby wasn't prone to slapping her coworkers.

Gibbs was far better equipped to handle an upset Abby than Tony would ever be. It had to be Gibbs who called her. She'd just get even more hurt and angry if he didn't. Avoidance might be an instinctive response but Tony knew it was usually the wrong one. From the resigned look on Gibbs' face, he knew it too.

"Don't sweat it, Boss." Tony offered in consolation. "She won't stay mad for long. Abby never does."

"Voice of experience." Gibbs gave him a wry glance.

"Yep." Tony smiled, agreeing easily. He had good reason to be grateful for Abby's largesse. She was possibly the only woman he'd ever truly been friends with. Kate came close but Abby was in a class by herself.

Tony stepped on to the porch. He pulled out his cell phone, watching as Gibbs did likewise. Unlike last night, Tony knew the former Marine's hesitation wasn't because he couldn't remember the numbers. Tony hid a smile. No one took on Abby when she was in a mood without due consideration or at least some plan of attack.

Tony nodded to himself, pleased with how much of his memory Gibbs seemed to have recovered. It wouldn't be long before he was before he was back to normal. Although, Tony wasn't entirely sure he wanted Gibbs to be 'normal'. He definitely wanted the man back as his boss and working at NCIS, but Tony dreaded losing this new found closeness.

Tony forced himself to ignore the faint pain that settled into his chest. Just having Gibbs here with him...having Gibbs pick him as the one to help him get through this...having him trust Tony enough to share even a little of his past...Gibbs enjoying his time at the cabin....it was enough. It would have to be. Hoping for more would be setting himself up for a lot of pain.

His lips curled into a half smile as he remembered Gibbs openly declaring them friends. The statement had caught him so off guard, Tony hadn't been entirely certain he'd heard Gibbs correctly. He held the memory close, reliving that brief surge of incredulous joy it had inspired even as he buried the hurt wishing for more created.

Tony shook his head. Being friends was certainly a huge step up from being merely tolerated as a coworker. It was stupid to expect more. He knew that. Being friends would simply have to be enough.

He sighed and stepped away from Gibbs. Better to take care of business rather than linger on what he couldn't have. Tony hit number three on his speed dial. He leaned against the railing waiting for McGee to answer. He didn't have to wait long.

Tony grinned hearing McGee bark out his surname. The abrupt tone was something the junior agent had only started using after working with Gibbs and Tony. He unconsciously mimicked their mannerisms and Tony couldn't help feeling a bit proud of how far McGee had come. He wondered how long it would be before McGee started hanging up on people.

"Hey, Probie."

"Tony!" McGee sounded decidedly relieved. "Where the hell are you? Did you get a message from Gibbs too?â€""

"McGeeâ€""

McGee kept talking, not giving Tony a chance to say anything else. "I mean I know he's been through a lot but to just take off! That's so...so...I don't even know what. All he said was he was leaving for a few days. Did he tell you more than that? Really wish he'd have told us more." A heavy, frustrated sigh carried clearly through the phone. "The Director is acting politely pissy."

Tony raised an eyebrow at the description. He knew exactly what McGee was saying having gotten to experience that firsthand himself. He winced internally, sympathetic to the younger man's plight.

"She must have called six times wanting to know if we'd heard from Gibbs. Shit, Tony, Gibbs should have called her and left a message. It was good that he called all of us, and I'm really glad he did, but I almost wish he'd have called her instead and left us in the dark. Maybe if you talk to her it would help since you are the senior agent. She'd listen to you."

Tony doubted his rank would make a difference to Shepard. "McGeeâ€""

McGee's voice dropped in volume. He wasn't quite whispering, but he was close to it. "The Director calling has just made Abby more upset. Abby was okay with Gibbs leaving...well, about as okay as the rest of us...but with Shepard calling all the time it has just made Abby a little...nuts. She wants to put a BOLO on Gibbs' car, check his phone records, question the doctors at the hospital...the works, Tony. Hell, Shepard probably already has done all that."

Tony had no trouble picturing McGee gesturing wildly as he spoke. Tony suspected the only reason the computer geek didn't talk with his hands more often was because he was usually busy typing.

"Abby's pacing in the other room right now and it's making me nervous. She's scary when she gets like this. I mean it. Honest to God scary."

Tony tried again to interrupt the rapid fire monologue. "McGee---"

"She's left at least dozen messages on your home phone. She's been trying your cell but it keeps saying you're out of the service area."

Tony winced. He should have known her initial reaction to Gibbs leaving would have been to call him. He had left her an e-mail before leaving to let her know he'd be out of town for a few days, but he'd forgotten to let her know his cell phone wouldn't work well where he was going. At least Abby was concerned, not pissed like the director. That was easier to take.

"Abby is ready to start calling hospitals and morgues. I've talked her out of that for now. And believe me that was not easy."

"McGeeâ€""

"I think she might be over reacting, but Gibbs was in a coma for days. Days, Tony! He shouldn't be out running around. Maybe Abby is right. We should be doing something. I should just tell her to go ahead--"

"MCGEE!" Tony shouted. "Shut the hell up."

The silence on the other end of the line was telling. Tony sighed. "Relax. I'm not mad at you, Tim." He deliberately used McGee's first name, softening his tone. "I just need to be able to talk and that's not going to happen if you don't get a grip on yourself."

Tony could feel Gibbs eyes on him. He looked pointedly at the phone in Gibbs' hand, arching an eyebrow, silently asking why he hadn't made his own call yet. Gibbs shot him a dirty look.

"Tell Abby to call Gibbs' cell." Tony instructed McGee.

"Butâ€""

"Just do it." Tony ran a hand through his hair. "He'll answer."

"He's with you." The statement was delivered with a surprisingly calm conviction that contrasted sharply with McGee's earlier near panic babbling.

"Yeah, he's with me." It didn't have to be said but Tony felt the need to say it anyway.

"Thank God," McGee murmured.

McGee's voice faded a bit as he called out to Abby. Tony could hear him telling her to call Gibbs. He couldn't hear what she said but he could guess based on McGee's response. Tony bit his lip to keep from laughing as pieces of the dialog filtered through to him. They were definitely an interesting couple.

"She doesn't have to call me. I can call her," Gibbs ground out, glaring at Tony.

Tony hid a smirk when he heard Gibbs' cell ring loud and clear. The ring tone was nicely distinctive by the simple expediency of being the standard ring. Nearly everyone else had added a different ring tone to their phones. Gibbs saw no reason to or didn't know how to mess with his.

"Too late," Tony pointed out with a smile, unable not to feel smug for getting one over on Gibbs. "You better get that. Abby is already upset enough. You don't want to make it worse."

Gibbs sighed and accepted the inevitable with more grace than Tony thought he would have two days ago. Tony was relieved. He knew it was dirty pool to have Abby call rather than wait for Gibbs to dial himself, but if she was wound enough to be pacing, something had to be done quickly.

Gibbs didn't bark out his name in his usual curt fashion when he answered the phone. Instead, his voice was nearly gentle as he greeted the Goth lab tech. "Hello, Abby."

Gibbs walked to the end of the porch, no doubt seeking privacy. Tony let him go. What Gibbs had to say to Abby wasn't really his business. And it wasn't like Gibbs would really allow him to eavesdrop anyway. Tony was happy as long as they talked.

"Tony? You still there?"

"I'm here, Probie."

"Is Gibbs okay?"

Tony glanced toward Gibbs. From the other side of the porch he shouldn't be able to overhear any of Tony's conversation with McGee. Even though the older man knew he'd be the topic of conversation, it still felt rude to be talking about him as though he wasn't there.

"Physically, he's getting there," Tony answered quietly. Gibbs was definitely moving better. The burns on his face and hands looked less red and angry.

"What about mentally?"

Tony smiled sadly. McGee was definitely learning. He'd clearly caught Tony's unconscious emphasis on 'physically'.

"He's getting there, Tim." Tony rubbed tiredly at his eyes. He really wished he'd gotten a nap earlier.

"What does that mean exactly?"

"Gibbs is still putting together the last fifteen years."

"How long will it take?" The question held an edge of concern and fear.

"I don't know, Probie."

It wasn't the reassurance he knew McGee was looking for, but it was the only answer Tony could give. He really had no idea how detailed Gibbs returning memories were, but then he wasn't sure just how much the other man had actually lost either. If Gibbs wasn't 100% he might not be allowed to return. He might not even want to. Hell, Tony had his own doubts about continuing with NCIS given how the last case ended. He already knew he wouldn't stay long if Gibbs didn't come back. A year, two at the most.

It wasn't like Shepard couldn't replace Tony. Hell, she probably had someone in mind already. The only one who really believed he could do the job was Gibbs.

"When will you be back?"

"I'll be back in two days." With or without Gibbs, he'd be back at headquarters then. It was all the more time the Director had allotted for him and the rest of the team to recoup and recover. Gibbs could easily take weeks on medical leave but Shepard didn't see the need for the rest of them to take more time. Four days off would have to do.

"What about Gibbs? Will he come with you?"

Tony shrugged forgetting for a moment that McGee couldn't see him. He felt another flash of pride knowing McGee had likely seen all the same things in Gibbs' expression and stance Tony had when the older man had walked out of NCIS headquarters. The needless death of nineteen men had hit Gibbs hard, very hard.

"Tony?"

He cleared his throat. "Have to cross that bridge when we get there, McGee."

"You really think he'll quit? I mean...the way he looked when he left---"

"Don't know, Probie. Hoping for the best here, but I really don't know." Tony sighed heavily. "He needs some time."

"Okay." McGee agreed easily, accepting the fact Tony simply couldn't give him anything more definitive. "Where are you?" McGee asked suddenly, his voice rife with curiosity.

Tony smiled. "Virginia."

"You couldn't be a bit more specific?"

The dry sarcasm in the question made Tony laugh. "Don't worry, McGee. If you need to find us, I'm sure you can track us down."

"Tonyâ€""

"Stand down, McGee," Tony instructed. "We're okay where we are. If I need back up, I know where to find you." He knew McGee understood compliment in his statement when a soft 'thanks, Tony' was voiced.

McGee cleared his throat. "So...ah...what should I tell the Director?"

"Tell her you heard from Gibbs. That he is recovering and will contact her when he feels it necessary to do so."

"That probably won't satisfy her."

"Oh, I know it won't." Tony grinned.

He was glad he didn't have to deal with Shepard. He was also glad he'd told her before leaving the office that he might be hard to reach for a day or two. She'd been quick to tell him the office would be fully capable of surviving without him for a few days. It was a different, more subtle version of the 'you're not Gibbs' comment that he'd been getting since the former Marine's admission to the hospital. Coming from her it didn't sting the way it had when Ziva, Abby and McGee had all said it. He took a moment of perverse satisfaction in knowing that in Gibbs absence, it was Tony the rest of them looked to for guidance. He knew without a doubt that Abby wasn't the only one who'd left messages for him.

"I'll call you tomorrow, Probie with a sit rep. Hold down the fort until I get back."

"On it, Boâ€"Tony."

Tony laughed softly as he hung up the phone. He glanced toward Gibbs again. It looked like the older man would be awhile. And Gibbs would still have to call Ziva. That wasn't a call Tony cared to make for him. He liked Ziva well enough, but he still wasn't entirely sure of where he stood with her. They were more than coworkers but not quite friends. Tony wasn't honestly sure if he wanted more.

Shaking his head, Tony decided his time would be better spent getting dinner warmed up and the table set. He waved to get Gibbs attention and pointed at the door. Gibbs nodded and held up a hand, indicating five minutes.

Tony smiled, making a bet with himself as he walked into Mike's kitchen, turning on a light. He was pretty sure the only way Gibbs would be done in five was if he hung up on Abby. Gibbs could get away with that during a case, but to do it now would cost him in the long run.

Tony moved around Mike's kitchen with an ease of long familiarity. He'd have dinner ready when Gibbs finished up. He wished eating together could be more like a date than just an act of necessity.

He smiled to himself. No reason he couldn't think of it as a date....not like Gibbs would know. Happy with his internal compromise, Tony lit the candle Mike kept as a centerpiece for the table. If asked he could explain it away easily enough as habit or concern that the rainy weather might knock out the power. It had before.

Tony checked the fridge, finding the promised pan of lasagna. It had a sticky note with heating instructions. Next to it was a foiled wrapped loaf of Italian bread ready to be made become toasted garlic bread. He crumbled the small note that Mike had left wishing him good luck and tossed it in the garbage.

"You'll have better luck than me, buddy." Tony murmured, smiling. At least one of them had a shot at getting what he wanted. That had to count for something.

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs shook his head. He should have known talking to Abby would take more than five minutes. Just getting her to focus and actually slow down enough to make sense had taken longer than that. Gibbs had real sympathy for Tony's earlier need to shout at McGee to shut up. He was tempted to do the same to Abby but forced himself to stay calm.

"Abby, I need you to breathe," Gibbs interjected gently, giving up on waiting for an opening. He wasn't sure she'd give him one if he didn't force it.

"Gibbs, I amâ€""

"In. Slowly," he ordered, waiting until he could literally hear her take a breath for before continuing "and out. Slowly, Abby. Again. In...and out. That's it." Gibbs had no trouble picturing her expression, but frankly he didn't care if she was sticking her tongue out at him as long as she just stopped speaking for a moment and calmed down.

"Good." He took a deep breath of his own. "First things first...I'm fine." It wasn't exactly a lie; he was a hell of a lot better than he had been. His health and well being were obviously her main concern. He wasn't going to fault her for that. He felt bad about not calling sooner. Gibbs knew how wound up she could get.

He kept his tone warm and reassuring. "There is nothing wrong with me that a little down time can't fix."

Maybe more than a little, Gibbs amended silently. Physically he was already on the mend, and mentally he was getting more back all the time...but really getting to 100% would depend a lot on how things went with Tony. Not that he really knew just how to proceed with...wooing, for lack of a better word.

Gibbs just knew he'd have to make some sort of definitive step before they left, and that he couldn't make any mistakes. Back among other people and the constraints of the job, Gibbs knew there would be too many distractions, too many excuses. He'd never do anything about his attraction to Tony there....and he had already decided he wasn't going to miss another opportunity. Nearly getting killed had hammered home the fact he might never get another chance. He wouldn't, couldn't mess this up.

"Gibbsâ€""

"Just breathe," Gibbs instructed, cutting Abby off before she could start again, forcing his focus back to her. "I'm with Tony so I am not as you put it earlier 'running off on my own without any one to help if I suddenly wig out and forget my own name'."

"Thank God."

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. Some of her obvious relief could have been just from knowing Gibbs wasn't alone, but her heartfelt murmur sounded like a lot more than that. He decided the reason for it could wait. Tony could probably explain it to him later.

"Where areâ€""

"We're in Virginia."

"It's a big place, Gibbs." Abby huffed out an exasperated breath, sounding much calmer and more relaxed than she had when they started the conversation.

Gibbs debated telling her about the cabin, but it was Tony private retreat. He said no one else at the office had been to Grottoes, knew about Mike or Tony's owning land. Gibbs wasn't going to be the one to reveal his secrets. He couldn't abuse the trust Tony had shown him by sharing something so private.

"Virginia is not that big, Abby."

"Too big to put in a shoebox, Gibbs." She pointed out dryly. "What if you guys needâ€""

"We know where to find you if we need anything," Gibbs inserted calmly.

"Tony's cell doesn't work. I've been trying to reach him all day," Abby countered. Her hatred of technological 'dead zones' was well known. She despised knowing such places still existed and absolutely hated not being able to stay in touch. Most of the time, in spite of his own misgivings about technology, Gibbs shared her sentiment with regards to being in contact with his people.

"His phone works...just not very well here."

"Semantics, Gibbs."

He didn't have to see Abby to know she was rolling her eyes. Gibbs grinned. "Semantics are important." He was tempted to give her the same example Tony had given, and bit his tongue to keep from doing so.

"That sounds like something Tony would say."

Gibbs chuckled. "He did say it."

"Are you sure you're okay, Bossman?"

He could picture her fingers fidgeting nervously as she voiced the soft question. Her voice was laced with genuine concern deserved an honest answer. "I'm getting there, Abby."

She sighed. Gibbs could see her shoulders slumping as she accepted the truth of what he said. He really should have called her sooner.

"You should contact the Director."

"Why?" Gibbs blinked surprised by her sudden assertion. As far as he knew he was on official sick leave. He couldn't work in the field until cleared for duty, so there was nothing she should need him for.

"She keeps calling." There was a lot of annoyance and anger in that statement. Some effort was made to soften her tone as Abby continued speaking. "She's...well, I guess...she's worried about you too."

Gibbs resisted the urge to snort derisively. Shepard was not worried about him. If she actually gave a damn she'd have found a way to get the schmucks in charge to listen to him. She'd have backed him up in MTAC.

Abby made a 'tsk'ing sound. And Gibbs realized something in his silence must have given away his thoughts.

"She does care about you, Gibbs. Maybe not the way we do...well, definitely not the way we do. Or quite the way she should. A blind man couldn't miss the looks she sends you at times. We ALL know there's a history there."

Gibbs nearly choked. "You knowâ€""

"Yes." Abby giggled. "Neither of you are exactly subtle. Tony was actually the first one to pick up on it and pointed it out."

Gibbs fingers tightened on the phone. Shit. Did this mean they all thought...that Tony thought he had a thing for Shepard? That he was interested in rekindling whatever it was they'd had in Paris?

"I am not interested in her, Abby." He couldn't help how dogmatic he sounded.

"Oh, I know that." Abby's casual dismissal made Gibbs feel like he'd just commented on the fact that the sky was blue. "I said it was obvious you had a past, Gibbs, not that any of us thought you looking for a future. Doesn't mean she isn't. Just that we know you're not."

He was tempted to breathe a sigh of relief when another thought hit him. He had no idea of who she meant by 'we'. What if she meant McGee? What if Tony didn't see it? Abby did say he was the first one to notice the looks between him and Shepard. Maybe he stopped looking past that.

"Doesn't hurt to hear you say you aren't interested." The smile was readily apparent in her voice, neatly severing his train of thought. "Always good to get confirmation I'm right. And now McGee owes me twenty bucks."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "You bet on me being interested in Jen?"

"No." Abby chuckled. "On whether or not you'd ever say so one way or the other."

Gibbs cleared his throat. "Were...ah...were all of you in on that?" It was a close as he could bring himself to asking if Tony had bet on his interest in Jen.

"We didn't bother including Ziva. She's a bit too tight with the Director to risk it, you know? Ducky doesn't even play bingo let alone make bets. You know that...or well you knew that." There was an infinitesimal moment of embarrassed silence before Abby recovered and continued to prattle on. "And Palmer is just isn't the sort to take a bet no matter how sure a thing it is. That boy is wrapped a little tight, but I'm working on him. He's come a long way. Not really obvious to the casual observer, but I can tell."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. Leave it to her to mention everyone but the one person he really wanted to know about. He was sure sometimes she did stuff like this on purpose.

"And Tony?"

"I owe him forty."

Gibbs frowned. "I don'tâ€""

"He didn't just bet on you saying it but on who you'd say it to first." Abby sighed. "Some day I'm going to figure out just how he does that. I mean, he wasn't even sure you liked him for the longest time, and he can make money betting on who you'll tell stuff to. Or maybe he's betting on me. Hunh. Never thought of it that way."

"Wait." Gibbs held up his hand in a classic 'stop' command even though he knew she couldn't see him. "What do you mean he wasn't even sure I liked him?"

"You are hard on the new people, Gibbs." Her statement was very matter-of-fact. "You were really hard on Tony. " There was another minute hesitation as though Abby was picking her words more carefully now. "I think he kind of liked it. He said knew you only pushed hard because you wanted his best. Think he liked that you cared enough to make him work so hard. At least he said he did...in so many words. But sometimes you were justâ€""

"A bastard."

"Yeah. It can be hard to be the focus of that." He could almost hear her fidgeting. "I'm sure it didn't seem like it to you. You were just being...you."

Gibbs closed his eyes, wincing, wondering why she thought that sentiment would help. He'd always told himself he was giving Tony a hard time to teach him, to get him to measure up to his potential, but the truth was it was more a way to subjugate a desire for something else. Browbeating and always raising the bar served to keep Tony off balance and at an emotional arms length while paradoxically keeping him physically close enough to satisfy the desire to touch, even if only to smack the back of his head.

"You don't have to worry, Bossman," Abby assured him. "Tony knows you like him."

"He tell you that?"

"Kind of."

Gibbs scowled. Was that a yes or a no? "Define 'kind of'."

"Tony never says stuff like that directly. He's not any better at it than you are, Boss."

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. Just because he didn't spill his guts didn't mean he didn't know how. So he's not touchy-feely. When did that become a bad thing?

"Lately though he's a bit more forthcoming. Still kind of talks in circles but I got a handle on it. Kind of happened after that whole trapped in a box thingâ€""

"Trapped in a box?"

"It wasn't so much a box as a metal shipping con---" Abby stopped abruptly. "How much do you remember, Gibbs? And no bullshitting me either."

He could just see her pointing her index finger at him. His brow furrowed as he struggled to recall enough details to satisfy her. "Ziva and Tony were at the docks for a case. It was early morning when they went down there and we lost contact."

He swallowed hard as the image of blood on the ground and a report of a body in the water came to him. He struggled to breath through the nearly overwhelming fear that it might have been Tony's. He coughed to clear his throat. "They were being shot at, took cover and got trapped. No cell coverage. Lots of counterfeit money Tony used to leave a trail. Tony....Tony...he was injured."

Gibbs could almost feel the pieces click in place. The scar on Tony's arm that he'd seen...the younger man leaving....everything being slightly off when Tony got back a week later. Then everything was back to normal although he had no idea of how it happened or why.

"Ziva said it was just a scratch, but it was really a bullet burn." Abby sounded angry with Ziva and just a touch disappointed....whether with herself or Tony Gibbs couldn't tell. "He needed stitches, Gibbs. You don't get stitches for just a scratch."

"You said something about Tony talking to you more after that?" Gibbs gently refocused the conversation. He didn't want her to dwell on Tony being hurt any more than he wanted to think about it either.

"We get together about once a week. We have dinner, drinks, talk. Just friends stuff." Abby sighed. "Or at least we used to until recently. Job was sort of getting in the way of that."

It sounded as though she missed it, missed Tony. Gibbs winced. One more person he'd hurt by making Tony work longer hours and stay with him.

"But then my wacko boyfriend didn't help." He could almost hear her grimace. "And god was Tony pissed about that. I should have told him I was having trouble. Not saying anything made it seem like I didn't trust him...which is totally not the case. I didn't tell you either. He was okay with it after I pointed that out."

Gibbs was tempted to tell her to focus and get to the point put he was learning more by letting her run. He remembered nearly losing her several times during that case to her psycho ex, Mikel Mawher. He made Gibbs' exes look positively placid. Her comments evoked memory flashes of anger....anger so white hot he'd almost shook with it at the time. He'd been livid that she'd been so careless, for not speaking up, for not taking the whole situation seriously. But in the end Abby had handled herself admirably.

"Anyway, after that stuff with Mikel, Tony took me home. And we talked."

"I thought McGee did that?"

"I can't talk to him about guys I used to date." She sounded exasperated. "It would be like...salt in an open wound."

Gibbs stifled a chuckle. He should have expected that. "But you can talk about them with Tony?"

"Sure." She made it sound like she did it all the time. "He can totally relate."

"He can?" Gibbs knew he sounded amused, but he couldn't help it.

"Yes." Abby huffed out a breath of annoyance. "He's totally not judgmental. It would be hypocritical of him to be. Tony's had dated a few wackos of his own you know. His taste in women is almost as bad as yours."

Gibbs scowled. He did not have lousy taste in women. His protest died stillborn as Abby continued speaking.

"And his taste in men, ugh. Please, don't even get me started. I think he's got some sort of pathological need toâ€""Abby stopped suddenly. "Oh...shit....It's probably best if you just forget I said that."

"Why?" Gibbs heart beat faster. Why the hell would he want to forget getting confirmation that Tony had dated men as well as women? He had a better chance now than ever before. No way in hell would he be forgetting that.

"No one is supposed to know. I promised." Abby almost whined. "It's not that he's ashamed or embarrassed, but you know everyone's accepting of being a little bent."

"And I'm everyone?" Gibbs growled unable not to voice his displeasure at being lumped in with other narrow-minded schmucks.

"No, Gibbs, you're not. You know that. I know that. He knows that." Abby sighed heavily. "It's just private. It wasn't my secret to tell and I fucked up by opening my big mouth."

"I'm not a bigot." That was a close as Gibbs could force himself to admitting his own bisexual nature. "I'm okay with this."

"I know that." Abby had to be rolling her eyes. "But not everyone in NCIS, or the Marines or the Navy is so accepting. It should be his choice to say something or not. He's worked his share of hate crimes, Boss. Tony's got good reason to be wary."

Gibbs flinched. He'd worked hate crimes too. Crap like that was one of the reasons he'd kept his own secret for so many years.

"That's part of the reason why Tony teased McGee about his skin care stuff. He was worried McGee might get a ration of shit from someone else. Had to know he could handle it. Not that I'd ever say anything to Tim, but putting up with Tony's teasing, and finding a way to tease back has been good for him. He's a lot more confident and comfortable than he was when he started with the team."

Gibbs had a sudden flash of McGee the day he'd met him and it contrasted sharply with the image of the computer expert as he remembered him last. He knew he'd let Tony tease him for the same reason Gibbs had ridden Tony when he'd started at NCIS. If he couldn't take it from colleagues and coworkers he'd never be able to handle it from suspects. And knowing he could take it from someone he respected made it easy to be able to handle it from someone he thought little of.

"Don't tell Tony I told you anything. Please, Gibbs." Abby pleaded. "If he finds out I can't keep my mouth shut, he'll never talk to me again. Please, Gibbs. I messed up with him before and he forgave me, but everyone has limits. I mean, I know, Tony doesn't seem like he's got them, that he can brush off anything but--"

"I won't tell him, Abby. I promise."

"Thanks, Gibbs. You're the best."

"Any time, Abby." Gibbs smiled. "Now I have to go eat dinner."

"Call me tomorrow." There was no room for argument. "I mean it."

"I'll call." Abby had been a font of information. He might need to tap into that again. And he really didn't want her or McGee to worry.

"Tell McGee to call Ziva." Ziva wouldn't need the personal touch from him. She'd be okay as long as someone let her know he was still alive. And he didn't want to waste any more time away from Tony.

"Will do, Gibbs."

"Good night, Abby." He closed his phone before she could say good-bye knowing that would annoy her but that it was also expected.

He smiled, resisting the urge to pump his fist in the air and shout 'yes'. One more question answered. Although, he still didn't have a clue about what sort of guy Tony was interested in. Abby had implied Tony had crappy taste in men. Gibbs wasn't sure exactly how to translate that. Her definition of normal or acceptable wasn't exactly the same as everyone else's.

He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. "About damn time I found out what Tony looks for in a guy," Gibbs murmured to himself as he headed inside to join Tony for dinner.

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs stepped through the kitchen door closing it silently behind him. He watched as Tony moved around Mike's home with an easy familiarity, his movements showcasing a natural, fluid grace. Gibbs vaguely remembered something about Tony being able to dance and he found himself wondering if the younger man had ever taken lessons.

His breath caught as he watched Tony open the oven door and bend over. Lord, but the man had a nice ass. Gibbs bit his lower lip. He really, really wished he could just touch with his hands the way he could with his eyes. He settled for caressing Tony with his gaze, roving from head to toe as Tony straightened up.

Tony placed a pan on the top of the stove. He closed his eyes, breathing in deeply, his expression a blend of anticipation and pleasure. Gibbs clenched his fist, unconsciously imagining another reason for that look.

Tony glanced over his shoulder, blinking in surprise as he noticed Gibbs standing near the door. He smiled. Gibbs couldn't help but smile back, unable to resist that friendly welcome, hoping like hell his lust wasn't too obvious.

"You get Abby settled?"

"For now." Gibbs breathed a silent sigh of relief that his undressing Tony with his eyes seemed to have gone unnoticed.

