Gibbs sipped his beer, sighing softly in satisfaction as he stretched his legs out in front of him. The sun was warm enough to make hanging out on the back porch of Lundy and LaFiamma’s house a comfortable way to spend the late afternoon.
He’d been right to think Lundy and LaFiamma would invite him to stay. He couldn’t be sure but he suspected furniture in the home office that doubled as a guest room had been rearranged just to accommodate him so he would be comfortable for as long as he chose to stay.
Gibbs smiled to himself. He knew Lundy liked him…or at least didn’t hate him, but he still wasn’t sure exactly what LaFiamma thought of him. He was fairly certain the younger man didn’t see him as a threat, at least not any more, but Gibbs doubted he’d been deemed completely trustworthy yet. With enough time, he hoped that would change.
He took another sip of his beer, settling even deeper into his seat. He pushed lightly with his toes, setting the swing in motion. He might have to look into getting one for himself when he got back to DC. It would be a nice thing to have on his back porch. Not that he’d ever spent much time on his, but with a swing he might.
“Told you that thing was more comfortable than it looked,” Tony said, his tone smug. He was stretched out on the lounge chair he claimed as his own.
Tony hadn’t regained the few pounds he’d lost while in the hospital and during his subsequent recovery, but he didn’t look washed out or gaunt. The pallor from his time in the hospital was gone, replaced with light tan. He seemed to be moving easily and if how he’d packed away the lasagna they had for dinner last night was anything to go by his appetite was back in full swing.
Gibbs shook off his thoughts and focused on Tony’s self-satisfied expression about the swing. He arched an eyebrow. “You pick it out?”
“No, I just helped haul it home.” Tony grinned. “Joe’s wanted a swing out here forever, and Levon got it for him for his birthday. He must have been to every place for a hundred miles before he found one he considered worth spending money on.”
Tony shook his head, chuckling. “So while they are out having dinner and enjoying themselves, Robbie and I are hauling that heavy ass swing home from some middle of nowhere place Levon said had the only one he’d even consider owning. I couldn’t figure out why any old swing wouldn’t work, one that didn’t require going to hell and back, until I saw it. Sitting on it sealed the deal.”
Gibbs frowned. “You test drove Joe’s swing?”
“Well, yeah.” Tony shrugged. “Had to figure out what would make it worth Levon spending so damn much money on it.”
Gibbs knew Lundy wasn’t exactly a spendthrift but the man was far from careless with his money. He didn’t know what the swing cost, but Gibbs was guessing it hadn’t come cheap. Custom work of such obvious quality always cost more.
“Hard to believe anything without a single cushion or soft edge could be so damn comfortable.” Tony laughed softly. “Joe’s fallen asleep on it a few times already.”
Gibbs ran a hand over the wood, enjoying the smooth satin finish of what had to be reclaimed hardwood. He was sure it was chestnut and that wood hadn’t been available in any size or quantity since the Chestnut Blight decimated the species decades ago. Gibbs sighed softly, envying the guy who got the chance to work with it.
He couldn’t help admiring the craftsmanship that went into making the swing. There were no nails. It was held together with wooden pegs where additional support was needed to keep the tongue and groove construction in place. It looked almost seamless, more like the swing had been carved rather than constructed.
Thinking about it, Gibbs wasn’t really surprised that it had been something Lundy had selected. The man shared Gibbs’ appreciation for handcrafted things, wood in particular. Gibbs had noticed several refinished antiques in the house that he was sure had been done by Lundy.
There was a workshop adjacent to the stable that Gibbs thought was where Lundy probably dabbled with wood working. He hadn’t been invited to take a look and good manners dictated he didn’t go snooping. No matter how much he wanted to.
Gibbs checked his watch. Lundy and LaFiamma had left a few hours ago. Lundy wanted to look at another horse. LaFiamma didn’t seem to be the sort to have much of interest in livestock, but he was definitely the sort to be willing to humor his lover.
That he was willing to leave Gibbs alone with Tony the older man saw as proof LaFiamma didn’t hate or distrust him completely. It shouldn’t matter, Gibbs had never cared what other people thought of him, but he wanted Tony’s cousin to stop measuring him, turquoise eyes assessing Gibbs against some unknown yardstick before even saying hello. It was disconcerting, and Gibbs found himself wondering if he’d made other people feel the same way. His often brusque, sarcastic demeanor certainly wasn’t the type to put people at ease or make them feel welcome.
