"Glaring at me, Jack, is a waste of time," Maybourne said. "I did this for you."
Jack crushed the empty coffee cup he held in his hand and grinned when Harry took an involuntary step back. His grin faded when he glanced over Maybourneís shoulder and viewed the vacant room behind him. They were standing alone in the hospitalís med-surg waiting area, a fact that spoke volumes to at least one of them, and it wasnít ole Harry.
"What do you mean, you did this for me?" he inquired. "I donít recall asking you for any favors."
Maybourne warily offered him a fresh cup of coffee. Jack took the steaming cup and returned to the spot heíd claimed once Tony was moved out of ICU and into a private room. Gazing out the windows, he looked down at the small meditation garden below. The sight of the beautifully landscaped area, along with its numerous benches and fountain, did nothing to calm his nerves.
Jethro was mad as hell at him, not to mention their boy lay sick as a dog not a hundred feet from where he stood. Teal'c was definitely not a happy camper and had wasted no time in using that damn eyebrow of his to say, ĎI told you so.í
Jack hated that eyebrow.
And now . . . he looked to the side . . . to top it all off, heíd been left to deal with Maybourne. His day was officially fucked.
Placing his coffee cup on the windowsill, Jack ran a hand through his hair and once again wished for a beer and a weapon. The beer would take the edge off and the weapon, well, heíd holster the weapon for now. No doubt shooting Maybourne was against some sort of hospital policy, which to his way of thinking was a damn shame.
The most annoying voice on Planet Earth interrupted his thoughts.
"Jack, Iím not blind," Maybourne said. "I can tell the lay of the land." The man reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Nice catch."
Screw hospital policy.
Jack turned sharply on his heel while at the same time reaching for the weapon he didnít possess. When his hand came up empty he used it instead to poke Maybourne in the chest.
"You know absolutely nothing," he corrected. "And if I was you, which thank God Iím not, Iíd be crawling back into whatever hole you slithered out of."
"Now, now," Maybourne replied in that condescending tone that made Jackís trigger finger itch, "is that any way to talk to the one who reunited you with your . . . shall I say . . . boyfriend?"
"Ow, ow, ow!"
Jack vigorously shook the hand used to dent Maybourneís jaw. He normally wasnít a violent man but right now -- he glared at the calculating smile spreading across Maybourneís ugly mug -- right now he could grab that meddlesome weasel off the floor, toss him through the window and not think twice about it.
He glanced at the window and mentally calculated the distance to the ground. It wasnít far enough.
"Harry, if you breathe one word of this . . . ."
That would certainly be the icing on the cake, Jack thought, his and Jethroís relationship made public knowledge.
He rested his forehead against the cool glass and sighed. It wasnít that he was afraid of being officially outed to Uncle Sam; he just didnít feel up to dealing with the fallout, especially now. He was too old, too tired and too set in his ways.
Frowning, Jack closed his eyes. As everyone knew he was a simple kind of guy. Give him a lake, a fishing pole and a cooler of ice-cold beer, and life was perfect. Add a certain trio to the picture, and it was downright heaven on earth.
Chaos and confusion on the other hand drove him absolutely nuts. Thatís why he could never stay for very long in Danielís lab. The clutter of books and papers, along with the scattered boxes of artifacts and whatnots disturbed his sense of orderliness in ways his friend never understood.
Tucking thoughts of Daniel back inside the corner of his heart reserved for unrequited hopes and dreams, Jack turned and faced Maybourne. It was going to kill him to say what he was going to say, but he had to do it. This time it wasnít all about Jack O'Neill. There were his lovers to consider.
"Harry, Iím not sure why youíre here, but . . . ."
Rubbing his jaw, Maybourne regained his feet. "An old friend called in a favor," he replied.
Jack waved off the explanation. "It doesnít matter. The damage is done. You spilled the beans, and Iím the one left holding the bag. General Hammond is going to have a field day."
Maybourne opened his mouth to speak but shut it quickly when hit with the formidable O'Neill glare.