Tony chuckled. "Taking care of Abby is kind of a full time gig, Boss."

"She's worth it."

"That she is." Tony agreed easily. He deftly wielded some kitchen tool Gibbs had seen before but didn't know the name of. Tony cut into what Gibbs guessed from the wonderful aroma was lasagna. He made what looked like half a dozen squares, drawing neat, straight lines.

"You need help?"

"Nah, I got it." Tony waved him off. "Have a seat. I'll be there in just a second."

Gibbs smiled to himself when he noticed the place setting configuration. Tony had arranged the plates so they'd be sitting close to one another instead of at opposite ends of the table. The flickering candle that occupied the center of the table cast an added warm glow, faint shadows dancing back and forth on the table and walls. Tony brought the pan he'd pulled from the oven, setting it on a hot pad within easy reach for both of them.

Gibbs took an appreciative sniff. Breakfast was definitely not the only meal Mike knew how to make. "Mike can really cook."

"Oh yeah." Tony grinned, taking his seat. "Momma C was pretty adamant they all know how."

He held out a hand for Gibbs' plate. Gibbs offered it, watching as Tony neatly placed a generous square on it. Tony then served himself, handing Gibbs a small bread basket full of garlic toast.

"She teach you?" Gibbs took a piece and passed the basket back.

"Oh, she tried." Tony laughed. "But I think she's come to terms with the fact that I'm never going to do more than master the basics. Don't quite burn water, but damn close." Tony shook his head, a wry smile readily conveying he wasn't concerned by this lack of skill. He shrugged one shoulder. "Momma C gave up when she realized my ineptitude meant she's always got someone on hand to do the dishes."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "Do the dishes?"

"You cook, you don't clean." Tony shrugged again. "Momma C's rules."

Gibbs cocked his head to one side. "That mean you expect me to do the dishes?"

Tony gave him a wide, bright smile. "Naturally."

"You didn't cook." Gibbs pointed out, struggling to contain a smile. "Mike did."

Tony's eyes twinkled. "Semantics."

"Didn't you just tell me semantics were important?"

"That's different."

"Really?" Gibbs snickered. "How exactly?"

"Because, then it didn't apply to me...obviously." Tony smiled brightly, batting his eyes.

Unable to resist and knowing it was expected, Gibbs cuffed the back of Tony's head. He kept his touch light, making it more of a caress than a reprimand. He lightly stroked again, wanting to prolong the contact. He forced himself to pull his hand back, surprised to find Tony had looked away, a faint blush coloring his cheekbones.

Not wanting to scare Tony off by moving too fast, or scare himself for that matter, Gibbs tried to put everything back on normal footing. He thought it best to stay with their earlier topic when he spoke again. "Mike doesn't own a dishwasher?"

Tony shook his head, green eyes meeting blue easily once more. "He says they are too harsh for his good stuff."

"Shannon used to say the same thing."

"She make you do the dishes?" Tony asked after a moment's hesitation, a teasing glint in his eyes.

Gibbs smiled in spite of the bittersweet memories the question evoked. "Kelly and I used to do them together. I'd wash and she'd dry."

Something of his sense of loss must have shown on his face or been evident in his voice because Tony immediately apologized. "I'm sorry, Boss" Tony fidgeted, his right hand playing nervously with is fork. "I shouldn't have asked that. It's private and none of my business. I wasn't thinking. Didn't mean to dredge up painf--"

"It's okay." Gibbs caught Tony's wrist, his fingers circling the joint more easily than he expected. It was easy to lose sight of the fact Tony had a more refined, gracile bone structure than his height would readily indicate.

Gibbs forced himself to ignore the way Tony flinched at the initial contact, leaving his hand where it was. "For the first time in a long time...I really don't mind talking about them."

Tony shook his head, gaze firmly on his plate. "You don't have to say that to make me feel better about being inconsiderate. I had no right to ask you--"

"When have you ever known me to say anything just to make someone feel better?" Gibbs cut him off. He tightened his grip, forcing Tony to look up at him. "When, Tony?"

"First time for everything," Tony bit his lower lip, _expression uncertain. He wasn't trying to pull away, but Gibbs could almost feel Tony distancing himself.

"This. Isn't. One. Of. Them." Gibbs carefully added emphasis, wanting Tony to believe him. It was his own damn fault for never talking about his past, for making it seem taboo unless he brought it up first. It said a lot about Tony that he dared to ask the question in the first place.

Gibbs gently squeezed Tony's wrist. "Tell you what...you ask anything I feel is out of bounds, I'll let you know. Okay?"

Gibbs kept his countenance open and encouraging as wary green eyes searched his face. Tony nodded slowly. "Okay."

"Good." Gibbs smiled. He lightly stroked Tony's arm before letting go, missing the contact almost immediately. If I do this right, I'll get to do a lot more than just head slaps and a pat on the shoulder, Gibbs told himself.

He sighed softly. "It's been fifteen years. I'm sure some therapist would say it was good for me to finally open up about things."

Both Tony's eyebrows rose. "You always said therapy was a crock."

"Mostly...it is." Gibbs shrugged one shoulder, taking a bite of his dinner. He savored the flavors for a moment. Mike really could cook.

"I don't want to spill my guts to a total stranger. Or have someone I've never met tell me it's okay to be pissed at the world." He grinned; like he actually needed someone's permission for that. "I'd rather talk to someone I trust...someone I like."

Tony blinked. A slow, delighted smile appearing as he grasped the compliment being given. "Thanks, Boss."

He could have down played the thanks, dismissed it as unnecessary, but that would have made the compliment seem insincere at best or meaningless at worst. So Gibbs opted for a simple, "You're welcome."

They focused on eating for a few minutes. Gibbs was glad the silence wasn't uncomfortable but it really didn't get him any closer to finding out what he wanted to know. He didn't want to bring up work. It would be too easy to get sidetracked. And talking about people from work posed the same problem. Simple conversation shouldn't be this damn difficult.

"Did you meet all of Mike's family when you met him?" Gibbs asked since talking about Mike and his family seemed to be a safe enough topic. It had already garnered him some valuable information, and it could provide more. "You sound pretty close to all of them." He offered as a way of explaining his curiosity.

"I met Momma C not too long after Mike. She sort of adopted me right then and there." Tony smiled, eyes warming as he obviously thought about that meeting. "College kept me busy so I didn't get down here very often. Senior year was when I finally met the rest of the family. Wasn't too long after I got the cast off my leg."

"Cast?" Gibbs' fork halted half-way to his mouth.

Tony sighed. "Busted up my leg in the last game of the year. Ended any hopes I had for a pro career."

Gibbs nodded. He knew that Tony's dreams for playing professionally had ended in college as the result of an injury, although he'd lost those details briefly to his coma along with everything else. Gibbs wondered if it made him a bad person to be glad Tony had broken his leg. Not that he wished the younger man any pain, but they likely have never met if Tony had been able to pursue a career as a pro athlete.

"I came to the cabin to try and figure out which back up dream I should pick when it came to what to do with the rest of my life."

"You had more than one?" Gibbs had only ever wanted to be one thing, a Marine. It had never occurred to him to have a back up plan or that he might ever need one.

"Sure...I mean, there were always things I'd thought about doing. Usual kid stuff. And some things I took a little more seriously as time went on." Tony shrugged, not really elaborating much as he toyed with a piece of garlic toast.

"Living as a rich playboy was off the list pretty early." The statement was made with a wry, self-deprecating humor. Gibbs got the impression Tony really didn't feel bad about losing out on that option, despite what he might have said to Kate.

"One of my frat brothers was going into business for himself at the time." Tony laughed softly. "I should have taken him up on his offer."

"Why?"

"He lives in Hawaii."

Gibbs snorted. "Hard to live off the scenery."

"Funny you should say that. Because that's exactly what he does." Tony smiled. "He has a charter boat. Takes tourists scuba diving. Doesn't have two nickels to rub together but he seems happy."

Did that mean Tony was unhappy by comparison? Gibbs hid a wince. He wasn't going to ask.

"My major didn't exactly lend itself to much of anything worthwhile." Tony shrugged. "Phys ed isn't exactly a brain trust, but I enjoyed myself."

A quality education geared ultimately toward a mainstream career clearly hadn't been Tony's main focus. But Gibbs knew better than to assume it meant Tony was stupid. He might not be a whiz kid at math, but Tony had aced every literature, art and history class he'd taken. And he'd taken more than his curriculum required; often choosing advanced classes for his electives. He'd also had a rather interesting emphasis on criminal law and sociology.

"Couldn't see myself as a high school coach. You know as well as any one, I'm not exactly good with kids."

Gibbs remembered several cases they worked where small children were involved. Tony hadn't handled them badly; it was more like he simply didn't know how to relate. "Kids just take practice. I wasn't good with them until I had my own."

"If having your own is a pre-requisite, I'm never going to be good at it."

"You don't want kids?"

There was a flash of something in Tony's eyes Gibbs couldn't quite read. The younger man cleared his throat. "Have it on good authority I'm not father material, Boss."

"Who the hell toldâ€""

"Remember that deal we made earlier?" Tony interrupted, eyes shuddered, giving away nothing. "How about we make it go both ways?"

Gibbs took a slow breath. He nodded. "Okay." As much as he didn't like agreeing to back off, he couldn't expect Tony to show him that consideration if he wasn't willing to do the same. "So you came here after you got the cast off your leg to consider some other career options and Mike introduced you to the rest of his family."

He knew he made the right choice in redirecting the conversation when Tony rewarded him with a bright smile. "Really didn't have to introduce me. Sammy is a huge fan of college sports."

"That's the one who makes the maple syrup?"

"That's the one."

"This would be so much easier with pictures." Gibbs wanted to be able to match faces to names.

Tony laughed. He pushed his chair back, wiping his hands on a napkin. "Pictures I can do. Sit tight for a second."

Gibbs continued eating, listening for Tony as the younger man made his way into what Gibbs assumed was the living room. There was no hesitation in his movements, so Tony clearly knew the rest of the house as well as he knew the kitchen.

Tony returned a moment later, grinning. "Mike is no better at organizing his photos than I am. If it's not case related, I don't label anything. But Sammy, now, he organizes photos. One of these days I gotta get him to put together an album for me like he did for Mike."

Tony shifted a few things on the table before setting down a non-descript photo album. He opened it and pointed to a photo before taking his seat. The photo showed Tony with four other men. The picture was labeled Memorial Day, 2001.

It was clear the men surrounding Tony were related. They all sported the same lanky build, suggesting more wiry strength than brute force. They all had similar facial features as well. Although they were all blond, the shade ranged from a dark honey color to nearly platinum. Tony was the only brunette in the shot.

Tony pointed Mike. He was standing to the far right. "Mike, you know." He smiled. "He only started going gray recently."

Tony pointed the man next to him whose ash blond hair was cut nearly as short as Gibbs' own. His arm was over Tony's shoulder, pulling him into a casual half hug. "That's Sammy."

"Looks military."

"He is. Former SEAL. Mustered out with a medical discharge a few months after this shot was taken."

Gibbs frowned, looking up from the photo. "What happened?"

"Don't know." Tony shrugged. "Sammy says it's still classified. He got a hell of a kick out of me signing up for NCIS about the time he quit the Navy."

Tony looked younger, more carefree, and very happy in the photo. He pointed to the man on his left who was openly laughing. "That's Zeke. And the baby is Gabe, on the end."

Gibbs stared at Zeke. He didn't look any more 'gay' than Tony or Gibbs himself. He looked normal, for lack of a better descriptor and as happy as the rest of them.

Gibbs lightly fingered the corner of the page. "May I look at the rest?"

"Sure." Tony smiled.

Gibbs flipped the page, curious to see what more he might learn about these men who clearly played such a large roll in Tony's life. It was oddly heartwarming and distressing at the same time to have visual proof that Tony had a surrogate family other than his NCIS team. Gibbs couldn't help thinking of them as competition, even as he was relieved to know Tony had other people in his life who looked out for him.

There were a lot of pictures of them with and without Tony. Each one was neatly labeled with names, dates and locations. Gibbs stopped on a photo of Sammy grinning at the camera, hugging a stunningly lovely woman. She reminded Gibbs of a model...the one with a beauty mark on her upper lip that used to do diet coke commercials, Cindy something. The label for the picture indicated it was Sammy and Dan, July 2002.

"Dan?" Gibbs looked up.

"Short for Danielle." Tony chuckled. "She says no one ever uses her full name...not even Momma C."

Tony pointed to another photo. This one was of Gabe with a redhead who was more striking than truly beautiful. "That's Carol."

"The one you said he's been dating for five years?"

"Yeah." Tony rolled his eyes. "Hell, they've already been together longer than most couples stay married." He pulled his plate closer and resumed eating.

Gibbs flipped several more pages, stopping when a picture surprised him. It was Tony with another man, but not one of the brothers. They were focused on each other rather than grinning at the photographer, profiles presented to the camera, foreheads rested against each other. Gibbs doubted they were even aware the photo was being taken.

The label named Tony and the other man as Caleb, dating it 1996. For being ten years younger, Tony didn't look much different to Gibbs. He was still devastatingly handsome, all the more so now to Gibbs for the character and experience the last few years had given him.

Character and experience were evident in 'Caleb's face. He was definitely older than Tony. He was beginning to gray at the temples, and crow's feet around his eyes were proof he had a few years on Tony. Probably not more than five by Gibbs estimation, which would make him in his late twenties or early thirties at the time the photo was taken.

"Who is this?"

Tony looked up from his plate, eyed the photo and froze. He paled so rapidly, Gibbs immediately reached out to him, concerned. "Tony, you okay?"

"Forgot that was in there." Tony whispered. His hand shook as he reached out to touch the photo, tips of his fingers barely brushing against Caleb's cheek.

"Who is he?" Gibbs asked softly.

"Pleaseâ€""

"Who. Is. He." Gibbs insisted, jealousy rising up, determined to find out why this photo caused such an extreme reaction. He wanted to know who this Caleb was to Tony. Who was he that he could make Tony look at him the way he did in the photo...like no one else in the world mattered?

Tony's jaw tightened. He took a deep breath and looked away, his set _expression letting Gibbs know he wasn't going to answer willingly.

"Tony, I want an answer." His tone made it clear he wouldn't let this go. Gibbs needed to know. Was this Caleb still around? Was he competition? Had he hurt Tony in some way to warrant this sort of reaction?

"You are such a bastard." Tony hissed, green eyes like ice as they met blue.

The look alone was enough to make Gibbs rethink his stance. Before he could take it back or apologize, Tony was spoke again.

"The right question would be who WAS Caleb." Tony closed his eyes, swallowing hard, his voice flat and monotonic. "He's dead. Was attacked by three men and killed in Peoria. Victim of a hate crime."

Tony opened his eyes, pinning Gibbs with another icy look. "We dated for four months."

For someone who seemed to date a new woman every week, four months was a lifetime. Gibbs realized he'd made a huge mistake by pushing this. He wouldn't have tolerated demands from Tony about Shannon; he shouldn't have expect Tony quietly accept his insistence for him to talk about someone who clearly meant as much to him as Shannon and Kelly had to Gibbs.

"Four months is barely long enough to even get to know someone, but I felt like I knew him forever. It was long enough to be careless and stupid. Long enough to think maybe we were being paranoid. Maybe no one noticed or even gave a damn that we were dating." His was _expression a mixture of guilt, anger and pain. "Nothing like finding out how wrong we were the hard way."

Tony sneered at Gibbs. "The way the force in Peoria handled his murder convinced me that I was damn lucky they never knew I swing both ways or about me and him. It also made me damn glad the miserable fuckers who killed him were stupid to leave more than enough evidence even the homophobic pricks on the force couldn't fuck up finding them. Didn't exactly bother me much when I found out one of them got killed in prison before he even made it to trial."

Tony shuddered, eyes overly bright. "Couldn't prove it, but I know his father was involved. Caleb had come out to him the week before. And he was not exactly warm and fuzzy about it. Doubt he expected them to kill Caleb....Probably just wanted them to beat some sense into him, but then having met the son of a bitch, he might have paid for Caleb's murder rather than have a gay son." Tony's fists clenched, knuckles bleaching white. "Guess I should consider myself lucky my old man hasn't given a shit about me since I was twelve years old."

He pushed away from the table, his chair scraping angrily across the hardwood floor. "I got the hell out of dodge as soon as possible and learned to be real damn careful." He slammed the photo album shut hard enough to rattle the dishes. "Or at least I thought I'd learned my lesson."

He leaned in, his face only inches from Gibbs. "You happy now?"

"Tonyâ€""

Tony stood up stiffly, nearly at attention, not giving Gibbs a chance to say any more than his name. "If you're finished, I can rent you a car and get you back to D.C. in a few hours." Green eyes focused on the far wall. "I'll e-mail my resignation to you."

"I don't want to go back to D.C. And I sure as hell don't want your resignation." Gibbs declared firmly. He had to salvage this, make it right, explain himself.

"Sit down, please," Gibbs softened his tone, making it clear he was requesting compliance, not ordering it. Tony looked at him, wary and uncertain. His eyes no longer flashed with anger, but the pain remained.

"Please," Gibbs repeated, nodding to the chair Tony had recently vacated. He took it as a good sign that Tony sat, even though he didn't pull the chair back up to the table.

"I. Am. Not. A. Bigot." Gibbs annunciated slowly and carefully, making eye contact and holding it. "We've already covered that. And NCIS definitely isn't Peoria. You are a damn good agent---"

"But you don't want me on your team any more, I get it."

"Shut up, DiNozzo." Gibbs snapped out, glaring at the younger man. "Do not put words in my mouth."

He sat forward, narrowing the gap between them. "I have trusted you with my life. I've trusted you to lead my team. Who you sleep with doesn't change that. Nor will it. Do you understand?"

When Tony didn't immediately answer, Gibbs repeated the question. "Do you understand, DiNozzo?"

"Got it, Boss."

"Good." Gibbs sat back. "You are not going to send me a resignation. I wouldn't accept it if you did. Are we clear?"

Tony smiled hesitantly. "Crystal."

"Good."

They were both breathing a little easier. Letting Tony know he wouldn't be fired for being bisexual and was always welcome on the team was a hell of a lot easier than apologizing for an emotional trespass. But it needed to be done just the same.

Gibbs took a deep breath. "I should not have pushed. We agreed to respect each other's boundaries, and I broke that agreement."

"Yeah, you did."

Gibbs couldn't help but give Tony points for keeping is tone even, not accusatory or hostile. It was clear though that Tony was not backing down or willing to dismiss Gibbs' inappropriate interrogation just yet. Nor should he, Gibbs thought. If Tony had overstepped a line Gibbs drew, he wouldn't have let it go easily either. A simple apology wouldn't cut it.

"You want to explain that to me?" Tony's question was not a request. "You weren't that pushy about things when I was being framed for murder."

He struggled with how to explain himself. He cursed silently wishing he was better with words. Tony waited, displaying more patience than Gibbs expected.

Finally Gibbs said, "You looked happy in that photo."

Tony arched an eyebrow. "I was."

"Your reaction to it...was at odds with the way you looked in it." Gibbs cleared his throat. "I wanted to know who he was. Needed to know why he caused such an extreme response."

Tony's eyes narrowed. "Why did you need to know?"

Gibbs should have known Tony wouldn't let him get away with a half truth. He was too good an investigator not to keep asking questions until he got the right answers. Tony wasn't as angry as he had been, but he was definitely still pissed.

Gibbs took a breath. Suck it up, Marine, he told himself. Stop wasting time and do it.

"I was jealous."

"Jealous?" Tony frowned. "I don'tâ€""

"You were looking at him like no one else on the planet mattered. And he was looking at you the same way." Gibbs squared his shoulders. "No one has looked at me like that...or shared my feelings that way since Shannon died."

Tony blinked. The empathetic look he gave Gibbs spoke volumes. "Caleb and I never really got the chance to have the sort of relationship you had with Shannon. Weren't even close to making that level of commitment." Tony didn't say so but it was clear they probably would have if they'd had the chance.

"And for that I'm sorry."

Gibbs was genuinely sorry. Losing Shannon and Kelly had hurt like hell, but he was very grateful for the years of his life he'd had them. He would never have wanted to miss that. And he hurt for Tony to have lost someone clearly as important to him after having only a few months. That they could have been to one another what Gibbs and Shannon were to each other but weren't afforded the opportunity was a tragedy in its own right.

His sincerity must have come through loud and clear because Tony offered a quiet, "Thank you."

Gibbs dipped his head. He took a breath, forcing himself continue. Full disclosure was necessary and he didn't think he'd get a better opportunity to take the plunge.

"I wasn't just jealous because it reminded me of something I lost." Gibbs raised his chin, meeting Tony's gaze resolutely. "I was jealous because it's also something I've never had."

"I don'tâ€""

"You aren't the only one who swings both ways."

"You?" Tony stared at him. "But you've been married fourâ€""

"Yeah." Gibbs nodded. "Shannon was the love of my life. The other three were just substitutes. Pale imitations at best." He shrugged, finding it easier to admit that than he expected. "But they weren't the only people I've ever been interested in."

"Wow," Tony breathed out in a stunned whisper, all trace of anger and pain lost to amazement. "If I'd known coming here would result in these kinds of revelations, I'd have invited you here a lot sooner."

"Don't know if I'd have been ready to come here any sooner." Gibbs smiled wryly. Hell, he still wasn't sure he was ready. But he was making progress.

"Damn near dieing has that effect."

"Ya think?" Gibbs couldn't resist offering his usual bit of sarcasm.

Tony rolled his eyes, smiling. He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. "Starting to feel a bit like I stepped through the looking glass, Boss."

"Tell me about it." Gibbs chuckled. "Kind of how I felt when I woke up in the hospital. Everything is the same and nothing is."

"Amen." Tony gave him a speculative look. "You said you were interested in men...you ever act on it?"

Gibbs clamped down on the hope that simple question engendered. Just because Tony was curious about his sex life didn't necessarily mean he wanted to sleep with Gibbs. It was certainly nice to know he wasn't turned off by the idea of asking.

"Few times before Shannon. Little bit after she was gone, but not a lot." Gibbs candidly admitted. "Was never quite brave enough to risk more than a one night stand." He hadn't exactly picked men he intended to form any sort of lasting bond with. So far Tony was the only one he'd ever met who made staying silent seem like a bigger risk. Before he could move on admitting that, Tony was giving him another empathetic look and asking another question.

"Guessing you didn't have anyone like Mike and his family to make things easier, yeah?"

"I think most of the modern derogatory names for gays and lesbians originated during my childhood, if that tells you anything. And I grew up in the South." Not that the bible belt was necessarily any less tolerant than anywhere else in the US, but it certainly wasn't well known for being open minded with regard to sexual orientation.

"Impressed you didn't end up homophobic."

"Never cared for hypocrisy." Gibbs stated baldly. "My own especially."

"Nicely explains why you don't care so much about who I sleep with."

Oh I care, Tony, Gibbs thought. He cared a lot. He wanted to be the one Tony slept with. No one else. Gibbs opened his mouth to say just that but Tony held up a hand, halting him.

"I think...I think we've exchanged all the secrets I can handle for one night."

Gibbs fought down the urge to growl and insist on pushing forward. He wasn't in this alone and he'd already pushed his luck pretty damn hard tonight, leaping over the line they'd agreed on. He needed to make sure Tony hadn't lost all trust in Gibbs' willingness to honor their accord. Only way to do that was to respect his wishes....for now.

Gibbs took a breath, releasing it slowly. "Lot to take in, isn't it?"

"Ya think?" Tony laughed faintly. "I've found out more about you in the last 24 hours than I think I knew in the last four years."

"You know me, Tony," Gibbs stated calmly, letting his conviction carry easily, "better than anyone else."

"Even if I don't know all your secrets?"

"You know more than most," Gibbs noted. "And I don't know all yours either."

"Point." Tony smile wryly. "We really are on our way to being friends."

He sound almost dumbfounded by the realization. It was a much more honest and open reaction than what Tony had given Gibbs earlier when he'd declared them friends. "Yes, we are, DiNozzo."

"My friends," Tony added emphasis to the word, "call me Tony, Gibbs."

"My friends call me, Jethro."

Tony grinned, eyes shining with delight. "Jethro."

Gibbs tried not to shiver at hearing Tony use his first name. He tried to imprint the sound of the first time the younger man said it indelibly on his memory. He never, ever wanted to forget this. Hopefully it wouldn't be the last Tony used his name.

"Let's finish up with dinner, grab a shower and call it a day." Tony's grin faded, leaving him looking tired and worn. "Don't know about you but it's been a long one."

"But a good one."

"Yeah." Tony smiled warmly, nodding. "A very good one."

Chapter Text

Tony sat up, physically wrenching himself free of his nightmare, a scream dieing stillborn as he struggled to catch his breath. "God," he ground out in a harsh whisper, unsure if it was a prayer or a curse. He shivered, pulling the quilt up around his shoulders, unwilling to lie down again just yet.

Even though he expected the nightmare it still caught him by surprise, hitting Tony with more than its usual force despite having had the same dream dozens of times. It showed up every time he thought about Caleb for more than a fleeting moment, or talked about him in any detail. Tony ran a shaky hand through his hair, sighing softly. Maybe it just hit so hard now because it had literally been years since he'd talked about Caleb or even dared to look at his photo.

Tony hadn't been there to witness Caleb's beating firsthand. However, he had access to the crime scene photos, had read the witness reports and heard perpetrators allocutions. Those were more than enough fodder for his imagination to recreate what happened in his dreams.

In his dream, he could only watch, unable to interfere, his warning unheard, his order to stop unheeded as three men brutally assaulted Caleb. Two held his lover while the other hit him repeatedly with a baseball bat. Tony's imagination readily supplied the dimly lit dirty alley, the sound of wood hitting flesh, screams and pleas for mercy, curse words and derogatory comments spewing forth from the batter in a steady stream. Tony winced as things like 'fucking faggot' and 'take your punishment like a man, you cocksucker' echoed in his head.

Those echoes didn't bother him half as much as the look in Caleb's eyes. In his dream, Caleb begged him for help, begged him to do something, anything. In real life, he hadn't been there, hadn't even known about what happened until after the doctors declared Caleb DOA in the emergency room. In his dream, Tony was always running forward, desperately reaching out for his lover, yet never got any closer. He could see the final blow to Caleb's temple, was close enough to feel the spray of blood, knew when Caleb closed his eyes forever.

Tony rubbed a hand across his face, shuddering as cold sweat reminded him of the feel of cooling blood. He never dreamed about Kate's death, but had yet to forget the feel of her blood on his skin. His mind had no trouble incorporating the knowledge into an old nightmare, making it seem even more real.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, hyper alert to everything around him. Pale moon light streamed silently through a single paned window. He heard the sounds of insects and an owl calling from not too far away. Wood smoke scented the air. The bed was familiar but not the one he slept in most nights.

"Cabin," Tony murmured to himself. Just saying it made him feel safer.

He glanced at his watch, the luminescent hands and numbers relaying the time. Three A.M. Too early to be up, but going back to sleep wasn't really an option. He never went back to sleep after a nightmare. Tony sighed, wondering if he'd wake Gibbs if he got up and got something to read.

The older man had been insistent on taking the couch when they'd come back to the cabin after dinner. Tony didn't see any point in arguing about it. The couch wasn't a bad place to sleep, and it wasn't like he'd win the argument anyway.

Tony shrugged to himself. He knew where everything was in the cabin. Not like he couldn't find a book in the dark and be quiet about it. He'd light the lamp by the bed when he got back.

He was tempted to get out of bed still wrapped in the quilt, but forced himself to leave the blanket on the bed. Tony hadn't used anything for tangible security since he was five and his mother threw away a stuffed rabbit he'd carried everywhere. I'm an adult, Tony told himself. He wasn't going to let a dream, no matter how bad, turn him into a wuss.

He padded silently to the door, glad he'd left it open when he'd gone to bed. It had a tendency to creak. He listened carefully. Gibbs didn't snore like Ziva. Thank God. Tony could just make out the sounds of deep, even breathing.

