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Playing the Odds

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Tony DiNozzo checked his appearance once more in the mirror.  He wanted to look his best, even if it wasn’t really a date, at least not in the traditional sense.  Oh there would be good food, wine, and a lovely woman to share both with, but it wasn’t a romantic liaison.  It wasn’t really business either, although, Keira Petrastorsky, ‘Pete’ to friends and family, had asked him out to dinner to offer him a job. 

 

She’d made the same offer every few months since the first time they’d met nearly three years ago.  The private security firm she worked for, Paladin Inc., routinely handled protection details for diplomats and high ranking government officials, as well as wealthy civilians in countries plagued by violence around the world in the Middle East , Europe and South America .  The company had a good reputation, and was well known for their ability and discretion.  

 

When they met, Paladin Inc. had been considering accepting a government contract to provide security for American civilians working in Iraq to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in the war.  A negotiation meeting with the Department of Defense had broken up long enough for Pete to be a witness to altercation between two Marines and a Navy Lieutenant that resulted in bloody noses, bruised egos, a sizeable dent in an embassy limo and a broken plate glass window.  The case was hardly what Tony would have called exciting, and given the circumstances, it didn’t require a lot of effort to solve.  It did, however, warrant a certain amount of diplomacy and tact, something Leroy Jethro Gibbs wasn’t well known for.  That fact had put Tony center stage as he worked to soothe feathers ruffled by both the incident and his boss. 

 

Tony shook his head, remembering his first meeting with Pete.  Although she was older than the women he usually went for, her looks alone had been enough to get his attention.  At just under six feet tall, she could easily look him in the eye without having to step back or look up, something he rarely encountered in a woman. She was solidly built…not fat or thin, more lean and athletic, lacking the generous endowments that usually got Tony’s attention, but still had enough curve to make her gender obvious and enticing.  Her flawless mocha skin and dark curly hair gave mute testimony to a family tree that was not as exclusively European as her surname might have suggested and offered a startling contrast to eyes as green as Tony’s.  Her voice was deeper than he’d expected, and husky.  It made him wonder if she’d ever given a thought to working a phone sex line.  She’d make a killing. 

 

His flirting then hadn’t bothered her.  If anything, she’d been a willing participant, playing with him even as she gave a full and accurate account of the event.  Her amusement over the entire incident was readily apparent, her colorful commentary making him chuckle.  She was without a doubt the best eyewitness he’d ever had the opportunity to interview. 

 

Evidently, he’d impressed her as well, because it wasn’t long after that Pete made him a job offer.  He’d politely refused, surprising himself by doing so since the offer had come not long after his two year anniversary with NCIS.  He’d refused every offer made since, but enjoyed having the opportunity to get together with Pete. By now, it was more like meeting up with an old friend than having a prospective job interview.  It was almost routine for her to offer and him to refuse. 

 

Tony grabbed his keys, locking his apartment door behind him.  He was glad Pete had been willing to reschedule.  Work had once again interrupted, forcing him to bow out on their meeting earlier in the week.  He was mildly amused that by referring to her as Pete and his casual, friendly tone during the call, made the conversation McGee and Ziva overheard sound like he was canceling dinner plans with a frat brother.

 

He shrugged his shoulders.  It was better they thought that than knew who Pete really was.  There had been enough speculation and rumor about Abby going to dinner with a head hunter and her possibly leaving, there was no need to generate the same sort of flack again.  Especially after the particularly hard head slap he’d gotten from Gibbs over ‘spreading rumors’. 

 

It wasn’t like McGee would honestly believe him if he’d said he’d gotten a job offer.  He’d assume Tony was exaggerating or lying, trying to get the same sort of concerned reaction or interest that thoughts of Abby leaving had garnered.  It was only a year ago McGee had come right out and said he didn’t think Tony was capable of leading his own team, never mind that was exactly what he’d done in Gibbs’ absence.  McGee didn’t know that Tony had been offered the opportunity for a team of his own---more than once.  The job Director Shepard had put before him in Spain wasn’t the first, and it likely wouldn’t be the last.  The time he’s put in with Gibbs made a lot of people curious.  Very few had lasted so long. 

 

Gibbs knew about some of the previous offers—at least the internal ones.  Because Tony had come right out and said so to Gibbs, the former Marine was also aware that the reason Tony hadn’t taken any of them was he hadn’t thought he was ready for the responsibility.  But then, the man had simply handed his own team over to Tony, ready or not.  And taken it back just as abruptly.  So what Tony might or might not have thought of his own abilities clearly didn’t matter much to Gibbs. 

 

Tony rated his own performance a solid ‘B’, using Gibbs as his yardstick.  But he knew others, measuring by different standards, thought he’d done better than that.  And a job like what Pete routinely offered was one he knew he could excel at.  She knew it too.  It was why she kept offering it.

 

Tony started his rental car, having not yet replaced the Mustang that had gotten blown up.  He grimaced.  Another car lost.  Paladin Inc. would have replaced it without batting an eye.   Hell, they’d have offered him a car to use for the assignment.  NCIS…he’d be lucky to get a mo-ped out of them.  Working for the government definitely had its drawbacks.

 

Tony pursed his lips as he thought about Pete’s past offers.  He could leave the team now if he wanted.  There really wasn’t anything to hold him to NCIS now. 

 

If he left, McGee would be senior.  McGee still lacked a little in instinct and experience, but he was on his way to being a capable agent.  And he was far better with technology than Tony would ever be.  Despite stumbling occasionally, McGee was gaining confidence daily in his abilities.  He might not be Gibbs’ choice for a senior field agent, but then Ziva hadn’t been Gibbs’ choice for the team either.  And she’d worked out okay. 

Ziva was well on her way to being a good investigator.  She had blossomed in the last two years.  It wasn’t like she couldn’t handle the job.  Her only real limitation with the job was her grasp of English colloquialisms.  That was hardly an issue because God knew she had the lethal skills necessary to be good back up.  And Gibbs had survived years being oblivious to and clueless about pop culture references.  Ziva could easily do the same.

 

He and Abby were good friends and he’d miss her, but it wasn’t like they shared all their secrets.  Tony hadn’t known she got several job offers a year, and it was a safe bet she didn’t know he did either.  She never mentioned her crazy, stalker ex-boyfriend.  And Tony didn’t tell her about Jeanne.  On a day to day basis, his presence or absence wouldn’t affect her job much.  The work load would be the same whether he was there or not.  He seriously doubted she’d have his picture on her computer screen the way she had with Gibbs’ when he left. 

 

It would be business as usual for Ducky.  The older man had handled Vivian leaving.  He’d dealt with Gerald not coming back smoothly enough.  Had weathered the loss of Kate better than anyone else. And other than being pissed at Gibbs, Ducky had continued as nothing happened when Tony took over the team.  He was the only one to express any real faith in Tony’s abilities.  And would probably be the only one not surprised if Tony elected to accept a position somewhere else.  

 

Gibbs had been the main reason Tony hadn’t accepted the job in Spain .  But the former Marine was back to his old self, up and running at 100%.  He clearly didn’t need Tony…and likely never had.  Tony didn’t bother trying to stifle the flinch that always came with that thought.  It wasn’t like there was anyone in the car to see or care. 

 

Tony pulled into traffic, pleased to find it a bit lighter than it had been when he got home.  He didn’t want to be late.  Pete wouldn’t really mind, but it was the principle of the thing.

 

Tony sighed, mind going back to his boss the way it so often did.  He thought Gibbs might eventually respect him, if not genuinely like him.  He knew that was just another foolish hope.  It had taken almost five years and Gibbs leaving for Tony to come to understand he was never going to matter to Gibbs. Not the way he wanted to.  And Gibbs’ coming back, dismissing him out of hand, made it clear he hadn’t left the team to Tony as an act of faith. No….that was simply a matter of convenience.  At that point, Tony wasn’t even sure Gibbs knew his name.  He could have just as easily left his gun and badge with McGee or Ziva. 

 

Knowing that had made it easy to accept Director Shepard’s offer of an undercover assignment.  At least she thought enough of him to offer him a chance to justify her faith.  Admittedly, it ended badly, but Tony didn’t regret it.  He didn’t regret not choosing Jeanne either. 

 

Tony grimaced, rolling his eyes at himself.  Choosing Gibbs.  Now that was something he should regret.  He’d already made that mistake before.  And here he had made it again.  He was a glutton for punishment. 

 

He could claim he’d chosen his dysfunctional NCIS family….but Tony tried not to make a habit of lying to himself.  And while Abby thought their being a family was a reason to stay, Tony found him wondering if it wasn’t grounds for leaving.   Wasn’t that normal?  Grow up and move out on your own?  It was how things were supposed to work.

 

It wasn’t like Gibbs would ever see him as more than just his senior field agent.  Not that being his senior field agent was a bad thing---but it wasn’t all Tony wanted.  And as far as Tony could tell, he was the only one who thought being ‘senior’ carried any weight.  The position didn’t afford him any perks.  Gibbs didn’t play favorites, with the possible exception of Abby, so he was just as likely to hand out a rare ‘good job’ to someone temporarily assigned to the case like Nikki Jardine as he was to Tony.  More likely, Tony thought darkly, when he considered how rarely he got any sort of recognition at all.  Not that he wanted to be congratulated all the time, or get undeserved kudos, but he did a damn good job and it would be nice to have that mentioned more than once in a blue moon.

 

And it would be nice if Gibbs would show even a modicum of faith in Tony’s ability.  He’d been right about the wife in their last case.  Maybe not about all the details, but at least he’d been suspicious of the right person. 

 

Gibbs sure as hell didn’t worry much about Tony’s well being.  No heart to hearts or encouraging words.  There was no cutting him slack after crawling out of the sewers, or killing White, dealing with the plague, Kate’s death or losing Jeanne.  It was just expected he’d suck it up and keep going. 

 

Hell, Gibbs had been more focused on catching a killer than on saving Tony from a life threatening fall.   Logically, Tony knew it made sense to have McGee be the one to help him.  He was Tony’s partner at the time and closer to him.  Gibbs likely couldn’t have reached him in time anyway.  But it still left Tony feeling disappointed to know he didn’t even warrant a cursory ‘you okay?’ from Gibbs later. 

 

Tony shook his head.  He was just being petty and selfish.  Gibbs had a grieving sister to deal with.  That call definitely should take precedence.  Especially in light of how guilty Gibbs was feeling over the way Lt. Michael Arnett had died. Not that Gibbs could have saved him, but Tony knew Gibbs would never see it that way.  That sort of single minded devotion was one of the things Tony found attractive about the other man.

 

And he had been supportive when Tony was being framed for murder.  Although, Tony still wasn’t sure if that was about him, or about not having one Gibbs’ agents convicted.  It wouldn’t reflect well on Gibbs if that had happened. 

 

Most of the time, it wasn’t like Gibbs to suddenly express concern, or interest in Tony.  As far as Gibbs knew Tony never felt as unappreciated as Abby had recently.  Gibbs likely didn’t know or didn’t care that Tony wanted some sort of meaningful acknowledgement to encourage him to stay.  That he’d actively sought out things to keep him at NCIS since Pete had made that first offer three years ago.  Or that it had gotten harder to do since Kate died.  Or that Tony woke up several times a week looking for a reason to go to the office and subject himself to the punishment of being consistently near someone he couldn’t have.  Or just how close Tony had been to accepting the job in Spain .  So why would Gibbs even think he should bother to let Tony know he was wanted? 

 

“Stop thinking like a spoiled brat, DiNozzo,” Tony told himself.  Or more accurately, like a lovesick teenager.  Was he really so desperate for some sign that Gibbs liked him he honestly begrudged Abby getting a dozen roses, McGee getting a cup of coffee or Ziva getting a lighter touch when it came to head slaps?  How pathetic was that? 

 

He wondered if having made it past the two year mark, Gibbs no longer expected him to leave.  Gibbs probably thought if Tony didn’t have enough confidence in his own ability to lead a team by now then he never would.  He might believe that he was too settled in NCIS now to seriously consider working somewhere else.  Tony snorted.  It was far more likely Gibbs didn’t think about him at all. 

 

Certainly no one else expected him to leave.  There hadn’t been any jokes about his warranty in years.  McGee and Ziva likely thought he couldn’t or wouldn’t work anywhere else.  Abby, no doubt, assumed loyalty would hold him in place.  Tony smiled bitterly.  He was a good dog that way.  No doubt about it.

 

Insult to injury was the fact that Gibbs was obviously seeing Mann now.  Tony wasn’t above being amused by the former Marine being caught between ex-wife, old girlfriend, and new girlfriend.  It was oddly satisfying to see the other man so uncomfortable.  It was definitely a first. 

 

Tony tried not to begrudge Gibbs the company of his choice.  It was hard though.  Not only was he jealous of Mann…something he could admit to if only to himself, he was lonely. 

 

Ziva and McGee had noticed Tony hadn’t been dating recently.  Jeanne made a good excuse, but she wasn’t the reason he gave up on pursuing women.  While Tony had loved her, he wasn’t in love with her.  A distinction he never understood before, but certainly appreciated now. 

 

If they’d been paying attention, his teammates would have noticed he’d given up on women several weeks before Gibbs left.  And once he was in charge, Tony didn’t have time to pretend to be having a social life.  No one even raised eyebrows at his long hours at the office.  Not that anyone really gave his long hours much thought any more.  Back when he’d started at NCIS people had wondered up until they realized he was on Gibbs’ team.  The man’s reputation as a demanding bastard certainly made Tony being at the office at two in the morning seem logical.  How people managed to forget his workaholic tendencies in the face of his goof-off playboy persona Tony couldn’t even begin to guess.

 

At least with Gibbs gone, Tony hadn’t needed to worry about misdirection.  Tony had put a lot of effort into being seen as a ladies man.  It meant no one would seriously think he harbored a secret passion for his boss.  So if he stared a little too long, seemed a bit too willing and eager, acted jealous of McGee or Kate or Ziva, stood just a bit too close…well there was obviously a good reason for it; something nicely heterosexual and manly that made sense.  As he took responsibility for the team, it was easy to let the sham fade away.  Ziva thinking his maturity was ‘new found’ was an odd sort of compliment to just how solid the illusion he’d created had been.

 

By the time Gibbs returned, Tony had started ‘dating’ Jeanne.  Trying to maintain that less than stellar cover it was easy to pretend to be committed to her.  It was part of being Tony DiNardo.  Juggling his job and an undercover assignment, it wasn’t like Tony had time to really pursue anything else.   He recognized there had to be a limit even if the Director didn’t.

 

He had enjoyed spending time with Jeanne.  If not for the ever present lie regarding who he was, what he did for a living and why he was there, Tony could have easily seen himself staying in that neat little life.  Tony DiNardo wasn’t a bad guy.  He just wasn’t Tony DiNozzo.  And Jeanne Benoit wouldn’t have been a bad choice, she just wasn’t Jethro Gibbs. 

 

Tony sighed softly.  He missed what she’d briefly represented.  For a time Jeanne was stability, a sense of belonging.  He liked the idea of exclusivity and the familiarity that came with it.  She gave him the feeling of being cared about and valued.  They had common interests and shared passion.  She was bright and beautiful, funny and charming, compassionate and gentle.  But he didn’t really miss her.   

 

If he stayed in D.C., it was unlikely he’d ever see her again since she’d made it clear she wasn’t coming back.  Tony frowned.  When had staying in D.C. become ‘if’? 

 

Tony pulled into the front entrance of Pete’s hotel.  Maybe this time when she made her offer he should seriously consider it instead of just dismissing it out of hand.  Assuming she even made an offer.  It was possible she’d given up on him.

 

Tony shrugged to himself.  He’d find out soon enough.  If there was still an offer on the table…maybe…maybe it was time he’d tell Pete he’d consider it.  He couldn’t expect her to wait forever.

Chapter Text

Tony stared at Pete.  He’d never seen her in anything but well tailored business suits or jeans and a casual top.  The knee length, sleeveless tank style, dove-gray silk sheath she was currently wearing showcased her figure beautifully.  The three inch, sling back, black and silver heels accentuated the long lines of her legs, making Tony whistle soundlessly in appreciation.

 

“I take that means you approve?”  She arched one slender dark eyebrow, green eyes sparkling like the delicate peridot teardrop stones dangling from her earlobes. 

 

She might represent a prospective employer but she was also a beautiful woman who he’d come to think of as a friend.  He knew she wouldn’t object to having him flirt.  If anything she expected it. And it was already far too late to hide his initial reaction, so he pursed his lips and adopted an overly thoughtful expression, rubbing his chin before motioning her to turn around.  She gave him a coy look before complying.

 

She batted her eyelashes at him after completing a graceful pirouette that would have done a ballerina proud.  “Well?”

 

Tony smiled warmly, letting his appreciation show.  “Very, very nice.”

 

“Thank you.”  She grinned back, dimples appearing.  “I’d hate to think I wasted my money buying this dress.”

 

Tony gave her another slow, deliberate once over.  “Oh…I’d say it was money well spent.”  

 

“Excellent.”  She chuckled.  It was a low and husky sound that made Tony shiver.  It really was a shame he knew she wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship with him.

 

She picked up a black and silver lacy shawl that was clearly more for effect than warmth.  It was a lovely accent which nicely complimented her outfit.  Tony stepped forward, taking the lightweight fabric from her to gallantly drape it over her shoulders. 

 

“Thank you.”

 

“My pleasure.”  Tony tried to ignore the light, enticing fragrance of her perfume.  It was a subtle blend of scents; sandalwood, lavender and lemongrass.  He only knew the components because he’d been so bold as to ask why it was she smelled so good the first time they’d met. 

 

He never failed to find it odd that her perfume reminded him of Gibbs.  Tony assumed it was the blended aspect that triggered the association.  Gibbs almost always smelled of sawdust, musk and coffee. 

 

It could be the way Pete carried herself which also brought Gibbs to mind.  They might not have anything in common in their overall appearance, but Pete moved with the same easy confidence and purpose the former Marine did.  She had the same charisma that instinctively fostered respect and deference.

 

“You okay with eating here at the hotel?”  Pete asked.  “We could go some where else if you’d rather.”

 

They hadn’t made firm plans for where to go to dinner because Tony wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have to cancel again.  It seemed better to play it by ear.

 

“As long as you’re buying, here is fine.”  The average meal at the Ritz Carlton restaurant cost more than Tony could typically afford.  Although, if this were a real date, he wouldn’t have hesitated to pay for it to impress her.

 

She smiled at him.  “I like liberated men.”

 

Tony laughed.  “Is that what they call it these days?”

 

“It’s what I call it.”

 

“Do you have reservations?”  Tony asked as he held the door open for her. They might be forced to go somewhere else.  Tables were notoriously hard to come by. 

 

“No.”  She shrugged one shoulder.  “But that won’t be a problem.” 

 

Tony knew her confidence wasn’t misplaced.  He hadn’t seen a maitre de turn her down yet.  He wasn’t sure if that was just more evidence of her being like Gibbs and making it clear she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, or if it was simply the fact that they knew Keira Petrastorsky worked for a multimillion dollar company and offending her could cost them more in the long run.

 

“I like women with clout.”

 

“A statement like that is proof I’m not wasting my time to keep offering you a job.”  She took the arm he offered, leaning in momentarily to brush his shoulder with hers.

 

Tony hesitated before asking, “That mean the job is still open?”  It seemed like a golden opportunity to find out for sure if there was an offer still on the table. 

 

She hit the button for the elevator before turning to face him directly.  “I told you there was a position open for you whenever you wanted it.  That hasn’t changed.”

 

Tony wasn’t sure if he was pleased or not.  It would have been nice if the decision of whether to stay or go had been taken out of his hands.  He shook his head.

 

“Three years is a long time to wait.”

 

“Yes, it is.” She smiled.  “I’m a patient person.”

 

“Yeah, but Paladin has to feel a bit differently. I mean, three years---”

 

“It’s my call.”

 

Tony blinked.  “They really give you that kind of latitude?”

 

“They don’t give me anything.”  She laughed softly.  “I own sixty percent of the company, Tony.  I wasn’t bragging when I said it’s my call.” 

 

Tony felt his jaw drop.  “I did not know that.”

 

“Not many people do.” She shrugged one shoulder.  “And mostly, I prefer it that way.”

 

“Why?”

 

“A company that specializes in providing security in hot spots around the world is supposed to be run by some grizzled veteran with lots of military experience.”  Pete sighed.  “It is easier just to refer to the boss as ‘Pete’ than try to explain to a client that I am the boss.”  She smiled, feral and fierce.  “And if they are assholes or condescending to me based solely on my gender, I can make them pay for that.  I call it a tolerance tax.  The more I have to tolerate, the more they have to pay.”

 

Tony laughed. “Wish I could charge a tolerance tax.”

 

“If you worked for me, you could.” 

 

She stepped into the elevator when the doors opened.  Tony followed.  He hit the button for the restaurant floor.

 

“It’s not an easy decision.”  Tony admitted quietly, watching the lights change for each floor.

 

“I know.  And that’s just another point in your favor.  I like loyalty too.”  She squeezed his arm.  “If it helps weigh things in my favor, you might be pleased to know your base salary with Paladin would be more than three times what you make right now.

 

“Triple?”  Tony gaped at her.  He knew the salary would be better…double maybe, if they were feeling generous, but he’d never really seriously considered asking how much.  He hadn’t wanted to know, afraid of how tempting it just might be. 

 

“Triple.”  She confirmed with a nod.  “I know what government employees make.  The low man on my totem pole right now makes more than twice that much.  But then, Josh isn’t a field rep, so his pay scale reflects that.”

 

Tony swallowed hard.  “That’s…a hell of a lot of money you’re offering.”

 

She dipped her head in acknowledgement of his statement.  “I expect my field employees to be ready to go whenever I call, day or night.  And they get paid to risk life and limb for people they don’t know well and probably wouldn’t like if they did. The duty locations are often far from friends and family for long periods of time.” 

 

She held up her hands as though balancing a scale.  “It’s a lot to ask of people.  So I pay well.”

 

Tony’s expression turned thoughtful.  Pete didn’t ask any more of her employees than NCIS did of theirs.  In some ways, she asked a lot less. 

 

“Shame the government doesn’t see it the way you do.”  Tony knew even if the government did, Gibbs wouldn’t.  The man was stingy with his praise on a good day; it was hard to imagine him being any more generous with money if it were up to him to set Tony’s salary. 

 

“It’s good for me that the government doesn’t.  It would be hard to compete otherwise.  And it’s hard enough as it is since a good salary isn’t the only thing the sort I hire are looking for.  Greedy people are a dime a dozen, but those with integrity and a willingness to earn their salary are few and far between.  You are one of the good ones.”

 

Tony smiled shyly at the compliment, hoping his face wasn’t as red as it felt.  Money had never been everything to him, even if he had a serious appreciation of the finer things in life.  He’d learned the day his father cut him off at the age of twelve how easily it could come and go. And money was definitely not the reason he’d stayed at NCIS.  It also wasn’t the reason he was giving her offer serious consideration.  But that kind of money would certainly be nice compensation for leaving NCIS…and Gibbs.

 

The doors opening saved him from having to say anything.  He naturally put his hand on the small of her back as they walked into the restaurant together.  She didn’t object, just like he figured she wouldn’t.  Pete, like Gibbs, was always in charge.  But unlike Gibbs, she didn’t object to letting him lead now and again.  It made him wonder if she knew how to dance.  Tony had a feeling she’d be fantastic at the Tango.  

 

As Pete had predicted, it wasn’t a problem for them to get a table.  Tony had to admit he liked the understated way Pete got what she wanted.  She didn’t need to throw her weight around or get in someone’s face.  She didn’t even raise her voice.  Although, Tony readily admitted he liked it when Gibbs went all ‘alpha male’, it was refreshing not to have to worry someone would be pissed off over something so minor as a place to eat dinner. 

 

Once they were seated, Pete ordered a bottle of wine to go with their meal.  Tony wasn’t normally much of a wine drinker, but he had no problem with deferring to her choice.  She was paying for it after all.

 

Even with Pete picking up the tab, Tony elected to skip the caviar.  No matter what Abby thought about it, Tony hated that stuff.  It was too salty for his taste.  He opted for duck as his entree.  Pete went for the Tilapia.  Soup and salad were ordered as well. 

 

They made small talk until they finished eating.  Tony knew from past dinners that Pete preferred not to discuss anything business related or overly heavy during a meal.  And he had to agree with her statement that food should be savored and enjoyed, something that could rarely be done while talking about work.  Work took far too much focus in his life lately—even his down time had been lost while working undercover--- so Tony loved having a chance to simply enjoy a dinner with a lovely companion while being himself.  And he definitely appreciated discussing sports and movies with someone as passionate about them as he was.

 

After the waiter removed their plates, Pete picked up her half full wine glass, holding it loosely between the fingers of both hands, elbows resting on the table as she made eye contact and held it.  “Do you want to talk about it?” 

 

“It?”  Tony blinked.  “Talk about what?”

 

“Whatever it is that has you seriously considering taking my offer.” She arched an eyebrow.  “Would be the first time I can remember you doing more than just humoring me.  Something had to have happened.” 

 

Tony glanced away, sighing softly. “It’s been a rough couple of months.”

 

She frowned.  “In the last two years, I’m not sure I can say I’ve known you to have a good couple of months.”

 

“It’s not that bad,” Tony protested. 

 

She held up her hand, stopping him from saying any more.  “You’re classic car was destroyed.  You contracted the Plague.  You lost one partner.  Nearly lost an agent to a serial killer.  And then got a new partner, one you weren’t sure you could trust.”

 

Tony grimaced.  When she put it that way it had definitely been a rough year.  So she wasn’t wrong; she also wasn’t done.  Pete gave him a hard look. 

 

“You got beat up and shot at a few times along the way.  Framed for murder.”

 

Tony winced.  He’d nearly forgotten telling her about all those things.  He never told her anything classified or even got into specifics about cases unless they were already settled in court.  But outside of the team, Pete was one of the few people he knew who wouldn’t accuse him of lying or exaggerating about the sometimes bizarre situations the job put him in and who didn’t mind lending a sympathetic ear.

 

Pete sighed softly, reaching across the table to take his hand.  “You nearly lost Gibbs to an explosion. I know that was anything but easy. “

 

Tony swallowed hard.  She didn’t know why nearly losing Gibbs had hurt so much.  At least he didn’t think she did.  But with Pete, it was always hard to know just what she was or wasn’t aware of.  Another trait she had in common with Gibbs.

 

She squeezed his hand before letting go.  “Then Gibbs leaves, and for four months you’re stuck with your own team”

 

“I wasn’t stuck…exactly.” 

 

She gave him a pointed look.  “It wasn’t your choice either.”

 

She was right about that too.  It wasn’t like he could have just refused to take Gibbs’ badge and gun, or refused to lead the team.  Not when, at the time, he really thought it was an expression of Gibbs’ faith in his abilities.  Funny how the way Gibbs returned made that moment seem so much different.  Hindsight really was a bitch, Tony decided.

 

“Being in charge was something you clearly weren’t sure you were ready for.”

 

He and Pete had gotten together shortly after Gibbs left.  He’d told he was turning the job down because he’d got a promotion and was leading his own team.  Tony had tried to act happy about the prospect; he hadn’t wanted her to know he was anxious and uncertain.

 

Tony winced.  “Showed, hunh?”

 

“I’ve known you long enough to know when you are spouting bullshit.”  She rolled her eyes.  “And acting like you knew you could handle the responsibility when you weren’t completely confident….that was Grade ‘A’ bullshit.” 

 

She smiled warmly at him.  “To your credit, I think you did a damn fine job.”

 

“And what are you basing that on?”  Tony raised both eyebrows.

 

“You solved the cases you were assigned, yes?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“No one got killed on your watch, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“People still kept calling you for awhile even after Gibbs was back assuming you were either still in charge or could handle the problem?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then you did a damn fine job.”  She shook her head.  “Although accepting an undercover gig at the same time might have been biting off bit more than you could chew.”

 

Tony winced again, but didn’t argue with her.  If he’d known how it would all turn out, he probably wouldn’t have taken the assignment.  In spite of that, he didn’t regret the time he’d had with Jeanne.  He did regret having to lie to Gibbs.  And he really regretted knowing lying cost him points with the older man.  But then it wasn’t like Gibbs could say he’d always been honest with Tony either.  The man had his share of secrets too.  Some how that never made Tony feel any better about it all.

 

“Let’s see--” Pete sipped her wine.  “After Gibbs returned there was… a minor concussion courtesy of his old boss if I remember correctly.”

 

Tony nodded, lips curling in a bitter smile over that memory.  That was just another example of a situation where Gibbs hadn’t been completely honest.  Tony couldn’t prove it but he knew something hinky had gone down in that bar. 

 

“And then there was another serial killer.  One with a foot fetish.  Although, not exactly a life threatening case, still not what I’d call a good time.”

 

“God, no.”  Tony shuddered. That case still gave him the creeps. 

 

She gave him a sympathetic look.  “And the agent you nearly lost once before, you lost for good.”

 

“Paula,” Tony whispered her name.  God, it still hurt to think of her as dead.  The same way it still hurt to have lost Kate.  Hell it hurt to think about losing John Carson, and he’d only known him for a few days. 

 

He stared at Pete as he realized he’d never told her about Paula’s death.  “How did you know about--?”

 

“It was on the news, Tony.  Two federal agents killed in an explosion one day.  Another dying the same way just a few days later.”  She shrugged one shoulder.  “It’s the kind of thing I pay attention to since it might have an impact on teams I’ve got working in the US.  I recognized her name.”

 

She reached out to take his hand again.  “I am sorry for your loss.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

No one else had bothered to say even that much. Gibbs had refused to let him process the scene, sending him home instead and giving him a day off, but hadn’t actually expressed any remorse or sympathy.  He’d found solace later with Jeanne, but had never been able to really tell her about Paula. 

 

“Any time, Tony.”  She squeezed his hand before once more letting go. 

 

Pete finished her wine, setting the empty glass down and sitting back from the table.  “So after all that, what has you finally thinking that working for me would be better?”

 

Tony sighed.  She already knew he’d accepted an undercover assignment.  He figured there was no harm in letting her know how that clusterfuck had resolved itself.  He brought her up to speed on the “La Grenouille” case, careful not to spill too many details with regard to specific events, dates or names. 

 

He couldn’t help the bitterness that leached into his voice as he told her how the case had really been little more than a personal vendetta for the director, something he didn’t find out until much too late in the game.   Nor could he hide how frustrated he found answering to two bosses at the same time. He wasn’t good at keeping secrets, and was even worse when it came to divided loyalties. 

 

He knew his tone gave away how hurt and disappointed he’d been to have his relationship with Jeanne dissolve on such a sour note.  It didn’t have to end that way.  Tony didn’t even bother trying to disguise how pissed he still was over how easily his cover had been ruined by a hostile CIA operative.  Not to mention having his car blow up. 

 

“Damn, Tony, that’s the second classic you’ve lost.”

 

“I know.”  He sighed.  Losing the car hurt more than losing Jeanne had, and he wasn’t surprised Pete picked up on that.  Not that he’d wanted to keep Jeanne…not really.  Tony didn’t want to live a lie forever, and going with Jeanne rather than staying at NCIS would have required him to do just that.

 

Working on the Munoz case with the missing baby and the scamming dead surrogate mother had certainly hammered home the point that lying was nothing but trouble, no matter how hard he tried to put a positive spin on it.  Tony had made a new resolution to be completely honest with everyone he cared about.  Something he hadn’t been able to muster the courage to do with Gibbs.  It was another reason why leaving seemed like an attractive alternative. 

 

Gibbs being foolish enough to step out on ledge with a guy planning to jump was another.  All he had to do was step back a little and let Tony cover him.  It all worked out…more or less, but if Gibbs didn’t trust Tony with his life, how could Tony expect him to trust him with anything as important as his heart. 

 

“It’s all just too damn much for too damn long.”  Tony rubbed tiredly at his eyes.  “I keep thinking one of these days my number is going to be up.”

 

“Working for me wouldn’t be a cake walk, Tony.”  Pete said quietly.  “What Paladin does is not exactly safe.”

 

“I know.” Tony smiled. “Would be different though.”

 

“That it would.”  She smiled back at him. 

 

“Thinking I could do with different for a little while.”

 

Her expression turned thoughtful.  “You want some advice?”

 

Tony shrugged.  “Sure.”  It wasn’t like Ziva and McGee hadn’t been handing out their share lately.  No harm in letting Pete have a shot.

 

“Take some time to think about this.” 

 

Tony sat back in surprise.  “You change your mind?”

 

“Don’t be stupid.”  Pete glared at him.  “I already told you it is a standing offer.  I meant it and you know that.” 

 

She pointed a finger at him.  “This is the first time in three years…three years, Tony, that you’ve seriously considered my offer.  And it’s not because you want to work for me.  It’s because you have a boss who clearly doesn’t appreciate you and a director who pimped you out for revenge.  It’s because you lost a girlfriend you loved but weren’t in love with, and you got kicked in the teeth more than a few times by the day to day grind of the job.”

 

She leaned forward, bright green eyes holding his easily.  “Don’t misunderstand me; those are all valid reasons to quit.  And honestly, if it had been me I’d have jumped ship long before now.  But I don’t want you to come to me six months after you take the job and tell me you made the wrong choice.”

 

“So take some time and think this through.  Hell, take some of the weeks of vacation I know you never use and go to a beach somewhere.  Have some fun, get drunk and rowdy, and get laid.  Whatever it takes to recover your balance. And then call me and tell me you want the job.”

 

Tony smiled wryly.  At least Pete didn’t tell him he needed to get over Jeanne, or start acting like a man.  And he was tired. 

 

“Think that’s the best advice I’ve gotten in some time.”

 

“Well, I’m not just another pretty face.”  She laughed coyly.

 

“You are so much more than that.”

 

Tony was pleased to see a light blush rise in her cheeks.  He had a feeling it wasn’t something Pete did often.  But then, for all her willingness to flirt with him, her position and personality were such that honest compliments were probably a rarity.

 

“I’ll send you the specs on the job.  So far all you know for sure is the salary is better than what you make now.  To make an informed choice, you need to know what I want you do to do to earn it.”

 

“I’d appreciate that,” Tony said as he stood up.  He recognized the faint dismissal when he heard it.  Dinner was over and it was getting late. 

 

He offered her his hand, giving her assistances she didn’t need to get gracefully to her feet.  “Thank you for dinner.”

 

“It was my pleasure.”  Pete leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. 

 

“You want me to walk you back to your room?”  Tony growled playfully, waggling his eyebrows at her.

 

“I think I can handle it.”  She grinned, punching his arm lightly.  “I’ll have someone drop off the specs for you tomorrow, lover boy.”

 

“You could just e-mail it.”

 

“I could.”  She shrugged. “But I prefer the personal touch.” 

 

“You just like doing things your own way.”

 

“Yes, I do.”  She walked past him with a sway in her hips that was meant to draw the eye before looking over her shoulder. “If you’re going to work for me, you’ll have to get used to that.”

 

Tony shook his head, smiling as he watched her leave.  Working for Pete would be a challenge that was for sure.  And she was right about taking time to really think it through.  Unlike his other jobs, leaving NCIS would be a big decision.  It wasn’t one he should take lightly or rush into.

 

Tony nodded to himself.  He hadn’t voluntarily taken any time off since Gibbs went to Mexico.  Maybe he should.  Give himself some space to really consider his options without having to see the team or Gibbs every day.   After he got Pete’s proposal tomorrow, he’d see the director and put in a request.  The decision wouldn’t be any easier to make on a beach somewhere, but at least he could relax and get some sun while he was at it.  Not quite win/win, but it was definitely closer than he’d come to it in a long time. 

Chapter Text

Tony had intended to delay thinking about Pete’s offer until he put in for time off.  But he couldn’t stop weighing the pros and cons, trying to come to some sort of decision.  His thoughts kept moving in circles, making it nearly impossible to sleep. 

 

He’d given up on the idea of sleeping around four in the morning, opting to just get up and go running.  Tony wondered what it said about him that he was getting used to living and functioning well on so little sleep.  He wasn’t sure he could even remember the last time he’d gotten a full eight hours. 

 

Tony smirked remembering something Pete had said once.  ‘No one ever has to get used to a good thing, Tony.  You don’t have to learn to like ice cream. The stuff you get used to or learn to live with is usually the crap you don’t want but can’t avoid.’

 

Armed with a large cup of hazelnut coffee sweetened with four packets of sugar, Tony headed for the office.  He wouldn’t actually be in any earlier than he typically arrived at the office.  Not that McGee or Ziva knew that because Tony made a point of not being at his desk, or strolling out of the elevator until the appointed start of the day. 

 

He figured Gibbs knew, but then Gibbs had known about Tony’s late nights at the office too.  Not that the former Marine ever said anything.  Tony snorted to himself.  Gibbs wouldn’t care how many hours Tony put in or how little sleep he got, as long as it got the job done and didn’t affect his performance. 

 

That was telling in and of itself, even if Tony didn’t like what it was saying.  He was never going to matter to Gibbs even half as much as the damn job.  At least Pete hadn’t put the job over his well being.  She wanted him to want to work for her, and cared enough to give him time to think it over. 

 

Marisol, a file clerk who was old enough to be Tony’s mother had taken a liking to him, and was more than happy to let him use space in the records room when he came in early.  Not long after he’d started at NCIS, Tony had been assigned most of the mandatory paperwork that Gibbs never seemed to see as important.  Unless it was done the team wouldn’t have a stocked van and Abby’s lab wouldn’t be fully equipped, nor would they get their performance reviews or their annual security clearance renewals.  Tony had never passed on the responsibility, although, by all rights it should have fallen to McGee when he joined the team full time or when Tony had become team leader.

 

Tony wondered if Marisol would take time out to train McGee on the proper forms the way she had for him.  She probably would, if McGee was smart enough to ask for help.  And she definitely would if he had enough sense to realize she loved flowers.  Tony had a fresh bouquet sent to her every Monday. 

 

She didn’t care what kind of flowers as long as they were fresh and arranged well. Tony was grateful he didn’t have to shell out for a dozen roses every week.  It also didn’t hurt that the florist Tony ordered from considered providing something original and relatively inexpensive, on a weekly basis, as a welcomed challenge from his usual customers. 

 

Tony settled in at the small desk with its outdated monitor.  The computer worked well enough for what he needed it to do.  And he knew Marisol had repeatedly asked for a new monitor only to be turned down.  Evidently the higher ups didn’t see the need for her to have it.  McGee might be able to an upgrade for her if Tony left NCIS.  That would definitely win him points with her. 

 

He sipped his coffee waiting for the printer to produce in triplicate all the necessary paperwork.  Tony had everything that needed to be done through to the end of the month.  That should be more than enough lead time to include his week of leave and two weeks notice…if he gave it. 

 

Tony checked the clock.  It had only taken an hour to get all the forms completed.  When he’d started it had taken him three times that long just to get half of what needed to be done.  It didn’t hurt that he knew exactly what he needed now.  Or that had everything saved and simply had to update the forms.  He grinned to himself.  He’d destroy those files when he left.  McGee seemed to think there was nothing he couldn’t do better than Tony when it came to computers.  Might be a golden opportunity for him to prove it.  Besides, it wasn’t like Gibbs had given Tony any help; no reason for Tony to make McGee’s life easier than his had been. 

 

Tony finished his coffee, gathering up the forms.  He left one copy in Marisol’s inbox, leaving three Hershey kisses on top.  It would let her know he’d already been in and out this morning, and it never hurt to say ‘thank you’.  Small tokens of appreciation went a long way. 

 

Tony put the second copy of the forms into an inner office mail envelope sending them off to Gibbs for his signature.  He could drop them off on Gibbs desk, but he found the former Marine was less likely to ignore them if they came to him this way.  The third copy Tony kept for himself.  If Gibbs let things lapse too long or lost the forms, Tony wouldn’t have to waste time printing new copies.  Back when Morrow was Director, Tony used to just send him the forms without Gibbs’ signature.  Shepard was more of a stickler when it came to following proper protocol…at least when it came to the rest of the agency.  The “La Grenouille” case clearly showed she had no issue with excluding herself from those restrictions.

 

Tony checked the clock again.  By now Gibbs should have arrived and dropped off Abby’s morning Caf-Pow.  That should give Tony at least half an hour to talk to her without having to worry about being interrupted.

 

After wrestling with a growing list of pro’s for taking Pete’s job offer, he was hoping Abby could balance the scale.  Maybe she could give him a good reason to stay to counter all the reasons he had for leaving. He thought that if she could keep her own numerous job offers quiet, she should be able to stay mum about his until he was ready for everyone else to know.  And she was a friend, he felt obligated to tell her he was seriously considering leaving NCIS.  It would hurt her a lot if he didn’t say something, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.

 

Tony took the stairs down to Abby’s lab.  It was faster than taking the elevator and gave him a better chance of avoiding running into anyone.  It also gave him a chance to work off some lingering nervous energy. 

He hesitated on the landing, holding his breath as he listened for any signs of life on the other side of the door.  He grinned as he clearly heard the heavy beat of Abby’s music.  Even if he hadn’t been able to hear it, as he pushed open the heavy fire door, he could feel the pulse of it vibrating through the metal under his hand. 

 

The volume of her music was proof Abby was alone.  Conversation with anyone would be impossible with all that…noise.  Tony shook his head.  He had a similar passion for music, even if he never understood her particular taste.  And while he greatly appreciated the IPOD she’d gotten him, and everyone else on the team, he couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t gotten one for herself for use at the office. 

 

He checked the hallway, just in case.  He didn’t want to run into Gibbs on his way out or on his way in if the former Marine was running late.  The hallway was empty.  Tony breathed a sigh of relief.  He wasn’t really afraid of meeting Gibbs; he just didn’t want to have his chance to talk to Abby delayed, afraid he’d lose his nerve if he didn’t do it now.

 

He stepped into her lab, wincing as the music hit him full force.  Tony couldn’t quite figure out how Abby managed not to be deaf.  Although, maybe since she already knew sign language she wasn’t overly concerned with losing her hearing. 

 

He stepped over to the stereo and turned the music off.  Abby spun around.  “Gibbs, I thought….”  She stopped abruptly, smiling.  “Oh, hi, Tony.” 

 

“Hey, Abby.” 

 

“What brings you to my home away from home so early?” She took a long pull through the red straw in her Caf-Pow. 

 

“I was hoping to talk to you.”  Tony tried not to fidget.  He took a deep breath.  “If you’ve got time that is.  I could always come back if you’re busy.”

 

“Pull up a stool.”  Abby grinned brightly, pointing to the seat closest to him, putting her drink down on the countertop.  “I’m just waiting on the mass spec to do its thing.”  She sat down on a stool, spinning it around twice.  “So, what’s up, Tony Boy?”

 

Tony ignored the offer to take a seat, opting to lean on the counter, arms folded across his chest.  “When you went to dinner with that head hunter—“

 

“I already told you guys I wasn’t considering taking the job.”  Abby threw up her hands.  “Sheesh.  It was just dinner. I never seriously considered leaving.  Besides, it’s not like he was offering anything nearly as nice as the rumors flying around said he did.”  She rolled her eyes.  “I mean, I’m worth that, but it wasn’t something that was ever really on the table.”

 

“What if it had been?”

 

She blinked, staring at him in obvious confusion.  “I don’t under—“

 

“What if he was offering you that salary, the company car, the lab with all that stuff?”

 

“Oh Tony.” She hopped off her stool to envelope him in a breath stealing hug.  “I love you guys. I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Tony hugged her back, enjoying the warmth and friendship she so freely offered.  He placed a kiss in her hair. “Not worried about you leaving,” he murmured. 

 

Abby pulled back to look up at him.  “Good.  Because I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Tony bit his lip.  “But I might.”

 

“What?”  Abby gripped his arms. 

 

He cleared his throat.  “I got a job offer.”