"Donít talk," Jack instructed. "Donít say another word. Youíve said enough already."
Finishing off his now tepid coffee, he continued, "Harry, Iím not going to confirm nor deny what you think is going on here. Itís none of your damn business. And if you breathe a word of this to your cronies, well, just remember Teal'c is on my side."
Jack got right up in Maybourneís face. "We both know how he feels about you."
Once again, he cut Maybourne off. "What part of Ďdonít talkí do you *not* understand?"
Stalling for just a few seconds, Jack took the time to toss his empty coffee cup in the trash. "I canít believe Iím going to say this," he muttered.
Squaring his shoulders, he met Maybourneís inquisitive look head on. "Thanks, Harry. Thanks for helping Jethro."
The smile that screamed ĎIíve got you now, my prettyí was blinding, and Jack had to forcibly relax his fist.
"Jack, Jack," Maybourne clasped him on the arm. "No thanks are necessary. Youíd do the same for me, Iím sure."
Jack swallowed down the bile that rose in the back of his throat. "Yeah, right."
Maybourne patted him on the back before stepping away and gathering up his jacket. "Thatís good to hear, Jack. Itís nice to know I have friends in high places."
"Harry," Jack growled in warning.
A business card was tucked inside his shirt pocket.
"You can reach me here if you or your . . . Ďfriendí needs me again." Maybourne stopped just short of the waiting roomís exit, his smug grin disappearing momentarily. "Good luck with everything, Jack." Eye contact was made and held. "Seriously. Good luck. Gibbs seems to be one of the good guys. Donít let him get away like you did Dr. Jackson."
His forehead creased in confusion, Jack watched his old adversary leave the room. Had Harry known about him and Daniel? Had his feelings been that obvious?
He shook his head. God, he hated unanswered questions.
Glancing back at the empty doorway, he quietly spoke, "Donít worry, Harry. Jethro *is* a good guy, and Iím gonna hold onto him with both hands. That man is going nowhere, not if I can help it."
Jack exited the waiting room and walked the short distance down the hall to the room Tony had been transferred to earlier that morning. He cautiously opened the door and peeked in. He was met with a glare that challenged his own for intimidation.
Backing out, he let the door swing shut. Maybe heíd been a bit hasty in thinking Jethro wasnít going anywhere.
Jack returned to the waiting room and once again took up his post next to the windows. Could his day get any worse?
Maybourne is not to be trusted, O'Neill."
Jack tore his gaze from Tonyís pale features and glanced at his sitting companion. "Do I look like I was born yesterday, Teal'c? Of course, Harry canít be trusted."
Clambering to his feet, he stretched his arms high above his head. Hospital chairs were clearly not made for comfort. In fact, he was pretty sure they were purposefully designed by the hospital staff with a specific purpose in mind. An uncomfortable chair meant visitors leaving earlier than later. Fewer visitors, less people to whine and complain and get in their way.
Jack moved closer to the bed and gently placed his hand on Tonyís chest. "Nobodyís gettiní rid of me, Junior," he whispered to the sleeping man. "Weíre here for the duration, no matter how lumpy that pull-out cot is or how rock hard those chairs are. Weíre not leaving you alone."
Turning back to Teal'c, he continued with their conversation. "Harry did what he did for one purpose and one purpose only. Leverage." He resumed his seat and frowned heavily when his scrawny butt couldnít find a comfortable spot to rest itself upon. "No doubt weíll see ole Harry again."
Teal'c agreed with a grunt, which in all honesty was about all that needed to be said on the matter. Jack nodded his head and resumed his self-appointed scrutiny of their youngest lover.
Tony was still as pale as a ghost but at least he was breathing on his own. A brief two day stint with the ventilator had given his body and lungs the rest they needed, and the doctors were now predicting heíd be home within the week.
Jack briefly closed his eyes. It had been damn hard seeing Tony hooked up to so many machines -- the ventilator, the cardiac monitor, the multiple IV pumps. It had reminded him not only of Danielís last moments but also of the heartbreak that had accompanied his best friendís death. It was not a feeling he wanted to experience again.