The fire had died down to nearly nothing, just a few embers still glowed in the hearth. Tony considered building it back up, before dismissing the idea. It wasn't worth the risk of waking Gibbs.

Tony stepped over to the bookshelf. Mentally reviewing what he had there and where. Not that it mattered. He wouldn't own it if he hadn't liked it so even if he grabbed something other than what he expected it would still be a good read.

Nothing too heavy, he decided. In spite of the adrenaline rush the nightmare had caused, or maybe because of it, he was tired. He still hadn't quite recharged his batteries from the last case, or even the one before that if he were honest with himself. Tony hadn't yet mastered Gibbs ability to run forever on coffee alone.

Physically, he was tired, but mentally, he felt like his mind was still running at high speed. The frantic, constant activity of his thoughts, the desperate need not to think about the nightmare wouldn't let him focus enough to wade through something like War and Peace. If he had to think too hard, Tony wouldn't be able to lose himself in reading. The past would keep intruding and would defeat the whole purpose of sneaking into the main room for a book in the first place.

He skipped the top shelf. That was mostly non-fiction with topics ranging from the constitutional law and the federalist papers to art history and filmography of the late 20th century. Tony hesitated on the second shelf, fingers running lightly over tops of the volumes there. He'd never admit to actually enjoying quality works of literature. Not that it mattered. No one he worked with would believe he owned a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare or that he'd read To Kill a Mockingbird more than once.

The third shelf was lighter works of fiction. Tony grinned to himself as he mentally reviewed what he knew was on that shelf. Dashiell Hammett wasn't a bad writer. Tony enjoyed his books as much as the movies made from them. He pulled free what he thought was probably 'The Thin Man' or 'The Maltese Falcon'. Either one would work and neither suffered from his already having read them several times before.

Tony didn't think, he simply reacted when someone grabbed his right shoulder as he headed back to the bedroom. He dropped the book and spun to the right, hoping to turn into his attacker. He knew he'd guessed right when his left hand felt the flat planes of a man's chest. His right hand grabbed an arm near the wrist, pulling while he pushed with his left, his right leg swung forward to sweep his attacker's legs out from under him. Tony went to the floor with his attacker, hitting hardwood with bruising force. He used his weight to pin whoever had grabbed him.

"Tony! It's me. Stop--"

"Shit." It had been Gibbs, not some mystery attacker intent on doing to him what had been done to Caleb. Tony scrambled back, releasing the older man as though he'd been burned. "Sorry...Sorry, Boss. Didn't realize it was you."

"Yeah, I kind of figured that," Gibbs counted dryly as he sat up. Tony couldn't see him glaring in the dark, but he was pretty sure Gibbs was doing it.

"Where did you learn that move?"

"Sammy." Tony shrugged. "He started drilling me in Judo and Aikido not long after..." Tony stopped abruptly not wanting to bring up Caleb again. He cleared his throat. "He's been teaching me stuff for years."

"Why the hell didn't you show me any of this when we were in the gym?"

"Because that was boxing." He wasn't about to tell Gibbs that he thought it better to keep what skill he possessed in unarmed combat a secret. He didn't want to become Gibbs' full time sparring partner. Tony needed his gym time to get away from the man he reminded himself almost hourly was physically off limits. A hot and sweaty Gibbs wasn't something Tony thought he'd be able to resist on a regular basis. He couldn't afford to do anything more stupid than usual.

"Why don't you sit tight while I get us a little more light?" He didn't give Gibbs a chance to answer or argue, rising smoothly to his feet and heading for the fireplace. The candles on the mantel were easily lit from the still glowing embers. He used one of them to light the hurricane lamp, turning up the wick.

"You should get this place wired for electricity at some point," Gibbs commented as he rose to his feet, picking up the book Tony had dropped.

"Like this better." Tony shrugged. It was more homey with natural lighting. Electricity just didn't fit the rustic nature of the place and the building had existed as it was for more than a century, updating seemed almost an insult to the original builder.

Gibbs glanced at his watch, and ran a hand through his messy gray hair. "What are you doing awake at this hour?"

"Couldn't sleep."

"You want to tell me why?" Sharp blue eyes narrowed.

"It's nothing." Kate said she never had nightmares, so Tony was pretty sure Gibbs didn't have any either. Nothing seemed to bother him much.

"Tony?"

Just the tone of his voice was enough. Tony looked away not wanting to see Gibbs' disappointment or disgust as he answered. "It was just a nightmare. Nothing. Really, Boss. I'm sorry I woke you. I was just going to get something to read an--"

"Tony...sit down."

Tony sat on the edge of the couch watching Gibbs warily. He was still half expected the older man to read him the riot act for executing a take down that had dumped him on his ass so easily. Or to tease him about being so childish as to be afraid of a dream.

Gibbs set the book on the end table before moving to stoke the fire. He added a few pieces of wood. The fire burned merrily, wood popping as it was consumed. Gibbs joined Tony on the couch.

"You okay?" Gibbs asked, studying him closely.

Tony hadn't expected that question. "I'm good. Why?"

"You're shivering."

"Oh." Tony hadn't noticed. The t-shirt and shorts he'd opted to wear to bed were damp in places, the clammy material making him suddenly aware of how cold he was.

Gibbs offered him the blanket that had been shoved to one end of the couch. Tony shook his head, intending to refuse, but the look on Gibbs face made him take it anyway. He wrapped it around himself, sighing silently when the residual warmth from Gibbs' body heat soaked into him. He took a breath, unconsciously relaxing as the scent of coffee, spice and faint traces of sawdust reached him.

"Thanks." Tony gave Gibbs a sheepish smile.

"You want to talk about it?"

Tony shook his head violently. He'd sooner slit his own wrists than show any more weakness in front of Gibbs. Especially now, when they'd come so far from where they'd been. He felt like he had a lot more to risk than he had before. Now, he knew Gibbs played for both teams. Tony didn't want to fuck it up before he even got the opportunity to find out if he might have a chance.

"They say it helps to talk about it." Gibbs offered slowly, looking at the fire, elbows resting on his needs, hands loosely clasped.

Tony opted not to call the older man on the irony of his statement. "Yeah, I've heard that."

"It works."

Tony couldn't help it. He snorted. "Doubt you would know that."

Gibbs looked at him. "You think I don't have my own share of nightmares?"

No, I don't, Tony thought. He sighed. That was probably not a good thing to say aloud, so he opted for something a bit more diplomatic.

"Thinking you don't really talk much about them." And probably not to someone like me, if you do, Tony mused silently. That would be more a topic of conversation for someone like Ducky maybe, or hell, Fornell even.

"I told myself I wouldn't dream about Kate," Gibbs said after a moment, voice quiet, gentle. "And that worked...as long as I remembered to tell myself that before I went to bed."

"Never had a nightmare about her," Tony admitted softly.

"Why not?" Gibbs looked surprised by his admission.

Given that I was right next to her when Kate died, Tony thought, Gibbs being surprised makes sense. Tony struggled to find the right words to explain it.

"Guess....in some ways, in my own head...I still see her as alive. I don't really think of her as gone." He wasn't going to tell Gibbs that he'd actually seen Kate after she'd died. He knew seeing her was probably little more than a product stress and his imagination, but it worked to erase his last real view of her with a bullet hole in her forehead. To Tony, Kate would always be young, lovely and still capable of harassing him with her sharp wit and words.

"Wish I could see her that way."

That heartfelt wish made Tony look at Gibbs sharply. Nodding to himself, Tony decided Gibbs' wish was something he could give the older man. He'd done it for McGee, helping the junior agent deal with Kate's death by talking to her corpse as though she were still alive.

"You remember showing her how to repel?" They'd tested the cable links to see if a Marine's fall to his death had been the result of his equipment being tampered with.

Gibbs smiled ruefully. "I thought she was going to piss her pants."

"Me too." Tony chuckled. "How about those horrible veggie tofu things she wanted us to eat?"

Gibbs grimaced. "They were...disgusting."

That was putting it mildly. Tony would prefer to eat paper to trying another one of those. "She was such a good Catholic girl."

"You think she still had the uniform in her closet?" Gibbs asked suddenly, eyes twinkling.

Tony grinned. "Doubt it, but then knowing her, she just might have kept it." Seeing her in that school girl uniform was still a personal triumph even if it was only the product of his imagination.

"Still can't believe you used her PDA for target practice."

"Made you use your hat." Gibbs reminded Tony.

"Yeah, but that was a lot cheaper to replace." Tony shook his head a little amazed that she'd gotten another PDA and had it programmed in less than an hour.

"She learned her lesson."

"Yeah, so did I." Tony practiced on the shooting range regularly ever since. His scores stayed well within the acceptable range.

"She never learned how to get used to riding in the car with you, Boss." Tony knew Gibbs would recall the many times Kate had a white knuckled grip on the 'oh shit' handle, or the times he'd made her squeak in fear, her pride keeping her from screaming outright.

Gibbs snickered. "Only one who seems to have done that is you."

He wasn't used to it. It was more a function of Tony trusting Gibbs. The older man was often impatient and reckless, but he was never truly careless. His driving really showcased a skill in handling a car that would put most to shame. Tony wasn't sure he'd put Ziva in the same classification. She seemed a bit too out of control, too aggressive in her driving for him to really have the same level of faith in her ability.

Reminiscing about Kate felt good. Tony realized with some surprise that they hadn't talked about her at all since the funeral. She deserved better than that. Sorry, Kate, he apologized silently.

Trading stories was entertaining and calming; it was a good diversion from his earlier nightmare, far better than the book he'd picked out. He didn't know if that was what Gibbs had intended, but it was a nice byproduct if he hadn't. Tony found himself settling in on the couch, relaxing. He was startled to realize he could easily fall asleep. That had never happened before after a nightmare.

Tony yawned, blinking sleepily at the fire. He tried to hold up his end of the conversation, but knew he was failing. He was warm, comfortable and with Gibbs nearby Tony knew he was safe. Nothing was would dare to hurt him with the former Marine around. The man had been there to rescue him from the sewers, had stayed only minutes behind when Tony was chained to Jeffrey White, had hung tight when relying on a possible foreign spy to defuse a bomb, he'd even fought off the plague reassuring Tony that he'd live when just breathing hurt like hell. Against Gibbs, nightmares didn't stand a chance.

"You're half asleep, aren't you?" Gibbs voice was laced with what sounded like affection and amusement.

Tony fought to open his eyes fully. "Long week, Boss...very long week."

"Lay down, Tony." The command was gentle. "You'll hurt your neck if you fall asleep like that."

Getting up to go to the bedroom seemed like too much effort and would take more coordination than Tony was sure he had at the moment. He wanted to stay near the warmth and safety he'd found. The bedroom was so far away...dark and cold, lonely. Tony sighed, giving into the inevitable. He struggled to free himself from the blanket, but Gibbs stopped him.

"I meant here, Tony. Lay down."

"Oh." Tony's eyes closed completely. "You can...take the bed...if you want," he mumbled as he slumped sideways. He thought it odd that his pillow seemed firm and warm but he was too comfortable to really give a damn.

He sighed softly, breathing in Gibbs' scent. It seemed to be so much stronger than it had been when he'd first wrapped himself up in the blanket. Tony smiled, reassured by the familiarity and sense of safety that came with the fragrance. He shifted, burrowing in closer to the source of warmth and comfort.

"Shhh....I got you."

There was a hand in his hair. Tony frowned, eyelids flickering as he struggled against Morpheus' irresistible pull. Something wasn't quite right...unfamiliar but soothing... welcomed...wanted...not wrong, but not...Tony tried to concentrate, working on the puzzle.

"Shhh...I got your six. It's okay. Sleep, Tony."

Tony sighed, accepting the situation. Gibbs would make sure whatever wasn't right wouldn't hurt him. It was safe to sleep. He'd figure it out when he got up.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs ran his fingers through Tony's hair. It was so soft and silky, reminding Gibbs of petting the cat Shannon had when they first started dating. Gibbs had been more of a dog person then, but the big ginger tabby, Chester, had won him over. He loved curling up in Gibbs' lap, his rumbling purr sounding like a small diesel engine.

Gibbs smiled. He wondered if Tony would be insulted or flattered by the comparison to Chester. The younger man was no pampered pet, but he definitely deserved to be loved and cherished.

He stared into the fire, watching the flames dance as he considered the man sleeping soundly with his head pillowed on Gibbs' thigh. Gibbs had recognized the sounds of Tony's nightmare when they filtered through the open bedroom door earlier. The restive movements, the mumbled words laced with fear and desperation, the harsh and uneven breathing. He knew all those firsthand. But Gibbs hadn't known if it would be a good idea to wake Tony or let him wake on his own.

He wasn't sure how to deal with the younger man's possible response to being woken.
Gibbs' reaction to his own nightmares was often to lash out violently, striking anyone within arm's reach. He didn't want to fight Tony and possibly hurt him. Guys he knew in the service often pulled back, scrabbling away, falling out of bed in their haste to evade anyone trying to touch them. Gibbs didn't want to scare Tony any more than his dream already had. Others he knew had woken up crying, and Gibbs had never known how to handle that.

It shamed him that his indecision resulted in his doing nothing, leaving Tony to deal with his subconscious on his own. He had only approached Tony after the younger man had left the bedroom. Gibbs was half afraid Tony was sleepwalking. What else would have been doing wondering around in the dark at two in the morning?

He never expected Tony to take him down so easily. Tony was definitely wide awake. The younger man was a lot faster than Gibbs thought he'd be and far better at unarmed combat than he'd let on. Gibbs grinned. It would be fun to find out just how good Tony really was when they got back to NCIS.

His grin faded into a frown as he remembered how hard Tony had been shaking. That Tony hadn't even realized he was trembling had worried Gibbs. He was so pale his skin was nearly translucent in the flickering light. Gibbs had never seen anyone look that pale who wasn't on one of Ducky's tables. It made Gibbs feel even worse about leaving Tony alone to deal with whatever haunted him.

At least he'd been able to help with the aftermath. He looked down at Tony, smiling fondly. There was so much about him Gibbs still had to find out. It was like peeling an onion; layers upon layers.

Gibbs was astounded to find out Tony had never dreamt about Kate. He'd brought her up thinking she would give them common ground. He hoped his admission would be a way to make it easier for Tony to open up about his nightmare.

Kate did give them common ground, just not what he'd expected. It was good to talk about her, to reminisce. In trying so hard to forget how she died, Gibbs had lost a lot of what she was like when alive. Tony gave Kate back to him. It was an amazing gift he hoped to be able to repay some day.

Gibbs shook his head. How the hell his trying to help Tony had ended up with Tony helping him was a mystery. And he still had no clear idea what the younger man's nightmare had been about.

Still, he had helped Tony, of that Gibbs was sure. The shadows that had lingered in normally bright, lively green eyes had disappeared as they talked. Tony stopped shaking and his color returned. The capper was his being comfortable and relaxed enough to fall asleep. The level of trust that showed was both heartening and humbling at the same time.

Tony sighed softly, hands moving restlessly for a moment, a frown creasing his forehead. Gibbs froze, uncertain if his touch would disturb or sooth the younger man. Deciding that touching had helped before, Gibbs ran his fingertips gently smoothed away the Tony's frown before sliding through his hair again. Gibbs smiled when Tony settled again almost immediately.

He knew he'd be stiff and his leg would probably fall asleep long before Tony woke, but Gibb couldn't bring himself to care. He was enjoying indulging himself in just studying the younger man.

He made sure not to stare. He knew from past experience staring could wake Tony, although he didn't quite know why. He'd woken the former cop at the office with just a long, hard look. But then, at the office Tony never fully relaxed, even when sleeping.

Tony called it meditating. Gibbs had no idea if he really meditated or not, but it definitely seemed to work for Tony. He suspected the Tony used the time to let his intuition work. The younger man had a unique way of putting together pieces of a puzzle. His instinct was nearly as good as Gibbs. The former Marine knew time and experience would hone Tony's much the same way it had his.

Assuming he got the time, Gibbs mentally amended. Tony was at least as ready as he'd been to lead his own team. Gibbs could walk away, but he no longer wanted to. He finally understood that Tony was one of the main reasons he'd stayed at NCIS.

At first it was just making sure Tony was going to be an adequate replacement for Gibbs, that he was going to be up to the job, that he was good enough to lead a team of his own. Then it was because Gibbs found himself enjoying the job more than he had in the ten years prior. And somehow in less than two years, Gibbs simply couldn't imagine going a day without seeing Tony smile.

It was stupid for it to have taken so long to realize something so obvious. He smiled wryly. Shannon always told him he was too damn dense at times.

Tony mumbled something indistinct. Gibbs lightly stroked his hair, now more confident his touch was welcomed. It always had been he realized with a start. Tony never avoided a single head slap. If anything, it almost seemed as if he went out of his way to get one.

"Smoke and mirrors," Gibbs whispered to himself. Foundation of a good illusion was to give people what they expected to see.

Tony came from a rich family so naturally people would assume he always wanted live 'the good life'. A few comments, a flashy car, and an expensive wardrobe was all it took to cement the image. He was good looking, a natural flirt, and a jock, so a string of girlfriends was another expected assumption. That Tony liked women and seemed to genuinely enjoy their company made it another easy image to maintain. Having his lover beaten to death and the case badly handled by homophobic coworkers was definitely incentive to maintain a façade a looking for nothing but a pair of perky tits, nice legs and a good time.

That immature, happy go lucky attitude had many dismissing Tony as shallow and harmless. Few people ever saw Tony as an outright threat. Many suspects and even some of his teammates wrote Tony off out of hand, never realizing how much information he had gathered just through idle conversation and careful observation.

Gibbs supposed in a lot of ways Tony's choice of illusions wasn't any different than his opting to get married three times to women he liked but didn't love. He wanted that fantasy of a happy home. He wanted to recreate a sense of contentment, safety, happiness and well-being.

In his case, the only one he was fooling was himself...Tony seemed to have figured out how to stay true to himself while fooling everyone else. Almost everyone, Gibbs admitted after a moment's thought. Mike and his family clearly knew. Although, they probably didn't really count. Tony likely hadn't ever tried to fool them.

Abby saw Tony as more than a mental lightweight and goofball. She also knew a lot about him; likely more than Gibbs did. For all his trust in his boss, Tony clearly didn't have enough faith to share all his secrets. Gibbs grimaced, unable to truly blame Tony for his caution. He wanted to be angry about, wanted to feel hurt, but like he'd told Tony earlier, Gibbs had little tolerance for his own hypocrisy. Clearly, Tony limited sharing the painful and personal to his friends; something they really hadn't been until a few months ago.

Gibbs sighed softly. At least he didn't have to worry about Abby having spilled the beans. Tony had told him, not quite voluntarily, but he had told him about being bisexual, so Abby's slip wasn't a huge violation of Tony's trust.

He frowned. Abby said she'd screwed up before and Tony had forgiven her. Did she mean with her wacko stalker ex or something else? It was probably better to leave that mystery alone. Abby and Tony's friendship was their own business.

He unconsciously pet Tony again, finding the action nearly as comforting as Tony seemed to. Gibbs lips curled in a rueful smile. He was too old to need a security blanket, but not too old to appreciate having one.

Gibbs studied Tony's expression, memorizing the peaceful contentment on display that was rarely seen. Taking in Tony's profile, he was reminded of some of the classical Greek and Roman Sculptures his first ex-wife had drug him to a museum to see. The artists certainly had an eye for what was beautiful in both men and women. They likely would have paid a fortune for Tony to model for them.

Beauty wasn't a word Gibbs often applied to men, but it definitely fit Tony. His high cheekbones and clean jaw line were angular enough to meet the modern standard for masculine strength, yet soft enough so as not be too harsh or out of proportion. Damn good bone structure was how Abby had put it not long after meeting Tony. Gibbs hadn't been willing to admit to himself he understood what she meant then, but he couldn't miss it now.

Tony's impossibly long, thick eyelashes and smooth unblemished skin would make any woman green with envy. Hell, even McGee was probably envious...especially after the teasing he took about his own skin care. Gibbs was betting that Tony had probably been one of those lucky few to go through puberty unscathed. McGee likely suffered with the same severe acne that seemed to be the bane of nearly every teenager's existence.

Usually green, but occasionally blue or gray, Tony had very pretty eyes too. Gibbs blushed. Christ. He was turning into some overly romantic sap. Thank god no one would ever know what he was thinking.

Well, almost no one. He might figure out a way to actually say some of it to Tony, assuming he could do it and not sound like some love struck idiot. Gibbs didn't have any desire to have make a fool of himself.

Gibbs risked shifting to a more comfortable position, slouching a bit so he could rest his head on the back of the couch. He was relieved that his movement hadn't seemed to disturb Tony much. The younger man rolled on to his back, pulling the blanket up higher, breathing still deep and even.

Gibbs closed his eyes, petting Tony again almost reflexively. He tried to remember the last time he felt this relaxed. Maybe it was his recent amnesia, but he couldn't recall feeling as good as he did now in years.

Gibbs narrowly opened his eyes to look at the candles on the mantel. Getting up to blow them out would probably wake Tony. It didn't seem worth the effort. And Gibbs really didn't want to lose this moment of physical closeness. He wasn't sure when he'd get to do it again.

Tony probably had more candles in the cabin somewhere so it shouldn't matter if they burned down to nothing. They were in brass candlesticks, sitting on a stone mantel. Not really a fire hazard. The same could be said of the hurricane lamp Tony had lit.

Gibbs sighed. The sun would be rising in another hour. He could probably stay awake. It wasn't like he hadn't been up for days at a time in the past. But there was no urgency now, to driving need to solve a case, no lives at risk.

Gibbs hadn't had any coffee in the last eight hours. He was warm, comfortable. He laid a hand on Tony's chest, above his heart. He couldn't quite feel the constant, even beat he knew as there, but steady rise and fall of Tony's chest was just as reassuring.

He opened his eyes when he felt Tony's hand close over his, holding it loosely. Sleepy green eyes looked up at him. Tony smiled, sweet and beatific.

"Boss?"

Gibbs smiled down at him, not quite sure what Tony was asking. "Still here, Tony." He hoped that was the right answer.

"S'good." Tony mumbled, eyes sliding closed again. "Nice." He squeezed Gibbs' hand, holding it closer to his chest. "Like this."

"Me too." Gibbs hoped Tony would remember this when he woke up. Or that he'd find a way to remind Tony that wouldn't embarrass either of them.

Gibbs sighed softly. He added this moment to the list of things he wanted indelibly committed to his memory. His gut told him it was going to eventually be a long, long list.

TBC

Chapter Text

Tony woke slowly, letting awareness come to him gradually. He could, and often did, wake in an instant, alert and ready to go. But everything his senses were relaying to him at the moment told him he didn't have to. He had been down for the count, completely gone; that only happened when his conscious and subconscious were in absolute agreement on his sense of how safe he was, how ready he needed to be to react to his surroundings.

He started to move, muscles seeking to rearrange themselves, to stretch and flex. Tony stopped abruptly when he realized he wasn't in bed but on the couch...and he wasn't alone. He frowned, searching his memory, looking for how he came to be where he was and who he was with.

Fingers lightly carded through his hair, an indistinct, soft comforting sound coming from above him. "Shhh...I got you."

Tony smiled, making the connection. Gibbs. Tony frowned again. He thought Gibbs had taken the bed and left him to sleep on the couch. He had a strange recollection of looking up at Gibbs, holding his hand, sharing a smile. That was a dream, wasn't it?

Tony opened his eyes, blinking sleepily in the early morning light. He felt himself flush with embarrassment as he realized he had his head pillowed on Gibbs' thigh. Tony unconsciously found himself nervously moving his fingers, hands twitching with the instinctive reaction to the flight or fight response the sudden surge of adrenaline was generating. He was surprised to discover he was holding Gibbs' hand. Definitely not a dream then, Tony thought with a wry sense of amusement, laughing silently at himself.

Gibbs' head was tilted to the left, and angled downward in repose, making it easy for Tony to see his face. The older man looked younger, peaceful...and very handsome. Tony blinked, stunned as he realized this was the first time he'd actually seen Gibbs sleep. He'd seen him unconscious and in a coma, but never genuinely at rest.

Tony sucked in a breath, awed by the trust being displayed. Gibbs had let his guard down. He'd actually let Tony use him as a pillow. That was definitely above and beyond the call, Tony thought, now bemused by the situation more than embarrassed by it.

Tony bit his lower lip. Better to move now, before Gibbs woke up. Save them both the awkwardness this whole thing was bound to cause.

A part of him didn't really want to move. A part of him wanted to just stay right where he was, content to enjoy this closeness, this sense of peace and security. He might never get another chance to experience this ever again. Steeling himself, Tony told that part to just shut the hell up.

His effort to release Gibbs' hand was thwarted by the older man tightening his hold. Tony hadn't expected that, and he fiercely tamped down on his initial pleased reaction. This isn't helping, Tony told himself, stifling a delighted grin.

He started to move again, thinking maybe if he could at least get far enough away, Gibbs would release his hand naturally. Tony was surprised when Gibbs ran a hand through his hair again, the soothing action being executed apparently without conscious thought. Gibbs eyes were closed, his breathing still deep and even.

Tony sighed silently. So much for just slipping away. Evidently this was going to have to be like taking off a band-aid, one quick pull and get it over with.

He took a deep breath and told himself it was for the best. The longer he stayed, the worse it would be. Now that Gibbs knew about his bisexual nature, it would be way too easy to misread this situation. Or read it far too accurately, Tony amended silently with a grimace.

He didn't want the older man to think that just because it was known they both enjoyed the company of men that Tony expected Gibbs to act on it. Or that he'd take advantage of that knowledge and try to talk Gibbs into anything he wasn't truly interested in doing. Tony rolled his eyes. As if I could coerce Gibbs into anything, Tony mentally gave himself a head slap. He knew better than that.

Tony risked another glance at Gibbs. The earlier peaceful expression had given way to something pensive. Gibbs' jaw had clenched and his brow furrowed. Tony blinked unsure of what caused the suddenly fierce look. Definitely time to move away, he decided. Better to be out of Gibbs' lap before he woke up.

Tony wiggled free of the blanket. He winced when his movements made Gibbs' grip on his hand tighten painfully. Gibbs mumbled something incomprehensible.

Tony thought he heard what sounded like 'you're not going to die'. He raised an eyebrow. Dream about Desert Storm maybe, or his wife and daughter, or Kate or...well, a lot of other things Tony probably knew nothing about.

He managed to pry his hand free. Tony wasn't sure what to make of the distressed sound Gibbs made in response to the loss of contact. It seemed cruel to leave Gibbs in the throes of a bad dream, but the younger man didn't think he'd appreciate waking up to find himself clutching Tony's hand like a frightened child. Big, bad ass Marines didn't do that sort of thing, or so Tony had been told. The situation was going to be awkward enough without throwing that into the mix.

Tony moved to sit up, pulling his legs in so he could roll off the couch to his feet. He figured once on his feet, he could safely wake Gibbs without embarrassing either of them too badly. He could take the blame for falling asleep on Gibbs, make light of it, and move things along to safer territory.

Tony had barely begun moving when Gibbs grabbed him, pulling him into a breath stealing hold, pinning him tightly to Gibbs' chest. Tony gasped, ribs protesting as Gibbs arms circled him like bands of iron. He didn't struggle, trusting Gibbs wasn't trying to deliberately hurt him even if not fully conscious.

"Boss...Please...Can't breathe." Tony coughed weakly, trying to draw in air.

"Stay with me, DiNozzo." Gibbs ordered; his tone was harsh and desperate. "No one dies of the plague anymore. You keep breathing, you hear me!"

Plague? Tony blinked as comprehension dawned. Gibbs was dreaming about that?! He wasn't even there for most of Tony's time in isolation. He'd missed out on the fever, fatigue, blue lights and coughing up blood.

Tony didn't begrudge him that. Gibbs had been busy finding out who had poisoned the letter in the first place. And Gibbs was there when it really mattered.

He'd been there to tell Tony it was worth it to keep fighting. To reassure him he wasn't losing the war even if he'd lost a battle or two. That he would live even when everything Tony was feeling that moment belied Gibbs' declaration. He was there when it hurt like hell to breathe and the taste of blood in Tony's mouth was making him nauseous.

