The Second B is for Belonging

(part 1)

By Juli

Originally published March 2005 by Blackfly Press in the zine, Longing to Belong

Kate Todd would be surprised to know it, but there was only the one mirror in Tony DiNozzo’s apartment. It was located in his bathroom and, at the moment, he was leaning against the cold tile of the vanity counter, staring intently at his reflection.

Tony didn’t like what he saw.

Or, more accurately, he didn’t like what he didn’t see.

In the midst of the Ari-the-terrorist debacle, Gibbs had told Tony they were at war. Wars needed soldiers and the man staring at DiNozzo out of the impersonal surface of his mirror was anything but. A playboy, maybe, or a class clown, but not a soldier.

Gibbs needed soldiers.

Tony and his mirror twin flinched as they thought of the last 24 hours. A terrorist had infiltrated their facility months before, taking some of their team hostage and shooting the assistant medical examiner before escaping. The fact that a bad guy had gotten away had visibly eaten at Jethro Gibbs and seeing the man he admired above all others so stressed had eaten away at Tony. If that wasn’t bad enough, the bad guy had returned. McGee, with Abby’s support, had devised the computer program that had identified their nemesis. Ducky had figured out that the man had a medical background, shortening the search even more. Kate, from the sound of the report, had handled herself with her usual plucky aplomb during her ‘kidnapping.’ Even Ari, the bastard himself, turned out to be on the side of the good guys, although his ruthless methods were somewhat suspect.

And what had Tony done? He’d taken a long lunch so he could jog off in pursuit of a piece of Swedish ass.

The reflection in the mirror looked pissed off and Tony didn’t blame it a bit. Pathetic, that’s what his performance had been on this case. He didn’t blame Gibbs for ripping him a new asshole. He only wished that the older man had finished the job and stuffed Tony’s head inside it. Maybe then he’d feel better.

Tony sighed and pushed himself off from the counter before running his hands through his hair. He’d screwed up, big time. Being yelled at by Gibbs was no big deal - it happened almost on a daily basis and Tony had learned to just shrug it off as Gibbs venting. Something was different this time, however. Always before, when Gibbs yelled, the anger didn’t reach the senior agent’s eyes. On this case, though… on this case he’d been well and truly pissed at DiNozzo. And something more. Tony hadn’t been able to look Gibbs in the eye when Gibbs dressed him down; the disappointment in the older man’s expression had been too easy to see. The anger, Tony could take, but the disappointment… that hit hard.

DiNozzo’s first instinct had been to run. Leroy Jethro Gibbs wasn’t the first person in his life to be angry and disappointed in him. Running had always served him well before. In the post 9/11 world, Tony knew he’d have no trouble picking up a related job in any number of agencies. Or, he could put in for a transfer. With Gibbs as a supervisor, frankly, no one would be surprised that he needed a change in venue. A new job, a new start, and maybe he wouldn’t have such a hard time looking in his mirror.

At the thought, Tony glanced at his reflection and knew he was kidding himself. The lost look in his eyes summed it all up. Running meant leaving Gibbs and that was an idea that just didn’t bear thinking about.

“So, what the hell are you gonna do?” Tony asked himself.

His mind brought him back to Gibbs’ statement that they were at war. Wars needed soldiers; Gibbs needed soldiers. The playboy and the clown just wouldn’t cut it anymore.

If Gibbs needed soldiers, then, by God, that’s what he was going to get.

“Hold the elevator!”

Jethro Gibbs threw out an arm to keep the elevator doors from closing, waiting for the scurrying figure of one of his employees, Kate Todd. She smiled her thanks as she ducked inside, but frowned as she got a good look at his face.

“Oh my God! Gibbs, who hit you?”

Gibbs calmly took a sip of his coffee and punched the button for the correct floor. “Ducky.”

She was speechless for a full ten seconds, something of a new record. Tony might have the reputation as the chatty one, but it was Gibbs’ experience that Kate had almost as much trouble as DiNozzo in the keeping-the-mouth-shut department.

“Ducky! Our Ducky? Gentle, sweet Donald Mallard?”

He grinned at her description. “Yes, gentle sweet Ducky… who happens to have a hell of a right hook.”

“But… why?”

Gibbs’ expression sobered. “Let’s just say that he was really looking forward to having Ari on his exam table.”

Jethro Gibbs grimaced as he remembered that conversation. You had to watch the quiet ones; when they blew, they blew big. Not that Ducky was quiet in the usual sense of the word, but the ME was unused to processing strong emotions and had uncharacteristically lost control. Jethro knew the older man hadn’t been angry at him; Ducky had only struck out in sheer frustration at being unable to bring Gerald’s assailant to justice. In all his decades of being Mallard’s friend, Gibbs had never seen Ducky so distraught. As far as Gibbs was concerned, Ducky’s emotional torment was yet another item on Ari’s list of sins.

“Oh,” Kate said eloquently, seemingly cowed by Gibbs’ silence.

The senior agent looked at her askance. He was worried about Kate. She’d handled herself well with the faux kidnapping, but he’d noticed that she seemed… conflicted… when it came to Ari.

Conflicted. Huh. Why did that word seem so familiar?

“I heard there was an unexplained blood stain on the lab floor the other night.” Kate carefully didn’t look at him as she made the statement.

“That so.” Gibbs said noncommittally.

“Yeah,” Kate responded. She opened her mouth to say something more but, after glancing at Gibbs, snapped it shut. The rest of their elevator ride passed in awkward silence.

Gibbs’ slight smile was almost hidden as he took a gulp of coffee. Tony would’ve asked, he decided, but Kate hadn’t. The female agent had the balls to tackle such a question, but wasn’t as attuned to his moods as DiNozzo was. Either that or she had a stronger survival instinct.

Kate jumped when the elevator doors opened and all but leapt out of the small compartment to escape into the office. Gibbs followed at a more dignified pace. As a matter of course, his eyes flickered over the sea of desks and Gibbs was pleased to see that DiNozzo was already seated in front of his computer. McGee sat at Chris Pacci’s old desk, which meant that Abby would soon find a reason to come up from the lab….

Wait a minute.

Gibbs’ eyes went back to Tony. The younger man had done something to his hair; it was noticeably shorter than it had been last time Gibbs had seen him. Not a military cut, but definitely shorter. Gibbs couldn’t decide if he liked it or not. The Marine in him approved of shorter hair, but he couldn’t deny that a longer style suited Tony.

“You cut your hair!”

Kate’s startled announcement sounded while Gibbs was still trying to make up his own mind. Not that the younger man needed Gibbs’ approval for a haircut, but Gibbs had long resigned himself to an unprofessional interest in Tony DiNozzo. The rest of the world might not be aware of it, but Gibbs was and that was enough.

Even though he was thinking hard, Gibbs still noticed that Tony’s response to Kate was a simple yes, sans flirting or any impertinent asides.

“Well, don’t get your hopes up that someone will mistake you for military,” Kate continued. “As soon as you open your mouth and say something, the illusion will be shattered.”

Gibbs frowned at the meanness of her teasing, but Tony just shrugged before answering, “I’ll keep that under advisement, Kate. Thanks.”

DiNozzo looked over and saw Gibbs. “Boss, we’ve got a body. Public park just inside the Virginia state line.”

Jethro’s frowned deepened. As much as he liked his work, news of a dead body was never good. He started to ask for details but, before he could, Tony began talking again.

“It’s female and, according to the officer on the scene, the deceased is dressed in camo fatigues.” Tony rattled off. “They also found a standard military duffle bag with a Navy insignia on the scene.”

“Call Ducky on his cell; he can meet us there -….” Gibbs began.

Tony jumped in while the older man was still taking a breath.

“Already did, Boss, he’ll probably beat us there.” As he spoke, Tony was gathering his gear.

“Good,” Gibbs said with satisfaction. “We’ll leave as soon as you gas up the truck.”

“Taken care of, Boss,” Tony said, turning to Gibbs expectantly.

Gibbs didn’t even blink. “Well, what are you just standing there for, DiNozzo? Let’s go. You too, Kate.”

Jethro chose not to hear Kate’s frustrated sigh and instead strode back to the elevator. Tony beat him to it, slapping the button while Gibbs’ hand was only halfway there. While they waited for both Kate and the elevator to catch up, Gibbs gave DiNozzo an assessing look. Tony was a good agent, otherwise he wouldn’t be on Gibbs’ team, but his behavior so far this morning was almost a little too efficient.

Studying DiNozzo over the rim of his coffee mug as he took another sip, Gibbs wondered if the ass-chewing he’d given DiNozzo the other day had anything to do with this new attitude. Hopefully, it did. Hopefully, this uber-agent act was real and not just some elaborate joke DiNozzo was pulling.

Because if Tony was joking… Heaven help him because Gibbs certainly wouldn’t.

Great. Just great.

Tony sighed and leaned his forehead against the mirror. He’d had longer days at work before, but this one… this one had felt like it would never end. When he’d finally gotten home, all Tony had wanted to do was crawl into bed and pull the covers up over his head. Instead, he was back in his bathroom, peering intently into the mirror again.

It figured. He’d reinvented himself and no one had noticed, except for the superficial change to his hair.

Superficial. That described him perfectly.

He’d done his best today to be the perfect agent that Gibbs needed. No jokes. No flirting. No distractions. What did it get him? For a moment – for a very brief moment – he’d thought he’d seen a flicker of approval in Gibbs’ eyes. Before he could even savor it, though, a curtain of suspicion had seemed to fall across Gibbs’ face. And so Tony had tried harder, out Kate-ing even Kate, but to no avail. Gibbs kept giving him the evil eye, as though expecting Tony to disappoint him.

Tony sighed again before forcing himself to straighten to his full height. It had only been one day – it obviously was going to take longer to convince a man like Jethro Gibbs that he had changed for real. He should have expected that and the fact that he hadn’t was just another indication of how far he had to go.

Pushing himself away from the bathroom counter, Tony turned away from the mirror without a backward glance. It wasn’t quite dark outside; he’d be able to get a decent run in yet before bedtime. Getting into better physical shape was part of the package.

He’d prove himself to Gibbs, if it was the last thing he did.

“C’mon, let’s go.”

Tony looked up at Kate. The female agent was standing at his desk, purse on her shoulder and an expectant look on her face. Tony racked his brain but couldn’t think of anywhere he was supposed to be. Gibbs was off attending a Homeland Security seminar and, since they didn’t have any active cases, Tony had been spending the downtime cross-referencing case files.

“What?” He finally gave up and asked.

“Lunch, with Ducky,” Kate explained, a hint of irritation in her voice. “You promised last time that you wouldn’t blow us off – again – this week.”

“I did?” Tony asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

In the weeks since the whole Ari incident, he’d tried to avoid lunch with Kate and Ducky. It brought back too many memories of his less than stellar behavior with Marta.

Ducky stepped out of the elevator just as Kate said, “Yes, you did.”

“Look, guys, I’m right in the middle of something here,” Tony said. “You should go without me.”

“You promised, DiNozzo,” Kate responded. “Those case files you’re working with are from before Gibbs was NCIS. I think they can wait another hour while we eat. Besides, it’s your turn to pay – and has been for the last six weeks you’ve made excuses not to come.”

Ah. It was about the money, then. Tony should have figured that one out.

Sighing in relief, Tony reached for his wallet. “I’m not trying to be a mooch. I’ll pay for your meals but I really can’t get away right now.”

“I’m afraid, Anthony, that’s just not acceptable.” Ducky spoke firmly as he reached over and calmly pushed the button that powered down Tony’s computer monitor. “Come along. That busywork you’re so fond of can wait until we get back.”

Speechless, Tony looked from Kate to Ducky. They wore twin implacable expressions of determination and Tony reluctantly came to the conclusion that this was one lunch he wouldn’t be able to get out of.

“Fine,” he said tersely, refusing to be gracious about it.

Despite his misgivings, lunch seemed almost normal. The restaurant they frequented was within walking distance and the crowded sidewalks made conversation impossible. After arriving, their time was taken with being seated and making their selections. In due course, they ordered their food and while waiting for it to arrive, Ducky told stories and Kate asked for advice on how to work with Gibbs. It felt so normal, in fact, that Tony ached with the familiarity of their camaraderie. It was only himself, apparently, that had changed.

At least, it seemed that way at first. Lunch took a decided turn for the worse after the food arrived.

“If that’s the best you can do, Anthony,” Ducky said from out of the blue, “I shall have to report you.”

Startled, Tony looked up from listlessly combing his fork through the greens of his salad. “Excuse me?”

“I thought that, perhaps, from what Katelynn told me, you simply weren’t taking the time to eat,” Ducky explained. He nodded at Tony’s bowl, which was still mostly full. “But if that’s any indication of how you behave at meals, I’d say your appetite is suffering.”

Tony put his fork down and belligerently crossed his arms over his chest. “So? What does that have to do with reporting me? For what and to who?”

Ducky sighed and put his own fork down. “It’s not my primary duty at NCIS, but as a physician, if I notice that any of the agents are having difficulty with the physical portion of their job, I would be remiss not to report it. To your supervisor, whom we both know is Jethro Gibbs.”