“You think Lundy will buy the horse?”
Tony shrugged. “Fooler is getting on in years, but not sure the one he’s going to look at is a good replacement. As picky as he was about that swing, I’m thinking it will be months before he finds a horse he’d consider owning.”
Gibbs knew Fooler was the chestnut mare Lundy had gotten when she was a two year old. Nearing nineteen, she was definitely approaching an age where riding her regularly was likely not going to be an option in the future. The blue roan gelding, Mason, was a good horse, but he didn’t belong to Lundy. Lundy was only working with him for a friend, gentling and training the gelding as a suitable mount for the man’s teenaged daughter. Mason would be a gift for her 16th birthday in the fall.
Lundy had offered Gibbs the chance to go riding yesterday. It had been years since Gibbs had been on a horse, but he accepted the offer. Although, he’d really only said yes to be polite, it had been a surprisingly pleasant way to spend several hours. Gibbs had forgotten how much he enjoyed riding. Fooler still had plenty of energy, responding willingly to anything and everything Gibbs asked of her.
Gibbs was also surprised to learn Lundy had been teaching Tony to ride. He hadn’t thought Tony would care to be anywhere near such large animals, but approaching them on his own and having guided instruction from a man Tony obviously trusted was another matter. Lundy said Tony had a good seat, he just needed a bit more confidence and that would come with experience.
When they were brushing the horses and putting away the tack after their ride, Gibbs had asked if Lundy had taught LaFiamma to ride as well. Lundy just laughed. “Horses aren’t Joe’s thing.”
“Wouldn’t have thought they were Tony’s either,” Gibbs had admitted.
“They aren’t something he’s passionate about, but Tony is always up for a challenge.” Lundy had grinned, brown eyes bright with amusement. “Especially when there was a pretty young thing he wanted to impress.”
Gibbs’ curiosity was immediately piqued. In all the time Tony had been in Houston he hadn’t mentioned dating or even being interested in anyone. Gibbs was sure Tony hadn’t become a monk, but he did know even before Tony had left DC he hadn’t been dating much. Jeanne Benoit had done a number on the younger man and it was taking him some time to recover his balance.
From his weekly conversations with Tony, Gibbs knew he no longer felt the need to hide behind the face of a clown. His team in Houston welcomed his light-hearted demeanor, enjoyed his humor and movie quotes, but they didn’t expect him to play the fool. They didn’t challenge his place on the team the way Ziva and McGee had back at NCIS. But then, Joanne Beaumont didn’t play her people off one another the way Gibbs had either.
The acceptance and support of his teammates had given Tony the freedom to abandon the more extreme aspects of the frat boy persona he’d donned while at NCIS. His confidence in his place and abilities had allowed Tony to grow into the man Gibbs had always known he could be. And that man was definitely ready for a relationship which was more than a one-night stand.
Even Gibbs’ best interrogation techniques couldn’t get any more information out of Lundy on whoever it was that had caught Tony’s eye. Gibbs was still trying to figure out how to casually bring it up to Tony. It wasn’t any of his business. Not really. And when they were at NCIS Gibbs would never have cared, much less asked, but now he wanted to know. He and Tony were friends, not just boss and subordinate. They were equals, not lead and second.
His friendship with Tony being relatively new, at least in terms of its current level of equality, was the main reason Gibbs hesitated to grill Tony on any possible love interest. He didn’t want to piss Tony off by asking something that might be considered off limits. If Tony wanted him to know, Gibbs was hoping Tony trusted him enough to share.
Another reason he was hesitant to ask was if Tony were serious about some one, Gibbs didn’t want him to think he was making light of his feelings or being as dismissive of what this person might mean to Tony as he’d been about Jeanne. It had taken him some time, but the older man had come to terms with Tony making a life for himself away from NCIS. He didn’t want Tony to think he was still pushing him to return to his old life. He wanted Tony to realize Gibbs fully accepted how much more at home, how settled he was in Houston. He wanted Tony to be happy---to find that special someone who would make him happy the way Shannon had made Gibbs happy. And if Tony was ever that much in love, ready to commit to forever with someone, Gibbs hoped their relationship was sound enough he’d get invited to the wedding, commitment ceremony or whatever Tony opted for.