Leaning forward in his chair, he stared at the foot that insisted on hanging out from beneath the covers. It went without saying that he cared for Tony. ĎHell, just be honest,í he admonished his heart. ĎWe love the boy. Not as much as we love Jethro but darn near close.í
"I stand firm in my decision, O'Neill," Teal'c interrupted his silent confession. "As soon as Tony is recovered from this illness, I will tell him the truth."
Jack watched his friend wrestle his large bulk free of the chair he was sitting in and walk toward Tonyís bed. Teal'c carefully tucked the disobedient foot back under the covers, a task he had performed countless times since their arrival three days ago. The Jaffa warrior then moved to the head of the bed and carded his fingers through the tousled strands of hair strewn across Tonyís forehead. The gesture spoke volumes, and Jack found himself looking away.
"There is another matter I wish to discuss at this moment," Teal'c announced without warning. He turned and pinned Jack with his formidable gaze. "Gibbs is most upset with you, O'Neill."
"Tell me something I donít know."
Jack glanced at the third empty chair keeping vigil with him and Teal'c. Jethro had returned to NCIS headquarters to file a report on the case involving Tonyís dosing with anthrax. His lover had grumbled loud and long about leaving their boy but eventually left with the promise to return as soon as possible.
Jack took a second to check his watch before returning his attention to Jethroís chair. The fact that it was on the other side of Teal'cís chair told him in no uncertain terms just how mad his man was with him.
Mad as in no nookie for the next millennium . . . at least.
Jack scrubbed his face. He was tired and horny and in need of one serious, rib-cracking hug.
"If you plan on spilling your guts to Tony, we need to check in with Hammond sooner than later."
Getting to his feet, Jack bypassed the chair next to his and ran his fingers along the arm of the third chair. "Heíll have our asses if he gets wind of Harryís little indiscretion."
"And what about your mate?" Teal'c asked.
"What about Jethro?" Jack moved to stand opposite his friend. He added his own styling alteration to Tonyís hair, coaxing a disorderly curl behind his ear. "Iím sure heíll come around eventually."
Of course no one needed to know that Hell would probably be frozen over by the time that happened.
Jack opened his mouth to offer an excuse for his loverís attitude, but Teal'c beat him to the punch.
"Eventually is not acceptable, O'Neill," he declared.
Teal'c stood back from the bed and assumed his normal Ďat restí stance. Jack knew instantly he was in trouble.
"I have decided Tony requires an environment devoid of stress if he is to heal in a timely manner," Teal'c said. "The discord I have witnessed between you and Gibbs is detrimental to this objective. Stop it."
Jack grimaced when his friend reached forward and grabbed the hand that had seen its share of abuse during the past couple of days. First Jethro, then Maybourneís jaw and now Teal'c. His gun hand would never be the same.
"You know thatís easier said than done," Jack grumbled. "Jethroís not exactly in an open frame of mind right now."
Teal'c squeezed his hand, and Jack nearly bit his tongue in half to keep from yelling.
"Open his mind, O'Neill," the grim-faced warrior ordered. "Or else."
"Or else what?" Jack jerked his hand free. Grabbing the freshly filled water pitcher that sat close by, he dunked his hand in the chilled water. It felt glorious.
Teal'c aimed the *eyebrow* at him. "Solve your problems or else I will insist the two of you be removed from the premises."
Jack took his improvised ice pack and returned to the row of chairs. He childishly kicked Jethroís before looking back over his shoulder at Teal'c.
"Read my lips, Murray, easier said than done."
"Wait up, Jethro."
Jack took one last swallow of coffee before hurrying after his lover. The two of them had agreed Teal'c needed some private time with Tony and grabbing a bite to eat was as good an excuse as any to get them out of the room. The meal had also proven to be the perfect opportunity for Jack to make amends.
