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Means to an End

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Stepping out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Leroy Jethro Gibbs grimaced as an icy blast of Arctic air hit him in the face.  No one in their right mind would consider Chicago in middle of January a fun place to be.  Gibbs figured Tony was right when he said that fact was probably why the national conference on foreign and domestic terrorism was being held there. 


The location certainly made it seem like the delegates were there to take the conference seriously. It would not be perceived as an excuse to just get out of the office and go have some fun the way holding it in Las Vegas might.  There was nothing to entice anyone out of the convention center and away from endless meetings when the temperatures were below zero. 


DC might have been a more logical choice except that better known and funded agencies like the FBI or Homeland Security would have likely overwhelmed and dominated the proceedings. Not just federal agencies were expected to attend and there was apparently some concern that state and city level delegates would feel as though they were not getting enough attention or had any of their concerns addressed.


And it wasn’t as if the threats to the United States were limited to just the East Coast.  While New York had gotten a lot of attention from 9/11 it was hardly the only big target. Having the conference in a central location added emphasis to the idea that this was a concern for the entire country.


Gibbs resisted the urge to wrap his arms around himself for more warmth and did his best to appear unaffected by the blowing snow and bitter wind.  He glanced over his shoulder at Tony DiNozzo, not surprised to find the younger man in his usual position, just a little behind and to his left.  Tony’s shoulders were hunched, his face angled down slightly so the collar of his long wool coat offered some protection from the biting wind. 


“You sure Vance sending us to this thing was a reward and not punishment?” 


Gibbs mentally agreed with Tony’s assessment, but it wouldn’t do for him to show it.


“What’s the matter, DiNozzo?”  Gibbs smirked.  “Not liking the balmy weather?” 


 “Oh yeah, it’s a great place if you’re a penguin.”  Tony said dryly before grinning.  “Not sure the Emperors, you know those big guys from the movie March of the Penguins, would want to live here.”  Tony glanced around.  “Not quite as barren as the arctic, but pretty damn close.”  He shrugged, shivering as the wind swirled around them.  “Was a good movie, well, for a documentary it was good.  Not great in terms of something like say Casablanca, but still worth watching once.  Morgan Freeman was an excellent choice—“


“DiNozzo.”  Gibbs said, cutting him off.  More because he knew it was expected than from any real desire to shut him up.  He would never admit to enjoying listening to Tony ramble, but he liked the younger man’s voice.  At the office, hearing Tony’s voice, be it case related, movie trivia, or teasing his teammates was something of an audible security blanket for Gibbs.  If Tony was talking, then he was okay.  If he was okay, things were right with Gibbs’ world.  The four months Tony had been assigned as Agent Afloat were some of the longest Gibbs had ever experienced.  And some of the loneliest if he was completely honest with himself. 


Gibbs tried to push those thoughts aside.  He hated thinking about how empty he’d felt with Tony gone.  Nothing had been right.   Everything was just…off.  He wasn’t used to having people he saw every day simply not be there.  It was more than a little disturbing to think about how much he’d come to rely on Tony being around.


He’d been tempted, so very tempted to call Tony just to hear his voice, just to make sure he was okay.  But without a good reason, Gibbs couldn’t justify doing so.  Tony didn’t have his cellphone on the ship.  And using MTAC was out of the question.  Vance would have known.  He could have asked McGee to hack into something or Jerry rig a connection, but McGee was in Cybercrimes and busy doing whatever the hell cybercrimes agents did.


Gibbs could have asked Abby, but he’d have had to explain why he wanted to talk to Tony, and he couldn’t bring himself to tell her it was just because he missed him.  She was distressed enough back then, keeping photos of the team around, counting the days each one had been gone, even McGee who technically hadn’t actually gone anywhere.  He told himself he simply hadn’t wanted to upset her further, but that wasn’t entirely truthful. 