Tony’s soft sigh drew Gibbs’ attention back to the moment. He watched as Tony stood up, arching an eyebrow in askance.
“Need another beer. You want one?”
Tony stretched lazily, his t-shirt riding up to reveal newly healed, pink, surgical scars. Gibbs was pleased to see there was no hesitance in his movement. Tony’s ribs had healed well. The damage to his lung and other internal organs had been fully repaired. The scar tissue would fade in time, eventually becoming less noticeable.. He’d be off desk duty in another week and back in the field. Gibbs tried not to let that worry him.
He handed his empty bottle to Tony. He didn’t really need another beer, but it wasn’t like he planned on driving anywhere, or that two would put him over any sort of limit. He’d nurse it through until dinner.
Gibbs pushed the swing again, enjoying the gentle rocking motion. He was definitely going to have to get one of these for himself when he went home. Cocking his head, he heard Lundy’s truck pull up. He got up and wandered inside, curious to see how they’d made out.
Gibbs couldn’t quite hear what they were talking about as they entered the house, but there was no heat in their voices so for once they weren’t fighting. He was slowly getting used to the fact that arguing for Lundy and LaFiamma was as natural as breathing. Sometimes he was sure Lundy only said half the things he did just to wind his partner up. And he suspected LaFiamma of doing the same thing. They seemed to enjoy pushing each other’s buttons.
For as heated as Lundy and LaFiamma’s discussions seemed to be at times, Gibbs had to admit he’d never seen them come close to completely losing it. They never looked like they might take it too far or actually hit one another. According to Tony they had one hell of a knock down drag out fight shortly after they started working together. They had beaten each other to a standstill. Apparently once it was over neither one felt it necessary to get violent after that, but they both still clearly enjoyed verbally sparring.
From what he’d seen and experienced, Tony’s entire team was made up of button pushers. His partner certainly liked to tease Tony, and Tony was no slouch when it came to giving it back to him. Dewing gave as good as she got as well, holding her own with more grace and style than most women Gibbs knew would have been able to do.
Unlike his team at NCIS, they didn’t seem prone to making digs that were intended to hurt or do any real damage. How they knew where to draw the line or managed to hold it was something Gibbs would love to know. He suspected it had a lot to do with the connections they made with one another outside the work place. They weren’t just teammates, they really were a family.
Gibbs envied them that. He hadn’t come to appreciate his team and its dynamics until after Tony had left. At least he’d learned something through all of it. His relationship with everyone was better than it had been, especially Tony.
“Hey Slick,” Lundy greeted Tony, accepting the beer being offered as he strolled into the kitchen. He casually nodded to Gibbs in greeting. Gibbs nodded back, not feeling a need to say anything.
LaFiamma nodded to him as well, taking a bottle of water Tony held up. “Thanks.”
Gibbs had learned that LaFiamma didn’t particularly care for beer. The man liked a good wine now and again, and enjoyed a cocktail or two, but he wasn’t much of a drinker. He didn’t object to others indulging as long as they didn’t get out of hand. Tony had told him that LaFiamma was often the designated driver for the group when they went out.
Tony offered a beer to Gibbs. He twisted the top of the one he’d held on to before asking Lundy, “You buy him?”
Lundy shook his head. “Wasn’t worth what they were asking for him. Blood lines didn’t show true. Had a blue roan filly I would have liked to have instead, but Mr. Jenson and I couldn’t agree on a price.”
LaFiamma rolled his eyes. “If you’d been willing to offer a little more--“
“Awfully free with money, Joey, ain’t you?”
LaFiamma snorted. “I know you, Cowboy. When you make up your mind you want something the asking price isn’t going to put you off.”
“Well there you go. Clearly I didn’t want her that bad.”
“You were practically drooling over that horse, Cowboy.”
Lundy shot him a dirty look. “I was not.”
“You should have just agreed to pay what he wanted.”
Tony laughed. “I can not believe he just said that.”
Lundy grinned. “I know. How weird is that?”
“Look, I’m just saying--“
“I know what you are saying. I heard you the first five times.”
Lundy shook his head. Amused brown eyes met Tony’s green. Gibbs wasn’t sure what was so funny. His lack of understanding must have relayed itself to Lundy somehow because the blond looked at him when he spoke again giving Gibbs the piece he was missing.