 

“The Director finally offered you a team of your own, didn’t she?”  Abby’s eyes widened.  “I always thought she would eventually.  You did a good job while Gibbs was out.  Not that I told you that then.  And I should have.  You were great.  It only makes sense Jenny would finally see you are capable--”

 

“Abby—“

 

“of having a team of your own permanently.  I just hoped she’d hold off for awhile longer.  Which is totally selfish of me.  I mean, you’re my friend, I only—“

 

“Abby—“

 

“wanted to keep you around for as long as possible.  I am really, really happy for you.  Please don’t think I’m not.  You deserve—“

 

Tony placed his fingers against her lips to stop the steady flow of words.  “Shepard offered me my own team months ago, Abby.  I turned it down.”

 

She reached up and pulled his hand away.  “She did?”

 

“She did.”  Tony nodded. 

 

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  She punched him in the shoulder. 

 

He arched an eyebrow.  “Like you told me about all your job offers?”

 

“Okay, you got a point.”  Abby frowned.  “I could have mentioned that.  I just didn’t see any reason to bring them up since I wasn’t going to take them.”

 

“Yeah, well, I turned down the Director, so it was moot.  No reason to mention it to you either.”

 

“Why did you turn it down?”  She cocked her head to one side, expression quizzical.  “I thought you wanted your own team.”

 

“I thought I did too.” Tony sighed, shaking his head.  “Why I turned her down doesn’t matter now, Abby.” 

 

He didn’t really want to get into what he’d been thinking at the time.  It was an opportunity he didn’t regret passing on, but in light of everything that happened since…he couldn’t honestly say he was certain he’d made the right choice. 

 

“This job offer isn’t from the Director.”  Tony licked his lips nervously. Abby wasn’t going to like the next bit.  “If I take it, I’d be leaving NCIS.”

 

“You’d go to work for the FBI?”  Abby gave him an outraged look, poking him hard in the chest with one finger. 

 

Tony stepped back, putting himself safely out of arm’s reach.  “Abby what are you—“

 

“It’s Fornell, isn’t it?”  She advanced on him.  “He offered you a job.  He’s always telling Gibbs how lucky he was to find you before he could.  That man—“

 

“Fornell didn’t offer me a job, Abby.”  Tony laughed.  He couldn’t believe she’d even thought he would.  Or that Fornell would even consider him a good find.  The man didn’t like him any more than he did Gibbs…probably less when it came right down to it. 

 

“He didn’t?”

 

“No.”  Tony shook his head.  “As far as I know the man hates me.  And Sacks is still on Fornell’s team.  The guy tried to have me jailed for life, so working with him would be more than just a little awkward.”

 

“True.”  She made several meaningless gestures with her hands as though trying to pluck words from the air.  “You won’t make as much money if you go back to being a cop.”

 

“Never really thought about going back to being a cop,” Tony told her softly.  “There really isn’t another law enforcement agency that could hold a candle to you guys.”

 

“Then what—“

 

“Private security company.”  Tony told her.  “Paladin, Inc.”

 

She stared at him in shock, her mouth gaping.  “I’ve heard of them.”

 

Tony figured she might be familiar with them.  Paladin wasn’t a large, but they had a solid reputation.  And after what happened with Blackwater in Iraq, they were one of the few private companies still working in that country for the Department of Defense.  Pete told him they had actually taken over several of Blackwater’s assignments. 

 

“You told them you’d think about it, didn’t you?”

 

“I did.”  Tony admitted, surprising himself with how calm he felt about that admission.

 

Abby’s blue eyes were suddenly shinier than they’d been a moment ago.  “You really are seriously thinking about taking that job.”

 

“I am.”

 

“Why?”  Her question was almost plaintive. 

 

Tony elected to give her an obvious reason.  It was easier than trying to explain how much it hurt to spend every day with Gibbs knowing he wasn’t going to ever mean as much to him as Gibbs meant to Tony.  “Because it’s a damn good offer.  And it might be the best I’ll ever get.  I don’t want to just dismiss it.” 

 

“Is it because of Jeanne, isn’t it?”  Abby patted his chest, over his heart.  “She broke you.”

 

“No.  She didn’t break my heart, Abby.”  It was broken long before Jeanne had a chance to do it; he just hadn’t realized it.  “And it’s not because of her.”   

 

Abby looked skeptical.  “Does any one else know?”

 

“No.” Tony shook his head.  “I don’t want to say anything until I’ve made up my mind.”

 

“Afraid they might try to talk you out of it?”  Her chin rose in challenge.

 

Tony smiled sadly.  “You sure they’d even try?”  He couldn’t see Ziva or McGee putting up much effort to convince him to stay. 

 

“Tony!  How could you even say that?  They wouldn’t want you to leave any more than I do.  We’re family—“

 

“Gibbs told you to take the job.”  Tony quietly cut her off.  The former Marine hadn’t even hesitated when he said it either.  And Tony knew Abby had a special place in Gibbs’ heart.  A place, Tony knew he’d never get a piece of no matter how much he might want it. 

 

“He didn’t mean it.  He sent me flowers later as an apology,” Abby countered confidently.

 

“And that’s a hell of a lot more than I’ve ever gotten from him Abby.”  Tony tried not to sound hurt and disappointed, but knew he failed. He couldn’t see Gibbs worrying much over whether or not Tony felt appreciated. 

 

“I don’t mind the head slaps.  Mostly because I know those are needed, but not all the time.  Would it kill him to just once show a little appreciation for the shit I do right??!”

 

“He does—“

 

“No, he doesn’t.”  Tony shook his head.  “Five years, Abby, and I wouldn’t even use all my fingers to count the number of times he’s said ‘good job, DiNozzo’.”

 

“He gave you his badge and gun.”  She pointed out.

 

“Yeah…when he couldn’t even remember my name.”  Tony almost snarled.  “A ringing endorsement if there ever was one.”

 

“He knew your name,” Abby protested hotly.

 

Tony shook his head.  Gibbs was still winging it then, of that Tony was sure.  And it hurt like hell to know he was so easily forgotten.  Clearly he wasn’t as important to the older man as he’d like to be. 

 

“Even if he did know my name, Abby, he took back his badge, his gun and his team a few months later.  He never intended for me to be more than just a place holder, a stand in until he came back.”

 

“That’s not true.  He said he wasn’t coming back.”

 

“And did anyone really believe that?”  Tony snorted. “Shepard didn’t even bother to file the retirement paperwork.  McGee could barely bring himself to call me boss. Ziva sure as hell didn’t think I was in charge.  And you kept his picture on your computer monitors like a shrine.”

 

Abby flushed.  “I missed him.”

“I did too.”  Tony admitted.  “And it wasn’t that I didn’t want him to come back, Abby.  I did.  I just wanted…hell, I just wanted my team to put as much faith in me as they did in him.”

 

“We did.”

 

“You might have.”  Tony was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Their friendship demanded that much.  “But the others…not really.”

 

“The first time Ziva got into trouble, it was Gibbs she called.  Not me.  And he came running.”  His lips curled upward in a bitter smile.  “Find myself wondering if he’d have done that for me.”

 

“Don’t be silly.  Of course, he would have.  He has several times.”

 

Tony chose not to respond.  His silence spoke eloquently of his doubts on the subject.  Abby reached out and cupped his face, forcing eye contact.   “Tony…he would come if you called.”

 

“About a case, absolutely.”  Tony knew that.  He always trusted Gibbs to have his back when it was case related.  He’d never asked the Marine to step in for him on something personal, and he doubted the man would be willing to go out on a limb for him.  It wasn’t like Gibbs cut him any slack when a paperwork snafu had mistakenly declared Tony dead, voiding all his clearances.  Or when his car was stolen and then destroyed.  Or when Ziva invited everyone to dinner but Tony.  Or when Paula died.  Or over his relationship with Jeanne. 

 

“No, Tony, not just about a case.  He’d come if you called for any reason.” 

 

“If you say so, Abby.”  Tony sighed, looking away, not wanting to fight with her.  “It doesn’t matter.”

 

She frowned.  “Yes, it does.” 

 

Tony smiled wanly.  He wasn’t going to put her faith to the test if he could help it.  In this situation, he’d rather suspect than be proven right.  Somehow it hurt less that way. 

 

“You should trust him.”

 

“Why?”  Tony grimaced.  “He doesn’t trust me any more.” 

 

If he ever did, Tony thought, but didn’t say aloud.  It wasn’t like Gibbs trusted him to act as back up with Ari.  No, that was Shepard and Ziva.  So maybe this latest lack of faith wasn’t really as new as Tony thought.  Maybe he was only just wising up to it.

 

“You think he doesn’t trust you because of the frog thing, don’t you?”  Abby blinked.  “He knows you were following orders.  He’s not going to hold that against you.” 

 

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Abby.” Tony shook his head.  Gibbs’ expression said it all in the men’s room when Gibbs found out about La Grenouille the first time.  He wouldn’t have lied to Franks.  It was an unforgivable sin to Gibbs…or at least it seemed that way.

 

“Well I am.”  Abby stamped her foot, her heavy boots echoing loudly in the otherwise silent lab. “He trusts you.”

 

“I think we’ll have to agree to disagree.”  Tony shrugged one shoulder. “Even if he does trust me…it’s not as if I’m needed here any more.” 

 

“Did you hit your head this morning?”  Abby glared at him.  “It was your idea to check out the wife on the last case.  No one else thought it was her.  And she turned out to be a killer, Tony.”

 

“And as McGee pointed out, it was you who did all the work running her DNA through known felons, before expanding the search to Interpol.”  Tony shook his head.  “I don’t get to take credit for that.”

 

“Computers trump good old fashioned police work, Abby.”  Tony laughed without any real humor.  “No one around here has ever accused me of being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but even I know that much.”

 

“Technology, for as much as I love it, is not fool proof, Tony.  We still need insight and good instincts.”

 

“You got that with Gibbs.”  Tony took a deep breath.  “And with you and McGee there’s plenty of brain power to figure out any puzzle that comes up.  Besides, McGee’s a good agent; he’s earned a shot as being senior the same way I earned a shot at being team leader.  And Ziva’s no novice as an investigator any more. She’s sharp, capable, and she’s certainly lethal enough in any situation to be good back up.  Ducky and Palmer round everything out by providing their expertise in autopsy.” 

 

Tony made eye contact with her. “Face it, Abby, I’m just taking up valuable space.”

“That’s just bullshit and you know it.”  Abby glared at him, wiping angrily at a tear that slipped free.  “And why the hell did you even come in here if you already made up your mind?”

 

“Because I haven’t.”  Tony pulled her into a tight hug.  “And I was hoping you could help me find a good reason to stay.”

 

“We’re family.”  Abby said, clinging to him.

 

“I know.” 

 

“And that’s not enough for you?”

 

“It’s the reason I’ve stayed this long.”  Tony rubbed his cheek in her hair. “But it’s not enough for me to stay forever.”

 

“Are they going to pay you a lot?”

 

“Triple my salary.”

 

Abby sighed heavily.  “Benefits?  Perks?”

 

“I’ll know about that more later today when I get the specs in writing.”

 

“I don’t have to give Paladin my answer for at least a week.”  Tony pulled back from their hug.  “I’m going to take some time off.  Do some thinking.” He mustered a smile for her.  “Maybe work in some rest and relaxation while I’m at it.”

 

“Good.”  Abby nodded decisively.  “You look tired.  You shouldn’t be making big decisions when you’re tired.  It’s too easy to make the wrong choice.  And you shouldn’t rush into this.”

 

“I know.”  Her words were a nice echo of Pete’s from last night.  “I’m not going to be hasty, Abby.”   

 

“What are you going to tell Gibbs when he asks why you want the time off?”  Abby bit her lower lip nervously.  “He won’t—“

 

“I’m not going to ask him.  The Director will approve my request for a week.”  Tony’s eyes hardened.  “She owes me.”  Having him work an unsanctioned covert op definitely put her in his debt, not to mention costing him his car.  And unlike Gibbs, she knew the time he had on the books was his to take.  He’d earned it.

 

“Bossman won’t like that.”

 

“He’d like my quitting because he refused my request a lot less.”

 

Abby pursed her lips.  “True.” 

 

“I need you to promise you won’t tell any one else.  Please.”

 

Abby’s lips tightened and for a moment Tony thought she was going to refuse.  “On one condition.”

 

“And that is?”

 

“I will stop by your place tonight with a long list of why you should stay.  You have to take it with you and consider everything I put on it.  And you have to give me a chance to refute all the reasons you think leaving is a good idea.”

 

Tony smiled. “I can live with that.”  It was what he’d hoped for when he’d walked in.  He held out his hand, and Abby shook it. 

 

“Thanks, Abby.”

 

“For what?”

 

“For being my friend.  It means a lot to me.”

 

She blushed, making a shooing motion.  “Get out of here before someone notices you’re missing.”

 

Tony tossed off a careless salute.  “Yes, Ma’am.”

 

He headed for the elevators and up to the bull pen.  He didn’t see the silent figure standing in the shadows holding a box of Abby’s favorite donut holes.  He also didn’t see the look on Gibbs face as he considered everything he’d overheard.

 

Chapter Text

Gibbs stared at the closed elevator doors, not really seeing them.  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.   Tony had a job offer…and he was thinking about taking it. 

 

Like Abby, Gibbs initially thought Shepard had finally offered Tony his own team.  She had made a point of telling Gibbs how well she thought Tony had done in his absence.  Gibbs assumed she was just waiting for an opening to become available to make an offer.

 

He had also assumed Tony would take the job.  It was only logical that he would.  He’d earned it after all. It was something Gibbs had been trying to brace himself for.  He told himself that losing Tony to another team was better than losing him to the plague or a bullet. 

 

Gibbs shook his head.  He thought he still time to get used to the idea.  Six months, maybe even a year.  But Shepard already offered Tony a team of his own.  She’d made the offer months ago…and Gibbs hadn’t known.  He’d never even suspected Shepard had already made a move.

 

Why the hell had Tony turned Jenny down?  He hadn’t given Abby an answer.  Not really.  He’d just hinted that having is own team wasn’t something he wanted.  Gibbs found that hard to believe.  They’d butted heads on more than one occasion since his return from Mexico because Tony had gotten used to being in charge.  There was no doubt in Gibbs mind that the younger man liked being team leader and was confident in his ability to handle the responsibility.

 

His confidence wasn’t misplaced.  While Tony didn’t do things the way Gibbs did---something everyone had taken great pains to point out to Tony if the office gossip was to be believed---but some of his ideas, like reorganizing the truck, were actually very sound.  And even though they didn’t call their team exchange of ideas and information ‘campfires’ any more, there was no denying that a ‘campfire’ was exactly what they were doing.  He was ready to lead his own team, even if Tony hadn’t declared it from the roof top the way Gibbs had told Shepard he would.

 

Gibbs eyes narrowed.  He hadn’t understood then why Shepard was so insistent he tell Tony he’d done a good job.  It made sense now.  She was either hoping Gibbs offering a compliment would encourage Tony to take the position she was offering, or she was betting that getting a compliment, however minor from Gibbs, was all it would take to convince Tony to stay.  With “La Grenouille” still in the offing then, Gibbs was fairly confident Shepard wanted the latter.

 

From what Tony said to Abby, a compliment or small show of appreciation might have done just that.  Was it possible that Shepard knew Tony well enough to know how he’d react? Did she know Tony better than Gibbs did?

 

Gibbs frowned.  He’d told Tony more than a few times he’d done a good job…hadn’t he?  It wasn’t all head slaps, damn it.  So he didn’t hand out compliments every day, so what.  He didn’t mollycoddle his people.  Tony knew that.  And he should know he’d done a good job without having to hear it from Gibbs.  He was an adult, not a child.  It was stupid to consider leaving because he wasn’t told he was appreciated.

 

But…even Abby had said it was nice to know she was wanted.  And she shouldn’t have any doubts on that issue.  So it wasn’t inconceivable that Tony might want the same.

 

“I don’t treat him any differently than I do any—“ Gibbs muttered to himself, stopping when he realized he was speaking aloud, and knowing what he was about to say was a lie.

 

He set the bar high for everyone on his team, but he was harder on Tony than the others.  Tony was his senior field agent.  Gibbs didn’t just expect better from him, he demanded it.  He thought Tony understood it was meant to be motivational, not judgmental.  Obviously, Gibbs hadn’t communicated as well as he thought.

 

He was also wrong to think getting past the two year anniversary meant Tony no longer thought of leaving government service.  Gibbs expected Tony would be a lifer, like him, if not with NCIS, then maybe another agency.  The FBI was a natural choice in light of how often Fornell had hinted that Tony’s talents could be put to good use there. 

 

He found himself wondering if Fornell had ever offered Tony a job.  Gibbs would kick his ass if he had.  Tobias can go find his own damn talent, Gibbs thought silently with a snarl.  It wasn’t like the FBI didn’t have recruiters all over the place. 

 

Gibbs sighed.  It had never occurred to him that Tony would consider leaving law enforcement.  The younger man would never be happy with some corporate job…except that Paladin didn’t sound like a corporation like Tony’s father ran.  At Paladin, Tony would still get to carry a gun, could see exotic locations, and would probably still be putting himself in danger.

 

Gibbs suddenly found it hard to breathe.  Who would look out for Tony?   He didn’t eat right or sleep enough.  Who would watch his six on the job?  Gibbs had lost track of the number of times Tony had been concussed, shot at, or hurt in some fashion while working.  He needed good back up.  It was Gibbs’ job to watch out for him.

 

It had to be him, because it was obvious no one else was watching out for Tony well enough.  Gibbs had only been gone for a few months and Tony had gotten himself wrapped up in an unsanctioned undercover operation.  Admittedly, he should have been able to trust Shepard, and his team should have been there to back him up instead of being kept out of the loop.  If Gibbs had been there none of that would have happened…but he hadn’t been there to watch out for Tony.   Gibbs swallowed hard. He’d let Tony down.  He’d failed him.

 

Gibbs glared at the elevator doors, his hand crumpling the paper top of the bag of donut holes he was still holding.  He’d been on a beach in Mexico when Tony needed him.  He’d been hanging out with a guy he thought he could trust to always do the right thing, only to find Mike wasn’t the man he thought he was.  Mike had a vendetta he never told Gibbs about and a son in the Marine Corps he neglected to mention.

 

Gibbs grimaced.  He’d trusted Mike.  And the man had put him in a position where he had to lie for him…more than once.   Worse than that, Mike had given Tony another concussion to add to his collection.   

 

Gibbs shook his head. Tony shouldn’t trust him to watch his six any more…his leaving, keeping secrets…that should have made Tony question his loyalty at least a little.  Yet, he was clearly willing to follow Gibbs anywhere, without hesitation. 

 

Tony never showed any doubts…except to when it came to thinking Gibbs didn’t trust him. How could he think Gibbs didn’t trust him? He gave the younger man his badge, his gun, his team!!  So what if he was still a little confused on details at the time?  That didn’t mean he had just passed off something so important to anyone handy.  He thought Tony understood that...and he likely would have if not for the way Gibbs had come back. 

 

Gibbs scowled.  Shepard had been right. As much as it hurt to admit it, while he was in Mexico, things had moved forward without him.  It was stupid to think he’d be able to pick up as though he’d never left…even though that was exactly what he tried to do.  Just dumping things on Tony’s desk and taking back his team without so much as a thank you hadn’t meant to be an insult.  In hindsight, Gibbs realized that’s exactly what it had been.   He hadn’t meant to shove Tony’s face in being demoted…not really.

 

And yes, Gibbs had been pissed about being lied to about Tony’s undercover op, but he understood Tony was following orders.  Gibbs wouldn’t have lied to Mike, but given what he knew of the man now….he wasn’t sure he could trust Mike enough to share details of an undercover op. 

 

Gibbs gasped.  Maybe Tony’s faith in him wasn’t as absolute as he thought.  Maybe it hadn’t just been orders that kept him from saying anything.  How could Tony keep working for a guy he didn’t trust to watch his six?  Was that the real reason he was considering leaving? 

 

Gibbs bit his lower lip.  No, that couldn’t be it.  Tony still followed his lead without hesitation.  He still did whatever Gibbs asked the same as always.  And he had told Abby he had absolute faith that Gibbs would come if he called about a case.  So he clearly still trusted him when it came to the job.  But maybe he was starting to have doubts.  Maybe he wasn’t as confident as he used to be that Gibbs could be relied on.  He obviously didn’t think Gibbs would come if he called for any reason not job related.  That was not only wrong…it wasn’t true. 

 

He cursed silently. How could Tony know that I would jump any time he called, Gibbs asked himself.  It wasn’t like he’d ever discussed anything with Tony that wasn’t case related.  Or invited him out for dinner.  Or made Tony feel completely welcome in his home rather than grudgingly offering him a place to stay when he needed it.  Or failed to take advantage of an opportunity to make Tony the butt of a joke.

 

Shit.  His second ex-wife was right.  He really did suck when it came to communicating with people he cared about.  That thought brought him up short.  Of course he cared about Tony…but not like that.  No.  Gibbs neatly cut off that line of thought.  Tony was a teammate, a subordinate…he couldn’t, wouldn’t think of him as anything else. 

 

He forcefully refocused.  Tony seemed to understand him better than anyone ever had so it was easy to assume he knew how important he was.  Gibbs shook his head.  He knew better than to just assume.  Not being in the habit of explaining himself was a piss poor reason let anyone on his team believe they personally didn’t matter to Gibbs…least of all Tony.

 

Not only did he apparently fail to express himself, he’d somehow managed to convince Tony he wasn’t needed on the team at all.  How the hell did that happen? 

 

It was Tony, with that Dread Pirate Roberts reference, who’d explained how Gibbs’ gut feeling the delivery boy was their “Eraser” could be correct despite the kid’s age.  And it was Tony who’d suspected Michael Arnett’s wife.  He’d thought she’d killed him for money rather than because she was an Al Queda operative, but that didn’t change the fact she was involved and Tony was the only one who suspected her.   

 

Those were only two recent cases.  There were plenty of others where Tony had proven his worth.  Just because he didn’t always have all the right answer all the time didn’t mean he wasn’t needed. No one had all the right answers all the time.   It was why they were a team in the first place.

 

Gibbs thoughts were interrupted by the pulsing beat of Abby’s music once more leaking out of her lab.  He wasn’t going to solve anything by standing where he was.  He stepped into Abby’s lab.  With her back to the door she never saw him, and the loud music made it impossible to hear him.  He shook his head.  She shouldn’t make it so easy to sneak up on her.  

 

In this case it was definitely a good thing.  He couldn’t talk to her now.  Gibbs was afraid that with his thoughts so focused on what he’d overheard he’d slip and somehow reveal he’d been eavesdropping on a private conversation.  Finding out would piss off Abby, and Gibbs didn’t think that would help her come up with things to add to the list of reasons for Tony to stay.  He wanted her to have a long, convincing list, so he simply left the bag of donut holes on the counter where she would find them eventually and headed back out.

 

He hit the button for the elevator, pleased to find the car empty.  He wasn’t really in the mood to share such a tiny space with someone else.  He finished his coffee before getting off.  Gibbs gave the cup a dirty look.  They never made them large enough in his opinion.

 

He could hear the usual banter going on between Tony, McGee and Ziva.  Gibbs strode purposefully toward his desk.  It was impossible to ignore the way they suddenly went silent, guilty, wary looks passing back and forth.  Ordinarily Gibbs liked being able to put a damper on their mood and get them to focus on the task at hand, but today he stifled a wince.  Was he really that awful to work for?

 

Gibbs sat his desk, checking his e-mail, discreetly eyeing his team as they tried to look busy. Everything had been wrapped up from their previous case.  And they hadn’t gotten another one, so it wasn’t like there was anything pressing they had to do right now.  

 

He glanced over at Tony. On the surface, the younger man didn’t look any different than he normally did while doing whatever he was doing that looked like work.  But Gibbs could almost sense a sort of nervous anticipation about him.  He’d told Abby he was getting specs on the job offer today. 

 

Triple his current salary was nothing to sneeze at.  Gibbs knew Tony had expensive tastes.  Designer labels and the like were not cheap.  But he also knew money wasn’t the sole motivation for Tony.  If it was, the younger man wouldn’t have become a cop in the first place much less stayed one. 

 

Gibbs wondered what else Paladin would have to offer.  He didn’t know much about the company. He briefly considered having McGee research them for him before dismissing the idea.  He couldn’t tell McGee why he was interested in Paladin, and the junior agent was bound to be curious.  It wasn’t like Gibbs could say it was related to a case when they obviously didn’t have one, and he definitely couldn’t tell McGee to keep everyone else out of the loop and expect him to follow through.  Not only was McGee lousy at keeping quiet, Gibbs didn’t want any more secrets between his team than there already were.  Shepard and her stupid vendetta had done enough damage.   

 

Gibbs looked up when Tony’s phone rang.  Before Gibbs had taken off for Mexico, at least half their case calls had come to Tony.  More than one person in the call center was leery of talking to Gibbs directly and considered Tony easier to approach.  After his return from Mexico, he found out Tony had made it clear all case calls were to come to Gibbs.  But as things returned to normal, old patterns again reappeared, there were still a few who tended to call Tony first.  

 

Gibbs’ brow furrowed.  Tony’s greeting was very casual.  Friendly even.  The call was probably not a case then.  For all Tony’s tendency to take a lighthearted, less serious approach, he was usually professional and more reserved when it came to work related phone calls.

 

“Yeah, Tom, I was expecting a package.”

 

If ‘Tom’ was who Gibbs thought, then he was on duty working security. It wasn’t uncommon for security to call and confirm a package was expected.  Doing so lessened the chance of something dangerous unknowingly making it through the building.  All deliveries were scanned, and double checked, especially after that plague poisoned letter incident. 

 

“Go ahead and sign for it.  Send it up when you’re done scanning it.”  Tony arched an eyebrow.  “What do you mean you can’t?” He shook his head, his expression puzzled.  “Hunh.  Yeah.  Okay.  I’ll be right down.”

 

“Problem, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked sharply when Tony hung up.

 

“No, Boss.”  Tony stood up.  “Just a little something I need to take care of.”

 

“Having your mail sent here now?” Ziva clucked her tongue.  She’d obviously been listening as closely as Gibbs had.  She smirked.  “Are you afraid some pissed on girlfriend is going to send you a letter bomb?”

 

“Pissed off.  Pissed on is an entirely different subject.”  Tony corrected her with a tight grin.  “And I’ve been getting mail at the office for years, Ziva.”

 

Gibbs knew that was true.  He often did the same thing.  The number of hours they put in on the job made it hard to get anything not sent to the office.

 

Tony headed for the elevators when Gibbs’ barked out his name stopping him. His suspicion that the package was the job offer Tony had been expecting made him want to order the younger man to sit back down, but the defiant expression Tony wore kept him from doing it.  Tony had told Abby he’d quit if Gibbs tried to deny him the leave he planned on requesting, and it looked like younger man was prepared to walk at the least provocation.  It was the first time in a long time Gibbs found himself wary of pushing too hard. 

 

“Don’t be all day.”

 

“Understood, Boss.”

 

Gibbs waited until Tony was in the elevator before getting up.  McGee gave him a look, clearly wanting to ask where he was going but afraid to actually do so.  Gibbs held up his empty cup before tossing it into the nearest trash can.

 

“I’m going for coffee.”  The statement and his actions were enough to answer any unvoiced questions.  They didn’t need to know he was really going downstairs to the lobby to spy on Tony. 

 

Knowing Ziva and McGee were probably watching, Gibbs hit the button for the elevator.  They would see the doors open from their desks, but wouldn’t know he didn’t get on.  He slipped out the nearby doorway to the stairwell and took the stairs down to the lobby at a rapid clip. 

 

He stepped silently out onto the main floor of the building, grateful the stairwell entrance didn’t open out into plain sight.  He heard the elevator chime, announcing its arrival. Gibbs grinned, pleased to have beaten Tony to the first floor.

 

He waited in the shadows until Tony headed for the front entrance.  Gibbs then moved forward so he could see the guard station clearly without being seen. A young man with long hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing pristine white coveralls, was waiting in front of Tom.  There was a small logo on the breast pocket but Gibbs couldn’t make it out from where he stood.

 

“Hey, Tom.”

 

“Tony.”  Tom greeted him calmly, nodding toward the visitor. 

 

“You Tony DiNozzo?” The man asked quietly, a trace of an accent in his voice.

 

“I am.” 

 

“You got ID?”

 

Tony blinked, before shrugging and offered the man his badge.  “Good enough?”

 

The man grinned, even white teeth flashing brightly.  “Perfect.”  He held out his hand.  “Marco Ricci.” 

 

Tony shook his hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

 

“Sorry about dragging you away from work, and the whole ID thing, but Pete insisted I hand the keys over to Tony DiNozzo personally.  No one else.  Period.  Not going to get my ass chewed out for not doing what I’m supposed to.”

 

“Keys?” 

 

Marco nodded, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb before holding out a set of what looked like car keys. “She’s parked out front.  Didn’t want put her in the lot until I knew for sure you were around to give her to.”

 

“Parked out front?  What--”

 

“Pete said you might be going on a road trip.”  Marco made a meaningless gesture with his hands. “Wanted me to make sure you had a reliable set of classy wheels to use before you took off.” 

 

“I don’t understand.” Tony shook his head.  “I’ve wasn’t expecting—“

 

“Oh yeah,” Marco offered Tony a sealed envelope, “I’m supposed to give you this too.  Pete said it was information you needed and it would answer any questions you had.”

 

Tony took the envelope, slipping it into his inside jacket pocket. Gibbs bit back a curse.  He wanted to see Tony open it, hoping the younger man’s expression as he looked at it would give him some idea of what it contained.

 

“You want to check out the car?  Make sure she’s going to be okay for you?”  Marco smiled warmly.  “If she’s not to your liking, I can get you something else.  I am supposed to make sure you are happy with it.”

 

Tony nodded dumbly, following Marco as he headed outside.  Gibbs followed as well, careful not to be noticed by Tony or Tom.  He didn’t want to explain what he was doing there.

 

Sitting in front of the building, gleaming in the late autumn sunshine was a candy apple read Ferrari.  Gibbs jaw tightened, and his hands curled into fists.  Paladin clearly had more to offer than just a damn good salary.

 

Tony’s mouth dropped open, and he looked at Marco incredulously, green eyes wide. “You’ve got to be kidding!!”

 

Marco raised both eyebrows.  “You don’t like her?” 

 

“Like her??!”  Tony shook his head, awe and admiration coloring his tone in equal measure.  He reached out to reverently touch the car, his hand ghosting over the glossy finish.  “It’s a car like Magnum drove.  How could I not like it?”

 

Marco smiled.  “Pete mentioned you were a fan.” 

 

Tony laughed, openly joyous.  “I can’t believe—“

 

“So you want to take her for a spin?”

 

Tony looked ready and willing to say “YES”, but stopped short.  He shook his head.  It made Gibbs chest tighten painfully to see the glow in Tony’s eyes fade, resignation and disappointment taking its place.

 

“I can’t right now.”

 

“Work stuff.”  Marco nodded sagely.  “Know how that goes.” He put a hand on Tony’s shoulder.  “But she is all yours, my friend, at least for now.  So you can fully enjoy her later when you are free to have fun.”

 

“True.”  Tony grinned.  “Thank you.”

 

“No thanks necessary.”  Marco held up both hands in a gesture of innocence.  “Just doing what the chief told me to.”

 

Marco reached into the car and pulled out a motorcycle helmet.  He put two fingers to his lips and whistled loudly.  A neon green street cycle pulled up a second later.  Wearing a full face shield helmet and leather, Gibbs couldn’t make out much about the driver.  There was a logo on the leather jacket that appeared to be a match for the one on Marco’s coveralls. 

 

As Marco moved to mount the bike, Tony stopped him.  “Hey, Marco?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“When do I have to have her back to Pete?”

 

“No idea, man.” Marco shook his head.  “None of my business, so Pete didn’t tell me.  Whatever is in the envelope is supposed to answer all your questions.”

 

Tony nodded.  He waved to Marco as the motorcycle pulled away, accelerating smoothly out of the lot and into traffic. 

 

Gibbs forced himself to stay in place.  He wouldn’t get anywhere by demanding answers.  He’d already alienated Tony enough for the younger man to be seriously considering leaving NCIS, he did not want to make the situation worse.    

 

He watched Tony pull out the envelope, open it and pull a sheaf of paper.  The younger man did a quick read of the top page, laughing at whatever was written there before shaking his head and returning everything to the envelope again.  Gibbs frowned.  He had no idea what to make of that. 

 

Tony got into the car, a nearly incandescent grin forming as he started it.  The car came to life with a growl that was the hallmark of nearly every high performance engine ever made.  Gibbs made a bet with himself over whether or not Tony could give into temptation and take the Ferrari on a test drive.  He couldn’t decided if he won or lost when Tony simply moved the car to the furthest open space in the lot that was still within full view of the security cameras. 

 

Tony not giving in meant Gibbs still had a lot of pull.  Pull the younger man might well resent or be chaffing under.  Had Tony given in, Gibbs would have had ground to yell at him for being late, to force him to explain where he’d gone and why.  As it was, he couldn’t even confront Tony about the stupid car unless he admitted to spying on him.

 

Gibbs slipped further into the shadows as Tony returned to the building.  The younger man looked happy, like he was floating.  Until he reached for the door, and then it was like someone had flipped a switch.  His expression shifted into something neutral, his body posture morphed into something more staid, less upbeat.  It was an amazing transformation.  No one would ever know looking at Tony that he’d just been handed something he’d dreamed of having since he was a boy. 

 

Gibbs grimaced.  He’d forgotten how good Tony could be at undercover work.  And it hurt to think this was something the younger man was obviously making a conscious effort to conceal.  It was shades of Jeanne all over again. 

 

Gibbs growled.  He wanted to punch the wall.  He didn’t know what to do with what he was feeling or thinking.  Coffee.  He needed more coffee.

 

Gibbs told himself when he got back he’d have it figured out.  He’d know what to do by then.  He’d know what to say.  He deliberately ignored the little voice inside him that called him a liar.  

Chapter Text

McGee sighed silently, forcing himself to straighten his spine.  Today would be better than yesterday.  He repeated that to himself.  It had to be better.  He didn’t even want to consider how it could be worse. 

 

His pep talk not really working, McGee eyed the emergency stop button on the elevator panel.  Maybe he could just hide out in the elevator for the day.  He snorted.   That was not a viable option.  The way Gibbs had been acting since Tony left the former Marine would probably pry open the doors with a crowbar and beat McGee to death with it.

 

He shook his head.  It was Friday.  That had to count for something.  He had to remind himself that it had been Tuesday morning, only three days ago, Tony had gotten a call from security about a package.  It felt like a lot more time than that had passed.  McGee sighed again.  He really should have called in sick or something. 

 

A package, properly examined by security, seemed like such an innocent thing.  Hardly what McGee would have expected to become a harbinger of doom, but since Tony got that call everything had gone to shit.  McGee only knew what had been delivered courtesy of the office rumor mill.  Tony hadn’t said anything when he’d come back.  Not a word.  Knowing that a Ferrari had been delivered to him…a Ferrari for God’s sake…it was hard to imagine Tony not gloating or bragging about it. 

 

Of all the things Tony would normally brag about, a car like that definitely topped the list.  But he’d simply come back, ignored McGee and Ziva, and headed upstairs to talk to the Director.  McGee had no idea what was Tony said to Shepard, or what she might have said to him.  Even the office gossip failed to fill in the blanks there because whatever they said to each other hadn’t been loud enough to leak through the door.

 

Whatever had been said hadn’t taken long.  Tony was back down in less than less than fifteen minutes.  He’d grinned at McGee and Ziva before saying, “You kids have fun.  I’ll see you in ten days.” 

 

McGee’s first thought was Tony had been put on another undercover assignment.  He nearly panicked, stumbling over his feet in his haste to stop Tony from leaving.  The last assignment had nearly gotten Tony killed.  McGee shuddered.  He never wanted to process another crime scene thinking the body was a friend. 

 

“Ten days?”  McGee had grabbed Tony’s arm, halting him.  “Wait, Tony…what…where …you’re not going undercover again are you?”

 

“No.”  Tony had shrugged off his hand.  There was something hard and cold in Tony’s eyes that McGee rarely saw.  He got the distinct impression hell would freeze over before Tony took another undercover job for Sheppard.  As much as he was jealous that Sheppard would have picked Tony instead of him for the job, McGee wasn’t really sorry not to have had to deal with the fall out the case caused. 

 

“Don’t worry, Probie.”  Tony had clapped him on the shoulder.  “I’m just taking some time off.”

 

“Time off?”  Ziva had eyed him, sizing up Tony in a way that would have made McGee immediately break out into a sweat. 

 

“You know…Vacation.”  Tony responded with a smirk.  “McGee can fill you in on the concept if you aren’t familiar with it.”

 

“You have never taken a vacation.”  Ziva had stated.  She was clearly suspicious, no doubt thinking Tony was lying. 

 

“Yes, I have.” Tony had countered calmly, meeting and holding her eyes easily. 

 

McGee had frowned.  Tony wasn’t lying.  He probably had taken a vacation at some point in his life, which technically made what he told Ziva true.  But in the time McGee had been with the team he remembered a few long weekends, and the time Tony was off to recover from the plague, but no real vacation. 

 

“Not while I’ve been here.”

 

“Which is one of the reasons I’m taking one now.” 

 

McGee never got a chance to ask what other reasons were.  Tony had walked over to Gibbs’ desk.  He put down on the blotter what McGee had seen was an approved request for leave.  It looked like Tony might have only originally asked for the following week, and then had scribbled out the dates, changing it to include the rest of that week as well. 

 

“Aren’t you going to wait for Gibbs?”  The former Marine hadn’t come back from getting coffee yet, and McGee didn’t want to be the one to tell him Tony had gone over his head and requested leave. 

 

“Nope.”

 

And just like that Tony had left.  McGee’s gut still hurt every time he thought about how nervous he’d been bracing for Gibbs reaction.  The former Marine had come in, large coffee cup in hand.  He’d looked around before barking out, “Where’s DiNozzo?”

 

Not wanting to answer, but unable not to, McGee had defaulted by pointing to the form Tony had left on Gibbs’ desk.  Gibbs had picked it up, held it at arms length, reading it carefully.  Tony might be bold enough to comment on Gibbs needing glasses, but McGee didn’t have a death wish so he wisely kept his mouth shut.

 

Over the last few years, McGee had become familiar with most of Gibbs’ expressions when it came to impatience, irritation, cynicism, sarcasm, anger and outright fury.  But McGee hadn’t been sure what to make of the expression on Gibbs’ face at that moment.  He couldn’t read the older man well at that moment, but there was definitely a hint of what might have been disappointment, loss and even pain.  It was far more worrisome than what he’d expected to see.

 

Gibbs had stormed up to the Director’s office.  There was no need to wonder about the substance of that conversation. McGee laughed ruefully.  Gibbs could be loud when he was pissed.  No doubt about it.  It was interesting that Gibbs’ anger seemed to be over the Director messing with his team without telling him, not over Tony leaving so abruptly.

 

Maybe the former Marine thought Tony had earned a break.  McGee snorted.  That was about as likely to happen as pigs flying, McGee told himself.  Gibbs wasn’t known for compassion when it came to his team. With children and the wives of service men… Abby…Ducky…sure, Gibbs could be gentle.  As far as anyone else went, McGee knew Gibbs assumed they would continue to work as he directed until he told them otherwise.

 

As the elevator doors opened, McGee eyed the opening warily.  Not that he expected Gibbs to be waiting there to growl at him…again…he just couldn’t stifle the instinctive urge to duck.  His respect for Tony’s ability to tolerate repeated head slaps had gone up considerably over the last few days.  McGee was not used to baring the brunt of those, and really hated them. 

 

He also gained new respect for Tony’s ability with regard to red-tape paperwork.  McGee wasn’t clear on the details but evidently certain forms Gibbs had to sign had gone missing, lost somewhere in a black hole of inner office mail.  Gibbs had ordered McGee to pick up some of the duties Tony normally handled and ‘fix it now’. 

 

He hadn’t thought it would be difficult to do.  After all, Tony did it, so how hard could it be?  McGee shook his head.  God.  What a nightmare. 

 

The file clerk, Marisol, had been helpful until he’d made the mistake of muttering loud enough for her to hear that the only reason he was stuck with such a mindless, meaningless task was because DiNozzo had screwed up.  After that, she went from being cordial to cold, handing him a thick manual and telling him that since he was so smart, he could figure it out on his own.  And that his mindless, meaningless task might become more significant when he couldn’t get bullets for his gun, gas for the van, or a pay raise.

 

He’d tried to apologize, but got nowhere.  Marisol turned her back on him, her focus on countless files before she removed the wilting arrangement McGee could tell had been fresh flowers not long ago.  She had seemed to hesitate throwing them away, and McGee wondered if they were from her husband or a friend, a gift for some special occasion.  He didn’t imagine an older woman like her got flowers very often.

 

He’d actually said as much to Abby when he’d gone to her lab for sympathy.  She’d beamed at him brightly and thanked him for giving her another reason to add to her list.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what list she was working on, especially when she grumbled quietly about how numbers five, six and seven had been valid reasons no matter what Tony said. 

 

He did find out then she’d been in communication with Tony since he left.  That surprised McGee.  Tony was on vacation; staying in touch with the office sort of defeated the purpose of leaving.  But then, he wasn’t in touch with the office, just Abby.  And they’d been friends for years.

 

“So did you hear about the Ferrari?”  McGee had asked.  He figured she had to know about it, if not from the office gossip then from Tony directly.   Maybe she could fill him in on how Tony had gotten a car like that.  It could have been compensation from the agency for getting Tony’s car blown up, but McGee knew that was a serious long shot.  He couldn’t see the Director or the Agency being that extravagant.  It was more likely the car was something Tony bought for himself, except McGee hadn’t thought Tony could afford a Ferrari. 

 

“Hear about it?”  Abby laughed, bouncing on her toes.  “I got to drive it.”

 

“Tony let you drive it?”  McGee had gaped at her, stunned.

 

“Well, I can drive stick.”  She grinned at him, playfully rubbing in his own limited experience with manual transmission.  “And unlike Ziva, I’m not going to go all demolition derby with a sweet ride like that.”

 

“But…he left right after it was delivered.  When--”

 

“Left the office, yeah.”  Her grin had gotten wider.  “But we had plans, so he didn’t actually leave town until later.”

 

“Plans?”  Both his eyebrows climbed, and then he’d laughed.  “You guys aren’t dating, are you?”

 

Her gaze narrowed as she looked at him. It took a lot for him not to squirm in the face of that expression.  “Are you implying that Tony and I dating would be a bad thing?”

 

“Not a bad thing…no.”  McGee verbally back peddled, sensing he was on dangerous footing. 

 

“Not that we are dating, but you don’t get to judge.”  She pointed a finger at him.  “Tony and I could be a great couple.”

 

McGee had laughed again, nervously this time.  “Tony can’t commit.”

 

“Pfft.  Shows what you know.”  She’d rolled her eyes.  “And who says I wanted someone committed?  I could be happy with right now.”  She arched an eyebrow.  “I have been before.”

 

McGee swallowed hard.  He hated being reminded that what they’d shared was more casual than he’d wanted it to be.  “C’mon, Abby, this is Tony we’re talking about.  He’s clueless when it comes to what you do—“

 

“Oh?”  She straightened, expression shifting to something dangerous.  “You think he’d have to be at my level of intellect for me to be interested in him?  I’m some sort of snob then.  Is that what you think?”

 

“No, no, of course not.”  McGee had actually backed away from her.  “But you have to admit Tony’s more brawn than brains—“

 

“Right…and no woman is ever interested in a good looking guy with nice muscles.”  She stepped closer and punched him in the arm.  “You really think Gibbs is just the sort to tolerate fools gracefully?  Not knowing how I work my magic does not make Tony an idiot, McGee.” 

