Where Angels Fear to Tread

By: lila-blue

 

GibbsTonylila.jpg (10825 bytes)

 

"You okay?"

This was the second time Kate Todd had seen her fellow agent grab onto the side of the van in an effort to keep upright.

"Just dizzy," Tony DiNozzo muttered, squinting at the green-lit surveillance screens in the dark confines of what, for more than half the week, had been their four-wheeled prison. "How much longer are we going to wait, anyway?"

"Patience, DiNozzo." Gibbs leaned in toward the nearest monitor. "You'll get to run in, weapon at ready, soon enough."

"We've been on this surveillance four days and nights, boss. I just think we deserve a little downtime."

"If you're bucking for that sick day again, forget it." The senior agent looked up, the green light reflected from the screens haloing his graying hair. "So help me, if you call in sick tomorrow, you better be dead."

"Yeah, yeah." DiNozzo waved him off. "I got that part loud and clear. No rest for the weary."

"Or in your case," observed Gibbs after a sip of what had to be his fourteenth straight cup of coffee, "the wicked."

He put the cup down. "You see that?"

"Oh yeah, it's going down." Kate's hand moved automatically to check the position of her weapon.

"Let's rock and roll, agents," said Gibbs sliding the van door open.

"Finally," muttered DiNozzo. He stumbled as he stepped from the van, earning a frown from Gibbs in the process.

Yeah, this was definitely the way to get on Gibbs' good side. Not that he'd actually found which side of Gibbs might be considered 'good' even after two years of close proximity.

~oOo~

"No, DiNozzo. What part of the two letters don't you understand? The ‘N’ or the ‘O’?"

Tony’s head was still spinning, but at least it was a casual kind of slow loop-de-loop and not the gut-twisting carnival ride that had landed him on his butt at the bottom of the stairs of his apartment building that morning. "I just need a day or two. A small break."

"Let me guess," said Gibbs. "You've got expiring frequent flyer miles? You've won a free weekend at some condo place up in the Adirondacks?"

"Really, boss. I just need a break."

Gibbs sauntered over to the younger agent's desk and flipped open the top folder of a Pisa-esque tower of paperwork. "Your status report on the McKinley case should have been done two weeks ago."

"Two weeks ago you had us camped out in Trailers-R-Us looking for stolen jet parts."

"You could have taken your paperwork."

"Taken my--" DiNozzo suddenly grabbed at the desk as the room did a brief imitation of a Tilt-A-Whirl. "Whoa."

"Yo, DiNozzo."

Tony shook his head to try to clear the vertigo.

"Go see an ear, nose and throat guy and get that inner ear thing fixed. I don't want you pulling your weapon one day and falling flat on your face. You got it?"

"Oh yeah. I got it." DiNozzo managed a pitifully fake smile. "I got it."

~oOo~

"Hey, boss." DiNozzo hunched his tall, rangy body into the chair across from Gibbs’ own. "You know that ear thing that was making me dizzy?"

"Yeah." Gibbs looked up from his e-mail when the silence became lengthy. "You got something to tell me, or are you just gonna sit there and stare blankly until I give you that sick day you've been whining for?"

"Um," Tony licked dry lips and his hand pushed back the wayward strands of his hair. "I took your advice and saw a doctor. Actually I've seen a couple of them at this point. It's not my ears." He apparently found something terribly fascinating about the few inches of Gibbs' desk directly in front of him. "It's MS."

This was just a murmur and Gibbs had to lean forward to try to catch it. "Multiple sclerosis?" he confirmed just to be sure he'd heard the whispered words.

"Uh, yeah, from my symptoms they think it's the progressive kind, maybe the kind that doesn't go into remission." He pushed a piece of paper across the desktop with a hand that was more than a little shaky. "That's... that's my resignation. I..." Now that he really looked at him, DiNozzo looked stunned and more than a little lost. "I'll clean out my desk tomorrow. I think I have disability insurance. I pay for something, or maybe that was life insurance." Pushing himself up from the chair, he swayed a little as the disorder stealing his balance made itself known again. "I, uh, I'll tell the others."

"Tony!" Gibbs rose to reach across and latch a hand onto DiNozzo's arm as the younger man’s knees gave. "Sit down. That's an order."

Still looking dazed, Tony merely mumbled "yes, boss" and sank back into the chair.

Gibbs cursed silently. This wasn't his forte. Gibbs was an interrogator, and not exactly of the finesse type. He wasn't much of a manager, either, at least in the touchy-feely department, and comfort wasn't something he had a lot of skill at - you could ask his ex-wives. But he kept his hand on DiNozzo's bicep as the younger man eased himself back down into the chair.

"Stay there," he ordered. "I'm going to go get my stuff and then I'm going to drive you home. Okay?"

DiNozzo's eyes were locked on the hand clasping his arm as if he expected it to make a sudden move he'd need to defend against. "I can take a cab. I took one over here."

Shit. How long had DiNozzo not been driving?

"Stay," Gibbs repeated. "Do not move from that chair until I get back."

~oOo~

"Which way?"

Their ride had finally ended in one of those trendy, upscale apartment complexes, the kind with willow trees curtaining manicured walking trails. And, Gibbs noted sourly, stairs. Lots of stairs.

"Second floor, building B."

The only time DiNozzo had spoken the entire trip was to give him directions, so he pulled silently up at the foot of the building, parking next to a concrete and steel outer staircase.

Christ. As ditzy as DiNozzo's balance had been on the walk to the parking garage, there's no way he should be going up and down that.

"This place got an elevator?"

A short bark of laughter greeted the question. "Nope."

Probably, mused Gibbs, a short bark of laughter was exactly what it deserved. DiNozzo staggered slightly as he got out of the car, but shook it off. When he reached the offending staircase he took the right-side rail in hand and levered himself up the first riser.

Gibbs watched as the younger man's left leg nearly gave as he mounted the step, his own guilt growing. How long had this been this bad and how the hell did no one notice? How the hell did he not notice? It had seemed like the kid had taken to daily whining ... Christ, not whining. He'd complained he was tired and dizzy. Always dizzy. And Gibbs had told him to shut up. Repeatedly. It was Todd who'd finally badgered the younger man enough that he found a doctor, and not without a few little private asides of griping of her own.

Tony stopped beside one of the identically neutrally-painted doors. "Okay, you got me here. Thanks, by the way. I'd invite you in but I'm not much of a housekeeper."

"You going to be okay tonight?"

DiNozzo palmed the wall to keep himself steady. "Yeah. Sure."

Gibbs nodded. "Then I'll see you in the morning."

"What? Why?"

"I never approved that sick day." Headed back down the stairs, Gibbs turned back to look one more time at his junior agent. DiNozzo was struggling a bit with the lock, but Gibbs ignored it. "Seven o'clock and I don't want to wait."

Confused, and still rocked by dizziness, DiNozzo did what came naturally to him, at least where Gibbs was concerned -- he demurred. "Yeah, boss. Seven o'clock."

~oOo~

"I thought you'd gone home." The medical examiner watched Gibbs pace around the autopsy table, oblivious to the open chest of their latest victim. "I was just about to weigh the heart, if you're looking for some entertainment."

"Ducky, what do you know about MS?"

"Interesting lesions in the white matter at autopsy. Axonal transaction identified by the presence of terminal Axonal ovoids."

"Ducky..."

"May I ask for what reason you are asking? Is this about the case?"

"It's about DiNozzo. Those dizzy spells he's been getting."

"I see," said Ducky, lowering his head slightly and giving a small pat of condolence to the face of the corpse who was having to wait. "The central nervous system controls much of the body's functioning, and much of that activity passes through the white matter at some point. White matter is rather like the body's optical cable."

"And that's what makes him dizzy?"

"Vestibular ataxia. Lesions in the white matter can produce all manner of symptoms: blindness, paralysis, spasticity, tremors, loss of bladder and bowel control, impotence."

"Ducky, I don't need the whole encyclopedia." Gibbs hissed sharply. "It's bad, then, I mean, that's what you're saying."

"Actually it's rather a fickle disease. But, if I remember correctly, patients who experience a sudden onset of motor symptoms tend to be hit harder than someone whose first symptom is, say, optic neuritis."

"Tremors? Trouble walking? That kind of thing?"

The pathologist looked long and hard at the chief field agent. "Yes. That... sort of thing."

Gibbs gave a small frown. "Is it fatal?"

"Not generally, no. His life span should be normal. His energy level will suffer."

"And he could end up paralyzed in a wheelchair."

"Possibly," Ducky picked up a wicked looking electric saw, contemplating the inner workings of the body on display in front of him. "I believe the most common symptom is fatigue."

"Can he keep working?"

"I'd rather think that would be up to him. The associated cognitive dysfunction is usually quite mild and I think it's mainly a matter of speed of performance not the performance itself. So, yes, Anthony should be able to work, probably not in the field, but possibly in research. It would be best if I get you the number of my good friend, Sherri Lenz, she's a specialist in the field. I am not qualified-"

"This isn't on the record, Ducky. I just wanted an idea of what we're working with here."

Gibbs looked at the silent member of their trio. The vic was young, probably about DiNozzo's age. There were worse things than a diagnosis. Ending up on Ducky's table, being one of them.

"I better go; you've got a... date" Gibbs gestured at the burdened gurney. "I'll let you know... something."

"Please do that." Ducky pulled the down the clear protective eye gear and fired up the saw. Then he shut it back off. "Jethro--"

Gibbs stiffened at his given name. "Yes, Donald."

"If he wants to work," Ducky's lilting accent always reminded him of a paternal English prep school teacher, "you should let him try."

"I'll take that into consideration, Dr. Mallard."

~oOo~

It was a little past seven when Gibbs again rolled to a stop outside the well-kept apartment building. No DiNozzo in sight. With a sigh, Gibbs put on the parking brake and left the car running in the early morning chill. He bounded up the stairs, his steps pounding a steady rhythm on the concrete risers.

Lifting a fist to knock on DiNozzo’s door, he found it swung open instead and could barely pull the punch that threatened. Equally as startled, Tony stepped backward and his slow left foot caught on the rug, sending him butt-hard on the floor, left leg crumpled under him.

"Sorry about that, DiNozzo." Gibbs reached a hand to haul him up, but took no more notice of the episode than that. Tony brushed himself off then, limping slightly, shut the door and silently followed Gibbs out onto the landing.

So that, Tony supposed, was the way it was going to be – Gibbs was going to be "Gibbs." And he was going to, what, pretend he didn’t have a debilitating condition that would eventually lead to his very early retirement? Gibbs might have a control-freak nature and think this could be overcome by sheer willpower, but Gibbs didn’t have a carnival ride spinning in his head, didn’t have a half-numb leg slowing him down.

Gibbs went down the stairs much slower than he’d gone up them, a hand on the railing, using his body to unobtrusively shield Tony in case the younger man stumbled again. If he fell, it was going to be into him, not down the steep steps.

~oOo~

The ride had, again, been made in remarkable silence, considering DiNozzo’s usual propensity to talk his way through … anything.

Gibbs swung into the Starbucks drive-through and fished out his wallet. "How do you take your coffee?"

"You’re buying me coffee?"

"Don’t look so shocked, DiNozzo; I’m sure I’ve bought you coffee before."

Tony fiddled nervously with the knob to the glove compartment. "No, you haven’t."

"Okay, well I’m buying you coffee now. How do you take it?"

"Um…"

"I’ve seen you drink coffee, DiNozzo. It shouldn’t be that hard a question."

Tony swallowed hard. "Black is fine."

Gibbs nodded in approval. "Good choice."

~oOo~

"We having a meeting, Gibbs?"

"Of a sort," Gibbs gestured to one of the free seats in Abby’s lab and Kate joined the lab tech and Ducky on the rolling chairs.

Abby silently swung her seat back and forth while the three of them waited. Even the avuncular ME was strangely quiet. And Gibbs was uncharacteristically in motion, pacing a precise three steps to one side and then three steps to the other.

"We’re waiting on Tony?" surmised Kate when the uncomfortable silence became lengthy.

"Ah," Gibbs crossed his arms across his chest, "no."

"Okay," acknowledged Kate. "Then we’re waiting on …"

"Me," admitted Gibbs. "There’s an issue we need to discuss."

"And this issue concerns Tony." Kate found herself suddenly defensive of her sometime partner, "I mean he’s not here, so—"

"Tony asked that I do this." Gibbs ducked his head before looking back up. "Not that it’s making me particularly comfortable. Tony has been diagnosed with MS."

"It’s the cause of the dizziness he has been experiencing," put in the medical examiner, leaning forward. "I’m afraid the current prognosis is not particularly kind. His physician believes the onset of his symptoms point to a non-remitting diagnosis."

Abby frowned. "So Tony’s going to wind up in a wheelchair?"

"That is a possibility." Ducky clasped his hands together. "He has shown symptoms of vestibular ataxia and numbness in his legs."

"Our main concern right now is that he can’t go into the field. I’ve spoken with the director about transferring McGee to Tony’s position. If we realigned the job duties and created a research position--"

Kate found herself unable to get past the lab tech’s prognostication. "It’s hard to think of Tony … handicapped."

"Yeah, but if you think about it, he's already been working with a handicap." Abby sucked thoughtfully at the Big Gulp she’d retrieved from her desk. "His parents are filthy stinkin' rich."

"You're kidding me," said Kate

Gibbs had tilted his head slightly taking in this new information.

"Nope," replied Abby, "heard of NewGen BioMed? Started out in med supplies. Now they’ve got their greedy little corporate hands in medical imaging and, get this, DNA sequencing." Abby leaned back in the lab chair, tilting up on her toes. "Multi-million dollar, closely held, family company."

Kate shook her head as if trying to rattle the idea into place. "Family being … DiNozzo?"

"He said his father bought him a chain saw," said Gibbs, frowning.

"Unlikely," divined Abby. "Tony’s been officially disowned. Kind of like Charles VI, or Jackie Chan in The Legend of Drunken Master."

"And you know all this because…" Kate prodded.

"I was working late one night and Tony, I guess he didn’t have anything better to do, so we talked."

"Admittedly, Tony can be…" Kate paused, searching for the right descriptor "…immature. But what did he do that made them disown him?"

"Became a cop," supplied the forensic specialist, sliding the straw up and down in the sweating plastic cup.

Gibbs’ face took on a sharp, pinched look. "His father disowned him for becoming a cop?"

"I think he was hoping for a new vice president instead of a patrol officer."

"Tony’s rich." The way Kate repeated it, it sounded almost whimsical.

"Tony was rich," corrected Abby.

The dark-haired agent exchanged a look with Gibbs. "You think they know?"

~oOo~

"It’s a dog."

"Yes, he is. And his name is Rufus."

"Rufus," repeated Tony. He had the vague feeling he should be … suspicious. "Big dog."

"Yes, he is." Gibbs handed him the leash. "But you’re a pretty big guy."

"I don’t get it." Tony never tightened his hand around the leather loop and it simply fell to the floor. "I can barely take care of myself, boss. I don’t think a pet is the best—"

"Not ‘pet’. Service dog. If you two work well together, that is. He’s specially trained to help people with balance problems walk."

"You’re kidding me."

"No."

"Is this a condition of my continued employment?" asked Tony, eyeing the dog warily.

He didn’t notice Gibbs kneeling down until he felt the hand on his knee. Then he turned his head so quickly that the carnival ride snuck up on him. "Whoa."

"Tilt-a-whirl?" asked Gibbs.

"Himalaya in reverse."

Gibbs braced him with a hand against his shoulder. Tony’s other knee was now supporting a fair amount of large, furry weight. Tony waved them both off, not sure what to make of the double show of support.

"A dog, boss? You got me a dog?"

~oOo~

The light hurt his eyes and he squinted at the two blurry copies of Gibbs, trying to mentally force them to combine into one seriously scowling likeness. Two Gibbs were more than he could handle right now. "I thought they called Abby."

"They did. I just happened to be there at the time."

"I wanted Abby," protested Tony, trying to not make the whining sound like … whining.

"Well, she was in the middle of something, so you got me."

Gibbs bent down and peered at the shiner rapidly swelling Tony’s right eye shut. He looked reproachfully over at Rufus who whimpered in the corner where someone had tied him to the treatment room’s supply cabinet.

"Don’t look at him that way. It wasn’t his fault."

"Stairs," surmised Gibbs, lightly touching Tony’s wrapped wrist. "You fell down the fucking stairs."