"You will not die!" Gibbs whispered into Tony's ear, his voice ruthless, unrelenting.

"Got it, Boss," Tony responded, instinctively giving the same answer he had then.

He wasn't sure if Gibbs heard him or not. The band around his ribcage didn't loosen any. Tony was forced to try and push him away. He needed more air than he was getting.

He felt Gibbs resist, tightening the hold on him. Tony winced as what little air in his lungs was forced out. God, but Gibbs was strong.

"You...have to...let go, Boss." Tony was starting to panic.

"No!" Gibbs hissed, fear and anger ringing out clearly in that one word. "Not letting go. Never. Can't lose you. Can't." Gibbs shuddered. "Need you."

In spite of being breathless, Tony grinned. It was heartening to hear Gibbs say he was needed. It was the only time he could remember Gibbs ever saying anything like that. Shame Gibbs probably wouldn't remember saying it.

"Stay, Tony...Please. Stay with me." Gibbs' plea hurt to hear. He sounded oddly broken, so unlike the confident, capable man Tony knew. Tony tried to offer reassurances but was unable to draw in enough air to speak.

"You can beat this, Tony. Breathe, damn it, breathe."

Trying to, Tony thought desperately. He needed to wake Gibbs up, free him from this dream. Staying was bad for both of them.

The way Gibbs had Tony's arms trapped, slapping him wasn't an option. This definitely called for drastic action. Tony kicked out with his legs, digging his heels into the couch for greater leverage as he tried to jackknife away from Gibbs, using his weight to break the older man's clutches.

The move worked better than Tony anticipated. He broke free of Gibbs' hold, knocking himself off the couch at the same time. Tony hit the floor, clipping the trunk coffee table with his head hard enough to see stars. He scrambled back as Gibbs came to his feet, the older man's right hand reaching for the gun he wasn't wearing. Startled blue eyes glanced around the room, clearly wide awake and assessing the area for signs of danger. When he looked down, Tony smiled wanly.

"Hi, Boss." Tony waved, panting slightly as he recovered his wind.

"Tony?" Gibbs frowned. "What the hellâ€""

"Fell off the couch." That was true, more or less. No reason to tell Gibbs exactly why he'd fallen off.

Gibbs eyes narrowed. Tony looked away not wanting to give away too much. He raised his hand to gingerly touch his temple, wincing. No blood, but a goose egg was already forming. Oh well, Tony shrugged mentally. One more knock to the head wasn't any big deal.

Gibbs crouched down, hand reaching out to cup Tony's chin, gently forcing him to make eye contact. Concerned blue eyes searched green. "Another nightmare?"

Tony nodded briefly. It had been a nightmare, just not his. If Gibbs didn't remember, Tony saw no reason to bring it up. Tony would love to be able to forget his own. He could give that small blessing to Gibbs.

"You okay?" Gibbs tilted his head, eyes moving to assess the growing bump.

"Yeah." Tony pulled away. "Got a hard head."

Gibbs offered him a hand. Tony grabbed Gibbs' forearm, letting the older man help him up. He swayed for a moment before catching himself. Gibbs gave him a sharp look.

"DiNozzo?"

"I'm good." Tony patted Gibbs' shoulder, trying and failing to get the other man to release his hold. He was a little embarrassed to find himself enjoying Gibbs' concern and the continued contact. He told him to stop being a pathetic, needy idiot. 'No one likes a whiner, Anthony', his father had always told him.

"You sure?"

"I'm sure." Tony forced himself to look Gibbs' in the eye. "Just stood up too fast, Jethro. Little head rush is all."

Using Gibbs' first name was a calculated risk, one Tony hoped would convince the other man he was telling the truth. And he was telling the truth. Having low blood pressure often made standing too fast a bit dizzying. It wasn't a big deal. Tony had low blood pressure ever since he started playing sports and working out regularly.

Gibbs' eyes narrowed. He leaned into Tony's personal space, mouth close to the younger man's ear. "Do not lie to me, Tony."

"Not lying, Boss."

Tony unconsciously braced himself for a head slap when he saw Gibbs raise his hand. He was stunned when Gibbs lightly stroked the back of his head, cupping the nape of his neck before placing a butterfly soft kiss to his bruised temple. Tony fought not to lean into that astonishingly gentle touch, to ask for more.

"You may be okay, but you didn't fall off the couch. And it wasn't your nightmare." Gibbs countered calmly, pulling away to squarely face Tony again.

"One out of three." Tony smiled weakly. He should have realized Gibbs would not only catch him lying, but also call him on it.

Gibbs' thumb lightly stroked along the side of Tony's neck. "You thought I wouldn't remember my own nightmare?"

"Kind of thing I'd want to forget," Tony answered honestly. Tony wouldn't mind erasing the entire experience from his memory. Blue lights still made him nervous. He caught himself eyeing all envelopes suspiciously, unwilling to open anything if he didn't recognize the name and address of the sender.

"You ever forget one?"

Tony shook his head. "Not yet."

Gibbs nodded grimly. He squeezed Tony's neck once before releasing him. "I didn't mean to--."

"I know that." He waved off the explanation. "You'd have knocked me out cold if you meant to." Tony grinned, waggling his eyebrows.

Gibbs rolled his eyes. Tony was pleased to see he looked more amused than guilty now. Getting a kiss, even a platonic one, was fair exchange for a knock to the head in Tony's opinion.

Gibbs grimaced as he focused Tony's bruised temple again. "I shouldn't haveâ€""

"My fault for falling asleep on you in the first place." He could shoulder the blame for that; Tony had already decided to do so earlier. Was the only time he'd ever fallen asleep after a nightmare, so again it felt like an even trade to Tony. In some ways, he considered himself ahead of the game.

"You sleep okay?" The question could have been intended as a joke, or simple courtesy, but the undercurrent of genuine concern made it more than that.

"You make for a lumpy pillow, Boss." Tony smiled, unable to resist teasing the older man, and not ready to admit he couldn't remember sleeping so soundly in a long time.

"You didn't seem to mind," Gibbs shot back dryly. "A bomb could have gone off and you wouldn't have noticed."

"Then what did you ask me if I slept okay for?" Tony gave Gibbs his best innocent look. The light head slap was welcomed. It was a sure sign things were okay...normal even, between them.

Tony stepped back and stretched, arms overhead, reaching for the ceiling. He closed his eyes, relaxing into the movement, hearing a few vertebrae popping back into place. He felt guilty, realizing Gibbs was probably stiff and sore from acting as his pillow. Sleeping sitting up was never any fun.

"You should have taken the bed, Boss." He could hear the apology in his voice even if he didn't actually say outright that he was sorry.

"If I wanted to sleep in the bed, I would have, Tony."

Tony blinked, and stared at Gibbs in surprise. Had Gibbs really meant for that to sound like he preferred staying with Tony to a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed? Or was it just wishful thinking? Maybe it was little more than a poor choice of words.

Tony had to know for sure. "Boss, did you meanâ€""

"Yeah, I did." Gibbs regarded him steadily, expression open and honest. His blue eyes warmer than Tony could remember ever seeing them before.

Tony blushed and looked away. He hadn't felt so shy and uncertain since high school. The comparison made him smile. It had been in high school that he started to recognize flirting and learning how to flirt back. It was also in high school when Tony realized he didn't envy the quarterback kissing the head cheerleader, he was envious of her being able to kiss him.

"Something funny, DiNozzo?"

"Actually, yeah." Tony chuckled, eyes bright with merriment. "I suddenly feel a bit like I did when I was sixteen."

"Sixteen?" Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Because I don't think I've blushed much since then."

"That's a shame." Gibbs smiled. "It's a good look for you."

Tony found himself staring at the floor again. He knew how to flirt. He was good at it for crying out loud. This shouldn't be so hard. It was harmless, he reminded himself. Gibbs couldn't mean it, could he? But what if he did? Should he jump at the chance? What if he got it wrong, would flirting back ruin everything?

Realizing he was in danger of letting what should be a lighthearted moment become unnecessarily awkward, Tony cleared his throat and glanced up. "Hard to switch gears," he confessed, feeling the need to say something.

Gibbs cocked his head to one side. "Switch gears?"

"Usually think of you as my boss." Tony shrugged one shoulder.

"My being the boss is a problem?"

"Never flirted with my boss before." He didn't mind flirting with his coworkers, or verbally sparing with them, but Gibbs had been off limits for from the day they'd met. Tony hadn't wanted to risk having his attraction to the older man discovered or to give away his bisexual nature. He'd been hiding it for too long to be careless.

"You practically undressed Shepard with your eyes the first time you met her," Gibbs challenged, sounding almost jealous.

"She's not my boss." Tony shook his head. "Only got one, and that's you."

Gibbs frowned. "Is that an all or nothing?"

"I don'tâ€""

"I can't be anything other than your boss?" The answer obviously mattered to Gibbs.

"You already are." Tony smiled, unable to lie. Gibbs meant the world to him. He cared more for him than he knew as smart to.

Gibbs smiled back at him, stepping closer, eyes intent on Tony's face. "How much more?"

Tony hesitated. Lying still wasn't an option. Gibbs would know.

"How much more do you want to be?" Tony gave Gibbs a coy look; his eyes make an unmistakable invitation, leaving it up to Gibbs to decide whether to accept or not. If Gibbs backed off, Tony would just have to find a way to accept it. Tony hoped he opted to take him up on the offer, holding his breath as he waited for an answer.

Gibbs bit his lower lip, looking atypically nervous and uncertain. He squared his shoulders. "Everything."

"Everything?" Tony blinked, afraid he might have misheard. "You meanâ€""

"Boss, friend," Gibbs paused meeting Tony's gaze evenly, "lover." He raised hand to lightly caress Tony's cheekbone with his knuckles. "I want it all."

"You sure?" Tony forced himself to ask. He felt like pinching himself to make certain he wasn't dreaming.

"I'm sure." Gibbs caressed his cheekbone again. Tony fought not to close his eyes to better enjoy that impossibly soft touch.

"But it was only last nightâ€""

"It was last night that I found out you liked men. Wasn't when I found out I liked you, Tony. I knew for years that I was attracted to you." Gibbs looked sheepish. "Just seemed like such a huge risk, I wasn't sure how toâ€""

"Yeah, I can relate to that." Tony chuckled wryly. "Quite the pair, aren't we?"

Gibbs turned his hand to cup Tony's cheek. "Yes, we are."

"This just an itch you need to scratch?" Tony winced, cursing his inability to just keep his mouth shut.

"Is that all it would be to you?"

"No."

"Good." Gibbs leaned in closer. "I want more than casual and short-term with you. I want a lot more than that. Need more than that."

Tony met Gibbs half-way, lips coming together in a chaste, closed mouth kiss. It was almost an introduction, a mutual test of willingness and intent. It held a soft promise of more.

Gibbs nibbled at Tony's bottom lip, requesting entrance. Tony opened his mouth, inviting Gibbs in, letting him explore, teasing and tasting.

Tony followed when Gibbs retreated, mapping the other man's mouth with his own tongue. He caressed the roof of Gibbs' mouth, enjoying the feeling of the rough surface. He shivered when Gibbs sighed deeply. It was as though he'd been waiting forever for this moment.

Tony wrapped his arms around Gibbs, pulling the former Marine's body flush against his own. Being close to the same height, the full body contact felt amazing. Everything felt so natural, so utterly right, so perfect Tony couldn't remember why he'd ever thought kissing Gibbs would be a mistake. He could easily spend the rest of his life doing just this.

He whimpered, giving voice to his feeling of loss and disappointment when Gibbs finally broke the kiss. He tried to recapture the other man's mouth, hungry, almost desperate for more, but Gibbs stopped him, framing his face with both hands. Gibbs smiled gently, before resting his forehead against Tony's.

He breathed out, slow and deliberate. Tony breathed him in, green eyes meeting blue. It was so intimate, honest and raw, Tony shuddered in response, feeling totally exposed.

"I got you, Tony," Gibbs murmured, thumbs moving back and forth against Tony's cheekbones in a calming, reassuring caress. "I got you."

Tony took a slow, deep breath, nodding. "Wow," he whispered.

Gibbs kissed him again, just a light peck, comfortable and familiar. "You okay?"

Tony laughed, letting his joy out. "Never better, Boss."

"Jethro," Gibbs corrected, nipping Tony's nose playfully.

"Jethro." Tony grinned.

"I know this is going to sound old fashioned but I want to go slow." Gibbs' expression was earnest, a request for understanding. "I got three failed marriages, Tony. Don't want to screw up again."

"You won't screw up." Tony was sure if something went wrong, it would be his fault. It usually was.

"Not sure I'm worthy of that faith, but I'm grateful for it just the same." Gibbs tilted Tony's head and placed a kiss on his forehead. "Are you okay with us taking time?"

"Slow is good." Tony sighed, leaning into Gibbs, delighted to feel Gibbs lean into him so they were supporting one another. Momma C had always told him good things took time. He knew better than to try and rush this. He'd been secretly in love with Gibbs for years, just knowing he'd finally have a chance to act on it, to express it was enough. If sex was even half as intense as their first kiss, he'd need time to prepare for it anyway.

Gibbs ran a hand up and down Tony's back. The touch was relaxing, comforting. Tony hummed in appreciation. He closed his eyes, memorizing this moment.

Tony wasn't sure how long they were wrapped up in each other when his stomach ruined the mood by growling loudly.

Gibbs laughed. "Another country heard from."

"Sorry." Tony gave him a sheepish look.

"Don't be." Gibbs smirked. "You aren't the only one who's hungry. And I could do with a cup of coffee."

"Naturally." Tony grinned. "Mike should be up." Mike was going to love finding out he'd been right.

"We better get dressed then."

Tony reluctantly stepped away. He smiled back over his shoulder when he felt Gibbs pat his ass. The promise in Gibbs' eyes made him wonder if Mike would mind his taking a cold shower before sitting down to eat.

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs did his best to stop smiling. He should have better control over his emotions than this. He had years of practice. Unfortunately, just looking at Tony tested his control in ways he hadn't experienced in a long time. He was happy, very happy and was finding it hard not to show it.

He glanced over at the younger man as they walked the path to Mike's house. Tony smile warmly back at him. Gibbs lost the battle, unable not to respond to happiness and contentment beaming back at him with a smile of his own. Without conscious thought, Gibbs offered his hand to Tony, undeniably pleased when the younger man took it. It felt good to be physically connected.

Tony laughed softly, looking away. "We have got to get a handle on this or Mike's going to know the second he looks at us."

Gibbs felt a frisson of unease. Did Tony not want Mike to know? Was he ashamed? Embarrassed? Afraid? Only way to know was to suck it up and pose the question.

Gibbs asked softly, "Will that be a problem? Him knowing, I mean."

Tony shook his head. "Mike's cool." He gave Gibbs a wry look. "Dealing with him being smug will be the hard part."

"Smug?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "He's been telling me for while now that I should talk to you rather than just assume you wouldn't be interested. He's going to gloat a bit about being right. And it sucks that I'll have to let him because, well, he was right."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow at this little tidbit of information. Tony had feelings for him for 'a while now'. He tried not to regret the time they'd wasted. Had Tony approached him before now, Gibbs wasn't sure he'd have been ready to accept the offer. His gut was telling him Tony wouldn't have approached him more than once, so it was better to have lost a year or two than have been stupid enough to pass on a lifetime.

"You talked to Mike about how you felt about me?"

"How I feel about you, Jethro." Tony corrected with a light squeeze of his hand before bringing it to his lips to place a feather soft kiss on Gibbs' knuckles. Gibbs knew he was blushing, and resisted the urge to look away.

"Needed to talk to someone, and I couldn't very well talk to McGee." Tony's eyes sparkled with amusement as he snickered. "Can just see his reaction."

Gibbs chuckled, amused in spite of himself, finding it far too easy to picture the junior agent's response. "Good point." He cocked his head to one side. "What about Abby?"

"She knows I'm...more bent than straight." Tony gave him a wry look, and Gibbs found himself commiserating with that description. It fit them both.

"How did sheâ€""

"Ran into each other one night at a mixed club."

"Mixed?"

"Gay, straight, bi. You know...mixed." Tony shrugged, smiling fondly. "We've been clubbing a few times since."

Clubbing with Abby had to be an interesting experience. Gibbs had gone to pick her up once very early in the morning when her hearse had broken down. He had been able to feel the music pulsing from across the street and most of the clientele he'd seen leaving looked like casting extras from a one of the Road Warrior movies. He had no desire whatsoever to experience such places up close and personal. Tony was either braver or more foolhardy than Gibbs had originally given him credit for to enter willingly into places like that with her.

Tony's expression turned rueful. "As much as I love her, there are some things I'm not comfortable telling her. Just...old habits, you know?"

Gibbs squeezed Tony's hand. "Yeah, I know." He had habits of his own when it came to keeping secrets.

Tony shook his head. "Sometimes Abby gets a little wound up and things slip. Not always the most reliable keeper of secrets our Mistress of the Dark. You know?"

Gibbs nodded slowly. Tony definitely had a point, especially in light of his conversation with Abby last night. She was a good friend to Tony. Her heart was in the right place, it just got ahead of her good sense from time to time.

Her good heart and occasionally skewed viewpoints explained how she'd gotten involved with a schmuck like Mawher. It covered why she neglected to tell Gibbs about him as well. Her belief that he wasn't dangerous and didn't deserve to have Gibbs kick his ass was definitely an error in judgment he hoped she'd learned from.

"Talking to Ziva was out of the question."

"Oh?" Gibbs wasn't quite sure what to make of Tony's tone. He had his own reasons for thinking it best to leave her in the dark, but he was curious what Tony's reasons might be.

"Aside from the fact that I really don't know her that well," Tony stated bluntly, "she doesn't have enough respect for me that I can afford for her to lose any."

Gibbs frowned, and stopped walking, pulling Tony to a halt with him. From what he remembered they seemed to work well together, but maybe he was still missing pieces. "She causing you problems?"

"Not really, no." Tony shook his head. "In a lot of ways she's easier to work with than Kate...and I had the same issue with her." His laugh was a bit forced, taking on a self-deprecating edge Gibbs didn't like hearing. "Not entirely Ziva's fault. Flirting with every woman I meet doesn't help her opinion of me much."

Gibbs glared, outraged on Tony's behalf. "Flirting doesn't make you any less of a damn good investigator or keep you from being one hell of an agent."

"You are probably the only one who gets that." Tony smiled, leaned in and gave him a quick kiss.

The kiss was a simple display of affection and gratitude. It was also far too brief to really satisfy Gibbs. He would have liked to deepen it, but reluctantly let Tony pull away, unwilling to upset the balance between them by pushing for more just yet. He was the one who asked for them to go slow; it would be hypocritical of him to rush now.

"And you're a man." Tony smiled winsomely. "Different perspective on the whole flirting thing by default, Boss."

"Gender bias shouldn't get in the way of seeing the obvious," Gibbs argued staunchly. Did they really think he'd have kept Tony around if he couldn't do the job? He wasn't Gibbs second in command for nothing.

"Shouldn't, but it does." Tony shrugged, waving a hand dismissively. "Kate was a trained profiler and even after two years working with me, she was sure I had no more depth than a parking lot puddle and was more lucky than good when it came to the art of investigation. Can't really blame Ziva for thinking the same thing. Super secret spy training not withstanding, she's better at killing people than she is at figuring motives and really understanding people."

"Maybe a little too good at killing people," Gibbs muttered, remembering seeing her with a very dead Brian Dempsey in the elevator. What a cluster fuck that had been.

"Dempsey's death was ruled an accident," Tony reminded him, showing an uncanny ability to follow Gibbs' train of thought. It was another reasons Gibbs had hired him and one of the reasons he enjoyed having Tony on his team. No one else seemed able to keep up or stay on the same wavelength.

Gibbs growled. "She might not have killed him outright but a little more control on her part would have saved us a hell of a lot of trouble."

"In her defense, he was annoying." Tony grimaced. "Very annoying."

"You were in the van with him as long as she was. You didn't punch him in the throat."

"Don't know that move." Tony smiled, clearly trying to downplay the whole incident.

Gibbs rolled his eyes, and poked Tony in the chest. It wasn't a lack of knowledge that kept Tony from lashing out at Dempsey; it was better control. "Last night showed you know a damn sight more than you've let on."

Tony bit his lower lip, looking up in an endearingly shy way. "Thought maybe you'd forgotten that."

Gibbs snorted. Like he'd forget getting dumped on his ass. "Think again."

"You're not mad...are you?"

"No." Gibbs' grin was feral. "But we are going to be sparing regularly from now on."

"Damn." Tony sighed. He didn't look nearly as disappointed as he sounded. "You'll go easy on me, right?"

"Sure."

Tony snorted. "You've got to work on sounding sincere."

Gibbs laughed. "No, I don't."

"C'mon, breakfast is waiting." Tony tugged gently at the hand he still held. Gibbs followed easily, walking in step.

Gibbs forced himself to let go of Tony's hand when they got to the gate. He eyed the stone fence. The wall wasn't really high enough to keep out someone from just climbing over. And the wooden gate, even when locked, wasn't much of a deterrent. Given the relationship Tony had with Mike, locking the gate didn't seem to be necessary.

"Why do you bother with having the gate and fence?"

"Tradition mostly." Tony latched the gate behind them, casually bumping Gibbs' shoulder with his own. "Uncle Sal and the guy who owned Mike's place before he did had this gentlemen's agreement clause in the original easement about maintaining the fence and keeping the gate locked. Kind of a respect for ownership thing. Mike and I kept that clause when we updated the documents. Didn't really know each other that well then so it seemed like a good idea. Just makes sense to keep it up since we've been doing it so long. Besides...if I show up without calling or Mike isn't around when I pull in, my leaving the gate open lets him know I'm here."

"Car in the driveway not a big enough clue?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "Back when I still had the jeep, I didn't leave it in his driveway. I drove up to the cabin."

"You had a jeep?" Gibbs had assumed Tony only owned sports cars.

"Had it in college, back before I got the Vette. Me and three buddies nearly froze to death taking it south for spring break one year." Tony chuckled.

"Froze to death?" Gibbs couldn't help scoffing at what had to be an exaggeration.

"Hey, it was a soft top and when we left Ohio it was only fourteen degrees. It didn't warm up much until we hit the South Carolina." Tony protested.

Gibbs stared at him. "Why the hell didn't you take something a bit more sensible?"

"Were supposed to take Kevin's car but the engine died. There was no way Joe's car would make the trip. Thing was a death trap on wheels. Greg didn't have a car. Come to think of it, he still doesn't. But it's not like he really needs one living in Manhattan. Just finding a place to park it would cost a fortune."

Gibbs shook his head. Finding out bits and pieces of Tony's past never failed to be enlightening. "So what happened to the Jeep?"

"I gave it to Gabe when he was old enough to drive." Tony grinned. "He still has it."

"How much younger than you is Gabe?" Gibbs asked. Tony's comment made it sound as though Gabe were a lot younger, but in the picture he'd seen there didn't appear to be a huge difference in their ages.

"Gabe will be twenty-seven in another month. Zeke just turned thirty. Sammy is only a few months older than me. And Mike's almost forty."

Gibbs nodded, filing away the information. He wanted to be as prepared as possible when he met the rest of Mike's family. Assuming he ever did meet them. They might not be blood related, but Gibbs had a feeling they'd be the closest thing to in-laws he'd encounter with regard to Tony. With the relationship, or rather lack of one, that Tony had with his father Gibbs figured he wouldn't have to worry about meeting him. Was only fair, Gibbs decided, since his own father had died years ago.

Tony causally jogged up the porch steps. He rapped his knuckles against the door before walking in. Gibbs followed.

"Mike?" Tony called out. "You up?"

"Unlike you, lazy butt, I've been awake for hours," Mike responded, strolling into the kitchen from the living room, coffee mug in hand.

"You just got home," Tony waggled his eyebrows.

"No." Mike snorted, looking amused.

"She just left?"

"No." Mike glared at him. "It was a first date, Tony."

"Your point?" Tony laughed, neatly evading the mock punch Mike tried to land on his shoulder.

"Brat." Mike grinned. "Good morning, Gibbs."

"Morning." Gibbs nodded to the other man.

"You want a cup?" Mike raised his mug.

"Please." The familiar, tantalizing aroma made Gibbs' mouth water.

Mike set his cup on the counter and pulled another mug from the wooden tree nearby. He picked up the coffee carafe. "You want cream and sugar?"

"Black is fine."

Mike nodded. "There's hot chocolate in the usual place if you want it, Tony."

"Thanks." Tony turned and started rummaging through one of the upper cupboards.

Mike's brown eyes narrowed, focusing intently on Tony. Gibbs followed his line of sight, wincing as he realized the bruise on the younger man's temple was now glaringly obvious in the sun washed kitchen. It had taken on a dark blue purple color that contrasted sharply with Tony's light tan. The shape of it was disturbingly familiar to the same sort of mark knuckles from a fist might make. Mike set the coffee pot down slowly, using excessive care as he placed the mug on the counter next to it.

"What the hell happened to you?" The question as directed at Tony, but Mike's gaze now rested on Gibbs, brown eyes diamond hard and unwavering. Gibbs fiercely resisted the urge to hold up his hands, palms outward in a gesture of appeasement.

Tony turned, blinking in surprise. "Nothing. Whyâ€""

"Wasn't a mark on you when you got here. Or yesterday afternoon before I left." Brown eyes bored into Gibbs.

Tony stepped closer to Mike, laying a hand on his shoulder, drawing his attention away from Gibbs. "Relax man. It's just a bruise. No big deal."

"How did you get it? Are there more I should know about?"

"It's nothing, Mike. Just drop it, okay?"

"If it really was nothing, you'd tell me how you got it." Mike countered. "Did. He. Hurt. You?" Mike's tone promised retribution if the answer was yes. Gibbs unconsciously found himself shifting his weight, preparing to defend himself if need be.

"No! Jesus, Mike, knock it off." Tony sounded exasperated. "Gibbs wouldn't do that."

"He's hurt you before."

Gibbs nearly growled at that. He had never....but the flush that rose to Tony's face made him rethink his own position. He could feel his own face leeching of color as he realized he had hurt Tony in the past. Maybe not physically, but definitely emotionally. Shit. Tony had told Mike about how he felt about Gibbs. It made sense he'd told him about the Voss case, the less than stellar welcome he'd given Tony after being rescued from the sewers, how Gibbs had not been at all understanding to Tony having to kill Jeffrey White, how he let him get pushed out of a plane and infected with the plague, head slaps and insults. Double shit.

Mike snorted, and said something in the Italian dialect he'd used earlier. Gibbs had no idea what was being said, but his tone was sharp and biting. Tony's chin came up, posture and expression both defiant. He shot back something in the same language. It was impossible for Gibbs to understand the spat of words that followed, flowing rapidly back and forth between Tony and Mike, but he could read the emotional context from their reactions to one another.

Anger and defiance gave way to concern and determination. Hostility and confusion became compassion and understanding. Disbelief gave way to trust. Dark eyes darted to Gibbs again, assessing before shifted to again meet green. Reassurances were asked for, given and accepted. Affection morphed into wry humor, chagrin and shared chuckles.

Mike leaned forward and very gently placed a kiss on each of Tony's cheeks. Tony reciprocated. Instead of feeling jealous, Gibbs found himself breathing easier at that shared gesture. He had no idea what the hell they'd settled but it was clearly finished, ending amicably.

"You wanted your coffee black, right?" Mike asked, transitioning back to where they'd left off with astonishing ease.

Gibbs nodded slowly. Until now the only person he'd ever met whose emotions could fluctuate so fast had been Tony. He wondered if Mike was naturally that quick, if it was something he'd learned from Tony or if Tony had learned it from him.

Mike handed Gibbs a mug. "What did you want for breakfast, Tony?"

"French toast." Tony grinned, relaxing back against the counter as if the last few minutes had never happened. "You got the big sliced stuff?"

"Better." Mike pointed to the bread box. "Loaf of Momma's home made."

Tony's eyes lit up. "Sweet."