Admitting out loud how much he missed Tony wasn’t something Gibbs was prepared to do.  It would just make it all a little too real.  So he’d just did his best to disregard the Tony sized hole in his life; he tried not to listen for the voice that wasn’t there, tried not to smell the pizza that no one had ordered, tried not to smile at jokes never said but should have been, tried not to be frustrated when his new senior agent didn’t anticipate his needs and actions as well as Tony did.  And it had worked…up to a point.  But that meant he had to focus on other things, things that inevitably served to remind him of what he was trying so hard to ignore.


Gibbs fought off a shiver.  Thinking about Tony being gone always led to thoughts of the new team he’d been assigned.  He didn’t want to think about Langer, Lee and Keating either.  They were never his team.  Hell they were never intended to be a team, not really---it was a sham to flush out a mole; a sham that ensured Keating would never have a career as a field agent, and ultimately cost Lee and Langer their lives.  Gibbs still felt guilty about Langer.  Brent should never have even been under suspicion; if Gibbs had listened to his gut instead of Vance Langer would probably still be alive. And while Lee had ultimately done the right thing, dying for both her country and to protect her daughter’s future, it still pissed Gibbs off that she’d never trusted him enough to be honest.  She killed two people before even considering getting help and even then she only cooperated because she was forced to.


Gibbs’ thoughts were interrupted by an ear piercing whistle.  He shot Tony a dirty look, hiding his gratitude for the distraction in his usual way.


Tony gave him an innocent look as he waved to a taxi and getting a nod in return.  As the car started moving toward them, Tony picked up his carry on. “I realize you are enjoying yourself, and dallying outside the airport might be exactly how you planned to spend your evening rather than attending the meet and greet thing for this conference that Vance insisted we go to, but it’s cold out here.  And even though I’d rather not spend hours making nice with people I don’t know and probably won’t like much, doing it inside where it is warm has got to be better than freezing my ass off.”


Tony shook his head.  “Besides the room is paid for.  It would be a real shame to waste the tax payers’ money, especially since I’m sure they just spent a bundle on getting us here in sardine class.” 


Gibbs had to agree with Tony’s assessment of their seating on the flight.  It certainly felt like they’d been packed in like a tin can. 


Tony gave him a winsome smile, his tone not quite cajoling but close.  “All that warmth, electricity, no wind and indoor pluming might just be something you’ll come to appreciate, Boss.  You won’t know until you give it a try.”


Gibbs bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling.  Tony was the only person he knew who could and would tease him.  He didn’t do it often, a fact that left Gibbs both relieved and disappointed. 


He lightly cuffed the back of Tony’s head.  “Watch it, DiNozzo.”  He pointed to the hotel shuttle bus.  “We can take that.”


“You see the line of people getting in that thing?”  Tony snorted.  “Now if any one of them were my type, I wouldn’t object to getting up close and personal.  Hell, I’d even offer up my lap, but as it is, I’m thinking the cab is a better bet.”


“Waste of money,” Gibbs said, resisting rolling his eyes. Creature comfort wasn’t a necessity.  It wasn’t like the ride from the airport would be that long.  “Better to take the shuttle.” 


“It’s my money to waste.” Tony returned quietly, voice firm.  “It will cost me the same whether you ride along or take the shuttle, so I’m getting in the cab. You can take the shuttle if you want, Boss.”


“We aren’t taking a cab.”


“Maybe you aren’t, but I sure as hell am.”


Gibbs’ jaw tightened.  Ever since the crap with Domino and the botched mission to flush out their mole Tony had become more…defiant for lack of a better word.  He was more prone to challenging Gibbs than he ever had in the past.  He never did it in front of the team, or when in the field, clearly picking his battles…like this one over the cab or shuttle, but there was a time when would have given in to Gibbs rather than force the issue.


Tony was never outright insubordinate, still following orders, but he didn’t seem inclined to take Gibbs word for things the way he once had, asking more questions than he used to.  Whenever Gibbs came down from MTAC or any meeting with Vance, green eyes no longer regarded him with absolute faith, now he got wary, uncertain glances.  Tony studied him, as if whatever he said and did were being weighed, measured against some unknown scale. 