"Well, grace never was one of my attributes. Ask Todd."

"You’re moving."

Tony tried to clear his aching head. "What?"

"You’re moving," repeated Gibbs.

"I’ve got a two-year lease."

"Then you’re breaking it." Gibbs caught himself starting to push back the lock of hair curling drunkenly over Tony’s forehead and quickly lowered his open hand. "Better it than you."

Lending his grip, he let Tony pull himself up. "They said you can go, but just take it easy. Sit there while I untie Rufus." He turned back to see DiNozzo holding himself upright with a white-knuckled grip on the gurney. "What part of ‘sit still’ escaped you, DiNozzo?"

He wrapped Tony’s free hand around the harness, feeling Rufus instinctively position himself to give the swaying body stability. Then with a gentle prodding he managed to separate the tightly clasped fingers from the gurney frame.

"Let go, Tony. I’ve got you." When DiNozzo finally stopped swaying he took the first step toward the door. "Tonight you’re coming home with me."

"You’ve got stairs," mumbled Tony.

"And I’d advise you to avoid them."

"Gibbs."

"It’s got a first floor master bedroom, you know that."

"That would be your bedroom, boss."

Gibbs tucked an arm around the younger man’s waist, ignoring the protest. "Not tonight."

~oOo~

"How come you never told me your folks were rich?"

"How come you never told me, like …anything," countered Tony.

"Okay," Gibbs straddled the kitchen chair. "What do you want to know?"

"What’s with the ex-wives?"

"Same reason you’re here." Gibbs ducked his head. "I’m a sucker for a pretty face."

Tony sighed. "I didn’t say anything about answering honestly, did I?

Gibbs took a reflective sip of his coffee. "No, you didn’t."

"I’ll never learn."

"No, you won’t." He tried not to let the confused look on Tony’s face cause him to reveal any more than he had already. "So, the folks are rich?"

"Wealthy. They would never say ‘rich’."

"So, what are you doing sitting my kitchen?"

"Ah," Tony looked around the small but tidy room. "I wasn’t exactly keen on following in my father’s footsteps."

"You talk to them?"

"Mother’s Day. I call once a year on Mother’s Day."

"She talk to you?"

"She tells me that if I just give up these stupid ideas about being in law enforcement I’ll be welcomed back with open arms."

"Would you?"

Tony looked down at Rufus who was busy draping himself over his shoes. The large, furry body hid the new brace that strengthened his left leg.

"With a wheelchair looming in my future? That wasn’t in my father’s plan either." DiNozzo squinted in the direction of the small window over the sink. "You have kids with any of those ex-wives, boss?"

"Nope."

Tony picked up his own cup. "Good choice."

~oOo~

"What’s up, Abs?" Tony blinked at the bright orange mass blocking his usual path. He swayed a bit and Rufus counterpulled, steadying him. "What is it?"

"What it looks like."

"Ah … yeah." The lab tech turned around to catch DiNozzo putting out a hand toward the life raft she had sitting on two saw horses. His fingers stretched out to brush the reinforced fabric then his palm cupped around the curved edge following the smooth bulk until he reached the rope handle. More confident now, he straightened, returning his hand to his side. "You expecting a flood?"

"Uh …" Abby watched as Tony used the strangled syllable to refix on her position. "It’s from the Rivera case."

Satisfied he’d picked the Goth’s white lab coat out from the bland mosaic of the rest of the lab, Tony fastened his gaze on the oval of her face, pale beneath her darkened hair.

"You … okay, Tony?"

"Got a little problem, actually."

"You need to sit down?"

"No, I …" Tony ducked his head. "It’s not my legs. It’s my … uh …" Tony’s forced smile was more of a grimace than a grin, "… I can’t read the computer screen anymore, even with the font pumped all the way up, and if I can’t do database searches there’s not much left I can do. I just thought you might—"

"We can fix this."

DiNozzo smiled, a real smile this time. "Abby, I’d think you could fix most anything. I guess that’s why I’m here. I’m just not sure this is … fixable."

"Tony, my parents are deaf. When the phone or the doorbell rings their lights go on and off. When I want to talk to them, I used the TTDY. And when I want to talk to them in person, I sign. I’m thinking somebody’s probably worked on your computer problem before."

"If it’s something that needs to be requisitioned, we’ll have to tell Gibbs."

"And that’s a … bad thing," deduced Abby.

Tony sighed. "I’m thinking it’s not a good one."

~oOo~

"Anthony, I do not think I am the proper physician—"

"Just look at him, Ducky." Abby nodded encouragingly at the ME as she helped Tony hoist himself on the exam table.

"What seems to be the problem?"

"My vision’s getting worse. It’s like I’m trapped in an early Kandinsky."

"Around the time he founded Der Blaue Reiter?" Ducky grinned. "He gave this wonderful quote. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings."

"Forget I said it," moaned Tony.

"There is nothing wrong with being a connoisseur of the fine arts." The medical examiner gently lifted the right eyelid. Tony blinked at the intrusion of the beam from the penlight. Then he repeated the action. "Your pupilary response seems adequate."

"I see the light. I just don’t see much else."

"Color?"

"Yeah, color is still there, maybe not so … bright. Just no detail." Tony brought his hand up, his errant fingers soundly smacking his reluctant physician in the nose. "Sorry!" In embarrassment he launched himself off the cold metal of the table and, legs not prepared to hold him, nearly landed face down in the floor, but two pairs of arms wrapped around him, steadying him.

"Easy," soothed the Englishman. "Come on." Together he and Abby wrestled him back on the table. "Stay there." A hand patted Tony’s shoulder before the ME shuffled away.

"We have nearly everything in that storeroom. I believe, if I’m not mistaken, there is still an evidence box in there from Jethro’s first case." Tony tilted his head in the direction of the scuffle the ME seemed to be having with whatever he’d dragged out of storage. "This is a Snellen eye chart, devised in 1862 by Dr. Hermann Snellen, an Ophthalmologist of the Dutch persuasion. If you would, measure off twenty feet and mark it, Abby."

"Sure."

"Come stand here," said Ducky, easing Tony from his resting place and wrapping his hand around Rufus’ harness. When he’d positioned his subject properly and made sure he was steady, he went back and flipped the sheet hiding the chart.

"Tell me what you see."

Tony squinted at the only clear letter on the rectangular white blur. "E," he finally conceded.

"And?" urged Ducky.

"That’s it, just … E."

"No others?"

Frowning, DiNozzo tried to force the smeared shadows below the ‘E’ into something recognizable but they remained formless blobs of gray.

In the silence, the ME re-covered the offending chart.

A warm hand took Tony’s wrist. "Come sit down."

The young agent laughed thinly. "Good enough for ‘blind’?"

"Legally, yes. At this point, I’m afraid so. When have you seen Dr. Lenz?"

"It’s only been a few days; she said in most cases this resolves itself."

"Anthony," Ducky knelt, ignoring the creaking of his knees, "this is an inflammation of your optic nerve. It may resolve. It also may … not. But what you need is some cortico-steroids to reduce the inflammation."

Tony reached in his pocket and produced a prescription bottle. "That’s these, right?"

Ducky took the bottle, turning it over in his palm to read the label. "Yes, this is prednisone." He placed the drugs back in Tony’s hand.

"I’m taking them."

"You should be resting, as well."

"It’s not like I’m straining myself here, doc."

Abby watched as Ducky lowered his head, gathering himself. "All right," he said, patting Tony’s leg, his cheerful voice belied to by the look of worry on his face. "Why don’t you stay down here with Abby and relax. I’m sure she has some soothing music you could listen to."

"Sure, I just got Dark Orchid’s Kali Yuga CD."

The lab tech’s grin was faked but, with luck, Ducky was the only one who noticed. He pointed toward the door mouthing "Gibbs."

~oOo~

 

"How long have you not been able to see?"

"Define ‘see’," countered Tony, fixing his eyes on the featureless skin-colored oval he knew was Gibbs’ face.

"Then read this." A rectangle of mosaic color was slammed down on the table in front of him.

"I’m not reading a cereal box, Gibbs."

"How’d you know it was a cereal box?"

"’Cause I’m not blind?"

"Damn it, DiNozzo. You could kill yourself. Rufus is not a guide dog."

"Most cases of optic neuritis resolve within a few days," Tony retorted, pushing the offending box away.

"How long?" repeated Gibbs.

"It hasn’t gotten worse in a couple of days."

"But it hasn’t gotten any better, either."

"Ah … no," admitted Tony.

"What can you see?"

DiNozzo dropped his head, his mumbled answer barely heard. "I can see the ‘E’."

"The ‘E’?"

"Yeah, Ducky dragged out an eye chart and I can see the ‘E’."

"That means you’re 20/200."

"Yeah, and it also means technically you were right, Gibbs. Is that what you wanted to hear? You’re right and I’m blind."

~oOo~

 

"Gibbs?" The basement resounded with a steadily rhythmic scrape and smelled slightly sweet, like young wood.

"Don’t you dare come down here," ordered Gibbs.

"Come on, boss. I’m bored." At Tony’s feet, Rufus hunkered across the top step protectively.

Which, to Gibbs’ mind, made him smarter than his owner.

"I can sand," wheedled DiNozzo.

"Do not move." Gibbs put down his microplane. "If you’re going to come down here I’m going to come get you."

Tony held up a hand in front of his face. "Actually it’s not too bad this morning. I think I can see fingers."

"Come on," muttered Gibbs when he’d reached him, latching one of Tony’s hands on the railing and the other on his shoulder. "Just go easy."

They almost made it to the bottom before Tony’s feet tangled and, with an almost acrobatic twist, Gibbs ended up chest-to-chest with the younger man, his hug the only thing holding DiNozzo upright.

This close, Tony could feel the heat of Gibbs’ body seeping through his chambray work shirt and, in embarrassment, he tried to pull away, but the strong arms held him close. Squinting in confusion at the face only inches from his own, Tony only nodded mutely when Gibbs asked him if he was all right.

"You sure?" As Tony tried to find his feet, Gibbs steadied him, Tony’s still-damp hair brushing his cheek.

"Yeah," Tony finally managed. "Sorry."

Gibbs loosened his hold only slightly, waiting to see if DiNozzo would remain upright. "No need to be sorry."

Steadier now, Tony backed out of the grip, fumbling for the stair rail, not quite sure what had just happened. Or what had seemed to happen. Although undoubtedly he was somehow ... hallucinating that Gibbs didn’t seem to want to let go. This was Gibbs after all. Ex-gunnery sergeant. Thrice-wed lover of redheaded females. Gibbs.

The gray-haired man seemed to be studying him, but then he tilted his head and smiled in that kind of Gibbs’ half-smile Tony was used to. "You asked for this, DiNozzo."

His mind still ... elsewhere Tony gulped convulsively at the statement, but Gibbs was already turned around, replacing Tony’s free hand on his shoulder. "And I’ve got plenty of sanding."

In the dim light of the basement, the ship was like a beached whale’s skeleton, lighter ribs against a dark, receding shore. Gibbs pressed Tony’s palm to one of the transverses. He nudged a chair with his foot, pressing the aluminum seat against the back of the younger man’s legs, never letting go of the hold he had on his arm. Finally getting the message, Tony folded onto the hard seat.

"This is one of the transverses. They give the boat its contour. This one’s amidships, where there is the greatest strain, so here they’re closer together. This notch," He brought Tony’s hand to the cut, "is so the longitudinals can pass through. Got it?"

"Got it," nodded DiNozzo.

"Sanding," continued Gibbs, wrapping Tony’s other hand around a sanding bar, "can be seen as a sculptural exercise. You are not merely smoothing the surface, you are revealing, creating."

"Boss ..."

"Yeah?"

"I can barely see fingers, remember? I don’t think you want me ... creating."

"How about copying?"

"Copying?" repeated DiNozzo.

"Here," Gibbs stretched Tony’s arm out until he fingered the neighboring rib. "That one should feel like this one."

He wrapped his own hand around the outstretched fingers. "Here, see, they taper just a bit. You can measure," he circled their twinned digits around the wood. "Feel that?"

Tony’s palm slid downward over silky smooth wood, the top of his hand warmed by Gibbs cupped palm. "And here?"

"Um," the hand was pulled out from under Gibbs own. "I think I got it, boss. Thanks."

"Okay, then I’ll be over there."

Oh, yeah, Tony mouthed silently. That would be good. Over there, away from here, right now would be a very good thing.

~oOo~

 

Tony limped to the front door slowly, mindful of the precariousness of his balance and the fact that his vision, while a bit better, was still far from actually being useful. Gibbs had taken Rufus to the groomer and ordered Tony to rest while he was gone. Resting was … pointless, at least as far as Tony could see. Although, admittedly, these days that wasn’t far. Gibbs was the one who’d been working non-stop on a case. The older man was tired, which made him fussy. And fussy made him bossy.

"Coming," he called out as he reached the foyer, belatedly realizing at the pace he was setting, whoever it was may have already left.

He fumbled for the doorknob and finally managed to swing it open.

He didn’t see the first punch coming. Or the second. Or the third.

~oOo~

Gibbs pulled into the drive and immediately noted the open front door and the dark shadow lunging ungainly within. Bolting from the car he snatched out his weapon, taking his front steps two at a time.

"NCIS. Freeze!"

The hulking form hunched over in his foyer jolted in surprise and then, unexpectedly obedient, held up his blood-streaked hands. Not chancing a glance down, Gibbs slid his left hand to the back of his belt and jerked up the cuffs, springing one.

"Turn around! Hands on the wall! Do it!"

The perp put his palms to the wall and Gibbs came up behind him, ripping the right arm from its hold and securing the cuff.

"Get out on the porch. Now!"

Where he’d peeled the hands away from the hallway wall, two red handprints marred the white paint.

Dragging the cuff chain between the wrought iron bars of the sturdy side rail, Gibbs fastened him snuggly.

"DiNozzo!" He gave a tug to make sure the stranger was secured. "Tony!"

"Fuck!" Gibbs pulled out the cell phone, dialing even while sinking to his knees, a shaking hand reaching for the neck pulse.

"I have a Federal Agent down! This is Jethro Gibbs, NCIS." His fingers slipped in the slick coat of blood making its way down Tony’s neck.

"Never mind my badge number! Get an ambulance out here!" He recited the long-familiar address by rote, his fingers slipping as he searched for the carotid.

"Don’t do this to me, Tony."

A harsh gurgle and more blood seeped from Tony’s mouth.

"Goddamn it."

Beneath splatters of red, Tony’s eyes flickered open. "Gi…Gibbs."

"Ssh," he soothed. "I’m right here."

"Wha’ happ’n?"

"I don’t know. You tell me, buddy." The body under his hands was starting to shudder and Gibbs shrugged out of his coat and laid it over Tony’s upper body to combat the shock.

"Jus’ opened the door and … wham…" Tony’s voice trailed off and his eyelids shut, covering his unfocused eyes.

Mercifully, over Rufus’ frantic barking, Gibbs heard the sirens in the distance.

~oOo~

"You stupid fuck!"

Gibbs was down the stairs and making headway on an assault charge of his own before two of DC’s finest stepped in.

"You assault the fucking handicapped?"

"Agent Gibbs?" queried one of the paramedics stooped over DiNozzo.

Panting, Gibbs backed out of the cops’ restraining hold. "He’s got MS. He’s legally blind and partially paralyzed."

"Oh, Christ," murmured one of the men in blue.

"So what the hell did you think you were doing?" Gibbs yelled.

He felt a certain satisfaction when the assailant blanched under his gaze.

"Agent Gibbs," the younger of the pair of EMTs shook Gibbs’ shoulder, "I think we need you back here."

"Yeah … right."

~oOo~

 

"Gibbs?"

Kate Todd had never seen Gibbs look quite like this – disheveled, pale, with a smear of blood streaking one cheek. She was even more shocked when he opened his arms to her, silently burying her face against the nape of his neck when she stepped up into the hug.

"Is Tony--?"

"Oh, God, Kate, no … I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to think—"

"What happened?"

As if regaining his senses, Gibbs pulled away from her. He ran a still shaky hand through his hair. "I came back to find the front door open and this … he had to weigh at least two twenty, Kate, and he just laid into him."

"Why?"

"I don’t know why." Gibbs gave a swift kick to the plastic waiting room charge. "Goddamn it! I was only gone an hour."

~oOo~

"Anthony DiNozzo’s family?"