“Can you believe he’s the same guy who sorts through every damn vegetable in at the farmer’s market looking for the best stuff and then argues the poor guy managing the place down to half of what he was asking?”
“That’s different,” LaFiamma insisted.
“Right.” Lundy snickered. “You just keep telling yourself that, boy.”
“You wanted that horse.” LaFiamma frowned heavily. He obviously couldn’t understand why his partner would deny himself something he so clearly wanted. “You said she had great lines and an outstanding gait. Even I could tell she was perfect and I don’t know shit about horses. What he said he wanted for it was close to the price range you’d set before we left.”
“Price I set was for a horse ready to be ridden. That little filly is going to take some work. A lot of work. She’s not even green broke. That I can train her is beside the point. I’m not paying him for work I’d have to do myself.”
“Why hell didn’t you just say so before?”
“You never gave me a chance.” Lundy shrugged innocently.
Gibbs could see a twinkle in his eyes though so he knew Lundy wasn’t nearly as innocent as he was trying to make out. It was far more likely he could have filled LaFiamma in at any time…he’d simply opted not to, enjoying the other man’s confusion, annoyance and rising temper.
“Besides, I’m thinking Jenson will be calling in a week or so to see if I’m still interested. He wants her to go to someone who’ll treat her right, and he got to know me well enough to know I would take care of that pretty lady.”
LaFiamma blinked. “That’s why you made sure he had your number.”
“Uh-hunh.” Lundy shrugged again. “Besides, he expects me to dicker. I can’t just agree immediately to the price he set or he’ll think he didn’t ask for enough. Or worse, he’ll think I’m an idiot for paying too much for a horse that doesn’t have any training.”
Gibbs hid a smile behind his beer. The euphemism ‘horse-trading’ no doubt arose from situations just like the one Lundy had described.
“Just glad you had enough sense not to say too much in front of Jenson or you’d have given the game away,” Lundy said with a smile, giving LaFiamma a quick kiss on the cheek.
LaFiamma smirked. “I might not understand your play, Lundy, but I will always back you up.”
“I know.” Lundy gave him another quick kiss.
And just that quick, Gibbs knew all was forgiven. Whatever anger LaFiamma might have harbored, whatever desire to wind him up Lundy might have indulged, it vanished in the face of that sentiment. Gibbs couldn’t help being impressed by that. Had any of his ex-wives been even half as accommodating, Gibbs would probably still be married---but then maybe not since it would have had to go both ways and he’d never been good at expressing himself or letting things go.
“You guys ready for dinner?” LaFiamma asked.
“Always.” Tony smiled sheepishly when his comment was seconded by his stomach growling.
“I guess I should get busy and feed the beast,” LaFiamma said with a laugh.
Gibbs found himself pressed into helping chop vegetables for the salad, while Tony set the table. He smiled wryly when he saw the dinnerware the younger man was using. His first meal with them so many months ago the table had been set with paper plates. Gibbs now understood it had been a subtle insult, one he hadn’t understood at the time, but did now. Although it hadn’t meant anything to him then, he was gratified that there had never been a repeat, especially now that he got the message LaFiamma had been sending.
Dinner was a comfortable affair. Gibbs had forgotten how nice it could be to have a home cooked meal, to listen to conversations about every day things and actually want to chime in now and again. He made a note to invite Ducky, McGee and Palmer over for dinner at his house when he got back to DC. He wasn’t quite the cook LaFiamma was, but he could make an acceptable meal.
“You guys still want to go sailing with me and Tony this weekend?” Gibbs asked once they’d finished eating and were linger over drinks at the table. It would be his last time on the Kelly. He’d be heading down the coast on Monday to meet up with Mike and put her in his care.
“As long as nothing comes up at work.”
Gibbs had hoped for a definite yes, but he knew better than to expect it. He also knew that Tony having scheduled the weekend off would mean nothing if they got a case. Even though he wasn’t completely cleared for field duty yet, Gibbs knew Tony would stay to help. He was beginning to understand why his ex-wives hated his job so much, or more accurately his dedication to it.
“You’re going to stop by on your way back through to DC, yeah?” Lundy asked.