"Fuck you, Jethro," he muttered beneath his breath as he forced his way through a cackling group of nursing students blocking the cafeteriaís exit. "What happened to the ĎWeíll talkí crap you were spouting three days ago? Got cold feet all of sudden? Donít want to hear the truth?"
Gibbs had his hand on the door leading to the stairs by the time he caught up with him. "Not the stairs again," Jack groused. "Ever heard of an elevator?"
Gibbs ignored him and threw open the door.
Halfway between the sixth and seventh floor his arthritic knees sang out a major protest, and Jack wasted no time in putting a halt to his loverís silent retreat.
"Iím sorry," he forced through clenched teeth.
Gibbs came to a dead stop but didnít turn around. Jack waited a full sixty seconds before touching him on the arm. "Did you hear me? I said Iím sorry."
Jack nearly sagged with relief. It wasnít the response heíd expected, but it was at least something.
Delaying his answer, he closed the distance between them. "You know why," he answered. Planting one foot on the step Jethro occupied, Jack cautiously wrapped an arm around his manís lean waist. Once he determined Jethro wasnít going to jerk free or better yet, belt him one, he moved closer and briefly buried his face in the faded softness of the jersey sweatshirt his lover wore.
"Youíve been in my shoes," Jack quietly stated, "gone on missions youíll never be able to tell anyone about. Youíve been there, done that. You know from firsthand experience what Iím dealing with."
Jack was caught by surprise when Jethro turned and hauled him next to him on the step. He was even more astounded when his grim-faced lover pulled him into a full body hug. It was like coming home.
Minutes passed as the two of them savored the embraceís physical closeness. The sound of voices, the banging of doors, the clamor of feet ascending and descending the stairs above and below them -- none of that intruded upon their moment together.
Jack would have been one happy soldier if the hug had lasted a whole lot longer, but it was not to be. Before he knew it, his lover had shoved him away and was standing with his arms folded across his chest on the landing three steps above him. One glance at Jethroís face and he realized he wasnít in the clear yet.
Obviously actions did *not* speak louder than words.
He opened his mouth to apologize again, but Jethro stopped him with a wave of his hand.
"I understand the secrecy," the NCIS agent admitted.
The admission was colored with resentment, which only heaped another handful of coals upon Jackís head. He understood where Jethro was coming from. He hated being lied to as much as the next man. But sometimes it just couldnít be helped. Besides, it wasnít exactly lying, he rationalized. It had merely been a case of withholding information. Keeping your mouth shut and lying were two different things, and Jethro should know that.
His loverís next words proved him right.
"I donít like it, but I understand," Gibbs went on to say. "And Iíll understand even better if you leave me the number of a reliable contact person, someone who wonít give me the runaround in case something like this happens again."
He pinned Jack with his unforgiving gaze. "Tony was dying, you asshole, and his only request was to see you and Teal'c one last time."
It went without saying that his lover could move lightening fast when he wanted to. Jack wasnít expecting such a demonstration and grunted in pain when Jethro, without warning, grabbed him by the balls.
"You have no idea the shit I had to wade through in order to reach you," Gibbs stated heatedly. "Not to mention the emotional hell of wanting to be at Tonyís side yet being unable to because I was racing against time to find the antidote. I needed you, Jack, needed you here. If those damn scientists hadnít programmed in a failsafe . . . ."
Snapping his mouth shut, Gibbs swallowed hard and looked away.
Jack moved to comfort his distraught lover but was held immobile by the hand glued to his crotch. "Jethro, babe, youíve got to know---"
"Donít make me hunt you down again," Gibbs hoarsely ordered, "Believe you me, you wonít like the consequences."
Jack handed over the number to General Hammondís private phone without hesitation. He wasnít a fool. He knew pissing off Jethro for a second time would put a definite end to his plans for growing old.
The bruising grip on his balls relaxed followed by a pat to his crotch. The no-nonsense tap was in no way the loving caresses he craved 24/7, but who was he to complain? His head was still attached to his shoulders. That in itself was a major achievement considering how angry Jethro was at that moment.