"That would be me," acknowledged Gibbs, rising slowly from the chair. His knees ached. His neck ached. Hell, his whole body ached.

"You’re his brother?" presumed the physician.

"No, I’m his boss, but I have his medical power-of-attorney."

"He has no family?"

Gibbs restated his claim. "You’re looking at them."

The doctor frowned. "Very well. Anthony was worked over pretty well, but we found no broken bones other than his septum. I want to keep him here a couple of days, though, to control the pain and watch his drug interactions. This may well aggravate his MS."

"Can we see him?"

"He’s been sedated, but you’re welcome to look in. We’re just waiting for a room assignment."

DiNozzo was on a gurney, lined up in the busy ER hallway with the other waiting patients. They’d cleaned him up, noted Gibbs dully when he reached Tony’s side. Kate watched, equally numb, as Gibbs stroked a strong hand through light brown hair occasionally still stiff with blood and betadine.

Okay, so, too often DiNozzo was like the annoying little brother she’d never had and never wanted, but she’d always thought of him as a force, a non-too-subtle vital presence. You were always aware that Tony was there. But in the harsh hospital lighting he looked frighteningly ethereal, his bruised skin translucent where it wasn’t marred purple and black from the capillaries broken by the force of the assault. One bruise spread across the whole left side of his face, transversing a swollen, purpling cheekbone.

She hadn’t realized she’d reached out until her fingertips met the cool skin of his cheek.

~oOo~

"Gi’…" Tony moved slightly and groaned. His head was turned in Gibbs’ direction and Gibbs could make out the name puffed out nearly silently between cracked and swollen lips. His left hand squeezed Gibbs’ calloused one too lightly. Like his leg, his left arm was growing weaker, something they both knew and neither mentioned.

This slight movement reached Kate as she slept in an ungainly sprawl in the opposite chair. She silently called out as well, but it is not Gibbs’ name on her lips.

"Hey," Gibbs whispered, leaning over the railing, "you coming around, DiNozzo?"

Tony’s eyelids fluttered then he jerked back awkwardly, his hands coming up to ward off a non-existent blow.

"Hey, hey," Gibbs placed his hands open-palmed against the battering, making no move to restrain the flailing fists.

The commotion caused Todd to start, but she froze at the scene taking place before her.

"Easy," murmured the older agent. "It’s okay. It’s just me, Tony."

The fight went suddenly out of the body on the bed and Tony collapsed back against the pillow.

"Oh God," he murmured, bringing a hand to his swollen face. "Where?"

"We’re at the hospital. They wanted to keep you under observation."

Tony spread his hands out to the sides, scuttling them across the sheets until they hit the bars of the railings.

"You want some water?" asked Kate, pouring some of the pitcher of melted ice into a small Styrofoam cup.

"Todd?" whispered Tony, opening his mouth when the straw tapped against his lips. "What you doin’ here?"

"Somebody had to keep Gibbs in line."

Tony swallowed then pressed further back against the pillow. "You kill him, boss?"

"They wouldn’t let me."

"Who--?" Muttered Tony, slipping away again.

Gibbs pulled the sheet up and tucked it around the once more sleeping form. "That’s what I want to know."

~oOo~

"Gregory Nathan Hale. Any idea why he’d like to knock on my door then beat you senseless?"

The bruises on Tony’s cheekbones were just beginning to turn a sickly yellow but he still moved gingerly as Gibbs helped him into his shirt. Tony squinted up at him, "Greg Hale?"

"So you know this bozo."

"Baltimore," acknowledged Tony, wincing as he tried to bend and bring the sock he held in his hand and his recalcitrant left foot within reaching distance of each other.

Gibbs jerked the offending article of clothing from him and performed the maneuver himself. "From when you were a cop? Somebody you put in jail?"

"Even worse – " Tony sighed as Gibbs finished the job of shoeing his left foot and started in on the right, " -- Hale was my partner."

"Why would your partner--" began Gibbs, tightening the laces with painful military precision.

"I haven’t always been the mature, easygoing guy I am today."

"Really?"

Even though his vision was improved, it still took a touch on Tony’s arm to get him to realize he was being offered a hand up.

"I’m not kidding … I was something of a hard-ass. This loveable guy you and Todd know was not always me."

Tony flinched as a peppy "Mr. DiNozzo" wafted from the hall. "If that’s a perky volunteer with a wheelchair, boss, I’m not going to be held responsible for my actions."

Gibbs steadied the slightly weaving figure. "I thought you were always up for a pretty girl, Tony."

"But could you last, and love still breed, Had joys no dates, nor age no need, Then these delights my mind might move, To live with thee and by thy Love."

"Tony?"

"Uh, sorry, boss." Tony swayed more heavily. "Guess I’ll take that wheelchair now."

The steel frame was cold and the supersized seat made Tony feel small. Gibbs’ car turned out to be warm and dry in the slightly damp air and Tony curled silently against the passenger-side window, watching the traffic blur by.

"You gonna tell me when you started quoting poetry?"

Tony let his head thump softly against the glass. "You should know that most everything that comes out of my mouth is, if not a lie, at least an exaggeration."

"I don’t believe that," said Gibbs, turning a corner with unusual care so as not to jostle his passenger.

"See?"

Tony closed his eyes and shut him out.

~oOo~

"I want to drop the charges."

"Good morning to you too, DiNozzo." Gibbs pulled a chair away from the kitchen table. "Sit down and I’ll get you some coffee." He looked over the sleep-mussed man clad only in a wrinkled tee and boxers, Rufus unharnessed but still helpfully pressed against his side. "Then we’ll talk."

Tony sank stiffly into the chair, burying a yawn that pulled his face painfully against the palm of his hand. "Nothing to talk about, boss."

Gibbs placed the steaming mug on the table and wrapped Tony’s hand around it. "I’d say wanting to drop assault charges against the man who put you in the hospital is something I want to talk about."

"What if I deserved it?"

"How the hell could you have deserved that?"

Tony took a generous sip of the dark liquid. "’Slept with his wife."

Gibbs groaned. "Why’d he wait two years?"

"Don’t know," shrugged Tony. "Maybe it just now got to him."

"Do you learn anything from this stuff, DiNozzo?"

Tony seemed to ponder this thoughtfully for a few seconds. "That when I answer your door I should duck?"

~oOo~

"Take him to Room Two." Gibbs fingered the file on his desk containing the police report on one Gregory Nathan Hale and didn’t look up at the hulking cop he’d last seen spattered with Tony’s blood. "I’ll be there in a minute."

Although he let him chill at least twenty before he sauntered into the interrogation room.

The greeting he received was a terse "you can’t keep me here."

Gibbs turned the available chair backwards and straddled it, putting the file down and leaning across the table. He could feel Kate’s eyes watching from behind the one-way glass. "You’ve assaulted an agent of the Federal government, Officer Hale."

"I assaulted my bastard ex-partner who fucked my wife."

"Why now?"

"She wants a divorce."

"To be with … Tony?" Oddly, Gibbs found his normally steady stomach twisting.

"Fuck, no. Gretchen doesn’t want any more … burdens." The big man picked at one of his short nails. "I wanted custody," he finally conceded softly.

"Custody."

"Of Sam. I wanted my son." The hands clenched into fists that rattled the table when they were pounded against it. "Who it turns out is not my son at all. He’s Tony-friggin’-DiNozzo’s."

Gibbs brought his own hands together, steepling them. "Have you considered it could be that she’s just telling you that?"

"The DNA match was negative."

"Has DiNozzo been tested?"

"Nah. But it’s him."

Gibbs looked toward the mirror lining one wall, knowing Kate was observing them … both of them. "Has she contacted him?"

"How the fuck should I know?"

"You know he couldn’t fight back."

"Yeah, man, I know that now. I …" He looked up to meet Gibbs piercing eyes. "I’m not sorry, if that’s what you’re after. But I wouldn’t have been so … rough if I’d known."

"DiNozzo seems to bring that out in some people." Gibbs closed the file, suddenly weary. "This isn’t my decision, but he wants to drop the charges."

Getting up, he stopped long enough to look down on the seated man. "There will be a restraining order. And as a personal note," he added softly, bending down to whisper into Hale’s ear, "you get within spitting distance of Tony and I will kill you. Myself. Personally."

~oOo~

"Beer, DiNozzo?"

Tony shrugged and brought the illicit bottle to his lips once more.

"Won’t that—"

"Don’t say it," interrupted Tony. "I’m tried of doing all this … shit to improve my health."

"Your vision has improved."

"Doubt a lack of beer had anything to do with that."

Gibbs retrieved his own bottle from the refrigerator and settled across from his recalcitrant houseguest. "So, how come you won’t talk about it?"

"About?" queried Tony.

"The MS."

"I don’t think you’re the type to ask me that, boss."

"I’m not?" questioned Gibbs flatly.

Tony smiled a little. "Well, no. You’re not exactly loquacious there yourself, Gibbs."

"Loquacious?"

"Gregarious?"

"Gregarious?"

"Talkative."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow.

"Give me a break, I’m running out of synonyms here."

"Gregarious?" repeated Gibbs.

"You." Tony poked a finger in Gibbs’ chest, emphasizing each word. "Talk. Little. Kemosabe."

"Aren’t you a little young for The Lone Ranger, DiNozzo?"

"I spent most of my childhood in front of a Sony," dismissed Tony, fingering the bottle of beer.

"So, how come you don’t talk about it?"

"And talking about it would do … what? Don’t tell me you’re actually advocating a guy examining their feelings."

Gibbs crossed his arms against his chest. "Actually, I am."

"Do that a lot in the Marines?"

"You’re not a Marine, DiNozzo."

"Nope, but I’ve learned from the best."

"I’d talk about it," protested Gibbs.

"Suuure, you would," Tony drawled. "And who would you talk about your declining health to? Me? Todd?"

"Probably Ducky."

"You’re kidding me."

"No, I’m not." Gibbs shifted against the cushions. "I talk a lot to Ducky. He’s a very smart man. You could try him."

"Look, if I’m going to talk about it to anybody," conceded Tony, "it would be you, okay? But, I’m … not."

"Why not?"

"’Cause talking won’t solve anything."

"Make you feel better."

Abandoning his bottle, Tony got shakily to his feet, the effects of the beating still painfully obvious in his slow shuffle.

"Where are you going?"

"To look for pods. Someone’s taken Gibbs and replaced him with an alien life form."

"Hang on." Gibbs latched onto Tony’s forearm and settled him back down on the sofa. "No pods."

"I’m not so sure, boss."

"Can you be serious for a moment?"

"Ah," reclutching the bottle, Tony worried with the edge of the paper label. "It would probably be better if I wasn’t."

"Try," ordered Gibbs.

"Okay. Uh, serious. How’s this for serious? Your freeloader is a trust-fund baby, born with a gigantic silver spoon, not to mention a golden cup. A product of the finest boarding schools in the northeast. My parents always called me ‘Anthony’, by the way, when they called … long-distance. According to my father, it was always my fate to ‘wind up in the gutter,’ which, also according to my father, was pretty much what Ohio State was and will always be. Never mind what he thinks of the Baltimore PD. What he’d say about you, boss, will fortunately go unrecorded as I haven’t spoken to him in over three years." Tony tore a strip from the loosened label and wrapped it thoughtfully around a fingertip. "I can guarantee you it wouldn’t be complimentary."

"My father," said Gibbs, taking the bottle from DiNozzo’s long fingers and impounding the strip of paper, "was a Marine. Enlisted. A gunnery sergeant."

"A real military kind of guy, I bet."

"Oh yeah."

"You ever see him?"

"He’s dead. Been dead for quite a long time now."

"Sorry," Tony shrank back into the couch.

"Gotta let them go, Tony. Still blaming your parents into adulthood can be a very ugly thing."

Tony sighed. "You think I’ve got some kind of … father fetish, don’t you?"

"You have a strong need to please authority figures."

"You got that from Abby, didn’t you?"

"Maybe," admitted Gibbs. "Abby’s a pretty smart girl. I tend to hire smart people -- they don’t get on my nerves as much."

"So what you doing with me, boss?"

Which was, mused Gibbs, the question indeed.

~oOo~

The ME stepped from the lab into the autopsy room with a small, pleased smile lighting his face that did not go unnoticed by the room’s other occupant.

"Flirting with Abby again, Duck?"

"Whether or not Ms. Sciuto compels my aging libido to new heights is not a proper topic for discussion." Ducky glanced sideways at the impertinently breathing body lying on his autopsy table. "I am old enough to be her grandfather."

"Love knows no age."

"Or gender," added Ducky somewhat enigmatically. "You’ve got that ‘I want to talk’ look on your face, Jethro."


"According to DiNozzo I never want to talk."

"It may seem so to young Anthony. I, however, have the wisdom of age and experience."

Gibbs heard the light box power on with a click and a wheezing sizzle, heard the snap of x-ray films being lined up against the illumination.

"Do you know that practically everything they have ever said about English boys’ boarding schools is true?"

Gibbs frowned up at the ceiling and waited for Ducky’s often-circuitous mental path to connect this to something vaguely applicable to his lying there.

"What I’m saying is that even though I have never personally experienced coitus with a man, that I am neither unfamiliar nor uncomfortable with the concept."

"You telling me you … dabbled, Ducky?"

"As much as any testosterone-laden schoolboy in the sole company of other testosterone-laden schoolboys. My preference, however, was always for the female form." Ducky snapped one of the x-rays off the light box and held it above his head, squinting at it. "And you, Gibbs?"

"I don’t think this is the kind of discussion I had in mind when I came here, Duck. I wanted to talk about DiNozzo."

"We are talking about DiNozzo," rejoined Ducky, frowning at whatever he saw in the translucent film.

"No, if we were talking about DiNozzo we would be talking about his propensity for screwing around, not yours or mine."

"Ah," Ducky frowned even more deeply at the exposure, "perhaps I was mistaken then; they do say the mind is the first thing to go."

He replaced the film and moved to study its neighbor. "What of our Anthony, then – who has he bedded lately?"

"No one that I know of," admitted Gibbs, his brow suddenly furrowing worriedly. "I figured the MS—"

"If Anthony has experienced a sudden turn toward the … celibate, I do not believe you can place the blame solely on disease processes."

A long sigh rose from the direction of the table. "If you have something to say, Duck, at least say it in English."

"If you want to look for the cause of Anthony’s newfound abstinence, my dear boy, I think you should perhaps look no further than your own backyard."

Gibbs rolled over. "Oh thank you, that was much, much clearer." He logrolled back onto his back and muttered "not".

~oOo~

And, frankly, Gibbs didn’t think about it again for the next few weeks. It took a double homicide involving a married and male non-com and the non-com’s male lover to bring the conversation with the ME back to the forefront.

Even then it wasn’t so much the facts of the case, but the fact that DiNozzo was back working it, albeit stiffly and with a lot of silent grimacing over the still tender deep bruises.

"Hey, boss."

Gibbs lifted his head with a "hmm?" and gazed in the direction of Tony’s old desk only to see McGee bending over his keyboard, his lips moving as he typed.

"Boss?"

"Yeah?" answered Gibbs, swinging around to see Tony wiggling his fingers at him. He got up to answer the ‘come-here’ gesture, a concession he was sure Kate was taking in with watchful eyes.

Tony’s screen, though it allowed Tony to slowly read the gigantically zoomed print, was a nightmare for anyone else and, leaning over DiNozzo’s shoulder, Gibbs peered myopically at the one-and-a-half letters on the monitor.

"You got something?"

"It seems that Cole and his – other – significant other got charged with disorderly outside The Purple Onion last year."

"The ‘Purple Onion’?"

"Oooo," a passing Abby leaned against the front of desk. "Best gay bar in the city."

"You been?" queried Gibbs.

Abby grinned, undeterred as ever, her jet-black hair shining in the reflected light. "You bet. Got fabulous fruity punch drinks."

Tony grinned back at the "fruity-drinks" line. "I think we should take a look around."

"All right." Gibbs straightened, leaving a hand on Tony’s shoulder. "McGee."

His voice carried clear and strong and he wasn’t dissatisfied when McGee jumped in his seat.

"McGee?" hissed DiNozzo quietly. "You’ve got to be kidding. You can’t send McGee in there."

"He’s got a tatt –" began Gibbs.

"—that says Mother," finished Tony in a whisper.

"Okay …" he gestured McGee back down and scowled at Abby who was clearly enjoying herself more than she should. "Kate?"

"Kate?" echoed DiNozzo, still sounding skeptical.