DiNozzo felt as if his heart had stopped. The last thing that he needed was Gibbs hearing something that might make him think of Tony as a weakling. His physical prowess was one of the few good things he had going for him at work.

“And what makes you think I have a hard time with the physical part of my job?” He almost snarled, pulling himself to his full height as he sat in his chair, doing his best to loom over the table at the shorter Ducky.

“Nothing – yet,” the medical examiner answered calmly. After years of experience in dealing with Jethro Gibbs’ moods, he obviously didn’t find Tony the least bit intimidating. “But you’ve lost at least twenty pounds in less than two months. That isn’t normal and could be a sign of a physical ailment.”

Tony glared at Kate, who’d been oddly silent during this part of the conversation. “You put him up to this, didn’t you?”

His colleague had been trying to corner him for a couple of weeks now, asking questions and expressing concern. Tony did his best to avoid talking to Kate. After all, except for a couple of times where she’d gotten too emotionally involved, Kate had been closer to being the perfect agent than him right from the very beginning.

“I was worried,” Kate said. “We were worried.”

Tony threw his hands up in frustration. “So, I lost a few pounds. What’s wrong with trying to get into shape?”

“It’s more than a few, Anthony,” Ducky retorted. “And probably twice as many as was good for you to loose.”

“And that’s not all,” Kate jumped in. “You don’t joke anymore or ogle women. You don’t brag about your dates anymore, either. In fact, I don’t think you do date, you don’t leave the office long enough.”

“Well, someone alert Dr. Phil,” Tony smirked. “Sounds like I’m a real mess.” He dropped the smile. “Actually, all it sounds like is that I’m more professional than I used to be. Kate, I thought you would have wanted that.”

“Me too,” Kate admitted.

“Then what’s the problem?” Tony asked plaintively.

“It’s just not the same,” she tried to explain. “I hate to admit it, but I miss the old you and I’ve been worried that there’s something wrong. Physically wrong.”

“I’m fine,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “No wasting disease or secret illness or anything like that.”

“I’m not so sure,” Ducky disagreed. “When someone exhibits drastic personality changes, loses interest in activities they used to enjoy and either gains or loses excessive weight, it’s often a sign of depression and that, my friend, is a very insidious disease indeed.”

“I’m not depressed,” Tony retorted. Why didn’t they understand? “I’m just trying to better myself.”

“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?” Kate said sharply. “I think we can add insomnia to the list too, from the bags under your eyes. If this is your idea of bettering yourself, I think you need to think again.”

Tony smiled bitterly at the mirror comment. “I appreciate your concern, but really, I’m okay. If you don’t mind, I have to get back to work.”

Ducky grabbed his wrist as Tony got up from the table. “Anthony, I will bring this to Jethro’s attention if I feel justified in doing so.”

DiNozzo shrugged. “Do what you have to, Duck, but what makes you think Gibbs hasn’t noticed already?”

“Because you haven’t killed anyone or broken the law,” Ducky snorted. “Jethro has a keen mind for criminal detail, but personal niceties tend to escape him. I will tell him if I have to; I won’t have you jeopardizing your health in your zeal to reach some impossible goal of perfection.”

“Go right ahead, either one of you,” Tony challenged them. Shaking off Ducky’s grip and standing up, he reached for his wallet. He peeled off a couple of bills to cover the tab and strode away, despite hearing Kate call out his name.

Let them tell Gibbs if they wanted to – it wasn’t as if Gibbs would care anyway.

After spending far too much time cooped up in a cross-agency Homeland Security seminar, Jethro Gibbs was more than ready to go home. It wasn’t that he didn’t think the topic was important. It was, in fact, vital and he knew it. It just went against his nature to sit around talking something to death instead of actually taking action to make the situation better.

Contrary to popular belief, Gibbs didn’t actually live at NCIS. He had a house and, more importantly, a boat to go home to. Unfortunately, he also had left his Palm Pilot at the office. That left him two choices. He could say screw it and leave the damn thing there until the work day tomorrow or he could make a detour on the way home. He decided on the latter course of action. It wouldn’t take very long and if it saved him from having to admit to Kate that he’d left it behind, it would be worth it. In fact, it was late enough that everyone should be gone, letting him sneak in and keep his secret safe.

When he got to the office, however, there was still a light on. Puzzled, Gibbs tried to think of who it could be. It wasn’t on the floor that housed the lab, so it couldn’t be resident night owl, Abby, and Ducky wouldn’t stick around unless there was a reason. If a case had come up, Gibbs would have been notified. He was confident of that. He’d left his Palm Pilot behind, after all, not his cellphone.

A few more steps into the office and Jethro had his answer. The person working so late was Tony.

Gibbs frowned and scrubbed his face with one hand. This had to stop and, since he had a feeling it was his fault it was happening in the first place, he figured it was up to him to do it.

It had taken him only a day to figure out that this new attitude of DiNozzo’s was no joke – and less than half of that to figure out that he didn’t like it. Oh, he approved of Tony’s sharpened focus on work , but what he’d had in mind when he’d lectured DiNozzo was a far cry from the obsession that his words seemed to have provoked. Take Kate Todd’s sense of responsibility, Stan Burley’s conscientiousness and his own fixation on the job, add them together and multiply by ten, and you got Tony DiNozzo’s current state of mind. It wasn’t healthy. Not for anyone and especially not for a normally lighthearted person like DiNozzo.

Besides, Gibbs missed the old Tony, more than he’d ever care to admit.

He frowned as he observed the man he supervised. Gibbs had hoped that having himself out of the office all day would give Tony some space to find his equilibrium. Looking at the tense expression DiNozzo wore while he stared at his computer screen, that obviously hadn’t happened. Gibbs also noticed the lack of candy or any other kind of wrappers littering Tony’s desk, the ongoing munching a given when the younger man had to work long hours. Their lack was not a good sign, not when DiNozzo’s face was almost gaunt, he’d become so thin. Why didn’t Kate and Ducky drag the man out for one of those infernal lunches of theirs?

Kate and Ducky probably thought that Gibbs hadn’t noticed that anything was wrong, but that was categorically untrue. He knew Tony DiNozzo, better than anyone suspected and not entirely in a professional light. He’d assumed that Tony’s cheeky personality would surface at some point, asserting itself over this robot-like behavior. He’d been wrong. Week after week had passed by, all the joy Tony took in both the job and in life seemingly gone. That situation, Gibbs had ultimately decided, was unacceptable.

What he wanted to do was stride into the office, pull Tony out of his chair and shake him until his teeth rattled. Or maybe pull him into his arms and kiss him until he was breathless. As appealing as those ideas sounded, particularly the second one, Gibbs didn’t dare chance it. During a case, he was on familiar footing and usually knew exactly what to do. Personal issues were another thing, as three broken marriages so unfailingly pointed out. Figuring out how to help Tony would be a more delicate matter than he was usually capable of handling and would therefore require more thought.

A strategic withdrawal was in order. He’d just have to leave the damn Palm Pilot and put up with Kate’s teasing about it tomorrow. Quietly, Gibbs turned and left, a quick backward glance confirming that Tony’s concentration had been so intense, he’d never even noticed he’d been observed.

Thinking of his frustration over the seminar he’d just been forced to attend, Gibbs couldn’t help but smile bitterly. Hadn’t he just been complaining about talking something to death instead of taking action? Perhaps he hadn’t been talking about Tony’s condition with anyone, but he’d certainly been thinking it to death. It was long past the time for action – for Tony’s sake.

All he had to do now was figure out what action to take.

Try as he might, the characters on the computer screen still swam and danced in front of his eyes. Tony glanced down at his watch. Damn. It was only 7 o’clock in the morning. Usually he didn’t have a hard time staring at the screen until sometime in the afternoon.

He’d worked on his pet project until almost midnight last night before heading home and going for a five mile run. He’d meant to finish reading that article about computer viruses after that, but just couldn’t keep his eyes open long enough. Tony had awakened, groggy and sore from falling asleep on the couch, and barely made it into the office by six. That was a little later than he’d been getting to work lately and DiNozzo resigned himself to staying an hour longer that night to make up for his lapse. At least Gibbs wasn’t there yet.

With practiced ease, Tony grabbed the bottle of eyedrops he’d taken to keeping by his computer. He tilted his head back and put a couple of drops in each eye, impatiently waiting for the sting to go away. When he blinked away the resultant tears, he saw that both Gibbs and Kate had arrived. He looked at Kate warily, but she just shook her head minutely. Tony released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Good ol’ Kate. She obviously didn’t approve of the new DiNozzo, but wasn’t going to involve Gibbs either.

Yet, anyway.

“Here, eat,” Gibbs said, dropping a bag onto Tony’s desk.

DiNozzo looked at it suspiciously. “What’s this?”

“Breakfast,” the older agent said. He was holding a bagel sandwich and was talking around a bite of it.

“Put hair on your chest,” Gibbs said, dropping another bag onto Kate’s desk.

“Gee, thanks, Gibbs,” Kate said sarcastically. “Hair on my chest - just what I always wanted.”

Both Kate and Gibbs turned to Tony expectantly, like they were waiting for him to say something. The old Tony, the flippant Tony, probably would have. The new, focused Tony just shrugged his shoulders.

“DiNozzo, what have you got there?” Gibbs asked after a few moments. “We get assigned a new case you didn’t tell us about?”

Tony shook his head. “Just working on that project, Boss.”

Gibbs approached Tony’s desk and looked over the younger man’s shoulder. “What project is that?”

“I’m building a matrix of any and all cases NCIS has worked on that have had even a hint of terrorist activity.” Tony said. “To see if there are any interconnections.”

Gibbs frowned. “You were workin’ on that weeks ago. I thought you finished?”

Tony twisted his head to either side to work his protesting muscles. “That was current cases. I’ve been working my way back in time, seeing what I can link up.”

Gibbs leaned forward, taking a closer look at Tony’s screen. “DiNozzo, those cases are from the early 1980s.”


“That’s twenty years ago.” Gibbs pointed out.

“I know,” Tony said, confused. He and Gibbs had talked about it when he started planning it, earlier in the month. “I thought you said this project was a good idea?”

He noticed that Gibbs clenched his hand and braced himself for a whup upside the head. Instead, Gibbs just calmly said, “It was a good idea – still is. I’m just not sure that tracing old, solved cases from two decades ago is worth so much of your time.”

Tony clasped his hands together in front of him, cracking his knuckles before placing his fingers back on the keyboard. “Like you said, Boss, we’re at war. I’m on the job until you tell me I’m not. Besides, we don’t have a case right now and I might as well be doing something productive.”

Gibbs grunted and tapped the unopened bag. “This bagel won’t eat itself. I don’t spring for breakfast often, so eat.”

Tony sighed and obligingly unwrapped what Gibbs had brought him. First Kate and Ducky and now Gibbs. What was with everybody trying to get him to eat? Suspicious, he glanced at Kate again, but she was on her phone.

“So, Cassidy was able to get you those records from Gitmo?” Gibbs asked after Tony had taken a bite.

DiNozzo swallowed. “Yeah, she sent them over a long time ago.” He couldn’t figure out what Gibbs was after – the information Paula had provided had been put into his matrix right at the beginning, as Gibbs well knew.

“I had a feeling she’d come through, she likes you.” Gibbs said. He was staring at DiNozzo’s computer screen, but Tony wasn’t fooled. Gibbs was watching him.

“She’s a good agent,” Tony said cautiously. “She’d have done the same for any of us.”

“But would she have done it so quickly?” Gibbs asked. “I’m sure she was just as eager as you to work together again.”

Tony felt his stomach roll. So, that was it. After the incident with Marta, the Swedish terrorist, Gibbs was poking at him about another misstep with a female involved with one of their cases. DiNozzo put his bagel down. He hadn’t been hungry before, but had at least tried to eat to appease Gibbs. Now he was wishing he hadn’t bothered because it didn’t feel like the bagel was going to stay down.

What was next, bringing up Amanda Reed?

“Guys, a three year-old girl was just reported missing from a naval officer’s housing unit,” Kate said tersely even as she hung up her phone.

Bagel, terrorist matrix and mistakes alike were forgotten in the rush to gather up his gear. Each new case was another chance to prove himself to Gibbs. After the conversation he’d just had with the man, obviously he needed every chance he could get.

Give him a good, old-fashioned murder case any day of the week. Cases involving kids, even ones that ended happily, always felt like someone’d left grimy fingerprints on his soul.

This time, all was well that ended well. Little Gillian McCoomb was back home. Gibbs’ team had worked for 21 hours straight, but they’d found the child. She’d been snatched, but by another Navy wife, thankfully, and not some sexual predator. The woman had been convinced that Gillian was really her child and was now on her way to receive mental observation. More importantly, Gillian had been reunited with her grateful parents.

And Gibbs and his team were on their way back to the office.

“What made you think to question some of the other children, Tony?” Kate asked. She was sitting in the front passenger’s seat while Gibbs drove.