 

“Well, good old fashioned police work doesn’t make him the brightest crayon in the box either.”  McGee shot back without thinking. 

 

“That MIT degree is coming in so handy now, isn’t it? Must make doing all that mindless paperwork a breeze.”  She’d snapped back at him, sarcasm biting deep.  “You’ve only been fighting with it for two days now.”

 

“I’m learning it.”  He glared back at her.  “Not like I had anyone to show me how to do it.”

 

“Yet, you managed to piss off the one person who knows every form NCIS ever created and could show you.  Way to go there, Einstein.”  She snorted. 

 

“At least I can come up with an original idea.” McGee had countered, not entirely sure why he was still arguing.  “I don’t need to rely on some stupid movie plot for inspiration.”

 

Abby glared at him, eyes colder than McGee could remember ever seeing them.  “Those stupid movie plots solved more than one case.  They also generated an idea that saved a room full of kids and Gibbs’ life.”  She poked him in the chest hard enough to bruise.  “And you don’t get to claim to have original ideas.  Agent Tommy.  Agent Lisa.  L.J. Tibbs.  Those ring any bells, Thom E. Gemcity?”

 

“I told you, I didn’t base my book on you guys.  Or anyone else for that matter.”

 

“Right.”  She shook her head.  “Because you did such a good job of hiding your inspiration that some whacko could kill people using your draft as a guide to find them.”

 

“That’s not fair!”

 

“Neither is your dissing Tony.”  She huffed. 

 

“Not like he sings my praises.”

 

“Has he ever let you down?”  She asked quietly.  “When it really mattered?”

 

McGee had opened his mouth ready to give her a resounding yes before his better sense kicked in and he really thought about the question.  Tony teased him…a lot.  Made fun of him on a daily basis.   Regularly belittled McGee’s prowess with women, his wardrobe and life in general.  Still called him Probie.  But Tony had also gone to the morgue with him to say good-bye to Kate.  He stopped by to make sure McGee was okay after he’d shot that cop in the alley.  Tony shared moments of humor at the situation like when McGee used his new phone to tape the cat fight in the office, even singing ‘dueling banjos’ when they had that case in the boondocks.  He sided with McGee at times, ganging up on Ziva when the situation called for it.  He never seriously questioned McGee’s ability with technology or his willingness to do the job. 

 

“When it really mattered, no, he has never let me down.”

 

“You should tell him that.”

 

McGee had frowned, remembering how unusually insistent she’d seemed.  He’d brushed it off then with a casual, “He already knows.”

 

“Yeah, but does he know you know?” 

 

“Sure he---“  McGee had stopped short.  He’d only just realized it himself at that moment. So how could McGee honestly expect Tony to know that he counted on and trusted him, that when the chips were down Tony would be there for him.  Especially after Gibbs came back and he’d made that crack about Tony not being good enough to have a team of his own. And with everything that happened immediately after the La Grenouille case, when McGee seemed to second guess anything Tony said or did. 

 

It wouldn’t hurt to say something to Tony…assuming he could figure out exactly what to say.  Not like wanted to give the other man more fodder to tease him with, inflate his ego by admitting he was impressed with Tony’s ability to wade through so much paperwork, or reveal just how stunned he’d been to find out how much more stuff Tony was responsible for than McGee had realized.  No matter what he came up with, it would have to wait for Tony to come back. 

 

Putting aside memories of his conversation with Abby and plans to talk to Tony, McGee stepped off the elevator and headed for his desk.  He risked a quick glance around, relaxing when he saw Gibbs wasn’t within sight.

 

He wasn’t sure if Tony being gone made Gibbs’ temper shorter than usual, or if having one less person to vent it on made it seem shorter.  Even Ziva seemed to be giving Gibbs a wider berth, and she always claimed not to be afraid of him.

 

McGee snorted. Like he believed her. Big, bad Mossad officer David is definitely cautious if not outright afraid, McGee said to himself, giving Ziva’s empty desk a dirty look.  When Gibbs had been in Mexico she hadn’t seen anything wrong with coming in late.  Then, she could be more than two hours late and it didn’t raise a single eyebrow. With Gibbs back, she was never more than five minutes late…ever.

 

Tony said he wasn’t afraid of Gibbs either. And oddly, McGee could see that being true.  Tony had lied to Gibbs.  That was something McGee didn’t think he’d have the balls to do, orders or not.  And Tony stood up to Gibbs on a regular basis…not challenging his authority per se, but certainly not following blindly either.  He was willing to take a head slap or two without much comment.  McGee rubbed the back of his head.  He never realized how much those head slaps hurt.

 

McGee powered up his computer, praying silently for the forms he’d spent have the wee hours of the morning working on from home and e-mailed to himself to be there.  He grinned in relief when they were not only present, but still intact.  The last batch he’d sent to himself had been corrupted somehow, and he’d had to do everything all over again.   He quickly printed them, and placed them on Gibbs’ desk, wondering if Tony was ever as tired as he was right now.

 

Tony never really looked tired…except for when he’d come back early after his bout with the plague, and when he was working undercover.  He’d been doing all this stuff then.  It had to have gotten done correctly, because no one else had been stuck with it and the team hadn’t run out of anything they really needed.

 

McGee had a feeling he hadn’t even half of all the forms and whatnot required.  It boggled his mind when he thought about how much paper was probably necessary.  Getting it all done, on top of working cases, certainly explained why Tony stayed late at the office.  And why he napped during the day sometimes when things got slow. 

 

“You finally get those requisition forms done?” 

 

McGee nodded, flinching at Gibbs’ voice coming from so close behind him when he thought he was alone.  “Y-Y-Yes, Boss.”

 

“Good.”  Gibbs scanned the forms before signing at the bottom.  “Make sure a copy goes to the Director.”

 

“Will do, Boss.”  McGee planned to deliver them personally to Cynthia, unwilling to trust inner office mail.  He would be very glad to pass this thankless task back to Tony when the other man returned.

 

“You’ll need to do better the next time.” 

 

McGee blinked.  “Next time, Boss?”

 

“Having responsibility for this stuff is something you should have had a good two years ago, McGee.”  Gibbs declared flatly.  There was an odd flash of something McGee would almost label as guilt in the older man’s eyes before it vanished.  “And you’ll be taking care of it from now on.”

 

“But Tony—“

 

“Is my senior field agent,” Gibbs interrupted, his mild tone at odds with the fire in his eyes, “he has got better things to do with his time than paperwork.  He should have passed this shit on to you when you were still a probie, McGee.  Failing that, he should have given it to you when he was acting team leader.”  Gibbs’ gaze narrowed. “Do you have a problem with doing your job, Special Agent McGee?”

 

“No, Boss.  No problem.”

 

“Good.”  Gibbs handed the form back to him before stalking off.

 

McGee looked over at Tony’s empty desk.  Tony would be gone for another week.  Another very long week.  He sighed heavily.  Maybe that would be enough time for McGee to think of something to bribe Tony with to get him to keep doing the paperwork, or a sure bet he could win that would have Tony still doing it.  McGee shook his head. He’d do better to find something which would convince Tony to show him what all needed to be done, when and who it all had to go to.   Letting Tony gloat probably wouldn’t be enough.  

 

McGee sat down at his desk and rubbed tiredly at his eyes.  He noted Ziva’s arrival, mentally smirking as he also noticed it was 7:29 .  She was in with one minute to spare.  So much for Mossad conditioning and being in the office at 5:30 , McGee thought with an internal snicker.  She didn’t get a chance to sit down before Gibbs was back.

 

“Grab your gear.  We’ve got a dead Marine.”

 

McGee shouldered his bag, stopping to cast another glance at Tony’s desk.  Somehow he didn’t think working a case without Tony would be any easier than anything else had been since the other man had left.   Maybe he should ask Abby if there was something he could get Tony to say welcome back. 

 

Hearing Gibbs bark his name, telling him to get his ass moving, McGee wondered if he should add something more to the welcome back gift.  Something that would clearly relay his desire to never, ever, be left alone with Gibbs again.   There had to be something that would express that unique sentiment without reducing McGee to actually saying the words.

 

Gibbs wasn’t at all nice like he’d been just back from Mexico .   Then he’d been willing to teach McGee, was patient and explained things, didn’t raise his voice, had even given him coffee.  McGee could not fathom how it was Tony liked this snapping and snarling version of Gibbs better.  But then, with Tony around, Gibbs didn’t snap or snarl quite so much. 

 

McGee hoped when Tony got back things went back to normal.  Being Gibbs’ senior agent was a bit more than he’d bargained for.  He was glad the job was only going to be his for another week.   

Chapter Text

Ziva slipped into the morgue, grateful for the quiet coolness that embraced her.  It was a refreshing change from the tense atmosphere of the bullpen upstairs.   She’d never fully appreciated how much Tony’s humor eased the tension of an ugly, brutal case.  Or how much she relied on having him around to bounce theories off, to explore ideas with, to jump start her ability to work through the most puzzling details, and to simply commiserate over how difficult it was working with Gibbs. 

 

She would never admit it aloud, but Ziva missed Tony.  She missed having her partner there.  Oh, McGee was good enough, but he wasn’t Tony.  Tony knew how to make her laugh, and how to piss her off; over the last two years, his ability to do both appealed to her more than she’d ever thought possible. 

 

Nearly every day since he’d left, she found herself listening for things that weren’t being said.  She kept expecting to hear him tease her about her continuing lack of proficiency with American slang and colloquialisms.  She couldn’t ignore the lack of movie references being made; so much so she nearly made a few of her own just to fill the vacancy.  She hated the silence; it was deafening without Tony around making noise. 

 

She also missed Tony’s insight.  It would have come in handy during their last case.  Tony was the only one of them who would have understood the dead Marine’s passion for classic cars.  And the lengths an aficionado might go to in a quest to have all original parts. 

 

Ziva sighed silently.  He also wouldn’t have missed the cheating girlfriend angle.  Nor would he have had as much trouble as she did interacting with DC Metro to get necessary information about the girlfriend, who also happened to be a cop. 

 

Shaking her head, Ziva was just glad the case was finished.  They might not have wrapped it up fast enough to suit Gibbs, but it had gotten solved.  She was going to consider it a win and let it go at that.

 

She glanced around the morgue, taking in the empty tables, relieved there were no bodies lying about.  The dead didn’t bother her, but if there was a body on the table, Ducky would be working.  And that would mean he’d have no time to talk to her. 

 

“Oh, hello my dear,” Ducky greeted her.  Taking up most of the free space on his desk was a silver tray laden with a teapot, cups, cream and sugar, and several shortbread cookies. 

 

Ziva smiled.  She’d hoped she was in time for tea.  It looks like she’d timed it perfectly.

 

“Hello, Ducky.”

 

“Impeccable timing as always, Ziva.”  He smiled.  “The tea has just finished steeping.  Shall I pour you a cup?”

 

“Please.” 

 

He poured her a cup.  “Cream and sugar?”

 

“Yes, thank you.”  She smiled to herself.  Cream and sugar had been Tony’s influence.  He liked both his coffee and tea light and sweet.  She’d tried it once at his insistence, and was surprised to find she liked it. 

 

Ziva took a seat, enjoying the civilized aspect of tea.  It was something to be lingered over, not rushed or hurried.  It was nice respite from the frantic pace that dominated most of her waking hours since Tony left.

 

“No new case upstairs yet?”  Ducky added cream to his own cup before sitting down. 

 

“Not yet.”  She held her cup carefully, letting the warmth soak into her fingers.  “I’m sure that will change soon enough.”

 

“Sadly, that is all too true.”  Ducky clucked his tongue.  “There are days when I would like to not be quite so useful.”

 

“Now that is a sentiment I can relate to all to well of late, Ducky.”

 

“Oh?”  Ducky raised both eyebrows.

 

She gave him a sheepish look.  “I never realized how hard investigating a murder could be with a three man team.”  Splitting up tasks between Tony, McGee, Ziva and Gibbs had become almost second nature.  It had stunned her to realize how much difference being short just one teammate made.  It was like missing a limb.

 

“You should try it as a two man team.”  Ducky clucked his tongue.  “Young Anthony worked alone with Gibbs for some time before Vivian joined their number.”

 

“Vivian?”  Ziva frowned.  She didn’t recognize the name.

 

“Special Agent Blackadder.”  Ducky shook his head.  “She was…not really up to Jethro’s standards, so she didn’t last long.  Caitlyn replaced her.”

 

Ziva nodded slowly.  Nothing in her research on Gibbs’ team had mentioned that…but then she’d been actively researching the team he had then and the background of each individual member, not fully exploring anyone who might have come and gone.  She had noticed a pattern though.  No agent really stayed with Gibbs for long.  Tony was something of an aberration in that regard.  It had confused her then…and in some ways still did.  Why would someone who consistently changed jobs every two years, stay with a job on a team that rarely had an agent last two years? 

 

“Tony worked with Gibbs on his own before Agent Blackadder joined the team?” She asked, seeking confirmation.

 

“Oh yes,” Ducky told her, quiet pride evident in his tone.  “For nearly a year it was just the two of them.  Anthony seemed to enjoy the challenge, although, the boy did look a bit ragged around the edges.” 

 

“Working with Gibbs does that to people,” Ziva commented dryly, feeling a little ragged around the edges herself.

 

“Quite.”  Ducky’s lips curled into a wry smile before he sobered.  “Still, I think Tony’s looked far more ragged more recently than he ever did then.  I, for one, am glad the boy finally took some time off.  He isn’t usually so sensible.”  

 

Ziva arched an eyebrow.  “He says he’s gone on vacation before.”

 

Ducky snorted delicately.  “He probably has, but not while working at NCIS, my dear.”

 

She blinked.  “He’s not taken a vacation in five years?”

 

“A long weekend or two, but never an entire week, no.  Unless you count the time he’s had off due to injury or illness.”  Ducky ‘tsked’.  “But that could hardly be considered a vacation.”

 

Ziva sipped her tea, considering that bit of information.  Perhaps that was the reason Gibbs was so short tempered of late.  Ziva knew the former Marine was not one who liked or adjusted easily to change.  It was one of the reasons he seemed to so despise technology.  Tony leaving on vacation was clearly some sort of change…especially if Gibbs had become as used to Tony being around as Ziva had. 

 

“You think Tony taking time off is a good thing?”

 

“Indeed.”  Ducky sipped his tea, sighing softly.  “The boy works too hard.”

 

“Tony?”  She laughed.  “I do not think so.”

 

“Really?”  He regarded her calmly, blue eyes sharpening.  “You commented only a moment ago that a case was easier with him to help.”

 

“Well…yes, but he does not exactly work hard.”  She put down her teacup.  “He plays more than anyone else, I know.”

 

“Ah.”  Ducky nodded.  “So he’s little more than a slacker then?”

 

“No, of course not.” 

 

“All that play naturally gets in the way of solving the case--.”

 

“No,” Ziva shook her head.  It should, but it never had.  Of course, Gibbs usually put a stop to anything before it could.

 

“He arrives late.  Leaves early.”

 

“No.”  Ziva felt her face warm.  She was more likely to be late than Tony.  And she’d never seen Tony leave on time, let alone early. 

 

“He passes off his assigned duties—“

 

“He will try with the computer things.”  She interrupted confidently.  “Honestly, McGee is far more competent with a phone trace or GPS triangulation.”  He was better at it than she was as well.  Not that she would ever admit to that.  Her innate honesty forced her to admit aloud, “But Tony’s not a shirker.”

 

Ducky simply continued as if she hadn’t offered that token defense of Tony.  “Rarely contributes in any significant away.  Constantly makes mistakes.  Never—“

 

“Ducky!!  I get it.”  She huffed.  “He is a good agent and he works hard.”  She shook her head.  Only the older ME could get her to say aloud things she never intended to give voice to.

 

He smiled beatifically.  “I was afraid I would be reduced to using Jethro’s favorite means of getting his point across.”

 

“I appreciate your restraint.”  Ziva rubbed the back of her head.  She’d gotten more than her share of head slaps of late.  If Gibbs had been giving her a soft touch before, he certainly wasn’t now.  She’d taken to French braiding her hair, hoping to create a little padding. 

 

“People who are good at what they do rarely make it look hard.”

 

“True.” Tony made a lot of what he did look easy.  If McGee’s mumblings about paperwork were anything to go by…there was more to what Tony did than she’d realized before. 

 

Ziva smiled warmly at Ducky.  “You certainly make what you do look easy.”

 

“Thank you, my dear.”  He smiled, a bit of color highlighting his cheekbones.  “It is really just the benefit of a vast reservoir of experience.”

 

“You should not be so modest, Ducky.” 

 

He chuckled.  “You think it would be better if I bragged?”

 

“Nothing wrong with blowing your own alarm.”

 

“Blowing your own horn,” Ducky corrected her gently.  “And I assure you, I am capable out touting my own skills when necessary.”

 

She bowed her head, acknowledging his claim.  He could be a force to reckon with.  Ducky had put Gibbs in his place after his return from Mexico…more than once when the former Marine would have dismissed what the older man had to offer with regard to their cases.   

 

She nibbled on one of the cookies.  “What do you think Tony is doing right now?”

 

Ducky sipped his tea.  “I think Abigail could answer that question with more accuracy than I could.”

 

Ziva nodded, playing with her cookie.  “McGee said she and Tony have talked since he went on vacation.” 

 

“Abigail and Anthony have been friends for a long time.”  Ducky picked up a cookie for himself.  “It is not unexpected they would stay in touch.”

 

“I know, but I had hoped he might…” She stopped with a sigh.  Ziva tired not to feel jealous of Abby.  It wasn’t as if she expected Tony to call, but an e-mail or text message wouldn’t have been out of line.  Just a little something to let her know he was still alive and well.  Being cut off from him was far too reminiscent of his time undercover when he would simply disappear.  She worried about him.

 

Ducky patted her arm.  “If it is any consolation, I don’t believe Anthony has been in touch with Jethro either.”

 

Her lips curled upward in a wry smile.  “Would that explain his foul humor, then?”

 

Ducky shrugged.  “Jethro often expresses his concern as anger.”

 

“He is certainly not good with words.” 

 

“No.”  Ducky bit his cookie in half, chewing and swallowing.  “And that may well prove to be more decisive than Jethro ever intended to be.”

 

She frowned.  “How so?”

 

“When all anyone sees is his anger, how can he know the reason for it?”  Ducky asked softly.  “Without an explanation or clarification, one can only assume.  And as Anthony pointed out to me once, assuming makes an ass out of you and me.”

 

“Gibbs says NCIS agents never assume.”  Ziva quoted Gibbs.  “They check and double check.”

 

Ducky chuckled.  “About a case, yes.  But about each other, we assume all the time.”

 

“I do not assume things.”

 

“Really?”  Ducky cocked his head, studying her.  “You assumed Tony sick while working undercover.”

 

“That’s…different.” She lifted her chin.  “He was tired all the time and evasive and mentioned the hospital.  It was natural—“

 

“To assume he might be ill in some fashion.”

 

“It was a logical conclusion.”  She countered.  “I didn’t assume.  I checked.”

 

“The way you checked to ensure he was all right after nearly falling to his death in that parking garage?”  Ducky arched an eyebrow.  “Or did you just assume since he didn’t fall Tony was fine?”

 

“Gibbs was not concerned,” she defended herself. 

 

“Ah.”

 

She glared at him.  “What the hell does that mean?”

 

“If you are going to take your lead from Jethro, you should be aware of his faulty assumptions.”

 

“Faulty assumptions?”  She laughed.  “Gibbs does not assume.”

 

“Jethro assumes things.  More about Anthony than is wise.”  Ducky sipped his tea. 

 

“Meaning?” 

 

“He assumed Anthony would relinquish the team when Jethro decided he’d had enough of retirement and wanted to come home.  He assumed Anthony would resume his position as subordinate without protest or problem.  He assumed Anthony couldn’t and wouldn’t lie to him.”  Ducky shook his head.  “Jethro assumed Anthony never wanted more with Jeanne than to use her as a pawn in the Director’s little vendetta. And it never occurred to him Anthony would go over his head and ask for time off.” 

 

Ducky gave her a hard look.  “Jethro is not infallible.  He’s been wrong before.  And he will be again.  Especially when he fails to genuinely communicate.”

 

She stifled a shiver.  “What do you know?”

 

“A great many things, my dear.”  Ducky smiled enigmatically.

 

Before she could ask any more questions, her phone rang.  She unclipped it from her belt, noting with annoyance it was Gibbs.  Naturally.  Who else would it be? The man had the worst timing.

 

“I need to go.”

 

“Of course,” Ducky smiled, saluting her with his tea cup. 

 

Ziva stifled the urge to growl as she left the morgue.  She thought they were done with secrets.  Apparently, she’d thought wrong. 

Chapter Text

Tony tilted his face into the sun, leaning back and letting the warmth of the sand seep into his bones.  The waves rhythmically lapping gently against the shore was the only sound he could hear.  Tony sighed deeply, feeling tense muscles unwind.

 

Ordinarily, Tony would have passed on spending any time hanging out in such a quiet area on a public beach.  He usually preferred boogie boarding in the surf, playing volley ball, watching pretty girls in bikinis and handsome men in speedos.  But at the moment, all he wanted was a chance to enjoy the solitude and relax.  He didn’t want to be forced into making polite small talk, flirting or playing games with strangers.

 

It was odd to find himself completely unconcerned with what time of day it was.  For the first time in years, he wasn’t even wearing a watch.  There wasn’t anywhere he had to be or anything he had to do.  No expectations to meet or demands to satisfy.  He’d forgotten how liberating it was to have time to do nothing.

 

Tony opened his eyes, propping himself up on his elbows to watch the water.  He grinned.  The Pacific really did look different from the Atlantic. 

 

Five days ago, he’d tossed a bag that was always packed into the passenger seat of the Ferrari and started driving.  He was half way through the state of Kentucky before it occurred to him that he had no real destination in mind.  And it wasn’t until he was almost in Kansas that he decided on California.  He’d never been there and it seemed like as good a place as any, particularly when he had ten days to play with. 

 

He’d taken some time out along the way to see the sights.  The Grand Canyon was every bit as impressive in person as it was in every picture he’d ever seen.  He was glad he’d remembered to pack a pair of well worn boots and could enjoy the exertion of a few of the shorter hikes.  It was nice to stretch out and move after spending so much time in the confines of the car.  Tony even bought a t-shirt as a souvenir. 

 

Hoover Dam was an amazing feat of engineering.  The scale alone was impressive.    And Tony for as tourist like as it made him, Tony was still glad he’d taken the time to stop and see it.

 

He elected to bypass Vegas.  With his frat brothers, Sin City would have been the ultimate place to be.  On his own, the casinos and strip clubs just didn’t hold much appeal. 

 

Tony did make a point of taking the long way into California, driving through Death Valley.  The harsh desert landscape was stunning.  It made Tony more appreciative of the vibrant green vegetation that dominated the DC area.  At one of the national park visitor centers, Tony spotted a black and white print he knew Abby would love.  A sun bleached cow skull dominated the foreground, the shadow it cast adding a stark contrast to the near colorless, cracked and broken arid dessert soil it rested on.  The horizon stretched out forever, making the barren dessert landscape seem endless.   He had it shipped to her knowing how much enjoyment she’d get out of having the gift delivered to her at the office. 

 

Tony had an ulterior motive for sending the print to Abby at the office. Gibbs stopped to see her every day…and it was a safe bet the older man would know about the gift, even if Abby didn’t mention it directly or hang it in her lab.  It was a subtle way of letting Gibbs know where he was…or rather where he’d been, and that he was okay without actually calling and talking to the man. 

 

Tony sighed, opening his eyes, squinting in the bright sunlight in spite of the dark sunglasses he was wearing.  Checking in with Gibbs, talking to him nearly every day, had become such an ingrained habit for Tony over the last five years it was almost painful not to call him.  But Tony was determined not to give in. If he took Pete up on her offer…this was something he’d have to get used to. 

 

He’d gotten used to it once before, he reminded himself.  When Gibbs had gone to Mexico Tony had gotten used to being without him.  It hadn’t been easy, but he had the rest of the team to worry about and a job to distract him.  Tony had firmly resisted the urge to call Gibbs until he felt it was absolutely necessary.  Of course, by then, Ziva and Abby had already called.

 

Tony shook his head, sitting up to watch the waves roll in and out.  He doubted Gibbs shared his sense of loss, which was another reason to take the job with Pete.  Tony grimaced, his innate cynic telling him he was a fool to even wonder if Gibbs would miss him.  He probably already had a replacement in mind…assuming he replaced Tony at all.  Having a team of three field agents under him was more of an aberration than the norm for Gibbs.  The former Marine had gotten the job done with less and could do so again. 

 

Tony swallowed hard.  Gibbs likely never even gave him a passing thought.  Well, other than being pissed about how Tony had asked for the time off and the way he’d left without speaking to him directly. 

 

Tony couldn’t decide if he’d been looking forward to a call from Gibbs or dreading it, so he had turned off his cellphone three days ago, only checking for messages once a day.  So far the precaution had proven to be unnecessary.  Tony didn’t know if that was a good sign or a bad one.  He tried not to dwell on it.

 

Tony sighed deeply, digging his toes into the hot sand.  He would call Abby tonight.  He had to promise, twice, to call her every other day just to get her to leave his apartment.  He also promised to seriously consider anything new she came up with to add to her list of reasons.

 

He laughed softly.  He did not think Bert missing him was a valid reason.  Although, he would miss Abby’s farting stuffed hippo.  He pursed his lips wondering if it would be possible to get one of his own.  No.  He’d rather have one of those soft teddy bear things Jeanne had.  It was surprisingly comfortable to hold at night the one time she’d jokingly given it to him, telling him to the bear would keep him company when she had to go in to the hospital to deal with an emergency.  Tony hadn’t really intended to sleep with it, but having never had a toy like it as a child the temptation to experience what he’d missed had been too good to pass up.

 

Tony took off his shades, and left them lying next to the large beach towel he bought that morning and a bottle of sun screen.  He walked toward the water, breaking into a jog and then a run as he dove into the surf.  Tony was a strong swimmer and enjoyed the challenge of trying to make headway against the incoming tide. When he was tired of fighting, he body-surfed the waves letting them push him to shore. 

 

Walking back to his spot on the beach, Tony spotted several people making their way toward the water.  It looks like others had found his secluded little spot.  Tony dried off, pulled on a tank top and shorts preparing to leave.  It was about time he tracked down something to eat anyway.  He’d skipped breakfast, sleeping in until ten.  It made him feel decadent to lounge in bed far later than he normally had the luxury of doing. 

 

The small restaurant he’d seen on the drive to the beach looked promising.  It was past the usual lunch time rush and before happy hour.  Tony hoped that meant the place wouldn’t be too busy. 

 

He drove the mile or so to the restaurant, pulling into the parking lot.  It gave him a little thrill every time someone gave the Ferrari an appreciative once over, but he did his best not to let it show.  He didn’t want to look like he’d only just gotten it.   Ignoring the looks, like he was used to owning something other people envied, was part of that.  Tony kept a tight rein on the goofy, overjoyed grin which tried to escape every time he remembered the Ferrari was his.  It just wasn’t…cool.

 

Tony stepped inside the restaurant. In comparison to the bright sunlight outside the interior was decidedly dark.  Tony pulled off his sunglasses, tucking an earpiece into his tank so they hung from the neckline.  He blinked waiting for his eyes to adjust. 

A tanned young man with sun bleached curly hair approached him. Tony guessed his age to be about ten years younger than he was. The guy gave Tony a discreet, appreciative once over.  It was something Tony would have missed completely if he hadn’t been paying attention. 

 

“I’m Terry.”  He smiled brightly at Tony, warm and friendly.  It drew an answering smile from Tony in response.  “Welcome to The Sand Dollar.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“One for lunch or will someone be joining you?”

 

“Just one.”  Tony confirmed with a nod.

 

Terry waved a hand around the nearly empty room.  “Anywhere in particular you’d care to sit?”

 

Tony pointed to deck.  It had a great view of the ocean and was shaded by a large awning.  With only three tables, all of them empty, it was perfect.  “I’d like one of those.”

 

“Excellent.”  Terry grinned, brown eyes almost glowing with approval. “My favorite place.”

 

Terry led him outside, letting Tony take his pick of the three tables.  He handed Tony a menu, their fingers brushing.  “Can I get you something to drink?”

 

Tony smiled.  “Whatever you have on tap will be fine.” 

 

“Coming right up.”

 

One beer would be all he’d have, in spite of Pete’s suggestion to get drunk and rowdy. While getting some sun had been a good idea, excessive drinking was something, like Vegas, Tony only did with his frat brothers once or twice a year.  He made a point of not making a habit of it.  Drinking to the point of puking reminded him too much of his father and mother’s nearly constant inebriated state while he was growing up.   They were not happy memories, and Tony tried not to revisit them often.

 

Tony scanned the menu.  He smiled slightly thinking Kate would be appalled by the dominance of red meat and fried foods.  Paula would have ordered a salad and then eaten most of his fries.  Abby would order something so rare it was practically still mooing.  Ziva…Tony honestly wasn’t sure what she’d eat.  He frowned.  For all the time they’d work together, he really had no idea what she’d prefer.  He added that to his list of reasons for leaving.  How could he continue to work with someone he knew so little about?  Someone who was determined to keep it that way?

 

Tony shook his head.  He knew what Gibbs would order, but he couldn’t say he knew any more about his boss than he did Ziva.  At least not that he could honestly say he’d heard from the man himself.   Heart to heart conversations weren’t something he could say they had much of…ever. 

 

Tony sighed deeply.  He really had to stop thinking about Gibbs.  It wasn’t helping.

 

“Hey, man, it’s just a menu.”  Terry said quietly, setting Tony’s beer down on the table.  “Not worth that kind of heavy sigh.”

 

“The menu isn’t the problem.”  Tony put it down.  He didn’t really need it to order a burger and fries.  It was hard to mess up, and safe to order nearly everywhere.  

 

Terry took his order.  Sympathetic brown eyes regarded him for a moment.  “I do double duty as a bartender, so I’m a good listener if you want to talk about it.”

 

“I appreciate that…but I wouldn’t want to---“

 

“Not like I’m overwhelmed with customers, man.”  Terry chuckled, looking around pointedly at the nearby empty tables.  “Besides, my shift ends in ten minutes.  And this is Southern California.  People are supposed to be happy.  We got all this sun, sand and surf.” 

 

Terry pointed his finger at Tony, winking slyly.  “I can’t have you messing up our rep.  It’s bad for business.”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t want to cause a recession.”

 

“Damn straight.” Terry nodded.  He put a hand to his chest in a playfully overdone dramatic gesture.  “I’d be out of job if that happens.”

 

“Oh the horrors, the horrors.”  Tony gasped, eyes widening.  “Can’t have that.”

 

Terry chuckled.  “I knew you were a good man.

 

Tony gave Terry a sly look, curious to see how he’d respond as he deliberately laced his next statement with innuendo.  “You don’t seem the type to like good men.”

 

“Oh I like good men…they are just so hard to find.” Terry countered with a coy expression, not at all fazed by Tony’s gambit, and then going one step further.  “And finding them hard…well that’s just good.”

 

Tony threw back his head and laughed.  “God, that was awful.”

 

“Yes, but it did make you laugh…which was the whole point.”  Terry grinned.  “I’m going to call it a win.”

 

Tony grinned back, bright and joyful.  “I think I’ll let you.”

 

“Thanks.”  Terry ducked his head, a faint blush warming his cheeks.  “So…you want me to keep you company then?”

 

“I’d like that.”

 

Terry’s smile was surprisingly shy and decidedly enticing.  He jerked his head toward the door.  “Let me put your order in, grab a drink for myself and I’ll be right back.”

 

“I’ll be here.”

 

Tony wondered if he should have flirted with Terry or not.  It was fun…and he really didn’t mind the lighthearted interaction.  Besides, it was flattering to have a total stranger…an attractive one at that take an immediate interest in him.  It was just that Tony normally favored older men.  But then maybe it was time for more than one change in his life.  Tony had to admit Terry was damned easy on the eyes.  Whatever the guy did in his off time it was definitely physical.  No one stayed that trim without some effort.

 

Tony hadn’t done a one night stand since he started seeing Jeanne.  He shook his head.  Had it really been that long?  God.  Was he up for meaningless?  There was a time when that question wouldn’t have even occurred to him.  He laughed softly.  Kate would be so proud.  Ziva too for that matter.   Although, Tony thought her judgment a little less valid given she’d fallen in love with a dead man walking.  And she had a tendency to follow men into the restroom. 

 

Part of Pete’s advice had included getting laid.  Hell, she’d even said in her note that the Ferrari would ensure he didn’t go home alone unless he wanted to.  Tony sipped his beer.  He might be getting the cart before the horse.  Just because Terry flirted with him a little…it didn’t mean the guy wanted anything more. 

 

Tony had flirted a lot with no real expectation of it going anywhere.  Most of the time, it was harmless, good fun.  But once he’d started ‘dating’ Jeanne, Tony stopped flirting.  He found he missed being able to play that way.  And with her departure, Tony hadn’t had much more than his own right hand to keep him company.  He missed sex and physical intimacy.

 

Since he’d started working for Gibbs…Tony hadn’t been with many men, less than a handful all told.  There weren’t many guys who’d piqued his interest since meeting a hard ass marine with silver hair and amazing blue eyes.   But Tony still missed the feel of hard planes of a masculine body, one that was a sharp contrast to a woman’s softer curves.  He missed the sometimes rough and ready aspect of sex with another guy.  He missed having sex with someone who didn’t need or expect a gentle touch or hours of foreplay. 

 

The hunger for what he couldn’t have had made him a little nuts about going after what he could get.  Tony grimaced, thinking about the women he’d slept with since joining NCIS.  He didn’t really regret the sex; he did regret using them as just a warm body to keep his loneliness and desperation at bay.  But then, most of them were only interested in Mr. Right Now, so it wasn’t like they weren’t using him in turn. 

 

And the few men…well they were mostly an effort to find a substitute for Gibbs.  It never worked, and always left him wanting the real thing that much more.  Maybe that wouldn’t happen with a younger guy…someone who was so clearly not Gibbs. 

 

“Hey, I walk away for two minutes and you’re frowning again.”  Terry gave him a teasing once over as he sat down, a beer in hand.  “Miss me that much?”

 

“Could be.”  Tony batted his eyes lashes.  He certainly missed the distraction and opportunity Terry represented. 

 

After Jeanne, McGee had suggested Tony needed to get back on the horse.  Tony seriously doubted Terry was quite the ride the Probie had envisioned, but he might well be just the thing Tony needed.  And if he couldn’t get what he wanted, maybe it was time to focus on getting what he needed.

 

It had been five years since he’d made himself a priority in his own life.  Time to change that, Tony thought, high time indeed.  Decision made, he picked up his glass, and held it up.  Terry raised his, mimicking Tony’s actions, arching an eyebrow in silent question.

 

Tony grinned.  “To the good men we spend so much time looking for.”

 

Terry chuckled.  He touched his glass to Tony’s.  “And may we always recognize them whenever and where ever we find them.”

 

Amen, Tony thought.  He didn’t know if a toast qualified as a prayer, but at this point, the sentiment was close enough.  And if everything went the way he hoped, he’d be calling on God for even more sacrilegious reasons before the day was over. 

  

Chapter Text

Gibbs tried not to feel guilty about picking the lock on Tony’s front door.  He’d had a key at one time…before he’d gone to Mexico.  He’d kept it in the top drawer of his desk on a ring that held keys to every other team member’s house.  When he’d pulled the ring out of the drawer as the work day was ending he’d been surprised to find he still had a key to Stan Burley’s old apartment, one for Vivian Blackadder, and there was even one for Caitlyn Todd.  But what really surprised him was the absence of Tony’s key. 

 

Gibbs had frowned, checking the ring again.  McGee’s, Ziva’s, Abby’s, Ducky’s were all still there, each marked with a bit of masking tape and their initials.  He’d pulled the drawer all the way out to search, hoping the key he sought had simply slipped free.  He’d actually dumped the drawer on the top of his desk, desperately searching for what he knew he wasn’t going to find.

 

Tony had probably taken it back when he’d taken over the team.  Gibbs had growled, angry at himself for not noticing its absence sooner.  Someone else likely had it now.  It would have made sense for Tony to have made sure someone at work had access to his place in case of an emergency.  He could have given the key to McGee or Ziva, but Gibbs seriously doubted Tony would do that.  It was far more likely he’d have given it to Shepard.  She was his boss when Gibbs was away, and the only one who was in the loop on his undercover assignment.  It made her the logical choice. 

 

Gibbs had been sorely tempted to go to her office and demand its return.  But his better sense prevailed.  She’d want to know why he wanted it.  And there was no way in hell Gibbs was going to admit he was jealous of her having it in her possession, that she had been granted tacit permission to access Tony’s home; permission Gibbs was now denied.  Nor was he prepared to tell her why he wanted the key now.  Hell would freeze over before he would openly admit he missed Tony and wanted to spend some time surrounded by the younger man’s presence. 

 

Gibbs had expected Tony to call or e-mail a day or two after he left.  The younger man had always, without fail, stayed in touch.  But then he’d never actually been gone so long before.  A long weekend wasn’t the same as taking nearly two weeks.

 

Gibbs shook his head.  The longest time they’d been out of touch had been four months…and Gibbs had assumed that was simply due to the fact that Tony hadn’t known how to contact him in Mexico.  A stupid assumption when he realized if Abby and Shepard knew how to contact him, Tony could have found out easily enough.  Ziva certainly had.

 

Now he was wondering if the reason for those four months of silence was because Tony hadn’t wanted to talk to him.  Given his abrupt departure…and in hindsight Gibbs admitted to himself that should have been handled better…he’d left Tony to deal with holding the team together.  And that couldn’t have been easy---especially not with everyone expecting him to act like Gibbs, McGee still fairly green, Ziva not entirely integrated into the team and more prone to acting as a trained killer rather than an investigator, Abby’s blatant displays of grief and loss, Shepard recruiting him to work undercover.  Hell the only real support Tony could have counted on was from Ducky.  The ME had never said, but Gibbs suspected that might be another reason the older man had been so pissed with him when he returned.  

 

Gibbs sighed heavily.  Tony had every reason to resent him for leaving.  And he had even more reason to resent him for coming back. 

 

The resentment…or perhaps more accurately hurt, anger and disappointment if what he’d heard Tony say to Abby was anything to go by, was clearly at least part of the reason Tony was giving the job offer he’d gotten serious consideration.  And it was also likely responsible for Tony’s lack of communication now. 

 

Gibbs cursed himself for being so stupid as to assume Tony would stay in touch because he always had before.  Gibbs could be the one to call…He knew that.  And he’d looked at his phone at least a dozen times a day since Tony left debating whether or not to hit one on his speed dial. 

 

His pride stopped him at first.  He shouldn’t be the one to call.  He never had before.  Tony should know enough to stay in touch.  It took working a case without Tony for Gibbs to admit to himself that calling Tony wouldn’t be a sign of weakness.  And he knew he was being unfair to expect Tony to always be the one to make the effort.  Unbending a little and making the first move wouldn’t kill him, but by then embarrassment made calling impossible. 

 

It had been a week.  Gibbs had no idea what he would say if Tony actually answered.  What reason would he give for calling?  That McGee couldn’t figure out forms Tony did routinely and Ziva wasn’t nearly as good at thinking laterally as Tony was when it came to making connections on a case?  Hell, Tony probably already knew that.  And Gibbs couldn’t really tell him he was calling because he just wanted to hear Tony’s voice.  That he needed to know Tony was okay, to know where the hell he was and how soon he’d be coming back to where he belonged. 

 

Gibbs unhooked his phone from his belt, giving it a hard look.  Just this morning he had McGee give it a once over just to make sure it was still working properly.  Fortunately he messed up technological things often enough McGee hadn’t even questioned why Gibbs would want his phone examined.  Gibbs shook his head.  It was too much to hope for Tony might have called in the brief span of time since Gibbs had looked last.  Although, Tony was staying in touch…just not with him.  

 

Gibbs did his best not to feel jealous of Abby.  It wasn’t her fault Tony chose to call her and not him.  Nor was it surprising that Tony would send her a souvenir from his travels.  He usually got her little gifts any time he went anywhere.  Gibbs winced remember the only time Tony had brought him something from a long weekend get away.  He’d thrown it away without so much as a second glance.  It was hardly any wonder Tony never repeated the gesture. 

 

It was somewhat amazing…and very humbling, that he still made a habit of sending Gibbs a bottle of bourbon for Christmas every year.  It shamed Gibbs to think he’d never bothered to return the favor and get Tony anything in return.  It wasn’t like he didn’t give other members of his team things.  He never forgot Abby’s birthday, but giving her something and giving Tony something were totally different in his mind.  He had paternal feelings for Abby.  His feelings for Tony were somewhat harder to classify…mostly because Gibbs spent a lot of time trying not to look at them too closely.  Tony’s leaving, and the fear that he might not come back, forced Gibbs to take a hard look at things he’d just as soon keep ignoring.  It was why he’d finally given in and decided to stop by Tony’s apartment.  He could no longer ignore the need to be around things that just screamed ‘Tony’. 

 

For all the hours Tony put in on the job, and all the personalized items on his desk, the office felt empty of his presence.  Without the good humored bantering among the team and the movie references, the lack of take out ordered and candy wrappers balled up to be tossed carelessly into the garbage can, the dearth of Tony’s quick intellect and even quicker smile made the office just felt cold and lifeless.  It hurt to walk in the office and have that void slap Gibbs in the face every day.  

 

He didn’t know of the others missed Tony or not.  They’d been conspicuously silent on the issue and he was leery of bringing it up, afraid they might read too much into it; that they might read enough. 

 

Gibbs shook of his thoughts, opening the door, stepping inside Tony’s apartment.  He pursed his lips as the one thought persisted; the print of Death Valley now hanging in a prominent position in Abby’s lab.  She’d been thrilled when it arrived, bouncing excitedly, telling everyone who cared to listen how cool it was.  Gibbs had to admit…it was a good gift for her.  It was definitely her style and the subject matter all but screamed Abby.

 

Going west wasn’t something Gibbs had thought Tony would do.  He thought the younger man would head for familiar stopping grounds, like Panama City, not take off for new territory.  It was unnerving to find out he didn’t know Tony as well as he thought he did.  It was even more disturbing to realize he had no idea where to really look for Tony.  All he could say for sure was Tony had been in Death Valley National Park a few days ago.

 

Gibbs glanced around the entryway.  The darkness was broken by light from street lamps leaking around half closed window shades and the air had that faint stale scent that inevitably appeared when a space was closed off and undisturbed for several days.  Underneath that Gibbs could smell a faint trace of Tony’s cologne.  He breathed deeply, seeking more of the familiar, comforting fragrance.  He huffed out a breath, disappointed to find no more.

 

He stepped over to the small table in the foyer.  A large, pedestal marble bowl sat neatly centered on top.  Lying inside the bowl, in a haphazard pile, were several envelopes. Gibbs sorted through them, squinting to read the address labels in the low light.  They were bills.  It was too much to hope for that Tony would have left Paladin’s job offer where Gibbs would find it easily.  He didn’t hold out much hope of finding it…not that he was seriously looking for it.  The offer was the sort of thing Tony would no doubt have taken with him so he could refer to it as he considered his decision.

 

Gibbs scowled.  There shouldn’t even be a decision to make.  But there was…and he couldn’t bring himself to ask Abby directly how much headway she was making in arguing reasons to stay with Tony.  He was afraid to find out she might be losing. 

 

Gibbs moved further into the apartment.  He turned on a table lamp in the living room.  He blinked, surprised to note so many changes in the room since his last visit. He frowned as he mentally tallied how long it had been.  He double checked his math stunned to realize it had been a good two years since he’d been in Tony’s place.  The last time he’d been here, Gibbs had brought Tony home from Bethesda after the plague. 