"I’m running out of staff here, Tony."

DiNozzo leaned back, his gaze fixing on him, although Gibbs really didn’t know how well he could see at this point. Well enough to get around without bumping into things but not well enough to read anything smaller than the pop-art "r" currently filling his screen. "Send me."

"Field staff go into the field."

"I can handle myself." Tony paused meaningfully. "And, of everyone, I’ll have the best chance of fitting in."

Abby pushed herself off the desktop. "TMI. I think this is where I leave."

DiNozzo graced her with a laid-back, open-palmed wave. "Take it easy, Abs."

Gibbs was graced with a kind of "go-on" nod from his lab tech. When he just continued to scowl at her, she mouthed "let him" in overly distinct syllables and brought her hands up like she was about to sign, but Gibbs shook his head warningly at her. She shrugged, her twin ponytails bobbing glossily, and retreated, stopping to smile encouragements at an unsure-looking McGee on her way out.

Watching her, Gibbs sighed. "You want to go question possible witnesses."

"Yep," answered DiNozzo easily.

"You know, you never quite answer this question. Exactly how much can you see?"

"Well, you’re wearing blue, Gibbs. Good color on you, by the way. Contrasts nicely with your hair, which I can still see is gray."

If he could have made out the resulting glare, Gibbs knew Tony’s smile would have broadened.

"Kate, however," Tony squinted down the line of desks. "Is just kind of a red … blob."

A threatening-sounding "I heard that, Tony" wafted back across the aisle.

"I can see enough not to bump into any furniture as long as everything is well-lit. Faces are a bit of a problem, unless I get really, really close. And details are pretty much still shot to hell."

"Then you’re not going alone into the field."

"Who said anything about alone, boss?"

"I am not babysitting you at a gay bar."

The "babysitting" remark stung but Tony shifted in the chair, dredged up his best smile and said. "Who said anything about you, Gibbs? I was going to take Abby."

"No" was the only reply he received, and it was in Gibbs’ flattest tone.

This was the kind of thing that really made the whole vision problem more than just an annoyance he could pretend to be bravely overcoming -- because he needed to see Gibbs’ face. The Corp had long ago stripped most expression from Gibbs’ speech leaving only "bark," "bark louder," and, on those rare occasions Tony had been privy to it, a soft, gentle concern that sent pleasant shivers up your nervous system. Or at least up his currently malfunctioning one.

The moment the words were out of his mouth, Gibbs regretted it. Tony’s slight wince, before he managed to hide it behind an apparently carefree smile, was more than enough for even Gibbs to realize the damage.

"There’s no way you’re taking Abby."

Tony snorted, coming closer to insubordination than he’d ever dared, and suddenly finding he didn’t give a damn. "Taking Abby might be … fun? Is that the problem? God forbid any of us find this job enjoyable?"

"She’s not field personnel."

"Well I’ve ruled out McGee and Kate," Tony stubbornly crossed his arms against his chest. "And you’re not ‘babysitting.’ So I guess that means I have typing to do."

Gibbs’ looked over this new, not-quite-backing-down version of his agent. The office had taken on a still hush as everyone within earshot had gone into a kind of covert listening mode. It might look like Todd was deep in communion with her case file, and that McGee was in the same intense unity with his database, but Gibbs knew better.

Leaning back over his agent, Gibbs nearly brushed his lips against Tony’s ear. "What time does this joint start hopping?"

DiNozzo leaned back blindly, blinking rapidly at the blur that Gibbs hid in. "Around ten should do it."

"Fine. Get McGee to drive you home."

Conversation with Gibbs was often like that. A kind of Morse substituting for real dialogue in which "get McGee to drive you home" served as Gibbs’ shorthand for "I’ve given in, but you’re going to admit MS is a debilitating illness and you’re not going to make it until ten if you don’t get some rest; so go take a nap and I’ll pick you up later."

Tony shook his head as Gibbs walked away. After nearly three years he was finally picking up Gibbs-speak.

~oOo~

"You have got to be kidding me."

Tony grinned triumphantly as Gibbs actually groaned as he stepped through his front door. "Hey, undercover work, you gotta look the part."

"You, yes," agreed Gibbs. "The dog? No."

"Oh come on," Tony fingered the deliberately wicked looking nickel-plated spikes in the broad leather collar.

"Do I even want to know where you got that?"

"Wasn't PETCO."

"It better have been Abby, because I do not want to know if Kate or Ducky possesses such a thing. Or, worse, that you do."

"A pale blue leather spiked collar? Come on. Do I look like a pale-blue-leather-spiked-collar kind of guy?" Tony put a hand behind his back and dug into the pocket of jeans Gibbs was trying not to notice were lethally form fitting. He came up with a handful of black cowhide, his fingers examining it momentarily before he flipped it right side out for Gibbs' viewing. "Mine says 'SLAVE'."

The growl was low and disgruntled. "Christ. DiNozzo."

About that time the object of his ire staggered slightly, bumping into the hallway credenza and Gibbs' arm shot automatically out to stabilize him ... until he realized it was not dizziness, but laughter, making the younger man shaky.

"God," Tony leaned into Gibbs' steadying presence. "I wish I could have seen your face."

His arms holding the body still quaking with merriment, Gibbs stared over Tony's shoulder defeatedly. "Abby?"

"Oh yeah. And just wait ‘til I tell her."

"So help me, DiNozzo..." Gibbs unwrapped one of the hands Tony had fisted into his shirt to help him balance through the worst of the laughter. He rewrapped it around the harness Rufus still wore under the thick collar. It took a minute, but eventually the other man steadied.

Gibbs looked at him critically. "Where's your brace?"

"Orthotic appliances, that's a whole other area of kink, boss. Not sure we want to go there."

"Well you're not going much of anywhere if you fall flat on your face."

Tony sobered. "I can make it."

"Uh huh."

"Besides, it ruins the line of the jeans. Act the part, remember?"

"Sit down," ordered Gibbs, carefully pushing both his wayward agent and the costumed mutt toward the nearest chair. Still aware of the not completely healed bruises and the decidedly weak left leg, he helped lower DiNozzo against the cushions. "I've got to get dressed."

He was halfway to the bedroom when he heard Tony softly conversing with the canine. "Great, Gibbs is doing Carson Kressley," DiNozzo said almost too low for even Gibbs' attentive hearing, "and all I'm gonna see is a blur."

~oOo~

"You ever get the feeling you were being watched?"

"It's a gay bar, DiNozzo. If I wasn't being watched I'd feel slightly ... insulted."

Most eyes, however, were focused on DiNozzo, the dog and the jeans apparently combining into an irresistible siren song. He'd dissuaded the first few with a glare but knew he couldn't keep it up if he wanted DiNozzo to actually do his job.

Figuring possession was nine-tenths of the law, even here, he fastened a proprietary arm around DiNozzo's tight waist. Oblivious to everything but the small circle of blurred but still visible space six or so feet around him, Tony moved momentarily into the touch but then stiffened, realizing what the older man was doing.

"I don't need your protection, Gibbs. I'm a big boy."

"You certainly are," purred a voice to their right, causing Tony to snort.

"Ignore him," ordered Gibbs, jerking Tony forward.

He settled the younger man at a table strategically central to the path to the bar and went to get two beers. Not that he was going to drink his, but sarsaparilla as a prop took on a certain unwanted irony in a gay bar. Waiting on the bottles, he glanced back at the table, noting with a scowl that "Big Boy" had made a beeline for an unaccompanied Tony. Gibbs knocked his knuckles against the bar impatiently, looking, he knew, like a jealous boyfriend. Which would have made the gesture merely a flourish on his cover, if the actual emotion hadn’t come along with it.

The bartender, beers in hand, stopped before handing them over, his eyes following Gibbs’ intense stare to a relaxed Tony sprawled in the wooden seat, Rufus at his feet, and the man next to him leaning forward in obvious lust.

"If that were mine, I think I’d be getting back there before my goods disappeared."

Gibbs threw a five on the bar top. "He’s a big boy."

"He certainly is," observed the bartender wistfully.

"That some kind of running joke around here?" spat Gibbs, gathering the drinks up, the bottles clinking heavily.

~oOo~

"Move along," ordered Gibbs, his foot trapping the table’s free chair so he could swing it around backwards and perch menacingly.

Big Boy blew him a sarcastic kiss while dipping his hand to DiNozzo’s lap and squeezing gently. Tony’s reaction would have been priceless if Gibbs hadn’t been locked in a staring contest with the predator across the table. As it was, the startled look went completely unnoticed. Although the recoil Tony made was enough motion for Gibbs to rise threateningly.

"Easy, bos--" Tony stammered slightly, "Jethro."

Big Boy wrinkled his nose. "Jethro? You bring the rest of the Hillbillies?"

"Leave." Gibbs helpfully pointed the way to the bar. "Vamoose."

"All right, beautiful." He gave Tony a final, parting clutch. "You get tired of him; you know where to find me."

Gibbs glared as the retreating butt gave a pointed shimmy in his direction.

"And you," he finished, rounding on a smug looking Tony, "don’t you ever call me Jethro."

"Ducky calls you Jethro."

"Ducky calls you Anthony."

"Right." Reaching out Tony ghosted his fingers over the table in search of the beer. Gibbs pushed it toward him, watching the long fingers fasten on the chilled glass. "Now get out of here and let me work."

"Pretty dim in here," remarked Gibbs, watching Tony replace the bottle then measure the space to the table edge with the back of his hand so he could find it again.

"It’s a bar, Gibbs."

"You going to be okay?"

"Not if you don’t quit scaring off all our potential witnesses. Go … dance or something."

Gibbs pushed back from the table. "Let’s make that ‘or something’."

He found a booth in a darkened corner and reluctantly set up surveillance.

~oOo~

So Gibbs … surveiled the steady stream of admirers Tony attracted. Watched him charm just about everybody with a brilliant smile and, on the rare occasions when that wasn’t enough, there was always Rufus’ bondage collar to provoke conversation.

The man was good. That much Gibbs knew. Had known that from the first, and was the reason he hired him. Gibbs wasn’t one to let someone’s idiosyncrasies blind him to what they could do – look at the rest of the staff: Abby, Ducky, McGee. Kate was the only one of them that might pass for most definitions of normal. And Tony DiNozzo -- the moment he met him, Gibbs knew the man was born to go undercover. He had a disconcerting vulnerability that made people trust him, or at least put them temporarily off their guard. At the same time he could turn that trust off in a millisecond and deal. It caught up with him, later, Gibbs knew. But in the field, the man had been a decided asset.

It took practically all his will power to watch Tony cheerfully allow a light groping here and there; but then, to Gibbs’ relief, he demurred every time it started to get heavy, waving a hand in Gibbs’ direction, probably saying something about his pouting, insanely jealous, partner. All Gibbs knew is there were chiding looks toward the back booth whenever one of the hopefuls was dissuaded.

"You fight?"

Gibbs was surprised to find anyone sliding across the bench of his booth.

For the first time he took an actual sip of his beer, smiling around the rounded glass. "What makes you think that?"

Unlike the crowd clustered around DiNozzo, Gibbs’ first visitor of the night was easily pushing the back end of forty, gray tinting his dark brown hair. But the still well-muscled body was tight and compact.

"You keep watching him."

Gibbs gestured toward DiNozzo’s attentive audience. "Everybody keeps watching him."

"Myself? I find this May-December stuff rarely works."

"You’d have to know him."

"Jeff," the man extended a hand across the table. "Jeff Haskins."

"Most people just call me Gibbs."

"Okay," Jeff shook hands in a strong, firm grip. "Gibbs. What branch?"

"Hmm?" Gibbs dragged his gaze away from Tony’s table.

"Military, aren’t you? What branch?"

"Marines."

"Should have figured. Pretty boy like you …" The man leaned forward and Gibbs wished he would move so he could have his unobstructed view back. "I have a theory about Marines."

Gibbs met the declaration with a hard, dark look.

"Hey I’m entitled," explained Haskins. "I’m a sociology professor at George Washington."

"With a ‘theory’ about Marines."

The tone did not dissuade his conversational partner. "You do this often?"

"No," admitted Gibbs, stating what was apparently obvious – that he hadn’t … indulged in a long time. "At least not on US soil."

"How long’s it been?"

"I get the sense I’m being studied here."

"Okay, so you’re obviously a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. Want to go out back?"

"Nope."

"Ah. So, this was his idea." Haskins waved his thumb back in Tony’s direction.

"You might say that."

"What is it with age and monogamy? We get some feeling of impending doom and get all risk-adverse."

"Maybe we just know when we can’t do any better."

"So it’s that kind of thing." The professor turned around to see Tony skillfully putting off another admirer who was trying the hands-on approach. "I wish you luck. At my age I wouldn’t want to be trying to hold that tiger by the tail." He slid toward the open side the booth. "Mind if I go …"

Abandoning the barely-touched bottle Gibbs made his own move to get up. "No, in fact, I’ll introduce you."

~oOo~

"Hey," Gibbs laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder, unsure he could make him out in the muted light, and was rewarded by one of those smiles he’d watched the younger man throw around all evening.

"Hey yourself." Tony patted his own hand on top of Gibbs’ and left it there.

"Had enough?" He could feel the slightest tremor in the hand that covered his and he began to wonder if, after this long, he’d even be able to get Tony on his feet.

"I could … go home."

"Not before I introduce you." Squeezing DiNozzo’s shoulder lightly, he gestured the professor to the empty chair. "This is Jeff Haskins. He wanted to …"

"Get him to go out back with me, actually."

Tony’s head whipped in Gibbs’ direction. "So, did you?"

"No." Gibbs felt an undeniable burst of annoyance. "He has ‘theories’ about Marines."

"Really? Kate and I have some theories ourselves."

"Okay, that’s enough." Gibbs frowned as Tony shifted uncomfortably in the hard chair. "You going to be able to get up?"

"And if I’m not?" observed Tony placidly.

"Let’s not go there." Gibbs pushed the table back away from the chairs, giving him some room to help heave DiNozzo upright.

Rufus roused and yawned, then professionally took his place by Tony’s side. Gibbs could see the professor taking in the vest that proclaimed Rufus’ service dog status. In a second he had clearly put two and two together and come up with something like four.

"MS," explained Gibbs quietly, noticing the slight flush the explanation brought to Tony’s cheeks.

"Please tell me everyone isn’t watching us," Tony hissed softly.

There were more than a few eyes turned in their direction, but what Tony didn’t know wasn’t going to hurt either of them. "Afraid you’ve used up your charm; they’re pretty much all otherwise engaged."

"Okay." One of Tony’s hands groped toward the table edge. "Then let’s do this."

He pushed up, weary legs complaining but, thankfully, not turning totally to spaghetti, and felt Gibbs’ hand under his right arm. And an unfamiliar grip under his left. Tony turned in the direction of the unexpected touch.

"Exactly what kind of theories have you got about Marines?"

Gibbs let out a sibilant breath.

~oOo~

"He’s got a point you know." Gibbs handed Tony the seatbelt buckle and closed the door, opening the back to let Rufus jump up. Tony’s observation continuing after Gibbs climbed into the driver’s seat. "Most Marines are obsessed with the male body."

"Did you learn anything?" Gibbs interrupted, taking the buckle back from Tony’s fumbling and connecting it with a solid snap.

Tony smirked. "Well that one guy gave me more information than I’d ever care to know on CBT. Think it was something to do with the dog collar. You know, I wonder about Abby sometimes."

"DiNozzo."

Thankfully, the tonal reprimand served to put the younger agent back in reporting mode. "Well, our dead duo was occasionally two-thirds of a threesome."

"Got a name of the third?"

"Probably not of the easily traceable sort. Some guy that likes to call himself ‘Suicide Blond’. Regulars said he still comes in."

"Suicide Blond," muttered Gibbs, repugnantly.

"Hey, I’m proud of you, boss. You didn’t punch out the professor. Seemed like a nice guy."

Tony wasn’t sure if the sound Gibbs made was a sniff of disdain or a disbelieving snort. "You think I don’t know how to handle myself undercover?"

"Most weapons dealers don’t ask if you want a blow job in the backroom. Unfortunately, at least, not the ones I’ve met. Figured it wasn’t something you were used to."

"You might be surprised," returned Gibbs.

He relished the resultant silence coming from the passenger seat as they covered the remaining blocks to the house.