The tension between Tony and Mike was gone, but Gibbs was still wary of Mike, uncertainly eyeing the man. Mike had looked ready to lay him out for hurting Tony. Not that Gibbs could blame him. Well, Gibbs did blame him for thinking he'd just slug Tony and still be able to stroll in acting nonchalant and friendly. But, if he thought someone had belted Tony, Gibbs would have been as pissed as Mike appeared to be.

He knew his unease showed by the way Tony looked at him. Gibbs tried to keep his face neutral but knew he failed when Tony shook his head and sighed. He stretched languidly, pushing off from the counter. Tony stepped closer to Gibbs, bumping shoulders in a gesture of camaraderie while watching Mike.

"You two have got stuff to say to each other. Stuff you don't want me to hear, I'm sure." He rolled his eyes. "Can I trust you two not to kill each other if I leave you alone long enough to grab a quick shower?"

"I'll be good." Mike raised a hand in the traditional boy scout salute, expression guileless.

Tony snorted. "You were never a scout."

"True." Mike laughed. He sobered, brown eyes meeting Tony's squarely. "Promessa, con tutto il cuore, Tonio."

"Good enough." Tony looked at Gibbs. "Remember he means well, will ya?"

"So do I, Tony." Gibbs felt compelled to defend himself.

"I know." Tony leaned in, placing his cheek against Gibbs' in a move that was surprising almost more intimate than the few kisses they'd shared. "You both got issues," Tony muttered sounding more amused than annoyed. "Just try to play nice, will ya?"

"I'll try."

"Okay." Tony pulled away, and Gibbs felt the loss immediately. He forced himself not to reach out pull him back.

He watched Tony walk away, disappearing further into the house. Gibbs resisted the desire to call out and ask him to stay, annoyed with himself for feeling so uncertain. The whole situation reminded him a lot of meeting Shannon's father for the first time only worse. He'd already had sex with Shannon, knew he wanted to marry her by the time he'd met her father. He and Tony had only shared a few kisses, yet, Gibbs felt as though he had so much more to lose if he didn't measure up with Mike. And given this encounter, he definitely wasn't up to snuff in Mike's eyes.

Determined not to be cowed, Gibbs sipped his coffee before looking directly at Mike. "Tony said you know how he feels about me. That you have known for awhile and you urged him to talk to me rather than just assume I'd turn him down." Gibbs' eyes narrowed. "If you thought I wasn't going to treat him well, if you thought I was the sort of person to beat him for being bi-sexual, why did you encourage him to open up at all?"

"Because living in limbo sucks." Mike answered simply, not the least bit intimidated by Gibbs' intense gaze. "Until he confronted you, took a risk and found out for sure, he was never going to really move on or settle down with someone else."

Mike gave him a measured look. "You think he likes changing girlfriends every month or never having a serious relationship? He can't have anything long term working for you. No one in a serious relationship is going to willingly take a back seat to a job with a boss that consumes more than forty hours a week? A boss who sucks up weekends, vacations and holidays without remorse or even a token apology? You think he's happy coming home to an empty house, living on take out, sleeping at his damn desk?"

Gibbs winced. Tony had never complained, at least not seriously. He always made himself available.

"He loves the job." It had been Gibbs standard response when he'd dared to think about why Tony never denied him anything. Until nearly dieing and being forced to rethink his life, rediscovering himself in the process, Gibbs had spent a lot of time trying to convince himself it was the truth and not just a safe, convenient lie.

"It's not just the fucking job, you schmuck." Mike snarled. Gibbs could almost see Mike's hand twitching like he wanted to smack the former Marine's head. Gibbs sort of wished he would. He knew he deserved it for being deliberately obtuse.

"Just how many people do you know outside of military service who willingly stay in a position that threatens their lives on a weekly basis?" Mike raised both eyebrows. "Hell, most beat cops never even pull their guns much less get shot at."

Mike leaned against the counter that separated them. "And let's not forget it hasn't been just guns. There have been bombs, knives, drugs, depraved lunatics, terrorists and the goddamn plague all thrown into the mix. He lost a partner and got framed for murder while he was at it."

Mike glared at Gibbs. "Do you really believe he stayed with NCIS for the great salary, the fancy badge or for a chance at the corner office with a window? That it was just pride in a job well done that kept him at your beck and call?"

Mike pointed a finger at him. "Everything and everyone in his life takes a back seat to you. It has since he started working for you. How could you not notice that Tony would die for you?"

Mike sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Wasn't sure if you were truly oblivious, stupid or taking advantage of him. I thought he should let you know how he felt. Figured that way you'd be forced into either treating him right or firing him. If you fired him, he could find someone else who would treat him right and something else to do that hopefully wouldn't be so damn dangerous."

Gibbs swallowed hard. Hearing it put so bluntly was enlightening and bordered on painful. "You told him all this?"

"No. Hell no." Mike sighed, his anger seemingly spent as he rubbed hand roughly over his face. "What I told him was that I thought he should find out if you were as committed to him as he is to you. That he should stop hiding and be honest. That he should stop risking life and limb for so damn little in return. And that I wanted him to be happy."

Mike grimaced. "The bitch of it is, you do make him happy. And he does love the job. Enjoys the challenge of it. Revels in the demands you place on him. Delights in meeting or even exceeding your expectations."

Mike sighed. "And I have to admit, I like seeing him so bright and eager, vibrant and happy. I like hearing him laugh even if it comes with some tears at times. You are good for him even if you aren't always good to him."

Gibbs tightened his grip on his mug, knuckles bleaching white. 'Good for him, but not always good to him'. He'd have find out if Tony felt the same way. Find a way to fix it if he did.

Mike shook his head, bemusement in his eyes. "I haven't seen him so...so alive since... well since Caleb."

Gibbs wasn't sure if he should take the comparison as a compliment or not. "I saw the picture of them together."

"I know." Mike nodded. "He told me."

Mike took a deep shuddering breath, eyes bleak. "It was a good two years before he even came close to being himself after Caleb was killed. Wasn't sure he'd ever make it back."

Gibbs shivered, understanding what was being said without Mike having to say it. "Losing a loved one changes you."

The look Mike gave him let him know his own personal experience with loss had bled into his voice. Mike nodded, accepting the understanding and empathy for what it was. Mutual understanding notwithstanding, sharp brown eyes pinned him with an implacable gaze. "You will not force him to talk about Caleb again." It was not a request.

Gibbs nodded. He shouldn't have forced it the first time. He knew better than to push a second time.

"I usually leave threats to Sammy. He's better at it than I am." Mike grinned, leaning into Gibbs' personal space. The grin was more a bearing of teeth than an expression of humor, reminding Gibbs of a wolf. "You hurt him again, and they won't need anything bigger than a shoebox to bury you in. Assuming, of course, that they can even find your body. We clear?"

"Crystal." There was no doubt in Gibbs mind that Mike could and would make good on that threat. He suddenly wondered if Mike and his brothers had anything to do with one of Caleb's assailants getting killed in lock up. Oddly, rather than finding it intimidating or disconcerting, Gibbs found it reassuring.

"Anything else you want to know?" Mike leaned back, no longer menacing. He looked approachable, harmless. It was a neat trick.

"Damn." Gibbs laughed softly. "Did you teach Tony that or did he teach you?"

"Neither." Mike shrugged. He moved toward the refrigerator and began pulling out ingredients, presumably to make the French toast Tony had asked for. "Figure it's just innate. All my brothers know how. Always have."

"He really is part of your family."

It was more an observation than a question but Mike answered him anyway. "Yeah, Tony is family." Mike gave him a bright smile. "Just wait until you meet the others."

"Why does the thought of that scare me?"

"Because you are clearly a smart man." Mike started cracking open eggs into a bowl with neat, precise movements. "Momma will be the hardest on you."

"Oh?" Gibbs wondered if she'd threaten to dismember him too.

"She's going to think you're not good enough." Mike shrugged one shoulder in a move reminiscent of the sort Tony often made. "Kind of a mother's prerogative, I guess."

"She that way about all of you?" Gibbs arched an eyebrow, taking another sip of his coffee.

"In varying degrees." Mike grinned. "But Tony's a special case."

"Why?"

"He's her favorite." Mike didn't sound at all bothered by his mother singling out Tony and doting on him.

"I'm not her favorite." Tony argued, strolling back into the kitchen. His hair was roughly styled, probably with a towel. The faded green, long sleeved t-shirt he was wearing hugged his torso nicely, accenting the firm muscle underneath. Gibbs couldn't help noticing that the well-worn jeans did nice things for his legs and ass.

"Oh yes you are." Mike shot back, whisking the eggs. He looked up to give Tony an annoyed look. "You didn't have to rush, Tony."

Tony looked sheepish. "Didn't want you two alone for too long."

"There is no blood on the floor." Mike snorted. "We played nice."

"Good." Tony grinned, clearly relieved. His eyes twinkled. "Trust me, cleaning up bodily fluids is no picnic. I remember once--"

Mike held up a hand. "I do not want details."

"Wuss." Tony chuckled. He moved to stand next to Gibbs, leaning into him. Gibbs automatically wrapped an arm around him, pulling him closer. He could get used to this very easily.

Tony rested his head on the older man's shoulder. "You okay?" he whispered.

Gibbs breathed in Tony's unique fragrance, tension draining away just being close to him. "Yeah, I'm good."

"Sure?"

Things between him and Mike seemed to be settled for now. He had a lot to think about, but that wasn't entirely unexpected. It was another reason Gibbs was glad they opted to go slow and do it right.

Gibbs smiled, turning his head to place a soft kiss in Tony's hair. "I'm sure."

TBC

Chapter Text

It wasn't until they were clearing away the breakfast dishes that Gibbs realized Mike was a very capable interrogator. Under the guise of pleasant conversation, light banter, polite give and take, Mike had extracted information and details from the former Marine that he hadn't willingly shared in years. Mike knew when Gibbs bought his home, about the boat in the basement, his ex-wives and the reasons for the different divorces. He even managed to find out what Gibbs' favorite food was, what he liked to read and his preferred way of working out.

Gibbs shook his head. "I should offer you a job."

Mike grinned. "Already got one, thanks."

"Don't be too impressed, Boss." Tony chuckled, waggling his eyebrows. "He's had a lot of practice."

Gibbs cocked his head, eyeing Mike. He really had no idea what the other man did. Somehow that hadn't come up in their conversation. He gave Mike more points for drawing out so much while giving away so little.

"He cut his teeth on the first girl Sammy brought home." Tony snickered. "Didn't get really good at looking all fierce and intimidating, much less the fine art of interrogation, until Zeke started bringing home his boyfriends."

"Like you would know." Mike rolled his eyes. "You weren't even there."

"Might not have seen Sammy's, but I heard all about it." Tony laughed softly as he started to wash the dishes. "And Gabe taped the others."

Mike's eyes widened. "He did what??!"

Tony gave him a fey smile as he rinsed the dish he'd just scrubbed clean. "Got him one of the micro cams. One like I use when I'm wired for the job. Picture and sound."

Mike sighed heavily, shaking his head. "Please tell me you didn't steal that stuff."

"I...borrowed it the first time." Tony sounded only vaguely repentant. "Bought him a set of his own later on."

Mike glared at him. "Why in the hell would -"

"Gabe asked me to." Tony shrugged one shoulder, not looking particularly apologetic.

"You are such a pushover." Mike sighed heavily. "One of these days you have got to learn to say no to him."

"But it's so fun saying yes." Tony grinned, eyes bright with mischief.

"I swear you two are the same age."

"You say that like it is a bad thing."

"Juvenile delinquent." Mike rolled his eyes. "Both of you."

Tony snorted and gave Mike a sly look. "You were all for it when he suggested tailing Sammy and scaring the hell out of him when he was necking with that cheerleader in the back of the car."

Mike blushed. "That was different."

"Natch." Tony laughed. "That's 'cause it was you, oh enforcer of the rules, Pappa Mike. That and Sammy still doesn't know it was your idea to use an air horn."

"Shaddup." Mike lightly swatted Tony's arm.

"Pappa Mike?" Gibbs raised both eyebrows, amused by their antics.

"It's what Gabe and Zeke call me." Mike answered casually, clearly not bothered by the moniker. He set more dirty dishes on the counter within easy reach for Tony to wash. "Was more father than older brother to them after Dad died."

It was on the tip of Gibbs' tongue to apologize, fearing he'd overstepped his bounds, but Mike waved a hand, letting him know it was alright. "Dad died when I was seventeen. So I took over being the man of the house and looking out for my brothers."

Gibbs nodded. He did the math in his head, figuring out the respective ages based on what Tony had told him earlier. Gabe would have been around four, Zeke would have been close to seven and Sammy would have been eleven or twelve when their father died. Mike helping to take care of children that age certainly explained the protective attitude toward his family. It also explained why being confronted by Mike earlier had felt so much like meeting Shannon's father.

"You guys got plans for the day?"

Tony shook his head. "Not really. Just playing it by ear. You need something done?"

"Was just going to run a few errands in town." Mike started to dry the clean dishes Tony had put in the rack near the sink. "Didn't know if you wanted to go along or if you needed me to pick up anything."

Tony glanced over at Gibbs, question clear in his eyes. Gibbs knew it was selfish, but he wanted more time alone with Tony. He wanted to have the chance to deepen the growing connection between them before having to back to face the 'real world'. Tony smiled gently, obviously understanding all that was being said without words.

"We'll pass, Mike." Tony bumped his friend's shoulder with his own. "Thanks for the offer though."

"You going to want dinner?"

"We could take you out for dinner," Gibbs offered. It didn't seem fair to expect Mike to cook for them all the time. And it wouldn't hurt to make a few points with the other man. He didn't want to be thought of as stingy or worse, a mooch.

"Not tonight." Mike gave Tony a smug look. "I got another date with Heather."

"You dog!" Tony gloated, laughing with delight. "This means you at least got a kiss."

"I'm not telling you anything."

"The blush you're sporting tells me everything," Tony countered, grinning brightly. "That and she said yes to a second date."

"Shaddup."

Tony chuckled. "Has that ever worked?"

"First time for everything." Mike sighed, clearly not upset with Tony. He was obviously used to being teased, comfortable with it, welcoming even.

Gibbs realized with sudden insight that Tony didn't tease people he didn't like. He was open and friendly, unfailingly so, but Gibbs was conscious of a distinction existing between how Tony dealt with friends and those clearly labeled as 'not friends'. A memory surfaced of the how Tony had been after returning from taking a week of sick leave. His eyes narrowed as he pondered what could have happened that made Tony re-label his teammates.

Was it related to why Tony had taken the week off? It seemed to be, but Gibbs still didn't have all the details. From what little Tony had said, Gibbs never had them all. Had it been that bad, that painful? It couldn't have been insignificant. The reaction was too extreme for it to be classified as nothing. But whatever it was, the effect hadn't last long. Things were back to normal in a few days. In some ways better than normal since that incident triggered Gibbs' own insight into his own feelings and motives with regard to Tony.

"Boss?"

Tony was giving him a concerned look when Gibbs blinked and focused on him. The dishes were done, letting Gibbs know he'd more than a few minutes while caught up in his thoughts. Tony had likely called his name more than once.

"Jethro?" Tony stepped over toward him, eyes searching.

"I'm here." Gibbs kept his voice calm and even. He didn't want to upset Tony more than he had already by spacing out.

"You okay?"

"Little tired." Gibbs thought it better not to admit to where his thoughts had strayed, at least not yet. It hadn't garnered a positive response in the past. And he was tired. He could run on caffeine for days at a time but even he needed to recharge his batteries once in a while. "Didn't get enough sleep."

Tony winced, looking guilty. "You should haveâ€""

"Was a good trade." Gibbs caught Tony's hand. "Losing a little sleep was worth getting where we ended up."

Tony smiled sweetly, eyes dropping as color rose in his cheeks. Mike arched an eyebrow, obviously curious about just where they'd ended up. Gibbs sent him a challenging look, daring the other man to ask.

Mike just smiled back, unperturbed. He said something to Tony, once more using the Italian dialect they'd spoken to each other with earlier. Mike's tone was light and teasing. Tony looked up and laughed softly. He pointed a finger at Mike, clearly trying for stern and failing as he responded to what ever Mike said.

Mike held up both hands, palms out, grinning. "You asked me that?"

Tony shrugged. "That's different."

"Right." Mike snickered. "Because it's you."

"Hello pot, I'm kettle." Tony held out his hand. Mike took it, pulling him into a hug.

Mike said something else Gibbs didn't quite catch. The timbre of his voice was familiar though. Gibbs remembered sounding the same way when he spoke to Kelly.

"There are leftovers in the fridge if you want dinner tonight." Mike said as he released Tony, patting him on the back.

"Grazie."

Mike waved off Tony's thanks. "Momma would hand me my head if I let you starve."

Tony rolled his eyes. "I'm in no danger of starving."

"None of us are." Mike chuckled. "But that hasn't kept her from trying to fatten up the rest of us." Mike's _expression sobered as he gave Tony the once over. "You loose weight far too easily, Tony."

"Most people wouldn't consider that a problem." Tony laughed, dismissing Mike's concern.

Gibbs had realized not long after hiring Tony that the younger man seemed to eat constantly. He was always snacking on something, yet never seemed to gain any weight. Gibbs gaze narrowed as he considered how long it had taken the younger man to regain the pounds he lost after his exposure to Y. Pestis. Maybe Mike's concern was not as misplaced as Tony seemed to think.

"So where are you taking Heather tonight?"

"We're going to the movies."

"Nice." Tony grinned.

Gibbs made a mental note Tony considered going to the movies to be a good date choice. Although, in hind sight he should have realized that a long time ago, Tony's movie collection was huge. It sometimes seemed if it had been filmed, Tony had seen it. He made at least one movie reference a day, usually more.

"What are you going to see?"

"X-Men three."

"She like the comics?"

"Yeah," Mike smiled ruefully. "Not a hard core fan, so I think the draw is really Hugh Jackman."

"He's not bad as Wolverine." Tony nodded. "Not exactly true to the character but a lot closer than some of the others."

Gibbs eyebrows rose. He didn't have a clue who or what they were talking about. Some days he really hated being out of the loop with regard to pop culture.

"Hallie Berry is a lousy Storm."

"Yeah." Tony agreed. "Iman would have made a great Storm. That woman exudes dignity. Has the right accent too."

"Shame she was too old for the part."

"At least Hallie is one hot momma." Tony shrugged. "Little eye candy for both you and Heather."

Only Tony would consider that a win/win situation. Although, Gibbs had to agree that a movie with something for everyone was usually a winner. He'd shelled out for enough chick flicks in his day that were the most boring things he'd ever had the misfortune to sit through.

"I'll see you tomorrow?" Mike asked. Even though it was a question, there was an undercurrent of an expectation of a positive answer.

"You are a mother hen."

"And a damn good one," Mike accepted the title without hesitation. "Answer the question."

"Yeah, we'll be down for breakfast."

"Good." Mike leaned in and gave Tony a quick kiss on each cheek. "Take some goodies with you. I know the cabin isn't stocked with any snacks."

"Cuts down on the critters moving in when I'm not there." Tony smirked. He returned the kisses, one on each cheek.

Tony often invaded other people's physical space, occasionally using his height to intimidate, or his personable nature to encourage people to trust him. But Gibbs wasn't used to seeing him be so familiar with another man. This was definitely something he'd have to ask about. He wasn't jealous of Mike...not really, now that he knew the other man wasn't competition. But he was looking forward to having Tony be just as casually affectionate with him as he was with Mike.

He watched as Tony pulled some things from the cupboard and place them in a bag. Gibbs spotted a box of granola bars, an apple or two, and couple of candy bars. Tony grinned in delight when he dug into the cookie jar.

"Chocolate chip cookies." Tony sounded down right reverent as he pulled out a handful of them and placed them in another bag.

"If you'd have come a few days earlier you could have had caramel brownies."

"Damn." Tony cursed softly, genuine regret coloring his voice and _expression. "You should call me when you make those."

"I'll send you some from the next batch."

"Knew you loved me." Tony grinned.

"And you can show your affection by sending me something in return." Mike's eyes sparkled. "Godiva chocolate is a favorite of Heather's."

Tony raised an eyebrow. "Dark or milk?"

"Dark."

"Nice." Tony nodded. "She might be a keeper after all." He smiled. "I'll send you a box of their truffles when I get back." They bumped fisted knuckles as though they'd just made a pact.

"You ready to head back?" Tony asked Gibbs.

"Yeah." Gibbs was hoping the walk back proved to be as informative as the walk to Mike's house had been. For the first time in a long time, Gibbs found himself looking forward to conversation, to just taking time to get to know another person. He'd forgotten how fun the discovery period could be. With Shannon it had lasted from the moment he met her. Gibbs suspected he'd still be learning things about Tony until the day he died.

He nodded to Mike. "Thank you for breakfast."

"Was my pleasure." Mike smiled.

A faint hint of the feral nature Mike had shown when confronting Gibbs earlier appeared. It was subtle, but he was definitely letting the former Marine know he still wasn't completely trusted. With someone as precious as Tony clearly was to Mike, as precious as Tony was rapidly becoming to Gibbs, the older man couldn't blame Mike for that attitude. Gibbs resisted the urge to salute, and judging by the twinkle in Mike's eye he knew just how close Gibbs had come to doing it. He had a feeling meeting the rest of the family might be every bit as challenging as Mike implied. Gibbs was looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

"So what's the deal with you guys kissing each other?"

The question was worded with so much casual nonchalance and unconcern, Tony nearly laughed. It was a dead give away just how important the answer was to Gibbs. Maybe Mike had called it right when he said he thought Gibbs was jealous. Not that he had any reason to be. It wasn't like Tony ever considered giving Mike the sort of kisses he'd dreamed about laying on Gibbs.

Tony gave Gibbs a coy look, handing him the bag of goodies to hold as he opened the gate. "You worried I won't have enough kisses left to give you one?"

A muscle in Gibbs' jaw flexed and tightened. "No."

"Worried I might give him more than I'd give you?" Tony teased, bumping Gibbs' shoulder with his. The slight change in Gibbs' expression and Tony knew he'd come close to the mark.

"I'm not worried."

"Jealous then?"

Gibbs gave him a hard look and answered very quickly. "No."

Tony smiled at the too quick negation. Maybe not jealous, but envious, which was close enough to call him on it. "Liar."

"I'm not jealous." Gibbs growled. "I'm just....curious."

Tony chuckled, shaking his head as he latched the gate. He leaned back against the wooden post, folding his arms against his chest. He arched an eyebrow.

"Curious?" Tony repeated. Green eyes regarded Gibbs steadily, amused to see the older man fidget. He could get used to having this sort of power.

"It looks like something I'd seen in Europe," Gibbs finally answered, clearing his throat.

"Momma C's from the old country." Tony had been forced to learn her dialect of Italian just to be able to communicate. She had a tendency to slip out of English on a regular basis. It was the reason Mike and his brothers were all fluent. That and several trips back to visit family still in Italy. English was more a second language for them than their first.

"So Mike's first generation American?"

Tony nodded, still smiling softly. "I'm thinking Mike's genealogy isn't what you're getting at."

Gibbs looked away before once more meeting Tony's gaze. "He never did say what he does for a living."

Tony laughed silently to himself, mildly amused that Gibbs wasn't ready to fold yet. He had no problem with the conversation running around in another circle if that was how Gibbs wanted to play it. He knew they'd get back to the point; he'd make sure of it.

"Mike's a carpenter. He mostly does custom work now...like cabinets and furniture instead of building houses. Made everything in the cabin actually."

Gibbs looked impressed. And well he should be, Tony thought with pride. The career might not have been what Mike originally intended, taking on the job and learning the trade as a way of helping to support the family when his father died, but it was definitely a passion for him. Mike had real talent. His branching out to crafting inlays and carving had been something Tony spent several years convincing Mike would be a good idea. Mike had moved from simple carvings to outright sculpting. Mike had made a piece for each of his brothers, and had told Tony his was nearly finished. Tony was eager to see it but had so far managed not to hound Mike about it.

"Don't think his career choice has got much to do with you being jealous of me kissing him," Tony commented softly, neatly forcing the conversation back to where it had started.

"I am not jealous," Gibbs insisted, giving Tony a dark look.

"Nor should you be, Jethro," Tony responded softly.

"I just want...," Gibbs winced and stopped. He was obviously bothered by the way he sounded to himself. Tony could understand that. There was a plaintive undertone in Gibbs' voice that was not what anyone who'd ever met the man would have considered him capable of.

Gibbs squared his shoulders. "You aren't usually that affectionate with most people."

"Mike isn't most people." Tony shrugged. He unconsciously hesitated to label Mike as 'family'; his own blood relatives had little in common with Mike's. It almost felt like Tony should have another category to put them in, another label to define them. Maybe I should just reclassify my family, Tony thought with wry amusement; it would be easier.

"So the whole cheek kissing is more than just a cultural thing?" Gibbs asked, gaze narrowing slightly.

"Well, you don't plant those on everyone....cultural history or not." Tony grinned. He'd never seen Mike lay one on a total stranger. And he'd never had any inclination to do so either. "They're reserved for people you like. Friends and family. A sign of affection."

Gibbs chin came up, blue eyes challenging. "So, when do I get kisses like that?"

"Don't want to kiss you that way." There was nothing brotherly or platonic about how he felt about Gibbs.

The flash of disappointment in Gibbs' eyes almost made Tony curse. Clearly Gibbs misunderstood what he was trying to say. Tony pushed off the fence post, stepping forward to cup Gibbs' face with both hands.

He captured Gibbs' mouth with his own, trying to convey all the love and passion he had for the other man. He moaned when Gibbs responded in kind: hot, hard and hungry. For the first time in his life, Tony resented the need to breathe. He never wanted to let go. He wanted to crawl inside Gibbs' skin and stay there...safe, warm and loved.

Reluctantly, Tony broke the kiss, pulling in a lung full of crisp morning air. Gibbs sucked gently on Tony's lower lip, toying with the sensitized flesh, making Tony shiver. He swallowed hard when Gibbs released him, burying his face against Gibbs' shoulder as he struggled to even out his breathing. He hadn't been this turned on by a kiss since he was a teenager when it felt like he got a hard on every time the wind blew.

"Jesus," Tony whispered, uncertain if he was cursing or praying.

"Amen."

Tony laughed weakly, raising his head. "We have found religion."

Gibbs chuckled. He turned his head to deliberately place first one kiss and then another on Tony's cheeks. For being so similar to the action Mike did all the time, Gibbs' kisses felt nothing like Mike's. Tony wasn't sure if they were just warmer, more intimate because of how he felt about Gibbs or if it was just the man himself. Either way, Tony was damn glad to get them.

He sighed when Gibbs pulled him into a hug. It was strange blend of soothing comfort and arousing contact. Tony breathed in the Gibbs' scent, certain he could find the other man in a crowded room even if blindfolded. The tantalizing fragrance was a blend of coffee and earthy, clean sweat. There was a trace of something vaguely mint like but spicier. The usual overlying scent of sawdust was missing since Gibbs hadn't worked on his boat in more than a week.

That smell of wood had been one of the things Tony found so appealing about Gibbs when he met him the first time in Baltimore. It piqued his curiosity about the gruff, former Marine. Tony might have otherwise dismissed Gibbs as little more than a very attractive pain in the ass he would have to put up with until their joint case was solved.

Gibbs stepped back, releasing him. Tony couldn't quite stifle a sound of loss and disappointment. He wasn't done basking in being close. He wasn't ready to be free of that longed for embrace and he didn't want there to be space between them.

"We agreed to go slow," Gibbs said softly, one hand moving to cup Tony's cheek.

He turned his head to place a kiss in Gibbs' palm. "Took us four years to get this far. Any slower and we'll be standing still."

Gibbs' eyes reflected amusement and commiseration, as well as determination. "I just don't want to ruin this by getting too far ahead of ourselves."

"I know." Tony understood. He wasn't being rejected, just asked to wait so Gibbs could be sure. He'd already given Gibbs his heart and soul, a little more time wasn't too much to ask.