 

The dark brown couch hadn’t been in the living room the last time.  Gibbs had to admit it went better with the cream colored leather chairs than the old, nearly worn out thing Tony used to have.  He vaguely remembered Tony making some reference to that beat up couch as having been some sort of hand me down from his days in a frat house at Ohio State.  He said he kept it because it was comfortable. 

 

The comfort factor was something Gibbs could attest to personally.  He’d slept on it that first night Tony was out of the hospital.  He couldn’t remember ever sleeping better, although, in hindsight Gibbs wasn’t sure if it was the couch or just relief that Tony was going to live and was getting better. 

 

He wondered when Tony got rid of it and why before mentally slapping himself.  It didn’t matter; any more than it mattered when he’d gotten a larger plasma screen TV.  Or bought the bigger shelving unit for his DVD’s.  Or that Gibbs even noticed all these things.  He hadn’t even been aware of how many of Tony’s things he’d made note of that had stuck with him.

 

The coffee table was suspiciously barren.  Gibbs glared at it.  There should be men’s magazines scattered across it, a pizza box not yet tossed out with the garbage and a nearly empty bottle of some trendy sports drink.  Being clean meant Tony hadn’t just walked out with the intent of returning any moment.  It wasn’t like Gibbs hadn’t known that…he just hated seeing the proof. 

 

Give the room another look, Gibbs sighed, tension in his shoulders unknotting.  He felt better being in Tony’s place.  Even with the changes, it was still clearly the younger man’s apartment.  Things were arranged to suit him and reflected his tastes.  That was something that couldn’t be had at the office.

 

Gibbs headed down the hall into the kitchen.  A quick glance in the fridge was more evidence Tony planned to be gone awhile.  It was practically barren. All Gibbs saw was a six pack of beer short one bottle, a bag of bagels, a container of cream cheese, two apples and a half empty bottle of ketchup.  The take out cartons Gibbs knew frequently inhabited the space were gone.  So was the garbage. 

 

Gibbs walked into the bathroom, flipping on the overhead light.  He wasn’t sure what he was even looking for, he just kept searching.  The bathroom was surprisingly clean.  No mold or mildew, no towels on the floor, no soap scum coating the glass shower door.  It even smelled of recently used lemon cleaner which confused Gibbs until he remembered Tony had a cleaning lady.  Whoever it was came by once or twice a week and had probably stopped by for the scent to linger. 

 

He left the light on, stepping into Tony’s bedroom.  The dresser, end tables and king size bed were the same ones he’d had before, but the slate blue, heavy down comforter was new.  Gibbs remembered Tony telling Abby he felt the cold more since contracting the plague.  Gibbs had noticed the younger man wearing layers more often than he used to. 

 

Gibbs slid open the doors to the closet.  Tony’s wardrobe was decidedly well organized.  Gibbs fingered the expensive fabrics of the suit coats, sharp eyes cataloging those he remembered Tony wearing to the office.  Most were familiar, worn enough times to be recognizable…except for the black one.  That one Gibbs had seen only once.  Tony had worn it to Kate’s funeral.

 

Gibbs took a deep breath, catching a faint whiff Tony’s cologne again.   He had no idea what brand the younger man even wore…and curiosity had him heading back into the bathroom.  Opening the medicine chest he found the shaving cream, an unopened toothbrush, a bottle of Ibuprofen, several hair styling products but no aftershave or cologne. 

 

Gibbs closed the cabinet, grimacing at the reflection staring back at him.  He looked tired, worn down.  Not that anyone else noticed.  He made sure they didn’t.  He couldn’t have Ziva or McGee thinking he wasn’t up to par.  Or that Tony’s absence made that big a difference. 

 

Tony would have noticed.  It was the kind of thing he always saw and had balls enough to comment on if he thought it was necessary.  Neither McGee nor Ziva would risk getting in Gibbs’ face. 

 

Gibbs turned off the light in the bathroom, plunging the space once more into darkness.  He found himself walking back into Tony’s bedroom rather than heading for the door.  He sat on the bed, running a hand tiredly over his face and through his hair. 

 

He unconsciously grabbed one of Tony’s pillows, wrapping his arms around it and hugging it to his chest, seeking whatever comfort it might offer. He sighed deeply when the fragrance he only got tantalizing hints of came to him strongly from Tony’s pillow, almost as if the younger man were right there with him. 

 

Gibbs lay down, curling around the tightly held pillow.  He hadn’t slept much since Tony’s departure.  Most of his free time had been spent in his basement, working on yet another boat.  The comfortable give of Tony’s bed as it cradled him made Gibbs groan.  He knew he should get up and go home, but right at the moment he didn’t want to.  For the first time in a week he could finally relax. 

 

Gibbs shifted, toeing out of his shoes and kicking them on to the floor.  He settled in with another sigh, kinks and stiffness fading as he snuggled into the incredibly soft down comforter.  No one knew he was here, and he would be gone in the morning. 

 

He yawned widely, promising himself he’d talked to Abby.  He had to know if she was making any progress on convincing Tony to stay, find out what her tactics had been, see if there was another angle to play.  And maybe…maybe it was time to actually pay a visit to Paladin Inc.  It was time to find out just what he was up against.  Burying his head in the sand and trying to pretend everything would fine simply wasn’t an option any longer. 

 

But right now, Gibbs needed to simply enjoying being immersed in Tony’s scent, in his things, in a space where he’d made an indelible and undeniable mark.  Gibbs couldn’t face another night with nothing but his boat for company.  He couldn’t face the thought of another day in the office without some reminder of Tony.  Tomorrow…tomorrow he’d get his shit together and be proactive. 

 

There had to be a way to make things right.  He was a Marine damn it.  He wasn’t giving up without a fight.

Chapter Text

Striding toward his desk early the next morning, Gibbs decided to start with finding out more about Paladin Incorporated.  He needed to know what he was up against.  Armed with more information he thought talking to Abby would then be more productive. 

 

He ignored the little voice inside him that called him a coward.  He could talk to Abby directly to find out what he wanted to know.  In the conversation Gibbs had overheard she was going to stop by Tony’s place the day he’d left so it was a safe bet she’d gotten a glimpse of the job offer.  She knew how to do a computer search, ferreting out information better than anyone else Gibbs knew.  She’d probably researched Paladin already.  And she’d been in touch with Tony.  She’d have insight into what he was thinking which could be the piece Gibbs needed to convince the younger man to stay with NCIS…with him.

 

But Gibbs had a long standing habit of knowing things before his team did.  This was one area he didn’t want to admit ignorance.  He couldn’t go to Abby and tell her he’d already wasted week.  He couldn’t tell her his pride and embarrassment had kept him from doing what she would have expected him to do immediately.  He should have gone after Tony then…the day he left and stopped him.  He should have never let the younger man think he wasn’t trusted or valued, should have known how close Tony was to just walking away, should have been more generous with his praise….the list of ‘should haves’ was far too long for Gibbs to want to think about any more. 

 

Gibbs turned on his desk lamp, sitting down with a sigh.  He really couldn’t go to Abby for help without admitting he’d let her down.  Time and again, Abby had shown absolute faith in him.  It was something Gibbs had come to count on when his own faith wavered.  He didn’t want to see doubt and disappointment in her eyes.   He didn’t want to become as small in her mind as he felt he’d shrunk in his own; at least not until he absolutely had to. 

 

Gibbs booted up his computer.  His eyes were drawn to Tony’s desk while he waited for the machine to warm up.  He glared at it, irrationally angry at the furniture for adding to his sense of being incomplete.  The desk lamp should be on, suggesting Tony would be back any minute.  There should sheets of paper haphazardly scattered over the desk.  There should be folders neatly stacked in the black plastic basket on the corner, waiting to be opened or ready to be returned to the file room.  His computer screen should be displaying a psychedelic screen saver that Tony favored.  His chair should be half out, not pushed under the desk.  There should be candy wrappers and coffee cups in his trash can.

 

Gibbs sighed and looked away.  He’d dwelled on the obvious long enough.  He eyed his own computer suspiciously before opening an internet browser determined to make it work for him the way it did for everyone else.  He’d heard Abby and McGee mention ‘Google’ and he’d managed to successfully use it once or twice.  He typed in ‘google’, relieved when a screen he recognized popped up.

 

Armed with the basics, Gibbs searched for Paladin, Inc.  He scanned the listings, frowning at the number that turned up.  Evidently the name was not uncommon.  It was easy to dismiss one that apparently handled forest products, another that did something related to mechanical engineering, and one that was an interactive marketing company.

 

Gibbs nodded in satisfaction when he found one clearly related to the Paladin Inc. he was looking for.  His lips pursed as he considered the page that came up.  It was more like getting a business card than anything else.  Just generic information…services the company offered, a list of offices and a phone number he could call.

 

He frowned.  He was hoping for something more…useful.  He needed a name, a point of contact.  He wanted to know who “Pete” was.  Whoever he was, he had to be someone of importance in the organization.  Gibbs couldn’t see some grunt low on the totem pole having the wherewithal or authorization to give Tony a Ferrari as incentive or a sign on bonus or whatever the damn car was supposed to be.  Was he the guy who did the hiring and firing?  Or was there someone else Gibbs would need to talk to?  He growled at the computer, wanting to slap it for not giving him what he needed. 

 

Knowing slapping the monitor would not be helpful and having no patience to try to keep searching, Gibbs picked up his phone instead.  He called a friend in the state department who owed him a few favors.  He was lucky that Gary didn’t sleep any more than Gibbs did and routinely started work in the wee hours of the morning.  Gary picked up on the first ring, and never asked why Gibbs wanted to know what he was asking him to find.

 

“Give me an hour.  I’ll have somethin’ for ya by then,” Gary told him, his southern drawl just as heavy as it had been when they’d met in basic training nearly thirty years ago.

 

Gibbs used the time to clear out his inbox, signing more forms that McGee had finally figured out how to do.  It had honestly never occurred to him that Tony hadn’t passed on the responsibility for the paperwork minutia.  He never really looked at the forms before, trusting they were on time and done correctly whenever they appeared in front of him.  It was stupid, and something he should have been aware of.   

 

He never considered how much legwork Tony did either.  McGee was fantastic with computers, no question, but there were still things that had to be found the old fashioned way.  Technology was no panacea when it came to investigative work.  Someone had to do what computers couldn’t…and apparently that someone on his team was usually Tony.  Not exclusively…no… Ziva and McGee helped with that as well, but the job was a hell of a lot easier with Tony there to help out. 

 

And there were things that required an ability to connect obscure, unrelated details to create a whole.  Ziva was getting better at it, but she still floundered at times when it came to understanding how people’s actions connected with their motives.  Not everyone had a political agenda, and religion drove people to extremes less often than money.

 

Gibbs shook his head.  For nearly a year, it had been just him and Tony…with Abby and Ducky to help get the job done.  Tony had been a jack of all trades then, and gotten everything done that currently was split between him, Ziva and McGee.  Gibbs couldn’t see McGee or Ziva being able to go solo with that work load…at least not on a consistent basis.  He wondered if they’d realized that yet.

 

He finished his coffee, eyeing the clock.  Gary had less than ten minutes.  Gibbs decided to wait on getting another cup. 

 

He grinned when the phone rang.  “Prompt as ever, Gary.”

 

“I aim ta please.”  Gary chuckled.  “You ready for what I found?”

 

“Give it to me.”

 

“Paladin Inc was started by three guys just after the end of world war two.  Two brothers, Fredrick and Simon Petrastorsky, and a guy by the name of Willis Hottle.”  Gibbs heard Gary swallow and figured the man was having a cup of hot tea.  He’d never liked coffee but always had something hot to drink to start his day.

 

“It’s a multimillion dollar company and is still privately owned.  Shares are held by only a handful of people with Keira Petrastorsky being the largest share holder.  She’s got 60% ownership givin’ her controllin’ interest in the company.  Don’t know if she’s a grandkid of Fredrick or Simon.  Could be she married into the family.  Still checking on that.  But everythin’ I’ve found out so far says she’s the main decision maker for the company…and has been for the last fifteen years or so.”

 

There was clear note of approval in his tone as Gary continued speaking.  “Company was always well run with a solid reputation.  Services they offer don’t come cheap, but everythin’ I’ve found says clients are getting their money’s worth.”

 

Gary cleared her throat.  “It’s under Keira’s leadership that they’ve really taken off.  Company more than doubled its gross revenue in the first five years when she took over.  And it’s doubled again since then.  She’s one tough lady from the intel I’ve seen.  Damn good with money, and hell on wheels when it comes to keeping her customers satisfied. Gets a lot of repeat business and most of her new customers are almost always word of mouth referral types.  She doesn’t have to drum up business or advertise.  Customers seem ta beat a path to her door.”

 

Gibbs heard paper shuffling and the sound of Gary taking another sip of his drink.  “You said you wanted to talk to the guy in charge…she’s the one you want.  From the look a things, nothin’ happens at Paladin unless it has Keira Petrastorksy’s stamp of approval.”

 

“How do I—“

 

“If ya’d wait a minute, I’d tell you what yer all gungho ta ask.”  Gary chuckled softly.  “She’s in D.C. as we speak.  Has a meetin’ with couple of high ranking types with DOD to review the proposal Paladin submitted last week to provide more security in Iraq for civilian contractors.  I read the contract they put out there for the last job they did for DOD.  It was tighter than a dolphin’s ass, Jethro.”

 

Gibbs grinned at the open admiration in Gary’s voice.  “No loopholes?”

 

“Not one.  Was the most straightforward legal document I’ve ever had the pleasure ta see.”

 

Gibbs shook his head.  Gary had always been a little on the strange side.  Being so impressed by legalese was definitely a quirk Gibbs was glad he didn’t share.

 

“You got a number for this Petrastorsky woman?”

 

“No.  Couldn’t get that, but I do know where and when she has her meetin’ today.”

 

Gibbs waited a bit, pencil posed.  He almost snarled ‘now, Gary’ when nothing was said immediately. 

 

“Nice ta know some things never change.”  Gary sounded more amused than annoyed.  “You ever stop being a pushy, demanding bastard, Jethro, I’ll know to start lookin’ for the four horsemen on the horizon.” 

 

“The address, Gary.”

 

He gave Gibbs the location and the time of the meeting.  Gibbs was surprised that the address was not located anywhere near the Pentagon, but rather an upscale hotel down town.  It made sense he supposed.  The hotel had conference rooms that were a hell of a lot more comfortable than the Pentagon could probably offer.  Military furnishing tended to favor practicality over comfort.  And it was unlikely Paladin employees had sufficient clearance to have full access to a facility like the Pentagon without going to a lot of trouble to get it.  That was likely too much trouble for a short meeting. 

 

Gibbs was surprised by the time as well.  It wasn’t often meetings with someone who had gold stars on their lapels happened before 9 AM, unless they were meeting at the White House or in a war room.  He said as much getting a laugh from Gary.

 

“Keira Petrastorksy is a busy woman and she doesn’t have any problem with lettin’ people know her time is valuable.  If you want some of it, you’ll take what’s she’s willin’ ta give, when and where she’s willin’ ta give it or not at all.  Brass might not like meetin’ before nine, but they aren’t going to say no to her.  Not if they want Paladin ta take the job. And after that clusterfuck with Blackwater, they definitely want Paladin ta take the job.”

 

“Thanks for the intel.”

 

“Welcome.  I’ll get whatever else I find to you when I get it.”  Gary hung up, cutting the connection just a second ahead of Gibbs.  Gibbs gave the receiver a dirty look before hanging it up. 

 

He waited for McGee to arrive before shrugging back into his coat. “I’m going out.”  He didn’t explain where or why, but then he rarely did, and he wasn’t going to start now. If he couldn’t tell Abby about his failure to act, he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell McGee either. 

 

Gibbs stifled a wince at how relieved McGee looked that he was leaving.  He had definitely been riding the younger man hard this week.  Gibbs sighed silently.  It wasn’t any harder than he rode Tony…not really, but he was beginning to understand that not everyone handled pressure the same way, or for as long.  Finding out Tony had a breaking point he’d never bothered to see made Gibbs more aware that the rest of his team likely had similar stress fractures he’d been ignoring.  If he kept head slapping McGee and pushing him too hard, he could lose another teammate. 

 

Gibbs took a deep breath.  He stepped over to McGee’s desk, making eye contact and holding it.  “You’re doing a good job, Tim.”

 

McGee stared at him, open mouthed for a moment, before smiling hesitantly.  “Thanks, Boss.”

 

Gibbs nodded once and walked way, moving purposefully toward the elevator.  “Call me on my cell if anything comes up.” 

 

“Will do, Boss.” McGee called after him.

 

Gibbs needed coffee.  He’d pick that up on the way.  He also needed to figure out just what he was going to say to Kiera Petrastorsky when he confronted her. He couldn’t exactly demand she rescind the job offer or order her to leave Tony the hell alone…no matter how much he wanted to. 

 

Gibbs punched the elevator button with more force than necessary.  He’d figure out what to say.  Words might not be his forte when it came to personal things, but he was damn good at interrogation.  His gut had never let him down before.  It wouldn’t this time either.

 

Chapter Text

Gibbs was damn glad he'd stopped for coffee before a four car pile up left him stuck in traffic. He would have never managed to keep a tight rein on his temper without a hot cup of coffee in hand. While having a cup to sip from kept him exploding immediately, it did little to curb his growing impatience as he waited for the snarl of totaled cars and emergency personnel to be untangled enough for traffic to begin moving again.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, biting back yet another curse as he looked at his watch. He'd hoped to catch Keira Petrastorsky before the meeting began because he had no idea how long it would last. Given what Gary said, she likely had no more tolerance for bureaucratic bullshit than Gibbs himself had. She would probably be doing her best to be in and out in as quickly as possible. For the first time in his life Gibbs was hoping the government bureaucracy would move at its usual glacial pace.

When there was finally an opening, Gibbs forced the sedan through and drove at his usual breakneck speed to the hotel where the meeting was taking place. He pulled into the parking lot with a callous disregard for the posted limit, ignoring the valet in attendance. He scanned the lot for other government vehicles, parking next to one, hoping it belonged to one of the DOD types meeting with Petrastorsky.

He slammed the door as he got out of the car, venting some of his frustration. Gibbs forced himself to take a deep breath and let go of his anger. Scaring a suspect with a controlled display of temper was one thing; letting his emotions get the better of him was another. Gibbs squared his shoulders, putting on his game face as he headed for the front door of the hotel.

The front lobby had an air of understated elegance. Rich red carpeting muffled foot falls, absorbing echoes the domed ceiling and marble walls naturally caused. Silver gilt accented the lighting fixtures, reflecting the light and making the room appear even brighter. The dark walnut wood of the front desk had the faint sheen Gibbs knew only came with age and years of repeated polishing.

He stepped over to the desk, moving with a confidence he didn't entirely feel. He still hadn't figured out what to say to Petrastorsky...or how to even find her in a place like this. It wasn't like they'd put up signs directing attendees the way they would a convention and he couldn't very well go door to door. Determined not to be stopped now, Gibbs pulled out his badge showing it to the distinguished looking older man in a suit who he assumed to be the concierge.

"I am Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs with the Naval Criminal Investigation Service." He didn't normally spell it out, or try to make himself sound quite so officious, but he didn't think he'd get passed the lobby if he didn't. "I was told Ms. Petrastorsky of Paladin Inc. was attending a meeting with senior officials of the Department of Defense here. It is important that I speak with her."

The concierge cocked his head, cool blue eyes measuring Gibbs in a way that reminded him of his old drill instructor. Gibbs kept his face expressionless; he made sure his body language was relaxed and easy. He forced himself to wait, letting the man make his decision. The concierge's arched an eyebrow, before nodding once.

Gibbs assumed he'd passed muster when the man casually reached for the phone. When the man spoke a faded British accent marked him as a long time resident of the US but not a native. "If you'll wait a moment, I'll see if she is available to speak with you, Sir."

Gibbs forced himself to keep his tone level. "Thank you."

He listened as the concierge spoke to someone, mentioning Gibbs' name, his status as an NCIS agent, and his desire to speak with Ms. Petrastorsky. There was obviously something said by whoever picked up, but Gibbs couldn't hear it. The concierge agreed with a `very good, sir' before placing his hand over the mouth piece and looking at Gibbs.

"Ms. Petrastorsky's associate said the meeting is nearly finished. She will have time to speak with you then if you would like to wait."

Gibbs nodded. "I'll wait."

The concierge dipped his head. "Special Agent Gibbs has agreed to wait," he spoke into the phone. "Certainly. I will see to it personally."

He hung up the phone and then waved over another hotel employee indicating the woman should take his place. "If you will come with me, Sir," the man stepped out from behind the desk.

Gibbs bit back his nearly instinctive response to being called `Sir', following quietly behind the man as he led him through an archway and down a short hall. The man used a key card to open a door that revealed a private, well appointed sitting room. He held the door open for Gibbs.

"Would you care for anything while you wait, Sir?"

"Coffee." Gibbs added `please', using the nearly forgotten good manners his grandmother had drilled into him as a small boy.

"Cream and sugar?"

"Black is fine."

"Very good, Sir." The concierge gave an abbreviated bow and left.

Gibbs glanced around the room, shaking his head. If he'd needed concrete proof about how much respect Paladin, Inc and Petrastorsky commanded, he just got it. In an upscale place like this, without a warrant, he'd have ordinarily been left to cool his heels in the lobby, snubbed by staff and patrons alike.

Gibbs paced the room slowly, eyes roaming over the room to familiarize himself with every single detail. It was far too plush for his tastes, but it was more than adequate to serve as an interrogation room.

Gibbs grimaced, looking at his watch. He hated waiting. He glared at the door. Where the hell was that stuffy concierge with his coffee?

Only a finely honed sense of self control kept him from stepping back in surprise when the door opened as in response to his unvoiced question. A strikingly attractive woman with café au latte skin, short dark curly hair and green eyes so like Tony's it almost hurt to look at them stepped into the room. Gibbs was no expert on apparel, men or women's, but even he could tell the tailored suit she was wearing likely sported a designer label he couldn't pronounce. And her low heeled pumps likely cost more than he made in a week.

"Hello, I'm Keira Petrastorsky." Her voice had a husky, almost gravelly undertone. It was decidedly appealing. "Thank you for waiting."

She held out her hand. He shook it, not surprised to find she had a firm grip. "Special Agent Gibbs."

Her green eyes sparkled in silent amusement. "You don't remember me, do you?"

Gibbs was tempted to lie; no woman, especially not one beautiful and wealthy, wanted to be told she was forgettable. His innate honesty won out. "We've met before?"

"Once. Briefly. Almost three year ago now." She chuckled wryly, clearly not offended he'd forgotten. "Obviously, I need to work on making myself more memorable."

Gibbs was grateful for the interruption that came in the form of a polite knock at the door and a soft call of `room service'. It saved him from having to find something to say in response to her comment.

Petrastorsky opened the door, admitting the concierge. He pushed a small trolley into the room. The cart was laden with a silver tray that held a coffee urn, a tea pot, two cups and plate covered with small finger sandwiches.

"Thank you, Fredrick."

"You are welcome, Madam."

She sighed, sounding mildly annoyed. "Would it kill you to just call me Pete?"

Gibbs blinked. He wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly. Pete? Did that make her the same Pete who'd sent the Ferrari to Tony? What the hell sort of name was Pete for a woman anyway?

Fredrick gave her a stern look. "It wouldn't be appropriate to be so familiar."

"It's not as if we haven't known each other for awhile, Fredrick." She gave him a bright smile. "A little familiarity wouldn't be uncalled for."

"Your father would not approve."

"Right...because he was such a stickler for protocol." She snorted delicately. "That so nicely explains how I was saddle with the nickname in the first place."

Fredrick's lips curled upward in a fond smile before his expression sobered again. "When shall I tell your associate to expect you?"

She glanced at her watch. "Tell Josh I'll be ready in twenty minutes, half an hour on the outside."

"Very good, Madam."

She rolled her eyes. "One of these days, Fredrick, you'll slip up and you'll call me Pete like all my other friends to."

"Probably. Just not today." He tipped his head, blue eyes much warmer with her than they'd been with Gibbs as they danced in quiet amusement. He waved a hand toward a small panel near the door. "Just ring the bell if you need anything."

"I think we'll be fine, thank you."

She shook her head as Fredrick left, softly muttering something that sounded like `stuffy, stubborn Brits'. She smiled at Gibbs, gesturing to one of the nearby chairs. "Please, sit."

Gibbs took a seat, watching as she picked up the coffee pot. "Coffee?"

"Please." He nodded, once more putting his good manners to use.

She poured him a cup. "Black, yes?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"You're welcome." She poured herself a cup of tea and then sat gracefully in the chair facing his. She crossed her legs, expression blandly neutral, clearly ready to get down to business. "So, what did you wish to speak to me about Special Agent Gibbs?"

"Gibbs is fine." Unless trying to make a point, using his status always seemed a bit stupid to him.

"Gibbs it is then." She dipped her head a regal gesture of acknowledgement of his preference. She sipped her tea, one eyebrow arched expectantly.

"You gave Tony DiNozzo a car?" Gibbs asked, wanting to know if she was in fact the same Pete.

"I did, yes."

Gibbs eyes narrowed. "Were you aware that could be construed as a bribe?"

"A bribe?" She raised both eyebrows. "It could only be considered such if I'd ask him to do something illegal or unethical in exchange. I did not."

No, Gibbs thought sourly, you just want him to leave NCIS...to leave me. He took a sip of his coffee. "So the car was a gift? Not strings attached?"

"Precisely." She sipped her tea.

"A rather expensive gift." Gibbs' tone was dry, nicely implying his cynical disbelief of her assertion.

"It would be...if I'd paid for it."

Gibbs frowned. "What do you mean if you'd paid for it?"

"The Ferrari was given to me in an effusive show of appreciation from a client. My people were only doing what they were already well paid to do, so the whole thing was entirely unnecessary." She shook here head, clearly bemused by the client's need to make such a display of gratitude. "I didn't want it and definitely didn't need it. Unfortunately, I was in no position to refuse it." She shrugged one shoulder. "So I accepted the car to make the man happy. And then crass as it may be, I gave it away when I had an opportunity to do so."

"Why give it to Tony?"

She cocked her head to one side, green eyes measuring him. "Why do you care?"

"He's one of my agents."

"So this meeting is simply because you are worried my gift might cause him problems? Somehow, I doubt that." She smirked. "Would you like to try again?"

Gibbs glared at her. "Was it incentive to get him to take the job?"

She arched an eyebrow. "He told you about the offer?"

Gibbs looked her in the eye. "Yes."

"Liar," she accused him, not a trace of doubt in her voice or expression. "If Tony had told you, you'd have gotten things in the right order."

Gibbs wasn't sure what to make of that. "Right order?"

"The job offer has been on the table for years." She lifted her chin in a silent challenge. "You didn't know that, did you?"

Gibbs didn't answer, but he knew his silence spoke eloquently of his ignorance. He hated feeling so off balance. He should have done more research before confronting her.

She regarded him calmly for a moment. "He made such an impression on me, I offered him a job the day after I met him. It was a standing offer. Whenever he wanted to accept, there would be a place for him."

She took a sip of her tea. "We've met regularly since then, becoming friends along the way. And every other time Tony and I talked, I would renew the offer of employment. He was always polite, but firm, in his refusal. All I received for my trouble was `no, thank you', and a smile."

She didn't sound irritated by Tony's repeated refusals. Hearing `no' evidently didn't bother her. It also clearly didn't keep her from continuing to ask.

"This time I got a maybe...a definite maybe. And after the year Tony's had, I can't say it was surprising to hear he was ready to seriously consider the offer."

The look she gave Gibbs was laden with disappointment, anger and distain. She said she and Tony were friends...it wasn't hard to imagine Tony had confided in her much the same way he did Abby. Gibbs tried not to squirm thinking about what Tony had probably told her that earned him the look she'd given him. He also tried not to think about how much her low regard was warranted. He already knew he'd failed Tony in a lot of ways.

She sighed softly. "I didn't give him the car to get him to seriously consider the job. He was seriously considering the job so I gave him the car."

"Why?"

"Why was he seriously considering the job?" The look in her face made it clear she thought he was an idiot if that was what he was truly asking. "Or why did I give him the car?"

The conversation he'd overheard between Tony and Abby already told him why the younger man was seriously considering the damn job. And it wasn't like he hadn't known it was a rough year for Tony...he just hadn't thought about how damn rough it had been.

"If he was seriously considering your offer the car seems like overkill. So why give it to him?"

"Actions speak so loudly. And often better than words." She mused quietly, shrugging one shoulder. "Giving Tony the Ferrari was a chance for me to make a few pointed statements without having to actually say anything."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "And those would be?"

"I wanted him to know Paladin is not nearly so cavalier about the destruction of personal property in the line of duty as NCIS seems to be."

Gibbs frowned. "What-"

"To the best of my knowledge, NCIS hasn't even made a token effort to replace Tony's mustang." She sipped her tea again before setting the cup down. She sat back; her attitude was noticeably cooler toward him. "That car was a classic...in pristine condition. Do you have any idea what it would have been worth at an auction? More importantly, do you know what it was worth to Tony?"

She held up a hand when he would have answered. It was probably just a well. Gibbs had no idea what to really say. The loss of the mustang had gotten lost in his relief Tony was still alive. He hadn't given any thought to what Tony had been driving since. As long as the younger man was at the office every day, Gibbs never considered how he got there.

"My second reason for giving Tony the car...I wanted him to know I value what he considers important for no better reason than that it matters to him."

That hit closer to home than Gibbs expected, pricking his conscience with stunning accuracy. He caught himself before he flinched, but he could feel his face warming.

"It isn't often I get the chance to make someone so happy with so little effort." She smiled softly. "The car is Tony's whether he takes the job or not. And before you ask, yes, he knows that. When I said the Ferrari was a gift, I meant it."

Gibbs' hand tightened around his forgotten cup of coffee. "Years seems like a long time to keep hearing no."

"Funny you should say that. Tony said much the same thing." She chuckled, a low and raspy sound. "Persistence pays off, and patience is its own reward. Or so my father always told me."

"Why him?"

"You hired him and you're asking me that?"

"You don't investigate crimes."

"True. But that isn't all he's good at either." She picked up one of the small sandwiches. "He's a man of many talents."

I know that, Gibbs wanted to snarl at her, but forced himself to not to. He took a breath and let it out slowly. "The same could be said of all my agents."

"I get paid to keep people alive, not to kill them. Not much room on my staff for an assassin." She nibbled delicately on the sandwich in her hand. "Oh, I know Ziva David is more than a trained killer. But I don't dig up secrets so a spy wouldn't exactly be necessary to my organization either."

She finished the sandwich, wiping her fingers on one of the linen napkins that had been provided. "I've got computer geeks already on the payroll. Hiring another isn't really justifiable, no matter how good he may be. And while I don't mind my staff having hobbies, I prefer their hobbies not evolve into a competing profession. A published author isn't exactly the sort I'd be looking for."

"Just what is it that makes Tony the sort you're looking for?"

She gave him a look he couldn't read. "If you can't see how Tony would fit within my organization, I really haven't got time to explain it to you."

She stood up. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have another appointment."

Gibbs stood as well. He reached out to catch her arm, intent on keeping her in the room. She neatly sidestepped his grasp, eyes flashing a warning.

"That would be ill advised."

Gibbs nodded and stepped back. That had been stupid and he knew it. She wasn't a suspect he could use his normal tactics with. He couldn't force her to stay against her will.

"I understand why you want Tony to stay. He's a damn good agent, and an outstanding investigator." She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "But he could be a hell of a lot more than that."

He already was more than that to me, Gibbs wanted to tell her. Tony always had been. But he'd only just realized the younger man didn't know that.

"I'm not rescinding my offer." She gave him an assessing look. "Even if I did, that doesn't guarantee he wouldn't leave NCIS for something else. If he was willing to consider my offer after so long...he'd entertain others."

Gibbs' jaw clenched. She was right.

"For what it's worth, you have something to offer no one else could hope to match." She sighed softly, looking resigned. "I don't claim to understand it. Not sure I would even agree with his thinking it would be worth all the shit he's gone through at NCIS and working for you. But if you put it on the table, the balance would probably swing in your favor."

Gibbs frowned. "And just what would that be?"

She shook her head. "You're supposed to be the best there is at solving puzzles. If I figured it out without having to be told...you should have solved it a long time ago."

She laughed softly. "Besides, I have a vested interest in him saying yes to me. Telling you how to get him to say no would be foolish. And that's not something I make a habit of being."

"Then why bring it up at all?" Gibbs growled.

"Because...he's my friend. And like the Ferrari, it might just make Tony happy." She shrugged. "If you figure it out on you own, then it's up to you whether or not you offer it to him because you want him to have it...or you do it just to make him stay."

She gave him a feral smile. "You pick the latter...toy with him just because you're a rat bastard who can, and I will find a way to make you regret it."

"I don't even know what the hell you are talking about." Gibbs ground out in frustration.

"Yeah, I know. And that is a damn shame." She actually sounded sorry. She opened the door. "I have a feeling you won't forget meeting me this time."

"Not likely." Gibbs huffed out a breath, torn between annoyance and amusement. Usually it was Tony who created such conflicting emotions. He wasn't used to experiencing it with anyone else.

"Guess I found a way to make myself memorable after all." She gave him a winsome smile. "I wish you the best of luck, Gibbs."

He didn't get the chance to say anything else before she left. Gibbs bit back a curse, sorely tempted to chase after her and demand she just explain the damn riddle or whatever and stop jerking him around. He took a deep breath and then finished the cup of coffee he was still holding.

The meeting hadn't been a total waste of time. He had a better sense of the competition and what he was up against. He also now knew there was something that Petrastorsky believed could sway Tony's decision in his favor. He was certain she hadn't lied about that...even if she hadn't been as clear or forthcoming as Gibbs would have liked. All he had to do was find out what the hell it was.

He solved puzzles for a living. He could and would figure this out.

 

end part 10

Chapter Text

Tony hummed along with the radio, fingers tapping out a matching rhythm against the steering wheel.  He had considered stopping a few hours ago, but hadn’t been tired then. And stopping now, when he was so close to home, seemed like a waste of time.  He was looking forward to sleeping in his own bed again.

 

Tony shifted, stretching out as much as the leather seat and frame of the Ferrari would allow.  He was sore all over, but that didn’t have much to do with the hours he’s spent behind the wheel.  No, the car had nothing to do with the aches, pains and twinges that served as tangible reminders of the time Tony had spent with Terry.

 

Tony grinned.  After meeting Terry, the only sites he’d seen were inside his hotel room.  Over the following two days, they’d given the bed, the loveseat, the counter in the kitchenette, and the shower a workout.  It had been a long time since Tony had been with a man that enthusiastic, flexible and fun. 

Tony sighed softly.  The memory that stood out in his mind the most was having sex on the balcony in the wee hours of the morning.  It had started out as something of a lighthearted dare and had become so much more than that.    

 

There was something so risqué about having sex in the open, although there was decidedly little risk of them actually being seen.  Between the pre-dawn darkness, the light fog that had rolled in and being on the top floor, they were essentially invisible.  The faint predawn chill against his overheated skin had created a delicious contrast that made Tony shiver just thinking about it.   The memory of the cool, damp metal railing under his hands was so sharp, Tony’s fingers instinctively flexed against the steering wheel as though seeking a firmer grip on a slippery surface. 

 

Terry had taken him from behind, his thrust slow and even, almost as though he was trying to match the rolling motion of the waves below them.  His fingertips had ghosted over Tony’s arms, shoulders and back, causing more goose bumps than the salt laden ocean breeze.  Soft sighs and low moans were the only sounds that passed between them.

 

That unhurried, languid interaction was as close as they’d come to having more than just sex.  It wasn’t making love, not in the truest sense, because while they enjoyed each other, there was no denying they weren’t more than fuck buddies.  There was definitely a higher degree of affection and sensuality to their time on the balcony than in anything that had come before but it wasn’t love.  It was their last time together, and by unspoken agreement, both of them had wanted the moment to last.

 

Tony shook his head, smiling in bemusement.  He’d come without either of them touching his dick.  It was the first and only time he could remember that ever happening.

 

He’d been very tempted to take Terry up on his suggestion he stay longer. The last time Tony had been with a guy that was more than a one night stand, a back alley blow job or hand job in a club’s restroom was in college.  It was refreshing to have those two days with Terry include a little more than just sweating up the sheets.  There was some good conversation, a pay per view movie or two, shared room service, honest amusement and genuine laughter between them as well. 

 

Spending time with Terry hadn’t helped him make up his mind about Pete’s job offer, but Tony couldn’t say he regretted the time he’d spent with him.  The sex had been fantastic, and was definitely something Tony needed.  

 

Tony glanced at his watch.  It was nearly midnight and traffic was relatively light.  At this rate, even driving the posted limit, he’d be back at his apartment in another hour. Tony laughed quietly to himself.  Staying at the posted speed limit wasn’t something he’d actually done much of on his way back to D.C.

 

Crossing the flat terrain of the mid-west, Tony had been unable to resist the temptation to see just how fast the Ferrari could go.  He’d floored it and kept it there until a cop pulled him over two hours later.  He been too high on adrenaline to feel very repentant about breaking the law, but he tried to at least look suitably chagrined when the cop asked for ID, registration and insurance. 

 

To Tony’s delighted astonishment, when the officer saw his agency ID, he’d actually recognized what NCIS stood for and what the organization did.  Most people didn’t even know NCIS existed, much less realized it was a legitimate government entity.   He had asked Tony if he was on official business, and Tony considered lying for all of a second, before telling the truth.  He didn’t want anyone calling the director or worse, Gibbs, for confirmation of his story.  So Tony told the cop he simply on his way back to DC after a taking some time off.

 

“Nice car.”

 

“My dream car.”  Tony had admitted with a grin, patting the dash. 

 

“Couldn’t afford something like this,” the cop had whistled silently in appreciation, his envy readily apparent.

 

“Me either.”  Tony had shrugged.  “Belongs to a friend a friend of mine.” 

 

“Must be a good friend to loan you a sweet ride like this.”

 

“Very good friend.” 

 

“You have to give it back soon then?”

 

Tony had sighed deeply.  “When I get back to D.C.”

 

Pete said he could keep the car as a replacement for the mustang, but Tony really couldn’t take her up on that offer.  It was too much to accept, even if he took the job.  Maybe especially if he took the job; it wouldn’t do for people to think he got special favors from the boss.  He didn’t really care what that might imply about him, but he definitely didn’t want tongues wagging about Pete.  She deserved better than that. 

 

“How far did you go with it?”

 

“All the way to California.”

 

“Damn boy,” the cop had laughed, “don’t do things by half measures, do you?”

 

“Not often.”  Tony admitted ruefully.

 

The tendency to plunge head long into things, to leap in with both feet before he looked, had gotten Tony into trouble a lot. It was only at NCIS that anyone seemed to care.  It wasn’t until after Gibbs sudden departure and then abrupt return that Tony came to the conclusion his boss hadn’t worried he’d get hurt by being careless or over enthusiastic.  It was far more likely Gibbs was worried Tony’s actions might reflect badly on him and his team.  Or maybe it was a Marine thing…taking care of his own…all Tony could really say for certain was he no longer thought it was ever about him. 

 

In contrast to Gibbs, Pete never failed to ask him how he was doing and seemed to genuinely care about the answer.  Instead of being pissed by his numerous refusals, she’d continued to repeatedly offer him the job.  And when he thought he might be ready to say yes…she’d suggested he think it over a bit more, to make sure it was the right choice for him.  Even though he didn’t plan to keep it, she’d offered him a chance to own his dream car, no strings attached.  Gibbs would have dismissed his desire to own something so flashy as foolish or stupid.  The man hadn’t given a damn when Tony’s Corvette had been stolen and totaled, and he hadn’t been said a word about the mustang. 

 

It made him wonder why he even needed to think about Pete’s offer.  The only real explanation for his deliberation was what he’d told Ziva once, ‘the heart wants what it wants’, and his heart wanted Gibbs.  But his heart had its limits; something his quasi-relationship with Jeanne had made all too apparent. 

 

Tony realized there was a lot more he now wanted and needed than an infrequent ‘good job’ and a head slap.  He didn’t want ‘you’ll do’ to be the only positive endorsement he’d ever receive.  Or only having his well being matter if it would affect a case.  He wanted to curl up with the same person every night, and wake up with them the next day.  He wanted someone to share joy with, to help carry the sorrows, someone to lean on when he needed help, someone who trusted Tony to be there for him in return…and he really wanted that someone to be Gibbs.  Tony sighed, shaking his head.  Even if Gibbs were his soul mate, assuming he even believed in such things, it was clear he wasn’t Gibbs’.  How in the hell had he fallen for some who didn’t trust or respect him?  There were days when Tony was sure Gibbs barely tolerated him.

 

“At least not all everything in my life is that messed up,” Tony muttered to himself.  He had employment options, a friend willing to give him a chance to experience his dream car, a few days of memorable sex that had gone a long way toward reaffirming his self-confidence with regard to his own appeal to and prowess with men, and the cop had let him off with a warning and a directive to be more careful.

 

With a run of luck like that, he should have stopped off in Vegas. Maybe he’d just buy a lottery ticket.  Or maybe he should see this as a sign.  The past nine days had been more enjoyable than any time during the last twelve months.

 

Tony took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he seriously considered what he’d spent his time with Terry unconsciously avoiding.  He had solid counter arguments for all Abby’s reasons for staying. 

 

They could remain friends whether he worked at NCIS or not.  They might not see each other as much, but he hoped their friendship was more than a byproduct of proximity.   If their staying in touch was dependant on their working together…they didn’t have much of a friendship at all.

 

The team got along without Gibbs for four months; they would definitely survive being without Tony.  They probably hadn’t even noticed his absence.  He was hardly the lynch pin Gibbs was. 

 

Tony smiled grimly.  He couldn’t see Ziva or McGee calling him to come back to save their asses.  McGee would get the hand of the paperwork eventually, and Ziva was already better at making connections.  A little practice and they would be pros.  It wasn’t like they hadn’t already worked together as a team, or that McGee lacked experience as a senior agent.  The experience might be limited, but not more so than Tony’s had been when he took the job. 

 

Ducky would understand.  The older man had handled the loss of Kate, and Gerald leaving.  He dealt with Gibbs being gone and then returning with his usual aplomb.  He knew how to adjust, roll with the punches.

 

Tony could continue to send Marisol flowers. He could easily make it a standing order.  With the increase in his salary, paying for it would hardly be a burden.   The secretary pool would find a new heartthrob to moon over.  The guys in the motor pool could make bets with anyone willing to risk twenty bucks.

He could continue to help people working for Pete.  Not the same way he did at NCIS or even the same group of people, but his job with Pete would still be rewarding. 

 

He’d be carrying a gun, the same as he had since before he started at NCIS.  And in the circles he’d be moving in working for Paladin would accord him more respect and recognition than he’d ever gotten at NCIS.   Pete looked out for her people…even better than Gibbs did, because she didn’t assume they were okay if they weren’t bleeding.  She would watch is six as well as any one else could or would.

 

Bert wasn’t truly alive, so he couldn’t really miss Tony.

 

Even with all those reasons, what really tipped the scale, was the thought of having to be around Gibbs day in and day out knowing he’d only ever see Tony as good enough for now.  Tony was really only on his team until someone smarter, faster, more capable came along.  It hurt to admit that he was never going to be worth Gibbs’ time or attention if it wasn’t work related.

 

“Never was much of a masochist,” Tony murmured.  Five years was a record for him in more ways than one. 

 

He nodded to himself.  After a good night’s sleep, he’d call Pete and tell her he was taking the job.  He’d draft his resignation and give it to the Director.  Both of those would be easy to do. 

 

Saying good bye would be harder.  For him, at least, if not for his teammates.  Well, Abby would likely take it badly, but Tony couldn’t see Gibbs, Ziva or McGee shedding any tears.  Ducky would probably be the only one to wish him well, but Tony knew the older man would actually mean it.  That counted for a lot. 