When there was no answer, Gibbs reached up and angled his mirror to look in the backseat. Tony was asleep, head leaning against the window.

Kate turned to look and when she straightened, she was smiling. “He seems so innocent when he’s asleep, doesn’t he? When he’s like that, it’s hard to believe he’s one of the most infuriating human beings on the face of the planet.”

Gibbs grunted in reply, but he didn’t reach up to readjust his mirror to its normal position.

“At least he used be,” Kate continued.

By the look on her face, Gibbs had a feeling he knew what was coming next.

“Gibbs, have you noticed how Tony’s been acting lately?” Kate asked.

“You mean taking on special projects willingly, coming in early, and getting his reports in on time?” Gibbs asked.

“That’s one way to put it,” Kate started, “but I was more thinking of …”

“The fact that he’s also withdrawn, obsessed with being perfect on the job, and not taking care of himself?” Gibbs finished for her.

Kate relaxed and slumped in her seat. “Yeah, that’s it. Ducky, Abby and I have been worried about him.”

“DiNozzo’s a big boy,” Jethro said to her. He supposed he should be grateful that Tony’s co-workers wanted to help him, but a small, needy part of Gibbs that he wasn’t too proud of wanted to be the one who helped Tony.

Besides, it was his fault; his mess to fix.

“It’s just hard, seeing him so torn up,” Kate said. “I think his personality change and the way he’s running himself into the ground could be part of a bigger problem. Just look at him now. Sure, we’re all tired but you and I have physical reserves to draw on. Tony doesn’t, he’s used his up.”

“Agent Todd,” Gibbs snapped. It came out louder than he expected and both he and Kate looked back, he with the mirror and she by turning, to make sure that he hadn’t been loud enough to wake Tony up.

“Kate,” Gibbs started again, softer this time. “You’re a profiler, not a shrink. Tony’s just going through a rough period with the job. He’ll adjust, we all do.”

“You think so?” She asked.

“Yeah, I do.”

Gibbs was relieved that the conversation ended there, before Kate said something about Tony’s history of changing jobs after about two years – right at the point he was with his NCIS career. Gibbs was determined that DiNozzo would break that pattern and that he would be the one to help him do it. Tony belonged at NCIS and not just because a selfish bastard by the name of Leroy Jethro Gibbs wanted him there. No, Tony was smart, had great instincts, and had been dedicated to the job even before Gibbs had chewed his ass out.

All he had to do was convince Tony of that.

For the first time in weeks, Tony was planning on leaving the office while it was still light out. Seeing the clock hit five and knowing there were no new cases on the docket, he shut down his computer and reached for his backpack.

“Tony, you got a red marker I could borrow?”

DiNozzo looked up at Kate’s question, forehead wrinkled as he frowned at her question. “No, I don’t think so. What do you need one of those for, anyway?”

She smirked at him as she gathered up her own belongings in preparation to leaving for the day. “I want to mark today on my calendar as a day where you actually left the office and went home.” Kate stopped and looked at him appraisingly. “Say, if you’re leaving for the day, you want to come with me for dinner? I’ve got this friend who’s meeting me and she’s not seeing anybody right now….”

Tony stopped in his tracks. “Are you trying to set me up on a date… with one of your friends?”

“Well, she’s not a really good friend,” Kate quipped and then sighed when he didn’t tease back. “I just thought, you know, that you might want to do something casual. Away from work and work-related issues.”

“Thanks anyway, Kate,” Tony said, slipping his backpack over his shoulder. “But I already got plans for the evening.”

“A date?” She asked, a hopeful tone in her voice.

“You could call it that. ‘Night, Kate.”

Tony walked away before she could ask him anymore questions. He was in the elevator and gone before Kate was ready to leave, causing him to breathe a sigh of relief as he leaned against the elevator wall. He did have a date, of sorts. But instead of a romantic one, it was an appointment at the local target range. He’d been meaning to work on the accuracy of his shot ever since Gibbs had made him shoot his beloved hat, but never could find the time. Now, while he was waiting for new data to come in for his terrorist matrix, he had a little to spare.

DiNozzo jumped a bit when his cell phone rang and, after seeing a familiar number, he groaned.

“Hey, Pete,” Tony said into the phone. The elevator doors opened and he headed for his car.

“Tone!” His cousin’s voice came through loud and clear. “It’s that time of year, Cos. Got the cabin all picked out. Do you have your fishing license yet?”

Tony scratched idly at his forehead. “Look, Pete, about our annual fishing trip…”

“Aw, c’mon, Tone,” his cousin whined, anticipating what DiNozzo was going to say. “Don’t tell me that hard-nosed boss of yours won’t give you one measly weekend off?”

“Gibbs isn’t hard-nosed,” Tony quickly defended his boss. “He’s just dedicated to his work… and I didn’t exactly ask for the weekend off.

To Tony’s surprise, his cousin didn’t respond with more whining. Instead, he heard laughter coming from the other end. “Oh, so that’s the way it is, Cos. You should have told me, Tone.”

DiNozzo reached his car and threw his backpack in the rear seat before sliding behind the wheel. “What?”

“The hard-nosed type,” Pete teased. “You always did fall for that kind of guy. Maybe ‘cause his nose isn’t the only thing that’s hard? I can’t figure you out, kiddo. You like your women soft and your men just the opposite.”

“Pete….” Tony growled. He was glad that his cousin hadn’t called until Tony was out of the office. Otherwise, everyone would want to know why he was blushing.

“Okay, Cos, you’re off the hook this time,” Pete was still laughing. “No pun intended. We’ll do our fishing trip later, when maybe this Gibbs guy’s out of your system.”

“Thanks, Pete,” Tony said gratefully, not bothering to correct his cousin as they made their goodbyes. The pathetic truth was, Tony was confident that Gibbs never would be out of his system. He had no hope that the other way around was true, but if he worked hard enough, hopefully he’d make himself indispensable to Gibbs on a professional level. It was all he could hope for but, if he was successful, it would be enough.

Working on his boat usually brought Gibbs a sense of peace, but not at the moment. When he’d broken the third plank in a row, he decided to call it a night.

Maybe he should have taken the offer of help that Kate had implied. As much as he wanted to be the one to fix Tony’s world, nothing he tried seemed to work. He brought DiNozzo food, which the younger man didn’t eat. He’d tried encouraging Tony in what had been his favorite past-time before, chasing skirts, but it hadn’t seemed to help. Gibbs would have sworn there was some mutual attraction between Special Agent Paula Cassidy and DiNozzo, but Tony hadn’t reacted to her name at all.

“Screw this,” Gibbs muttered under his breath.

He snatched his cordless phone off its cradle and dialed a familiar number without even looking. As he listened to it ring, he searched his workbench for the bottle of bourbon he kept there for medicinal purposes.

Gibbs almost hadn’t expected his call to be answered, but eventually a sleepy voice said, “Hello?”

“Stan,” Gibbs said briskly. “Tell me, just how big of a bastard am I, anyway?”

“What?” Gibbs could hear rustling as the other man fumbled, no doubt looking for a light switch or to see what time it was. “Boss, are you sure you want to ask me that particular question at 3:12 in the morning?”

“You worked for me for five years, Stan. You know what I’m like.” Gibbs pressed the other man. Finally finding the bottle, he uncorked it with his teeth. “How big of a bastard am I?”

Silence greeted his question, making the answer clear.

“That big, huh?” Gibbs said quietly. “Damn.”

“You’re no harder on anyone else than you are on yourself, Boss,” Stan’s voice sounded almost apologetic.

Gibbs’ coffee mug was still half-full, so he drank right from the bottle. Wincing at the alcohol’s burn, he wiped his mouth before responding to Burley’s comment. “Spare me the sentiment, Stanley. I can take it.”

“Okay, Boss, you’re an unmitigated bastard,” Stan responded and then the sound of a yawn could be heard. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Not so quick, Stan.” Gibbs said. “What did you think of DiNozzo?”

There was such a prolonged silence on the other end of the phone, Gibbs began to think Burley really had hung up on him. “Stan?”

“So that’s what this is all about.” There was remoteness in Burley’s voice that couldn’t be completely accounted for by the fact that they were speaking over a distance of hundreds of miles.

“What do you mean, ‘that’s what this is about’?” Gibbs retorted sharply. “I want to get your opinion on another agent, that’s all.”

“Gibbs, I worked for you through five long years and one short marriage,” Burley said firmly. “You may have most people fooled into thinking you’re a no-nonsense kind of guy, but I know better. You can shovel shit with the best of them and right now you’re spading for all you’re worth.”

Gibbs grimaced. “All right,” he admitted. “DiNozzo is what this is all about. Doesn’t change the fact that I’d still like to know what you think of him.” Jethro heard a deep sigh through the connection. “I value your opinion, Stan.”

“Tony seemed like a good guy,” Stan’s words came slowly, as though reluctantly. “I only worked with him and Agent Todd for a couple of days, but it was easy to see that he’s smart as a whip and really talented on the job.”

“That’s good to hear,” Jethro said.

“You don’t give a rat’s ass about my opinion on that stuff, Boss,” Stan retorted. “You’d rather make up your own mind about an agent’s ability to do the job.”

Since that was true, Gibbs didn’t try to correct him. Instead, he took another swig of bourbon and waited.

“But, going back to your bastard question,” Burley continued, “… be careful, Boss. This one’s not as confident as he acts and he’s so in love with you that it’s almost painful to watch.”

Gibbs pressed the bottle against his forehead. He had a feeling that was a case, but it was still a kick in the gut to hear someone else say it. “Aw, hell.”

“I take it my warning came a little late,” Burley said with an audible sigh. “Which rant was it? The ‘we’re at war’ rant or the ‘you’re on the job until I tell you you’re not’ rant’?”

“Both,” Gibbs admitted reluctantly.

“Boss, what were you thinking?” Burley chided him. “Tony’s not like me. Working as a senator’s aide, I was so used to backstabbing and politicking that you were actually refreshing. All kidding about ulcers and heart palpitations aside, I appreciated your bluntness. I don’t think Tony takes it that way.”

Gibbs put the bourbon bottle down with a thump. “DiNozzo’s no wimp, Stan.”

“I didn’t say he was, Boss,” Burley corrected him. “But having a self confidence problem and being in love with you is a dangerous combination. You could hurt him real bad, Boss, without even trying.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Gibbs said shortly.

Like, maybe, what he should do next.

“Wow, listen to you, Boss,” Burley exclaimed. “You almost sound like you’ve forgotten Rule #12.”

Gibbs ran a hand through his hair. “Rule #12… might be overrated.”

The profound silence on the other end of the connection reminded Gibbs of who he was talking to. Stan Burley – the man he’d all but run off his team.

Because of Rule #12.

“Stan, I’m sorry,” Gibbs said quietly.

Even through the long distance connection, Gibbs could hear how shaky the breath was that Burley took.

“It’s okay, Boss,” Stan eventually said. “If you hadn’t rejected me, I never would have met Ray.”

“Ray’s a good man,” Gibbs said. “I hope he knows how lucky he is.”

“Oh, he does,” Burley responded. “Tells me every day, even when I’ve been posted to ship duty. Gotta love that text messaging.” When Jethro only grunted, Burley laughed. “You should try it sometime.”

“What? Text messaging?” Gibbs asked.

“Nice try, Boss,” Stan said around a yawn. “I meant, you might try talking to Tony about this stuff instead of me. And, for God’s sake, if he’s doing a good job, let him know it.”

“I do,” Gibbs protested.

“An absence of snarking is not the same thing as a compliment, Boss,” Stan disagreed.

“I’m his supervisor, not his babysitter,” Gibbs grumbled. “My job is not to blow smoke up DiNozzo’s ass. He knows when he’s getting the job done.”

“Of course he does,” Burley agreed. “But he needs to know that you know he’s getting the job done. I only worked with Tony a couple of days, but he struck me as the type that’s going to need reassurance once in a while.”

“Great,” Gibbs said sarcastically. “That’s just what I’m good at.”

“You can do it, Boss,” Stan encouraged him. “In fact, I think you’ll have to, if you want to keep Tony around.”

The conversation was interrupted by the sound of another yawn.

“Thanks for the advice, Stan,” Gibbs said, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice. “Go back to bed.”

“Hey, you flew out to the middle of the ocean to help me on that case, it’s the least I could do.” Stan’s voice softened. “And, Jethro, good luck. I don’t like to think of you being so alone.”

Before Gibbs could warn him about getting too sentimental, Stan had hung up… leaving Jethro with only a mostly-empty bottle of bourbon and a head full of thoughts to keep him company.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

Tony opened one eye to look at his colleague. “I screwed up, Kate. Gibbs should be mad.”

The two agents sat in the waiting area of a bustling emergency room. Tony held a gel-type ice pack to the back of his head. The shallow knife wound to Kate’s upper arm had already been bandaged by the EMTs and she was waiting to see if she needed stitches. Their mutual boss had left for the moment, trying to find out why it was taking his people so long to receive treatment.

Tony, for one, was not looking forward to Gibbs coming back.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Kate said. “We all thought there was only one perp we were chasing. When he was in handcuffs, all of us let our guard down. It could have happened to anyone.”