It bothered Gibbs that Tony looked at Vance the same way.  He didn’t want anyone on his team, especially Tony, to regard him with the same suspicion, distrust and barely veiled hostility they did the Director. 


Gibbs hated thinking that assignment might have done irreparable damage to what had seemed like an unshakeable faith in him.  He’d explained, damn it, and that should have been the end of it.  Things seemed okay with Ziva and McGee, but clearly Tony hadn’t let go of it.  Suggesting to Vance that just Tony be the one to accompany him on this trip and not the entire team, Gibbs was hoping time with just the two of them would give him an opportunity to bring it up.  Ducky was fond of telling him talking about things helped.  Gibbs wasn’t so sure about that.  Talking had never done much for him, but things couldn’t continue as they had. 


He needed to know Tony still trusted him.  He needed to know Tony wasn’t thinking of leaving.  Gibbs knew Tony had been offered his own team once before and there were openings in the agency.  Vance might not like Tony, but even he had to realize Tony was a damned good agent.  Vance had to be at least considering offering Tony something.  If Tony was having doubts about Gibbs, the younger man might accept.  Gibbs knew Tony deserved it; he’d earned a shot, but he didn’t want to let him go.  He wasn’t sure he could handle it if Tony opted to leave; it was bad enough when Vance had forced him to go. 


Gibbs eyed the shuttle. Taking it wouldn’t be a victory; not when Tony was already sliding into the cab.  All it would mean was that they’d gone their separated ways, proving themselves both to be stubborn—and that wasn’t what Gibbs wanted.  With a sigh, Gibbs got in the cab. 


It was a good thing Tony didn’t look smug or Gibbs might have hit him.  Tony just looked relieved to be out of the wind and somewhere warmer.  When Tony coughed, his right hand rubbing his chest in what was obviously an unconscious gesture, Gibbs immediately regretted the length of time they’d spent outside.  Breathing in frigid air wasn’t particularly good for anyone, but especially not someone who’d survived pneumonic plague and could now be prone to lung ailments. 


Gibbs was ashamed to realize that Tony’s insistence on the cab wasn’t necessarily just a pissing contest.  There were enough people in line for the shuttle they could have been waiting twenty minutes or more in the cold.  And there might not have been enough room for them at all as more people were starting to line up. Waiting in the airport for the next shuttle was not high on Gibbs’ list of things to do, and was sure it wasn’t on Tony’s either.


He could have just said something, Gibbs thought before realizing that would never happen.  Tony was no more likely to admit to any weakness than Gibbs.  And he shouldn’t have to say anything; looking out for his team was Gibbs’ job, he should be aware of threats posed, including the weather.


“Where to?” the cab driver asked, looking over his shoulder.  His hair was every bit as gray as Gibbs’. 

Gibbs quickly told him their hotel, wanting to give Tony a chance to get his breath back. He got a nod from the cabbie.


“I know the place.  Nice hotel. Couple of restaurants down the street that are great places to eat.” The cabbie chucked, and patted his ample stomach.  “I’m a good judge of stuff like that.”


Tony grinned.  “Never take food recommendations from a skinny guy.”


“Amen.” The cabbie grinned, brown eyes meeting green in the review mirror.  “What the heck would he know about food?”  The question was clearly rhetorical.


“You mind turning up the heat?” Tony asked politely as they left the airport and headed for downtown Chicago.  He stripped off his leather gloves to rub his hands together.


“No problem.” The cabbie reached over and turned the heat up.  “January in Chicago is a bitch.  Every year I tell the wife we should move south.  Every year she says no.  It’s not supposed to be warm at Christmas time she says. But it’s really the grandkids.  She spoils them rotten.”  The man waved a hand as he talked.  “I love my grandkids too, don’t get me wrong, but they just wear me out.  And every winter my bones ache a lot more.  Know hers do too, but that woman just won’t listen to reason.”