He smiled, eyes closing when Gibbs' thumb caressed his cheekbone. Tony craved any sort of display of physical affection; he had for most of his life. He was willing to accept lust as a substitute for genuine, deeper feelings rather than forgo contact completely. Fleeting relationships were never enough, but they were always better than nothing. He was willing to take what he could get if he couldn't get what he wanted.

Tony was sure a therapist would have a field day with him. It was another reason he avoided people in that profession. Not only did they always think he should share his long held secrets, they always found a way to find fault. He didn't want to be psychoanalyzed. He just wanted someone to want him, to love him, to see him as worthy of time and attention. He always thought that made him weak, needy and stupid until meeting Mike and his family.

Mike and his brothers were been so different from his family. They touched each other all the time. There were hugs and kisses, as well as pushes and shoves. Compliments and reprimands were handed out in equal measure whenever appropriate.

Tony wished his father was more like Momma C. She managed to maintain discipline without derision, never belittling her children as a means of keeping them in line. Momma C established order without being rigid about the boundaries. She accepted her sons' limitations without finding fault in them personally for not measuring up to some internal, undefined standard they had no hope of meeting.

Tony had initially been wary of people so easy with their affection and acceptance, looking for the catch he was sure had to exist. He'd known Mike for close to seventeen years, and the rest of his family for nearly as long. Yet, Tony still had trouble understanding how they could give him the same warmth and welcome they gave so easily to each other. It was something unique and precious that he vowed never to take for granted.

Tony opened his eyes when Gibbs removed his hand. He forced himself not to ask for more, not to push the boundaries being set. He leaned in and with deliberate care placed a kiss on each of Gibbs' cheeks. He'd like to do more...to ravish that delectable mouth again, to find if Gibbs tasted as good all over as he smelled, to...Tony forcibly shut off that train of thought, pulling back before temptation got the better of him.

"C'mon." He tilted his head, nodding in direction of the cabin. "Mike can see us from here. And I think he's gotten enough of a show."

Gibbs glanced toward Mike's house, clearly trying to spot the other man and see if he really was watching. Tony snickered. "Let it go, Jethro. I owe him one."

"Well, I don't." Gibbs growled.

Tony snickered. "You sure about that?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You hang out with Mike and his family for a little while, a natural tit for tat thing that happens." Tony shrugged one shoulder, starting up the hill toward the cabin. Gibbs fell into step with him. "Not sure exactly how it works out or why, especially when no one seems to really keep score. Just know it does."

"And you think I've 'hung out' long enough for this mysterious phenomena to include me?"

"Yep."

Gibbs frowned. "Howâ€""

"What did you really think all that in the kitchen was about?" Tony gave him a wry look. "I know he told you stuff you didn't know. Probably about me."

Mike was the only person on the planet, other than Gibbs, Tony trusted enough to speak for him. He knew Mike would never betray a confidence thoughtlessly or deliberately hurt him. When he left them alone, Tony knew Mike was going to tell Gibbs whatever he thought the man should know to treat Tony as well as Mike believed he should. He would have told Gibbs things Tony likely should have told him, but couldn't quite bring himself to share. It was hard to find fault with a guy who made a point of looking out for him.

"And you sat at his table telling him things about yourself." Tony smiled.

He'd been delighted with the level of information Gibbs had willingly offered. Tony suspected Mike had pulled out all those details for his benefit. A lot of what Mike had brought up were things Tony had been curious about but was too wary to ask himself.

Tony held out his hands, palms up as though balancing a scale. "Tit for tat."

"That's one way to see it." Gibbs shook his head, laughing softly. "But that just makes us even. I don't owe him one."

"Give it time." Tony laughed. "You will."

Tony smiled shyly when Gibbs' offered him a hand to take. He wove their fingers together, just as delighted with the simple act as he'd been when they held hands earlier leaving the cabin. It was such a small thing, but Tony was unaccountably pleased that Gibbs had initiated the action both times. Maybe he wanted to touch, need to, just as much as Tony did.

As they made their way to the cabin steps Tony frowned. There wasn't a lot to do in the rustic location. Maybe we should have gone to town with Mike, Tony thought, suddenly unsure if staying at the cabin was a good idea.

Gibbs had seemed to want to stay and spend time with him, but maybe he'd misunderstood what the older man was trying to say without words in Mike's kitchen. Other than Caleb, no one else he'd ever dated had been content with just him. All his other relationships had always involved time spent going to dinner, movies, concerts, and the like. One on one time with Tony had never involved anything more than the bedroom, and Gibbs had already asked for more time before committing to sex, so that was not an option.

"Something wrong?" Gibbs asked quietly.

"Not a lot to do here." Tony bit his lower lip nervously.

The lack of a TV hadn't seemed like a big deal because Tony knew Gibbs didn't watch a lot. The battery powered radio was nice for company but didn't offer much in the way of entertainment. Gibbs wasn't going to be able to read any of the books he had...not without his glasses. Tony cursed silently. He should have thought to ask Mike if they could borrow a pair of reading glasses. Momma C misplaced hers as often as Gibbs did, leaving several pair in Mike's house over the years.

"Hey," Gibbs squeezed his hand, drawing Tony's attention back to him, "it's okay."

"It's okay?" Tony repeated, not sure what Gibbs was telling him.

"I'm fine with just taking walk and see more of the area. We could split more wood. Play another game." Gibbs smiled gently. "You don't have to worry about me being bored."

Tony could feel his face warming, embarrassed by how accurately Gibbs had been able to assess his thoughts. He ducked his head. "I know most of the trails." Truth was he knew all the trails, very well. Tony often ran them, using the steep grades as a training ground for when he ran marathons.

"A walk it is then."

"We'll bring the cookies."

Gibbs blinked. "Why?"

"Never go anywhere without food." It was one of Tony's own personal rules. Since working for Gibbs it had been essential for survival. The man didn't keep regular hours much less make time for regular meals. Tony said as much.

Gibbs laughed, a delighted sound of honest amusement Tony rarely heard. He hoped he'd get the chance to make Gibbs do it more often. The sound warmed him right down to his toes.

"Cookies come with us then." Gibbs pulled him into a half hug, placing a quick, light kiss on Tony's bruised temple. "Let's go see the sights."

TBC

Chapter Text

The clouds and intermittent rain of the day before had given way to warm sunshine and clear skies. Gibbs took a deep breath, enjoying being outside. He glanced at Tony walking silently next to him. The younger man seemed to enjoy strolling through the woods as much as Gibbs.

Bright green eyes reflected back the color of the verdant foliage, silently expressing contentment and pleasure. Tony's loose limbed stride and the relaxed set of his shoulders echoed the sentiment. Gibbs nodded to himself, very pleased they'd opted to take this hike together.

Nothing was said while they made their way up the winding trail, but the lack of conversation wasn't uncomfortable or awkward. Gibbs was fairly certain it wasn't his still slightly spotty memory that made him conscious of rarely sharing this sort of companionable silence with another person. He definitely hadn't done it in the last few years. None of his ex-wives had ever been the sort to be comfortable with his being quiet. They always seemed to think his silence was indicative of something being wrong.

Tony offered him the bag of cookies. Gibbs took one, with a nod and a quick smile. Tasting it, he realized they were worth every bit of reverence he'd heard in Tony's voice when he'd discovered them in Mike's kitchen. It only took two bites to devour the treat.

"Good, aren't they?" Tony gave him a smug look, taking a bite out of his own cookie.

"Very." Gibbs agreed.

"The caramel brownies are better."

Gibbs had trouble imagining anything better than the chocolate chip bit of heaven he'd nearly inhaled in his haste to consume. Man alive. If what Tony said was true, Gibbs was definitely looking forward to the next batch of those Mike made. Hell, he'd even buy the Godiva Tony offered in trade.

Tony offered him the bag again. Gibbs eagerly took another cookie. For the first time in years he found himself wanting a tall glass of milk.

He reached for the bag to take another only to find it empty. Tony gave him a cheeky grin before taking a large bite out of what was obviously the last cookie.

"That was mine," Gibbs growled.

"Na-uh," Tony argued, uncowed by Gibbs' tone or look.

Gibbs reached to take snatch the remaining half from Tony's grasp. The younger man neatly dodged, popping the remainder in his mouth. "Too slow," he mumbled, his mouth full.

"I'll show you too slow," Gibbs bared his teeth, reaching out to grab Tony.

Tony dodged him, moving away with a teasing grin. "You're it." Tony took off, long legs setting a ground eating pace.

Gibbs laughed and gave chase. Keeping up with Tony proved to be every bit as challenging as he expected. The younger man dodged around trees, changing direction frequently, leaping logs and debris with ease. He taunted Gibbs with breathless laughter, eyes bright with mischief every time the former Marine narrowly missed catching him.

Gibbs lunged and missed as Tony literally danced a way. The older man recognized the graceful movements that would have been right at home on a ballroom floor. He wondered what it would briefly what it would take to get Tony to dance with him.

Tony tripped over fallen log, losing his balance momentarily. It was the opening Gibbs had waited for. He lunged, wrapping both arms around Tony. The force of his movement combined with Tony already being off balance had them both falling.

Gibbs instinctively turned, trying to take the brunt of the impact. Tony had followed his lead, managing to catch himself, weight supported by his forearms and the toes of his boots; his position ended up being akin to doing a push up with Gibbs underneath him.

"Tag." Gibbs grinned up at Tony, laughing softly. "You're it."

Tony chuckled. He surprised Gibbs when Tony captured his mouth in a searing kiss. Gibbs moaned. Tony was a good kisser, a damn good kisser. Gibbs didn't care where he'd learned to do that thing with his tongue as long as he kept doing it.

Tony's mouth was sweeter than Gibbs remembered it being earlier. The chocolate from recently eaten cookies flavored the kiss with something dark, bittersweet and delicious. He could live on kisses like these. Gibbs was sure of it.

He pulled Tony closer, wrapping his legs around the younger man. Tony's t-shirt had ridden up giving Gibbs' fingertips contact with heated, silky skin. He borrowed underneath, hungry for more. Firm muscles flexed, welcoming his touch, sliding easily under his hands. Touching Tony like this reminded Gibbs of working on the boat; finished wood smooth to the touch, warm, solid, and open to him, ready for whatever he wanted to do next.

Gibbs rolled them over, pinning the younger man beneath him. Tony arched under him, hips and groin rubbing against Gibbs' in an erotic move that made it hard to remember why the former Marine ever thought they should wait to do this.

He released Tony's delectable mouth, lips moving to nibble delicately along Tony's jaw, tasting him. His skin was just as intoxicating as Tony's mouth had been. He wasn't sure how the hell he'd lived so long without dong this.

Gibbs found the pulse point in Tony's neck and placed a kiss against the enticing, steady beat he found. Tony gasped softly, tilting his head, offering his neck to Gibbs. It left the former Marine breathless to have what he wanted given to him so freely, without hesitation. Gibbs sucked hard, applying teeth and tongue wanting to mark the younger man as his. He kissed the mark he'd made, soothing away any unintentional pain with the pad of his tongue.

Gibbs buried his face against Tony's neck and shoulder. He breathed in; the musk of Tony's arousal made him shiver. He could feel his dick harden further in reaction, hips moving in lazy thrusts that Tony answered, rubbing against Gibbs. He moaned, enjoying the heat and friction they were creating.

Tony's hand clutched at Gibbs' shirt, gripping the material tightly. He made a small sound of frustration, tugging at the fabric, clearly wanting to find skin underneath. Gibbs could totally understand his frustration. He wanted more skin too, a lot more.

His good sense, or maybe it was fear, chose that moment to speak up. If he was going to stop this, it had to be soon. Too much longer and he wouldn't be able to. Especially since he could honestly say he didn't want to stop.

Gibbs swallowed hard. Forcing himself to pull back was the most difficult thing he'd had to do in a long, long time. He was determined to get this right. He wasn't going to fuck up his last chance at happiness. He wasn't.

Tony's heavy lidded eyes opened wider in surprise and confusion. Green eyes clouded by passion met blue. "Jethro, whatâ€""

Gibbs cupped Tony's face, caressing his cheekbones with his thumbs. "I want to do this right."

"Well, I thought we were doing it right. Until you stopped that is." Tony frowned, apprehension suddenly blossoming in his eyes. "You don't wantâ€""

"I do want. Very much." Gibbs rested his forehead against Tony's or a moment, seeking the courage to admit the truth, eyes closing as he struggled to find the right words. He took a deep breath. "I'm....It's just....shit...I'm....I'm scared."

"Scared?"

"Yeah." Gibbs sighed, opening his eyes. "I'm going to fuck this up."

"You. Aren't. Going. To. Fuck. This. Up."

Tony's faith and honest conviction were heart warming, but Gibbs wasn't sure. He bit his lip. "Three failed marriages."

"So?" Tony somehow managed to execute a careless one shoulder shrug.

Gibbs blinked. How could Tony be so cavalier about this? How could he not think that three failed marriages wasn't a big deal? "What the hell do you mean 'so'?"

"Gibbs," Tony rolled his eyes, "you told me it was okay to make mistakes as long as you learned something from them." He gave Gibbs an affectionate look. "You did learn something from those, right?"

"Oh yeah." Gibbs grimaced. He'd nearly lost his house to the second one. Fornell hadn't been any smarter when it came to her, so maybe it hadn't been Gibbs' fault there after all.

"Am I anything like them?"

"Not just no, hell no," Gibbs said firmly.

"See." Tony laughed softly. "You learned something."

Gibbs smiled. "Doesn't mean we should rush this."

"Doesn't mean we should stop what we were doing either," Tony countered. "Doubt sex was ever the problem."

No sex wasn't ever the problem. Even at the worst moments in his marriages, the sex has always been good. But...."It's not always the solution either."

"Didn't say it was. I know better than that." Tony smiled softly, expression infinitely tender and understanding. "Sex doesn't have to be a problem or the solution. It can just be what it is. Right?"

"Yeah, it can." Gibbs smiled back. He'd always known Tony had more depth than he let on.

He also knew the younger man could be persuasive. Not that he had to work all that hard to convince Gibbs of the right course of action. His dick was still in favor of moving along to where they'd been headed before he'd brought thing to a halt.

Gibbs gave their surroundings a rueful glance. "Not sure our first time should be in the woods like weasels in heat."

"Weasels?" Tony tried to stifle a giggle before just giving in and laughing loud and long. Gibbs found himself laughing with him, astonished by how easy and right it felt.

Tony kissed Gibbs soundly when he finally stopped laughing. "You are a romantic, Jethro Gibbs. Admit it."

Gibbs could feel his face warm. So maybe candles and soft music weren't really necessary, but he liked them. He cleared his throat. "Just because I think a bed would be moreâ€""

"No...you want it to be perfect." Tony smiled warmly, green eyes glowing. "Perfect isn't a location, Jethro. It's who you're with, not where you are."

Gibbs grinned fondly; Tony definitely had more depth than most gave him credit for. "Now who's the romantic?"

"And damn proud of it." Tony laughed. He gave Gibbs a coy look, hips moving in a slow, sensuous movement. "Are you really telling me no?" Tony licked his lips, pink tongue peeking out in a blatant tease. "That you really want to wait? Want to stop?"

Gibbs groaned, resolve crumbling. "You could tempt a saint."

"Don't want a saint." Tony whispered, tilting his head to nuzzle the base of Gibbs' throat. "Want you."

Gibbs shivered when he felt Tony's warm breath against his skin. The younger man applied his lips and teeth delicately, sensitizing Gibbs' skin to the exquisite torture. He growled, hands moving to capture Tony's head and force it upward so he could claim his mouth again.

He moaned into Tony's mouth when he felt the younger man's hands moving over him. Gibbs wasn't sure how Tony managed to get under his shirt, but at the moment he didn't give a damn. He'd never thought of his back as an erogenous zone, but Tony's fingers seemed to be leaving a trail of fire in their wake.

Gibbs pulled back enough to tug at Tony's shirt. He wanted it gone. "Too many clothes," he panted.

"You too." Tony ran his fingers down Gibbs' chest, teasing his nipples with the light contact. "This. Off."

Gibbs grabbed the bottom of his shirt, pulling it off over his head. Once free of it, he wasn't surprise to find Tony had managed to wiggle out of his as well. Tony gave him a wicked grin before moving to lave Gibbs' right nipple. Gibbs tipped his head back, eyes closing involuntarily as a warm rush of pleasure slipped over him.

He hissed, more from surprise than pain, when Tony bit him. Gibbs glared affectionately at Tony. "Brat."

"You like it," Tony countered, applying his teeth again before sucking hard. Gibbs whimpered, chest arching in a blatant request for more.

Tony delicately licked his way across Gibbs' chest, like a cat lapping up cream. He treated the left nipple the same way he had the right, adding more tongue than teeth this time. Gibbs rocked his hips, instinctively copying to the rhythm Tony set as he flicked the tip of his tongue over the sensitive nub he was tormenting.

The constriction of his jeans was almost painful. The taut denim across his erection added to the steadily rising spiral of desire and created an added feeling of urgency. Gibbs pressed his groin harder into Tony, smiling when he heard the younger man whimper in response.

Gibbs held Tony tightly, clutching at him as though afraid he might be the one to change his mind and put a stop to what they were doing. The light covering of hair on Tony's chest tickled. It was a delicious feeling, one Gibbs had never experienced before but found himself enjoying just the same.

"Still too many...damn...clothes on," Gibbs panted.

Tony chuckled, a deep and raspy sound rich with good humor and passion. The sound was nearly tangible, causing goosebumps to rise on Gibbs' skin. It was definitely what Abby would call a 'bedroom voice' sort of sound. Gibbs was damn glad the younger man didn't laugh like that at the office. He'd never be able to concentrate on a case if Tony did.

Gibbs shuddered. He hadn't come so close to climax so fast in years; not since Shannon. He was determined he wasn't going to come in his pants. They might not be somewhere classically romantic, but Gibbs still wanted it to be as close to perfection as he could get. And shooting off in his pants definitely wouldn't do.

Gibbs ran his hands down Tony's back in long strokes. He grinned, wild and feral, when the younger man sighed deeply, his back arching like a cat. He stopped petting Tony long enough work his way toward his belt buckle, neatly undoing it.

Tony returned the favor. Long, elegant fingers found their way into Gibbs' jeans and under his boxers with no difficulty. He moaned when Tony kneaded the firm globes of Gibbs' ass with a sure, confident touch. He wiggled, desperately trying to get rid of his remaining clothing.

Tony matched his movements. Gibbs couldn't tell if he was trying to help or hinder. Either way, it felt wonderful.

He was sure they looked ridiculous. They had to. Two grown mean, struggling to get rid of their pants without letting go of each other or bothering to remove their shoes was bound to look a bit silly. But Gibbs was too eager for more; too desperate to immerse himself in the sight and sound, scent and feel of Tony. He didn't give a damn how it might look.

Finally, blessedly, they were both more or less free of the clothing between then. Gibbs sighed, reveling in the contact. He was fascinated with the warm silky feel of Tony's skin. He idly wondered if Tony ever used Honey Dust. Did he know from personal experience what it was like? Gibbs nibbled and licked all the skin within easy reach. The little mewling noises of pleasure Tony made were an added bonus. Gibbs located a spot that made Tony buck against him, a soft moan escaping along with a breathless whisper of Gibbs' name. Gibbs bit down, careful not to break the skin, but determined to mark Tony just the same.

"Mine," he growled. He was not good at sharing, never had been.

"Yours," Tony agreed, his voice hoarse with need.

Gibbs held his breath when Tony's hand curled around his achingly hard cock. Tony's touch was confident and sure, no hesitation or uncertainty. He gave Gibbs a demure smile that was in stark contrast to his actions.

"Tell me how you like it." Tony's grip tightened as he made an upward stroke, the pad of his thumb rubbing lightly over the head of Gibbs' member. "You want rough? Hard and fast?" Tony's hand slide downward, his touch light, teasing, tantalizing. "Or soft? Slow and easy?"

Gibbs closed his eyes, overwhelmed by the pleasure washing over him. He clenched his jaw, fighting hard not to let go of the whimper that was trying to break free. He took a shaky breath when Tony's hand moved to cup his scrotum, fingers playing with Gibbs' sack.

"So beautiful," Tony murmured. Sharp teeth nipped Gibbs' jawline, forcing the muscles to relax.

Gibbs swallowed hard when Tony once more took him in hand. He rocked against Tony, unsure of what to ask for. Hard or soft, slow or fast...he didn't care just as long as Tony didn't stop.

"If you can't tell me," Tony sucked on Gibbs' earlobe before blowing across the sensitive flesh, "show me."

That he could do. Gibbs curled his fingers around Tony's leaking cock. It was good to know he wasn't the only one on the edge.

"Yeah...so good. Perfect." Tony's head tipped back, eyelids drifting downward to half closed. Gibbs memorized that slit-eyed expression of ecstasy, proud to know he was the one who made Tony look that way.

Gibbs couldn't resist marking the exposed column of Tony's bared throat. He could hear Tony mumbling something, but the specifics of what was being said was lost to him. The vibrations of sound moved under his lips as the muscles of Tony's throat tightened and flexed.

Their hands were working in concert, matching grips and stroke. Gibbs had no idea who was leading and who followed. The preferences and technique blended; the slight twist on the down stroke wasn't his, but the pinching of the head on the upstroke was. Like their partnership on the job, this worked for them, a duet of movement, complimentary styles that meshed easily.

Rough, panting was broken by words of encouragement and pleas for more...harder, faster. Skin, flushed and damp, slid easily against skin. Cool forest air was perfumed with musk and sweat.

A tell-tale tingle began at the base of Gibbs' spine, signaling just how close he was. He was hanging by a thread....riding the crest of a wave and knew it wouldn't last. But he wanted it to. He fought his climax off. Gibbs wasn't ready to lose this perfect, connected moment.

Tony trembled. Muscles tensed, growing impossibly taut, hips losing their smooth rhythm. He gasped, spine bending backward in a painful looking bow. Tony's free hand gripped Gibbs' bicep with bruising force. Tony's mouth opened in a silent cry as he came, spilling his seed over Gibbs' hand.

The sight and feel of Tony's climax was enough to snap Gibbs' control. His hips moved in erratic thrusts, snapping once and then again. He came hard, biting Tony's shoulder, muffling his cry of completion.

He rested against Tony, chest heaving as he struggled to get his breath back. Tony's chest rose and fell as the younger man did the same. Gibbs placed a soft kiss above Tony's heart.

"You okay?"

Gibbs laughed, raising his head. "You can't tell?"

"Can tell I feel incredible." Tony opened his eyes, smiling blissfully. "Kind of makes it hard to tell how you feel."

"I'm a lot better than okay." Gibbs kissed Tony, wanting to taste the smile he'd never seen before. It was every bit as sweet as it looked.

Tony stretched lazily. He looked smug. "Told you this was a good idea."

Gibbs snickered. "Nothing wrong with your ego."

Tony arched an eyebrow. "You saying you don't agree?"

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "You'll be insufferable if I say yes."

"And I'll be crushed if you say no."

In spite of the teasing tone in Tony's voice, Gibbs could make out a note of truth. He kissed Tony again. "You were right." He rested his forehead against Tony's. "The location didn't matter. You are perfect."

Tony's eyes seemed to glow with an emotion it took a moment for Gibbs to place. Joy. Honest to god, simple and astonishingly beautiful joy. It took Gibbs' breath away to see it, to know he'd caused it.

Tony sighed. He brought his hand to his mouth and began to clean his fingers of Gibbs' spunk. It looked completely innocent, like a child eating melted ice cream, and yet it was without a doubt the most erotic thing Gibbs had witnessed in a long time.

Curious, he raised his own hand to his mouth. He expected Tony's seed to be bitter, and was surprised to find it tart. It was a something he wouldn't mind getting more of... directly from the source the next time.

"You have got a dirty mind," Tony told him, grinning.

Gibbs could feel himself flush. "Shaddup."

Tony chuckled. "Doesn't work for you either."

Gibbs found himself laughing again. He hadn't had this much fun in years. He gave Tony a quick, chaste kiss. The younger man gave him a sleepy-eyed smile, clearly experiencing the same languid sense of relaxation Gibbs could feel enveloping him.

"C'mon." Gibbs started looking for his shirt and trying to pull up his boxers and jeans. "Let's go bask in the afterglow back at the cabin."

"Sounds like a great idea." Tony gave him a sly look, waggling his eyebrows. "Maybe we could even have us an encore. Try out the bed like you wanted to do earlier."

Gibbs tried hard not to give away how much the suggestion affected him. He knew he failed when Tony chuckled. The deep, raspy sound warmed Gibbs right to his toes. Being with Tony was never going to be boring, that was for certain. Gibbs smiled to himself. He wouldn't want it any other way.

Chapter Text

Tony woke slowly, cataloging sensations and sounds as the sleep induced mental fog cleared. A heavy, solid weight rested against his back. An arm and leg were wrapped around him, holding him close. The hold wasn't so much confining as comforting. Expensive soft cotton sheets felt wonderful against his bare skin. A faint breeze drifted lazily through an open window bearing the scent of the forest and the sound of small birds.

Tony sighed. He was warm and safe, content to just lie where he was. His entire body hummed with a sense of well being that he hadn't experienced in years.

Tony smiled as the memories of how he got where he was and who he was with came to him. The bout of slow, exploratory love making in the cabin differed considerably from rough and ready first time they'd had in the forest. It was no less intense and certainly just as satisfying, perhaps even more so. With the edge taken off, Tony had time to focus on locating all those little spots that would make Gibbs sigh, finding just the right touch to elicit a breathy moan, learn how to make him writhe, know what to do to make him beg.

Tony's smile grew. He never would have thought nipping the delicate skin on the underside of Gibbs' wrist would cause such an extreme reaction. Or that the tips of his ears could be so sensitive. Or that the man might actually be more than a little ticklish behind his left knee.

Of course these moments of discovery weren't all one sided. Tony had his own little hot spots Gibbs located in turn. He was sure the older man's once again sharp memory had made some record of each and every one. Even if he hadn't, finding them again could be just as much fun as the first time had been.

Tony had been genuinely surprised to realize when it came to making love to a man he was far more experienced than Gibbs. He was used to being more up on pop culture and technological things. The difference in their ages and aptitudes essentially guaranteed Tony would know more about things like that. But sex seemed so intrinsic and utterly basic to Tony. It was something he assumed every one knew details about; even if one didn't have kinks of his own, he usually knew about what constituted kinky on an academic level, or understood the mechanics and theory of sex if not the practice of all its aspects. Tony was so accustomed to following Gibbs' lead, it had been almost surreal to find himself being the one guiding and offering encouragement during their last encounter.

Not that Gibbs was a virgin. Far from it. Tony shivered, remembering just how good Gibbs was with his tongue and hands. Lord. And that was before he knew what Tony really liked. Gibbs had forced him to add a few new preferences to the list.

The older man might not have the same level of varied experience Tony had garnered with men over the years, but was definitely a willing student and quick study. Not that there had been all that many men, but Tony was positive he'd known more than Gibbs had. It made sense, Tony mused silently, given the number of years of his life Gibbs had been involved in committed relationships. The man didn't have that much time to play the field, and he was too honorable to fool around while married.

And trusting someone with penetration....well that wasn't the sort of thing Tony could see Gibbs doing with someone he considered a one night stand. The former Marine was just not wired that way. Tony thought it was a good thing. Even with all his experience, Tony could count on one hand the number he'd trusted enough to allow that level of intimacy. After the disastrous relationship with Seth, and then with what happened to Caleb, Tony had become very cautious about the men he dated.

He sighed. Tony started to stretch, pulling free of Gibbs' hold. The movement was aborted almost before he even started when Gibbs' hold tightened, pulling Tony closer and pinning him against the older man's chest. Tony felt a momentary flash of fear, thinking Gibbs might start to clutch him the way he had that morning when caught up in his nightmare. The memory of not being able to breathe, the desperate need to move washed over him. Tony froze, torn between the need to escape and the desire to stay close to the one person who had always been a source of comfort and security.

"Tony?" Gibbs raised his head, voice rough with sleep, holding a definitive note of concern.