~oOo~

"Hey." Gibbs had thought Tony was still trying to figure out what to make of his last comment, but when he pulled the passenger door open he found the man was actually on the edge of sleep. "We’re here." He reached over and unlatched the seat belt as Tony rubbed at his eyes.

"Come on," he continued, coaxing DiNozzo to turn. He noticed Tony had to lift his left leg with his hands to manage to twist and sit on the side of the seat.

With a slight groan, Tony anchored his hands on either side of the open door and tried to push himself to his feet. Rufus pressed forward as if he could help, but even Gibbs’ quick hand under his arm wasn’t enough to make up for his rapidly wearying strength.

"Fuck," he murmured quietly to himself as he sank back down.

"Here, give it another try." Gibbs bent down and caught him around the waist, bringing Tony’s arm over his shoulder.

In a moment they were successfully standing and eyeing the front steps warily.

"Come on," prodded Gibbs again and got them both moving, Rufus trailing behind them.

He assaulted the stairs with tactical precision, fixing Tony’s hand around the right-hand railing and practically lifting him up each riser while Tony tried to keep his balance. Manhandling him, Gibbs managed to get the door open, and he continued to support him to the bedroom that had once been Gibbs’ own.

"I’m sorry," breathed Tony as he collapsed on the bed. He flopped awkwardly on his side, his feet still tangled on the floor, and curled into himself.

"Nothing to be sorry about." Gibbs sat next to him and, leaning down, untied the shoes. He lifted the dead weight of Tony’s legs to the bed. "You probably just overdid it a little"

‘Yeah," Tony scrubbed a hand over his face. "Thanks." He rolled further into the pillow. "Think I’ll just sleep with my clothes on."

"Okay," agreed Gibbs, patting his back.

He got up to leave, stopping long enough to turn off the lamp. But Tony’s soft entreaty made him turn back toward the bed.

"Hey boss?"

"Yeah, Tony."

It was that oddly tender tone and Tony opened his eyes enough to get a blurry view of the man beside him. "I’m surprised you weren’t surprised."

"Go to sleep, Tony."

It was that same gentle timbre and it made Tony smile into the pillow. "Sure, Gibbs."

~oOo~

Gibbs was a little surprised to find DiNozzo up and dressed for work by the time he’d stumbled into the kitchen in search of coffee.

"Thank God for timers," mused Tony good-naturedly as he listened to Gibbs inhale his first cup. "I can’t imagine what you did without them."

Gibbs noted Tony’s own half-filled mug. "You should talk."

Now that the first burst of caffeine had chased away at least some of the fog in his brain, Gibbs could see that Tony had looked ... better. At least he didn’t look as ragged as he had the night before, but his eyes still looked tired, the skin under them slightly purpled. The cane Tony had used temporarily after the beating had made a reappearance, too. Although Tony slid it surreptitiously from his view.

"You okay this morning?"

The question was met by the usual dismissive wave. "Just fine." Tony cocked his head, doing some studying of his own. "You?"

"Fine."

"Oh," said Tony, looking unconvinced. "Good."

~oOo~

The cane had disappeared by the time DiNozzo limped to the car, leaning more heavily than usual on Rufus. Gibbs opened his mouth to suggest Tony take a few hours, come in later, but Tony shot him a kind of precognitive don’t-even-think-of-saying-it look and he shut it again.

Gibbs was vaguely aware that Tony had chattered the entire fifteen miles to the office but, later, he realized he hadn’t heard a word the other man had said. Although he was pretty sure he’d grunted in most of the right places.

After that he’d gone one way, to a meeting with the combined task force committee, and Tony had gone the other, limping with painful slowness.

Gibbs was pretty sure he’d heard very little of what was said in the meeting either.

It was something of a relief to go downstairs and find Tony again surrounded by an attentive crowd, only this time it was the entire rest of the staff haunting his desk. For once not scattering them, Gibbs took a seat at his own workstation, doing a little quiet, covert eavesdropping of his own.

"So it could be a love triangle," surmised Kate.

"Could be a square," put in McGee, making Gibbs think again that the young agent was spending far too much time with a certain lab technician. Thinking non-linearly had its place, but one Abby was quite enough. "The wife’s still alive isn’t she?"

"Ewww," Abby screwed up her face. "A threesome is pleasantly kinky. A foursome is like a travel-sized orgy."

Gibbs had to keep from smiling as you could hear McGee draw in a sharp breath.

"Could I see you?"

This voice was much closer but Gibbs didn’t look up. "You’re seeing me, Duck."

"Privately," he clarified.

Gibbs did look up at that. "Something about the case?"

"Liken it to doctor-patient confidentiality."

"You’re not my doctor."

The ME inclined his head in Tony’s direction.

"Oh," said Gibbs softly.

~oOo~

By the time Gibbs escaped from Ducky’s clutches, Tony was alone, squinting with difficulty at the screen in front of him. Gibbs watched him a moment before he leaned over. "Tony."

The object of his examination startled then smoothed the frown from his face. "I think I can find him."

The first fifteen minutes of the ME’s lecture had been about inadequate computer support and it was spiced with so much technical mumbo-jumbo that he knew it had to come from Abby or Kate or McGee or possibly all three in concert. Anyone but the practically computer-phobic Englishman. Although the vague threats about reporting violations of the ADA were probably Ducky’s own.

Even now the scolding was still ringing his ears. There was something about a lecturing Ducky that always made Gibbs feel like he’d been dressed down by a commanding officer. If DiNozzo had said he needed a new computer, he would have gotten him one in a heartbeat. Only DiNozzo hadn’t said anything.

And what was Tony talking about anyway? "Who?"

"The third member of our trio."

Gibbs sighed. "You want to go back to the bar."

That had been the second fifteen of Ducky’s address. That somehow he’d misunderstood Ducky’s admonition about letting Tony try to keep on working on and apparently the ME had only meant in the safest possible conditions. "Let’s give it a couple of days."

Tony squinted, this time, as if it were Gibbs he was trying see clearly. "Since when did you put the brakes on a case?"

"I’m not putting the brakes on the case."

Tony closed his eyes. "I knew it. I knew you were going to be uncomfortable."

Gibbs leaned in, lowering his voice. "I was telling the truth last night. I wasn’t uncomfortable."

DiNozzo pressed his lips together. "Then what’s this about?"

"Ducky came to see me."

"Oookay."

"You need to take it easy."

DiNozzo finally opened his eyes, but he wouldn’t look in Gibbs’ direction. "He ratted me out, didn’t he?"

"He just suggested that you might be overworking a little. He also said your doctor suggested you take some downtime and ---"

"He ratted me out," confirmed Tony.

"Okay, he ratted you out. By the way, I’ve put in a requisition for a new computer with voice recognition."

This last piece of information transformed Tony’s soft replies into a decided hiss. "I’m fine, Gibbs. I don’t need special treatment."

"We’ll get you what you need to work. Whatever you need to work. But you gotta keep me in the loop here. If nothing breaks on the case in a couple of days, you can go back to the bar." Gibbs paused. "Provided you do what your doctor says."

"I hate this," muttered Tony.

Gibbs found himself putting a hand over the one worrying the keyboard aimlessly.

"I know."

Tony sat perfectly still for a long moment, then he disentangled his hand.

Gibbs hunkered down beside the desk, his own voice even softer now. "I need you to talk to me about this."

"Because you’re my boss," acknowledged Tony. "I know I haven’t exactly been playing fair, here. I just..."

"If the only way I’m going to get you to tell me what you need is as your employer, I’ll take it. I can demand it, and will, but only if I have to. I’d rather you just tell me."

"There’s a ‘you’ somewhere in there, boss?"

Neither of them could muster the energy to make the weak attempt at banter work.

"Somewhere."

Tony nodded and sighed. "You want to do it here?"

"Only if this is where you feel most comfortable."

"I could go for your couch."

Tony felt the touch on his hand and held himself remarkably steady as Gibbs’ warm fingers clasped his own.

"It’s a date."

A weak but reassuring grin crossed Tony’s lips. "For God’s sake, don’t let Kate hear you say that. I’ll never hear the end of it."

The warmth encircling his hand briefly tightened, then his fingers were released with a brotherly pat.

"See you at five."

Tony flexed his now chilly fingers. "’kay."

~oOo~

"Abby … would you mind?"

The lab tech looked from Tony to Ducky and back again. "Um…"

"I’d like to talk to Ducky, alone," Tony clarified, tightening his grip on Rufus.

"Go on, Abby," soothed the ME. He hooked a hand on Tony’s elbow. "Come into my office."

Tony’s gait was uneven and he leaned unconsciously into the solid grip. Even while supporting him, Ducky observed with a physician’s eye.

"Thought we had an agreement." DiNozzo didn’t sound angry so much as … defeated.

"I did not break your confidentiality, Anthony. I merely had a few words with Jethro about the … disservice he is paying you."

Tony frowned as he settled in the chair, Rufus plopping warmly onto his feet. "What disservice?"

"There are things which can make life easier; equipment that you need to function. It is the Navy’s duty to provide them. I merely pointed this out."

"You didn’t tell him?"

"No." Ducky crossed his arms, leaning against the edge of his desk, still observing the man before him. "But you should. It is a small … adjustment, not the end of the world."

"Yeah, well, it’s a pretty big thing to me."

~oOo~

"Beer?"

Gibbs swung the bottle enticingly in front of Tony who reached out for it, his fingers missing the cold glass narrowly before he finally managed to fix on it.

"Yeah. Thanks," he said, taking a deep swallow.

"So …" began Gibbs when the silence stretched out uncomfortably.

"So," repeated Tony.

"So, why don’t I start?" Gibbs offered. "What would you like to know?"

"What would I like to know?"

"As you said, I’m not exactly … gregarious." Gibbs took another swallow of beer. "So, go for it."

DiNozzo pondered the proposition for a moment. "Okay, how are you going to get the boat out of the basement?"

Gibbs choked. "That’s your question?"

"It’s been bothering me. I mean you have this huge…" Tony’s hands spread wide, ‘…honkin’ huge thing with ribs and you’ve got a door you can barely get yourself through."

Gibbs shrugged. "I’ll take it out the 20-gauge steel sectional door."

"You don’t have a 20-gauge steel sectional door."

"I get the boat done and I’ll get one."

Tony laughed, closing his eyes and keeping them closed.

"My turn. You do that a lot. Does the light hurt your eyes?"

"Uh," Tony scrubbed a nervous hand through his hair. "It’s just a bit disconcerting because I really can’t focus on much of anything, so after a while I just …"

"Shut it out?"

"That’s one way to explain it."

"But that’s not what Ducky thinks you need to tell me."

"Ah … no."

Gibbs waited but Tony was clearly not in a forthcoming mood. "So you listened to me," he observed, finally breaking the growing silence himself. "You talked to Ducky."

"I always listen to you, Gibbs." Tony’s hand groped for the abandoned bottle and Gibbs pushed it into reach. Tony took a long drag of the amber liquid before pointing out, "I can even repeat the twelve Marine rules, remember?"

"There were twelve of them?"

"So you said."

Gibbs laugh was deep and warming.

"You are a bastard, you know that?" observed DiNozzo.

"Never denied it."

Tony took a deep breath and, again, Gibbs … waited.

"The doctor thinks it’s time to think about a wheelchair." Tony’s brief smile was patently faked. "Just for ‘long’ journeys, you know. Anything over, say, forty feet."

Gibbs took a moment to compose himself. It made a certain amount of sense: Tony could live with the dog, the brace, the weakened sight, but this particular suggestion would be what threw him. He knew Tony used his height. Occasionally even lording over him or Ducky. It was the primeval ethos of the playground. The game of who’s bigger, who’s stronger. If you couldn’t measure dicks in public, you could at least compare how far you made it vertically.

"You can still walk."

DiNozzo ducked his head down and wouldn’t look back up. "She thinks I’m headed for a big, ugly fall."

"Screw her," resolved Gibbs decisively, not liking the way DiNozzo had turned inward, his head still down, his shoulders slumped.

"What?"

"You heard me. Screw her. What does she know? Besides, if you fall I’ll be there to pick you up."

The reply came out mixed with a sound that could have been a laugh, or a hastily strangled sob. "You will?"

"Sure," replied Gibbs as if it were self-evident.

At least Tony shifted stiffly against the sofa back, uncurling a little. "Exactly why am I here, Gibbs?"

"Told you the first time." Gibbs leaned over and tapped Tony’s cheek. "I’m a sucker for pretty faces."

"Not sure how I make that category, boss."

"Stop calling me ‘boss,’ Tony. It makes what I’m about to do … disconcerting."

Tony blinked. "What are you about to do?"

"This …"

Gibbs framed the face before him in his hands and leaned in slowly, giving Tony time to compensate for the lack of clear visual cues. His thumbs brushed lightly over rough cheeks and the first contact his lips made was welcomed softly. The resistance he met as he pressed further forward was that of a strong, male body, a pleasure he’d not permitted himself in a long, long time. And this was sweeter, deeper than the brief encounters he usually allowed himself. This was Tony with all his odd mix of strength and vulnerability.

Tony made that sound again, the one Gibbs wasn’t sure was a laugh or a cry, before he dove forward, his weight wedging Gibbs against the arm of the couch.

The horizontal dance bound them in a shared rhythm. Tony had his eyes closed again, his hands tangled in Gibbs’ short hair. And, this close, Gibbs couldn’t focus either, so he let himself drift on sound and touch: the soft, short pants that Tony made; the feel of warm, muscular hands moving down to lift his shirt and scrape along his ribs. The strong digits left his skin to fumble at his belt buckle and eventually a short curse was moaned against his mouth.

"Here, let me," whispered Gibbs, arching against him while he untangled the loop of leather. When he was done he moved to undo the buttons of Tony’s shirt while the younger man braced on his arms to hold himself above him.

What was truly a laugh escaped as he brushed a palm down DiNozzo’s flank. "Ticklish?" he inquired, repeating the motion, discovering the secrets of the body held trembling above him.

"I just can’t believe this is happening." Tony groaned as Gibbs’ hand dropped lower, cupping his hipbone.

"Believe it," whispered Gibbs, his other hand guiding Tony downward so he could capture his mouth again. "Believe."

~oOo~

It had been … well, too long actually … since he’d woken to the warmth of another body in his bed.

Particularly one that snuggled as much as DiNozzo did.

Gibbs tried to untangle himself from the body that seemed to be all limbs. Tony was softly snoring face down, one arm and a leg wrapped securely around the older man as if he thought, in his sleep, Gibbs might try to get away. The other arm was curled under Tony’s chin and he was twisted so that the other leg pressed a knee firmly against Gibbs’ hip.

Failing at unwrapping himself, Gibbs fell back against his pillow with a sigh.

"Tony." He gently shook the nearest shoulder. "Yo, DiNozzo."

"Hmmm?" murmured his bed-partner right before he wriggled to get more comfortable, entangling Gibbs even more.

Sighing, Gibbs looked at the glowing digits on the alarm clock. He’d gone on two hours sleep many times but DiNozzo didn’t need the stress of barely adequate rest – even if it was for a good cause.

Hell, a great cause as far as Gibbs was concerned.

Leaning down, Gibbs planted a kiss on the bare back. "Let me up," he instructed.

Tony groaned but laboriously pushed himself upright. "It can’t be time to get up."

"Not for you, it isn’t," ordered Gibbs, pecking another kiss under the fringe of bangs falling over Tony’s forehead. "That sick day you never used? You’re using it."

"Hey, no," Tony protested. "I’m okay. I’m--"

"Staying home," finished Gibbs, sliding out of the sheets. "That’s an order."

Tony buried his face in Gibbs’ abandoned pillow. "We’re in bed. You’re not the boss of me."

"No, you’re in bed and, as it’s officially six a.m., yes, I am the boss of you. You’re staying."

Gibbs knew Tony was tired or he never would have acquiesced, even with a laugh.

~oOo~

"Gibbs? Where’s Tony?"

"Yeah," added Abby, both women crossing their arms and looking all too much like a divorce decree would shortly be requiring his signature.

"Why do you say that like I’ve done something?" Gibbs demanded, knowing from long practice it was better to take the offense in situations like these. He got up, scooped up a file folder and tried to beat a retreat only to have his way blocked by one seriously scowling lab technician.

"I mean it Gibbs. If you did do something …"

"He’s asleep."

Kate raised a doubtful eyebrow.

"That’s all," he reiterated irritably. "The last few days have been a little stressful. His doctor told him to take it easy, so he’s taking a sick day."