Gibbs wasn’t sure any woman listened to reason.  Not that he’d ever tried to reason with any of the women in his life.  That was likely one of the causes for his three divorces.   The other causes didn’t bear dwelling on. 


The cabbie kept talking, acting as an informal tour guide as he drove pointing out things of interest.  Gibbs didn’t care, but didn’t mind enough to tell the guy to shut up.  Tony on the other hand seemed to enjoy hearing what he had to say, laughing in the right places, and asking a few questions that prompted the cabbie to keep going.


It was a dry run for what they’d be facing at the hotel.  The meet and greet session was set for six.  Gibbs would have preferred to skip it and fly in just before the conference was due to start in the morning, but Vance wouldn’t allow that. 


He’d told Gibbs, “Making contacts and networking is one of the goals of this conference.   You and DiNozzo had better be on your best behavior.”


Gibbs had been sorely tempted if he didn’t trust them then he could pick someone else, but he’d held his tongue.   He wanted this time with Tony.  Not being ‘snarky’ as Abby called it with Vance was a small price to pay. 


Making sure they had only one room was another.  It wasn’t like they hadn’t shared a room in the past.  Gibbs had made it sound like the agency would only pay for one room when Tony had asked about the travel arrangements.  It wasn’t like NCIS regularly spent much on their accommodations.  There was a reason they normally flew military transport and stayed on base housing when the job required them to travel. It was certainly plausible that they’d have to share a double instead of each of them getting a room to themselves. 


NCIS agents from LA would be attending, and a few from the Gulf Coast as well.  It made sense for the agency to budget accordingly.  And it was a good explanation for why the rest of the team wasn’t going.  It satisfied Ziva and McGee, at least.  Although, technically Ziva wasn’t even an agent, so there was really no reason for her presence at this conference no matter how long she’d been on the team. 


Gibbs glanced over at Tony. He remembered Tony’s narrowed-eyed gaze when he’d told Ziva and McGee they weren’t going and why.  He’d bet his badge Tony didn’t entirely believe it, but he hadn’t questioned Gibbs on it.  Gibbs wasn’t sure what bothered him more…that Tony knew he hadn’t been completely honest or that he was willing to let it slide. 


Had Tony looked into it?  It was one of Gibbs’ rules.  Never assume.  Tony followed Gibbs’ rules better than he did himself at times.  So who had Tony checked with?  Certainly not Vance, but Tony knew a lot of people. He likely knew some of the other agents who were attending. And what had he made of what he found?  Gibbs hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask.  He was afraid Tony would think the worst.  In his place Gibbs would have.  But Tony wasn’t Gibbs.  It was a fact Gibbs was damned grateful for most days.  One bastard on the team was enough.


Gibbs sighed.


“You okay, Boss?”

“Fine, DiNozzo.”  Gibbs softened his curt tone with a smile. 


Ducky was the only other person he knew who asked about his well being.  Abby, Ziva and McGee seemed to think he was indestructible, despite evidence to the contrary.  Maybe it should bother him that Tony didn’t think like they did, but mostly it made him feel good to know someone cared enough to ask.  Another reason he couldn’t lose Tony.


“We’re here.” Tony said.  It was only then that Gibbs noticed the cab had stopped.


“Thanks for the lift, Bob.”  Tony handed the cabbie several folded bills. 


“You’re welcome.”  Bob smiled.


“Hope you can convince the missus to move south.”


“You and me both, son.  You and me both.”


Gibbs saw Tony wince, shoulders hunching defensively as the wind hit him full force when he got out of the cab.  Gibbs moved to stand so he took the brunt of it, doing is best to protect Tony even if only for a moment or two. 


“Thanks, Boss.” Tony smiled at him, genuine and warm.

Gibbs tried not to think about how much he liked seeing that smile and having it directed at him.  He couldn’t help wishing it happened more often.


“C’mon, DiNozzo, let’s go see of all that warmth, no wind and indoor plumbing is all you made it out to be.”


Tony laughed.  “On your six, Boss.”