Tony took a shaky breath and forced himself to relax. Gibbs hadn't meant to scare him then, and he didn't mean to do it now. He just had to reassure the older man that everything was all right.

"I'm...I'm o-o-okay." He mentally cursed himself for sounding like a frightened child. No one in his right mind would believe you meant that, you idiot, Tony berated himself.

Gibbs propped himself up on one elbow, shifting so he could make eye contact. "I can feel your heart beat. Can hear your breathing. You never stutter. Something's wrong."

"How long have you been awake?" Tony asked, frowning. He was sure Gibbs had been asleep. Shouldn't the man be less coherent than this? Shouldn't little details like Tony's heart rate and breathing be overlooked?

Gibbs glared at him. "Do not change the subject." Both his tone and gaze softened a second later. "I did something wrong."

"Not wrong." Tony cupped Gibbs' cheek.

Sky blue eyes searched green. "What then?"

Tony gave Gibbs a rueful smile. "You got a hell of a grip, Boss."

Gibbs blanched and started to move away. Tony was quick to move with him, rolling them over and putting the older man under him, pinning him in place. "I didn't say it was a bad thing."

"You didn't have to," Gibbs growled, shadows of guilt and recrimination in his eyes. "I scared you."

"More like surprised me," Tony equivocated. Seeing Gibbs didn't believe him Tony sighed. "Was a little intense this morning when you...," he hesitated, unsure if he should bring up what happened then or not.

"When I had a nightmare," Gibbs finished.

Tony dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Wasn't sure if this would be a repeat of that."

Blue eyes drifted to focus on the bruise Tony knew he still had on his temple. He wished his hair was longer so it would cover the injury. Or that he'd been smarter about escaping Gibbs' hold that morning. If it hadn't left such visible evidence the whole thing would have blown over and been forgotten by now.

"It wasn't your fault, Boss."

"Bullshit." Gibbs tried to pull away, but Tony wouldn't let him. "Damn it, DiNozzo, why can't you justâ€""

"Why can't you?" Tony asked knowing Gibbs was either going to ask him to agree with him or let it go.

Gibbs winced. "I hurt you."

"It's just bruise. It's not a big deal." Tony rolled his eyes. It wasn't even the worst he'd ever gotten. Hell, when he was twelve his father....Tony forcibly shut down that chain of thought. It wouldn't help the situation to bring up stuff from his past.

"It was more than a 'just a bruise' or I wouldn't have scared you a second ago."

"God, you're a stubborn bastard," Tony muttered.

"I prefer tenacious."

Tony snorted. "Obstinate."

"Determined."

"Pigheaded." Tony countered, struggling to suppress a smile. He'd have never expected them to have what was shaping up to be a silly argument. "It's all semantics."

Gibbs smiled. "Beginning to think you were right about that being important."

Tony laughed, amused in spite of himself. He buried his face against Gibbs' chest. "You drive me nuts."

"But you love me anyway."

"Yeah, I do." Tony bit his lip as he realized what he'd just said. It had been so casual and natural. It was a surprisingly easy thing to admit to when Tony thought about how long he'd kept his feelings a secret.

"And I love you."

Tony felt Gibbs place a kiss in his hair. He was glad his face was hidden. There was no way he could hide how that quiet declaration affected him. He was elated and terrified at the same time. The last person to tell say 'I love you' like that and mean it was Caleb.

"You aren't supposed to hurt people you love."

Tony raised his head to protest again, not wanting Gibbs to carry around a burden of misplaced guilt. "You didn't mean to."

"It was unintentional...I agree with you on that point." Blue eyes held green easily. "The bottom line is I did scare you and you got hurt because of me."

"Just the facts then?" Tony snorted, knowing he'd never win if Gibbs insisted on that stance. "What about me dumping you on your ass?"

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. "We'll address that in the gym when we get back."

"Okay...if we can do a tit for tat with that, why not this?" Tony asked, hoping they could find some sort of middle ground. He waggled his eyebrows. "I could always spank you, if it would make you feel better."

Gibbs frowned. "I'm serious."

Tony resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It wasn't like he had any doubts about Gibbs' mental state. The man was making too big a deal out of this.

Tony placed a light kiss on Gibbs' chin. "I like being held by you. I like sleeping with you." He more than liked it, but Tony wasn't sure he should admit to that just yet. How exactly was he supposed to tell Gibbs that he hadn't felt so safe in years without sounding like some sort of needy weakling or messed up moron? Unless he was around Mike and his family, Tony rarely slept deeply.

"I like sleeping with you too," Gibbs admitted quietly.

"Good." Tony smiled softly, pleased they were on the same page. "So let's not make a mountain out of a mole hill here."

"But I could have anotherâ€""

"Yeah, you could." Given the way things went with the job, bad dreams were bound to be a part of their lives. Tony looked away. "Hell, next time it could just as easily be me hurting you."

Sometimes the only way to really get any sleep at all was to wear himself down to the point where exhaustion made it impossible to stay awake and unlikely for him to dream. Not all his nightmares were as intense as dreaming about Caleb, but there were plenty of others. Breaking his leg in college, seeing his partner in Philly almost going off a roof with a jumper he was trying to talk down, trapped in the sewers, nearly dieing from the plague...Tony had lots of demons to choose from.

"I'm willing to take the risk if you are."

Gibbs stared at him silently for so long Tony was worried that maybe the older man wasn't willing to risk it. "You really wouldâ€""

"I really would." No doubts, no hesitation. He wanted this. Had for so damn long it was hard to remember there was a time when he hadn't. He wasn't giving it up now.

Gibbs smiled, blue eyes bright with love and affection. "You never cease to amaze me."

"That a good thing?"

Gibbs chuckled, kissing Tony soundly. "A very good thing."

"Excellent." Tony grinned, delighted to have solved what he didn't think should have ever been a problem in the first place.

Gibbs sobered. There was an uncharacteristic hesitation on his part that let Tony know he was about to broach a heavy topic.

"Speaking of risk?"

"Yeah?" Tony asked, wary, not quite sure what to make of Gibbs' expression.

"Do you want us to be out at work? To have the rest of the team know about us?"

Tony pulled back, staring at Gibbs. The question was honest, not rhetorical or sarcastic. Gibbs was genuinely asking him what he wanted.

Tony swallowed hard. He wasn't expecting that so soon...if at all. Evidently that constant amazement thing worked both ways. Being out was a huge step. Monumental. Hell, they'd only just started this relationship, but the question clearly showed Gibbs was obviously committed. The man just didn't do things in half measures. As reassuring as that knowledge was, Tony still hesitated.

"You'd do that?" Tony bit his lip. "I mean we've only just...it's not been all that long since weâ€""

"It's been four years. It's only recent we took this step," Gibbs countered. He cupped Tony's face with both hands. "I love you. I don't mind if other people know that."

Tony wondered if he'd ever get used to hearing Gibbs say 'I love you'. Somehow he doubted it would ever lose its power.

Gibbs gave Tony a wink and a smile. "Not interested in sharing details of our sex life, but if you want to be out and don't want to hide us being together, I'm fine with it."

Tony considered Gibbs' offer. It was clear he wanted Tony to know he was proud to be with him, not ashamed or embarrassed by their relationship. And Tony appreciated the sentiment. But to tell the rest of the team...Abby, she'd be okay. McGee, probably. Ziva...he couldn't even begin to guess which way she'd jump. And the director would probably fire him out right and possibly Gibbs too. The rest of NCIS... Tony shook his head as images of what happened to Caleb and every hate crime he'd worked coming unbidden to mind.

Gibbs knew how to take care of himself, but even he would have trouble fighting off multiple assailants. Anyone could be overwhelmed or caught by surprise. Their coworkers didn't even have to actively do anything. They could put Gibbs at risk by doing nothing. Their cases went to shit often enough having no back up could be deadly.

"No...no one at work can know." Tony shook his head.

Tony unconsciously tightened his hold on Gibbs, terror making him break out into a cold sweat as thoughts of what could happen ran rampant. Images of Gibbs bloody and broken made it hard to breathe. He had to explain. He had to make sure Gibbs understood. He wasn't a hypocrite either. He wasn't suffering some internal form of homophobia. They couldn't be out. It was too dangerous.

"Not ashamed, Jethro... please don't think that. Never ashamed of you...or us being together." Tony shuddered, shaking his head again. "It's not safe. Too...dangerous. Can't risk it. Christ. Your life. You....Can't." Tony gasped, feeling himself coming close to hyperventilating. "Your career. Noâ€""

"Tony!" Gibbs snapped, breaking in on his rising panic. "It's okay. It. Is. Okay. You're fine. You're safe." He hugged Tony tightly to him, hands moving in soothing strokes up and down the younger man's back. "If you want us to be a secret, that's all right too. Not going to risk your life or career either. If you aren't comfortable with being out, it's okay."

Tony clenched his jaw, holding in a sob and buried his face into Gibbs' chest. He was nearly breathless with relief that Gibbs was okay with their being discrete, was willing to keep their relationship a secret. His own career wasn't an issue. It never had been. He changed jobs enough that having to get another one wouldn't really faze him. Not if doing so would keep Gibbs safe. His own safety wasn't really something Tony worried about. He knew, at least since he was twelve, his father had considered him expendable and worthless; it wasn't until meeting Mike that he realized not everyone thought of him the same way. And sometimes he still had trouble thinking of Mike and his family as anything but an anomaly, exceptions to the rule.

"I've got you," Gibbs whispered. "I've got you. It's okay."

Tony struggled to get his breathing under control. He relaxed into Gibbs' hold, finding the same sense of safety there he'd found last night after his nightmare.

"Hope we don't do this sort of emotional roller coaster thing too often." He laughed weakly. "Don't think I can take it."

Gibbs gently forced Tony's head up. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."

"I know." Tony understood. He hadn't made the offer trying to scare the hell out of him. Gibbs didn't need to apologize or explain.

"Thank you."

Tony blinked. "For what?"

"Everything."

Tony blushed. "Shameless romantic."

Gibbs placed a quick kiss on the tip of Tony's nose. "And damn proud of it."

Tony chuckled. "Quite the pair we are."

"Yes, we are."

Gibbs' statement was rife with double meaning, and Tony knew he meant it to be. He nodded, accepting all that was said and unsaid.

"You want to get up and see what Mike left us in the fridge?" It seemed like a good idea to move on to a lighter topic, give them both a little breathing room.

Gibbs leered, blue eyes twinkling, playing along. "Would rather see if his shower has room for two."

Tony fluttered his eyelashes coyly, delighted Gibbs was willing to follow his lead. "I like the way you think, Jethro Gibbs."

"Good." Gibbs patted Tony's bare ass. "Let's go have us a little fun. Get cleaned up and then we'll eat."

Tony laughed. They would probably do it in that order too. There were advantages to having a lover with an attention to detail.

TBC

Chapter Text

Gibbs closed his cell phone, ending the call. Until Abby commented on it, Gibbs hadn't realized just how happy and contented he sounded. Letting her think his emotional state was the product of recovering his memory was easier than trying to explain his new relationship with Tony.

Gibbs grimaced. Easier, but not completely honest. It felt wrong to keep the reason for his happiness from Abby. 'Sin of omission' the priest he had in grade school would have called it. Still, not telling her or anyone else at the office was essentially what he'd promised Tony. He was a man of his word.

He should have realized how Tony would react to the suggestion of them being 'out'. Given how Caleb had died....Tony's response was completely understandable. Gibbs was very relieved he'd been able to fix that snafu so quickly, without doing irreparable damage.

He had never been good with words when it came to affairs of the heart. Not even with Shannon. Usually things he'd messed up in the past took a lot of time and effort to fix...assuming they could be repaired at all. How the hell he could have made it to his current age without getting any better was a mystery to him. His grandmother's expression of 'too soon old and too late wise' definitely seemed to fit. It certainly explained how he'd ended up divorced three times.

Gibbs shook his head, expression rueful. All he'd wanted to do was let Tony know he was committed to him, to 'them'...and he ended up scaring the hell out of him. From now on, Gibbs decided, he'd keep any more gestures of devotion to physical. Actions spoke louder anyway, or so he'd been told, and action had never been a problem. That, he could do.

He smiled, thinking about his conversation with Abby. He hadn't lied to her about recovering his memories. There were still holes, but not nearly as many as there had been. He didn't feel quite so much like he was missing fifteen years of his life. It was more like he was missing moments, the sort of thing he might genuinely be expected to have forgotten. It was progress.

He looked up when he heard the door open. Tony smiled, offering him a coffee mug. Gibbs took it, breathing in the rich aroma.

"You want me to call McGee?"

Gibbs shook his head. "Abby has that covered."

Tony snickered. "He's staying at her place."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "I didn't ask."

"You didn't have to."

Gibbs turned away, hiding his smile with the coffee mug, taking a sip of the near scalding liquid. He sighed in satisfaction when he found the brew to be just to his liking. He was well below his usual daily consumption. Strangely, it didn't bother him as much as would have at the office.

He sighed again when he felt Tony wrap his arms around his waist. Gibbs let his back rest against Tony's chest, enjoying the simple comfort of being close to one another. It was a novel experience for him to be held by another. Usually he was the one offering comfort, supporting.

Tony rested his chin on Gibbs' shoulder. "You wanted to tell her."

It wasn't a question, but Gibbs answered anyway. "Yeah, I did." He entwined the fingers of his left hand with Tony's, pulling their joined hands upward so they rested over his heart. "She wanted to know why I sounded so happy."

"What did you tell her?"

Gibbs understood the question wasn't the result of a lack of trust or evidence of suspicion. It was a simple curiosity on Tony's part. No more, no less. It was humbling to realize just how much faith the younger man put in Gibbs' willingness to keep his word.

"I didn't really tell her anything.' Gibbs admitted. "I let her assume it was because I'm getting my memory back."

"Sin of omission," Tony murmured.

Gibbs blinked. "You know about that?"

"You weren't the only one brought up Catholic." Tony chuckled, squeezing Gibbs' hand. "Although, I'm more lapsed than anything else at this point. Only time I go anymore is Christmas Mass when I can go with Mike's family."

Gibbs winced as the conversation Mike and Tony had over breakfast when they first arrived came to mind. Tony had missed out on that tradition last year because of him. He wouldn't miss out on it this year. Gibbs would make sure of that.

"You still want to tell her, don't you?"

"I'd like to," Gibbs confessed. He wasn't going to lie. Somehow he didn't think Tony would believe him if he did. "Felt wrong to leave her out of what is the best thing in my life."

Tony's soft gasp of surprise registered just before he hugged Gibbs tighter. Gibbs smiled. Okay, maybe he didn't totally suck when it came to words.

"After we've been back a while...gotten settled at work and everything...maybe...maybe then we could tell her."

Tony's hesitant offer warmed Gibbs more than the coffee had. He knew just how much it took for Tony to even suggest it. He turned his head to place a soft kiss on Tony's cheek.

"Whenever you're ready." Gibbs kissed him again. "I'm not in any hurry."

"Thank you."

It was far too small a thing he'd just granted to warrant the level of gratitude he could hear in Tony's voice. Gibbs let it go rather than call him on it. He hoped he'd have the good sense to be just as grateful if he ever needed Tony be willing to accommodate a simple request.

Tony sighed softly. "I don't want to go back."

Gibbs agreed with the sentiment. Staying here, just the two of them, would be perfect. "We don't have to."

"And just what the hell would we do with ourselves if we didn't?" Tony laughed lightly. "Can't see you settling into a quiet life of doing nothing."

"Why not?"

"You really need an answer to that?"

Gibbs sipped his coffee. "No, not really."

"Didn't think so." Tony nuzzled his neck, place a kiss along his spine. "S'okay. Being driven and active aren't bad things."

Honestly, Gibbs couldn't picture Tony doing nothing but hanging out at the cabin either. It was a nice place to rest and relax, but it definitely lacked most of the things that Gibbs had always thought it would take to make Tony really comfortable. He said as much.

"After awhile I would miss my movies. Cable TV. Having pizza delivered. Running water at my fingertips instead of having to walk for it." Tony snickered. "But if I ever got really serious about staying for more than a few days, the cabin could be updated to include all that stuff."

"You ever stay longer than a few days?"

"Once or twice."

Gibbs wasn't sure what to make of that non-committal answer. He wasn't certain if he should push for more clarification or not. Unwilling to risk disrupting the comfortable mood they'd established since leaving the cabin for Mike's house, Gibbs decided to let it go.

"Most of the time a day or two is all I need," Tony offered quietly a moment later.

Gibbs hesitated before responding, weighing his words carefully. "You said something about not having the balance down yet."

"It's like recharging a battery. Let it go too low and you can't recharge it at all." Tony sighed, leaning into Gibbs'. "Do it too often and the charge doesn't stick."

"And you don't think you've worked out the timing yet?"

"I know I haven't."

Tony pulled away, moving so he stood in front of Gibbs. Although, Gibbs missed the heat at his back and the closeness, he was glad he could now see Tony's face. He needed to be able to read his expression, not just the tone of his voice.

Green eyes met blue. "Once in a while I let it go too long."

"More than junk food and beer can fix?"

"Yeah." Tony shrugged one shoulder in a move that Gibbs recognized as forced nonchalance.

"I should have come here after the whole plague thing. Definitely after....Kate." Tony sighed and looked away. "But there was so much going onâ€""

"All of us should have taken some time after losing Kate." Gibbs cupped Tony's cheek, drawing green eyes back to him. "Working the case and finding Ari wasâ€""

"I know." Tony turned his head to place a kiss in Gibb's palm. "And after we got him, there was Boone to be dealt with."

Gibbs nodded slowly. After Boone there was another case, another mystery to solve, another puzzle to put together. It was always something demanding their time, needing their attention, requiring their intellect and energy. It was one of the reasons Gibbs loved his job. It challenged him daily.

And working was how Gibbs handled grief, stress, anger, frustration. The job always gave him something to focus on, something he could affect and control. He never gave whether or not it was the right solution for his team a thought.

Gibbs blinked as a flash of memory came to him. He'd been waiting in his car for Tony to come home. He remembered thinking how much better Tony looked when he appeared, suddenly understanding of the amount of stress the younger man had been under, how close to breaking he had probably been, how careless Gibbs had been with Tony's welfare.

"I'm sorry, Tony, I should have realized--"

"Hey, not your fault." Tony smiled. "I worked like that before I met you. You can't take the blame for my messed up mental state. I was nuts before you met me."

"You are not messed up or nuts," Gibbs argued firmly. Tony might be a bit unorthodox in his approach but he wasn't crazy....at least no more so than Gibbs himself.

"No, I'm not." Tony's smile warmed. "Neither are you."

Gibbs smiled back. "I don't remember you being this good at reading my mind."

"I was always this good." Tony grinned outright. "I just wasn't as vocal about it." He leaned in and gave Gibbs a quick kiss.

Gibbs sighed when Tony pulled back. "I'm going to miss this."

"What?"

"Getting a kiss whenever you feel like giving me one."

"Yeah, me too." Tony ducked his head, a faint blush warming his cheeks. "But we couldn't exactly get away with that at the office even if everyone knew."

Gibbs nodded. There were more than just his personal rules to consider when it came to getting involved with a coworker. If Shepard was gung ho about the regs, she'd reassign one of them to another team the moment she found out. Assuming of course she didn't fire one of them out right. Gibbs knew he could safely bet on who she'd elect to get rid of....and it wasn't him.

"Everything at the office stays the same then?" It was more a request for agreement than an outright query.

"Seems best to keep it that way," Tony said, his brief hesitation only noticeable to someone who knew him well.

Gibbs nodded. He voiced his opinion of Shepard's likely reaction, wanting Tony to know their being discrete at work was likely a good thing. It was a matter of good sense, if they were going to be able to continue working together....something they clearly both wanted.

Tony grimaced, nodding. "I'd be lucky if she gave me a chance to clean out my desk."

Gibbs wished he could argue on Shepard's behalf but he knew Tony was right. She would see his involvement with Tony as an excuse to meddle even more in with his team. Why the hell she couldn't find enough to do with her own damn job was anyone's guess. Morrow seemed to find the demands of being Director to be more than enough to keep him busy.

"What about....everything else?" Gibbs asked, knowing he wasn't being very clear, but confident Tony would be able to follow him.

"I can tone down the flirting." Tony shrugged carelessly, obviously not bothered by it. "Haven't been doing it as much lately anyway."

Gibbs forced his features to stay neutral. He didn't want his surprise at not even noticing that little detail to register. It was a wasted effort if the knowing look Tony gave him was anything to go by.

"I can let it slide because you still don't remember everything." Tony waggled his eyebrows, clearly amused. "And I'm sure you were quick to note everyone I did flirt with...if not the ones I didn't."

Gibbs could feel his face warm. "I may have."

"Yeah, and the Pope may be Catholic."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "Shaddup."

"Don't sweat it, Boss." Tony snickered. "You were supposed to see what you saw, and miss what you didn't."

Gibbs glared at Tony. "I should be smarter than that, damn it."

"You are smarter than that." Tony shook his head. "If it's any consolation, I didn't see you any clearer than you were seeing me."

Gibbs snorted. "Mutual blindness is generally not a good thing."

"Generally, no." Tony used the knuckles of his right hand to lightly caress Gibbs' cheek. "But in this case, temporary, selective sight was necessary. Don't think either of us were ready for more right away."

Gibbs felt his eyes drifting closed as he enjoyed the delicate touch. Tony had nice hands...really nice hands. "Timing is everything."

"That's what they tell me."

Gibbs opened his eyes when Tony withdrew his hand. Tony bit his lip, expression thoughtful. "What about after work? Weekends?"

Gibbs sipped his coffee, buying time to formulate an answer. He wanted to respect Tony's need for them to be careful. They couldn't spend every minute together, no matter how much that was what he wanted.

"We both work late," Gibbs observed slowly. "No one but security sees us leave...or come in for that matter. No one knows for sure where we spend the night or what we do during our off hours."

It wasn't like anyone at the office really gave a damn about their personal lives. His usually gruff nature kept anyone from asking Gibbs outright. And Tony's stories had been circulated enough everyone assumed they knew what he did on his off hours and where he went.

"Don't think anyone is going to feel a sudden compulsion to ask about where we go on our off duty hours," Gibbs opined. "Especially if there is no obvious change in our schedules and habits."

"Point." Tony nodded. "Being at your place won't be a problem then...because I can always forward my home phone to my cell. Most work calls come in on it anyway."

"Can you show me how to do that?"

Tony blinked at him in surprise. "Why?"

"So I can spend the night at your place." He smiled. "Doesn't always have to be mine."

Tony laughed. Gibbs had clearly surprised and delighted him with his offer. It earned him another quick kiss. "I'll forward your phone for you."

"Perfect." Gibbs grinned. They could work out how often they spent nights at which place and where to park the cars later. Right now he'd rather spend a little more time indulging in the freedom their current location afforded them.

"Don't suppose I could interest you in trying out that bed again?"

"Don't think my interest ever waned." Tony smiled, giving Gibbs an unabashedly eager look. "A repeat performance?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of maybe reversing our roles?"

Tony shivered, green eyes glowing. "You want me to top?"

Gibbs leaned in close, nibbling on Tony's earlobe before breathing across the tender flesh. "Yes."

"Finish your coffee." Tony's voice was rough and husky, making Gibbs' shiver with anticipation. The younger man definitely had one hell of a bedroom voice.

Gibbs downed his coffee in one long swallow. He was eager to find out for himself if being taken was as pleasurable as Tony had made it seam earlier.

"It is." Tony whispered, reading Gibbs' thoughts with astonishing accuracy as he walked away, heading for the cabin.

"You going to prove that?" Gibbs challenged, moving to keep pace.

"Oh yes." Tony leered, eyes hot and hungry. "I'll make good on that statement. Never fear."

Fear? Oh he wasn't afraid. Gibbs shivered in anticipation. He was looking forward to it. Definitely.

Chapter Text

Gibbs moved gingerly as he repacked his bag. He was a little stiff, and more than a little sore, but he couldn't stop smiling. The dull ache and each little twinge reminded him of just how good it had been last night.

He probably wouldn't even be sore if he hadn't been so eager to try it again. Making love twice in less than an hour wasn't a big deal when he was twenty, but as his body now reminded him, he wasn't twenty any more. He winced as he crouched down to retrieve a sock from under the bed. His thighs were protesting more than his ass.

"You okay?"

Gibbs looked up over his shoulder, grinning as he stood. He tossed the orphan sock into his bag. "I'm good."

"Moving kind of slow." Tony eyed him, doubt and concern readily apparent in his eyes. "Maybe we shouldn't have gone for a second round last nigâ€""

"We sure as hell should have," Gibbs interrupted. He closed the distance between them, cupping Tony's face with both hands. "I'm looking forward to doing it again."

"Really?"

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "You had better not be fishing for compliments."

"I wasn't." Tony chuckled, eyes sparkling. "But now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind a few."

Gibbs snorted. "Like you didn't get enough affirmation last night." Tony was definitely one of the most considerate and talented lovers Gibbs had ever known. It was a heady feeling to have his wants and needs be the primary focus rather than the other way around.

Tony grinned. "Think you scared some of the local wildlife with noises you made."

"Wasn't just me." Gibbs lightly patted Tony's cheek. He had made the younger man the focus of his own skill as a lover, using everything he knew and had recently learned, wanting Tony to experience the same sort of satisfaction, pleasure, and connection that Gibbs had.

"No, you weren't the only one making noise." Tony snickered. "Ziva says she's a screamer, but I'm betting she's got nothing on us."

Gibbs blinked. "Ziva's a screamer?"

"So she says," Tony shrugged. "I don't know first hand."

Gibbs growled, more in jest than with intent. "You damn sure better not know first hand."

"No worries, Jethro." Tony smiled warmly. "She's not my type."

Gibbs wasn't truly worried but it was nice to hear Tony say it anyway. Tony gave him a wink. "You're my only type now."

"Same to you," Gibbs smiled, placing a quick kiss on Tony's cheek.

Tony ducked his head, uncharacteristically shy. That little boy smile was something Gibbs wouldn't mind seeing more of.

"You got everything?" Tony asked, as he glanced around the room, clearly looking for a way to move the conversation away from such an emotionally charged topic. Gibbs knew the younger man wasn't comfortable with large doses of emotional honestly. I'm not either, Gibbs thought with an internal smile. They really were a matched set in a lot of ways.

"Just need to strip the bed and remake it." He would have done it while Tony was making sure the main room was back in order, but Gibbs had no idea where Tony kept the linens, or if he even had another set.

"We can leave that." Tony shook his head. "Mike will take care of it."

"He does your laundry when you're here too?" Gibbs had asked, not quite sure why he was surprised. The man had cooked for them; laundry was a lot less work, it just seemed a lot more personal.

"I pay Mike to take care of the cabin when I'm not here. He makes sure everything is in good shape." Tony shrugged. "I think he started including laundry service about the time I helped Gabe apply for grant money for his Masters project a few years ago." He held out his hands as though balancing something between them. "More of that tit for tat stuff I mentioned yesterday."

"You got Gabe grant money?" Gibbs arched an eyebrow.

"No. I didn't get it for him. He had a sound project...good design and useful to a lot of people." Tony shook his head, looking more insulted on Gabe's behalf than his own. "I just helped him out."

Gibbs knew just having a good idea wasn't enough to guarantee funding. Like a lot of things, it wasn't what you knew but who you knew that usually got the ball rolling. He wondered just what it was Tony had done, and it must have shown in his _expression.

"All I really did was track down a few organizations that had money he could apply for." Tony bit his lower lip. "I made a few phone calls. He did the rest."

Tony nervously biting his lower lip piqued Gibbs' curiosity even more. "How much did he get?"

Tony looked away. "About twenty thousand a year or so...for three years."

"Twenty thousand a year?" Gibbs repeated, staring at Tony. "For three years?"

"Not like it was my money, Boss." Tony laughed, fidgeting a little, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "Besides, for research that's actually pretty cheap. Just look at what DOD spends in a month. Their R and D budget has to be huge. Hell, they probably spend that amount in just a day."

Gibbs gaze narrowed. It was never a good sign when Tony babbled. "Whose money was it?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "It wasn't illegal, if that's what you're thinking."