 

“Could take a page out of Gibbs’ play book,” Tony laughed dryly.  Just walk out the damn door and don’t look back. If he didn’t give them a chance to say anything, he wouldn’t have to deal with their responses…be it confusion, sorrow, delight, distain or general disregard.

 

Tony consider that a cowards way out when Gibbs had done it, but if it was good enough for a Marine, it would work for him too.  It wasn’t like he had to give a two week notice. Or if he did, that anyone other than the Director needed to know about it.    


Having made his decision, like when he’d burned Jeanne’s letter, Tony felt more settled and calmer.  This felt like the right choice.  He hoped the feeling would last longer than it had with Jeanne. 

Chapter Text

Gibbs came awake, instantly alert.  He stayed still, his breathing deep and even, as his senses reached out trying to figure out what had woken him.  He didn’t know Tony’s place as well as he did his own, so it took time to catalog and identify the innate sounds of his apartment. 

 

At Gibbs’ house there were no shared walls with another dwelling so he usually couldn’t hear the neighbors going about their lives.  Sounds of other people slamming doors, eating dinner, fighting, watching TV, having sex---they weren’t noises he usually had to filter out.  Whatever disturbed his deep and peaceful slumber was not on the other side of the wall…no it was closer than that.

 

He flinched when the overhead light came one, one hand immediately reaching for the gun he’d hidden under Tony’s pillow. He rolled on to his side, back to the door, ready to dive to the floor and put the bed between himself and whoever had just invaded Tony’s home.  His move was aborted when he heard a soft command full of deadly promise if he didn’t obey.

 

“Freeze.”

 

Gibbs froze.

 

“I don’t have any porridge, but I still want to know what you’re doing in my bed.”

 

Gibbs breathed a sigh of relief as he recognized the dry, mocking voice.  “Tony…you can stand down,” he said quietly as he sat up.

 

“Gibbs?!  What the hell--“ Tony stared at him, an incredulous expression on his face.  “When I realized someone was here—“ Green eyes narrowed, hard and measuring as he holstered his gun.  “I could have shot you.

 

“You always make sure of your target before you fire.” The statement was one of confident knowledge blended with a stern order.

 

“After midnight , an unidentified intruder breaks in my place,” Tony growled, “I could make an exception.” 

 

“I didn’t break in.”

 

Tony arched an eyebrow.  “Well, you don’t have a key.  And I sure as hell didn’t invite you to make yourself at home while I was gone.”

 

Gibbs fought down a wince.  No, he didn’t have a key; that still hurt more than he expected.  And unlike his own home, Tony’s door was always locked, a clear message barring anyone from un-welcomed entry.  Nor could he say he’d been invited, no matter how much he might wish it were otherwise.  So, technically, Tony was right.  He had broken in.

 

“I didn’t kick down the door.”  Gibbs offered, not sure he was trying to defend himself or placate Tony.

 

“No, you just picked the lock.”  Tony laughed softly, rolling his eyes.  “And while I’m grateful I don’t have to replace a busted door jamb…I still didn’t get an answer to my question.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  “Ques—“

 

“What the hell are you doing here?”

 

Gibbs wasn’t sure what to say.  The truth was that since the first night he’d spent in Tony’s bed he’d been back every night since.  He’d tried to spend the night in his own home, working on the boat the way he always had before, but a driving restlessness made it hard to relax or concentrate.  And while he’d never say it aloud, he found himself seeking reassurance Tony would come back.

 

He couldn’t be certain that if Tony took Pete’s job that he wouldn’t leave without saying good-bye…at least to Gibbs.  He would probably say it to Abby if no one else.  But Gibbs was sure Tony would come back for his stuff.  He couldn’t see Tony abandoning his collection of DVD’s, the framed photos prominently displayed in his living room that were clearly important, or his sinfully expensive wardrobe.  After talking to Pete, it had become a ritual for Gibbs to check Tony’s apartment…to verify that everything was still where it should be, that Tony hadn’t come back early and slipped away again. 

 

Once at Tony’s place, Gibbs couldn’t bring himself to leave.  He would give into the temptation to lie down on Tony’s bed, to breath in the fading fragrance of the younger man, to curl up under the incredibly soft, down comforter and let sleep claim him.  The stress of the day, the indecision and worry, the anger and frustration would bleed away allowing him to rest like he couldn’t remember doing anywhere else in a long, long time.

 

“You all right?”  Tony asked, interrupting Gibbs’ thoughts, breaking the silence.  Green eyes suddenly darkened with apprehension, Tony’s weight shifting as though he were bracing for a blow.  “Did something…happen while I was gone?”

 

Gibbs shook his head.  He understood what Tony was really asking; ‘had someone been seriously injured?’, or more accurately ‘had someone died? ’. It was a logical assumption in light of Gibbs’ unusual behavior; breaking in and sleeping in Tony’s bed was clearly not normal.

 

“Everyone is fine.” 

 

And that was true…mostly.  No one was injured or ill.  So, physically, everyone was okay, but it was a bit of a stretch to say everyone was fine.  Abby was moping.  There was no other word for it.  The music in her lab lately had been akin to the dirge she played when Kate had been killed, and Gibbs hadn’t seen her really smile or bounce excitedly for at least two days. McGee was twitchy, almost flinching whenever Gibbs even looked his way.  He was clearly waiting anxiously for Tony to get back and take some of the heat off.  Ziva had taken to staring at Tony’s desk throughout the day as though expecting him to just appear out of thin air.  And Ducky wasn’t talking to Gibbs about anything that wasn’t case related.  He never thought he’d miss hearing those odd bits of information the ME had gleaned over the years.  Ducky didn’t seem pissed at him…more like profoundly disappointed. 

 

Tony cocked his head to one side.  “Why do I get the feeling you aren’t telling me the whole truth?”

 

Gibbs couldn’t help the small smile that appeared.  “Because you are a damn good investigator.”

 

Tony scowled.  “That’s not quite the answer I was hoping for.”

 

Gibbs sighed, rubbing one hand over his face.  He had been sleeping so deeply, he still felt strangely disconnected.  He needed caffeine for this conversation.  “Can I have a cup of coffee?” 

 

“Sure.” Tony pointed to his bed.  “While you make that, I’ll get the coffee pot perking.”

 

Gibbs nodded and went to work straightening up the bed.  He was the one who’d messed it up, making it was the least he could do.  He smoothed the flat sheet, petting the incredibly soft material. He’d had no idea sheets could feel so good against bare skin.  It was no wonder Tony made a habit of sleeping naked---a habit Gibbs was glad he hadn’t adopted.  Tony finding him in his bed was bad enough, finding him naked would have been…Gibbs shook his head.  It was best not to think on that.

 

He eyed the bed.  It looked exactly as it had when he’d arrived.  Gibbs had been careful to make the bed every morning.  He hadn’t known what sort of schedule Tony’s housekeeper had.  Or, obviously, when Tony would be home, but he’d been hoping to avoid having his trespass discovered.

 

He grimaced.  Gibbs hadn’t expected Tony to come home until tomorrow.  Tony had another day left before having to be back to work.  He had thought Tony might not even bother coming home, but just head right into the office.  It was something Tony had done before when taking a long weekend.

 

Gibbs caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over Tony’s dresser.  He finger combed his hair into order regretting letting it grow longer over the past year.  When it was shorter it stayed neat.  He considered changing out of his t-shirt and sweats before dismissing the idea.  Tony had seen him in casual attire before.  Not like the younger man cared what he was wearing.

 

Gibbs headed for the kitchen.  He hesitated in the doorway, staring at Tony as the younger man poured water into the coffee maker.  Now wide awake and alert, Gibbs couldn’t help noticing that Tony looked good…very good.

 

The well worn denim of his jeans hugged Tony’s ass in a way that made Gibbs force his eyes upward to avoid the temptation to touch.  Looking up only brought his attention to Tony’s trim waist and broad shoulders.  Gibbs vaguely remembered Tony making a comment about going back to the gym.  The firm muscles readily apparent under the thin cotton material of his t-shirt were definitive proof Tony hadn’t lied.   

The light tan he sported and the sun-bleached tips in his hair told of time spent where it was warm enough to make being outside enjoyable.  The lines of stress and strain Gibbs had come to think of as normal were gone from around Tony’s eyes and forehead. Without them he looked younger…more like he had when Gibbs first met him in Baltimore.   Tony seemed more relaxed, more settled in his own skin, than he had since Gibbs’ return from Mexico.  Clearly the time off had been good for him. 

 

Tony cast glance over his shoulder.  “You done making sure all my limbs are present and accounted for?”

 

“Well you do have a tendency to get into trouble.”  Gibbs tried to keep his tone light.  He didn’t want Tony to know he wasn’t checking him over for injury as much as he was checking him out. 

 

Tony rolled his eyes, turning to face Gibbs, arms folded across his chest.  “On the job, maybe, but my personal life is pretty tame.”

 

Gibbs snorted.  Tony’s personal life was anything but tame.

 

“Doesn’t hurt that I really haven’t had a personal life for almost a year,” Tony continued quietly, almost speaking to himself, his expression thoughtful.  “What personal life I had dwindled steadily from the time I started at NCIS.  Being on call nearly every weekend can put quiet a damper on socializing.”

 

“We aren’t on call every weekend,” Gibbs pointed out. 

 

Tony gave him a sardonic look, eyebrows arching upward.  “So ‘always be reachable, never unavailable’ was more of a guideline than a rule?  That whole lecture about staying focused and not quitting until we got our guy was just a passing fancy?”

 

Gibbs didn’t know how to answer.  Evidently his silence said enough because Tony just nodded and turned away.   He picked up a mug from the counter.  He filled it and handed it off to the older man.  He poured another, adding cream and what seemed like an ungodly amount of sugar to Gibbs. 

 

Tony’s lips curling upward in a cold smile as he waved a hand toward the table.  “You’ve already made yourself at home, so feel free to sit down.” 

 

Gibbs was glad he wasn’t prone to blushing as he took a seat. He kept his expression neutral by force of will.  He really should apologize, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.  He wasn’t honestly sorry he’d picked the lock or slept in Tony’s bed.  He was sorry he’d gotten caught. 

 

“I shouldn’t have picked the lock.”  Gibbs admitted.  He could admit that his actions were in the wrong. It wasn’t the same thing as saying he was sorry.  Tony’s expression made it clear he understood the silent distinction being made.

 

“Wasn’t expecting an apology from you.  I know better than that.”  The last was bit was muttered and had a bitter edge to it.

 

Gibbs sighed silently.  He knew he had a lot he should apologize for.  Leaving the way he had, coming back the way he did, hurtful things said and done over the last few years…the list was a long one.  Tony’s statement made it clear he’d kept track at least to some degree.

 

“How did you know someone was here?”  Gibbs asked. He’d been just as meticulous about keeping things the same in the rest of the apartment as he’d been in the bedroom.  Unlike Ziva, Gibbs knew he didn’t snore loudly, so Tony couldn’t have heard him.  And with the bedroom dark, he shouldn’t have seen him in the bed either.

 

Tony pointed toward the small lamp that sat on the wood stand in the foyer.  “Hall light.”

 

“What about it?”  Gibbs had turned it off.  He was sure he had. 

 

“It should have been on.”  Tony shrugged.  “Bulb wasn’t burnt out.  So the only reason for it to be off was if someone had turned it off.

 

“You leave it on all the time?”  Gibbs had thought the cleaning lady had simply forgotten to turn it off.

 

“Most of the time, I’m leaving at the ass crack of dawn, or I’m coming home in the middle of the night.”   Tony sipped his coffee.  “I hate fumbling around in the dark, so I leave the light on.”

 

“Seems wasteful.”

 

“So is building boats you plan to set on fire rather than sail.” 

 

Gibbs grimaced.  He really wasn’t in a position to cast stones.  He sipped his coffee, pleased to find it strong.  

 

“Are you going to tell me now what you are doing here?”

 

“How did you like driving that Ferrari?”  Gibbs asked baldly.  It wasn’t what he’d meant to say. It just came out. 

 

Tony’s eyes narrowed, a smirk appearing.  “I thought you didn’t listen to office gossip?”

 

“I don’t.” 

 

“Well, I certainly didn’t mention it…so the only way you could know was if you were giving the rumors more credence than you ever have before or,” Tony cocked his head to one side, “you saw it being dropped off.”

 

“I saw it being dropped off.”

 

“And because I am in possession of what you consider an expensive, impractical play toy you felt the need to break into my home and sleep in my bed?”

 

“No.”  Not exactly, Gibbs amended mentally.  The car was part of it…just not all of it.

 

Tony arched an eyebrow, sitting back in his chair, green eyes assessing Gibbs.  “So, you want to tell me what those things have to do with one another or was this your way of trying to avoid answering my question until I just drop it?” 

 

“Would you drop it?”  Gibbs asked out of honest curiosity.

 

“Not bloody likely.”  Tony gave him a smile that reminded Gibbs of a dog bearing its teeth.  “You broke into my home, Gibbs.  I’ll be getting some answers.”

 

“Or what?” Gibbs challenged with a glare. 

 

“Hey!” Tony gave the table top an open handed slap that was forceful enough to make Gibbs sit back in surprise.  “You’ve already taken over enough of my fucking life, you bastard, you do not get to just waltz into my home like you own it.  So either tell me what I want to know, or I call the cops and get your ass arrested like any I would any other criminal.  You already got one free pass.  You aren’t getting another.”

 

“Free pass?”

 

“I didn’t shoot you.”  Tony growled.  “And that’s as forgiving as I’m prepared to be at the moment.”

 

“So are you going to add that to the list of reasons for going to work for Paladin?” Gibbs snarled back, more pissed at himself for possibly screwing things up before he even had a chance to set it right than he was with Tony.

 

Tony looked startled. “You know about the job offer?”

 

“Yes, I know about the job offer.” 

 

“Abby told you?”  Tony stared at him, expression skeptical and then betrayed.  “I can’t believe—“

 

“Abby didn’t say anything,” Gibbs stated, not wanting Tony to think badly of her or feel his trust had been misplaced.  “But you should have told me.”

 

“Why?” Tony leaned forward, both hands on the table.  “It isn’t any of your damn business.”

 

“The hell it isn’t.”  Gibbs stood up, pushing his chair back to get in Tony’s face.  Everything about Tony was his business, damn it.  How could Tony not know that?  After all the shit with ‘the frog’, how dare he keep something like this a secret?

 

“If I told you, what would you have done?”  Tony’s eyes sparkled with anger as he stood to face Gibbs.  “Would you have told me to take just take it and shut up about it like you did with Abby?” 

 

“No!”  Gibbs snarled.  He hadn’t meant that.  Abby knew it.  Tony should too. 

 

“That wouldn’t be enough to get the point across, right!”  Tony hissed, his voice laced with pain and rage.  “Would have to be something better.  Like…Good riddance.  Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”

 

“DiNozzo,” Gibbs barked, wanting to stop this now before anything else was said, but was cut off by Tony poking him hard in the chest. 

 

The younger man continued unabated, his tone uncharacteristically harsh and biting as he squared off with Gibbs.  “Or maybe you’d have gone with…Never liked you much anyway, DiNozzo.  About damn time you caught a clue and got the hell off my team.  You’ve wasted space and time long enough.  You were always a screw up.  It should have been you on that rooftop, not Kate.”

 

Gibbs flinched.  Had he really made Tony believe that he would have preferred he’d been killed to Kate?  God. 

 

“Or maybe you would take the time to tell it was a mistake for us not to be on call that weekend Paula’s team had been killed.  Shame two good agents died in that explosion when you could have been rid of me.”

 

“Jesus…Tony…No—“

 

“Hell, you might have even finally gotten the balls to just tell me to my face you and the team are better off without me always fucking up.  That you don’t trust me to do the damn job and you never have.  That I’m not smart enough.  Or good enough.  Or even manage to carry my own weight.  That you aren’t surprised I couldn’t cut it anywhere longer than two—“

 

Gibbs grabbed Tony by the shoulders, pulling him close, stopping the stream of hate filled, hurtful words with a bruising kiss.  He expected Tony to push him away, maybe even belt him one.  He wasn’t prepared to have Tony’s mouth open willingly under his, to have the younger man pull him closer and take control of the kiss. 

 

Gibbs fought and lost the dual with Tony’s tongue.  He moaned as the younger man proceeded to map the inside of his mouth with a thoroughness that left Gibbs breathless.  He fisted Tony’s t-shirt with one hand trying to pull him closer, wanting to crawl inside him and never leave. The other hand slid lower, kneading the perfect ass he’d noticed earlier. 

 

Tony suddenly broke the kiss, pushing Gibbs away forcefully as he stepped back.  It left Gibbs reeling as he tried to adjust to the abrupt loss of contact.  He instinctively reached out to pull Tony back only to have his hand smacked away.

 

“Tony—“

 

Tony raised a hand in a classic ‘stop’ motion. Green eyes closed and Gibbs watched as Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  Gibbs waited, knowing if he pushed too hard now, he’d lose. 

 

“I don’t understand.” 

 

“What don’t you understand?”  Gibbs asked, keeping his own tone low and even.  He felt the same way he had trying to talk Lt. Arnett out of jumping off a building…there was just as much at stake here, maybe more. 

 

Tony swallowed hard.  He finally opened his eyes, awash with too many emotions for Gibbs to identify.  “You kissed me.”

 

Gibbs waited for more, but when nothing came he offered quietly, “And you kissed me back.” 

 

He fought down the delight he’d felt in Tony’s passionate response to his kiss.  He needed to focus; Tony was giving him a wary look.  And if he’d learned anything from three failed marriages it was when to recognize the argument wasn’t really finished. 

 

“Why?”

 

“I had to stop you from saying any more of that shit, Tony.”  It was the first thing that came to mind…and from the look on Tony’s face it was the wrong thing to say.  It hurt to see the normally expressive eyes and face become shuttered, blank and unreadable.

 

“So it was just to shut me up?”  The question was more of a statement.  It was loaded with disappointed resignation. 

 

“I didn’t kiss you just to shut you up.”  Gibbs took a step forward only to stop when Tony backed away.  “A slap would have worked if that was all I wanted to do.”

 

“Then why kiss me?”

 

Gibbs opened his mouth and closed it, unsure of what to say.  He’d been suppressing his interest in Tony, denying it for so long he couldn’t bring himself to say out loud that he’d been thinking about kissing Tony practically since the day they’d met. 

 

“You somehow found out I’m Bi and you thought I’d be willing to help satisfy your curiosity.  That it?”  Tony’s gaze hardened, although his voice remained almost painfully neutral. 

 

Gibbs shook his head in denial.  Until Tony had kissed him back he hadn’t even known he’d be interested in men.  That whole thing with Voss…well, that was a little extreme, but still, it didn’t exactly lend any credence to the belief Tony would be interested in guys.

 

“Did you just think I’d be up for experimenting with you?  I’m such a hound dog anyway, right?  I’d hump a table leg so clearly I wouldn’t object to putting out for you?”

 

“No!”  Gibbs glared at him, angry at Tony for even suggesting he’d be so arrogant as to use him that way.  “I’ve been wanting to do kiss you for a long time.”

 

“Really?”  Tony arched an eyebrow, hope softening his features.  “And you thought the middle of an argument was a good time to do it?”

 

“No one has ever accused me of good timing when it came to personal stuff.”  Gibbs shrugged ruefully. 

 

Tony cocked his head to one side, clearly still distrustful of Gibbs’ motives.  “So this is personal?”

 

Gibbs frowned.  “What else would it be?”  He didn’t make a regular habit of kissing strangers.  Tony knew that.

 

“Sex is a valid interrogation technique.” Tony stated, his tone implying he was quoting someone.  Gibbs belatedly recognized it as something Ziva had said and he’d agreed with.  “And it’s good for more than just that, right Boss

 

Gibbs blinked.  “Tony, what--”

 

“I’m supposed to believe you’re into guys, when you’ve been married four times?”  The question was rife with disbelief and biting sarcasm.  “That you’re into me when most days you act like can’t stand me?” Tony shook his head.  “It doesn’t wash.”

 

Tony continued speaking not giving Gibbs a chance to answer or explain.  “What makes more sense is that you know about the car, the job offer, and I’d bet a month’s salary you spoke with Pete.  You wanted something that would make me stay.”  Tony’s lips curled upward in a sneer.  “Or at least, get me to stay long enough until you are sure McGee will do as my replacement and Ziva’s not going to kill any more suspects in the elevator.”

 

Tony lifted his chin.  “The Director whored me out, and that kept me around for months.   She got me to turn down a job in Spain and a team of my own.  I’m sure you knew that.  God knows you make it your business to know every other fucking thing.”

 

Gibbs started to protest. “Tony—“

 

“You don’t have an undercover case you can offer me.  But that’s not the only thing that would work to bring me to heel.  Right?”  Tony’s smile was self-deprecating.  “You’re a smart guy…and you know me pretty well.  It makes more sense you would figure since I’m into guys, if you pet me once in awhile…give me a little something to keep me quiet, I’ll stay under the porch like a good dog should.”

 

Tony’s hands curled into tight fists.  “A little side bonus would be my being dumb enough to sleep with my supervisor pretty much guarantees if I get mouthy, I get fired.  Because you have been ‘Agent of the Year’ for ten years running.  No way in hell would Shepard fire you for being gay. Win, win for you.  You get your rocks off, a senior agent who will tow the line and be gone the second you decide to kick his ass to the curb.  That how it is, Boss?” 

 

“No!!”  Gibbs glared at Tony.  “Not just no, hell no!”

 

“Then you tell me how it is.” Tony challenged.  “You tell me why in the hell I should believe you wanted to kiss me for a long time?  That anything between us is personal when nothing ever has been?”

 

“I do trust you.  I always have.”  Gibbs declared hotly. He hadn’t forgotten Tony’s earlier rant, and he wasn’t missing a chance to address what was said then.  “You are my senior agent because you are damn good at the job. You are more than smart enough, and I’m not waiting around for someone better to come along, god damn it.  There is no one better.”

 

Gibbs stepped closer, almost stalking Tony as the younger man backed up.  “I would never, ever, tell you I wished it had been you who died and not someone else.  I’m sorry Kate’s dead.  I’m sorry about Paula and her people too. But I thank God it wasn’t you Ari went after, and we weren’t on call.”

 

Gibbs softened his voice, no longer shouting.  “I am not better off without you and neither is the team.  You are irreplaceable.  And I’m sorry I ever made you think I didn’t mean that.”

 

Gibbs pointed a finger at Tony, the gesture adding emphasis to his quiet words.  “I keep you out of the loop some times because I don’t want you to get hurt.  I wave you back not because I don’t trust you, or think you aren’t capable back up.  It’s because I don’t want you in harm’s way. I don’t want you getting hurt.  You’re not going to die on my watch.  Not if I can help it.” 

 

Gibbs sighed, shaking his head.  He’d wanted to keep Tony safe and sound.  He’d forgotten that actions didn’t have to draw blood to cause damage.  Leaving for Mexico…he’d never realized how much that had to hurt the younger man.  Or the way he’d come back had just added insult to injury.    

 

“I never intended to leave for Mexico the way I did…but after what happened, I couldn’t stay. I should have given you more than just ‘you’ll do’, but I didn’t have the words.  Then, and by the time I did…it was too late.  And coming back…I just wanted everything and everyone to be the same.  So I tried to force it that way.  It was stupid, selfish thing to do.  And I’m sorry.”

 

He tried to smile, surprised by how hard it was to do.  “I’m not good with change.”

 

“I’d noticed that,” Tony interjected softly.  The quiet humor in his voice made Gibbs grateful for the younger man’s mercurial moods.  He preferred Tony happy to him pissed.  And he hoped the mood shift meant he was getting through to the younger man.

 

“With the job, I’m good with people…suspects, victims, kids…never a problem for me.  But with people I really care about, when it really matters…” Gibbs struggled to find the right words, not wanting to sound like a cheap romance novel.  “I suck at my personal life.” 

 

That blunt declaration made Tony smile softly.  Taking that as a positive sign, Gibbs stepped forward again, close enough to touch.  He forced himself to keep his hands at his sides, not sure how Tony would react if he tried to embrace him.

 

“I added rule twelve because personal at the office for me has always gotten messy, and painful, and goes to shit fast.  I didn’t want that to happen to the team…to us.”

 

Gibbs took a deep breath.  “When I found out you had a job offer, I realized you had good reasons to take it.”  He looked away.  “And most of those reasons are ones I gave you.  So all my trying to keep it impersonal, to just be your bastard of a boss and nothing else, was causing the stuff I worked so hard to avoid.”

 

He forced himself to make eye contact and hold it.  “I took it for granted you’d stay at NCIS.  I forgot that other people see the same skill, ability and potential I saw years ago.  I do not want you to leave NCIS.  Not because of me.  And I don’t want you to leave, because I’m not sure I can handle it if you do.  That’s why I’m here.  It’s why I was in your bed.  I just needed to be close to you.”

 

Tony raised a hand and gently caressed Gibbs’ cheek with one knuckle.  Gibbs closed his eyes leaning into that delicate touch. 

 

“You are an idiot.”  Tony said, fond affection color his words.

 

“So I’ve been told.”  Gibbs half smiled.

 

“More than once, I’ll bet.”

 

Gibbs chuckled weakly.  “Yeah, more than once.”

 

“This clearing the air is hard work.” 

 

Gibbs nodded in agreement.  “Would probably be easier if we hadn’t wait so long to do it.”

 

Tony let out a breath in a soft huff.  “Ya think?”

 

Gibbs reached out to light cuff Tony, only to change the gesture into a gentle caress, fingers carding through his hair instead.  “I really am sorry for--”

 

“I know.”  Tony leaned forward to rest his forehead against Gibbs’.  “So now what?”

 

“Honestly….I have no idea.” 

 

Tony’s laughter warmed him almost as much as the hug the younger man enveloped him in.  For the first time since the day Tony had left, Gibbs felt like things might just be okay. 

 

Chapter Text

When Tony stopped laughing, Gibbs kissed him.  Unlike their first kiss, this one was gentle, nearly chaste, expressing a deep, quiet affection more than passion.  It reminded Gibbs of the sort of kisses he used to share with Shannon whenever he came back from a tour away. 

 

Tony pulled back, one finger lightly brushing Gibbs’ lips stopping him when he would have reinitiated the contact.  “We still got a lot to talk about.”

 

“It can wait.”

 

“It could, but it’s not going to.”  Tony shook his head.  “When I took over for you, I asked Ducky for some advice.  He told me,” Tony’s accent shifted to mimic Ducky’s tone and inflection, “when undertaking anything important to you, dear boy, it is best to start as you intend to continue.”

 

Ordinarily Gibbs would have considered that sound advice.  But right now, he didn’t really want to follow it.  He opened his mouth to say as much, but Tony stopped him by once more placing a finger against his lips.

 

“I’m tired of getting what I always got.  I’d like this to be something different.”  Tony gave him a measuring look, removing his finger.  “So if you were looking for cheap, fast and easy---“

 

“No.”  Gibbs quickly interjected.  He did not want Tony to think that...ever.  “That’s not what I want.”

 

“Okay then.”  Tony pointed to the table.  “Maybe we can sit down and talk some more…get the rest of this…whatever this is straightened out.”

 

Tony’s stomach rumbled and Gibbs grinned in surprise.  “Another country heard from.”

 

“Been awhile since I ate,” Tony admitted with an apologetic shrug.

 

Gibbs could relate.  He’d skipped lunch and dinner, preferring just to subsist on coffee.  “You want to do this on an empty stomach?”

 

Tony looked sheepish as his stomach rumbled a second time.  “Not really.”

 

Gibbs didn’t think anyone delivered so late or, more accurately, so early in the morning.  But if there was, Tony would probably know.  To his surprise, instead of reaching for the phone, Tony stepped over to the fridge.

 

“Don’t think you’ll find much in there.”

 

“Ye of little faith.”  Tony laughed, opening the door and pulling out a Tupperware dish Gibbs knew hadn’t been there the other day. 

 

“When…who…—“

 

“Rita, my cleaning lady.  She usually cleans out old take out and anything that might mutate into something capable of world domination.  She also has a habit of leaving me things to eat.”  Tony shook his head ruefully.  “She apparently harbors a delusion that I’m too skinny.”

 

Gibbs smiled, amused by the younger man’s indignant tone.  Tony seemed to inspire two sorts of reactions in women.  Even if they didn’t act as though they necessarily liked him much, they still wanted to sleep with him, or they wanted to mother him.  His smile faded.  This Rita damn well better be the ‘mothering’ type, Gibbs thought with a silent growl. 

 

Tony opened the container, looking up to make eye contact.  “How do you feel about tuna noodle casserole?”

 

Gibbs shrugged. “It’s okay.”

 

Tony rolled his eyes.  “Do you want any or not?”

 

Thinking about how little he’d actually eaten since Tony left, Gibbs realized he was hungry.  He nodded.  “I could eat.”

 

“Good.  I hate eating alone.” Tony grinned.  “And between us, we’ll eat enough Rita will quit harping for a little while.”

 

Gibbs watched silently as Tony put the container in the microwave, warming up the casserole and then moving to pull two plates from an upper cabinet.  The whole scene was so domestic…so utterly normal, it was almost surreal.  He’d never expected to be sitting at Tony’s kitchen table, preparing to eat dinner in the wee hours of the early morning.  But then, Gibbs had never expected to kiss Tony or have him respond with anything other than a fist if he did. 

 

When the microwave beeped Tony dished out to portions of the casserole on to a plate for each of them.  He pulled out two forks from the drawer near the sink.  Tony set a plate down in front of Gibbs, offering him a fork.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“De nada.”

 

Tony started eating. While he clearly appreciated the food, it was equally clear to Gibbs he wasn’t eating simply for enjoyment.  His movements were too quick, too neat and efficient for much focus to be on what he was actually consuming.  No, he was definitely hungry and the fire obviously needed stoking.  Gibbs frowned wondering if, like him, Tony hadn’t been eating well lately.  Not that Tony ever really ate well, Gibbs mused, at least not by Ducky’s standards. 

 

“Gibbs, you change your mind?”

 

“What?”  Gibbs blinked.

 

“You’re not eating.” Tony pointed to his untouched plate.  “You change your mind about the casserole?”

 

“Just letting it cool.”  Gibbs said calmly.  

 

Tony raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment on the obvious falsehood.  Gibbs felt his face warm.  Shannon was the only person he could remember who caught him in a lie so quickly…and could make him feel bad about it without ever saying a word.

 

“I was wondering if you’d been eating right while you were away,” Gibbs confessed. 

 

“I managed to stalk something green and leafy now and again, but I didn’t have the heart to kill it.”  Tony grinned.  “So I made to with pizza, Chinese take out, burgers and fries.”

 

Gibbs smirked.  “So in other words, you eat the same on vacation as you do at work?”

 

Tony shrugged.  “Old habits die hard.”

 

Gibbs knew the comment wasn’t meant to be personal, but it pricked his conscience just the same.  His treating Tony like shit wasn’t something that should have ever become a habit.  And it never should have become so ingrained that Gibbs was unaware of the impact his actions and words were having.  He should have realized much sooner how unhappy Tony was.  Tony leaving was a drastic wake up call that would never have been necessary if Gibbs hadn’t been such a self-centered bastard. 

 

“Hey,” Tony lightly tapped Gibbs’ plate, “how about you save the guilt trip for after you eat.”

 

“I’m not—“

 

“Yeah, you are.”  Tony smiled.  “I may not always know what you’re thinking, but I do know you only get that look when you’re upset with yourself.”

 

Gibbs blinked.  “I have a look?”

 

“You have several actually.” 

 

Gibbs’ gaze narrowed.  “Several?”

 

Green eyes met blue easily.  “I don’t always read you right, but I’m getting better at figuring out what you’re thinking by your expression.  I wouldn’t be much of an investigator if I couldn’t do that with someone I see every day.” Tony’s expression shifted into something that hinted at embarrassment.  “Although, I will admit, it took most of my first year to figure out you aren’t always pissed…even when you are acting like you are.”

 

Gibbs didn’t think that was anything Tony should be embarrassed about or ashamed of.  Other than Ducky and Abby, most people he’d worked with failed to understand that Gibbs had a more complex range of emotions than anger or annoyance. But anger was so easy to express, familiar and decidedly useful as a motivational tool.  And some times he just liked messing with people.  The temptation was just too much to resist with probies.

 

Tony was the only one on his team who had never been completely cowed for long by Gibbs’ display of temper, real or otherwise. But then, Gibbs reminded himself, Tony wasn’t most people.  He was the only field agent to have voluntarily stayed on Gibbs’ team for more than two years, something that Gibbs found even more striking in light of how long Pete’s offer had been on the table. 

 

“You never mentioned any of this before.”  Gibbs left the statement open ended, and made it more of a question, waiting to see if and how Tony would answer.

 

“Not like we sat down at my kitchen table before either.”  Tony smiled.  “Thinking we got a whole lot of firsts going on if we wanted to keep score.”

 

“Not sure I want to keep score,” Gibbs admitted with a shake of his head. He had a gut feeling he’d come out worse if they did.

 

“Good choice.” Tony’s smile grew to a grin.  “Thinking we can spend our time in better ways than trying to tally all that stuff up.”

 

Gibbs chuckled.  “Ya think?”

 

Tony laughed softly.  “Eat your dinner.” 

 

Once he started eating, Gibbs’ renewed appetite got the better of him.  He found himself consuming the casserole with the same single-mindedness he’d noticed Tony using earlier.  It took more self control than he’d expect to force himself to slow down and actually taste what he was putting in his mouth.

 

“Does Rita leave food for you a lot?” He asked in sudden appreciation of how good the casserole was and thinking Tony was a lucky man. Gibbs couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d had anything home cooked.

 

“At least three times a week.  Some times more.”  Tony made a meaningless gesture with one hand.  “I’ve tried telling her to stop, but—“

 

“No luck?”

 

“None.”  Tony sighed.  “She’s a bit…determined.”  He made another meaningless, graceful gesture.  “I can’t eat it all, so I usually pass off some to Ducky.  Figured with his mother being the way she is, he’d appreciate not having to cook when he got home. Or worry that she’d burn down the house trying to make something to eat.”

 

Gibbs paused in surprise, his fork half way to his mouth.  “I didn’t know that.”

 

“No reason you should.”  Tony sat back, his expression blandly neutral.  “If it wasn’t directly related to the job or a case, there wasn’t much you cared to know about.”

 

“That’s not true.”

 

Tony arched an eyebrow.  He sat forward, elbows resting on the table.  “Prove it."

 

“Excuse me?” Gibbs straightened, reacting instinctively to Tony’s challenge.

 

“Did you know McGee had a girlfriend steal his identity and rack up more than sixty thousand in credit card debt?”

 

Gibbs’ jaw dropped.  “Sixty thousand?”

 

“Yeah.”  Tony shook his head.  “She paid him back.  Well, it was her rich daddy who cut the check, but McGee got his money back.  He said he wasn’t going to press charges even though Abby was rather insistent.  Not sure I’d agree with letting her loose to do it to someone else, but if McGee’s not going to listen to Abby, he sure as hell wouldn’t take my advice either.” 

 

Gibbs frowned.  Why hadn’t he heard them talking about this?  Ordinarily he’d have overheard them discussing this sort of thing.  For Abby and Tony to know, it had to have come up at the office at some point.

 

“Did you know Ziva is helping out at her gym by teaching a self defense class on the weekends?”

 

“No.”  Although, he couldn’t say he was surprised.  It sounded like the sort of thing she’d be interested in doing.  Anything that let her practice her skills appealed to Ziva. 

 

“Did Abby ask you to go to see Brain Matter in concert?”

 

“She knows I’m not into her music.”  Even to himself, Gibbs sounded defensive. 

 

“Did you know Lee and Palmer were seeing each other?”

 

“They are?” 

 

“Were.”  Tony frowned.  “Not sure what happened.  Just know they were hot and heavy there for several months.”

 

“I don’t listen to office gossip.”

 

Tony snorted.  “That’s a piss poor excuse to be so ignorant about what is going on with your team.”

 

“It’s not an excuse,” Gibbs growled. 

 

“You didn’t need listen to gossip to find out about the Ferrari,” Tony pointed out calmly, not backing down.  “All you needed was to pay attention to something more than just work.”

 

Gibbs swallowed hard.  He had forgotten how damn good Tony could be when it came to interrogation. 

 

“Would you believe me if I told you I was trying very hard not to notice?”  Gibbs looked away, ashamed.  “The only person I wanted to pay so much attention to was you, and it was just too risky, so I shut out everything else.”

 

“You broke into my home, slept in my bed, confessed to a whole lot of things I never expected to hear and then kissed me…yeah, I’d believe you.” Tony reached out and captured one of Gibbs’ hands, entwining their fingers.  “Of course, without all our little cleaning of the air…I probably wouldn’t have believed you even gave a damn if I was breathing, Jethro.”

 

Gibbs squeezed Tony’s hand.  He was torn between feeling like an ass for the way he’d acted, and walking on cloud nine because Tony hadn’t called him ‘boss’ or ‘Gibbs’.  Calling him ‘Jethro’ was decidedly personal…and intimate. 

 

“I’m sorry, Tony.”

 

“I got that.”  Tony squeezed his hand back.  “I’m also getting why one of your ex-wives thought a golf club to the head would be necessary for you to get the point.” 

 

Gibbs grimaced.  “You don’t play, do you?”

 

“What…Golf?” Tony chuckled.  “I’ve played it, but it was more a passion for my old man than for me.  I never saw the need to own a set of clubs.” Tony winked at him.  “But then, I carry a gun.  Firearms tend to be more effective than sticks.”

 

Gibbs smiled, pleased to be gifted with more of Tony’s lighthearted humor. Being on the receiving end of that was something he hadn’t realized he’d taken for granted until Tony’s vacation. He’d missed Tony’s upbeat nature more than he thought possible. 

 

“Hopefully you won’t have to shoot me to get me to pay attention.”

 

“Amen.”  Tony laughed softly.  “Ducky’s good when it comes to basic first aid, but not sure he’s up for surgery.  Most of his patients don’t need anesthesia or complain about how cold the table is.”

 

“True.” 

 

Gibbs took a breath and let it out slowly.  He tightened his grip on Tony’s hand, unconsciously wanting to keep him close.  He bit his lower lip in an uncharacteristic display of nerves before nodding to himself.  “I know my apologizing is only a start.  I’m not stupid enough to think that I can just say ‘I’m sorry’ and keep doing the stuff that made apologizing necessary in the first place.”

 

Being divorced three times had taught him that much, although he never quite managed to put the lessons into practice or he might still be married.  He thought maybe if he asked outright, this time he might not make the same mistake again. 

 

Gibbs asked, “What do you need me to do?”

 

Tony frowned, cocking his head to one side.  “You mean on the job or…with personal stuff?”

 

“Both.”  The two were heavily intertwined, and Gibbs was hoping they could stay that way. 

 

“I know this is a foreign concept for you…but it would be nice if you explained things more often.  Actions speak loud, but they don’t always speak clearly.”  Tony sighed.  “I never got that you were trying to keep me safe.  What I got from you leaving me out of the loop, from you waving me back, was that you didn’t trust me to watch your six. That I wasn’t good enough for you to rely on.”

 

It had never occurred to Gibbs that his actions could be interpreted as a display of distrust or lack of faith in Tony’s skills or abilities.  In hindsight, he should have realized his motives weren’t as clear to other people as they were to himself.  It wasn’t like he hadn’t had that sort of miscommunication before…just never with Tony. 

 

“I’m not good with words, but I’ll try.”  Gibbs winced at how weak that sounded. 

 

“Prefer you telling me you’ll try than promising me something you really can’t do.”  Tony gave him a reassuring smile.  “Not asking you to change who you are…just need you to give a little.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He had an odd feeling of déjà vu when he realized Shannon had something very similar to him not long after their first anniversary.  It had been a pivotal point in their marriage, and her understanding of his innate nature and willingness to accommodate it was probably the reason they’d stayed married.

 

“What else?”  Gibbs knew there had to be more Tony needed.  The argument they had earlier covered far too much ground for there not to be more. 

 

“I understand you want all team members working to their potential.  And I know you like to use competition to keep us on our toes.  But I’d like not to feel as though I have to compete every damn minute of the day for so little return.  I’m not asking for a complement for every little thing I do, but I’d like it if you could tell me now and again I’m doing a good job.”

 

“I can do that.”  It was something he should have been doing all along.

 

“Thank you.”  Tony smiled softly, he squeezed Gibbs’ hand before pulling away.  Gibbs forced himself not to reach out and recapture Tony’s hand.  He reached for his coffee cup instead. 

 

“Since you asked,” Tony made eye contact, “could you not be so quick to shoot down a movie reference as a viable answer to the question.  It isn’t all crap, even if it doesn’t all apply.”

 

He often lost patience with Tony’s repeated references to movies, in large part because he had no interest in tangential information.  He shut down Ducky and Abby much the same way.  But he couldn’t deny that things he’d otherwise dismiss as Hollywood invention had provided insight for solving a number of cases.  They had even saved his life. 

 

“As long as you can show it’s related to a case, and not just you babbling…I’ll do my best not to be so quick to shoot down movie references.” 

 

Tony chuckled.  “Fair enough.”

 

Gibbs took a sip of his still warm coffee.  “What about your duties?”

 

“What about them?”  Tony asked, a sudden wariness in his eyes and renewed tension in his shoulders. 

 

Gibbs realized immediately the unease was because the younger man thought he was going to find fault with Tony’s performance or demote him.  “You’ve been doing a lot of stuff that isn’t really your responsibility,” Gibbs said calmly, trying to reassure him.  “There’s no reason for you to be doing it other than my being an ass and not addressing it sooner.”

 

“Don’t worry about it.”  Tony relaxed, waving a hand in a dismissive gesture. 

 

“I’m not worried about it.” Gibbs stated.  “I’m going to fix it.”

 

“Fix it?”  Tony raised both eyebrows.  “What do you mean fix it?”

 

“I already assigned most of the mandatory paperwork for the team to McGee,”

 

“What?”  Tony’s mouth dropped open in surprise.  “Why?”

 

“Because you are my senior field agent, Tony.”  Gibbs didn’t miss the way Tony’s eyes almost glowed at the emphasis Gibbs’ placed on ‘my’ and his rank. Clearly, reiterating that was something he should do more often.  “You’ve got enough on your plate without that stuff.”

 

Tony shrugged, a faint blush warming his cheekbones.  “I didn’t mind doing it.”

 

“It’s not about your willingness to do the work.” Gibbs shook his head.  “The task should have fallen to McGee years ago.  It’s how probies learn what it takes to keep a team running.  If they are ever going to lead a team of their own, they need to know how much goes into it.  The paperwork should be part of their training.”

 

Tony sighed.  “I didn’t want to take the time to show him how.” 

 

“Not like I showed you how,” Gibbs pointed out.  “Figuring that stuff out is part of the training.”  Gibbs believed firmly that experience was the best way to get an education.  Muddling through on his own McGee learned a lot more than he would have otherwise.  “He’s already learning anyway so you shouldn’t need to show him much of anything.”

 

“Why?”  Tony frowned.  “There shouldn’t be anything that needed to be done.  I took care of it before I left.”

 

Gibbs looked away, mumbling, “Ilostthecopiesyouleftformetosign.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“I lost the copies you left for me to sign.”  Gibbs repeated, louder and more slowly, glaring when Tony looked at him with fond amusement. 

 

“You’ve done that before.  It’s why I always leave copies with Marisol.”  Tony shook his head.  “You know that.  All you had to do was ask her—“

 

Gibbs snorted.  “She hates me.”

 

“She doesn’t hate you.”  Tony rolled his eyes.  “She hates that you don’t take what she does seriously.  It is as important to her that things be done correctly, and on time, as it is to you that the bad guys go to jail and never see the light of day.” 