“But it didn’t, Kate,” Tony said quietly. “It happened to me.”

A second perpetrator had snuck up on Tony as Kate and Gibbs read the first one his rights. Tony had been hit from behind and Kate sliced during the ensuing scuffle. Perhaps the desperate man had thought he had a better chance against the remaining agents with one being a petite female, but he’d been wrong. Even as DiNozzo had groggily gotten to his feet, Kate and Gibbs had finished the second guy off – Gibbs with a right punch and Kate with a very business-like kick in the groin.

“We got lucky,” Tony continued. “You could have gotten badly injured instead of just that cut.”

Or, worse yet, Gibbs could have gotten hurt.

Kate put a comforting hand on DiNozzo’s arm. “Really, Tony, it’s okay.”

“If you two can keep your hands off each other, it’s time to go.” Gibbs had arrived, followed by two orderlies, each one pushing a wheelchair.

“Agent Todd, if you’ll come with me,” the first orderly said. He gave Gibbs a wary glance, confirming that the senior agent had likely used his charming personality to bully Kate and Tony to the head of the line of people waiting to be seen.

“I don’t need a wheelchair,” Kate protested as she got up. “It’s really only a scratch.”

“Get in the chair, Kate,” Gibbs ordered. “We don’t know how much blood you lost and we don’t want you getting woozy.”

“Please, ma’am.” After taking a hasty look at Gibbs’ face, the orderly looked at Kate with beseeching eyes. “It really is hospital policy.”

Making no attempt to hide the rolling of her eyes, Kate made a show of sitting in the proffered chair.

“Happy?” She asked Gibbs.

“Ecstatic,” he responded, matching her sarcastic tone. Then he turned to Tony. “DiNozzo, you got any issues with using a wheelchair?”

“No, Boss.” Tony said as he eased himself on the second conveyance. “No issues.”

With both him and Kate hurt, Tony figured he had a fifty-fifty chance of losing Gibbs. He should have known it wouldn’t work that way. When the orderlies took their patients in separate directions, Gibbs followed him and not their female coworker.

With his unwelcome entourage in tow, Tony was soon ensconced in an ER cubicle. Gibbs stood by the door, arms folded across his chest. In his head, Tony mentally wrote and discarded a succession of apologetic explanations for what had happened. None seemed good enough, nor did he relish getting the dressing down he so richly deserved in the public venue of a hospital.

Luckily for Tony, only a few minutes passed by before the doctor hurried in.

“Mr. DiNozzo, I’m Doctor Jensen,” she introduced herself. Tall and with dark auburn hair, she appeared to be in her early 40s. Taking a good look at Tony, the doctor’s eyebrows went up and she removed her glasses before offering Tony her hand. “Dr. Sylvia Jensen.”

Tony shook hands absently. He was used to that reaction from women. There was a time when he’d liked and encouraged it, but with Gibbs standing a few feet away, he felt only irritation.

“It’s just a bump on the back of my head, Doc,” he explained. “I’ve had worse playing basketball.”

“Well, let me be the judge of that, Mr. DiNozzo,” Dr. Jensen said with a smile. “That’s what they pay me the big bucks for; I might as well earn them.”

She took out a penlight and shone it into his eyes. “Were you unconscious?”

“No.” Seeing Gibbs’ glare, Tony amended his initial response. “Only for a few seconds.”

“How about dizziness or nausea?” Dr. Jensen asked. She’d put away the light and was gently feeling the back of Tony’s head.

“No, not at all,” DiNozzo attempted to give her one of his patented charming smiles, but when it came out more as a grimace, he gave up. “I do have a headache, though.”

“I’d be more surprised if you didn’t,” the doctor said lightly. “Well, Mr. DiNozzo, it looks like you got a good bump on the head , but your pupils are reacting normally and I don’t see anything else that would indicate that there’s something to be concerned about…”

Gibbs hadn’t moved from his station near the door and, from the way the doctor jumped when he spoke, she may not have seen him at first. “Agent DiNozzo was struck in nearly the identical spot on the head approximately eight weeks ago.”

The doctor turned to look at Gibbs, not missing the far-from-subtle emphasis on Tony’s title. As the senior agent had continued to talk, however, her frown was reserved for Tony.

“Is that right?” She asked, addressing her patient.

Tony sighed. He didn’t like remembering the Amanda Reed incident or the bar fight that had erupted when he’d tried to arrest her… him. “Um… yeah.”

Dr. Jensen’s eyes narrowed. “Call us persnickety, Agent DiNozzo, but that’s the kind of information us doctor-types like to be told.”

DiNozzo shrugged, being careful to keep his head still even as his shoulders moved. “Didn’t think it was important.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but it is important,” the doctor responded. Whether it was due to the possibility of Tony being more seriously injured than she’d originally thought or Gibbs’ glare, but Jensen no longer seemed to be interested in flirtation. “We’re going to have to run some tests.”

“Great.” Tony bit back a groan. Just what he wanted to do after an already shitty night – get poked and prodded by a bunch of people in white coats. “Just great.”

Nodding as though satisfied at screwing up what was left of Tony’s night, Gibbs slid out the door. Tony breathed a sigh of relief. At least Gibbs wouldn’t be around while Tony changed into one of those humiliating hospital gowns.

That sense of relief sustained Tony over the next couple of hours. Dr. Jensen had ordered a full battery of tests… and then some. By the time DiNozzo was wheeled back to his cubby, he was so numb that he wasn’t even surprised to find Gibbs, with his ubiquitous cup of coffee, waiting for him.

“Hey, Boss.” Tony greeted his supervisor dully, thoroughly exhausted. “Have you heard anything about Kate? None of the nurses will tell me anything.”

“Six stitches, probably won’t even have a scar.” Gibbs answered. “She went home.”

“Good.” Tony briefly closed his eyes in relief. “Speaking of home, shouldn’t you be headed out, Boss? I can catch a cab when they finally decide to cut me loose.”

Gibbs drained his Styrofoam cup, crushed it in his hand, and tossed it into the garbage. “Not gonna happen.”

Tony tried to summon the energy to ask the older man what, exactly, was not gonna happen. Gibbs leaving? Tony being released? His continued employment at NCIS?

Dr. Jensen came into the room before Tony could ask.

“I’ve got some bad news, Agent DiNozzo,” she said apologetically. “The tests we’ve run so far have been inconclusive and we won’t have an MRI technician available until tomorrow.”

“That’s okay,” Tony said obligingly. “I can come back in the morning.”

Dr. Jensen took her glasses off again, but her manner was conciliatory instead of flirtatious. “You could, but I would advise against it, Agent DiNozzo. In addition to your head injury, we found that you’re badly dehydrated and overall physically rundown. We don’t know how much of that is a result of your previous injury, this injury or something else entirely. It would be in your best interests to stay overnight so we can observe you and get some fluids into you.”

“Thanks but no thanks, Doc,” Tony said promptly. “I’ll come back tomorrow for more tests if you insist, but I am not staying in here tonight.”

“Insurance won’t pay if you check yourself out against doctor’s advice,” Gibbs said almost laconically. “Doc, what’s the bill on the tests he’s had so far?”

“Several thousand dollars, I’m afraid,” the doctor answered.

“You got several thousand dollars burnin’ a hole in your pocket, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked him.


Tony felt his shoulders slump. This was worse than when Gibbs and Kate ganged up on him. In the back of his mind, Tony couldn’t help but wonder if effectively trapping him in the hospital was part of Gibbs’ revenge on him for screwing up so badly.

“I’ll make a note for them to try and work you in as soon as possible in the morning, Agent DiNozzo.” Dr. Jensen tried to reassure Tony. “I really think you’ve made the right decision. Head wounds are not to be taken lightly.”

After saying her goodnights, the doctor took her leave, promising a nurse would be by in a few minutes to take care of admitting him.

Tony closed his eyes, more because he was tired than due to any affects of the blow to his head. To his surprise, when he opened them again, Gibbs was standing right in front of him.

“Shouldn’t you be following her, Boss?” He asked. “Her being a redhead and all. Thought maybe you’d want to try and get a date.”

When he saw Gibbs clench and unclench his hand, Tony figured that his head injury was all that was keeping him from getting smacked by Gibbs. Come to think of it, perhaps he should have told Dr. Jensen about all the times the older agent whacked him on the back of the head – his skull had received more than one thump there, that was for darn sure.

“DiNozzo….” Gibbs’ words were half growl, half warning. “Your car’s still at the office. Call in the morning when they’re ready to release you and someone will come pick you up. Even think about taking a cab and you really will have a head injury worth worrying about.”

“Got it, Boss.”

Gibbs nodded once and turned to leave. He looked back right before he walked out the door. “Be careful of that hospital gown, DiNozzo. Kind of drafty in here.”

Tony immediately clutched the back of the unfamiliar garment, but it was tied correctly in place. With a grimace, he realized he’d once again been had but, oddly enough, the teasing made him feel better. If Gibbs still cared enough to give him a hard time, then the boss wasn’t completely ready to wash his hands of him. Sighing, he settled back on the bed to wait. He had a night in the hospital to look forward to, with the prospect of more tests in the morning. Oh, yeah, when he finally made it back to the office, he had a reaming ala Gibbs coming to him. And it likely would be all the more colorful for the fact that the older man had been forced by circumstances to wait to give it to him.

Oh, joy.

“Talk to me, Jethro.”

Gibbs frowned. He thought the forms he’d just given the NCIS director were self-explanatory. “Sir?”

Tom Morrow gestured at the documents Gibbs had presented. “Medical leaves for Agents Todd and DiNozzo? From your report, it didn’t seem like the suspects from the Danvers’ killing resisted all that much.”

“My team’s had a rough couple of months, sir.” Jethro explained. “Kate’s had a suspect blow herself up literally right in front of her, been held hostage and seen a colleague get shot, and, mostly recently, been kidnapped by terrorists. The knife wound isn’t all that serious, no, but it’s a cumulative affect.”

“I see you’ve requested one week for her and two weeks for DiNozzo?” The director looked at Gibbs expectantly.

“DiNozzo’s been pushed out of an airplane without adequate parachute training, not to mention being drugged and kidnapped by a serial killer.” Gibbs relaxed minutely in his chair as he realized it was simple curiosity in Morrow’s eyes and not accusation. “The bang to the back of the head he got during the Danvers’ case is the second in the last couple of months – in the same spot.”

Morrows winced in sympathy. “I’ll sign these for you and then some.”

He grinned tightly at Gibbs as he opened a desk drawer. With a flick of the wrist, a third form was added to the pile. A couple of pen strokes later, he’d signed all three and slid them back across the top of the desk towards Gibbs.

Jethro didn’t even look down at them. “One of those for me?”

“Yes,” his boss said. “Your team’s not the only ones around here run ragged, Jethro. Ever since 9/11… you can’t protect the entire country all by yourself.”

“I know that, sir,” Gibbs said, eyes locking onto the director’s. “That’s the military’s job. My job is to protect them while they protect us.”

Morrow didn’t break eye contact. “Which you’ll do more efficiently if you’re in optimum condition.”

Gibbs took a deep breath and blew it out explosively. “Which I’ll do more efficiently if I’m in optimum condition,” he agreed reluctantly.

He got up and turned to leave, but Morrow made another comment that stopped Gibbs in his tracks.

“That kid’s really got you tied up into knots, doesn’t he?”

Jethro hung his head for a moment before retracing his steps and facing his boss. “Is that Tom asking or the director?”

“Tom – for now,” the other man responded.

Gibbs plopped himself back into his chair, sprawling across it instead of his normal ramrod straight posture. There were few people in the world that he was comfortable enough to truly relax around, much less talk to about something like this, but he’d known Tom in both the Marines and now NCIS. The other man knew him better than just about anybody else, as he’d just proven, and had been a trustworthy sounding board on many occasions. “In that case, Tom, he’s driving me nuts.”

“Do yourself a favor, Jethro, and take the boy to bed.” Morrows laughed when his words garnered him an evil look from Gibbs. “Come to think of it, if it took a bit of your edge off, you’d be doing the rest of us a favor too.”

“It’s not that easy, Tom.” Gibbs disagreed. “And DiNozzo’s not a kid. He’s 32 years old.”

Morrow snorted. “Age is more than a number, Jethro.” The director’s expression turned serious. “As for being complicated, those damn rules of yours do that. NCIS is not the military. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ has no place here. And I’m telling you that as the director.”

Gibbs looked skeptical. “You tellin’ me you’d have no problem with DiNozzo and me….?”

“As long as there’s no hint of sexual harassment issues or any hanky panky on the job, I’m fine with it.” Morrow looked at him levelly. “And, knowing you, either of those happening are as likely as Michael Moore getting invited to the White House while George W. is in office.”

The two men shared a grin.

“Seriously, Jethro,” Tom continued, “My biggest worry is that DiNozzo will move on soon. I remember thinking when you hired him that two years is about his limit and now that anniversary has come and gone. You sure his feet aren’t getting restless?”