"Didn't think it was." Gibbs countered calmly, raising his hands palms out in a 'no harm intended' gesture. "I just wondered where it came from."

Tony mumbled something Gibbs wouldn't quite make out. He glared. "You want to try that again?"

Tony sighed, clearing his throat. "Two government organizations and one private foundation."

"And they were..." Gibbs made a 'go on' motion with one hand.

"EPA. Fish and Wildlife Service." Tony ducked his head. "And the DiNozzo Family Foundation for Higher Education."

Gibbs cocked his head to one side. "Your family has aâ€""

"Yeah. Pretty sizeable too." Tony glanced back at him before his eyes once more darted away. "It was set up after my grandfather died."

"You went to school on an athletic scholarship." Gibbs didn't quite ask, but the question was implied. Why hadn't he gotten a grant?

"The way my grandfather set it up...no one from the family can be awarded a grant. Guess he thought that would keep the family from abusing the charity."

Gibbs pursed his lips. "Did it work?"

Tony nodded once, firmly. "The Foundation is one of the only neutral territories you'll find when it comes money and the DiNozzo family."

Tony squared his shoulders, green eyes meeting blue. "It is common for family members to propose applicants. Truth is, getting the nod from a family member is almost the only way anyone can be considered for a grant."

Tony ran a hand through his hair. "All I had to do was call the trustee...who is my third cousin by way of marriage, in case you were wondering. She's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but her job really exists just to make sure someone from the family is 'actively involved'. I'm pretty sure she didn't even know who I was when I called, just made note of my name and who I was submitting for consideration. A committee actually reviews the list and decides who to award the money to."

He grimaced. "When my father found out I was the one who had Gabe's name added to the list he was....well, not happy."

Gibbs considered that. What exactly did 'not happy' mean? Just what had Tony's father said or done? Before he could ask Tony moved on, something Gibbs was sure the younger man did on purpose, deliberately keeping him from asking questions Tony likely didn't want to answer.

"By then Gabe was already getting money from EPA and the Foundation liked the press aspect of funding a grad student working on improving the environment." Tony snorted derisively. "Way they acted you'd have thought they'd funded his whole project."

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. "How much did they actually give him?"

"Of the sixty thousand Gabe got to study how well efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay were working," Tony frowned, "it came out to be less than ten thousand. EPA and the Fish and Wildlife paid for the bulk of it, but they wanted to use his data as a base line for more studies, so it was a good investment for them."

Gibbs nodded. "You make a few calls there too?"

"Got a frat brother who works for EPA. He knew someone at Fish and Wildlife." The corner of Tony's eyes crinkled in an almost smile. "Kate always thought it was juvenile to stay in touch with people who were little more than drinking buddies, but networking is a skill I don't think she ever fully appreciated."

"No, she didn't."

Gibbs knew Kate viewed networking as using people. And in a way it was. But in Tony's case, he wasn't the sort to stay in touch simply because people might be of use later on; he stayed in touch because he liked a person, no other reason. Ziva, on the other hand, only seemed inclined to stay in touch only with people who were of use. She had contacts, but didn't seem to have many friends.

"Kate didn't get networking and Ziva doesn't quite get the whole friendship thing." Tony laughed softly. He once again had no trouble following Gibbs' unvoiced thoughts. "Sometimes I think she's the bizzaro world version of Kate."

Both Gibbs' eyebrows rose. "Bizzaro world?"

"Alternate dimension in the Superman comics."

"Never was much into comics."

"Figured." Tony smiled. "Graphic novels aren't really your genre. Now Abby on the other hand--"

"Shaddup." Gibbs lightly cuffed the back of Tony's head.

"Keep telling you that doesn't work." Tony grinned. "C'mon, let's go see what Mike made for breakfast."

It made sense to eat before heading back. Besides, Gibbs didn't really think leaving without talking to Mike would be an option. He rubbed the side of his neck self-consciously, wishing he had a turtle neck.

"There are no marks, Gibbs."

But there should be, Gibbs thought, unsure if he was disappointed or relieved. Tony had lavished a lot of attention one that sensitive spot just below his jaw, and Gibbs had loved it. The memory of the soft touch of Tony's lips and tongue there made him shiver.

Blue eyes sought green. "I wouldn't mind if you had left one."

Tony huffed out a soft laugh. "I will when you don't have to worry about Mike teasing you."

Gibbs snorted. "Like he won't any way." The man would probably take one look at them and know exactly what they'd done last night.

"No reason to make it too easy for him." Tony winked.

Gibbs smiled and nodded, even though he knew Mike's teasing wasn't the real reason. The rest of the team knew Gibbs and Tony had spent the last few days together. It would be too hard to explain away proof of Gibbs having sex without telling the truth. Better not to have to explain anything at all.

He was relieved that the same limitations didn't apply to his marking Tony. No one would even think to question how or why Tony had a hickey or two. Nor would they question his showing up in a turtle neck when it was really too warm to wear one. The younger man's many stories of sexual conquest and flirtatious habits would certainly work in their favor.

Gibbs noticed the marks he'd made yesterday, their first time together, had faded. They were barely noticeable. But Gibbs had no doubt that Mike would spot them immediately. He wondered if he'd be getting a repeat of yesterday.

Tony chuckled. "Relax, Boss, Mike only threatens once."

That's sort of what I'm afraid of, Gibbs thought, resisting the urge to grimace. He didn't want Mike to make good on his earlier threat. Not that he couldn't handle himself; he was as good as he ever was when it came to that, but he really didn't want to be forced into situation he couldn't win. If he hurt Mike, Tony would be pissed, if he didn't defend himself, Mike would probably kill him.

Tony waved a hand in front of Gibbs' face pulling him from his thoughts. "Mike knows the difference between a love bite and a bruise."

"I sure as hell hope so," Gibbs muttered.

"C'mon ya big, badass Marine," Tony laughed, "I'll make sure he doesn't bite you."

"You'd better," Gibbs pointed a finger at Tony, stifling an urge to laugh.

"Scout's honor."

Gibbs snorted. "You were never a scout."

"I was." Tony grinned. "For almost a week."

"A week?" Gibbs slung his bag over his shoulder.

"Den mother didn't like my trying to score brownie points." Tony shrugged, grabbing his own bag. Gibbs was sure there was more to the story, but he let it go. He was learning to pick his battles when it came to Tony's past.

Tony glanced around the cabin once more. Gibbs did the same, making sure everything was as neat and tidy as it had been when they arrived. Everything was in order except for the bedroom. It grated on his organized nature to leave a mess behind, but he forced himself not to look back at the bedroom as they headed out the door.

Tony made sure the door was secured. He didn't lock it, but then there wasn't anything to steal. Someone determined to gain access wouldn't be deterred by a locked door. The only key Gibbs had seen was for the gate. It would keep anyone from driving to the cabin, making anyone interested in the cabin have to work a little harder to get to it.

They walked together down the path, stopping only to relock the gate. Tony looked back up the trail, sighing softly. He smiled, patting the gate post.

"Lot of good memories here," he murmured.

Gibbs wasn't quite sure what to make of Tony's tone. It was a strange blend of wistful and contemplative. He raised a hand to lightly cup the back of Tony's neck, massaging gently with is fingers. "I'm glad you shared it with me."

"Yeah, me too." Tony leaned over to give him a quick kiss. "Got more good memories now."

"Got some of my own too." Gibbs grinned, feeling a suddenly lighthearted and warm. He'd done more than recover the last fifteen years of his life.

Tony laughed, rolling his eyes. "Shameless romantic."

"Takes one to know one."

Tony snickered. "Now I know what you were like as a kid."

Gibbs laughed. He reached out to lightly slap the back of Tony's head, but the younger man dodged. He stuck his tongue out. Gibbs had no trouble picturing his senior agent as a five year old. He liked the picture his imagination presented, and found himself wishing he had the same sort of time in with Tony that the younger man had with Mike. It would have been nice to see Tony grow into the man he was now.

Being envious was stupid. He might not have known Tony when he was younger, but he knew him now. And he had a relationship with Tony that Mike would never experience. It was a fair trade off.

They walked to Mike's driveway together. Tony popped the truck of the Mustang, lightly tossing his bag into it. Gibbs followed suit. He made a note to be sure to repack his bag with clean clothes when they got back.

The screen door opening announced Mike's presence on the porch. He leaned against one of the support posts, the same way he had the morning they first arrived. Warm brown eyes regarded them both.

Mike cocked his head to one side as Tony climbed the steps. "You been wrestling with a vacuum cleaner?"

Tony gave his friend a narrowed eyed look before grinning. "Think we've got a pot and kettle moment here." He reached out to lightly touch a mark on the side of Mike's neck. "Looks like date number two went a lot better than date number one."

Mike slapped Tony's hand away, color rising to his cheeks. "Maybe."

"Maybe?" Tony laughed. "Yeah...like the sun might rise in the east. Like the Pope may be Catholic. Like--"

"I don't care how long you keep that up, I'm not telling you about my date."

"Spoil sport."

Mike slung an arm over Tony's shoulders, pulling him into a loose hug before he rubbed his knuckles against the top of Tony's head. "If I give you details, you have to do the same."

Tony grinned broadly. "Deal."

Gibbs felt like protesting, until he realized the arrangement worked in their favor. Mike couldn't get any information unless he was willing to give up some as well. It should keep the mutual embarrassment to a minimum.

"Breakfast is ready." Mike smiled at Gibbs before leading the way into the kitchen.

The seating arrangements at the table were the same as before. Gibbs winced when he carefully took his seat. It earned him a raised eyebrow and a knowing look from Mike when Tony sat with no hesitation. Gibbs glared, chin rising a bit as he silently dared the other man to comment. Mike just smiled and offered him a coffee mug.

"You want cream or sugar?"

"No, thank you." Gibbs breathed in the rich aroma of his coffee before taking a sip.

"How was the movie?" Tony asked, passing the bowl of fried potatoes to Mike minus a large portion that now took up residence on Tony's plate.

"I should have made more of those," Mike commented as eyed the half empty bowl before taking it and spooning some on to his own plate. "Movie was pretty good. Special effects were even better than last time, and the storyline stayed fairly true to the comics."

Mike passed offered the bowl to Gibbs. "Looks like you guys had a good day...and night."

"We did." Gibbs and Tony answered together, sharing a quick smile across the table.

Mike snickered. "You can't give me shit about moving too slow any more." He pointed a finger at Tony. "Took you five freaking years, man."

Tony shrugged. "Momma C says good things are worth waiting for."

Gibbs could feel his face warm, undeniably pleased at being classified as a good thing. Another knowing look from Mike made him want to kick the man under the table. Mike's eyes warmed and he winked at Gibbs.

"You make another date with Heather?" Tony asked, passing the plate of ham as he reached for the scrambled eggs.

"Next week." Mike sighed, taking the plate and offering it to Gibbs. "She's got tickets to see the ballet."

Tony blinked. "Ballet?"

Given Mike's tone and Tony's _expression it was a safe bet ballet was not really the other man's thing. Gibbs could relate. His second wife had dragged him to all sorts of things with the intent of making the Marine more cultured. He had actually enjoyed the plays they'd gone to see and the orchestral performances. But opera was nothing more than caterwauling in his opinion and ballet was just silly.

Gibbs gave Mike a sympathetic smile. "Might not be too bad."

"Like a root canal." Mike shook his head. "If it were the Bolshoy or something like that, I could probably enjoy it. But this is some local group her cousin is involved in."

"Could make you the hero of the hour, Mike." Tony grinned waggling his eyebrows. "Betting she doesn't want to go to this thing either. This way she doesn't have to suffer alone."

"Misery loves company." Mike snorted. "Now there is a great foundation for a relationship."

"You are such a pessimist." Tony laughed. "Could see it as overcoming adversity together."

"I'll let you know if we plant a flag," Mike said dryly.

"I'd be more interested in song and story," Tony responded with another chuckle.

"A ballad?" Gibbs asked, looking at Tony, unable to stifle his amusement.

"Well, we can't all have dragons to slay." Green eyes sparkled. "But I'm sure there is a castle Mike could storm if need be."

"Might need to polish the armor first." Gibbs couldn't resist noting.

"Definitely." Tony grinned. "No one sings about a knight in dull armor after all."

"Never really made sense to me, to be honest." Gibbs shook his head. "Shiny armor just makes you more of a target."

"You and Sammy should get along just fine." Mike rolled his eyes. "He says the same thing."

"Don't let him fool you, Mike." Tony smiled. "Jethro is a romantic at heart."

Mike raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Really."

Gibbs kicked Tony lightly under the table, but his lover didn't look the least bit repentant.

"Nice to know we aren't the only ones." Mike smiled. "Welcome to the family, Gibbs."

It was lighthearted, but Gibbs could tell Mike genuinely meant it. "Thanks."

Mike sipped his coffee. "Tony tells me you're building a boat in your basement."

"Yeah, I am."

Easily setting aside discussion on their respective love lives, Mike asked Gibbs about his construction technique and the type of wood he was using. It was rare that Gibbs had such a knowledgeable audience or someone who shared his passion for wood. He caught Tony smiling at him and realized his lover didn't mind that the conversation left him behind.

Knowing his best friend and his lover shared a common interest was probably reassuring to him. God knows, it's reassuring to me, Gibbs thought, smiling back at Tony. He had a feeling he'd need an ally or two when it came to meeting the rest of Mike's family.

Chapter Text

Gibbs eyed the cookie jar on Tony's kitchen counter. It was shaped like a teddy bear wearing a number fourteen Ohio State jersey. It wasn't the shape of the jar or the fact fourteen was Tony's number when he played football in college that he found interesting; the fascination lay with what Gibbs knew as inside. Mike had sent them home with two dozen chocolate chip cookies.

Gibbs glanced toward the living room. He could hear the TV. He had no idea what Tony had on, but he'd said something about picking out a movie. Gibbs figured the younger man was sufficiently engrossed he wouldn't notice Gibbs helping himself to a cookie or...three.

He reached for the top of the jar, freezing when he heard Tony clearing his throat behind him. Gibbs cursed silently. Damn. So close.

"You know, Mike gave those to both of us." Tony stepped closer, wrapping his arms around Gibbs' waist, resting his chin on Gibbs' shoulder. "You don't have to make some stealth attack if you want one. Just help yourself."

"Takes all the fun out of it," Gibbs mumbled.

Tony chuckled and placed a kiss at the base of Gibbs' neck. "Not everything is a mission, Jethro."

When Tony let go and stepped back, Gibbs resisted the urge to grab him and hold him close. He liked the feel of Tony next to him, had gotten used to it over the past three days. But now that they were back in the 'real world' he thought it best to get used to forcing himself to maintain some level of control. It was good practice for when they went back to the office. He'd need to be able to resist the urge to touch Tony in any way that might reveal their new relationship.

"You want milk?" Tony asked, already moving toward the refrigerator.

"Yeah." Gibbs grinned, delighted he'd get a chance to have Mike's cookies the way he'd wanted to the first time around.

Tony had made a point of stopping at a convenience store on the way back to his apartment. He'd picked up milk, bread and two pints of ice cream. Just the necessities he'd called them.

Gibbs opened the cookie jar, pulling out a handful of cookies. Tony poured two tall classes of milk, before glancing over at Gibbs again.

"Hope one or two of those is for me."

Gibbs felt his face warm. He hadn't actually thought to share them. He reached into the jar for a few more.

Tony laughed softly. "Mike's cookies have always had a limited shelf life."

Gibbs took a bite out of one. He sighed. They were so damn good. He wondered what he'd have to promise Mike to get him to make more.

"I'm pretty sure he can be bribed with some of that wood you got in your basement." Tony offered him a glass of milk, grinning. "Mike's always looking for new stuff to work with."

"Stop reading my mind," Gibbs ordered, taking the glass even as he made note of what might qualify as a good bribe.

"Wasn't all that hard, Boss." Tony snickered. "Not like I haven't had the same thought. More than once."

"What did you offer him?" Maybe there was something better than wood that Gibbs should know about. He didn't want to risk being turned down.

Tony smiled slyly, taking a cookie for himself and dunking it in his class of milk. "Not telling."

"I can find out."

"Well, you are a trained investigator," Tony observed casually, both his tone and expression full of mischief. "I'd expect you to be able to ferret out a detail like that."

"Ferret?" Gibbs arched an eyebrow.

"Hey you were the one talking about weasels just the other day." Tony bit into his soggy cookie with obvious delight.

"Completely different context."

"God, I should hope so." Tony snickered, dodging Gibbs playful swat. "Bring your milk and cookies. The show is about to start."

"What are we watching?" Gibbs followed Tony into his living room, glad they decided to stay at his place tonight. The younger man's apartment was definitely more comfortable than Gibbs' place. Gibbs couldn't remember the last time he'd sat on his couch or had more than coffee at his kitchen table. He'd have to pick up a few necessities of his own when he made it back to his place.

"D.O.A."

Gibbs blinked. Dead on arrival was the name of a movie? Had to be. He couldn't see Tony selecting some sort of documentary for them to watch.

Tony must have caught his expression. He smiled as he explained. "Yes, D.O.A is a movie. Dennis Quad, Meg Ryan, Daniel Stern. 1988. Not quite a film noir but close."

Tony somehow managed to flop on the couch without spilling his milk. "Would have been better if they'd stayed true to noir and left out some of that pop soundtrack stuff, but overall, it's not bad." Tony shrugged, taking another bite from his cookie. "Plot's a bit weak, but the core idea was actually pretty innovative."

"What's it about?" Gibbs sat down next to Tony, close enough he could lean against the younger man. He sighed when Tony laid an arm over his shoulders and pulled him closer.

"Dexter Cornell, played by Dennis Quad, has to figure out who killed him and why in twenty four hours."

Gibbs shook his head. "The guy's dead and investigates his own murder?"

"Yeah." Tony grinned. "Like I said, the plot's a little weak but I think you'll like it."

Gibbs wasn't too sure about that, but he'd take Tony's word for it. He figured being able to snuggle in close to Tony for two hours was a fair trade off if he hated the movie.

To his surprise, Gibbs found himself enjoying the story as it unfolded on Tony's sinfully expensive plasma screen TV. About half way through the movie they'd shifted positions a bit so that Gibbs' back rested against Tony's chest, and Tony's long legs wrapped around Gibbs, his chin on Gibbs' shoulder. The cookies were little more than crumbs and empty milk glasses were left on the end table.

As the final scene unfolded, Gibbs snorted in disgusted. "He murdered his friend so no one would know he couldn't write his own damn book?"

"We had a surgeon set a guy on fire so no one would know she made a mistake," Tony noted, his tone dry.

Gibbs grimaced. "Point."

"And let's not forget the dead guy in period dress sealed in a Civil War coffin so the people who killed him could get access to a treasure map in a safety deposit box."

Gibbs rolled his eyes, looking over his shoulder at Tony. "Not all our casesâ€""

"Or the private detective looking to prove an accident was murder so he could collect on a million dollar reward."

Gibbs turned, shifting so he could look directly at Tony. "Okay so a few of our casesâ€""

"A few?" Tony arched an eyebrow. "More than a few, Boss."

Gibbs snorted. "There weren't that many."

Tony arched an eyebrow. "A man had his wife and daughter kidnapped so he could steal two million dollars from the federal government."

Gibbs jaw tightened, recalling the details of that case clearly. He still couldn't understand how a man could risk something so precious, so utterly irreplaceable, for money. It made no sense to him.

"Then there was the kid with a bomb strapped to his chest holding a high school home room hostage so drug dealers could find his mother who was supposed to be dead. And we've got the married assassins who are the targets, not the ones doing the hit. We investigated a forty year old murder on Iwo Jima that wasn't really murder. We had a transgender murderer who was robbing the Navy blind. We got cybersex andâ€""

"Okay. Okay. You made your point," Gibbs growled, although it lacked any real heat, cutting Tony off before he could continue listing more weird cases they'd worked. It was reassuring to find himself familiar with most of them, and distressing to realize Tony was right. A lot of their cases were down right bizarre.

Tony sighed, resting his forehead against Gibbs'. "Fact is stranger than fiction, Boss. And a lot of our cases prove that."

"Then why bother watching movies?" Gibbs asked, genuinely curious. Most of their cases were definitely more interesting and challenging than anything Hollywood ever dreamed up.

"Because in fiction they give us all the details and the good guys usually win." Tony's voice was soft. "Whereas in real life...we almost never know all of the why and how things happen. It's usually just who, what and where for us. And in real life the good guys winning isn't guaranteed."

Tony kissed the tip of Gibbs' nose. "Don't always watch dramas or action films. Sometimes I need to watch a good comedy to remember how to laugh, recapture a sense of the absurd."

"So it's more than just escapism?"

"You sound so surprised." Tony chuckled before sobering, green eyes meeting blue squarely. "Can't tell me the boat you got landlocked in your basement isn't an escape of sorts. Everyone needs something to balance the insanity in their lives."

"McGee playing online..." Gibbs frowned as he remembered overhearing the junior agent talking about some sort of computer game he indulged in.

"Our very own little elf lord," Tony confirmed with a laugh. "God only knows what Ziva's got to do to relax. Probably involves beating the hell out of something." His expression turned wry. "Not sure I want to know what Abby does."

"You went clubbing with her and you don't know what she does?"

"Clubbing is what she does for fun, Boss, not exactly the same thing as finding balance."

No, no it wasn't, Gibbs agreed mentally after he thought about it. Abby might be irreverent and fun loving, but she had a serious side. And she could be just as impacted by the darker aspects of their job as any of the field agents.

He remembered the dirge Abby played in her lab when Kate died. The music was so unlike her usual fare, a definite clue to her mood. He remembered her hiding in the elevator when Mawher was stalking her. And her getting drunk in his basement.

"Boss?" Tony sounded concerned. "You okay?"

"I'm fine." He smiled, trying to ease the worry in bright green eyes. "Just remembering a few more things."

"Didn't look like good things," Tony offered hesitantly.

"Mawher." Gibbs made his name sound like a curse. "Abby afraid to leave the elevator."

"Ah." Tony nodded. He sighed. "I wish she'd come to us when he started getting weird."

Getting weird? Gibbs snorted derisively. Mawher was always weird. What sort of normal man wore eyeliner and painted his fingernails black? But he understood what Tony was saying. Their was weird and then there was obsessive.

"It wasn't because she didn't trust you." Or me, Gibbs thought. She had good reason to worry that he might beat the shit out of Mawher. He would have. Tony probably would have too given how angry he'd been when he found out about Mawher. Tony was very fond of Abby. He would do anything to protector, the same way Gibbs would.

"I know she trusts me." Tony smiled ruefully. "She was quick to point that out."

"And she will come to us in the future." He'd made it clear to Abby and he expected her to let him know about problem suitors in the future. She'd better follow through, or there would be hell to pay.

"She mentioned you had a talk." Tony made quotation gestures in the air around the word 'talk'.

"We did." That was all Gibbs was prepared to say on the subject.

Tony nodded, clearly getting the message. Whatever was discussed between Gibbs and Abby wasn't any of his business. It amazed Gibbs that the younger man who thought nothing of going through Kate's purse or McGee's Ipod would so easily respect boundaries Gibbs drew. Maybe it had to do with just how clear the lines were drawn.

All Kate would have had to do to keep him out her purse would have been to put it in her desk. Leaving her purse under it or on top was essentially an open invitation. The same held true of McGee's Ipod; Gibbs still wasn't sure exactly what an Ipod was for, but everyone these days seemed to have one and McGee leaving his out in plain sight was just plain foolish. Ziva never left anything on or under her desk, and to Gibbs knowledge, Tony hadn't invaded her privacy. He'd never rifled through desks, lockers, or cars. And he rarely broached subjects they hadn't already touched on.

"You want to watch something else?"

"Thinking it's past your bed time little boy," Gibbs countered with a grin when Tony yawned.

"Not that tired." Tony shook his head.

"You have to be to work in the morning," Gibbs reminded him.

"Unlike you," Tony sighed, lower lip curling outward in a very enticing pout.

They'd decided on the way back that Gibbs should take another day, maybe two, and spend some time in his own home. It would give him a chance to get comfortable with the memories he regained and the ones he might never recover. Time apart at the office would also help keep their teammates from making the connection that there was more between Gibbs and Tony than there had been before. The plan was for them to spend tomorrow night together at Gibbs' place. After that, they'd have to play it by ear.

Gibbs wasn't really looking forward to having to being so careful, or spending a few nights a week alone, but he understood the necessity of it. He hoped to eventually convince Tony that no one would care they were involved, but he knew that would take time. So many good things do, he reminded himself silently. He'd waited five years to have this much. A little longer wouldn't kill him.

Tony yawned again. Gibbs shook his head, smiling. "Bed time."

"Will you tuck me in?" Tony gave him a wink and a smile, sleepy green eyes glowing with warmth and affection.

"I'd love to." Gibbs captured that smile with a kiss. He reveled in the way Tony let him take control, his mouth opening readily to invite Gibbs' tongue in. So sweet, wet and warm. God, he loved kissing Tony.

Tony moaned softly, his breathing coming in harsh pants when Gibbs finally broke the kiss. Not satisfied with just tasting his mouth, Gibbs worked his way along Tony's jaw until he found that spot below the younger man's ear that made him shudder. Tony shuddered again when Gibbs sucked lightly at the pulse point on his neck. He resisted the urge to leave a mark, not wanting Tony's first day back at work to raise too many eyebrows.

"Let's go try out your bed." Gibbs pulled back, standing up to offer a hand to Tony. As comfortable as the couch was, Gibbs really didn't want to test his own limits on it.

"You looking for a repeat performance?"

Gibbs would swear Tony's voice dropped a full octave; rough and needy it made him shiver in response to the memories it conjured. He desperately hoped Tony never used that 'bedroom' voice in the office. He'd never be able to guarantee discretion if Tony did.

Gibbs cleared his throat. "Was...ah...thinking maybe we'dâ€""

"Trade places?" Tony asked, giving Gibbs a look that obviously said he had no problem with that option. If anything, Tony's expression said he'd enjoy it.

"You like playing catcher?" Gibbs nearly winced at his phrasing, feeling foolish for using a sports analogy.

"You mean better than pitching?"

Gibbs was grateful Tony easily understood what he meant and didn't call him being so inept at explaining himself. "Yeah."

Tony squeezed Gibbs' hand. "Some guys are top all the way. Some are bottoms. And some like me can go either way...depending on my mood."

Tony had obviously enjoyed their interactions. No hesitation, doubt or fear. He clearly had experience Gibbs lacked, and the former Marine struggled not to ask just how and when and with who Tony had come by that knowledge.

"For a guy who goes with his gut," Tony whispered, "you think way too much."

Gibbs scowled. "I just want to be sureâ€""

"I know. It's one of the reasons I love you." Tony smiled, and kissed him gently. "Trust me when I tell you....I will not hesitate to let you know if I'm not enjoying myself." He winked at Gibbs. "Pretty sure you'd be able to tell anyway."

"Yeah." Gibbs grinned remembering the way Tony reacted when he'd done something the younger man really liked.

"So quit worrying." Tony tugged at his hand. "Let's go make some noise."

Gibbs laughed, following behind eagerly. "What about your noisy neighbor?"

"I added insulation to the bedroom walls." Tony leered, green eyes raking over Gibbs in with a look that made him shiver. "We'll find out if it was enough."

Gibbs swallowed hard. How the hell had he managed to long without this was definitely one of life's greatest mysteries. He'd have to stop by a church tomorrow and light a candle so God would know just how grateful he was Tony had been willing to wait for him to get his head out of his ass.

Tony caressed his cheek. "I'm going to have to give you something else to do with that brain of yours."

Gibbs grinned eagerly. "Please do."

"Would be my pleasure, Jethro." Tony laughed pulling him close.

"Mine too." Gibbs whispered, as he captured Tony's mouth again in a searing kiss.

He shoved the bedroom door closed behind them, shutting out the rest of the world. Unless the building was on fire or a bomb went off, he wanted nothing to interrupt. He had a lot of lost time to make up for. And tonight was only the beginning.