 

Gibbs recognized a losing battle when he saw one.  It was easier just to agree with Tony than fight about Marisol’s motives.  The woman hated him.  The less he had to deal with her the better…and with McGee doing the paperwork, Gibbs shouldn’t have to talk to her at all. 

 

“Anything else on the job you need me to do?”  Gibbs asked, directing the conversation back to its original focus.

 

“Let’s see if you can do what I’ve already asked for before we get too carried away.”  Tony’s lips curled upward in a wry smile.  “I meant it when I said I wasn’t asking you to change who you are.”

 

It wasn’t a lot to ask for.  Five years of putting up his crap was proof enough of Tony’s tolerance.  And there was plenty of crap he shouldn’t have had to tolerate, Gibbs reminded himself.  He was going to do better, going to do right by Tony.  That thought led him to his next question. 

 

“What about…personal?”

 

“Wish that one was so easy.”  Tony fidgeted, restless fingers playing with his fork.  “If you had asked a year ago…it would have been so easy to have just said yes to anything.”

 

“And now?”

 

“Now,” Tony sighed softly, “now, I want a lot more than for us to be fuck buddies.”

 

“I want that too,” Gibbs leaned forward.  “I don’t really do casual well.”

 

”Problem is you aren’t wrong about relationships between coworkers having the potential to be messy.”  Tony rubbed a hand over his eyes.  “Most of them end badly.”

 

Gibbs throat tightened.  “So we just don’t end.”

 

Tony laughed quietly.  “That simple?”

 

“Why not?”  Gibbs reached out to take Tony’s hand again.  “Nothing saying we can’t make it work.”

 

“Nothing except that I never have been able to make any relationship work.”  Tony shook his head.  He seemed to almost withdraw from Gibbs without actually moving.  “My longest one to date was with a woman, and I’d spent most of that time lying to her. Not exactly a good track record there, Jethro.”

 

Gibbs gripped Tony’s hand tighter.  “Doesn’t mean--.”

 

“And your track record isn’t much better than mine.”  Tony shook his head, expression pensive, green eyes losing the sparkle they’d had only a moment ago.  “Except you don’t have any commitment issues.  No one could ever say you weren’t willing to say yes to forever.  But even being willing wasn’t enough to make things Ozzie and Harriet like.  Never mind the whole same sex relationship issue that could-”

 

“Past performance is no proof of future potential.”   Gibbs interrupted stopping Tony cold.  He didn’t want to give the younger man’s insecurities and doubts a chance to end ‘them’ before there even was a ‘them’. 

 

Tony gave him a startled look.  “You remember that?”

 

“I remember that.”  It was one of the first things Tony had said to Gibbs when the former Marine had asked about his job history.  “You made five years with NCIS.  Before then…you never worked anywhere for more than two.  Nothing says you can’t do the same in your personal life with me.”

 

Tony snorted.  “Hell, I made five years because of you.” 

 

“Well there you go.”

 

Tony shook his head, the sparkle returning to his eyes.  “Never let it be said you lacked confidence.”

 

“I’m an optimist at heart.”

 

Tony snorted.  “With three divorces to your credit, you’d have to be.”

 

“I made it work once…with the right person.  Nothing says I can’t do it again.”

 

“You really think I’m the right person?”

 

“I know you are.” Gibbs stated confidently.  It may have taken him a long time to realize it, but there was no doubt in his mind, Tony was the right one. 

 

“You’ve done this before…with a man?”  Tony bit his lip. 

 

“Not in a long time, and never more than one night stands.”  Gibbs said honestly.  “Never had a real relationship.  Never really wanted one before now.”

 

Tony nodded.  “I’m going to sound like such a girl when I say this…and God knows I’m not exactly a virgin…but would you mind if didn’t just leap into bed together?  I mean, we know each other, but we don’t really know each other, if that makes sense.  Feels like that would just make it…meaningless.  It just doesn’t seem like the right way to start out something we both want to see continue.” 

 

“You want me to court you?” 

 

Gibbs immediately realized his teasing tone made his question the wrong thing to say when Tony flushed.  He tried to pull his hand away, but Gibbs held on. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t. And I didn’t way it was a dumb idea, or unnecessary, or anything else you might be thinking.”

 

“Truth is, I like the idea of us taking things slow and doing it right.” Gibbs smiled. It was old fashioned, but he wasn’t exactly a progressive sort of guy.  “And you’re right.  There is a lot we know about one another, but that isn’t the same as knowing each other.”

 

“So you’re okay with taking things slow?”

 

“I’m okay with it.” 

 

Tony grinned brightly, leaning across the table to give Gibbs a quick kiss.  “Thank you.”

 

It wasn’t something Gibbs thought he needed to be thanked for, but if it meant he’d get more kisses, he wasn’t going to object.  He was already making plans to find ways that would warrant Tony displaying his gratitude more often.  He hadn’t looked forward to trying to make someone else happy in a long time. 

 

Tony was definitely the right person.  Gibbs cursed himself for being such a fool.  Come hell or high water, he was not going to mess up a second chance at happiness. 

Chapter Text

It had been surprisingly comfortable sleeping on Tony’s couch.  Not as nice as sleeping in Tony’s bed, but Gibbs wasn’t going to complain, especially not since he’d been invited to stay rather than being asked to leave.  That certainly made up for anything the accommodations might have otherwise lacked.

 

Not to mention getting to share breakfast with Tony.  It didn’t matter to Gibbs that the meal wasn’t any more than a cup of coffee and a pop tart.  Both tasted wonderful when Tony gave him a good morning kiss. 

 

Gibbs did his best to respect the boundaries set by Tony, not trying to turn the kiss into more than the younger man might be comfortable with.  The low grade hum of anticipation that sang in his veins reminded Gibbs of why waiting could be a good thing.  He hadn’t felt anything like that since Shannon.  They’d dated for nearly a month before she’d let him kiss her, and it was nearly six months before they’d had sex.

 

He forced himself to back off, finishing his coffee, striving for a nonchalance he really didn’t feel.  “You want to ride into the office with me?”

 

Tony shook his head.  “I got another day of leave yet.”

 

Gibbs stifled a sigh of disappointment.  It was unrealistic to expect him to cut his vacation short, but the former Marine had hoped Tony would just the same.

 

“So what will you be doing today?”  Gibbs was pleased with how casual he managed to sound. He didn’t want Tony to think he was interrogating him or trying to control his every move. 

 

“I have to return the Ferrari.”

 

“Why?” Gibbs frowned.  “She said it was a gift.”

 

Tony grinned, a triumphant gleam in his eyes.  “You did talk to Pete.”

 

Gibbs sighed.  There was no point in denying it.  “Yes, I talked to her.”

 

Something in his admission made Tony laugh softly.  “She put you in your place, didn’t she?”

 

Gibbs grimaced.  “You could say that.”

 

Tony laughed again.  “Think I already did.”

 

“She said the car was a gift,” Gibbs reiterated, a clear request for an explanation without actually asking.

 

“I can’t accept it.”  Tony shook his head.  “It’s too…much.  The cost of it alone—“

 

“She said she didn’t pay for it.”  Gibbs nearly bit his tongue.  He didn’t want Tony to have any obvious ties to Pete or Paladin, but he knew how much that car meant to Tony.  Pete wasn’t wrong when she said it made him happy, and Tony’s happiness was now a priority for Gibbs.

 

“Yeah, she’d mentioned that in her note.”  Tony shrugged.  “But that doesn’t change the intrinsic value of it.  And a car like that is a lot to give away.” Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair.  Gibbs’ fingers itched to caress the baby soft strands, to sooth the resigned disappointment he could easily read in Tony’s voice and posture. 

 

“As much as I love it, the Ferrari eats gas like a fiend and it sits too low to for the potholes we get around here.  It really is decidedly impractical for every day use.  Which is one of the reasons Pete likely wanted to get rid of it.”  Tony gave Gibbs a wry smile.  “She favors function over form.”

 

“You could still—“

 

“And it’s not the most comfortable vehicle to drive for long periods when you’re as tall as I am.”

 

It sounded like Tony was trying to convince himself. Gibbs reached out to cup his cheek with one hand, his thumb caressing the prominent cheekbone.  “You sure about giving it back?”

 

“I’m sure.”  Tony smiled, tilting his head to lean into Gibbs’ touch.  “I knew I was going to give it back before I walked in the door last night.” 

 

It was on the tip of Gibbs’ tongue to ask if giving up the car also meant Tony had decided to stay before their ‘discussion’, but he was wary of tipping the delicate balance of their new relationship.  Tony had thought last night Gibbs might have only expressed an interest as a way to make him stay, and the last thing Gibbs wanted was for that thought to resurface.  And he wasn’t sure if he honestly wanted to know if Tony had decided to leave before they’d talked.  He didn’t want to know just how close he’d come to losing Tony before he even had the chance to really have him.

 

“Would you like to have dinner with me?”  Gibbs asked, forcing any thoughts of Tony leaving to the back of his mind.

 

Tony nodded, turn his head to place a soft kiss in Gibbs’ palm.  “I’d like that.”

 

“Do you want me to pick you up here?”  Given that Tony was giving away his current means of transport, picking him up would be the natural assumption, but Gibbs didn’t want to take too much for granted.

 

“Sure.  Seven okay?”

 

“Seven will be fine.”  Gibbs clamped down on the urge to add the usual ‘unless we get a case’ qualifier. 

 

Tony gave him a knowing look.  “If something comes up, just call.” 

 

“You okay with coming in if we get a case?”

 

“If I have to, I’m okay with cutting my vacation short.”  Tony shrugged.  “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve changed plans for the job.”

 

Gibbs knew having to make concessions for the job was one of the reasons Tony had considered leaving.  Until last night, Gibbs hadn’t genuinely understood how much Tony had given up.  Working full time while being undercover couldn’t have been easy.  Especially not when for part of the time he’d been acting as team leader and hadn’t relinquished any of his old duties.  Even before then, Gibbs had kept him on a short leash.  In hindsight, he was astonished Tony hadn’t chafed under the restrictions long before now. 

 

“Hopefully nothing will come up.”

 

Tony stared at him in surprised.  “Don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that.”

 

Gibbs could feel his face warm.  His personal life hadn’t taken precedence over the job in years. 

 

“I know I said it before…but it bears repeating.” Tony caressed Gibbs’ jaw line with one knuckle.  “I’m not asking you to change who you are.”

 

“I know.” Gibbs looked away before forcing himself to make eye contact.  “I agree with what you said last night.”

 

Tony arched an eyebrow.  “Which part exactly?”

 

“If I always do what I’ve always done, I’m going to get what I always got.  And I want there to be more to my life than the job and a boat in the basement.”  The boat hadn’t been much consolation when the job came damn close to breaking him.  And Mexico clearly wasn’t enough either or it wouldn’t have been so easy to come back. 

 

Gibbs smiled. “I want you.”

 

Tony leaned in and kissed him.  Gibbs seriously hoped he got this sort of reward every time he found the right words.  It was certainly good incentive. 

 

Tony broke the kiss and stepped back.  He took a deep breath, running his fingers through his hair.  “Okay…you need to leave now.”

 

“You sure I shouldn’t just stay?”  Gibbs asked invitingly, reaching for Tony.

 

The younger man held up a finger in warning.  Gibbs sighed, but backed off.   Even though Tony wasn’t a woman, he deserved the same chivalrous consideration Gibbs had given any of his past partners when it came to not having to worry about being forced to do something they didn’t want to do.  He had a reputation as a pushy bastard, but that had never extended into the bedroom and he wasn’t going to start now. 

 

“I’ll see you at seven,” Tony said softly.

 

“Seven,” Gibbs confirmed.  He downed his coffee in one long swallow, setting the cup on the counter. 

 

Tony followed him to the door.  Gibbs turned to say good-bye and found himself wrapped in a warm hug.  Tony had hugged him once before, relieved to find that Gibbs hadn’t died in an explosion.  At the time, Gibbs had held himself stiffly, refusing to return the gesture.  This time he hugged Tony back, holding him close, breathing the scent of him as he reveled in the feel of the younger man’s solid form pressed against his own. 

 

“Be careful, Jethro.”  Tony whispered in his ear.  “You getting shot, poisoned, or blown up would really piss me off.”

 

Gibbs was tempted to tell Tony he was exaggerating.  But given that all those things had actually happened to him over the course of his career, he knew better than to dismiss Tony’s admonishment.  The younger man had good reason to tell him to be careful…and Gibbs couldn’t honestly say he objected to the warmth knowing Tony cared about him generated. 

 

“I’ll be careful.”  He placed a soft kiss on Tony’s temple.  “You do the same.”

 

“Will do.”   

 

“I’ll see you soon.”  Gibbs never said good-bye if he could help it. 

 

“I’ll be waiting.”  Tony promised with a smile.

 

Gibbs nodded firmly, and left.  Unable to stop himself, he looked back before he’d gotten to the end of the hall.  He was pleased to see Tony still in the doorway watching.  He waved and got a sloppy salute in return.

 

Gibbs took the stairs.  He had too much energy to consider taking the elevator.  He grinned, unable to contain the joy he felt. 

 

By the time he secured another cup of coffee on the way to the office and passed through security, he’d managed to put a lid on his emotions.  Given the way he’d been snapping and snarling in Tony’s absence, to suddenly walk in grinning and whistling would have raised eyebrows, and invited questions he didn’t feel like answering.  It was better to just act normal. 

 

He looked at Tony’s desk, unable to fully suppress a smile.  Soon Tony would be back where he belonged.  Gibbs’ gaze moved to take in McGee’s and then Ziva’s desk.  He didn’t think they knew Tony had considered leaving, but it might not hurt to make sure they show some level of appreciation for Tony on his return.  Gibbs remembered the way Kate and McGee had acted when Tony came back after recovering from the plague.  If he hadn’t known differently, he’d have never realized how much they’d missed Tony.  That wasn’t something which should be repeated. 

 

Gibbs wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. He couldn’t order them to tell Tony they’d missed him. The younger man would recognize any insincerity.  Even if he didn’t, the second they thought Gibbs was out of earshot, Ziva and McGee would simply tell Tony they were ordered to say something.  It would no doubt make them curious why he’d order such a thing in the first place. 

He also wasn’t sure how much Tony wanted them to know about why he’d left.  And Gibbs had no idea how comfortable Tony would be with the idea of McGee and Ziva knowing they’d started a personal relationship.  It was better not to do anything that might bring it up until after he talked to Tony. 

 

Gibbs sighed softly.  At least he knew Abby and Ducky would have no problem expressing their delight with Tony’s return.  Abby would hug Tony hard enough to leave him winded.  And Ducky would simply smile and offer a quiet ‘welcome home, dear boy’ and a request for Tony to tell him all about his travels.

 

He fired up his computer and got to work reviewing the e-mailed copies of Ziva and McGee’s reports on their last case.  He forwarded them to Tony.  The younger man might want to know what had been done while he was away.  Even if he didn’t want the particulars, seeing the reports…and how few cases they’d worked while he was away, would reassure Tony that they didn’t get more done without him.

 

Ziva arrived and wished him a ‘good morning’.   Gibbs greeted her as usual; a nod of his head and her first name. “Ziva.” 

 

McGee arrived a few minutes later.  Gibbs saw him trade a look with Ziva.  They’d taken to doing that over the past few days. They used to look at Tony that way, relying on him to be able to gauge Gibbs’ mood.   He guessed Ziva had passed some sort of ‘all clear’ signal to McGee when he saw the computer geek’s shoulders relax. 

 

He stifled a smirk.  Ziva was definitely better at reading his mood than Kate had ever been.  Gibbs was in a good mood, and less likely to snap at either of them.  Of course, if they didn’t get busy doing something productive that could change.

 

“If you two don’t have anything to do, I can find something.”  He kept his tone mild, making it clear he wasn’t reprimanding them.  He was tired of seeing McGee flinch, and Ziva getting that tightness around her mouth.

 

“On it, Boss.” McGee headed for his desk.  Ziva nodded and turned back to her computer.

 

Gibbs started to work his way through the departmental memos the way he usually did--by deleting them en masse, before he stopped himself.  He hadn’t been paying attention to them because Tony was more diligent about reading them.  Tony would take time to weed through what was important enough to bring to Gibbs’ attention and what could simply be ignored outright.  Admittedly, there were a few, like the Director’s missive regarding references to her as ‘Madame Director’ that Tony overlooked, but more often than not, he caught the things that really mattered. 

 

He wasn’t sure when he’d just assumed Tony would take care of those things and keep him informed.  But it stopped now, Gibbs decided. That he didn’t excel with technology and hated all the bureaucratic bullshit was not good enough reason to shirk his responsibility. With a grimace, Gibbs began going through the memos more diligently.

 

After two hours, he was beginning to rethink the need to read any of the crap in his inbox.  Gibbs rubbed a hand tiredly over his face.  What sane person would want to read through this crap, he asked himself.  Some of it was important…like updates to the security system around the evidence locker and new gas card protocols for the fleet of vehicles they were assigned, but he really didn’t give a damn about dress code updates or reasons for why forms had to be signed in blue ink.

 

He reached for his coffee cup, biting back a curse when he found it was empty.  It was definitely time for more.  He caught McGee’s eye as he grabbed his coat.  Gibbs held up his empty cup.

“Coffee.”

 

McGee signaled his understanding.  It was nice not to see him looking relieved that Gibbs was leaving.  Ziva looked up from her computer screen, nodding to him in passing.  Unlike McGee, she looked faintly pleased to see him go.  It piqued his curiosity. 

 

Gibbs hesitated, out of sight, waiting.  He smiled when he heard Ziva ask, “McGee…Tony is coming back tomorrow, yes?”

 

“Yes.”  McGee’s confident answer made it clear to Gibbs he didn’t know about the job offer.  He wouldn’t have been so sure of himself if he did. 

 

“Good.”  Ziva sounded relieved.  “Things will be chunky dory then.”

 

“Hunky dory, Ziva.” McGee’s voice had gotten louder and Gibbs knew he’d left his desk and approached Ziva’s.  “You think everything will be back to normal then?”

 

“You mean will Gibbs stop constantly snapping at us? I do not know.”  Ziva sighed.  “If nothing else he will have someone else to vent his temper on.”

 

“Never how realized how hard Gibbs could hit.”  Gibbs didn’t need to see him to know McGee was rubbing the back of his head.  The former Marine had been rather free with head slaps in Tony’s absence.  He’d tried to tone it down as the week progressed, but the first few days had been a bit…extreme, even by his standards.

 

“Oh, I knew he could hit that hard,” Ziva laughed, “I was just more used to seeing him hit Tony than being on the receiving end.”

 

“Think we should get Tony a helmet?”

 

“It would make for a nice welcome back gift.”

 

“I already got him something.”


“You did?”  Ziva sounded surprised.  Gibbs shared her astonishment.

 

“Nothing big.”  Gibbs knew McGee was fidgeting.  “I saw it, and I knew he’d like it.  So I just—“

 

“What did you get him?”

 

“They updated his favorite movie trivia game. He’s already the office champion on the old one.  I thought he might appreciate a new challenge.”

 

That was a great gift for Tony.  Gibbs wished he’d thought of it.  But he’d given Tony a lot of grief for goofing off on office time and his giving something like that would seem out of character.  Better to have it come from McGee, especially as a welcome back gift. 

 

“And you thought giving him this would also work as a bribe, yes?”  Ziva sounded amused.  “A way to get him to help you master that paperwork Gibbs is making you do.”

 

“Yeah, that too.”  McGee’s admission was rueful.  “I never knew how much red tape there is.  It takes forever, Ziva.  How the hell Tony managed to get it done…on time no less…I mean…he can’t even type. And that file clerk!  She hates me.”

 

“You are exaggerating.”

 

“No, I’m not.” 

 

Gibbs chuckled silently, turning to leave.  He’d heard enough.  At least McGee had come to appreciate Tony’s input to the team.  It was nice to know he wouldn’t have to find away to get him to show it. 

 

Gibbs walked to his favorite coffee shop.  Nodding to himself, he got a cup for Ziva and one for McGee as well.  He’d already dropped off Abby’s first Caf-pow of the day, but she was likely ready for a second, so he picked up one of those as well.

 

His cell phone rang on his way back to the office.  He answered with his usual curt, “Gibbs”.

 

“I don’t think that’s quite the telephone etiquette the agency would like you to use.”

 

He recognized the rough, husky voice immediately.  “Hello, Ms. Petrastorsky.”

 

She chuckled, a low, raspy sound.  “You remember me.”

 

Gibbs smiled wryly.  “You made yourself hard to forget.”

 

“Good.”

 

“What can I do for you, Ms---” 

 

“Pete is fine, Gibbs.”  He could hear her smiling. 

 

“Pete,” Gibbs acknowledged, unsure why he was pleased to be granted that familiarity with her. 

 

“I wanted to let you know Tony turned down the job.”

 

“I knew that.”  Gibbs was proud of how neutral he managed to keep his tone. 

 

“And given how seriously he was actually considering it, I’m guessing you figured out just what to offer him to keep him at NCIS.”

 

She had good reason to sound smug, but Gibbs didn’t detect any in her voice.  He resented comment just the same.  “That’s none of your business,” he said stiffly.

 

“That would be an ‘affirmative’ then.”

 

Gibbs wondered if it was a good thing for him to be so easily read by a near stranger.  He didn’t think so. 

 

 “I also wanted to let you know that I’ll be leaving the job offer on the table.”

 

Gibbs’ jaw tightened.  Damn but this woman was persistent.  “He already turned you down.”

 

“Many times, actually.” She agreed, her tone mild, unperturbed.  “But, like I told you, he’s also a friend, not just a prospective employee.  I’m not entirely certain yet that he’s made the right choice in deciding to stay.  And since I am not certain, the job offer will stand…just in case he needs it.”

 

“He did not make a mistake.  And he won’t need it.”

 

“The threat he might leave was the crowbar that got your head out of your ass, Gibbs.”  She stated dryly, not giving an inch. 

 

Gibbs felt his face warm.  There was no denying her assertion.  If Tony hadn’t forced it, nothing would have changed.

 

“If you want him to stay, then don’t give him to reason to leave,” she said quietly. 

 

“I won’t.”

 

“Good.”  She sighed softly.  “For what it’s worth…it should be reassuring to know he chooses to stay because he wants to.  He’s not staying simply because he has no other options.  He picked you.  Try to be worthy of the gift he’s giving you.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”  Gibbs actually meant the respect the title implied. 

 

“Oh, I could get used to that.”  She laughed warmly. 

 

Gibbs smiled, wild and feral.  “You shouldn’t.” 

 

“I know.” She sounded amused rather than threatened.  And Gibbs had a new appreciation for why it was she and Tony got along so well.  They were part of only a handful of people who reacted to that tone of voice by not cowering. 

 

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out what do with that stupid car.”  She sighed.  “Was too much to hope for that he’d agree to just keep the damn thing.”

 

Gibbs grinned as they cut the connection at the same time.  He found it hard to resent having someone like Pete wanting to make sure he towed the line.  In no small part, it was because she was looking out for Tony’s best interest…something Gibbs could appreciate.  And it certainly didn’t hurt that she knew how to make her point without belaboring it.  The Director could learn a thing or two from her, Gibbs thought with a snicker.

 

Gibbs sobered as he made a promise to himself that echoed the promise he’d just made to Pete.  He would not give Tony a reason to leave.  He would not make him regret choosing to stay.

 

He knew he wouldn’t get another chance.  The odds were not in his favor.  So come hell or high water, Gibbs was determined to make it work out for him and Tony. 

Chapter Text

Tony eyed his closet.  Gibbs hadn’t said where they’d be going so he really wasn’t sure what to wear.  Pursing his lips in thought, Tony considered his options. 

 

Too dressy was out.  Gibbs was coming from the office so it was unlikely they’d be going anywhere with a dress code.  And other than the one time he’d seen Gibbs in a tux for a case and that nice gray suit he wore to the office when they’d gotten called in on a weekend…Tony couldn’t honestly say he’d seen the older man dress up much. 

 

Better to forgo anything too formal.  Or too casual, Tony decided.  Gibbs didn’t dress down at the office either.  He might not go for designer threads but no one could ever accuse him of being anything but professional in what he wore. 

 

Tony pulled on a pair of black slacks.  He selected a white button down shirt.  He straightened the collar, smoothing the fabric before slipping the black mother of pearl buttons through their respective holes leaving the top two open.  He added a pair of monogrammed cuff links, fixing the cuffs with familiar ease. He pulled on a lightweight black blazer. It would fit comfortably under his longer wool coat.  The temperature outside was chilly enough for him to need the added layering.  A pair Italian, leather loafers completed his outfit.  Checking his appearance in the mirror, Tony smiled at his reflection and nodded to himself deciding, without an overblown sense of pride, he looked good.

 

Tony casually glanced at his watch.  He still had plenty of time before Gibbs was due to arrive--assuming nothing came up at the office.  Tony sighed.  He wanted to believe Gibbs would not always put the job first, but he couldn’t help having doubts.  He knew Gibbs meant what he said about wanting this to work between them.  In the heat of the moment, most people meant what they said---follow through was a bit harder to pull off.

 

Gibbs’ devotion to duty was one of the things Tony admired the most about him.  He didn’t want him to stop being a hard ass Marine.  But ten days away, with time to think, and Tony knew he didn’t want to have an intimate relationship with a man who couldn’t be anything but a hard ass. 

 

His relationship with Jeanne, for all about it that he’d enjoyed, was essentially all about work.  His time with Terry had been about little more than sex. Tony wanted something that could balance both; a relationship that had what he’d been faking with Jeanne and made up for what was missing with Terry.   It was one of the reasons Tony wanted them to take things slow with Gibbs.  If Gibbs couldn’t or wouldn’t change, Tony couldn’t and wouldn’t stay.  He wasn’t trading his self respect for an empty promise and a quick fuck.

 

Just over a day ago he’d made the decision to leave NCIS and Gibbs.  He’d come to terms with that choice and what it meant.  Changing his mind and opting to stay didn’t negate his new found strength and sense of self worth.  He felt in control of his own life like he hadn’t since he’d first signed on with NCIS. 

 

Tony needed to ask Gibbs what he wanted.  It was only fair.  Gibbs had asked him last night.  And he’d listened to what Tony had to say.  Besides, Tony wasn’t naïve.  If he expected Gibbs to give a little, he’d have to do the same. 

 

Tony chewed nervously on his lower lip.  Hopefully, Gibbs wouldn’t ask for more than he could do.  Measuring up to other people’s expectations had never been his strong suit.  He could count on one hand the number of people who had any faith in him when it came to the stuff that really mattered.  Gibbs was one.  Pete was another.

 

Tony shook his head, dismissing his negative thoughts.  Abby was always going on about the power of positive thinking.  He took a breath.  “You are going to ask, DiNozzo.  And you will be able to give Gibbs what he wants.  You will be able to give him what he needs.  This will work.”

 

Tony grimaced, frowning at his reflection.  “And if it doesn’t, well, Pete said she’d call in a few months.  You can tell her yes.”  He rolled his eyes at himself.  “Nothing like hedging your bets, DiNozzo.”

 

Although, he could honestly say hadn’t intended to hedge his bets.  When he turned Pete down, it was like every other time he’d told her ‘no’---he meant it. But Tony wasn’t entirely surprised that she would tell him she’d keep a position open for him.  She’d been offering it to him for three years.  It wasn’t like she hadn’t heard him say ‘no’ before.

 

“Positive thinking,” Tony muttered before straightening his shoulders.  He pointed at his reflection. “This is not a gamble.  This is a sure thing.”

 

Feeling better, Tony left his bedroom.  He searched his DVD collection for a movie that would work as a good distraction.  He didn’t want anything he’d actually have to concentrate on, but he didn’t want Gibbs to show up and find him pacing the floor.  An action film would be good---something he could watch without really paying attention and wouldn’t make him look like some over anxious teenager waiting for his prom date when Gibbs showed up.

 

Tony grinned as he pulled out The Transporter.  It didn’t have much in the way of a plot, but definitely had a few kick-ass choreographed fight scenes.  It didn’t hurt that Jason Stratham was easy on the eyes.  Not really Tony’s type, but he could appreciate the aesthetics of the man.  Not to mention the grace with which he moved.  He certainly made some of the more unbelievable moves in the movie seem less far fetched than Tony knew them to be. 

 

He put the disc in the DVD player and turned on the TV.  Tony settled into the recliner.  It was his favorite spot to watch TV from.  He only used the couch on the rare occasions when he had company.  He tried not to think about how little use that piece actually gotten since he bought it two years ago.

 

Tony did is best to lose himself in the movie.  He refused to look at the door, check his cell phone for missed calls, or stare at the clock.  He was so successful Tony was genuinely startled by a knock at the door. 

 

He opened the door.  Tony smiled as caught Gibbs in the act of running a hand over his hair and adjusting his coat in what were clearly nervous gestures.  Tony leaned against the door, feeling more confident seeing his usually unflappable boss fidgeting a bit like a teenager on his first date.  He felt like they were on equal footing. 

 

Tony glanced pointedly at his watch, raising both eyebrows.  “I think you might just be early.” 

 

Gibbs smiled, shrugging one shoulder.  “Traffic was light.”

 

Tony chuckled.  “You drove on the sidewalk somewhere didn’t you?”

 

“No.”  Gibbs laughed, blue eyes twinkling.  “But I did think about it.”

 

“C’mon in.”  Tony opened the door wider, stepping back.  Gibbs followed him inside.

 

Tony stepped into his space, arms moving to pull Gibbs even closer.  Gibbs obligingly pulled him in as well until they were wrapped up in a loose hug.

 

“Hey.”  Tony rested his forehead against Gibbs’.

 

“Hey, yourself,” Gibbs smiled before kissing him gently.  Tony sighed, opening his mouth when Gibbs nibbled on his bottom lip, politely asking for entry.  He let Gibbs take control of the kiss, enjoying the surprising tenderness with which the older man seemed determined examine every bit of Tony’s mouth.  Gibbs really was a great kisser. 

 

Not wanting things to get out of hand, Tony pulled back enough to make eye contact, keeping his arms around Gibbs and giving him a warm smile.  “I had my tonsils taken out when I was ten.  You won’t find them, Jethro.”

 

“I don’t know about that.”  Gibbs huffed out a breath in silent laughter.  “I’m not through looking.”

 

Tony grinned.  “Right.  Check and double check.”

 

“Trust but verify,” Gibbs grinned back.

 

“We are still going out for dinner, yes?”

 

Gibbs took a breath and nodded. It was almost as if he released his hold on Tony in slow motion.  Tony forced himself to take a step away, clenching his jaw against any sound of disappointment or expression of loss.   They were taking things slow---and Tony knew it was the right thing to do.  He sighed silently.  Some day he was going to have to ask Ducky if he knew why doing the right thing was always so hard.  It seemed like the sort of thing the older man would know.  He was a walking encyclopedia when it came to everything else.

 

Gibbs cleared his throat.  “I made reservations for seven thirty.”

 

“I just need to turn of the TV and grab my coat.”  Tony tossed over his shoulder, already heading back into the living room to turn off the TV and DVD player.  He got his long, wool coat from the small closet in the hallway.  The temperature outside seemed colder to him since getting back from California.  A few days of warm, sunny weather were a stark contrast to the cool, gray skies of early winter in the mid Atlantic region. 

 

He pulled a pair of thin leather gloves out of the pocket.  Tony spotted a tag he’d missed earlier, tearing it off and stuffing it into his pocket.

 

“Did you get a new pair of gloves?”  Gibbs asked.

 

“Yeah.”  Tony shrugged.  He bought them when he’d been out earlier.  He couldn’t find his and it was too cold to go without so he bought a new pair. 

 

“What happened to your old ones?”

 

“No idea.”  Tony shook his head.  “I’m assuming they are with every other pair I’ve lost.”

 

“You lose them a lot?”

 

Tony rolled his eyes.  He had no idea how many pairs he’d misplaced he’d lost so many over the years.  “If it wouldn’t make me look like a dork, I’d pin the suckers to my coat.”

 

Gibbs laughed.  “Could get one of those strings that run through the sleeves.”

 

“And you think that would be less dorky?”  Tony snorted.  “Not in this lifetime.”

 

“So you just keep buying more?”

 

“Not like they cost a fortune or are in short supply this time of year.”  Tony nodded toward the door, indicating he was ready to leave.  Tony hit the button to lock the door behind them as they left.   “And knowing I always need a pair makes them an easy, practical birthday present for Zack to give me.”

 

“Who is Zack?”  Gibbs gave him a narrowed eyed look, his tone sharpening.  “And why is he buying you presents?”

 

Tony raised an eyebrow, surprised.   Gibbs almost sounded jealous.  Not that he had any reason to be.  Zack was just a good friend.  And not one who was ever interested in being anything more. 

 

“Zack’s a frat brother.  We’ve been friends for years, Gibbs. He always sends me something for my birthday.”

 

“You never mentioned him before.”

 

Gibbs’ statement almost sounded like an apology or at the very least an effort to explain his earlier tone.  Tony nodded, signaling his acceptance of the gesture although he was not sure why the older man might feel either one was required. 

 

“Never came up before, I guess.” Tony offered by way of an explanation.  In truth, Gibbs had never been interested in his friends.  That had been made very clear shortly after Tony started working at NCIS.  So he rarely mentioned them directly to the older man.

 

“Lot of things never came up before, I guess.” Gibbs said.  He had that look---the one Tony knew indicated Gibbs was upset with himself.  There was no need to feel guilty about this.  Not like Gibbs had treated him any different than he did the others on the team when it came to this sort of personal information. 

 

“There is an upside.” Tony bumped Gibbs’ shoulder with his as they walked toward the entrance of his apartment building.  Dwelling on the past would not help them move forward. 

 

“Oh?”

 

“We’ve got genuine small talk we can make for our first date.”

 

Gibbs chuckled.  “That’s an upside?”

 

“It is traditional, you know?’  Tony smiled.  Not that anything about what they were doing constituted traditional.  Two men out on a date wasn’t exactly the norm, at least not for the majority of the population.  It hadn’t even been considered acceptable as a lifestyle choice in modern times until relatively recently. 

 

Gibbs snorted.  “Tradition?  Right.”

 

Tony lightly bumped Gibbs’ shoulder with his again, enjoying the tolerant amusement in the look the older man gave him.  “If that doesn’t work for you…you could see it another way.”

 

“What way would that be?” Gibbs asked as he held open the front door, letting Tony exit the building before him.

 

“That after five years of knowing one another, working side by side, there are still things we have to learn about each other.”

 

“Good point.”  Gibbs gave him a wry smile.  “Somehow, I envisioned you asking me things…not the other way around.”

 

“You don’t think I have secrets?”  Tony raised both eyebrows

 

“Not what I meant.”  Gibbs shook his head.  “It just…you aren’t quite as closed mouth about things as I’ve been accused of being.”

 

“You?  Tight lipped?”  Tony shook his head, eyes twinkling.  “Who would say such a thing?”

 

“Only everyone who’s ever met me,” Gibbs returned dryly. 

 

Tony laughed quietly.  He liked this playful side of Gibbs.  He hoped he’d get to see it more often. 

 “How was work?” Tony asked as he slid into the passenger seat.  He got a look from Gibbs. “What?” 

“It’s weird hearing you ask that.”

 

“Kind of weird asking, now that I think about it.”  Tony shrugged.  Normally, he was there for everything that happened on the job.  “I miss anything good?”

 

Tony listened silently as Gibbs relayed what they’d done while he’d been gone.  It was odd to feel so out of the loop.  It reminded Tony uncomfortably of things he’d missed while being undercover.  

 

“Just one case?”  Tony asked, surprised they hadn’t had more in his absence.

 

“It was slow,” Gibbs almost sounded relieved. 

 

Tony wondered about that before it occurred to him Gibbs might have needed a break too. Those four months in Mexico had been some time ago.  And Gibbs hadn’t taken any more time off than Tony had since then.  A slow week was probably something the older man didn’t mind having.  His theory was neatly shattered by Gibbs’ next statement.

 

“Was damn glad we didn’t have more than one case to deal with while you were gone.  Took us longer than it should have to pull it all together.  Ziva and McGee are good…just not as good as they are with you there.” 

 

Tony could feel his face flush.  It was decidedly gratifying to know Gibbs thought the team hadn’t worked as well without him.  Abby mentioned during their phone conversations that Ziva and McGee had missed him as well---but Tony wasn’t sure she was right.  It was far more likely they missed having him take the blunt of Gibbs’ wrath.

 

“We did work a few cold cases but didn’t make much progress with them.”

 

Tony nodded.  While he didn’t enjoy cold cases, he didn’t mind revisiting them now and again.  More often than not they were an exercise in futility, but sometimes the passage of time created a better perspective and occasionally they offered insight useful on other cases.  If nothing else, Tony found reviewing them to be good incentive to solve active cases quickly.  He didn’t want the pile of cold cases to get any bigger.

 

Talking about work lasted until they arrived at a quiet, out of the way Italian restaurant, La Bella Vita.  It wasn’t one Tony was familiar with, but then he rarely ate out much.  More often than not his meals were what Rita left in the fridge, take out or delivery.  His recent outings with Jeanne had been to places she knew and enjoyed.  And those were relatively safe since it meant Tony didn’t have to worry about running into anyone he knew there that could have blown his cover.

 

Tony looked over the building, deciding he liked architecture.  The aged brick made the building look like it had been standing for centuries. Arched windows, the wrought iron details and the heavy oak door added to the overall impression of age.  The patio, clearly not in use in the fall and winter looked like it would make a wonderful spot to be during the summer months. 

 

“You come here often?” Tony asked as he got out of the car. 

 

“Never been here before.”  Gibbs shrugged. 

 

Tony frowned slightly.  “You know someone who ate here?”

 

“No.  I checked a restaurant guide.”  Gibbs looked away, color rising in his cheeks.  “I thought you’d like something authentic, and I wanted something…well, not so stuffy or formal…and I didn’t know of any place off hand that fit the bill.”  Gibbs muttered, “I don’t eat out a lot. And I didn’t know who to ask for a good place without sounding like an idiot.”

 

Tony blinked, taking in the uncharacteristic out pouring of information.  He smiled warmly, reaching out to squeeze Gibbs shoulder, trying to put the older man at ease.  “Did it get four stars?”

 

“Five.”  Gibbs declared, chin coming up.

 

“Cool.”  Tony grinned.  “Let’s see if the guide’s stars measure up, shall we?”

 

Gibbs smiled, the set of his shoulders relaxing as he nodded toward the door.  He walked in step with Tony as they entered the restaurant.  Tony liked the way Gibbs’ naturally rested his hand on the small of his back.  It felt right to have it there.

 

The hostess was a young blonde with light blue eyes and a bright smile.  Tony returned her friendly greeting with a warm smile of his own, not actively flirting with her, but getting a once over just the same.   He ignored the look with practiced ease.  Tony had been getting looks like that since he turned sixteen and a growth spurt gave him enough height to look older than he was.  He could feel Gibbs stiffen beside him when the hostess gave Tony an openly approving glance as he removed his overcoat.  He almost expected to hear the other man growl, or move to put himself between her and Tony.

 

Tony draped his coat over one arm before shifting his weight, letting his shoulder, arm and hip brush against Gibbs.  It was a subtle way of letting Gibbs know he wasn’t interested in the young woman, so her interest in him was meaningless.  He knew he’d made his point when he felt Gibbs relax and saw him unclench his jaw.

 

“Did you have reservations?” The hostess asked, glancing down at the book on the small podium in front of her.

 

“Yes,” Gibbs said, “Gibbs.  For seven thirty.”

 

She nodded, taking a pencil and checking off the name.  She selected two menus.  “If you’ll follow me.”

 

She led them through the dining area to an empty booth in the far corner.   Tony glanced around, noting murals on the walls.  They were famous images from well known places in Rome.  He was glad they hadn’t gone for anything too ornate or flashy.  It would have made the place look gaudy rather than classy. 

 

“Would you like anything to drink?”  She directed the question at both of them as they took their seats, but her eyes stayed on Tony.

 

“Dry Martini with a twist,” he told her. 

 

“Shaken or stirred?” She asked, giving him a wink. 

 

“Stirred.”  Despite being a big James Bond fan, Tony didn’t like the cloudy look shaking the drink produced. 

 

“Coffee.  Black.”  Gibbs said, cutting off anything else the hostess might have added, his tone suggesting he wanted it now. 

 

She nodded, smile fading.  “Your waiter will be with you shortly.”

 Gibbs shot a dirty look after her.  Tony reached across the table to tap him on the wrist. 

“I think you need to work on that territorial issue you have, Jethro.”

 

“Why?” Gibbs asked, sounding unrepentant. “It’s already honed to a fine edge.”

 

Tony laughed quietly.  “No cutting anyone to ribbons on the first date.”

 

Gibbs raised both eyebrows.  “Does that mean it would be okay for every date after?”

 

Tony snorted.  “Only if I get to do the same when some woman gives you the eye.”

 

Gibbs grinned.  “Deal.”

 

Tony struggled not to give in and grin back.  He opened the menu, glancing over the specials before studying what else they had to offer.   He decided on the Carpaccio.  He was in the mood for red meat.

 

“What are you having?” Tony asked Gibbs.

 

“I’m going to try the chicken scallopine with musrooms.  You?”

 

“Carpaccio.” 

 

Gibbs frowned. “What is that?”

 

“Steak…tenderloin, actually.  What makes it special is how they cook it.”  Tony shrugged one shoulder.  “I’ll let you try mine and you can see what you think.”

 

It wasn’t until Gibbs smiled, blue eyes sparkling with pleasure that Tony realized how intimate his casual offer sounded.  He’d never offered to share food with Gibbs before.  Tony ducked his head a little to hide the blush he could feel.  He was glad the waiter showed up with their drinks and took their order.

 

“So…what did you do on your vacation?” The question seemed oddly tentative, almost as though Gibbs wasn’t sure he should ask or if he wasn’t entirely sure he had the right to know.

 

Tony smiled.  He eagerly filled Gibbs in on the sights he’d seen.   He tried to relay his awe at the size of the Hoover Dam, his sense of insignificance when confronted with the depth and scope of the Grand Canyon , his amazement at the color and beauty of Death Valley .  He talked about enjoying the sun, sand and surf while in California, but didn’t mention Terry.  Terry was definitely not something Gibbs needed to know about.  Nor was Terry someone Tony wanted to dwell on.  Time spent with him had been a lot of fun, and it gave Tony something he needed at the time, but that was all. 

 

To his surprised delight, Gibbs told him about places he’d been.  Most were trips made while in the Marine Corps and not for pleasure, but it was still fun to hear about things the older man had seen.  They traded stories, sharing their experiences with astonishing ease.  Their conversation lasted through the arrival of their salad and well after dessert.

 

Tony absently noticed that the dinner rush had left some time ago, and while they weren’t the only ones left, they weren’t far from it.  He sighed.  As much as he was enjoying himself, they really should leave. 

 

“You ready to go?”

 

Gibbs shook his head.  “Don’t really want this to be over.”

 

He felt a rush of warmth in his chest hearing Gibbs say what he was thinking.  Tony dropped his gaze, suddenly shy in the face of the older man’s simple declaration. 

 

“Not like we can’t do this again,” he finally offered.

 

“Many, many times, I hope.”

 

“Me too.”  Tony looked up and smiled.  “But for now…we both have to be to work tomorrow and the staff here would probably like to go home tonight.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He signaled the waiter for the check.  Tony tried to pay his half, but Gibbs stopped him with a look. 

 

Leaving the restaurant, Tony waited until they were in the car before taking Gibbs’ hand. He was unsure if the older man would feel comfortable with a public display of affection, even one so innocuous with so few people to witness it.  He smiled when Gibbs entwined their fingers.  He liked how well their hands fit together.  Gibbs hands were almost the same size as Tony’s.  Most women’s hands were dwarfed by his, and Tony couldn’t honestly say he’d held a man’s hand for anything more than a polite handshake.  This was…nice.

 

“Do you need a ride to work tomorrow?” Gibbs asked, heading for Tony’s place.