“I told you when I wanted to bring him on staff that Tony just needs an environment where he can be himself and also keep his interest level high,” Gibbs said. “He’ll be fine.”

“You sound like you’re convincing yourself,” Morrow pointed out.

Gibbs gave him a crooked grin. “This coming from the man who told me that Stan Burley was a glorified paper pusher and would never make a decent NCIS. And that Kate Todd was a Secret Service prima donna who’d never fit in. Trust me, Tom. Tony’s not going anywhere.”

“See that he doesn’t,” The director’s smile was rueful. Gibbs did have a great eye for NCIS talent. The more time that Morrow spent in the office, fighting paperwork and bureaucracy, the more he lost his touch for the field work. He envied Gibbs sometime.

“Thanks, Tom,” Gibbs said as he got up.

“My pleasure,” Morrow nodded. He waited until the other man was halfway out of the office before adding, “And don’t forget what I said about taking him to bed.”

Gibbs shook his head as he stalked down the corridor. Damn, if he wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of busybodies, not to mention having a boss who wanted to play matchmaker. What the hell was going to do with a week off anyway?

Jethro looked down at the paperwork in his hand.

Make that two weeks.

Biting back a curse, Gibbs dropped off the forms at the personnel office before heading off to find McGee. There was a time when Tony DiNozzo would have been downright gleeful to be given two weeks off, but with his behavior lately, gleeful was not likely to be his reaction. With Tim’s help, Gibbs would just make sure that Tony didn’t try to sneak around the work restriction.

Gibbs, himself, would go to the hospital early in the morning and break the ‘good’ news. Who would have thought that a gung-ho DiNozzo would have been a problem? Then again, who would have thought that Gibbs, of all people, would have cared so much?

The bad thing, Tony discovered, about agreeing to be pumped full of fluids was that it made him have to piss more often.

He’d lucked out in that he had a room to himself. Apparently, the hospital hadn’t been able to snag every unwary patient that came through its doors. Not having to worry about disturbing a roommate, Tony turned the light on as he shuffled into the tiny closet-sized space that served as a bathroom. He had just enough give in his IV line to make it all the way in, although he couldn’t close the door as completely as he would have liked.

His head hurt like a sonofabitch, but Tony hadn’t lied to the doctor. There was no nausea and no dizziness, which probably meant no concussion. The hospital stay was pure nonsense, a pile of unnecessary crap. Tony didn’t fool himself as to why he was there, however. Gibbs wanted him to be there, the senior agent had made that crystal clear. It was beyond Tony to refuse him

After doing his business, Tony stood at the sink to wash his hands. He glanced at the mirror out of habit and Tony flinched at what he saw. A pale, haggard face peered back at him, eyes tired and looking like they belonged to a much older man. His hair was sticking up every which way. He’d gotten it cut again and it was more unruly than ever.

“Not your best look, DiNozzo,” Tony murmured to his reflection.

His mirror self stared somberly back at him. And why not? He’d been trying for two months now to be the soldier that Gibbs needed him to be. He’d been more focused than he’d ever been in his life. Working longer hours than Gibbs himself. Driving his body, as well as his mind, to perfection. Doing his very best to anticipate Gibbs’ needs and filling them before the other man even articulated anything.

And what had been the result?

He’d screwed up, that’s what the result had been. They’d gotten their suspects, right enough, but because of Tony’s lapse, both he and Kate had been injured. Tony had not only proven, without a doubt, that he was not the soldier that Gibbs needed, but he’d, at least temporarily, deprived Gibbs of another valuable team member. Namely, Kate.

There was only one thing Tony could do – try harder. It was what Gibbs expected. Hell, it was what Gibbs would do. He’d stay in the hospital for the lousy tests. It was part of his punishment and he’d take it like a man. As soon as he was released, he’d go back to the office and get the reaming of a lifetime.

Then, once that was out of Gibbs’ system, he’d go back to work. Only, this time, he’d push harder.

Gibbs had spent years working on the expression he currently wore on his face. It was a combination of ‘don’t fuck with me’ and ‘yes, matter of fact, I am in charge.’ It had served him well in the military and, once in NCIS, he had honed it to perfection. It had gotten him past more police lines and cut through more instances of interagency crap than he could count.

He should have known it wouldn’t work on nurses.

The woman who’d stopped him the hospital corridor wore a uniform smock decorated with pink hearts and white fluffy kittens – and she had a ‘don’t fuck with me’ expression of her own that easily was the equal of Gibbs’.

It was well after visiting hours, being the middle of the night, and Jethro knew he had no right to be there. After his meeting with the director, however, he was unable to go home and sleep. He’d puttered with the reports he needed to write before leaving for his own enforced absence from the office. Finally, he couldn’t argue with himself anymore. He was delaying and the restlessness that plagued him abated only when he got in the car and started driving to the hospital. There, his no-nonsense demeanor had worked perfectly until he’d gotten to Tony’s floor and run into a worthy adversary.

Gibbs was a keen observer and looked more closely at the nurse who questioned his presence in her territory. Her expression had an underlying sense of maternal protectiveness to it and he immediately relaxed his own face somewhat.

“I’m here to check on Agent Anthony DiNozzo, Room 516,” he explained reasonably as he flashed her his I.D.

“Which you can do during normal visiting hours, sir,” the nurse countered implacably. “Overnight visiting hours are only for family.”

Inwardly, Jethro winced. His agents were his family, but that was hard to explain to outsiders.

“Agent DiNozzo’s father recently died and his mother is in a nursing home,” he lied quickly and creatively. “When we broke the news to her that her son had been injured in the line of duty, Mrs. DiNozzo had a bit of a relapse. The only way I could offer comfort was to promise that I would personally check on her son for her. Tony doesn’t have any other family to do it.”

The nurse’s expression softened. “Oh, dear. Well, I guess we can make an exception, being that you’re the law and all.” She stepped out of Jethro’s way. “Just a few minutes, though.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Gibbs flashed her a little boy smile he’d copied from Tony. “Just a few minutes.”

After nodding to the nurse, Jethro stepped quietly to the door of Tony’s room and carefully pushed it open. The harsh light from the corridor illuminated the interior of the small room, which was bleak with the utilitarian nature of a hospital. Tony was curled up on his side facing the door and appeared to be sound asleep.

Gibbs gingerly stepped into the small room. Tony’s eyesight wasn’t the only keen sense the younger man had and he didn’t want to make enough noise to wake him. He’d barely gotten in, however, when DiNozzo snuffled softly in his sleep and his head shifted on his pillow. Jethro froze, not daring to come any closer, even after Tony subsided.

He stood, silent and unmoving, for several moments, just drinking in the sight of Tony. It had scared the crap of him when that perp had come out of nowhere and struck the younger man. The way Tony had lain, unmoving, had terrified him. He’d made quick work subduing the assailant so he could check on his fellow agent and, from the aggressive way Kate moved, she had the same idea. Thankfully, Tony had started to stir even before they’d gotten cuffs on the guy. It was only now, hours later, when he could observe Tony sleeping normally, that Gibbs felt a knot in his stomach begin to relax.

“What am I gonna do with you?” Jethro whispered softly. He didn’t know, though, if he was referring to himself or to DiNozzo.

With one last look, Gibbs turned and left. From the way Tony’d been looking lately, he needed the sleep and Jethro didn’t want to disturb him. Besides, if he stayed much longer, the temptation to go and kiss him would be too much for even his formidable will.

It was better that he leave before he made a fool of himself.

Gibbs passed the nurse as he left and gave her a casual salute. She nodded in return and Jethro departed with a lighter heart. Obviously, he was leaving Tony in good hands.

“It’s for your own good, you know.”

Tony opened bleary eyes to look at the person who’d spoken to him. The elevator had been empty when he’d entered and he hadn’t even noticed it stop to let anyone else on. That wasn’t a good sign, but he was too tired at the moment to care. Sleeping in a hospital was nigh on impossible and what little shut-eye he’d gotten had been plagued by a dream that left him haunted with yearning….

Abby looked at him in concern. “Tony, you okay?”

DiNozzo bit back a laugh, knowing it would hurt Abby’s feelings. Let’s see, he’d disappointed Gibbs yet again; gotten whacked in the head by a bad guy; spent the night in the hospital where he’d been plagued by dreams of Gibbs just standing there and looking at him tenderly; and spent the morning – the very early morning – getting an MRI. At least his headache was better. He’d refused medication at the hospital, figuring he’d pick up some aspirin on the way to work. Just his luck that the only thing the convenience store he’d stopped at had in stock was the children’s kind. Half a bottle later, the throb had finally receded.

And he still had that reaming coming from Gibbs to look forward to. No, in short, it was not his best day ever.

“I’m alive, Abs,” Tony said, waving his hand vaguely. “Anything else is open for discussion.”

Abby’s eyes narrowed as she looked at him. Tony didn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t for her to reach over and flip the emergency stop switch. The elevator lurched to a halt.

“What’s wrong with you?” She asked, crossing her arms across her chest.

Tony rubbed his forehead. “I think that would be obvious. Or is the office gossip being particularly slow today?”

“I’m not talking about the bump on the back head,” Abby said. “I’m talking about the way you’ve been all Nazi lately.”

“Excuse me?” DiNozzo asked, too tired to come up with a pithy response.

“You used to be all, you know, Tony-like and now you’re being all uber-agent Nazi guy. No time to joke, no time to be friends,” Abby explained. “It’s like you went from being the Fonz to being Mr. Cunningham and that just sucks.”

“I’m just trying to do my job, Abby,” Tony said, a little hurt. “Gibbs doesn’t need the Fonz; he needs somebody who’ll get the job done.”

Abby shook her head so hard that her ponytails bobbed. “You got the job done before, but with style. Now it’s like I’m expecting a letter sweater and argyle sox. And I’m not the only one who’s worried, so are Ducky and Kate.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony admitted. “But Gibbs, you don’t hear him complaining, do you?”

“I dunno, Tony,” Abby said. “Gibbs, he’s da bomb. He may be all gruff and puff and blow your house down, but when it comes to his people, he’s a real Papa Bear. I bet he’s worried too.”

“That’s one bet you’d lose,” Tony said firmly. Ignoring her murmur of protest, he reached over and flipped back the emergency stop switch, causing the elevator to move again.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” his companion said, her frown deepening. “You don’t know yet, do you?”

“Know what, Abby?” DiNozzo asked, unable to keep the weariness from his voice.

Just then, the elevator arrived at his floor and the doors opened. Abby gestured for him to get out and he did, turning to her with raised eyebrows.

“What don’t I know, Abby?” He asked again.

She giggled and waved as the doors shut behind him. “You’ll find out. Bye.”

Tony sighed and tipped his head back, rolling his shoulders and trying to get the tension out of them. Fortified, he turned and faced the office but, to his surprise, Gibbs and Kate weren’t there. In fact, of the people he normally worked with, the only one in sight was McGee - who was sitting at Tony’s desk. Looking up, Tim spied DiNozzo and, even as far away as he was, Tony could see the junior agent’s Adam’s apple bob as the younger man visibly gulped.

DiNozzo began to get a very bad feeling….

Gibbs had given up on sleep hours ago. He'd made his bed with his usual military precision before getting dressed and going downstairs. Adhering to a routine drummed into him decades ago, he left behind bed linens that were taut enough that a quarter could be bounced off them, although what he really wanted bouncing on his sheets was a certain Anthony DiNozzo.

Damn Tom Morrow, anyway, for putting ideas into his head.

Jethro was too honest to blame the director for long, though. Truth was, he'd wanted Tony for a long time. According to the deep ache in his body, a really long time.

As he always did when he was troubled, Gibbs soon found himself in his basement, where he kept the skeleton of his boat-in-progress. While he worked on the wood, the boat literally taking shape under his hands, Gibbs mentally chewed on the problem of Tony.

In a way, it would have been easier if Tony was a woman. After three marriages, Gibbs knew what to expect from women, despite the reputation of the feminine mystique. You met, you flirted a little, you flirted a whole lot more, you married, and then reality set in. If there was one thing Jethro and each of his ex-wives agreed with, it was that the inevitable destruction of their relationship was entirely his fault. His first wife had been unfaithful - and it was Gibbs' fault because he was a bastard and was away at sea too long. His second wife came after him with a golf club - and it was Gibbs' fault because he was being his usual, bastard self and wouldn’t cover up her blunder on a case they were working on. His third wife was driven to drink - because Jethro was a bastard and loved his job too much to give it up when she’d demanded it of him. It was a definite pattern and one Gibbs had come to expect. Was comfortable with, even.

Tony, though... Tony broke all the patterns.

There'd been no flirtation, only instant acceptance. Tony had absorbed all of Gibbs' bad moods and somehow worked around them. Tony'd been on Gibbs' team and a part of his life for over two years - twice the duration of any of Jethro's marriages. He'd, in his own glib DiNozzo way, had acknowledged that Gibbs was a bastard and accepted it, without ever condemning him for it.

And, true to form, Gibbs had ruined that, pushing beyond even Tony's ability to cope.