"You’re sure you didn’t say anything?" interrogated Kate.

Raising placating hands Gibbs backed behind his desk. "Take it easy, ladies. I promise DiNozzo is fine."

"Yeah, well," Abby was still scowling, "we’re keeping our eyes on you."

Gibbs gestured toward his phone. "You can call him if you want."

"No," declined Kate. "We …believe you."

"Good. Then if you’re finished being DiNozzo’s big sisters, could we all go back to work?"

~oOo~

"And where, may I ask, is Anthony?"

Gibbs groaned and lowered his head with his thud against the desk.

"It was merely a question," stated the amused ME. "When I walked by, I noticed his computer hadn’t been turned on."

Gibbs looked up cautiously. "I’ve already been grilled by the interrogation team of Todd and Sciuto. DiNozzo’s taking a sick day. But," he hastily amended, "he’s fine. He’s just a little tired after yesterday."

"Ah," said Ducky knowingly. "May I ask if you and he had a conversation?"

"He told me." Gibbs’ voice was flat.

"It is not … unexpected. His symptoms have proven both chronic and progressive. With luck, he may reach a plateau, but …"

"I told him to tell the doctor to go screw –"

"Jethro," admonished Ducky sternly. "You didn’t."

Gibbs shrugged. "I did. Christ, Duck, just the thought of it was destroying him."

"You may be able to temporarily soothe his psyche, but you cannot prevent his physical decline."

"Give me a shot," said Gibbs.

"Anthony is not you, Jethro. He has many redeeming qualities. Your adherence to discipline, however, is not among them."

"Give him a chance. You might be surprised."

The ME looked unconvinced. "Do I need to go check on him?"

"Ducky …" began Gibbs irritably, only to stop when he saw the genuine concern on the other man’s face. "Fine. I’ll go check on him. Will that satisfy you? And would you try to spread the word to the other two members of the DiNozzo Protection League that I’m taking good care of their coworker?"

Ducky stepped out of the Gibbs’ path, recognizing the mission-bent look of the agent. "I will do my best," he murmured as Gibbs swept by, then he chuckled at the half-wave of thanks Gibbs belatedly threw in his direction.

~oOo~

"Hey."

Tony rolled over and blinked sleepily up at the shadow blocking the windows’ noonday light.

"Hey," he returned. "Weren’t you just here?"

"It’s lunchtime."

"Mmm." Tony murmured contentedly.

"Thought I’d come make sure you were alive before your concerned coworkers lynch me."

One eye reopened. "Lynch you?"

"They’re convinced I’ve done something nefarious to you."

"If they only knew," mused Tony with a grin.

He threw back the sheet, revealing an enticing expanse of fair skin. Gibbs took his reaching hand and helped him pull up so he sat gloriously naked on the edge of the mattress. He reached up to scratch his spiked hair into place. "So what’s for lunch?"

Gibbs knelt down and leaned in to capture the tempting mouth. "I’m thinking … you."

~oOo~

Gibbs backed up, almost right back into the elevator. "I checked on him!"

"And he’s okay?" Kate pressed for verification.

"He’s fine. He’ll be back tomorrow. I promise."

"It’s not that we don’t trust you …" disclaimed Kate.

"It’s just that we know you," put in Abby.

Gibbs fished his cell phone from his belt. "Call him."

When neither of his tormentors reached out for it, he flipped it open and dialed the number, pointing it in Abby’s direction. "Go ahead, call him."

The lab tech took the cell gingerly, smiling when a familiar voice answered "’lo."

"Tony?"

Whatever DiNozzo was saying was too low for Gibbs’ hearing, but Abby was laughing, so that was a good sign.

"Yeah, well, it’s just that we weren’t quite sure, you know." Abby nodded into the phone. "Yeah, will do. I’ll tell him. Yeah, Kate, too." She looked up, narrowing her eyes at Gibbs. "Yeah, yeah. We’ll play nicely, I promise."

She handed the open line back to Gibbs. "Here, boss man. He wants to talk to you."

Gibbs took the phone cautiously, overcome by the sudden vision of Tony as he’d left him, rumpled and sated in the tangled sheets of his bed. "Yes, DiNozzo?"

They hadn’t discussed it, how they were going to handle having two suddenly incompatible versions of their relationship, and maybe they should have, before he was standing there, holding a decidedly unsecured cell phone within hearing distance of two inquisitive colleagues.

But Tony was appropriately all business. "Any breakthroughs on the case?"

Which meant, what he’d been doing – probably since Gibbs left him – was plotting to return to a certain bar.

"We’ll talk about it tomorrow," he found himself saying irritably, finding it, thankfully, all too easy to fall back into managerial mode. "Tomorrow, DiNozzo. Just … take it easy today, will you?"

He noticed that the protective duo had drifted back to McGee’s desk, satisfied that Tony was all right and that this was the Gibbs they all knew and … tolerated.

Which was just fine with him, he’d leave being loved to DiNozzo.

~oOo~

"Told you," said Gibbs, pointing a thumb at DiNozzo following behind him as he strode by Kate’s desk, deliberately leaving Tony to bask.

Still, he couldn’t help keep one ear turned toward the pair. The normal sibling rivalry between the two agents had mellowed over the past weeks – a victim of Tony’s weariness and Todd’s otherwise well-hidden mothering instincts.

But the day of rest had left DiNozzo feeling, he’d said, "almost normal."

To which Gibbs had cheekily replied, "How would you know?" and was immediately rewarded with a smile – a real one. Not Tony’s soft, almost shy, private smile, he’d seen that one quite a bit over the past two days; but the cocky smile he’d so often bestowed on a grumbling Kate or Abby.

"Heard you cared, Kate," Tony had the smirk down to perfection.

Gibbs felt his breath catch. He suddenly found himself praying Kate would know that now was not the time to do anything but adopt the same smug pose.

Kate wisely didn’t look up from her case file. "Can’t believe everything you hear, DiNozzo."

"Can’t hide the truth, Todd," shot back Tony, smirking triumphantly.

Kate rolled her eyes. "You live in that delusion?"

The act earned a pleased chuckle from DiNozzo. "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

He limped off toward his own desk, not catching the small, tightlipped smile Gibbs graced on Todd and the nod of understanding she sent back.

~oOo~

"You said if you didn’t get a break in the case I could—"

"I know what I said," huffed Gibbs.

"Boss-" began Tony, hesitating uncharacteristically.

"Say it," Gibbs ordered.

‘Okay. Is this a MS-thing or a …" Tony wished he could trust that the vague, blurry hulking shapes he could see were truly empty desks and that an unseen observer didn’t lurk within hearing distance. That odd feeling of being watched still plagued him from time to time, although he put it down to the frustration of his ever-blurring vision.

"An … us thing," finished Gibbs, knowing what caused the prolonged squinting in the direction of McGee and Todd’s desks.

"I –" Tony reached down and tussled with the rope tug a temporarily off-duty Rufus was happily worrying. "I need to do this."

He looked back up at Gibbs, regaining confidence. "I can do this," he restated. "In fact you need me to do this ‘cause you’ve got bupkis."

"Bupkis?" repeated Gibbs.

"Yiddish for ‘nothing,’ though the spelling can vary. The literal meaning is ‘goat droppings.’"

Both men started as the medical examiner and his erudite explanation appeared seemingly from out of nowhere.

"One day you’re going to give me a heart attack, Ducky," groused Gibbs, rubbing the left side of his chest pointedly.

"Yes, well, then you’ll be lucky there’s a physician nearby."

~oOo~

"Uh uh, I agreed you could go and you agreed that we’re wiring you. So sit," directed Gibbs, not releasing the hold on Tony’s arm until he was settled on the rolling chair. "I’ll be in the back booth and McGee will be in the van."

"Okay. Fine. Just watch where you put the wire Abs, last time they had their hands all over me." Tony’s voice trailed off. "Are you sure you want McGee in the van, boss? I mean I’d hate to teach him things his mother never warned him about."

"He’s not as innocent as you’d think," retorted Abby, clinically popping the buttons of Tony’s shirt.

Gibbs leaned down to ear level and murmured, "He’s slept in the coffin."

"Really?" Tony winced as Abby’s cool fingers fitted the delicate wire so it ran just below the jut of his collarbone. "The coffin, Abs? This must be serious."

"Don’t know," the lab tech muttered. "He still won’t drink out of the thod-pa."

Gibbs frowned warily. "Thod-pa?"

"Skull cup," translated DiNozzo. "It’s a contemplation on impermanence thing."

"Yeah," agreed Abby, snapping the tape with her teeth. "He just doesn’t get the whole momento mori shtick."

Pale fingers affixed the electronics and patted the tape down firmly. "Wear a t-shirt," she advised. Then she smiled, rather predatorily, Gibbs thought. "Something tight."

"Come on, DiNozzo," Gibbs hauled up on his right arm and Tony, after a second to get his bearings, followed. "Let’s get out of here before you’re sleeping in the coffin."

"Don’t worry, Gibbs. He’s not my type."

Gibbs did a double take, but Abby had turned back to whatever graph she’d been staring at when they’d invaded her domain.

That left him only DiNozzo to question. "A contemplation on impermanence thing?"

The shoulder he was holding onto pulled in a shrug.

"There was one in ‘Eight Legs to Love You.’" In the resounding silence that followed this pronouncement Tony continued, "Scull-cup potion? Thirty-five breasts? Two dead bodies? One giant tarantula attack? One shower scene? Insect moaning? Multiple topless writhing, with fright wig? Oh, come on, you’ve had to see it, boss."

"Somehow I must have missed that one." He tugged DiNozzo not quite so gently into the elevator. "Thirty-five breasts?"

~oOo~

Tony heard the back door of the van bang shut and tried unsuccessfully to make out Gibbs’ approach in the amber glow of the streetlight. His fingers sought out the plain-banded Seiko Ducky had pressed in his hand weeks before and he deftly popped the crystal, oriented the tip of his index finger on the ‘six’, and read the time tactilely.

Ten o’clock on the dot. Gibbs was nothing if not punctual.

"You ready to play the jealous lover?" he murmured when Gibbs drew close enough.

Abby had daubed the older man in the new Hugo Boss from the stash of fragrances she’d ended up accumulating for testing purposes and Tony breathed in deeply, bringing in the scent of cardamon, lemon and wild mint. Then the heart notes of nutmeg and sage. At the bottom was a hint of sandalwood and vanilla-infused bourbon, and then the delicious warm and slightly spiced scent of coffee and fresh wood that was just … Gibbs.

"I am the jealous lover," replied Gibbs succinctly, pressing DiNozzo up against the side of the van, keeping his voice low even though the steel body of the vehicle separated them from a jittery McGee.

Tony smiled. "Yeah, hey, that’s true. So, do I get a kiss for the road?"

Gibbs brushed his lips briefly then moved quickly to the throat DiNozzo happily exposed, the crown of Tony’s head brushing against the cool metal before Gibbs put teeth and tongue to work and Tony groaned.

Satisfied with his effort, Gibbs pulled back.

"Did you just--" Tony rubbed a hand over the circle of reddened skin. "Did you just give me a hickey?"

Unable to fix adequately either on his own reflection in the van’s passenger mirror or the expression on Gibbs’ face, he mutely ran his fingertips up and down his throat.

"You did," he accused.

"You’re on the clock, DiNozzo." Gibbs rapped his palm against the van - the signal to McGee to go live on the wire. Then he snagged a hand around Tony’s waist and, as they had left both Rufus and his collar at home, he buttressed his hip against Tony’s, providing stability. "Let’s go see if you can do a little investigating."

"You gave me a hickey," muttered Tony again. "I can’t believe you did that."

"Rule thirteen of undercover work," Gibbs reminded, holding the door to the bar open with his right hand and keeping his left firmly locked above Tony’s hipbone.

He smiled minutely when Tony joined in the unison. "Always dress the part."

"But a hickey, boss?"

And then they were through the door and Tony could feel the eyes on him, could feel Gibbs stiffen convincingly against him.

A very jealous lover indeed.

~oOo~

This time Gibbs sat down at the small table across from Tony. He scanned the press of bodies for anyone matching the description of the "Suicide Blond" and met a couple of very interested glances thrown DiNozzo’s way with a petulant glare of his own.

"Anybody you like?" asked Tony, his hands worrying the edge of the table as if they were in search of something to do.

"Platinum blond in the corner. Looks like a leather fetishist. Could be him." Gibbs frowned in the direction of the dance floor. "Couple of blonds dancing."

"Big Boy!"

Gibbs held back the snarl that threatened when Tony’s admirer from the previous night landed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. He couldn’t hide the hardness in his eyes, though.

"Touchy, touchy," tsked ‘Big Boy’, his hand straying to ruffle DiNozzo’s hair.

Tony leaned minutely into the touch and Gibbs pressed his chair back suddenly, "I’m getting a beer."

Whether he was just playing his part, or whether his real emotions were getting the better of him, it was the right move. "Big Boy" occupied his vacated chair in an instant and, leaning against the bar, he could see that Tony had gotten him to call the leather-clad blond over.

He tried to lip read but it was far too dim to make out what was being said. Just not dim enough to hide the hands being laid on Tony’s thighs.

With a disgruntled sigh he retreated to his perch in the booth and set about watching DiNozzo’s back.

~oOo~

McGee sat in the darkness of the van, watching the track of the recording and listening to the disembodied conversation, which, even filled with profanity, was far less startling than what he thought he’d heard murmured between DiNozzo and Gibbs.

What he’d hastily wiped from the start of the recording.

He rubbed sweaty hands on his pants and fervently wished Abby were there. She’d say something to make it okay that it seemed like Tony DiNozzo didn’t find Agent Gibbs near as frightening as he did.

Personal sexual preference aside, he just couldn’t get over the idea that anyone could find the senior agent anything but heart-stopping … in a totally terrifying, decidedly non-tempting kind of way. And Gibbs had …

He’d not only kissed DiNozzo, he’d apparently …

McGee shook himself. The thing was not to go there. Not to even think it.

Gibbs made Abby’s coffin look like his grandmother’s chintz sofa.

~oOo~

"You’re back."

Gibbs’ gaze flicked briefly to the professor then returned to DiNozzo.

"This is getting to be a habit."

"It seems," Gibbs agreed sourly.

"Offer is still good."

Gibbs snorted, watching the leather boy lean in toward Tony. "Who’s the blond?"

"Calls himself ‘Suicide’."

"Catchy," returned Gibbs, trying again to make out what was being said across the barroom floor.

"So …" speculated Haskins, "you let him come and do this because –"

This time, at least, Haskins managed to get his full attention. "You still studying me?"

"Maybe. I didn’t realize until you helped him up that he was—"

"Crippled?" finished Gibbs sharply. "Half blind?"

"So," the academic returned to his previous question, "you let him do this to you because he’s …"

Gibbs gave in and took a deep swallow of his beer before he replied, not untruthfully. "Because it’s who he is. It’s what he does."

"Suicide won’t mind a threesome," Haskins ventured and found the suggestion, not unexpectedly, immediately shot down.

"I would."

"So, you’re a one-man man," the professor observed. "Very old-fashioned of you."

Gibbs worried the beer bottle. "What can I say? I’m a conservative kind of guy."

A hand he hadn’t been expecting tightened over Gibbs’ own. "And I’m just trying to broaden your horizons."

Gibbs gaze locked on the unwelcome touch, which was quickly withdrawn. "I’m not interested."

And he truly wasn’t. The trim and somewhat slight professor was not his type. Not in his early years when he’d always wanted to meet strength with equal or greater strength -- Haskins was far too bookish-looking to have ever fulfilled that need. And not now when his desires apparently ran to Italians with quick, cocky grins and a tendency to get under his skin – in more ways than one.

"Fair enough." The sociologist nodded toward the front of the bar. "You have my condolences that he doesn’t feel the same way."

Gibbs felt a prickle of fear go up his back and knew, even before he glimpsed the leather-clad blond holding the door open for a smiling Tony, that the younger man had again managed to break the first fucking rule of team surveillance: don’t voluntarily leave the sight of your backup.

He flipped the cell open, thumbing the direct connect. "McGee, where the hell is he going?"

"Some place called Messrs DeSade."

"Fuck! McGee, follow them. You so much as let him out of your sight and you’ll be doing cold cases in Norfolk until you retire, you hear me?"

What he was going to do to a certain other agent when he caught up with him would be something he’d work out later.