 

Tony was sorely tempted to say yes, but decided against it.  He might need time in the morning to put his ‘game face’ on and not act any differently in front of the others.  McGee and Ziva didn’t know about the job offer and he didn’t want them to know.  Ducky might know, but the ME could be relied on not to bring it up if Tony didn’t mention it.  Abby didn’t know how close he’d come to taken Pete up on her offer…and it was probably best if Abby didn’t find out.

 

And Tony didn’t want any of them to know he and Gibbs were a couple until he was sure they could go the distance as one. So far, they’d admitted to caring about one another and had one date.  It was a good start, but Tony wasn’t sure how well either of them would hold up in the face of opposition from their teammates.  Or even their support---because Tony knew it would come with expectations they might not be able to live up to, questions they might not want to answer, and assumptions they might not be able to change.  Those things would be a lot easier to face if they were sure of each other first.

 

“I picked up a rental today so I’m good.”  He squeezed Gibbs’ hand.  “Thanks for asking.”

 

Gibbs nodded, silently accepting his answer.  The silence lasted until they were back at Tony’s apartment.  It wasn’t uncomfortable or awkward.  Tony realized it wouldn’t take much for him to get used to being with someone who didn’t need him to be ‘on’ all the time. 

 

When Gibbs pulled into the lot at Tony’s place, Tony released Gibbs’ hand so he could park the car, but he halted his reach to turn it off.  Gibbs shot him a questioning look. 

 

“If I ask you to come up, I’m not sure I could let you leave.”

 

Gibbs smile was a little sheepish.  “Not sure I’d be willing to go.” 

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

“Tomorrow.” Gibbs made it sound like a promise.

 

Tony leaned over and kissed him.  Unlike the earlier kiss, Tony didn’t relinquish control.  This time, Tony was the one exploring.  He reveled in the freedom Gibbs gave him.  He nibbled on Gibbs’ lower lip, tugging on the tender flesh just enough to make the other man hiss in surprised pleasure.  He caressed the roof of Gibbs’ mouth, swallowing the moan he got in response.  He stole Gibbs’ breath before giving it back to him. 

 

Tony shivered when he pulled away, hands curling into fists to keep from reaching out and clutching Gibbs to him.  He took a shuddering breath, letting it out slowly.

 

“Kind of glad we aren’t near any flat surfaces,” Tony whispered.

 

Gibbs laughed, his hand reaching out to curl around the back of Tony’s neck and squeeze gently.  “Not too late to change your mind about inviting me in.”

 

Tony shook his head.  “I’ve heard anticipation makes it better,” Tony licked his lips, giving Gibbs a deliberate lascivious look. 

 

Gibbs swallowed hard.  “Tease.”

 

“For now.” Tony smiled.  He cupped Gibbs’ face with both hands, giving him a quick, playful kiss on the tip of his nose. 

 

“I had a good time tonight.”

 

“So did I.” Gibbs smiled.  “You want to do it again tomorrow?”

 

“I’d like that.”  Tony gave him a shy smile before getting out of the car.  “Good night, Jethro.” 

 

“Tony?”

 

“Yeah,” he turned around, leaning in to see what Gibbs wanted. 

  

Gibbs handed him the gloves he’d left lying on the seat.  “You might need these tomorrow.”

 

“I might at that.”  Tony grinned.  “Be careful going home.”

 

“I will.”

 

Tony didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know Gibbs was watching him cross the lot.  He turned back at the entrance and waved, getting a wave in return.  It would be so easy to just go back and ask Gibbs to come up.  A cup of coffee, maybe watch a move, maybe…Tony shook his head.  He took the stairs up to his apartment two at a time.  A cold shower suddenly sounded like a damn good idea.  

Chapter Text

McGee grimaced as he reviewed yet another form he hadn’t known existed three weeks ago.  He glanced at his watch, sighing softly.  McGee had started coming in early to get the paperwork finished before the start of the day.

 

He’d been stunned when Tony told him he did the same thing when the task had been first assigned to him.  It had been reassuring when Tony told him that once he got the hang of it, McGee should be able to cut back coming in early to just one or two days a week.  Tony had, naturally, burst his bubble by telling him it would take months to get to that point.  

 

Or it would…without help.  McGee glanced at his watch again.  It would be at least another fifteen minutes before Tony came in.  Tony had agreed to review McGee’s work, not fixing the errors, but letting him know what needed to be redone or had to be added.  It was far better than getting it back from Marisol with a ‘denied’ stamp on it.  It made McGee feel like he had when he was in grade school when Mrs. Madison would write on his essays with red marker. 

 

Marisol had warmed to him slightly when Tony came back.  McGee knew Tony had said something to her.  But when he asked, McGee was torn between embarrassed and pissed when he found out what.

 

“I told her you’re a probie.”  Tony had told him.  “Gibbs assigned you the job while I was out.  He didn’t explain why or what you were expected to do.  I asked her to cut you some slack because you didn’t know any better.” 

 

“Tony, I’m not a probie.”  McGee had ground out between clenched teeth. He didn’t honestly mind having Tony call him ‘probie’, but he didn’t want other people doing it.  He hadn’t officially been a probationary agent for nearly two years.  “And I’m not stupid.”  He knew that was more likely what Tony had implied with his ‘didn’t know any better’ comment.  Assuming he’d even used those words. 

 

Tony had arched an eyebrow.  “You’d rather she thought you demeaned her and her job on purpose?  That you were being difficult about doing the forms correctly because you were an asshole trying to make her job more difficult?”

 

McGee had flushed then.  Tony had a point.  And it wasn’t exactly a lie.  He was new to this aspect of the job, and Gibbs had just assigned it to him without any explanation.  It wasn’t until Tony came back McGee found out that the paperwork had been done before he left---Tony hadn’t screwed up, Gibbs had lost it.

 

“He does that…a lot,” Tony had told McGee, shrugging casually. “You want to do everything in triplicate. One copy you give to Marisol, one you give to Gibbs, and one you keep.”

 

“Why give her a copy?”  McGee had frowned.  He knew first hand she wouldn’t accept the forms without all the I’d dotted, T’s crossed and proper signatures on the correct lines.

 

“Because I’ve lost mine once or twice.”  Tony had grimaced, shaking his head.  “Marisol has never, ever misplaced anything that I’m aware of.  Giving her stuff is better than putting it in Fort Knox.”

 

“Does Gibbs know you give her copies?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Why did he make me do it if all he had to do was ask her for the copies you left with her?”

 

Tony had smiled.  “You’d have to ask him.”

 

The way Tony’s eyes had sparkled with amusement when he said that made McGee wonder if the other man didn’t already know the answer; he just wasn’t willing to share.  There was no way in hell would McGee be asking the Boss why he hadn’t asked Marisol for replacement copies rather than assign the job of redoing them to McGee.  He was afraid if he did, Gibbs would find even more stuff for him to do in retaliation. 

 

With the job assigned to him for the foreseeable future, McGee had taken Tony’s suggestion for getting in Marisol’s good graces.  He secured a new computer and monitor for her.  She still gave him a dark, suspicious looks when he stopped by her office, but at leas she wasn’t openly hostile.  McGee noticed a fresh arrangement of flowers were on her desk the other day.  He suspected they were more likely the cause of her being more tolerant of him than the new equipment.  He hoped whoever gave them to her kept sending them. 

 

McGee shook his head, eyes roaming around the empty bull pen.  He smiled to himself as he spotted the football helmet he and Ziva had given Tony when he’d come back from vacation two weeks ago.  McGee had made sure it was Ohio State colors and the number Tony had in college.  Tony had seemed genuinely touched they’d gotten him a welcome back gift, laughing when Ziva suggested he might need it to protect him from Gibbs.  Tony had put the helmet on display on the filing cabinet near his desk. 

 

A small jar of dark chocolate Hershey kisses had some how found its way underneath the helmet, appearing a day or two after they’d given it to Tony.  McGee didn’t know where it had come from.  He hadn’t even realized Tony liked dark chocolate.  The way Tony smiled when he found them made it obvious he hadn’t put them there.  McGee thought it might have been Ziva, but she looked as curious about them as McGee, so he ruled her out.  Abby would have been a logical choice, but had already given Tony half a dozen black roses.  And food wasn’t usually her sort of gift…at least not as far as McGee knew.

 

McGee opened a window on his computer to the updated movie trivia game he’d given Tony.  Tony had been thrilled with the game, setting a new high score for the office that so far no one had even come close to.  McGee checked his own score, glaring at the screen when he saw he wasn’t even in the top ten.

 

McGee figured Gibbs letting Tony play it uninterrupted for more than an hour the day he got it was proof the older man missed him too. Although, if they’d had a hot case, McGee was pretty sure Tony would have needed to use the helmet. 

 

Or maybe not, McGee thought as he eyed Gibbs’ empty desk. Since Tony got back the former Marine had been a little less free with the head slaps.  McGee knew it could just be his perception…that Gibbs only seemed freer with the slaps in Tony’s absence because McGee was getting more hits than he was used to and with Tony back he was getting fewer.  He’d taken to counting them to confirm his impression.  The results were inconclusive.  McGee thought he might need more time than two weeks to really get say anything definitive.

 

Even without any firm proof on the head slaps, McGee knew Gibbs was definitely not as…cranky?  No, pissy was a better adjective, he decided.  McGee wasn’t sure why Gibbs’ overall demeanor had improved.  He was just relieved it had.

 

McGee pursed his lips, mentally weighing the possibilities.  Maybe it was because the team was functioning the way it should.  They’d closed two cases with relative ease within a few days of Tony getting back and had put a third to bed yesterday. Everything moved smoother with Tony around to carry part of the load.  McGee had a new appreciation for the other man’s insights and experience.  And while he’d never say it out loud he missed hearing Tony tease Ziva about her English, making movie references, the many different variation of his surname and ‘probie’ Tony came up with to address him, and just keeping the tension level from getting out of hand.

 

Gibbs’ improved mood could be because the Director hadn’t been by to bother them lately.  No interference with their cases, no unwanted and unwarranted input, no checking up on their progress, and no secret vendettas for them to be drawn into.  It was a relief to McGee, but he had no idea if Gibbs felt the same way. 

 

It could be that the cold snap they’d gotten had let up a bit and Gibbs was enjoying the slightly warmer weather.  Abby said he had a knee that bothered him when it got cold.  McGee knew a lot of old…well, older people experienced joint pain in the winter. It was one reason so many moved to more mild climates.

 

Maybe it was just because Gibbs missed Tony and was glad he was back.  McGee snorted at that thought.  It was hard to imagine the gruff, hard ass Marine being upset over someone he worked with being gone for ten days---he probably would when it came to Abby, but she was an exception to nearly ever rule. 

 

Gibbs had been surprising silent on Tony going over his head to get approval for his time off.  He could have taken Tony to task in private, but McGee doubted that.  Gibbs’ usually MO was to dress him down in front of the team to make sure everyone else got the point too.  Maybe he thought everyone had already gotten the point by overhearing the shouting match he’d gotten into with Sheppard the day Tony left. 

 

It could be that Gibbs realized Tony needed the time off.  He’d been looking ragged around the edges before he left.  Working a full time job and being undercover was no picnic, especially not in light of how the case ended.

 

McGee nodded to himself.  The time away had definitely been good for Tony.  He had come back more relaxed than McGee could remember seeing him in a long time. He hadn’t said much about where he’d gone or what he’d done, but his tan and the lighter streaks in his hair made it apparent he’d gone somewhere warm and sunny enough to spend a lot of time outdoors.   The print he’d sent Abby implied Tony had been to Nevada , but McGee wasn’t entirely sure of that.  It could have just been something he got because it was so perfect for her. 

 

Tony hadn’t said what became of the Ferrari.  In fact, he never even mentioned the car, which still struck McGee as strange.  It seemed like the sort of thing Tony would spend hours bragging about.  Office gossip was rife with ideas, each one crazier than the next.

 

The latest one worried McGee the most---the car had been part of some secret assignment Tony had been on for the Director.  He really didn’t want that to be true because it meant Tony had looked him right in the eye and lied to him about not going undercover.  It meant Tony could be involved in something the rest of the team wasn’t a part of.  McGee hated the idea they might have been left in the dark---again.  Although, if Gibbs knew, it could explain why he hadn’t jumped all over Tony for leaving the way he had.

 

“Morning, Probster.”

 

McGee jerked back from his computer, startled from his thoughts by Tony’s greeting.  “Morning, Tony.”

 

He watched Tony shed his heavy overcoat and scarf. It was more mild outside than it had been, but it wasn’t what most would consider warm.  McGee wasn’t surprised to see Tony was wearing a turtle neck and a sweater.  He’d noticed that since having the plague Tony tended to wear more layers.  McGee had never mustered the courage to ask if Tony felt the cold more or if he was simply trying to stave off getting any sort of lung ailment by making sure he didn’t get chilled.  Ducky had said Tony would be more susceptible to things like bronchitis and pneumonia. It didn’t hurt to be careful.

 “You got anything for me today?” Tony asked, sitting down at his desk.   

McGee nodded, getting up to bring the forms he’d completed over to Tony.   He handed them to Tony, waiting while the other man reviewed them.  Hopefully, this time he’d have everything right.  It would be a first if he did.

 

McGee frowned when he noticed a small mark just barely visible on the side of Tony’s neck, peeking out from the edge of his collar.  It didn’t look like a bruise…not exactly anyway.

 

“Is that a hickey?” McGee asked, reaching out to touch Tony’s neck.

 

Tony blocked his hand without looking, his focus still on the paperwork in front of him.  “Do not touch me, Probie.”

 

McGee scowled.   Tony never saw anything wrong with invading his personal space, but definitely drew a firm line on having McGee invade his. Ziva wasn’t welcome to do it either, although, in her case McGee could totally understand.  There were times he was uncomfortable having someone so close who was that proud of her ability to be lethal.

 

“You have a mark on your neck.”  McGee shifted trying to get a better look.  Unfortunately, moving Tony’s turtleneck would be the only way to get a clear view of it.  “It looks like a hickey.”

 

““You’re missing form N1 dash 83 slash B point 2.  You’ve only got N1 dash 83 slash B point 1 here.”  Tony said, obviously ignoring McGee’s comment.  He tried to hand the forms back.  “You’ll want to fill that out before you submit these or you’ll have to do it all over again.”

 

McGee hesitated, not taking the paper Tony held out to him.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

 

“No, I didn’t.” 

 

“C’mon Tony…you went out last night.  Admit it.”  There was a time when McGee wouldn’t have had to even ask.  It used to be Tony never shut up about his dating habits and the ladies he spent the evening with.  But it had been some time since he did that.  Looking back on it, McGee realized it had been about the same time Tony had taken over the team when Gibbs’ had been in Mexico. 

 

“You’re back in the saddle.”  McGee smiled, gleeful.  This could mean Tony was back to his usual self.  During and after his undercover stint, he’d been almost subdued when it came to women.  McGee never thought he’d miss watching Tony flirt shamelessly with any woman with a pulse, but he hated knowing the other man had stopped doing it because of a case the rest of the team had known nothing about. 

 

It was only dumb luck that Tony hadn’t been in his car when the bomb went off.  McGee hadn’t much liked the idea that a friend and teammate could have been killed working a case without adequate back up.  He still had nightmares about seeing the charred body he thought was Tony in the wreckage of his car. 

 

“And if I did go out?”  Tony looked at him, expression closed.  “What of it?”

 

McGee’s smile faltered. “It’s just…after Jeanne—“he cleared his throat.  “You haven’t been dating much lately.”

 

Tony arched an eyebrow; his chilly gaze making McGee wish he was wearing a coat.  “Keeping tabs on me, are you?”

 

“N-n-no.”  McGee shook his head, knowing he was on dangerous ground.  “But you haven’t mentioned going out for awhile. It’s not like you.”

 

Even Ziva had noticed Tony hadn’t been acting like an oversexed frat boy.  It was part of the reason why she’d been so sure he had a girlfriend before they’d find out about Jeanne.  And she’d even tried to help him get over losing Jeanne---in her own way.  Not that she’d been terribly successful, but McGee figured she didn’t have any more experience with healing someone else’s broken heart than he had.

 

“I thought you weren’t interested in my personal life, McGoo.”  Tony smirked, eyes still icy.  “Or so you’ve said many, many times.  You have a sudden change of heart?”

 

“No.”  McGee straightened his shoulders, glaring at Tony. “But you were mum about La Grenouille and Jeanne Benoit.  You were gone for a week before you started that case too.”  Officially Tony was in Europe for some sort of training, but looking back on it McGee had no doubt that was the start of his undercover assignment.  “And now you aren’t talking about this new girlfriend.”

 

“I never said I had a girlfriend.”

 

“You’ve got a hickey.”  McGee waved a hand in frustration.  “You aren’t staying late or coming in the wee hours of the morning.”  Routine reviews of the security footage to check the latest upgrade to the system had shown Tony leaving with the rest of the team and staying gone.  It was unusual enough that Abby commented on it, bringing it to McGee’s attention just the other day.  “You didn’t even give that exotic dancer on our last case more than a second look.”

 

Tony rolled his eyes. “And you think that’s proof I’m holding out on you?”

 

“Are you?”

 

Tony’s jaw tightened.  “You saying you don’t trust me?”

 

“No!”  McGee hissed.  “I’m saying you didn’t have good back up the last time the Director sent you under and we ended up thinking you died, damn it.  I don’t want to do that again.  I don’t even need the specifics,” McGee offered, lowering is voice even though there was no one nearby to hear him, “but if you need help, I need to know so I can help.  You shouldn’t have been under without more back up the last time, and I’m not going to let you go without this time.”

 

Tony smiled, eyes warming to a moss green.  “You are a good guy, Tim.” 

 

McGee blinked.  He could count on one hand the number of times Tony had used his first name.  And that compliment was not quite a first, but not far from it.

 

Tony patted him on the arm, before once more offering back to him the forms he’d ignored earlier.  “I told you I’m not working undercover any more.”

 “Promise?”  McGee winced at how juvenile he sounded, but he wasn’t backing down. 

“I am not working undercover.”  Tony stated firmly.  He studied McGee for a moment, and then gave him an approving look.  It always seemed strange to McGee how much it meant to him to know he’d done something which made Tony proud.  It shouldn’t matter to him---but it did.

 

“I might consider taking an undercover assignment in the future, if Gibbs asked me to and the rest of the team was in on it.” Tony sighed, shaking his head.  “Even then I’d have to think twice before I agreed.”

 

McGee nodded, taking the forms.  “So you are dating then?”

 

Tony smirked.  “Persistent aren’t you?”

 

“I’m learning how to be.”

 

“Good for you.”

 

McGee heard the dismissal in that statement but choose to ignore it.  “So…C’mon…are you dating again or not?”

 

Tony laughed softly.  “I am seeing someone.”

 

“I knew it.”  McGee almost pumped his fist in the air. 

 

Tony held up a hand, stopping McGee before he could ask his next question.  “As part of what Ziva thinks is proof of my new maturity, I’m not talking about my relationship until I’m sure it’s going to become something that warrants talking about.”

 

“Do you want it to be?”  McGee asked, curiosity getting the better of him in spite of Tony’s clear reluctance to say much about his mystery date.  He had been so sure Tony was commitment phobic.  It was hard to imagine him wanting something long term---but then he’d fallen hard for Jeanne and that wasn’t something McGee had expected either.

 

“Yeah, I do.”  Tony’s smile wasn’t one McGee could remember seeing before.  It was warm, soft, and clearly not something Tony was even aware he was doing.  “I’d like for it to be a lot more.”

 

“No reason it can’t be,” McGee offered, thinking he should say something encouraging.

 

Tony’s expression turned rueful.  “I don’t exactly have a good track record with that sort of thing so I’m opting for…cautiously optimistic.” 

 

McGee raised both eyebrows.  “Like if you don’t say anything you won’t jinx it?”

 

Tony dipped his head in an abbreviated nod.  “Something like that.”

 

McGee could understand not wanting to say too much too soon about a burgeoning romance.  Having had his own romantic debacles, he knew first hand it was better not to have an audience.  Especially in front of a group which might not be all that sympathetic. He felt a bit embarrassed over how he’d dismissed Tony’s feelings for Jeanne.  He’d initially acted as though the only one hurt by Tony’s secrecy and obligation to lie had been the team, completely overlooking what it might have been like for Tony. 

 

It was no real consolation knowing he hadn’t behaved much differently than Gibbs or Ziva. If anything that thought made McGee feel worse because at least Ziva had made an effort to make amends, and Gibbs clearly wasn’t a touchy feely sort so no one expected him to actually act like he gave a damn.  For as much as McGee admired Gibbs, he really didn’t want to come across as a bastard the way Gibbs took pride in doing. 

 

And McGee had outright ignored how Tony might have felt about Paula’s death.  Even if he hadn’t loved Paula, Tony had been friends with her---friends with benefits.  Her death had to have been difficult.  But Tony had never mentioned it, and McGee was suddenly ashamed that it never occurred to him to ask.  He certainly hadn’t behaved like a friend Tony might want to share a new romantic interest with---certainly not one he was serious about. 

 

There wasn’t anything he could do about what had happened.  But he could at least make sure it didn’t happen again.  “I won’t tell anyone.” McGee promised. 

 

“I appreciate that.”  Tony’s eyes darted toward Ziva’s desk.  “Last thing I want is for little miss super spy to make a habit of following me into the men’s room to talk about my feelings.”

 

“I hear you.”  McGee laughed.  One experience in the rest room with her was more than enough to convince McGee he never wanted another. 

 

Anything else he might have said was stopped short by Gibbs appearing around the partition, coffee mug in hand.  McGee thought it must have been his imagination that the former Marine almost looked happy, like he might have been smiling a moment ago or might smile any minute.  Not wanting to ruin the man’s good mood, assuming he was in a good mood, McGee immediately headed for his desk.  It never hurt to look busy.

 

“Morning, Boss,” McGee said as he sat down at his desk trying to remember what form Tony told him he needed to add.

 

“McGee.” Gibbs responded in his usual level tone fashion.

 

“Good morning, Gibbs.” Tony smiled brightly at the older man.

 

To McGee’s surprise, Gibbs smiled back.  “Good morning, Tony.” 

 

Maybe Gibbs really was in a good mood.  That was…new.  McGee wondered is he should be on the look out for the four horsemen.  Gibbs smiling for no apparent reason had to a sign something apocalyptic was about to happen.

 

McGee glanced toward Tony, wondering what he made of the older man’s odd behavior.  He got a shrug in return before Tony started his computer and got to work. 

 

“You done with that paperwork yet, McGee?” Gibbs asked sounding impatient.

 

“I’ll have it for you in ten, Boss.”  McGee was relieved when his interoffice e-mail chirped and he saw the message was from Tony.  The message told him what form he was missing and included a link to the online forms directory that would give him what he needed.


McGee sent back a quick ‘thank you’.  He very glad Tony was back.  McGee really didn’t want to imagine what the job would be like without him.  He’d barely made ten days as Gibbs’ second in command.  McGee wasn’t sure but he thought more than that might just kill him. 

 

Better not to risk it, McGee decided.  He made a mental note to make sure he got more candy for the jar under Tony’s helmet.  If flowers made Marisol happy…maybe candy would do the same for Tony.  It was worth a shot….just in case the helmet, the game, and their recent conversations weren’t enough to make it clear he liked Tony and appreciated him.  As Abby was fond of telling him, it was the little things that counted the most. 

Chapter Text

When Gibbs let himself think about it, he couldn’t help but be amazed.  No one he’d dated had ever fit in his life as seamlessly as Tony had for the past month.  It was hard remember there was ever a time Tony wasn’t such a huge part of his day to day existence.  Tony had been a big part of his life for the last five years---on the job---but now he was an integral part of Gibbs’ free time as well.

 

Quiet dinners after work had rapidly become the norm.  Gibbs began to seriously resent the times they hadn’t been able to share a meal.  He almost preferred to simply skip eating rather than eat alone.

 

After the first week, the meals they shared were usually at Tony’s place or Gibbs’ rather than going out.  Gibbs liked the easy physical intimacy dining in afforded them.  Not that he was ever big on public displays but in the comfort of their own homes, Gibbs could steal a kiss or two, could sample food off Tony’s plate, or play footsie under the table without worrying about offending other people. 

 

Even when at Tony’s and making dinner was more a matter of heating up leftovers or whatever Rita left in the fridge, Gibbs still enjoyed the camaraderie that was part of deciding what to eat, setting the table, and cleaning up afterwards.  Gibbs hadn’t gotten to do anything like that since Shannon and Kelly died.  None of his ex-wives had cared to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and no one he dated had either.

 

After they ate, when at Tony’s, they would settle in on the couch and watch movies. Gibbs couldn’t honestly say he cared what they watched, as long as he got to cuddle up with Tony whatever the younger man picked was fine.  He was surprised to find that he enjoyed letting Tony broaden his horizons and grasp of pop culture.  He was never going to be the aficionado Tony was, but he was coming to understand Tony’s passion for films.

 

When at Gibbs’ place they usually ended up in his basement.  And unlike Hollis, Tony didn’t seem to mind spending time there.  Gibbs had yet to convince Tony it was okay for him to help work on the boat, but he hadn’t given up trying.  For now, Tony was content to sit on the steps and watch Gibbs.

 

The first few times, Tony seemed unsure if his presence would be welcomed in Gibbs’ sanctuary.  He didn’t say much of anything, choosing to do crossword puzzles or work in his sketchbook while Gibbs worked on his latest project.  The soft sounds of his pencil, whether writing out answers or creating small works of art Tony refused to show Gibbs, were nearly lost in the scrapping of sandpaper against wood.

 

As he grew more comfortable and certain of his welcome, Tony started to talk more.  He would fill the silence with surprisingly interesting chatter or read aloud from a book or magazine he brought with him.  Gibbs was pleased that Tony’s reading interest covered more than high gloss men’s magazines.  He didn’t care to hear the ‘true confessions of a playboy bunny’ or ‘my life as a nymphomaniac’.

 

Gibbs had replaced the old TV on the work bench with a radio. He kept it tuned to an oldies station or one that played jazz, knowing Tony liked both.  If Gibbs was really lucky, Tony would sing along with whatever song was playing.  The one time he’d complimented Tony on his voice, the younger man had blushed and hastily apologized telling Gibbs he hadn’t meant to sing and that he’d try not to do it again.  Gibbs hadn’t been able to convince Tony he didn’t mind and he liked hearing him sing.  He just tried to act as though he was totally engrossed in whatever he was doing and didn’t notice when the younger man forgot himself and sang along.

 

Gibbs found himself reluctant to spend time in the basement alone any more, disliking how oppressive and empty the silence now seemed.  Even with the radio on, he just couldn’t concentrate.  Gibbs had tried several times, failing miserably to accomplish anything, his focus more on what was missing than on what he was doing.

 

Since they’d started dating, they’d gotten lucky and managed to have two weekends free.  While the weather hovered around the freezing mark, doing anything outside hadn’t really appealed, but Gibbs wanted to make sure Tony wasn’t bored with simply hanging out together.  So he’d suggested braving the weather to see the monuments, something Gibbs was embarrassed to admit he’d never done before.

 

To his surprise, Tony said he’d seen all of them.  He’d shrugged, smiling ruefully when he told Gibbs that A Few Good Men, An American President, Forrest Gump, Contact, Wag the Dog, and Thirteen Days were all filmed in the capital.  Tony had wanted to see where those scenes were shot. 

 

“Would you rather do something else then?” Gibbs had asked, open to anything Tony might want to do.  He promised himself he’d bite is tongue, grin and bear it, if Tony wanted to go clubbing at some mosh pit or suggested something equally far outside Gibbs’ comfort zone. 

 

“Always worth seeing again, Jethro.”  Tony had grinned.  “Can I play tour guide?”

 

“Sure.”

 

The amount of information Tony knew about the monuments had astonished Gibbs.  He’d been expecting movie references and little else, but the younger man knew things like dedications dates, architects and artists, the size and scope of each monument.  Gibbs enjoyed himself immensely.

 

Tony picked their next weekend outing.  Gibbs was stunned when Tony picked sailing, renting a boat for them to use.  Tony readily admitted his ignorance about sailing, but said he thought it was something Gibbs would enjoy.

 

“Figured you could teach me enough that I would make a passable second mate.” 

 

“With only the two of us, DiNozzo, you’d be first mate.”

 

“Aye, aye, Skipper.”  Tony had tossed off a sloppy salute, laughing.  “Just no three hour tours, okay?”

 

For once, Gibbs had understood the reference and laughed right along with Tony.  “Don’t think Ziva would care to be Ginger.”

 

“Abby might do okay as Mary Anne.”  Tony snickered.  “If Mary Anne was a bit more into heavy metal music and body art.  It’s a toss up whether McGee or Ducky would be the professor.”

 

“No Thurston Howell or Lovey in our group.”

 

“Could be Palmer and Lee,” Tony countered. “If Palmer was older, had more money and Lee was still with us.  She’d have to be a bit less handy with a Sig.  Lovey wasn’t the sort you’d expect to score a bulls-eye at fifty feet.” 

 

“None of them are going with us, and we aren’t going to wreck on an uncharted island, so it doesn’t matter,” Gibbs had pointed out with a grin, effectively ending the playful discussion. 

 

The temperature on land was relatively warm that weekend, but the brisk air of open water made for a decidedly chilly, yet still exhilarating day.  With calm seas, Tony had proven himself capable, handling the movement of the small craft and ropes with ease.  To Gibbs delight, the younger man agreed to going again…when it wasn’t quite so cold.

 

Warming up afterward with coffee and hot chocolate on Tony’s couch, the younger man had nodded off, snuggled in close to Gibbs’ side.  A little careful maneuvering and Gibbs had been able to get them both lying prone.  He’d smiled when Tony settled with a soft sigh, his head on Gibbs’ chest.  Gibbs enjoyed the shared warmth and implied trust.

 

It wasn’t the first time they’d fallen asleep together.  Many nights, after a shared meal and spending quality time together, it was just too late for either one to bother going home.  Gibbs liked sharing a bed, even though they hadn’t done anything more than some seriously heavy petting and a lot of kissing.  It reminded Gibbs of when he was a teenager and wasn’t entirely sure what sex was all about.  The number of times he’d jacked off in the shower over the past month reminded him of being a teenager too.  If the keenness of his eyesight hadn’t started fade a few years ago, Gibbs might have been inclined to believe that wives tale about masturbation making a man blind. 

 

He knew Tony wasn’t being a tease.  Most of the time, Gibbs was the one to initiate anything physical between them. Not that Tony wasn’t a willing and eager participant; it was more like he was content to let Gibbs lead the way.  Tony was usually the one to stop them from going too far, but Gibbs was aware he was moving the halt point further toward the eventual conclusion. 

 

Gibbs was hopeful tonight might be the night they ‘went all the way’.  He rolled his eyes at himself for sounding so juvenile.  He hadn’t used that term since for sex since going to the prom. 

 

Gibbs checked the pork roast and vegetables he was doing in a crock pot.  He wasn’t exactly an accomplished cook, but he’d mastered a few things that were nearly impossible to screw up.  During his first marriage the kitchen had been the center of life for Gibbs and his family.  After Shannon and Kelly were killed…Gibbs had retreated to the basement, ignoring most of the rest of the house, even after he’d gotten married three more times.  The basement was a room with the fewest memories of Shannon and Kelly, the one room they didn’t seem to haunt him.  After almost sixteen years, it was definitely time to create new, positive memories for the rest of the house again.

 

Tony had already made a dent on the living room.  Gibbs had gotten a flat screen TV/ DVD combo that now occupied one corner. Movies were more likely something they’d watch at Tony’s place, but Gibbs didn’t want the younger man to feel like his favorite pastime wasn’t welcome in Gibbs’ house.  He considered getting cable, but Tony preferred movies, rarely watched much TV other than making a point of seeing the news.  When time allowed, they shared the first cup of coffee of the day watching the news together. 

 

Tony also had an impact on the bedroom.  Contrary to what most of his team assumed about his ‘cheap’ nature, Gibbs had invested in a high quality mattress only a few years ago.  He didn’t use it much, more often falling asleep in the basement, but he had paid top dollar for it.  What Gibbs had learned, sleeping in Tony’s bed, was that the quality of his linens definitely didn’t match the investment he’d made in the mattress.  His bed now sported the highest thread counts sheets he’d ever owned, and he bought a down comforter similar to the one Tony owned.  He’d slept in his bed more in the past month than he had in the last year. 

 

Tony’s influence was evident in the bathroom as well.  A few hair styling products Gibbs hadn’t known existed, much less saw the need to use, now resided on the top of his medicine cabinet.  He had been astonished to find out Tony only took a few minutes longer to get ready in the morning than he did. 

 

A soft rap at the door pulled Gibbs from his thoughts.  He glanced at the clock.  That had to be Tony.  He’d gone for a run after work before stopping by his place to pick up a few things.  He’d agreed to spend the weekend at Gibbs’ place---it would be something new for them to spend days together without having anything planned.  They were on call this weekend so they wouldn’t be going anywhere, but the weather forecast had called for snow and freezing rain so staying in wasn’t going to be much of a hardship.

  

Gibbs headed for the door, opening it.  “You know it’s not locked.”

 

“It would be rude to just walk in,” Tony said with a grin.

 

“Truth is you like making me open the door for you.”

 

“Well, there is that.”  Tony stepped inside.  He gave Gibbs a quick kiss.  It was his usual greeting   “Doesn’t change the fact that it would be rude to come in uninvited.”

 

“You were invited.”  Gibbs lightly smacked the back of Tony’s head. 

 

Tony gave him a smile over his shoulder.  “Like hearing you say that too.”

 

Tony moved to drop his small duffle in the living room.  Gibbs wanted to tell him to leave it in the bedroom, but he didn’t want to presume too much.  He wondered if not wanting to presume too much was the reason Tony was going to leave it in the living room in the first place. 

 

Other than the few styling products in the bathroom which could be easily replaced, Tony had been scrupulous about not leaving anything personal behind.  None of his books, magazines, clothing or sketchpad...nothing was left lying around or forgotten.  Gibbs had, in contrast, made sure he left bits and pieces of himself behind every time he was at Tony’s.  A spare pair of reading glasses, an old t-shirt and pair of sweats he liked to sleep in, a woodworking magazine or two, his brand of shaving cream…little things that made it clear he’d been there and would be coming back.

 

Tony acted as though he was waiting for Gibbs to actually invite him to make himself at home.  Gibbs frowned.  He would have thought Tony understood he was welcome to leave anything he wanted that would make Gibbs’ home more comfortable for him---but he’d never come right out and told Tony it was okay to settle in.  Tony could be very sensitive to subtle nuances.  He’d caught on immediately when he started working for Gibbs that the former Marine saying ‘you’re right’ wasn’t the same as his admitting ‘I’m wrong’.  Telling him the door was unlocked wasn’t exactly the same thing as telling him he was free to make use of it.

 

“Tony?”

 

“Yeah?” 

 

“Put your bag in the bedroom.”

 

Tony looked at him for a moment and then smiled. “Okay.”

 

Gibbs shook his head as he watched Tony bound up the stairs.  He needed to remember that words were necessary at times.  It was stupid to assume his actions were always understood without added clarification once in awhile.

 

“How as your run?” Gibbs asked when Tony joined him in the kitchen.

 

“Had to cut it a little short but otherwise not too bad.”  Tony shrugged, taking the plates Gibbs handed him, helping to set the table.

 

“Why did you cut it short?” Gibbs asked, concerned.  The only times he knew Tony to cut his run short were when they got called in a case or he wasn’t feeling well.

 

“There’s a guy who runs the same route as me.” Tony grimaced.  “He’s got a couple of pit bulls he jogs with.”

 

Having little experience with them, Gibbs knew Tony wasn’t terribly comfortable around animals.  And pit bulls weren’t exactly well known for being friendly.  Gibbs frowned.  “They bother you?”

 

“Not usually, no.”  Tony shook his head.  “But he had them off leash tonight.  Thought it better to just give them a wide berth.”

 

“Good thinking.”  Gibbs smiled, leaning in to give Tony a kiss on the cheek.  The last thing he wanted was for Tony to feel doing the sensible thing was somehow unmanly. Without a gun, Gibbs wouldn’t be too keen on taking on a pit bull much less two.  He got a bright smile when he said as much. 

 

“You want a beer with dinner?”  Tony asked, nodding toward the fridge.

 

“Sure.”  Gibbs had taken to stocking what he knew was Tony’s favorite brand, knowing the younger man liked to have one or two in the evenings.  It was rapidly becoming a favorite for Gibbs as well.

 

It was something of a novel experience for Gibbs to find conversation flow easily throughout their shared meal.  There was no floundering for something to say, no struggle to pick a safe, mutually interesting topic.  Work would have a logical point of discussion, but was oddly the one thing they no longer spent much time on.  Unless there was an active case, Gibbs found it increasingly more attractive to simply leave work at the office. 

 

Although he didn’t know much about them, Gibbs found he liked hearing Tony talk about movies and cars.  Tony, for his part, didn’t seem to mind hearing Gibbs talk about different types of wood, or why he preferred hand tools to powered ones.  Sports were always a safe topic for them in spite of baseball being more of interest to Gibbs while football was more Tony’s passion.  They talked about things they liked to do for their next free weekend.  Gibbs was still trying to talk Tony into camping, while the younger man was still pushing to get Gibbs to go to see a performance at the Kennedy Center.

 

“I hate wearing a tux.”

 

“You know, it’s not any different than wearing a dress uniform.”

 

Gibbs snorted.  “That’s supposed to be persuasive?”

 

Tony smiled, reaching across the table to take Gibbs’ hand.  He lightly massaged Gibbs’ palm with his thumb.  “If you’ll wear a tux to one show…I’ll go camping…when it’s not freezing out…and I promise not to bitch about the dirt, bugs and lack of adequate plumbing.”

 

Gibbs grinned.  He pulled their joined hands up to place a kiss on Tony’s knuckles.  “Done.”

 

Tony chuckled.  “Well, that was easy.”

 

Gibbs shrugged.  “You give a little, you get a little.”

 

“I’ve heard that,” Tony gave him a sly look, innuendo rife in his town.  “You looking to get a little, Marine?”

 

Gibbs could feel his face warm, his gut fluttering in anticipation.  He glanced up from under his lashes, giving Tony an honest answer.  “More than a little.”

 

Tony squeezed his hand.  “You think we’re ready for that next step?”

 

“I think so.”  Gibbs kissed Tony’s knuckles again.  “If you’re ready.”

 

Tony’s smile was warm and open.  It reminded Gibbs of stepping into a sunbeam.  He couldn’t help but smile back.  Gibbs got up from the table.  He tugged Tony up, pulling him into a hug.

 

Gibbs whispered into Tony’s ear.  “What do you say we go to the bedroom and make some noise?”

 

“I’d like that.” 

 

Gibbs shivered, feeling Tony’s breath ghost over his skin.  His knees felt wobbly with relief.  He hadn’t been entirely certain Tony would say yes. 

 

Gibbs took a deep breath.  He kissed Tony’s temple before pulling away.  He tugged on their still joined hands, pulling Tony after him up the stairs to his bedroom. 

 

Gibbs growled in anger and frustration when before he could do more than pull up Tony’s shirt his cell phone rang.  “No, God damn it.  Not now.”

 

Tony hung his head, grumbling under his breath what sounded vaguely like Spanish curses.  Gibbs jerked his phone free of his belt, squinting to read the caller ID.  He grimaced.  Naturally it was work.  It couldn’t be anything else.

 

He barked ‘Gibbs’ gruffly into the receiver, his curt, unwelcoming tone making it clear he wasn’t happy.  He listened intently, memorizing the pertinent details with the ease of long practice.  “I’ll be there in thirty.”  Gibbs snapped the phone shut.

 

“We got a body?” Tony asked, sounding resigned.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair.  “Timing stinks.”

 

“I’ll make it up to you.”  Gibbs said in a rush, not sure if he should apologize but feeling like maybe he ought to just to be on the safe side.

 

“Not your fault.”  Tony chuckled, then gave Gibbs a breath stealing, passionate kiss.  “I appreciate the thought though, so I’m holding you to it.”

 

“No problem.”  Gibbs grinned.  “I’ll make good on it.”

 

“Damn right you will.”  Tony grinned back.  He shook himself like a wet dog.  “Okay.  Let’s go bust the bad guys.  Someone is in need of a serious ass kicking for ruining our night.”

 

“That they are.”  Gibbs was definitely going to hurt whatever prick had picked tonight of all nights to commit murder.  They were going to regret it. 

 

Chapter Text

“He looks nervous.”

 

Tony snorted quietly at Ziva’s understatement.  Their suspect looked like he was going to piss his pants.  But then Gibbs often had that affect on people when he was angry.  Tony stifled a shiver; he loved watching the older man during an interrogation. It was like watching the Discovery Channel…all predator and prey time.  There was just something so damn attractive about all that controlled power and aggression.  Tony clenched his jaw, holding in a moan as Gibbs stalked around the table getting into the suspect’s space, not saying a word.  Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  No was not the time to give into his baser urges.  There would be time for that later—although, knowing that was what made it so tempting now.  When he’d held out no hope for later, it had been easier to control himself.

 

“I do not think I’ve ever seen Gibbs so…motivated.” Ziva looked up at Tony.  “He almost seemed to take this case as a personal affront.”

 

Tony bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from saying anything he might regret. She didn’t need to know what this case interrupted made it personal.  At least more personal than it would have been otherwise. 

 

Tony cleared his throat, trying for casual indifference.  “Gibbs is always intense, Ziva.”

 

“True.”  She pursed her lips, eyes once more on the quivering man they suspected of cold blooded murder.  “But this time it was almost as though Gibbs had an axe to hone.”

 

“Grind.  Axe to grind,” Tony corrected, knowing just how much it bothered her when he did.

 

She gave him a dirty look which just made him smile at her.  Some day she would get the hang of American colloquialisms, but until she did Tony fully intended to make the most of one area where he knew he had the upper hand. 

 

“You are not one to take cases so personally,” she said with a tone that was clearly an inquiry.

 

Tony shrugged.  He knew he was acting like Gibbs, but there wasn’t much he could say about it.  There was nothing about the case which could be construed as a personal hot button for him.  The crime wasn’t particularly heinous—not that there was anything acceptable about a single gunshot to the head, but at least it was relatively quick and painless.  It wasn’t like the victim had been tortured or the remains desecrated in some bizarre ritual fashion.  There was no child involved.  Nothing out of the ordinary, although it was rather disturbing to mental label a murder ‘run of the mill’.  So there wasn’t anything which would make his extraordinary focus during this case understandable or excusable.

 

“Did having to work ruin some large weekend plans?”  Ziva smirked, looking a bit smug.  She no doubt took some satisfaction in thinking his weekend was ruined by having to work.

 

“Big weekend.”  Tony couldn’t quite hold back another smile, knowing that small correction would upset her more than her being happy over his interrupted plans annoyed him.  “And yes, this case interrupted what could have been a big weekend.”

 

It would still be a big weekend, if Gibbs could get the suspect to confess.  From the way the guy was sweating and shaking, Tony didn’t think that would be a problem.  It wasn’t like he was a hardened, career criminal; he’d have been more difficult to find and would have left less evidence behind if he had known what he was doing.  Everything they’d found indicated the murder had been more an act of passion, rage winning out over reason, than a premeditated act of violence.

 

No matter how clean cut, closing a case in less than a day would be a new record for them.  It would be something to celebrate, although, that wasn’t quite what Tony had in mind as a reason for taking the final step.  He thought they were ready for it.

 

Gibbs had made efforts at the office to change.  He wasn’t complimenting Tony at every turn which Tony didn’t honestly expect or genuinely want, but he’d actually said ‘good job, Tony’ more than once, when it was appropriate, and clearly meant it.  He’d also eased off on the head slaps.  And he’d shown a bit more respect for Tony’s ability as an agent, not dismissing his theories out of hand or shutting him down quite so quickly when he made a corollary between whatever case they were working and a movie it reminded him of.  It made the past month one of the best Tony could remember having since he’d first started working at NCIS.