Unlike his ex-wives, however, Tony had not blamed Gibbs. No, he'd internalized Jethro's obsession with Ari and taken Gibbs' harsh words too much to heart, assuming all the blame. Gibbs had seen it happening, but failed to act on it quickly enough, assuming that it was a temporary condition. What Jethro had not accounted for was DiNozzo's seriousness about the situation and contemplating that was what currently had Gibbs' gut in too much of a knot to sleep.

Because if Tony cared that much about what Gibbs thought of him... had Jethro been letting Rule #12 keep them apart for too long?

A bell rang and, for a moment, Gibbs thought it was a sign. When it rang again, however, he realized it was his telephone. Wiping his hands, he crossed the room to answer it.

"Gibbs." He said succinctly.

"Jethro, I thought I should warn you," Ducky's voice came across the line. "You need to watch out for inclement weather. Hurricane Anthony is on his way even as we speak."

Feeling guilty, Gibbs looked out the small basement window. Sure enough, it was light outside and, from the quality of the sunshine, had been daylight a good while. Damn, he'd meant to get to the hospital much earlier than this, but had gotten caught up in his thoughts and lost track of time. Thinking about Tony, he'd come to realize, tended to do that to him.

"I take it he discovered that he's locked out of his computer?" He asked Ducky.

"Yes and he's not happy about it," the medical examiner explained. "I've instructed Abby to take Agent McGee out and get him some hot tea to calm his nerves."

Gibbs almost felt sorry for McGee. The younger agent was still very green and having an angry, insistent DiNozzo in his face would not have been easy for him to take. Unfortunately for McGee, if he had done what Tony probably had demanded of him, he'd have had an even angrier Gibbs in his face. A rock and a hard place, but something McGee would have to learn to live with.

"She'll probably need to take him home so he can change into a clean pair of shorts," Jethro said, grinning in spite of the situation.

"Jethro, be nice." Ducky chided him. "The boy is so new that he practically squeaks."

That was the problem, although Gibbs didn't point that out to Ducky.

"Thanks for the warning, Duck." Gibbs couldn't help but adding a question. "How did Tony look? Did staying in the hospital do him any good?"

"I'm afraid I couldn't tell you," Mallard responded. "Tony was here and gone rather quickly. So quickly that I didn't even see him. I only found out about the incident a few moments ago. If he truly was as angry as Timothy implied.... well, it wouldn't be good for him."

Gibbs heard the door upstairs open and then slam shut with such force that it rocked the whole house. "GIBBS!"

"Ah, it appears that your storm has blown in," Ducky said. Tony’s shout must have been loud enough that he heard it over the phone. "Jethro, be careful - ...."

Ducky's voice cut off as Gibbs hung up. Throwing the phone carelessly to the side, he made his way to the staircase and ran up the steps. He was within sight of his front door in seconds flat and found Tony in his living room, pacing. The younger man’s face was pale, making his eyes seem to burn that much more brightly. Jethro had missed the light that always seemed to twinkle in Tony’s eyes, but this wasn’t it. This was harder, more like an ember using up the last of its energy before burning out.

“How dare you?” Tony growled, stopping his pacing as he caught sight of Gibbs.

Jethro made himself walk nonchalantly over to the window and look outside. Tony’s car was parked haphazardly in the driveway. “I thought I told you to call from the hospital and someone would pick you up?”

“I had the damn MRI; the morning shift at the hospital starts really early,” Tony said sarcastically. “It showed exactly what I expected it to show – I’m fine. And, yes, I took a cab from the hospital, so sue me. Why the hell am I locked out of my computer?”

“If you’d done like I told you to do and called somebody, you’d already know that,” Gibbs said calmly. “You’re on medical leave. Two weeks.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Boss, I’m fine. I can handle it; I don’t need two weeks off.”

“Too bad,” Gibbs said, without sympathy. “Because you’ve got two weeks off. Deal with it.”

DiNozzo looked at Gibbs, as though analyzing his superior’s mood. “Look, if you just let me into my computer, I can at least work on that terrorist matrix problem at home,” Tony negotiated. “That way, I won’t be totally unproductive.”

“What part of ‘no work for two weeks’ do you not understand?” Gibbs asked. He softened a bit as he saw the frustration in the younger man’s face. “It’s not just you, Tony. Kate’s out on a medical leave too.”

“For two weeks?” Tony challenged. He crossed his arms across his chest and glared at Gibbs.

Jethro was actually glad to see the anger. Like women, anger was something he understood and could deal with. All he had to do was keep Tony from running, which was DiNozzo’s usual response to emotional scenes.

“One week,” Gibbs answered calmly.

“Ha!” Tony threw up his arms in disgust. “Look, Boss, I’m not some hothouse delicate blossom. There’s no way I need a two week medical leave, especially if Kate only has to be out for half that long.”

Jethro pulled himself to his full height and stiffly walked over to Tony, standing so that he was clearly in the younger man’s personal space. “I was given a two week leave too. Do you consider me a delicate blossom, Agent DiNozzo?”

Tony visibly deflated and stepped back a pace, asking, “You did?”

Gibbs growled.

“No, Boss, you’re not a delicate blossom.” Tony hurriedly said, after making an audible gulp.

“Good, glad we have that settled.” Gibbs turned and started walking towards the kitchen. “Coffee?”


“How’s the head, need any aspirin?” Jethro asked as they walked.

“No, I’m good.”

Tony seemed a little confused at the turn of events, but followed Gibbs anyway. Jethro could feel the younger man’s eyes on him as he poured two mugs of coffee from his perpetually percolating machine. Using Ducky’s hurricane comparison from earlier, Gibbs had a feeling they were in the eye of the storm. Hurricane Anthony hadn’t blown himself out, not by a long shot.

Silently, Gibbs handed Tony a mug, which the other man took just as quietly. Jethro took a sip of his own hot brew to fortify himself; from the look on Tony’s face, the conversation wasn’t over yet.

“Why?” DiNozzo finally asked.

Jethro shrugged and contemplated his coffee. “I dunno. It’s hot and it’s bitter, which I’m told suits me.”

Tony set his mug down on the counter hard enough to slosh some of the hot liquid over its sides. “I’m not talking about the coffee and you damn well know it, Boss. Why the medical leaves for all of us, especially you?”

Gibbs leaned against the counter and tried to come up with words that wouldn’t send Tony deeper into a spiral of self recrimination.

“Our job, it runs hot and cold,” he said slowly. “You’ve got to pace yourself and, for the last few months, our team has been going in an all-out sprint. Director Morrow needs us in prime condition, physically and mentally, so we’re at the top of our game.”

Gibbs was well aware of the hypocrisy of his words. He went beyond obsessing with his work. The only difference between him and Tony was that his Marine training had taught him to respect his own limitations. Seeing Gibbs-like behavior coming from DiNozzo… it had been a revelation and not a pleasant one at that.

“I sure wasn’t in top form last night, letting that jerk get the drop on me,” Tony said bitterly. “But it’s not fair to punish you and Kate just because I screwed up.”

“It’s not a punishment, DiNozzo,” Gibbs retorted. “And you didn’t screw up. No one knew there was a second perp.”

Tony shrugged and looked away.

Gibbs tried again. “If there was any mistake, it was that you were out there when you were too tired in the first place. That was my fault. I should have pulled you off that matrix project of yours when it started interfering.”

“The matrix project is important, you said so yourself,” Tony insisted. “We’re at war and NCIS is on the job until you say we aren’t. If that means I lose a little sleep pushing to get the assignment done, that’s just what I have to do.”

“That’s what the medical leave is all about, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said, beginning to run out of patience. “I’m telling you that you’re off the job.”

His words obviously hit Tony hard. “Off the job?” He whispered hoarsely. “Just for now, right?”

“Just for now, yeah.” Jethro reassured him. “Just for two weeks.”

Gibbs felt about two inches tall. This was not working. No matter how he tried to reassure Tony, he kept making things worse. All he really wanted to do was hug Tony and kiss the confusion right out of his eyes. He couldn’t figure out why DiNozzo was having such a hard time believing that it was okay to cut himself some slack, but had a feeling that Papa and Mama DiNozzo might be to blame. Of course, working for a bastard didn’t help any either.

“Listen up, DiNozzo, ‘cause I’m going to do something I normally don’t do – I’m going to explain myself.” Gibbs tried a smile, hoping that a lighter mood might help. “Tell Kate about this and I’ll deny it ever happened.”

His attempt at a joke fell flat. Tony just looked at him with wide, serious eyes.

Gibbs bit his cheek to keep from sighing and plowed on with his explanation. “A couple of months ago, when I lit into you and said those things to you about war and being on the job, we had a hot case. We didn’t know this Ari bastard was undercover. We thought he was a terrorist that we had let through our fingers, free to attack the United States in whatever way he wanted. That’s why I was riding your ass. Not because you’re not good at your job. Not because you don’t work your ass off when I need you to. The only reason I reacted the way I did was because you didn’t realize it was a hot case. Am I making myself clear?”

Tony had gotten steadily paler as Gibbs spoke. Jethro tried again.

“You have to pace yourself, DiNozzo,” Gibbs explained. “Don’t work yourself into the ground when there’s no need. Otherwise, you won’t be fresh when there is a need.”

When Tony just looked at him, Gibbs asked, “Got it?”

DiNozzo nodded. “Yeah. Once again, I’ve screwed up.”

Gibbs frowned. It was one step forward and two steps back with him. “I wouldn’t call it screwing up, Tony.”

“Yeah, well, I would,” DiNozzo barked back, showing another flare of temper. “Every time I think I have you figured out, you throw me a curve ball. I think we work great together as a team and you bring in Kate. I get used to knowing I’m doing a good job only when you don’t snap at me - because it would kill you to give me a compliment - and we meet Stan Burley. You all but drool all over him, like he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then, when I go missing and get myself and one of your precious Marines out of that sewer prison all by myself using your Marine rules, I find out that not only are your rules a bogus pile of shit, but that you would have been happy to replace me with McGee.”

Jethro couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Tony, apparently, had been bottling up more than just an overreaction to a lecture about his work ethic.

“And then, then when I finally think I’ve figured out what will make you happy and turn myself inside out trying to be the type of agent you want, you say I’m not pacing myself.” Tony abruptly ran out of steam, voice lowering from the near-shout it had become to a hoarse whisper. “Just tell me what you want, Boss.”

Greatly daring, Gibbs put a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. This type of thing normally stuck in his throat, but in the face of Tony’s pain, words came easily.

“Agent DiNozzo,” he said formally. “If I have ever given you any reason to think your contributions to this team are not appreciated, I apologize. If anything I’ve said or done has made you think you’re not valued, then I apologize again, because exactly the opposite is true.”

“Yeah, right,” Tony snorted, looking down at his hands.

“Maybe you’ve compared yourself to Stan, but I never would,” Gibbs clarified. “Hell, Burley’s previous experience as a senator’s aide may sound impressive, but what it really meant that he had more experience on paper than he did on the street. He’s come a long way and he’s a decent NCIS agent, but he’ll never have your instincts, no matter how long he’s in NCIS. And, as for Kate, she’s a fast learner, but she has a hard time distancing herself the way she needs to. You, you’re intuitive and you can think outside the box while still seeing the whole picture. That’s a rare combination.”

Tony didn’t say anything and Gibbs got nervous. “You hearin’ me, DiNozzo?”

“Yeah, Boss,” the younger man said, lifting his head to look Gibbs in the eye. “You still didn’t say what you want from me, though.”

Gibbs resisted the urge to slap the backside of DiNozzo’s head. “I want what I always want from you, Tony. Your best.”

DiNozzo’s eyes narrowed. “And how am I supposed to tell when a case is hot or not?”

Jethro was glad to see the other man’s posture start relax a little. The answer to Tony’s question, however, was obvious to Gibbs and Gibbs allowed himself a smirk as he lifted his coffee mug for another sip. “That’s easy, DiNozzo. I’ll tell you when a case is hot.”

As he drank, Jethro watched Tony. There was a measure of calm in Tony’s eyes, but not enough to totally trust that Gibbs had managed to convince him of anything. In fact, Tony seemed to still be chewing on something. He’d look at Gibbs under his eyelashes and quickly look away. The furtive movement was getting on Gibbs’ nerves, even before he’d had time to finish half of his drink.

“What?” Gibbs asked. “Something’s still bothering you, DiNozzo. Out with it.”

Tony squared his shoulders. “Why? Why are you harder on me than the rest of them? And don’t say that you aren’t because you are and we both know it.”

“I am not,” Gibbs denied, hotly.

“Yes, you are,” DiNozzo retorted, beginning to get angry again. “Kate gets too emotionally attached to that amnesia victim, Suzanne McNeil, and you don’t say anything.”

“Kate was beating up on herself enough the way it was - ….” Jethro started to explain but Tony cut him off.

“And that ensign who thought he was immortal, the one that committed suicide and almost blew up his skipper, Kate refused to consider suicide because the guy was Catholic and it was a mortal sin,” Tony pointed out. “If I would have made that kind of rookie mistake, you would have ripped my head off and handed it to me on a silver platter, but all she got a slap on the wrist – and not even a hard one at that.”