"You’re a cop," observed Haskins.

"Not exactly," said Gibbs as launched himself off of the bench. Seeing him stalk toward them, the crowd wisely parted.

"Where the hell do you think you’re going, Professor?" he snarled as he flung open the front door of the bar and a hand caught the swinging block of metal and glass before it could fall back with a satisfying clang.

"With you."

"I don’t think so," Gibbs enunciated precisely.

"I do. You want to get in to DeSade’s without causing a ruckus; you’ll need a membership card."

Gibbs stopped. "It’s a fucking private sex club? So help me, if I get him out of this in one piece, I’m going to kill him." He thumbed the direct connect again. "McGee, you still with him?"

"Y-y-yes sir. Going down Andersonville past Highland right now."

He eyed the waiting academic. "You know where this place is?"

"Oh yeah."

Gibbs tossed the keys to the agency sedan at Haskins. "Then drive."

***


McGee kept one hand on the steering wheel and used the other to press the receiver tighter against his ear. Even so, the broadcast crackled and popped. He could tell Tony had been ... surprised when both men climbed into the car with him. The blond in leather driving and the other – the one that kept calling DiNozzo "Big Boy" – shoving next to him in the back.

"You coming with?" asked Tony. There were the sounds of Tony moving awkwardly across the backseat to give the man room.

"Suicide’s into threesomes."

McGee heard DiNozzo say "ah" and then that was quickly replaced by a muffled groan ... McGee squinted at the far off and darkened car, worried.

"Starting a little early, aren’t we?" gasped DiNozzo.

"No need to waste time."

The other man’s voice was slightly high-pitched and his laugh – McGee found himself shuddering – it was more like a cackle. Every time he watched Tony practice his own brand of the undercover art he wondered just how far the agent would actually go in pursuit of a suspect. He suspected the answer might well be "too far". He also suspected that’s exactly why Gibbs had hired him.

"Len," the blond’s voice cut in sharply. "Don’t wear him out. We want him ... fresh for our little adventure."

~oOo~

"McGee!"

On a DC side street, the NCIS van swerved dangerously.

"Here, boss ... Gibbs ... sir."

A hapless Cooper Mini narrowly missed destruction on the grill of the Ford as McGee struggled to the get the van back under control.

"Is the idiot saying anything?" a disembodied Gibbs growled from the cell flipped open in his lap.

"Just making ... conversation." Like he was going to repeat anything he was hearing to the already prickly senior agent.

Ahead of him the taillights of the sedan flickered.

"They’re turning, boss."

"Unobtrusive surveillance. Unobtrusive, McGee," reminded Gibbs.

"Won’t know I’m even on the same planet, sir."

In the sedan barreling down Andersonville, Gibbs rolled his eyes.

~oOo~

Getting out of the car wasn’t the problem that Tony had envisioned. Adrenaline was definitely improving his strength and coordination. Although the crash, when it came, would be ugly. But right now the familiar excitement of a hot case pumped through his veins. Plus there were strong hands all over him, lending accidental support in their groping.

Across the lot a small neon sign flickered elegant script, leaving the green afterimage of an "M" flashing in the haze of his vision.

Time to push a button or two.

"I think Everett Cole mentioned this place." He felt the hand on his right arm tighten just a bit.

There was a protracted silence as if looks were being exchanged.

"You know Cole?"

The one who kept calling him "Big Boy" scoffed, "Who didn’t fuckin’ know Cole? Who didn’t fuckin’ fuck Cole?"

"Pity what happened to him and Reynaldo," observed Tony.

Still apparently trying to diffuse the tension that now wrapped like a cloud around them "Big Boy" muttered, "A good fuck is such a terrible thing to waste."

"You know," Suicide put in, his voice suddenly low and serious, "I think I recognize that van."

"Van?" asked Tony, working hard to remain nonchalant.

"Across the street. White minivan."

Controlling the breath of relief that wanted to sigh out his chest, Tony shook his head, replying honestly, "Don’t know anybody with a white van."

Black, yeah. He was well acquainted with a certain black van.

"We going in?" he asked lightly.

The steel band around his wrist tightened and the blond growled in his ear. "It was in the parking lot and now it’s here. Now why would that make me think we’re being followed? And why would you bring up the dearly departed Everett Cole?

~oOo~

Gibbs parked a few spaces behind the dark van and had just gotten out when a nearly frantic McGee plunged from the van’s driver’s side and stumbled his way toward him.

"We got a problem, boss. They’ve made a tail."

"McGee," hissed Gibbs. "You have trouble with covert surveillance?"

"No, not me. White van."

Gibbs looked sharply toward DeSade’s parking lot. The trio was still in sight, standing close, their bodies barely separate. Satisfied, momentarily, that DiNozzo was all right, he scanned the street ahead of them, fixing on a minivan gleaming whitely under the streetlight.

"Stay here, "he ordered, sparing a brief glance in Haskins’ direction. He pulled his weapon from its holster. "With me, McGee."

They’d barely made it halfway to their target when the suspect exited from the passenger door, away from them and into the street.

"Fuck," murmured Gibbs, using the front of an SUV for cover, watching a well-built silhouette – a silhouette he recognized -- move rapidly across the street

~oOo~

"Just what is this?" The blond jerked Tony roughly and his left leg caved under the assault, the hand on his forearm not enough to keep him off the asphalt.

Oddly, the only thought Tony could muster at the disaster his little side trip was rapidly disintegrating into was if these guys didn’t kill him, Gibbs would.

Kneeling now, one hand, along with the constant pressure on his arm, keeping him upright, Tony frowned up at the shadow above him. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"What the fuck am I doing?" snarled the blond. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"I’m not doing anything, man," returned Tony, trying to give as good as he got, struggling to get his suddenly rubbery legs back under him so he could face the bastard on his feet.

The man crossing the street had broken into a loping run.

An arm locked around his chest and Tony felt the cold business end of a pistol press against his temple.

Crap. Could things get any worse?

"You fucking fag!" thundered angrily across the parking lot.

In a too familiar voice.

Greg Hale’s voice.

Oh yeah. It could get worse.

Much worse.

More than once lately he’d had a ... feeling of being observed, one he would have trusted if he could see clearly more than six feet in front of him. He should have told Gibbs that he thought someone was watching him. That he thought he could feel eyes on him. Only he hadn’t wanted to look like he needed someone, particularly Gibbs, watching out for him.

"God," groaned DiNozzo, shaking his head. The pistol was pressed more firmly against his skin.

"I told you Cole and Reynaldo was a mistake!" screamed "Big Boy" in unexpected hysteria as the Baltimore cop bore down on them.

"Shut up!" hissed the blond.

The arm binding Tony slid painfully further up under his arms, the fist pressed against his chest dangerously close to where the wire was taped. As if he could possibly be any more royally screwed than he was already...

"Come any closer and I blow his fucking brains out."

Tony tried to squint at the new member of their little group, make out that it really was his ex-partner.

"A fucking fruit kills a fucking fruit and I’d care?" A foot – Hale’s, he assumed from the trajectory – took Tony firmly in the solar plexus.

Unable to curl over his aching gut, unable to breath, Tony felt reality waiver.

"You knock up my wife and it turns out you’re a fucking homo?"

Still gasping, kept upright only by the arm encircling him, Tony observed the truly laughable mess he found himself in. Here was Greg Hale, alpha-male pride so damaged he ready to beat him to death, oblivious to the fact someone already had a weapon pointed at his head. He felt himself jerked back and was helpless to anything but flinch when the gun brushing his temple was arced away.

He shuddered four times – once for each shot fired – and when the arm holding him up abruptly released, he crumpled face first into the asphalt, head hitting hard and the fuzzy constellation of the parking lot lights fading to almost complete darkness.

~oOo~

"Move!" hissed Gibbs as the first shot rang out, crouching low as he crossed the four lanes of oblivious traffic, aware McGee was somewhere behind him doing the same.

Whatever the hell Hale thought he was doing, he wasn’t doing it quietly. Gibbs fleetingly wondered how the hell he’d let Hale get that close but that was something he could flagellate himself for later, after he’d sorted this mess out.

There was no way the blond would have gotten the drop on Tony so easily ... before. Something else he could beat himself up for, and would, later, as well. Right now there was only time to take in the scene, figure trajectories. Pray Hale wouldn’t provoke the blond to fire before he could get into position.

Undeterred by the gun being pressed to Tony’s temple, Hale landed a kick in Tony’s midsection and Tony folded in the gunman’s grasp.

"You knock up my wife and it turns out you’re a fucking homo?" reverberated across the parking lot.

"Shit," Gibbs muttered, softy, to himself.

Fifteen more feet or so and he’d feel sure he could get the shot. And he had to get the shot. Tony was still half-limp in the blond’s clutches, clearly dazed, unable to help Gibbs or himself.

The gun moved and, even though he needed the few extra feet he hadn’t yet traversed, Gibbs drew a bead. In the second it took for him to take aim, though, the weapon swung in Hale’s direction. The first two shots rocked the big cop but didn’t take him down. By the third, Gibbs was within range. He fired almost simultaneously with the fourth shot.

His bullet took the blond, dead center of the forehead. With satisfaction, he watched the body fly backwards from the force of the projectile, only to see Tony crumple into a disorganized tangle of limbs as his support was pulled away. A cowering "Big Boy" held up his hands and backed slowly away from the carnage in front of him.

"Don’t fucking move!" he ordered the only man still standing. "McGee, get the weapons."

Kneeling beside DiNozzo, eyes never leaving "Big Boy," pistol never wavering, he laid his free hand on an unresponsive arm and followed it up until he could find the curve of the neck, the slow pulse of the carotid.

"I got him, boss."

He realized McGee had been repeating this particular phrase for several seconds now and he spared a glance to the right to verify the young agent did indeed have the suspect in his sights.

"Shit," muttered Gibbs, finally looking down. "Why the hell does this keep happening?"

"I called 911."

Gibbs jumped, re-fixing the weapon with one hand as Haskins appeared with a stealthiness worthy of their ME. He somehow enjoyed the way the professor’s eyes widened as the gun swung expertly in his direction.

"Get off my crime scene." Gibbs ordered, turning to make sure McGee now had the only remaining healthy suspect properly cuffed. Satisfied, he clicked the safety on and re-holstered the pistol. "McGee, when the cops get here, make sure they don’t wind up shooting us. And check that asshole," he ordered, waving a hand in Hale’s direction.

Slight movement from the living body beside him then took his sole attention. Tony made a small moaning complaint and tried to roll over.

"Easy." Gibbs slipped a hand behind Tony’s neck to support his head and stop the uncoordinated attempts at rising. "Lie still. Let me check you out."

"Hey," at this point McGee sounded steadier than he did, "Hale’s alive."

"Good, that means I can kill him later," Gibbs replied to the report, brushing Tony’s hair back from the bleeding wound on his temple.

"Gibbs?" whispered Tony, wincing.

"Where does it hurt?" Gibbs ran tentative hands over Tony’s shoulder and collarbone, then down his hip.

He intercepted the hand Tony tried to bring to his forehead.

"Just my head." Tony squeezed the fingers now holding his. "And my pride."

The hand squeezed back. "Yeah, well, we’ll talk about proper procedure later."

Tony’s head dropped back toward the hard surface of the parking lot and Gibbs had to scramble to soften the impact with his hand.

"Looking forward to that one, boss," murmured Tony, closing his eyes.

~oOo~

"Good news travels fast," observed Gibbs as he looked up from his seat on the ambulance’s back step into Ducky’s concerned face, not too surprised that the medical examiner had made it there before the PD forensics team. The McGee-Abby-Ducky pipeline obviously was working at top speed.

"Anthony?" queried the older man, his gaze following the thumb Gibbs shoved toward the second ambulance’s interior.

"He’s trying to talk them out of the trip to the ER."

"He will do no such thing."

Ducky’s flat insistence brought a slight smile to Gibbs’ lips. A little taste of the ire that was sure to be poured his way as soon as the ME had satisfied himself that everyone was well enough to be lectured.

"Go lend them a hand. If I’m there he’ll just –"

"Swear he’s all right," Ducky finished for him, his voice a bit … cool. "Yes. I know."

Crossing the short distance, the ME hauled himself up into the bright light of the ambulance interior.

~oOo~

"Hey Duck!"

Tony winced when one of the pair of EMTs called out the greeting. How Ducky knew every health professional within a day’s radius of the DC metro area was still something he hadn’t worked out, but he should have expected the medical examiner’s untimely appearance. He was just beginning to have luck convincing the duo to let him go. With reinforcement in the form of the ME there was no way he was getting to go home with Gibbs tonight.

"Anthony," Ducky said solemnly, bending on one knee with a slight wince. "This was not the type of assignment we had discussed."

He waved a hand for the clipboard and studied the scrawled vitals before lifting a penlight from one of the EMT’s pockets. He grasped Tony’s chin to hold him still and clicked on the light.

"It will be bright," he warned before testing the pupils’ responsiveness. The constriction was a bit slow but they were both equal and reactive. Popping the penlight between his teeth to free his other hand, he gently ran his hands over Tony’s skull, apologizing when his fingers came into contact with the swelling knot at the right temple.

"Kind of had a face-to-face with the parking lot," admitted DiNozzo, trying to pull away from the inquisitive hands.

"You may have a minor concussion."

"I just want to go home," snapped Tony, letting the irritation seep into his voice. "Now I almost had these guys agreeing with me and you’re not going to screw that up, Ducky."

"I am not," conceded Ducky. "As long as there are no other injuries."

"Guys?" Tony turned his best "I’ll be good" look on the EMTs, hope softening his voice.

"Somebody needs to keep an eye on him."

Ducky looked out at the worried figured still crouched on the steps of the next vehicle. "Oh, that won’t be a problem." He patted Tony’s knee. "Give me a couple minutes with our friend Gibbs and everything will be ready."

"Sure, Duck," said one of the med techs.

He left Tony hunched over in a mirror of Gibbs’ own posture, elbows on knees, hands clasped, one thumb worrying over the other.

~oOo~

"Jethro."

Gibbs rose and squared his shoulders. He knew how to take his punishment like a man. McGee, who had been giving his report, took one look at their usually avuncular ME and started walking backwards, mumbling about doing just one more grid-walk on the parking lot.

"Ducky," he replied neutrally.

"We’ve had our differences in the past, Jethro," observed Ducky. "You sending Stan Burley on a certain ops mission comes to mind."

"Go ‘head and say it, Duck. You know you’re going to, anyway. Might as well put me out of my misery."

"I think not," demurred the physician. "In fact, I think I’ll save our little talk for another time. Perhaps let it sink in how easily you … we… all could have lost him."

"He did good," Gibbs retorted quietly.

"Yes, he did." Ducky agreed, putting a hand on Gibbs’ very tense shoulder. "But we have yet to know the cost. MS is a very … tricky disease. Tomorrow he may be fine. Or, tomorrow he may be worse."

"He going to the hospital?"

"No," answered Ducky. "I don’t think the hospital is what Anthony needs right now. I’m not sure I quite … approve … but what he needs right now is you, Jethro."

Ducky watched as Gibbs crossed his arms against his chest, a surprisingly unsure gesture from the agent. "Never took you for a homophobe."

"You know I’m not. It’s your stubbornness, not your gender, which has me concerned."

Gibbs nodded. Not an admission of agreement but an acknowledgement of the older man’s point of view. "So I can take him home?"

Ducky gestured toward the ambulance. "Please do. And tell him I’ll be by tomorrow morning." He gave Gibbs a warning look. "Just to check things out."

~oOo~

"I’m here to take him off your hands, boys."

The entrance was classic take-charge-Gibbs but Tony could see the slight hesitation before Gibbs offered his hand to help him up. The clear, white light of the ambulance’s interior gave a hard edge to the lean body, made Gibbs more angular and sharp against the illumination.

Tony still had to squint at the fuzzy form the EMTs poked in front of him and Gibbs knelt down, taking his hand and folding it around the pen, leading him to the line he’d signed more than once in his career, waiving the ambulance company’s liability should he prove later to have needed their services.

Gibbs’ hand felt hot wrapped around his own and Tony trembled a bit with a chill he hadn’t noticed before. Now that the fight for his medical freedom was won, he could rapidly feel himself battling against the inevitable downhill slide from the adrenaline rush. He had to get out there before he drained his reserves altogether or there would be no talking Gibbs or the EMTs out of a trip with the sirens blaring.