 

And it would have been impossible to miss all the efforts the older man had made during their off duty time together.  Things like stocking Tony’s favorite beer, the radio in the basement, the new TV and DVD player in the living room, asking him if he wanted to work on the boat, letting him play tour guide when they visited the monuments, showing him the basics of how to sail, making dinner.  It all added up to showcasing how much Gibbs really wanted this burgeoning relationship to work.

 

The capstone for Tony, what had really made up his mind, was Gibbs finally telling him it was okay to make himself at home in Gibbs’ house.  Until hearing that, he had still harbored a few doubts, hadn’t been 100% sure.  It was why Tony had been reluctant to leave anything behind, superstitiously afraid of being too forward or taking too much for granted too soon.  If Gibbs decided to call it quits, Tony didn’t want it to appear like he was making some pathetic, last ditch effort to change the older man’s mind by saying he had to stop by and get his things.  He’d dated several of woman who’d used that ploy---something always forgotten that needed to be retrieved that was just a handy excuse to stop by.  Once in the door they wanted to reminisce about ‘old times’ and try again.  Tony promised himself he wouldn’t be like that—no dragging it out, hoping or begging for more.

 

And he definitely didn’t want Gibbs to meet him at the door, hand Tony a box of his things as a way of declaring ‘it’s over’ without even having to say a word.  If Gibbs was going to tell Tony he wasn’t worth it, then Tony wanted the man to be forced to actually say so. He wasn’t going to give Gibbs an easy out. 

 

Tony knew Gibbs didn’t harbor a similar reluctance when it came to leaving things behind at his place.  He had tried not to read too much into that.  It didn’t mean Gibbs was planning to stay with him, that he really wanted a lasting relationship—he was just making himself comfortable.  Tony simply made careful note of everything, wanting to have an inventory just in case Gibbs changed his mind and suddenly demanded all his possessions back.  He’d hidden a few small things---things Gibbs could easily replace or likely wouldn’t even know he’d left at Tony’s apartment, wanting them as mementos, just in case.

 

Tony’s attention was drawn abruptly away from his thoughts and back to the interrogation Gibbs was conducting when the former Marine slammed his hand down hard on the table and leaned across it to get in their suspect’s face.  If Ensign Andrew Kostick hadn’t looked like he was going to piss his pants before he definitely looked like he might now, Tony mused silently.   He was tempted to lay odds with Ziva and see if she’d bet, but he didn’t think she’d go for it. 

 

It didn’t take much longer for Gibbs to get a confession.  Tony wondered if Kostick normally stuttered so badly or if it was just a by-product trying to face a furious Gibbs.  The man certainly didn’t look much like a murderer---average height but slender, with watery blue eyes, dark blond hair and freckles, he looked more like the guy next door.  Tony idly wondered why none of the murderers he’d encountered had the good grace to look like a killer.  Tony shook his head.  Hell, even Boone hadn’t looked like the sick monster he was. 

 

Eyeing Kostick as he told Gibbs what happened, it was hard to imagine him having the sort of temper necessary for shooting a man.  But then having a guy in your unit bragging to everyone about how he’d slept with your wife tended to push even the most mild mannered over the edge.

 

Tony looked over at the tech guy whose job it was to record the interrogations.  “You getting all this, Marty?”

 

“Every word, Tony.” Marty gave him a quicksilver smile. “Although, I may have to work to clean up the tape a bit.  Haven’t seen anyone do all that rapid fire talking while trying not to hyperventilate thing in quite awhile.”

 

Ziva’s lips curled upward.  “Since Gibbs was last in there, I would wager.”

 

“No.”  Marty cocked his head to one side, dark eyes leaving his recording equipment to look up at her.  “Was actually Tony the last time.”

 

Tony grinned wolfishly as he recalled the incident Marty was referring to.  “Cramden.”  That case was certainly a hot button for him.

 

“I am not familiar with that name,” Ziva said, frowning.

 

“Before your time,” Tony told her. It was the last case he and Gibbs had worked together before meeting Kate.

 

Marty laughed softly.  “I didn’t know Tony could act that angry.”

 

Tony hadn’t been acting, but there was no reason for Marty to know that. It wouldn’t fit the image he’d established for people to know just how much some things bothered him. Jocks and frat boys weren’t supposed to have that sort of depth.  And they definitely weren’t supposed to exude enough quiet menace to make a serial rapist break out into a cold sweat and then bawl like a baby. 

 

Gibbs left the interrogation room with Kostick looking like he might burst into tears.  Tony grimaced.  He really hoped the guy hadn’t wet himself.  The cleaning crew always bitched about having to take care of stuff like that.  Not that Tony blamed them; he just didn’t want to be the one they bitched to.  It wasn’t his fault the guy had no self control.

 

Ziva headed for the door. Tony waited a moment, leaving her alone in the hall with Gibbs.  He was hoping that Gibbs would assign her the task of booking Kostick.  No matter how anything else with a case went the time it took to book and formally charge a suspect remained constant. And right now, anything that held them up from getting back to what they’d been doing before getting called in on this case would take way too damn long in Tony’s opinion. 

 

“Ziva, get Kostick booked and settled in a cell for the night.”

 

Tony heard Gibbs say as he stepped into the hall, closing the door to the observation room behind him.  He managed not to pump his fist in the air in triumph.

 

“DiNozzo, you’re with me.”

 

“On your six, Boss,” Tony said, following Gibbs.  It was nice to know no one would question why Gibbs hadn’t sent him to help Ziva or even think to ask why Gibbs wanted Tony with him in the first place.  The case was essentially complete, except for filing the paperwork. 

 

It being nearly midnight on a Saturday meant they didn’t encounter anyone on their way down the hall.   Having the building be practically deserted was one of the reasons Tony liked working so late or coming in very early.  He liked the quiet, and with no one around it was a lot easier to concentrate. 

 

“We leaving?” Tony asked, his voice little more than a whisper despite the fact that there was no one but Gibbs to hear him.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Your place?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You want me to meet you there?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Tony nodded.  He’d driven himself to the office.  Coming in separate vehicles wasn’t exactly efficient, but it did help to keep anyone from suspecting they were dating.  Gibbs had his rule twelve, but even more ironclad was the agency’s policy regarding a supervisor getting involved with a subordinate.  Tony hadn’t needed that stupid sexual harassment seminar to know just how much the agency frowned on agents getting involved with one another.  Passing up on Pete’s job offer, Tony wasn’t about to get himself reassigned to outer Mongolia because policy would not allow him to work on a team with someone he was personally involved with.

 

“You going to fuck me hard enough to make me forget my own name when we get there?  Maybe make me scream when I come?”  Tony asked, curious to see if he’d get the same curt answer he’d been getting.  Not that Gibb was ever talkative but this current single word repetition was somewhat extreme even for him. 

 

Gibbs stopped abruptly.  Tony watched him swallow hard—clearly he’d found a hot button he hadn’t known was there.  He had never seen the former Marine blush and found it to be a surprising turn on.

 

“You’re a screamer?” It was obvious Gibbs was trying to make the question sound casual, as though he wasn’t interested in the answer, but the husky quality of his voice betrayed him.

 

“Not usually,” Tony deliberately leaned in to Gibbs’ space, letting his breath caress the shell of his ear.  “But if you’re good, really good, I could be.” 

 

Tony sighed, delighting in the shiver Gibbs gave got in response.  “Think of it as a challenge.”  Knowing the angle of the cameras wasn’t good enough to get a clear shot of them Tony moved his hand to ghost over Gibbs’ groin in an almost not existent caress.  “I’m sure you’re up for it, Jethro.”

 

Gibbs shuddered, eyes closing part way.  “Jesus.”

 

Tony wasn’t sure if Gibbs meant for that whispered word to be a curse or a prayer.  They never did this sort of thing at the office having mutually agreed work and personal should meet as little as possible.  But having this chance and the response he’d gotten made Tony glad he’d risked it. 

 

He stepped back and made a point of sauntering down the hall, adding a bit more sway to his step than he normally had.  Tony knew how to use his hips---all those dancing lessons his second stepmother had insisted he take had been worth something after all.  And he knew Gibbs was something of an ass man…at least he seemed to be where Tony was concerned.

 

Tony didn’t linger at his desk.  The reports could wait until Monday.  They had every other time they got a call on a weekend.  Of course, they didn’t usually have the case solved until then, but Tony considered that a technicality. 

 

He spared a second, looking for McGee.  The junior agent was probably in the lab with Abby.  He wasn’t really needed to finish up with Kostick, and in an uncharacteristic display of generosity, Gibbs had said McGee could leave, but Abby asked him to help process something related to another case.  Tony wasn’t sure what, but he was pretty sure he didn’t really want to know.  Abby was wired, high on too much caffeine and success, and would likely keep McGee busy until dawn.

 

Tony grabbed his jacket. He spent a few moments looking for his gloves before simply giving it up as a lost cause.  He probably left them Gibbs’ place. If not, he could always get another pair. 

 

Tony took the stairs down to the main floor, slipping out one of the side doors to the parking area.  The stairs were faster than the elevator, and taking the side exit meant he was less likely to run into anyone. Not that there was anyone to run into, but Tony wasn’t taking any chances.

 

He let the rental he was still driving warm up, shivering a bit as he waited.  At least the parking deck was covered so he didn’t have to clear snow off the car or scrape frost.  Clearing the windshield was something that always had to be done when he stayed at Gibbs’ place since there wasn’t room in the garage for Tony’s car.  But whenever he stayed there, the older man always made a point of going out early to warm up his car so Tony didn’t have to brave the cold for any longer than it took to walk from the front door to his car.  It was totally unnecessary, but Tony appreciated the gesture just the same. 

 

Tony pulled out, merging easily with traffic.  He could have waited for Gibbs, but even when he wasn’t in any particularly hurry the man drove like he had no time to waste.  If Tony was going to get to Gibbs’ place when Gibbs did, he needed a head start. 

 

Tony was grateful traffic was light.  He wasn’t normally a reckless driver or careless even when the car he was driving wasn't his.  But tonight he wasn’t in the mood to waste time with obey the speed limit or dealing with slow drivers.

 

He pulled into Gibbs’ driveway, grinning when the older man pulled in only a second later.  It was amazing the old truck Gibbs drove had handled the abuse he no doubt put it through over the years.  Tony had mentally dubbed the truck ‘ Sherman ’ after the tank of the same name.

 

Tony waited so they could walk to the door together.  He smiled, taking Gibbs’ hand when it was offered.  Gibbs laced their fingers together, frowning slightly. 

 

“What happened to your gloves?”

 

“I left them here.” Tony shrugged.  “I think.”

 

Gibbs shook his head.  “Aren’t your hands cold?”

 

“I’ve got you to warm me up.”  Tony waggled his eyebrows.  It was a cliché saying but too good to pass up using.  The look he got from Gibbs made him glad he’d said it.  He was fairly certain no one had ever looked at him quite like that—a blend of lust and deep affection.  Tony was reluctant to label it ‘love’ yet.

 

They walked to the door together.  Tony hung back a step or two, letting Gibbs enter before him.  He lightly kicked the door shut behind him.  Tony wasn’t entirely surprised to find himself pinned against it, Gibbs’ hot and hungry mouth on his.

 

This kiss wasn’t hesitant like the first few they’d shared.  It wasn’t gentle or cautious.  This kiss was confident, controlling and powerful.  Tony moaned, sucking Gibbs’ tongue eagerly into his mouth. 

 

Tony’s hands found their way into Gibbs’ hair.  He wanted to hold the other man in place half-afraid Gibbs might try to withdraw.  After calling a halt to things anytime they got too serious, Tony could feel a wild abandon flowing through his veins.  Tonight they weren’t going to stop.  Tonight they were going to find a resolution to that nearly constant low grade hum of arousal and need.

 

Gibbs fought his hold, pulling away, breathing harshly.  Tony took advantage of the space between them to nibble his way along Gibbs’ jaw. He sucked Gibbs’ earlobe into his mouth, applying his teeth gently.  He loved the small whimper the older man made.  Tony liked knowing he could make the bad ass Marine sound so needy.

 

Gibbs burrowed under Tony’s coat, hands impatiently forcing clothing out of the way to get to skin.  Tony sighed deeply, enjoying the contact.  He never understood how Gibbs’ hands could be so warm; his fingers felt like hot embers on Tony’s skin. 

 

The bunched up fabric was getting in the way, binding uncomfortably, and Tony wiggled trying to create more room between him and Gibbs.  Gibbs growled, pinning him more tightly against the door.  Tony bit his lip, skin flushing with a sudden warmth.  He really liked this aggressive side of the older man. 

 

“Gibbs—“

 

Tony was distracted Gibbs’ hot hands on his skin.  It got harder to concentrate when those roaming fingers started worked their way down his ribs to the waistband of his pants. Tony sighed, hips moving to rub himself against Gibbs, enjoying the friction it created.

 

“Boss—“  He tried again, only to be kissed into silence once more.  Tony was panting and dazed when Gibbs finally broke the kiss.

 

Tony maintained enough control to grab the older man’s upper arms, holding him in place.  “Jethro…please…wait.”

 

He wasn’t sure if it was using Gibbs’ name, or the please, but the man immediately backed off. His expression was one of disappointment and desire.  Tony raised a hand to cup his cheek, thumb caressing the soft skin just under those beloved blue eyes.

 

“Hey…I’m not stopping this,” Tony smiled, “I just don’t want our first time to be against the door with most of our clothes still on.”

 

Gibbs looked away, his cheeks flushing.  “I got a bit carried away.”  It wasn’t quite an apology but not far from it either. 

 

“Oh just a little,” Tony laughed softly, place a soft kiss on Gibbs’ cheek.  “Not like you were the only one.”

 

Tony shrugged out of his coat, hanging it on the hook that he’d unconsciously come to think of as his.  He toed off his sneakers, glad he was wearing them and not his boots since undoing the laces would have taken more time.  Gibbs shed his own jacket, his shoes placed neatly next to Tony’s.

 

Gibbs held out his hand in a gesture of invitation.  Tony took it, following him to the bedroom.  His gut clenched in nervous anticipation.  Even though he’d been in the bedroom several times since they’d started dating this was the first time he’d be going there to do more than simply sleep. 

 

When Gibbs reached to turn on the bedside light, Tony had to force himself not to stop him.  It was silly for him to suddenly be so shy.  It wasn’t like he was a virgin.  Or like Gibbs hadn’t seen him naked before.  Although those times were more a by product of necessity---showering at the office, changing clothes on the fly when there wasn’t time to go home; this would be the first time he was naked in front of Gibbs intent on intimacy.

 

His momentary unease faded immediately when Gibbs kissed him again. Tony let Gibbs take control of the kiss, enjoying the still novel sensation of having someone else take the lead.  He wrapped his arms around Gibbs, trying to do the impossible and get even closer. 

 

Tony pulled away with a growl of frustration when his roaming hands failed to encounter smooth, heated skin.  He tugged at Gibbs’ sweater. 

 

“You wear too damn many clothes.”

 

Gibbs smirked.  “Thought that’s what we came in here to fix.”

 

Tony grinned. He moved quickly to strip out of his shirt, thinking it would be faster if they each did their own.  Gibbs caught his hands, stopping him. 

 

“Let me do it.”

 

Tony shivered, responding instinctively to the hunger in Gibbs’ passion roughened voice.  He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. 

 

Gibbs ducked his head, kissing Tony’s neck softly.  He placed another kiss further down, sucking gently at the pulse point.  Tony gasped, more in surprise than pain, when Gibbs bit him lightly.  He sighed when that small hurt was laved away by Gibbs’ tongue.

 

Gibbs nipped his way down the column of Tony’s throat, teasing the tender skin where his neck and shoulder met.  He kissed his way across Tony’s collarbone, paying special attention to the hollow of his throat.  Deft fingers opened several buttons, pushing back Tony’s shirt.  Gibbs’ fingers carded through his chest hair, alternately petting and pulling gently.  The tugs were just enough to make Tony’s already sensitized skin spark with pleasure.  Tony swallowed hard, biting his lower lip to keep in the undignified need mewls Gibbs’ touch made him want to make. 

 

He moaned, a low and throaty sound, when Gibbs pinched and twisted his nipples.  Tony arched his chest, mutely asking for more.  Gibbs lowered his head to lave his right nipple.   Tony sighed deeply, eyes closing involuntarily in response to the sensations coursing through him. 

 

Tony took a shuddering breath.  As much as he enjoyed being on the receiving end, he wanted...needed more.  He wanted to feel Gibbs’ skin too, needed to touch and caress more than the little he’d gotten to in the past month.  He needed to taste, wanted to find out if everywhere on Gibbs tasted as good as his mouth.   He wanted to hear more of those little whimpers, needed to know he was the one who could make Gibbs sound that way. 

 

And Tony had never been a selfish lover.  His partner’s pleasure had always been as important to him as his own.  He never thought it right to simply take.  He wanted to give as much as he got. 

 

Tony pulled away from Gibbs, creating enough space to pull up his sweater.  Gibbs obligingly raised his arms letting Tony pull it off completely.  Tony huffed in annoyance when he realized the older man had a t-shirt on underneath. 

 

He shook his head.  “Too many clothes.”

 

“It’s cold out.” 

 

“Not cold in here.”  Tony winked at the older man.

 

Gibbs gave him a look that Tony could only label as ‘sultry’.  “No, no it’s not.”

 

Tony took that as an invitation to remove Gibbs’ t-shirt, tossing it carelessly aside to join the sweater on the floor.  He let his hands roam over the expanse of skin revealed, enjoying the feel of it.  He placed a kiss on the scar on Gibbs’ shoulder.  Tony knew it was a memento from Ari’s bullet.  He didn’t know where the other scars came from, and he wasn’t about to ask, Tony just kissed each one he found.

 

He was so caught up in the taste and feel of Gibbs he didn’t notice Gibbs undoing his belt and opening his pants. He shivered when Gibbs’ hands cupped his ass, kneading and massaging, pulling Tony closer to him.

 

“You have got a great ass,” Gibbs murmured in Tony’s ear.

 

“Glad you like it.”  Tony whispered.  He wiggled a little, rubbing against Gibbs.  “We gonna get rid of the rest of our clothes?”

 

“Oh hell yes.”  Gibbs pushed Tony’s pants and boxers down his thighs.  And with a grace and ease Tony hadn’t expected from him, Gibbs went to his knees. 

 

Gibbs looked up at him with a smile before taking the head of Tony’s cock into his mouth.  Tony moaned, locking his knees to stay upright.  Looking down he saw Gibbs treating his cock like a kid with an all day sucker, and he had to close his eyes.  It was almost too much to both see and feel; he didn’t want to come too soon.

 

When Gibbs sucked hard and swallowed his cock, Tony whimpered, fighting for control.  The older man’s throat worked, muscles flexing around Tony making him shudder.

 

“God,” Tony panted, hands moving to lightly card through silver hair.  He desperately wanted to curl his fingers into fists, holding Gibbs’ head still and just fuck that warm and willing, wet mouth.  Tony tried to breathe deeply, holding himself still, head tipping backward as Gibbs pulled away only to move forward again, his actions smooth and slow.

 

Gibbs began to fondle Tony’s balls, rolling them in his hand like he was playing dice. Tony bit his lower lip, a long guttural moan escaping as he widened his stance.  He reached one hand out to brace himself against the dresser, grateful it was so close and glad it was solid.

 

“Gibbs…please…so…so…close.”  Tony tried to step back, barely coherent enough to want to give Gibbs a warning.  He was torn between wanting to reach the climax and trying to stave it off and draw out this moment.

 

In the end, it wasn’t up to him.  Gibbs simply followed, continuing to suck and bob his head, fingers never stopping their exquisite torture.  Tony bit his lip, whimpering as he tried not to lose control yet.  Gibbs did something with his tongue that made Tony’s whole body tighten in anticipation.  He gasped for air as Gibbs once more swallowed his entire length.

 

Tony’s breath caught, as he lost his fight to hold back the rising spiral of ecstasy.  He was unable to stop his hips from thrusting forward, instinct to bury himself surpassing his desire to be careful and not hurt his partner.  He shouted out Gibbs’ name as he lost the fight to hold back his orgasm. 

 

Ordinarily, he would have lasted longer but they’d been teasing each other for nearly a month.  The heavy petting sessions that never resolved themselves into anything but cold showers, the physical closeness of sleeping together that brought an overwhelming sense of comfort and a barely repressed desire had sorely tested Tony’s control over the last few weeks. He’d even denied himself the quick and easy satisfaction of his own right hand knowing he’d be fantasizing about Gibbs and not wanting any substitute for the real thing…not any more.

 

Unsure of his own balance, still feeling a bit shaky in the aftermath of his orgasm, Tony offered Gibbs a hand to help him to his feet.  He winced when the older man’s knees popped.  The hardwood floors couldn’t have been comfortable for him. 

 

“Reminded me…the next time I do that to make sure there is more cushion for my knees,” Gibbs said.

 

Tony shivered, a tingle of excitement running down his spine.  There was something so satisfying about hearing Gibbs talking about the future.  The promise of a ‘next time’ wasn’t something Tony had heard much of in his life.

 

“More padding for the knees.  Got it.”   Tony kissed him soundly.   His hands moved up and down Gibbs’ back, fingertips tracing the well defined muscles underneath smooth skin.  He released Gibbs’ mouth, green eyes meeting blue. 

 

“Think it’s your turn, yeah?”  Tony licked his lips, enjoying the way Gibbs’ eyes darkened as they watched his tongue and mouth.  “You want me to return the favor?”


A blow job wasn’t exactly what Tony had in mind when he’d driven to Gibbs’ house, but if that’s what the man wanted, he wouldn’t tell him no.  There was always ‘next time’.    What they had was going to last more than one night.

 

“I want…”  Gibbs blinked slowly and shook his head.  “I know you were just teasing…at the office…didn’t think you really meant to offer…but I really want to--”

 

“Wasn’t teasing, Jethro.”  Tony nibbled along Gibbs’ jaw to breath in his ear.  “You want to fuck me?  Just pound into my ass and make me beg for more?”  Tony grinned, feeling Gibbs shudder.  “You got a thing for that don’t you? Or is it just hearing me talking dirty that does it?”

 

Gibbs sighed.  “Both…I think.”

 

“Good to know.”  Tony swiftly undid Gibbs belt, opening his pants and pushing them down.  “You got what we need?”  Tony hadn’t brought anything with him Friday when he’d packed his bag, unsure of just how they’d be spending the weekend.

 

Gibbs pointed to the small stand by the bed. “Condoms and lube are in there.”

 

“Good.”  Tony stroked Gibbs’ erect, leaking cock, giving into the temptation to touch.  He enjoyed the feel of it sliding through his hand—different from his own and yet still familiar. 

 

Gibbs’ hand curled around Tony’s wrist, not tight enough to be painful, but close.  “I won’t last if you keep that up.”

 

Tony nodded.  Even having just come, he could feel arousal burning under his skin, interest spiking again. 

 

“How do you want me?” Tony asked, giving Gibbs a look from under his eyelashes that was anything but demure.  “All fours and doggy style?” Tony waggled his eyebrows.  “On my side, maybe,” he let one finger trace random patterns on Gibbs’ chest, teasing the pert nipples.  “I’m limber enough for us to do it face to face.  Think you might like that?”

 

Gibbs took a stuttering breath.  “Face to face.”

 

Tony was glad Gibbs had picked that option.  He wanted to see the older man’s face, to know it was real and not a better than average fantasy. And every time Tony had anal sex with a man since he’d met Gibbs, he’d studiously avoided face to face.  He hadn’t wanted to see who was fucking him or even who he was fucking because it was just sex.  It was just scratching an itch, taking the edge of, getting by.  This…this was going to be so more than that. 

 

Tony walked to the bed, deliberately flexing the muscles of his ass, knowing Gibbs was watching his every move.  The older man’s gaze was so hot and intense it was almost tangible.  Tony sat on the bed, patting a spot next to him.

 

“Plenty of room, big boy.” 

 

Gibbs stalked forward, reminding Tony again of a lion on the prowl.  Tony made eye contact, a challenge and invitation in one. Unlike Kostick, Tony had no reason to be afraid. 

 

Gibbs placed a hand on Tony’s chest and pushed him.  Tony didn’t resist, falling back on to the pillows.  He was already half hard again.

 

“You have no recovery time?” Gibbs lightly stroked Tony’s cock.

 

“Not much,” Tony said with a gasp, eyes closing.  “Least not…when…it’s been awhile.”

 

“Good to know.”  Gibbs murmured, lips nuzzling Tony’s neck. 

 

Tony opened his eyes when he heard the nightstand drawer open.  Gibbs reached in and pulled out what they needed.  The older man leaned down to kiss Tony.  His solid frame settling on Tony as Gibbs lowered himself to cover him, pinning him to the bed.

 

Tony welcomed the older man’s weight.  It made him feel connected, grounded in reality. He returned Gibbs’ kiss, his hands caressing Gibbs’ forearms, biceps and shoulders.  Tony wrapped his legs around Gibbs, sighing into his mouth when their cocks rubbed against one another.

 

Lost in the moment, Tony was surprised when he felt Gibbs’ fingers rub his entrance. Tony pulled free of the kiss, shivering as a cool, slick finger breached the opening.  His hips rocked in response, trying to deepen the contact. 

 

He moved back and forth, fucking himself on Gibbs’ finger.  Tony whimpered when a second and then third digit was added.  Gibbs sucked, licked and bit Tony’s neck and shoulder, adding to the younger man’s pleasure.

 

Knowing Gibbs liked it, Tony began whispering dirty words and suggestions.  Reacting with sighs, moans, whimpers and pleas for more whenever Gibbs acted on things he said.  When he lost the ability to form words, Tony let his body speak for him, writhing under Gibbs’ talented tongue, humping against him, rubbing his heels from Gibbs’ lower back to his knees.  Tony couldn’t help the sound of disappointment that escaped when Gibbs removed his fingers. 

 

“Shhhh...it’s okay.”  Gibbs soothed.  He offered Tony the condom.  Tony took it, opening the foil packet with one hand and his teeth.  He watched with hungry eyes as Gibbs pulled way and sheathed his dick. 

 

Tony gripped the headboard, using his abs to curl inward and pull his legs up. Gibbs gripped his thighs, helping him hold the awkward position.  He stared down at Tony, blue eyes nearly black.

 

“You ready?”

 

“Yeah.”  Tony smiled up at Gibbs.  He was more than ready.

 

Gibbs pushed forward, his cock entering Tony slowly.  Tony sighed, appreciating the care Gibbs was taking, even though it wasn’t necessary. He relaxed into the intrusion, welcoming the penetration easily. 

 

Gibbs moaned and shuddered when he was balls deep.  Tony wrapped his legs around him, holding him still, memorizing the intimacy of the moment.  He let go of the headboard, reaching up to cup Gibbs’ face.

 

“C’mon, Marine, make me scream,” Tony whispered hoarsely.

 

Gibbs grinned at him, wild and feral.  He rolled his hips, pulling back his entire length before slamming back into Tony.  Tony moaned, meeting each thrust, pulling Gibbs closer each time.  They moved together in an age old rhythm.  Give and take, back and forth, a dance older than time.    

 

Tony reached to stroke his dick only to have his hand slapped away.  Gibbs growled low in his throat.  “Mine.”

 

Tony tipped his head back, baring his throat in an instinctive gesture of submission. He moaned when Gibbs bit the hollow of his neck, jacking his cock in time with the movement of their hips.  He nearly howled when Gibbs shifted his hips slightly, hitting his prostrate repeatedly.

 

“You want…it harder?” Gibbs asked, breathing harshly, his tone challenging. 

 

“Harder.” Tony hissed.  “Yes.”  He moaned when Gibbs added yet more force, the bed rocking with them, headboard knocking against the wall. 

 

“Faster?”

 

“Please, please, please.”  Tony begged.  “God…Gibbs…please.”

 

Gibbs shortened his strokes, pounding into Tony.  Their movements became more ragged, less fluid, more forceful and faster as they both raced toward completion.  Tony surged upward, capturing Gibbs’ mouth in a breathless kiss.  Gibbs free hand moved to card through Tony’s hair, fisting almost painfully as he pulled Tony’s head back.

 

“Scream for me, Tony.”

 

Tony couldn’t disobey, coming with a keening wail as he shuddered through a second release.  He was vaguely aware of Gibbs reaching his own climax a moment later.  Feeling the older man’s muscles tighten, flex and release as the older man rode out his orgasm.  Gibbs curled around Tony, his head resting on Tony’s chest as he breathed deeply in and out. 

 

Once they were again breathing easily, Gibbs raised his head and kissed Tony’s cheek.  “You okay?”

 

“Golden.”  Tony assured him with a smile.   

 

They traded lazy kisses for several minutes until the drying sweat on Tony’s skin caused goose bumps to rise.  He shivered in response to the chilly air.

 

“C’mon…under the covers.” Gibbs ordered.


Tony nodded, pulling the comforter down as Gibbs got up to deal with the condom.  They snuggled in together, sharing space and body heat.  Tony relaxed with a quiet sigh.  The weekend might not have gone exactly as he expected, but he couldn’t honestly say he was disappointed with how it turned out.  Tony smiled when he felt Gibbs place a kiss in his hair.  He patted the older man’s chest, returning the gesture of affection.  It wasn't a verbal 'I love you' but it was damn close to it...as close as either of them were ready to say for now. 

“Goodnight, Tony.”

 

“Goodnight, Jethro.”

  

Chapter Text

Gibbs opened his eyes to blink dazedly at Tony’s sun washed bedroom. He squinted, wincing in the face of the brightness.  He’d forgotten that Tony’s bedroom had a northeast exposure; even with the blinds drawn it was always bathed in the first light of day.  The orientation of a bedroom and how much sunlight it got wasn’t the sort of thing Gibbs usually gave much thought to.  Until he and Tony had started sleeping together, and then doing more than sleeping, it had been years since he’d stayed in bed long enough to be blinded by morning sunshine.

 

He sighed, closing his eyes and snuggling in closer to Tony’s warm, solid form.  He buried his face against Tony’s back.  He smiled think, ‘It’s Sunday’.  This was the one day they’d mutually agreed on being a day of rest whenever the job permitted it to be.  To Tony that meant getting to sleep in until he was ready to get up, and it was rapidly coming to mean the same thing for Gibbs.

 

Of course, more often than not, sex was involved at least once between their usual waking hour and whenever they felt like getting out of bed on Sunday.  Sometimes it was slow and gentle, a languid sort of union that was almost surreal.  If it weren’t for the mess that got made, Gibbs would have thought those times were really just damn good dreams.  Sometimes it was hot and heavy, both of them waking up hard and primed for action.  Those times were more like a wrestling match as they struggled against one another for control.  Gibbs couldn’t honestly say he ever lost---no matter who topped whom.  And then there were times like this morning where just being wrapped around each other, safe and warm, was all that really mattered, when there wasn’t energy or interest to do more than simply enjoy the moment. 

 

Gibbs kissed the back of Tony’s neck.  He would never have guessed that three months would be enough to change the habits of a lifetime, but apparently it was.  Or maybe Tony was just that persuasive.

 

For not getting to experience lazy Sundays much in his life, Gibbs found he missed it something fierce when they didn’t get a chance to spend Sunday mornings together.  According to Abby, Gibbs was down right testy when they’d been called into work two weekends in a row.  Even the Director had noticed his unusually foul mood. Speculation at the office was rife over why he’d be so put out about something that had never bothered him before.  Gibbs knew there was a betting pool, although he wasn’t sure how anyone planned to win it since no one, other than Tony, had balls enough to ask out right.

 

Gibbs knew Tony wasn’t any happier about losing those days together, but for the most part the younger man seemed to take it in stride.  It didn’t hurt that Tony acting annoyed or a bit pissed over a ruined weekend was hardly out of the ordinary.  And to his credit, unlike Gibbs, Tony rarely took resorted to snarling at people. 

 

Gibbs sighed again.  He wasn’t going to dwell on the Sundays they’d missed.  It was better to just enjoy the moment.  He wrapped his arm more tightly around Tony.  Gibbs liked how well they fit together. They never went to sleep spooned together back to front but that was almost always the position they woke up in.

 

Tony mumbled something inarticulate, moving restlessly.  Gibbs lifted his head to look at the younger man’s face.  It didn’t happen often, but Tony did have nightmares.  Given how much the younger man had gone through just in his time at NCIS, it was something of a wonder he didn’t have them more often.  But even once was more than Gibbs wanted him to experience, so he needed to make sure he shouldn’t wake Tony and save him from some subconscious induced terror.

 

Tony shifted, a small groan escaping, as he pulled tried to pull the comforter up over his head.  Not a nightmare, Gibbs decided, just a protest to the bright sunlight.  Feeling playful, he grinned, holding the blanket so Tony couldn’t move it. 

 

Tony grumbled, rolling over, somehow managing to stay within the circle of Gibbs’ arms.  He buried his face in Gibbs’ chest.

 

“Damn sun.”  Tony muttered.

 

Gibbs cupped the back of Tony’s head, petting him in a soothing gesture, liking the fact that Tony had turned into him rather than burying his head under the pillow.  He eyed the windows.  The sunlight would be even brighter and fill the room even earlier in the summer months.  He would have thought Tony would have gotten something heavier to block out the sun. 

 

“Why don’t you have blackout curtains?”   

 

“Didn’t need them.”  Tony chuckled quietly.  “Haven’t slept this late since I moved in.”

 

Gibbs was glad Tony couldn’t see his face.  The younger man kept telling him there was no reason to feel guilty about things done in the past.  And Gibbs tried, but he still felt like an asshole when Tony made completely innocent comments that reminded him just what a shit head he’d been.

 

Tony raised his head, sleepy green eyes meeting blue.  “Not all your fault you know.”

 

“How do you do that?”  No one should be able read him that well without even looking. 

 

“When it comes to us…you’re pretty damn predictable.”  Tony smiled.  “And so far, I’d have to say that’s not a bad thing.”

 

“I should be insulted.”

 

“Should be, but you’re not.”  Tony smirked, giving Gibbs a quick kiss.  “You wanna take a shower with me?”

 

That wasn’t an offer Gibbs would ever say no to.  Especially not when staying at Tony’s place.  The building had installed a new water heater as part of the overall upgrades and renovations the new owner had undertaken after buying the building.  The heater was some sort of special, industrial size thing that seemed to have an endless supply of piping hot water.  At least it hadn’t run out yet, no matter how long they were in there making sure everything was…clean. 

 

Tony got out of bed, arms reaching overhead to stretch languidly.  Gibbs watched, fascinated by the play of firm muscle and long limbs.  He had been surprised when Tony recently confessed to having practiced yoga for several years, although in hindsight he shouldn’t have been. The past few months had confirmed just how limber Tony was.  That had to come from somewhere.

 

Gibbs rolled out of bed, grimacing as stiff joints made themselves known. Last night had been a bit rough—not that he’d actually noticed it at the time.  Gibbs’ skin warmed just thinking about it.  He definitely wasn’t about to complain.  If he did, Tony might not do it again…and Gibbs definitely wanted them to have more nights like that. 

 

Gibbs did a few stretches of his own, trying to wake up heavy limbs.  He was glad Tony had already headed for the bathroom.  Hopefully the running water covered the sound of his knees popping, and his soft groans as he tried to loosen over used, stiff muscles.

 

They could never claim showering together conserved water.  Like sleeping in, a long shower wasn’t something Gibbs had truly indulged in much.  He learned in the Marine Corps to get in and out quickly.  And for as much as he enjoyed this simple pleasure, he rarely had time to indulge in it. 

 

Gibbs smiled to himself.  Since getting together with Tony, he’d developed a real appreciation for simple pleasures.  The younger man was definitely good for him in a lot of ways.  He’d have to make sure he told Tony so.  It was the sort of thing Gibbs was trying to do better communicating.  Tony seemed to appreciate his efforts.  Sometimes he rewarded Gibbs with a shy smile he never saw him give to anyone else.  And sometimes it was a kiss, gentle and full of affection.

 

Tony peeked out from the bathroom, eyebrows arched upward.  “You change your mind?”

 

Gibbs snorted.  Not very dam likely.  “You are so impatient.”

 

“That’s not what you said last night.” Tony smirked.  “You didn’t think I was in enough of a hurry then.” 

 

Gibbs blushed.  He’d made the mistake of questioning Tony’s staying power, challenging him to make Gibbs’ come before he did.  He’d done it, holding Gibbs on the edge of his orgasm for long than the older man had thought humanly possible in the process.  Gibbs had cursed, begged, even ordered Tony to move faster, to push harder, only to have the younger man continue at the same steady and maddeningly slow pace.   When Tony had finally given in to his pleas, fucking him into the mattress, the experience was so intense Gibbs had nearly blacked out when he came. 

 

“C’mon.” Tony held out a hand in an inviting gesture.  “The water’s warm.”

 

Gibbs took his hand, letting Tony pull him into the bathroom.  Steam was beginning to fill the small room, the tiled floor warm beneath Gibbs’ bare feet.

 

Forty minutes later, they left the room a lot cleaner and, more importantly, just as sated as they were the night before. Gibbs was almost tempted to suggest they go back to bed.  A little more sleep wouldn’t be a bad thing.  The rumbling of Tony’s stomach stopped him, reminding of his own hunger.  Dinner was a long time ago. 

 

Gibbs pulled on a pair of faded blue jeans and an equally faded t-shirt before adding an old gray sweatshirt.  “You got anything that qualifies as edible in your kitchen?” 

 

“Don’t know.”  Tony shook his head, shrugging into a long sleeved t-shirt, tucking it into a pair of jeans. “I haven’t been here much in the past few days.  And think the last time either of us bought groceries it was for your place.” 

 

Gibbs grimaced, nodding his understanding.  Their last case had kept the team busy for several days.  There wasn’t time to do much more than grab a quick bite to eat and some sleep whenever they left the office.


Tony ran his fingers through his damp hair, giving it some semblance of order.  It made Gibbs’ fingers itch to mess it up.  He liked the ruffled look, and he loved the way Tony’s hair felt running through his fingers.

 

“What about Rita?”  Tony’s cleaning lady usually left food in his fridge for him.  

 

“Rita’s in Orlando until next week.”

 

Gibbs frowned before he remembered Rita’s daughter had given birth to her first grandchild two weeks ago.  Rita had flown down to stay for several weeks and help the new mother adjust.  And to spoil her grandchild. 

 

“She’s the happiest grandmother on the planet.”  Tony smiled fondly.  “With the most beautiful grandchild ever born.”  Gibbs had a feeling the younger man would be seeing pictures of the ‘most beautiful grandchild’ the moment Rita got back.  Probably for months.

 

“If the cupboards are bare we can always head over to Frank’s.”  Tony pointed out as he put on his watch.

 

Frank’s was a small deli style restaurant a block from Tony’s place.  The food was simple fare but well prepared and delicious.  Tony was a regular and popular, always greeted by name.  He’d introduced Gibbs to the owner the first weekend he’d spent at Tony’s place. 

 

To say Frank was a large man would be an understatement.  He was big enough to dwarf most professional linebackers, but seemed to be the epitome of a gentle giant.  He didn’t try to crush Gibbs’ hand when he shook it, but Gibbs had noticed the man giving him a once over, measuring him.  Gibbs still didn’t know if he’d been judged on his own merits or his worthiness to be good enough to be considered a friend of Tony’s.  Either way, he evidently passed muster since Frank hadn’t toss him out on his ass.  Frank hadn’t warmed much to him, not giving Gibbs a smile and friendly greeting like Tony always got, but the caliber of the food more than made up for that. 

 

Gibbs headed for the kitchen.  He opened the fridge, not entirely surprised to find it barren.  Tony didn’t keep much food at his place even when he had time to shop for groceries.  He relied on take out, delivery and Rita.

 

“We going to Frank’s?” Tony asked.

 

“Unless you want to eat pickles, mustard and ketchup for breakfast.”

 

“I have mustard?”  Tony raised both eyebrows, eyes twinkling.  “Hunh. Who knew?”

 

Gibbs snorted.  Condiments were the one thing Tony always made a point of getting when he did bother to shop for groceries.  Gibbs suspected Rita cleaned them out on a regular basis just like she did everything else in Tony’s refrigerator. 

 

“We’re going to Frank’s.”  Gibbs shut the refrigerator door, emphatically.  “Then we’re going to go grocery shopping.”

 

Tony laughed.  Gibbs glared at him.  “What?”

 

“This is getting to be part of our Sunday routine.”  Tony grinned.  “Sleep in, shop for groceries, laundry.”  He put a hand to his chest, mock horror coloring his expression and tone. “My god, Jethro, we’re domesticated.”

 

Gibbs found himself grinning back.  Tony was right.  They were domesticated.  And damn if he didn’t like that fact.  Clearly Tony didn’t mind the idea either. 

 

“Get your shoes on.”

 

Tony gave him a sloppy salute, heading for where he’d kicked off his sneakers in the living room.  He asked over his shoulder, “This mean you’re buying?”

 

“You need me to?”  They’d established a habit of trading off who bought dinner, whether they went out to eat or grabbed something on the way home, but breakfast was always up for grabs. 

 

“Don’t have any cash on me.”  Tony looked a little sheepish.  “Didn’t have time to hit an ATM this week.”

 

Frank often refused to let Tony pay for his meal.  Gibbs was sure there was a story there, but so far neither Tony nor Frank had given up any details.  If Tony wanted to pay for his meal, he left cash on the table, knowing that even if Frank didn’t take it, the wait staff would spread it out among themselves.  Tips like that was another reason Tony was popular there. 

 

Gibbs pulled on an older pair of deck shoes he’d left at Tony’s place.  Half his wardrobe had found its way into Tony’s closet and dresser.  Gibbs found it reassuring that Tony had taken to leaving more of his things in Gibbs’ house.  They were merging their possessions and their lives more and more. 

 

Gibbs smiled to himself.  Tony had definitely called it.  They were domesticated. All they had to do to make it official was move in together and buy a set of matching rings.  Gibbs smile widened.  It would be awhile before they were ready for that step.  But Gibbs was confident they were getting closer every day.

 

“What?”  Tony gave him a quizzical look.

 

“What what?”

 

“You’re smiling.”

 

“I’m happy.”

 

“It’s more than that.”

 

“I’m very happy,” Gibbs said, stepping closer to give Tony a kiss. 

 

When they ended the kiss, Tony cupped Gibbs’ face with both hands, green eyes searching blue.  “Why are you very happy?” he asked.

 

“Because I love you.”  Gibbs said simply.  “And I know you love me.”

 

Gibbs had told Tony he loved him nearly two months ago.  It was only last week Tony had actually said the words back, but there was no doubt he’d meant them.

 

Tony smiled.  “And that makes you very happy?”

 

“It does.”

 

“Good.”  Tony kissed him.  “Makes me very happy too.”

 

“Good.”

 

Tony looked toward the front door.  “You ready to take our happy selves outside and get on with the day?”

 

Gibbs lightly smacked the back of Tony’s head, knowing was expected.  “We already wasted half the morning.”

 

Tony gave him a look that was full of promise.  “If you play your cards right, we can waste half the afternoon the same way.”

 

“Like the sound of that.”

 

Tony laughed.  “I thought you might.”

 

“Breakfast.”  Gibbs declared.  “We’ll need fortification.”

 

“Oh yeah,” Tony waggled is eyebrows.  “We will definitely need that.”

 

Might need a few other things as well, Gibbs thought, adding the pharmacy to their list of errands that needed to be run.  He tucked his wallet into his pocket, grabbing his coat.  Tony shrugged into his coat as well. 

 

Tony opened the door, taking a deep breath.  “Today is going to be a good day.”

 

As far as Gibbs was concerned it was already a great day.  It was just going to get better.  Like everything else in his life since he’d welcomed Tony into it.