"For yours and Tonyís eyes only. Got it?" Jack instructed. He watched Jethro pocket the folded piece of paper. "I mean it, Jethro. You show that number to anyone else and both our butts will be in slings."
Jack withstood the intense scrutiny Jethro subjected him to for all of thirty seconds. "What? Is my shirt on backwards? Is something stuck between my teeth? What?"
Gibbs finally shook his head. "Like I said, I understand the secrecy. Not exactly something youíd want to broadcast to the world." The man let out a sigh that was clearly laden with confusion, not to mention frustration. "What I donít understand is how in the hell are we going to make this work?"
"Make what work?" Jack raked a hand through his hair. Here it was, the conversation heíd been dreading since the day heíd declared his love for Jethro.
Gibbs looked straight at him. "Donít act the fool, Jack. You know what Iím talking about. Us, our relationship, the commitment we made to each other. Taking the red-eye flight every two weeks or so is getting old, really old."
"Whatís wrong with the way things are now?" Jack asked. "If itís not broken, donít mess with it, thatís my motto."
He slid his hand up Jethroís arm and wrapped it around the back of his neck. It had been exactly four weeks, six days and . . . uh . . . eighteen hours since heíd indulged in his favorite pastime. Time to screw hospital policy again.
"Kiss me, please" he asked as nicely as he knew how.
It wasnít nice enough.
"Get a grip on yourself, Jack," Gibbs admonished before pulling free. "Tonyís lying in a hospital bed one floor above our heads. And if you havenít noticed, weíre standing in a public stairwell. Iím not going to make out with you, not here, not now."
Jack straightened to his full height before stiffly moving past Jethro. The admonishment had stung like hell but in all fairness, it was fully deserved. As much as he wanted to lose himself in Jethroís arms, now wasnít the time.
After climbing to the next landing, he glanced down and, for the first time since his arrival at the hospital, took a close look at his lover.
Jethro looked like death warmed over to put it mildly. The man had lost weight, which wasnít exactly a good thing considering how lean he was to begin with. His face was gaunt with mile-deep grooves carved on either side of his thinly stretched lips. Add to that smudges of bruising under both eyes, and suddenly Jack got the message.
His lover had been through hell and back and had done so alone.
Jack swore under his breath.
"Iím an ass, a real, honest-to-God ass."
Stumbling down the few steps that separated them, Jack threw his arms around Jethroís shoulders and hugged him as hard as he could.
"Never again," he whispered to him. "Never again will you face something like this on your own."
"And just how are you gonna deliver on that promise?" Gibbs gruffly demanded.
It took some serious crushing of ribs before Jethro relaxed enough to return his hug. Jack kept the embrace brief; one dressing down a day was enough for him.
Dropping his arms to his side, Jack reached for Jethroís hand and let loose the tiniest of smiles when his touch wasnít outright rejected. Maybe there was hope for him yet.
"I canít speak for Teal'c, but Iím thinking itís time to hang it up. Retire once and for all. What do you think?"
Jack waited while the commitment band adorning his wrist was repeatedly traced. When Jethro remained silent, Jack claimed his loverís other hand and mimicked his actions, thumbing the thick braiding of gold heíd given his lover shortly after their six-month anniversary.
The present had been late which was par for the course considering not one member of the O'Neill male clan could be classified as sentimental much less romantic. Luckily for him, the bracelet had been received with as much enthusiasm as had been demonstrated when Jethro had given Jack his gift two weeks earlier. Exactly who had the funniest walk following the Ďthank-youí fuckfest that followed was still up for debate according to the youngest member of their foursome.
Jack swiped at the uncharacteristic moisture collecting in his eyes.
He had nearly lost the two men he loved most; it was definitely time to rethink things.
Squeezing Jethroís hands, he took a deep breath and quietly asked the one question that would determine his future.
"As you well know, I like looking at the stars. Do you think thereís room for my telescope on that boat of yours?