“That’s the plan.” Gibbs had a rental car reserved in Tijuana. It was the closest border town to Mike’s place. Shannon had always wanted for them to take a trip across the country. It was something they’d talked about when they’d daydreamed about life together after he retired from the Marine Corps. For the past twenty years, he’d deliberately repressed memories of those conversations finding it too painful to think about a future that could never be. But he now found the thought of doing things he and Shannon had dreamed of made him feel closer to her and Kelly.
Once the table was cleared and the dishes done, Tony and Gibbs headed back outside to spend a bit more time on the porch before heading for bed. Television held no appeal to Gibbs. And he was grateful Tony would forgo his favorite pastime to just spend time with him enjoying the warm evening air, quiet sounds of the country and a little conversation.
Lundy and LaFiamma said good night not long after they’d headed outside. It was a bit early for them to be turning in, but Tony’s leer made it apparent that sleeping wasn’t what Lundy and LaFiamma were going inside for.
“Have fun kids.”
“Oh we will,” LaFiamma assured him with a wink and a smile.
Gibbs felt his cheeks warm in embarrassment. He didn’t object to their relationship but he always felt a bit like he was intruding on something private whenever it was mentioned.
Seeing his blush, Tony laughed softly. “You are such a prude.”
Gibbs cuffed him. “Shaddup.”
Tony snickered, not cowed by either the light hit or the command. Gibbs found himself fighting a smile. He missed Tony’s irrepressible nature.
“So what sites are you going to stop and see along the way back?” Tony asked.
Gibbs hadn’t really given it a lot of thought. He named a few places he’d considered and asked for suggestions. It was fun to have Tony toss out things, his child like excitement reminding Gibbs a lot of Kelly. He’d have to send postcards from everywhere he stopped. It would make it feel less like he was traveling alone.
“I’m sure Abby is looking forward to having you stop by too.” Tony grinned when Gibbs mentioned being sure his route home went through New Orleans. “Bet she has a spare coffin you could sleep in.”
Gibbs lightly cuffed the back of Tony’s head again, getting an unrepentant grin in response. He didn’t care how comfortable Abby claimed her coffin was, he’d sooner sleep in a dumpster than spend any time in something meant for the dead. And Tony knew that.
“If you feel like coming, I’m sure Abby wouldn’t mind if you joined us for Mardi Gras next year.”
Gibbs smiled. “I could manage that.”
Although he was making the invite on Abby’s behalf, Tony clearly wouldn’t mind if Gibbs joined them. It was nice to know he’d be welcome. And that even if he hadn’t figured out what to do with the rest of his life, he had people he could count on to help him figure it out.
“Should see if McGee would be free,” Gibbs offered casually, gauging Tony’s reaction, not wanting to force something he wouldn’t be interested in doing. He needn’t have worried.
“Ducky and Palmer too.” Tony grinned, eyes bright with excitement, obviously liking the idea.
It would be a team reunion. The only one missing would be Ziva. But he might be able to get word to her…somehow. See if she couldn’t join them. He had a more than a few months to figure it out. It would give him something concrete to work on.
When Tony shivered, Gibbs decided it was time to head back inside. Tony rolled his eyes, amused by Gibbs concern, but he didn’t argue.
“See you in the morning, Boss.”
Gibbs had elected to jog with Tony and LaFiamma in the mornings. The runs were far less strenuous than what Tony did before being injured but he was working back up to their usual speed and distance. Gibbs could easily keep up with the younger men for now, but he was sure once they were back up to their norm he wouldn’t. His knees wouldn’t tolerate that sort of abuse.
“Sleep well, Tony.”
“On it, Boss.”
Gibbs smiled at the traditional response. He was damn lucky, and he knew it. He’d lost a lot over the years, but not everything. He’d recovered his sense of balance, gaining a new direction for his life. He’d regained his honor, rededicating himself to the values he’d held sacred. He’d found out he could do more with his life than be an agent for NCIS, things that were just rewarding and meaningful. He’d learned that enjoying himself and coming to see Tony as the son he’d never had was not a betrayal of Shannon and Kelly’s memory. And he’d accepted that his family had always been more than blood relatives, welcoming his team into his heart and treating the way he should have from the beginning.
He’d always thought it was a stupid cliche, but for only the second time in his life, Gibbs actually believed it. Life was good. And he fully intended to make the most of it.