“Yeah, but - ….”

“And McGee! The man is good with a computer, but so green in the field that he looks and acts like lime Jell-O and you rub his damn head to tell him he’d done a good job. All I get is a smack in the head!” DiNozzo wasn’t far from yelling. “Not to mention Stan Burley. Maybe I should say Saint Stan, the way you were all but falling at his feet worshipping him.”

Gibbs hadn’t been trying too hard to break into Tony’s tirade, figuring the other man needed to let off steam. As DiNozzo got carried away, however, Jethro began to get angry himself. DiNozzo wasn’t the only man in the room that was tired – Gibbs hadn’t slept much the night before, either. Before that, there had been weeks of stewing over what was going on with Tony, not to mention having already just navigated one conversation with Tony that had made him feel like he was tiptoeing through land mines. The senior agent was just about at the end of his rope.

“Let’s not forget Abby, she gets to play ear-bleeding music all the time, but if I play one game on my computer, you threaten to pierce my ears. Ducky gets to tell all sorts of off-the-wall stories and that’s just fine, but if I make a comment you think’s out of line, I get a whack on back of the head.” By this time, Tony was jabbing a finger at Gibbs with each comment. “What is it? Why is there one set of rules for everybody else and another set for me?”

“Because I’m in love with you, Bonehead,” Gibbs growled back. “And when you get a promotion, which you will because you are damn good at your job no matter what you think, I don’t want anybody out there to say it was because I took it easier on you because I had the hots for you.”

It was the silence that made Gibbs realize he’d said that out loud.

“Aw, hell,” he said.

“You’re in love?” Tony asked, a squeak in his voice. “With me?”

“Yeah.” The truth of it was plain enough that Gibbs didn’t need to say anything else.

Preferring to meet challenges head-on, Gibbs looked squarely at Tony. DiNozzo’s eyes looked dazed and he was silent, which was never a good sign. Just when Jethro was beginning to think he’d need to make a comment, Tony seemed to shake it off. As he walked towards Gibbs slowly and deliberately, almost a prowl, something in DiNozzo’s face told Jethro he’d better keep his mouth shut. So, he didn’t say anything as Tony gently took the coffee mug from him and carefully set it on the counter. Jethro braced himself to be hit, but instead, a warm hand cupped each side of his face. Tony stared at him intently and Gibbs did his best to will all the love he had for the other man to show in his eyes.

He hadn’t decided yet about telling Tony how he felt about him but, now that it had slipped out, Gibbs was determined to see it all the way through. Everything Jethro knew about Tony was telling him that, if he messed up this conversation, then DiNozzo was gone. That was a circumstance that Jethro couldn’t allow to happen - not if he wanted to keep his sanity.

Tony looked into Gibbs’ eyes for several heartbeats before dropping his hands and stepping back.

“You bastard,” DiNozzo said in a tired and emotionless voice. “You’re not pulling a joke. You really do love me.”

“Tony….” Gibbs reached out a hand to DiNozzo, but the other man ignored it.

“You’re in love with me and you never said anything. I’ve loved you forever, but I thought you barely even liked me.” Tony continued in that flat tone and then his voice cracked as he added, “If you loved me, why did you make me think that?”

Gibbs rubbed the side of his face. “Rule #12….”

“Is a pile of crap and you know it.” More emotion had crept into Tony’s voice. “Down in the sewer, Atlas told me there were no such rules.”

“In the Marines, no,” Gibbs admitted and then went on to add, “In my book, yes.”

Tony shook his head. “Why?”

The younger man seemed to be asking ‘why’ a lot. Not too unusual, since Tony had enough natural curiosity for a whole litter of cats. More surprising, considering he was a man who hated giving explanations, Jethro felt compelled to answer.

“Wife #2,” Gibbs said, “Was NCIS and you know how that turned out; she came after me with a seven iron. Relationships between agents just don’t work out, no matter how much I might want otherwise.”

Tony just looked at him and Gibbs prepared himself for anything - for Tony to hit him or, what was more likely, for him to walk out. Instead, the younger man swooped forward and grabbed the front of Jethro’s shirt, stretching the knit fabric badly as he used it to pull Gibbs closer. Gibbs steeled himself for a blow, but refused to flinch. Tony deserved that much, at the very least.

Instead of Tony’s fist coming down on him, however, Gibbs found himself being kissed. Tentative, awkward, and almost chaste, but it was still a kiss. Shock kept him still initially, but as he got his first taste of Tony, his hands came around to pull DiNozzo close. By the time their lips pulled apart, Tony was straddling Gibbs’ outthrust knee.

DiNozzo leaned forward and bumped heads with Jethro. “Funny, but golf’s the one sport I was never any good at. I don’t even own a seven iron.”

Gibbs’ hands rested on Tony’s hips, steadying the other man without pinning him. DiNozzo’s warm weight was welcome next to him, but he didn’t want Tony to feel trapped. It would kill him if Tony wanted to leave, but it had to be DiNozzo’s choice.

“I think we’ve already established that I’m a bastard,” he warned.

Tony grinned impishly. “That’s okay, I like you that way.”

Jethro found himself grinning back. There it was, that twinkle in Tony’s eyes. He’d missed that, missed it a lot. He risked moving his hands to the small of Tony’s back. The other agent was wearing the dress shirt and suit jacket from being on the job the night before, but Gibbs could still feel the boniness of Tony’s spine through the layers of cloth. Damn, but DiNozzo had lost a lot of weight. Remembering why sobered Gibbs immediately.

“It won’t be easy,” Jethro cautioned. “The way I was with the Ari case, it can happen again. Ask Wife #3. I don’t want to put you through that a second time… or a third.”

Tony seriously considered Gibbs’ words. “It’ll be okay. As long as I know you love me, I can take it. It was the not knowing… the believing you really did think I wasn’t doing my job that got to me. Now that I know, I won’t take it personally.”

Gibbs shook his head, but even as he voiced another doubt, his hands were tightening their grip on Tony’s hips. “You sure? You just put yourself through hell because of something I said; feels like you’re forgiving me awfully easy here.”

“Why argue with a good thing?” Tony quipped. His smile slid off his face, however, when he saw Jethro’s expression. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go through that again, but I will if it means being with you.”

“I’m not sure I’m worth it.” Gibbs admitted.

“Take it from me, you are,” Tony disagreed.

Jethro shook his head. “In case you haven’t noticed, relationships aren’t exactly my forte.”

DiNozzo rolled his eyes. “Look, I’ll make you a deal. You messed up and I messed up on this one, so there’s blame to go around. If you promise to try not to use me as an emotional punching bag again, I promise to not take it personally if you slip up and do it anyway.

When Jethro hesitated, Tony upped the ante. “And, if it makes you feel better, since it took so long for you to fess up to loving me, I’ll pout every day we’re together so you have to say it all the time.”

At first Gibbs wasn’t so sure, but a good look in Tony’s eyes was all that it took to convince him. It was awe-inspiring and a little daunting, to have another human being look at him like that. He realized that he could snuff out the twinkle in DiNozzo’s eyes like blowing out a candle. The part of him that had been lonely for as long as he could remember, even when he was married, couldn’t deny that look. Besides, Tony’d worked for him for two years and, if the last couple of months hadn’t scared him off, then nothing would. I

Jethro leaned over and kissed Tony, liking how DiNozzo laughed even while their lips were locked together. It was a sound of relief and, hopefully, a harbinger of things to come.

“C’mon, let’s go somewhere more comfortable,” Gibbs said when the kiss ended with a playful nip to Tony’s nose. “I’m too old to making out in the kitchen like a teenager.”

“You’re only as old as you feel,” DiNozzo said as he pried himself off of the other agent and stepped back, running an appreciative hand along Gibbs’ arm. “And you don’t feel old.”

Jethro grinned at the bad joke and heavy-handed flirting. His Tony was back. “I’ll show you old when I get you into bed.”

Tony grinned widely but then got a funny expression on his face as his grin widened into a jaw-popping yawn. He blushed with embarrassment as Gibbs laughed. “Oops. I didn’t mean that, really.”

“Yes, you did,” Gibbs retorted. “I didn’t get much sleep last night, either. When I said I wanted to get you to bed, I meant to sleep. You can use beds for sleeping, you know.”

“So I’ve heard,” Tony said.

Gibbs wrapped an arm around the younger man’s waist and shivered when he felt the warmth of Tony’s hip bump into his own. “I really do love you, you know.”

Tony looked at him shyly. “Say that enough and I might just believe you.”

Jethro growled, but it was far from a threatening sound. “Yeah, well, if we catch up on our sleep, I just might prove it to you.”

“Promises, promises.”

Although Tony said the words flippantly, they both knew that Gibbs was a man of his word. It was just a matter of when Jethro would be able to keep it.

Jethro Gibbs shuffled into his bathroom and turned on the light over the medicine cabinet, not wanting to use the overhead one because it might wake Tony. Idly, he scratched his chest as he yawned. He was used to working odd hours, so it wasn’t the fact that it was the middle of the afternoon that woke him. It was the odd sensation of having another body in his bed; it was almost a shame to waste the experience by sleeping.

Opening the cabinet, Jethro rooted around as quietly as he could until he found the familiar bottle he wanted. He left it out on the counter where it could be easily seen. Tony might claim his headache was gone, but Gibbs wasn’t so sure. It was a fair bet DiNozzo would need aspirin later on and Jethro figured it was a good idea to leave it out where Tony could easily find it.

As Gibbs started to close the cabinet, its mirrored surface caught his attention and he stopped. The man who stared back at him had an uncharacteristic wide-eyed look of wonder on his face – and well he should.

“You bastard,” he said to himself softly as he stared into his reflection. He’d been too hard on Tony and then, even after he realized that DiNozzo was taking his words the wrong way, still Gibbs had done nothing to correct the problem. The fact was, he didn’t deserve the young man currently in his bed, any more than he was worthy of the love Tony so freely offered. Or the forgiveness that had been so easily bestowed.

With any luck, Tony’s natural resilience would help him bounce back from having Gibbs almost successfully, if inadvertently, subvert his confidence. Jethro would help where he could, starting with feeding DiNozzo until he put meat back onto his bones. After that, he was determined to stick by Tony’s side as long as Tony wanted him there. As for Rule #12, they’d work something out. Perhaps there needed to be a new rule. A Rule #14 – no romantic relationship with another NCIS agent unless that agent was Anthony DiNozzo.

“Works for me,” Gibbs said quietly to himself.

He angled the medicine cabinet door until a view of his bed was captured in the mirror’s reflection. Tony was sprawled across Gibbs’ mattress, gloriously naked and on his stomach. A sheet draped over one buttock and leg, the crisp white of the bed linen contrasting nicely with the hue of Tony’s skin, golden in the bright afternoon sunlight peeking through the crack in the drapes. All they had done was sleep, but Gibbs had blithely forgotten that Tony preferred to sleep in the nude. That fact had all but undone the plan that was half-forming in the back of his mind. The two men had done some gentle kissing after crawling into bed, the way Tony fell asleep in the middle of it showing just how worn out he was.

“You are one lucky bastard,” Gibbs clarified to himself as he shut the cabinet door. His reflection seemed to agree, nodding at him solemnly.

Turning the light out, Gibbs padded back into the other room. What was he doing talking to a specter in polished glass, anyway, when a warm, live Tony DiNozzo was in his bed?

The mirror, left behind without a backward glance, was blessedly silent.

Tony was awakened by a tickling sensation that was centered on his nose. Before his eyes were more than half open or his groggy mind remembered where he was, he sneezed.


Gibbs’ voice sounded a hell of a lot more awake than Tony felt. Cracking his eyelids open, DiNozzo got a close-up look of a bare chest covered with a thicket of silvered hair.

It wasn’t a dream. He was in Gibbs’ bed. With a muffled moan, he hid his face against Gibbs’ warm chest.

“You even think about wiping your nose and there’ll be hell to pay.”

Tony stiffened. Sure, he was familiar with Gibbs’ gruff tone but, after the last few months, couldn’t shrug it off as easily as he used to. His bedmate apparently noticed his unease. Large, callused hands started a soothing stroking up and down his back, helping Tony relax. Once he did, he realized that Gibbs’ words had lacked the tenseness that would indicate the older man was truly mad. Besides, the touch of his hands, which had dipped to caress the bare skin of Tony’s ass, was too gentle to be the action of an angry man.

Wait a minute… bare skin of his ass?

Fear woke Tony the rest of the way up. With bated breath, he gingerly lifted the blanket covering them both and peeked underneath.


With another moan, he buried his face against Gibbs’ chest again. Even as he did, however, Gibbs laughed, causing Tony’s safe haven to shake. DiNozzo sighed and lifted his head to meet Gibbs’ gaze.

“Sorry, Boss.” He said sheepishly. “I must have been on autopilot when we went to bed, I always sleep in my birthday suit.”

Gibbs’ hold on him tightened. “DiNozzo, does it look like I’m complaining?”

Tony peered intently at the other man’s face. Gibbs’ expression was unusually open, letting Tony see his frank appreciation. There wasn’t even a hint of complaint or disapproval.

“No, you’re not complaining,” DiNozzo said with satisfaction. Seeing Gibbs’ smile at his words, Tony gained confidence. Greatly daring, he trailed a hand up the bare skin of Gibbs’ chest. He smiled in delight when the older man’s body arched into his touch. His hand continued its journey up the length of Gibbs’ neck, finally burying itself in the short length of silver hair at the nape of Jethro’s neck.

While his hand explored, Tony’s eyes never left Gibbs’. There continued to be no disapproval in the other man’s gaze, only the darkening of desire as Gibbs’ pupils dilated. Seeing that reaction, Tony’s smile widened and he leaned closer for a kiss.

At first, Gibbs kissed like he did most everything else – with assertive control. As their lips continued to press together and their tongues twined, however, Tony took it as a personal victory when that control began to falter. Tony pulled back just enough to nip at the lips trying to devour him and Gibbs growled. The other man left one hand clenching Tony’s ass and brought the other up to firmly cup the back of DiNozzo’s head. Tony laughed as best he could with his mouth full of Gibbs’ tongue.

Gibbs growled again and, with the wily nature that made him so good at his job, rolled the two of them. Tony yelped in surprise and hung on. He soon found himself flat on his back with Gibbs above him, grinning wolfishly as he pressed Tony’s body against the mattress. The hardness of Gibbs’ groin tented the older man’s boxers, the soft fabric doing little to shield Tony from the heat of Gibbs’ erection.

The two men realized at about the same moment that, while Jethro was hard as a rock, Tony was not.

Tony’s smile slid away and he twisted his head to the side. “Sorry, Boss.”

Gibbs grabbed Tony’s face and made the other man look at him. “Hey, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

“The spirit’s willing, God, is it willing,” DiNozzo explained. “It’s just the body….”

“… is overtaxed and stressed,” Gibbs finished for him. Jethro settled by Tony’s side and wrapped his arms around the distressed man. “That’s another reason for pacing yourself.”

Tony snorted. “Mr. Pot? I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Black.”

Gibbs made an aborted motion but stopped short of smacking Tony in the usual spot. “How’s your head?”

“It’s fine,” Tony claimed. When Gibbs lifted one eyebrow skeptically, he amended his statement. “Okay, I’ve got a little headache, but not much.”

Jethro didn’t contest DiNozzo’s statement – for the moment.

“We each have a two week medical leave,” Gibbs said after a few moments of comfortable silence. “We’re going to follow our orders and use it to recuperate.” He gave Tony a reassuring smile. “I think you’ll find that your, ah, natural enthusiasm will return long before then.”

Tony’s lips twitched. “Those were our orders? Director Morrow wants me to get my groove back?”

“Not in so many words,” Jethro replied loftily. “But that was the general idea.”

“Well, I guess that’s it, then. We all know how you always obey a command.” Tony said. As he looked at Gibbs, his smile softened and, when he next spoke, the flippancy was gone from his voice. “This is your last chance, Boss. You sure you want to do this?”

“Do what?” Jethro asked.

“This,” Tony said, gesturing between them. “Us. If it hasn’t been obvious up until now, I’m a whole lot of trouble. So, if you don’t want to do this, I’ll understand.”

“DiNozzo, you are naked in my bed,” Gibbs pointed out. “We’re already doing this.” He pulled Tony closer. “Now that I have you here, I have no intention of letting you go.”

Tony settled against Gibbs’ sturdy body, resting his chin on Jethro’s shoulder. “You’ll have to let me go sometime, Boss, at least for potty breaks,” he said agreeably. “Otherwise, these sheets are going to get awfully nasty.”


“An awful lot of trouble,” DiNozzo repeated, pulling back to see the look on the older man’s face.

Gibbs gave Tony one of those lopsided grins that made DiNozzo’s heart skip a beat. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This time, their kiss was gentle. Even so, as they pulled apart, Tony could feel Gibbs’ arousal poking his thigh. The other man’s erection had waned at first during their conversation, but was now back full force.

“You want me to take care of that?” Tony asked, fingers stretching to release Gibbs’ cock.

To DiNozzo’s surprise, his wrist was grabbed in an iron grip, preventing him from reaching his goal. Confused, Tony looked at his lover.

“I’m a Marine,” Gibbs said in a hoarse voice. “And Marines don’t leave a man behind. I can wait until you’re ready.”

Tony blinked and then smiled as he thought about that statement. Gibbs was willing to wait. He didn’t think any lover he’d had in the past, male or female, would have been willing to do the same. Then again, this was Gibbs he was talking about; the man was beyond any comparisons.

“I won’t make you wait too long,” he promised.

“As long as you need,” Gibbs replied. He kissed Tony again, but before it could get too deep, he broke it off.

“Okay, time to get up,” Gibbs said. When DiNozzo looked at him in disbelief, Jethro smiled brightly and lightly smacked Tony’s ass. “We’ve got two weeks off. We’re not spending them in bed. Up.”

Putting action to words, Gibbs rolled off the mattress and got to his feet. “What?”

”I thought we were going to rest and recuperate?” Tony asked.

“And we are,” Gibbs countered. “Just not in bed. All that’ll get you is fat.” For some reason, Gibbs’ own statement made him frown.

“You’ve got a plan,” Tony said, a hint of triumph in his voice. “What is it?”

Gibbs explained just as much as he did at the office. In other words, not at all.

“You can have the first shower,” he said magnanimously.

After opening a dresser drawer, Gibbs took out some sweats and dressed quickly. When he was done, he looked back at the bed and didn’t seem too pleased to see Tony still there.

“What are you waiting for, DiNozzo?” He asked. “Daylight’s wasting. I’m ordering pizza. If you’re not out of the shower by the time it gets here, don’t expect me to save you any.”

Gibbs bent down and briskly kissed Tony’s open mouth. Then, with a purposeful stride, he was out of the room and down the hall.

Tony only spent a heartbeat on being crabby about the abrupt change in situation; then his natural curiosity kicked in. Feeling alive for the first time in weeks, he threw back the covers and hopped out of bed.

He didn’t know what Gibbs had planned, but something told him he was gonna like it.

Pizza duly ordered, Gibbs hung up the phone. He cocked his head to the side and listened for a moment. The shower was still going and, knowing Tony, likely would be for a while. That was fine; no matter what he’d said earlier, Jethro had no intention of letting DiNozzo not eat. He couldn’t believe he’d made that crack about how lazing around in bed making you fat. Given how gaunt Tony looked, that was insensitive, even for him.

And, for Gibbs, that was saying a lot.

With a silent promise to himself to do better by his lover and, confident that Tony would safely be kept busy for at least a little while longer, he picked up the phone and dialed again.

Truth be told, Jethro would have relished two weeks spent in bed with Anthony DiNozzo. After what happened last night, though, it probably wasn’t the best thing for Tony. The younger man likely hadn’t experienced a whole lot of – if any – sexual disappointments and Gibbs didn’t know how he would react. He figured it was best to get Tony away from the scene of the crime, so to speak, before DiNozzo fixated on the way his body had let him down.

Gibbs knew what it was like to be too tired and too stressed to perform. The last thing he wanted to do was put more pressure on Tony. He’d already done enough of that lately. Besides, knowing DiNozzo, he’d be revved up and ready to go in no time. So, instead of hanging around the house and potentially brooding, Jethro had decided on something else. Something that would get Tony away and help him relax.

Houses, after all, weren’t the only places that had beds.

On that cheery thought, the phone stopped ringing as someone picked up on the other end of the line and Gibbs grinned at the familiar voice.

“Gabe?” He said after the greeting. “It’s Jethro Gibbs, sir. How are you?”

“Jethro?” The answering voice was also male, but it had the thinness of tone that often came with age. “It’s good to hear from you, boy. Didn’t get shot again, did you? That’s the problem with youngsters nowadays – you don’t know how to duck.”

Gibbs ruefully rubbed his shoulder. “No, sir. I’ve been working on my ducking skills. No one’s been able to hit me in a good or two three months.”

The other man’s sniff was audible through the phone line. “Two or three months? You work too hard, Jethro. Don’t the Marines believe in vacations? Even the Almighty rested on the seventh day.”

Jethro closed his eyes briefly in pain. He’d told Gabe, repeatedly, that he wasn’t in the Marines anymore, but the old man never remembered. The deterioration of memory was inevitable, given Gabe’s age, but still painful.

“Well, sir, that’s actually why I’m calling.” Gibbs said. “I have a couple of weeks coming to me and I’m wondering if Betsy’s available? If the offer’s still open, that is?”

“Of course she is, boy!” Gabe’s enthusiasm was obvious. “Always for you, Jethro. The old gal misses you.”

“The feeling’s mutual, sir.” Gibbs assured him. “I know this is sudden, but would later today be all right?” Tony had arrived mid-morning and they’d napped for a couple of hours. It was early afternoon. They’d really have to hurry to get to the marina by dark but it was doable.

“Oh, that’s fine, that’s fine.” Gabe responded. “I don’t get to take Betsy out much anymore, but she’s always ready to go, especially for you. You want me to call Ben and have him stock her for you?”

“That’d be great, thanks. Except… could you have him lay in enough provisions for two?” Gibbs felt his cheeks get a bit warm.

“Oooh-hoo-hoo,” Gabe cackled. “A little romance, huh, boy?”

“Somethin’ like that, sir.” Jethro said sheepishly.

“Good, good,” his old friend responded. “You’ve been lonely too long, Jethro.”

“I’ve been married three times,” Gibbs protested.

“That didn’t stop you from being lonely,” the other man shrewdly pointed out.

Gibbs shook his head, even though he knew that Gabe couldn’t see him through the phone line. The old man knew him too well.

“It’s different this time,” Jethro told his friend. “Trust me, Gabe.”

“I always trust you, boy,” Gabe responded. “Betsy and me, we just want you to be happy.”

Jethro thought of the young man upstairs in his shower.

“Oh, I am happy, Gabe,” he vowed fervently. “I most certainly am.”

Tony slammed his apartment door behind him. Not because he was angry, but because he was in a big rush. He barely gave the neat-as-a-pin apartment a cursory glance. It looked like something out of a magazine, not his home. The blame for that was on his recent perfection obsession, but even the thought of that ordeal wasn’t enough to deter him from his task.

By the time he’d finished his shower, the pizza had arrived. Much to his frustration, Tony hadn’t been able to wheedle any information from Gibbs about his plans as they ate. And ate. Gibbs had bullied Tony into eating over half a pizza, which was at least one slice more than he really wanted to. DiNozzo had felt about ready to pop, partially from the food and partially from curiosity.

When they’d finally pushed back from the table, Gibbs had given Tony his marching orders.

“Go home,” the older man had said. “Stop your mail and everything like that you need to do, pack, and then get back here.”

“Awwww… Boss,” Tony had protested. “Can’t you at least tell me where we’re going? How am I supposed to pack if I don’t know the destination?”

Gibbs, not too surprisingly, was implacable. “The sooner you get movin’, the sooner you’ll find out.” He’d stopped in the process of cleaning the table long enough to give Tony a quick kiss. To his embarrassment, DiNozzo had found he’d needed the reassurance that Gibbs was just being Gibbs and wasn’t angry with him. “Now get your ass in gear.”

Tony had complained, whined, and come close to pouting, but it had done no good. Finally, he’d given in to the inevitable and simply gone home. If he’d broken most speed limits on the trip there, well, he didn’t get a ticket, so Gibbs wouldn’t find out. Tony figured, the quicker he got home and got done, the quicker he could get back to Gibbs and start their two weeks together.

Working for NCIS, his schedule was always iffy, so he’d quickly learned to have all his bills paid electronically. As for his mail, he’d found renting a PO box was better than having it delivered to his apartment. That way, if they got called out of the country, it wouldn’t overflow.

All he had to worry about was packing, but how did you pack for a destination you didn’t know?

Tony stripped as he approached his closet, grinning as he left the clothes on the floor. It felt good, after a couple of months of unnatural neatness, to be more of his usually sloppy self. He suspected that he and Gibbs would eventually find a compromise, but for now, he could let the clothes fall where they would.

DiNozzo contemplated his situation as he kicked his pants out of the way. It occurred to him that maybe Gibbs wasn’t being his usual close-mouthed self. Maybe there was a reason he wasn’t telling Tony where they were going. Maybe, just maybe, there was a method to his madness.

“All right, you’re on,” he challenged his absent lover.

So, Gibbs wasn’t going to tell him anything? He’d just see what he could figure out, based on his own knowledge of the man.

Tony let his fingers wander through his wardrobe, thinking as he did. He quickly brushed by the suits. Gibbs was not the sort of man to want to go anywhere that dressing up was mandatory. Come to think of it, other than his job, crossword puzzles, and his boat, Tony didn’t really have a clue about what Gibbs did like to do.

Wait a minute… boat.

Grinning, DiNozzo knew exactly what to pack.


~ End Part 1~


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