Gibbs tightened his hold as they reached the steps and Tony felt one of the EMTs suddenly behind him, helping ease him down the two risers.

"Ducky been chewing on your ass?"

The gait Gibbs set across the parking lot was slow and careful.

"For Ducky," replied Gibbs, "that was merely a love bite."

"I’m sorry, boss. The opportunity was there and I just … took it."

Gibbs stopped, turning to face him. "Not tonight, Tony. We’ll talk about it, believe me, but not tonight."

A hand carded through the side of Tony’s hair and Tony leaned briefly into the touch.

"Okay," he agreed. Then he paused. "Am I off the team?"

Gibbs frowned, starting them toward the car again. "What made you say that?"

"Fucked up pretty good there, boss."

"Not the first time," observed Gibbs softly. "For either of us."

Gibbs could tell he was, little by little, supporting more and more of Tony’s weight but the car was close now. Close enough that the locks clicked open at his touch on the remote.

"What time is it?" murmured Tony as Gibbs guided his descent into the seat, a hand on his head to prevent him concussing himself more on the arch of the door.

"After two."

Gibbs lifted Tony’s legs and helped turn him.

"Past your bedtime," mused Tony tiredly as Gibbs reached across and buckled the seatbelt.

"Well there’s a nice big bed waiting for both of us at home."

~oOo~

Gibbs watched Tony sleep in the soft, diffuse light of the early morning. The younger man was sprawled insensate; deep, even breaths causing the rise and fall of the sheet draped over the otherwise bare skin.

He had found it slightly amusing that Tony -- who would sleep nude in a spare base house at Gitmo, with Kate only a door away -- hadn’t slept in less than a t-shirt and boxers from the night he’d first insisted Tony wasn’t climbing the stairwell to his second-floor apartment until the first night they’d shared a bedroom.

Tony’s face was turned toward him, the stark white of the butterfly bandage making the swollen contusion on his forehead darker and more foreboding. There were smaller bruises peppering his chest and arms, and the magenta circular love bite Gibbs himself had deliberately put on the tender throat. The palms of his loosely curled hands were scraped raw; red patches marring the flesh where Tony had tried to catch his weight against the rough asphalt.

The ringing of the doorbell caused DiNozzo to frown and curl away from the sound, bringing his right knee up. Gibbs ran a light stroke along an upturned wrist, watching Tony mumble softly in response to the touch then he left him to sleep and went to face what would inevitably be a medical examiner in the mood to lecture.

~oOo~

Ducky held his black bag in one hand, a single forearm crutch in the other and a Donut Hut bag clenched between his teeth.

At least it prevented any immediate homily on the ME’s part. Although when Gibbs reached out, Ducky shrewdly handed him the crutch and kept the bag of doughnuts for himself.

"Duck?" he questioned as he hefted the light piece of anodized metal.

"As you have given credence to Anthony’s desire to disregard Dr. Lenz’s suggestion of a wheelchair, I thought, perhaps, this might serve as a compromise," explained Ducky as he brushed past him and headed for the kitchen.

Gibbs left the crutch leaning in the hallway and followed his guest.

The ME was standing in the middle of the tile floor frowning perplexedly at the empty coffee maker. "Where is the coffee?"

"It’s," Gibbs glanced at his watch, "eight-thirty on a Saturday morning, Duck. There isn’t any coffee. Yet."

Gibbs pulled out the basket and opened the cabinet to get a filter. "Sit down, Ducky," he instructed when he saw him start to take a few steps in the direction of the hall. "He’s still asleep."

"I should--"

"Coffee, first," ordered Gibbs and the older man waved a hand in acknowledgement.

"He slept?"

"Like the dead."

"And you didn’t," finished Ducky.

Gibbs quirked an eyebrow. "It show?"

"I’ve seen you got without sleep for many a case, Jethro. You get this … look in your eye." Ducky sat down and opened the bag. "You’ve got it now."

"I do."

"You do," affirmed Ducky digging into the sack. "Chocolate glazed. I believe that is Anthony’s favorite. For you I brought plain."

"Not hungry." Gibbs took the carafe from the still streaming coffee maker, the drops hissing on the heating plate, and poured the steaming liquid into a mug. He swallowed it hot and black.

"I think I’ll go see him." Ducky gestured toward the end of the hallway.

Gibbs sat down and nursed his barely brewed drink.

~oOo~

What Gibbs saw with a lover’s gaze, Ducky took in with more observant eyes. The nude form, lightly covered by the thin sheet, already showed a slight loss of muscle mass in the limbs, secondary to the disruptions in nerve conductivity. Exercise was important to keep Tony flexible, prevent spasms, and retain muscle mass, but undoubtedly not the kind of exercise the young agent had gotten the night before.

Ducky laid a hand on a bare shoulder. "Anthony?"

"Go away, Ducky."

The ME smiled, shaking the shoulder a little harder and trying to keep the amusement out of his voice. "We had a deal, as I remember. You got to go home and I got to check you over in the morning."

DiNozzo opened one visible eye and squinted at him, the rest of his face still buried in the pillow. "Are you sure it’s morning?"

"Quite positive." Ducky smacked the bare back lightly. "Now up with you."

With a theatrical groan, which didn’t do enough to distract from the real effort Tony had to put into getting upright, the younger man pushed his way to the edge of the bed and pulled the sheet discreetly over his lap.

"I’m up. Now let me go back to sleep."

"I’m afraid the nature of our agreement doesn’t work that way." Ducky moved around to the other side of the bed and sat next to his reluctant patient. A quick glance down showed him that Tony’s left leg was in spasm, the foot bowed inward, the ankle convulsively shaking.

"You have been taking your Tizanidine?"

Tony self-consciously rubbed at his trembling leg. "Made me dizzier, switched to Gaba-something."

"Gabapentin."

"Yeah, whatever," mumbled DiNozzo.

Ducky laid a hand over Tony’s. "It is merely a reaction to your overexertion last night."

"Yeah, well it’s probably not the only ‘reaction’ my overexertion is going to get." Tony turned his head toward the door. "He pissed?"

"No. Not that I can tell."

Although apparently, from the way he closed his eyes, DiNozzo would have found it more reassuring to know the senior agent was angry.

"Tony?" Ducky queried.

Hands pressing hard into the mattress, Tony forced his way to his feet. Rufus, who had been curled on the carpet beside the nightstand, scrambled up at the movement only to move in to nose him consolingly when Tony immediately collapsed back on the soft surface, his left leg refusing to hold his weight.

"Fuck," murmured Tony, scrubbing an open palm over his eyes.

"I thought there might be … consequences to your actions," observed Ducky. "If you would allow me," he gestured toward the brace propped in the corner.

Tony made a small sound of capitulation, his hands moving in a laconic I-don’t-care gesture, his gaze directed straight ahead.

Ducky buckled the plastic brace. "Stay there," he advised when he was done. "I believe this morning calls for a little assistance."

Gibbs had positioned himself so that he could see down the hall and Ducky gave him a brief wave as he crossed the opening to retrieve the crutch from its resting place. He could see Gibbs frowning when he saw the hardware but the ME shook his head at him warningly.

He needed Tony to accept the assistance. Which meant he needed Gibbs to stay where he was. Tony would listen to him, accept his advice, but only if he didn’t think it was diminishing his stature in the eyes of the man fretting in the kitchen.

"I think this will help." Ducky handed him the cuffed end of the long metal shaft. "Use it with your right hand." Then he reached down and retrieved Rufus’ harness, the big dog coming obediently to his call. "You’ll hold onto the harness with your left. It will provide stability and you can take some weight off your leg."

For a moment he thought DiNozzo would refuse, but after a pause, Tony took hold of the handgrip and Rufus and hauled himself up, locking the brace. The first couple of steps were tentative, but then Tony got the hang of the rhythm. He got all the way to the door before he stopped, unwilling to reveal what Gibbs would already know.

"It’s all right, Tony. You may not need it tomorrow." Ducky stepped out into the hallway. "And I brought doughnuts; you wouldn’t want to miss that, would you?"

"Chocolate glazed?"

"If Jethro has not consumed them in our absence."

Tony stuck his head out the door, leaning just a bit on the doorframe. "Hey, Gibbs, you didn’t eat my doughnuts, did you?"

A reassuringly gruff, "No, DiNozzo, I didn’t eat your doughnuts," drew him out further.

"Better not have," muttered Tony.

"Hey, I heard that," resounded from the kitchen and Ducky could see Gibbs had played his own part in their little act, getting up to get coffee so his back was to the door.

Taking the opportunity given to him, Tony slipped into the kitchen and sank down at the table, leaving the crutch leaning against the wall, in sight, but not in use. A kind of large, gray elephant propped in the corner that everyone saw and just as pointedly ignored.

Which was about all Ducky could hope for.

~oOo~

Tony waited, but even when Ducky departed, Gibbs did not bring up the either the crutch Tony was using to drag himself around the house, or the other apparently forbidden topic hanging with heavy silence in the strained air – one thoroughly blown undercover operation gone to shit in a dark parking lot.

He didn’t bring it up, but it was the obvious cause of Gibbs’ curtailing of all his usual Saturday activities, his perpetually remaining within some internal, Gibbs-defined radius that was almost, but not quite, close enough to be called "hovering."

For his part, Tony was stiff and sore and, basically, bored out of his head.

"Movie?" he finally begged when he couldn’t take being circled any more.

Getting Gibbs to a Cineplex was generally a kind of isometric exercise. The more you pulled, the harder he dug in his heels, but Tony sensed that a hovering Gibbs might be a more easily manipulated one.

"What’s on at the Rialto?"

"They do make new movies," reminded Tony, glad that the topic had at least caused Gibbs to settle next to him on the couch.

"Not as well." Gibbs’ hand settled on Tony’s thigh, as close to an actual caress as he’d had since Gibbs’ had pressed him against the side of the van in the Onion’s parking lot.

"I suppose we could find … something to do here." Tony ventured, squeezing Gibbs’ knee, protests of his scraped palm ignored as he brushed his hand upward along the soft, worn leg of Gibb’s jeans.

"Yeah?" questioned Gibbs softly. "You up for that?"

Tony leaned in, his forehead tickled by Gibbs’ short, straight hair. "Move that hand a little and you’ll see how ‘up’ I am for it."

"Bedroom," murmured Gibbs, sweeping a soft kiss against the willing lips, pulling the younger man to his feet, one hand locking Tony’s around the grip of the crutch. The feel of the plastic and metal jerked Tony back into the unwelcome territory of his body’s weaknesses. But Gibbs returned to concentrating on the more responsive parts of his body, distracting him.

"Come on," Gibbs breathed warmly against his lips. Almost by rote, his other hand was placed on Rufus’ harness, Gibbs’ real attention elsewhere. He leaned his body toward Tony’s and walked backwards, both hands palmed against Tony’s jaws, dotting fast kisses along the edges of his lips.

The collision with a protruding corner only deterred him momentarily. Tony felt Gibbs’ grin against his own curled lips. Then he laughed, too: at Gibbs’ lack of stealth, at the pleasure of walking with Gibbs wrapped around him, even if his own movement was more a graceless, supported lurch.

And then he was backed gently against the bed, hands disentangling him from the hardware that kept him on his feet. Gibbs’ strength controlled his fall, followed him down, covered him.

~oOo~

"So, I can tell Ducky you made sure I spent most of the weekend in bed?"

There had been bathroom breaks, breaks to feed Rufus, breaks to feed themselves. But the majority of the time they’d passed in slow, careful examination of each other’s bodies. Though Gibbs encountered, as he had the first time he’d held Tony, ribs more prominent than they should be, a body lighter than that of the athletic man he’d hired more than two years ago. He’d ignored, as he always would, that the eyes gazing into his did so with a now-myopic squint. He accepted the fact that, when Tony inevitably failed to make out whatever he was looking for, the younger man would raise a hand and brush gentle fingers across his eyelids or his lips before putting the hand to other uses.

But neither was Gibbs unaware that the body Tony held had its own frailties. That he, too, was leaner and lighter, and past the age where he could expect to find such beauty and youth in his bed.

Gibbs laid a light kiss on the man gracing his shoulder with his weight. "You telling me all this was doctor’s orders? Doctor’s orders," he corrected, "would be getting some sleep, which we’re now going to do."

Tony’s hands found his watch, the only thing he’d been left wearing after Gibbs’ careful stripping over twenty-four hours before. "Almost midnight."

Gibbs murmured some wordless reply, drawing Tony closer to him. He cracked open an eye at the sleepy, "Hey, Gibbs," that was mumbled against his neck.

"Hmm?" he answered.

"So, you ever miss sleeping with the boat?"

Gibbs squeezed the relaxed body tightly causing a little whimper of indignation.

"It was just a question."

"Go to sleep, Tony."

Tony snuggled a little tighter. "Gone."

~oOo~

"No more field work."

Tony opened his mouth to protest only to find the opportunity cut short.

"Not negotiable."

"But, Gibbs…" Tony looked futilely around the otherwise empty conference room, realizing that Gibbs had planned all along to wait until they reached the office to spring the lecture Tony had been expecting all weekend. "Boss," he corrected, clasping his hands together on the table. "I realize I disregarded protocol."

Tony licked suddenly dry lips.

"But it’s not the first time." Gibbs completed what DiNozzo wouldn’t say. "And I let you get away with it because it worked."

Tony tried to focus on the fuzzy outline of Gibbs bending forward across the table, surprised, as always, that he couldn’t make out more than a blurred oval where Gibbs’ face should be. He could gain little from the flat tone that only yesterday had been tender and gentle in its caress.

Gibbs was blessed with some invisible switch that he could turn on and off at will. So he could send you to sleep basking in intimate whispers and startle you awake with the cool, controlled bark of a drill sergeant. Where as Tony could only shrug on a variety of paper-thin masks: affection bleeding in where there should only be obedience; the lover still present where only the junior agent should remain.

"Didn’t work on Friday night, though," finished Gibbs with almost cruel succinctness.

Across the table, Tony bowed his head. "Not … directly my fault, boss."

"I know it wasn’t," Gibbs conceded. "But that doesn’t change anything. You don’t need to be out there."

"Got the confession." This challenge, at least, was more forceful.

"Got a dead perp and a wounded Baltimore homicide detective whose tail you would have picked up …" Gibbs hesitated.

The discomfort brought a sliver of a twisted smile to Tony’s lips as he acknowledged, "Before."

"I should have picked up the tail. Only I …" Gibbs faltered again.

"Only you were looking after me and it wasn’t an ‘us’ thing."

"Yeah," agreed Gibbs.

Tony’s hands separated and he palmed the tabletop listlessly. "An MS-thing, then."

"You’re stronger than she gives you credit for."

"So, I’m strong enough for the medical profession, but not strong enough for the bad guys."

Gibbs’ lips pressed together. "I won’t send you back in the field."

He waited for a reaction but one never came. There was no reply. No shift in position. Tony just froze, his eyes fixed on some indiscriminate point where Gibbs was … not.

~oOo~

"You can’t have it both ways, Duck. You wanted him safe; he’s safe."

"And demoralized," frowned the ME. "You could have done it without—"

A rather stern call of "Gibbs" cut off the ME’s castigation and Gibbs winced as Kate Todd stepped into Ducky’s domain. The agent looking just as unhappy as the green-clad physician, although at least she wasn’t holding a newly sterilized, sharp-ended liver probe.

Laser-sharp brown eyes bore into him. "What did you say to him?"

"As I was telling Ducky," he enunciated with extra clarity, "all I said was that I’m not sending him into the field any more."

"Really, Gibbs, is that all?" retorted Ducky.

Trapped between his two subordinates, Gibbs rounded on the more vocal of the pair. "You’re the one who didn’t want him in the field in the first place, who was angry that I let him go. So now you’re doing some three-sixty because I might have hurt his feelings?"

Ducky shuffled the probe from hand to hand. "Stress exacerbates conditions such as Anthony’s."

"So, I alleviated some," pointed out Gibbs.

"He’s just sitting there, staring," reported Kate. "He hasn’t said a word all morning. Now, in Gibbs," she gave a dark look to her boss, "this might be normal behavior but in Tony ..."

"It’s not like I fired him or told him to take disability."

"No," agreed Ducky, "you just made it quite clear his career as he knew it is over."

"You wanted this. You can’t expect me to do the dirty work and then complain that it got ugly."

"A little finesse, Jethro. A little tact would go a long way—"

"How much tact do you think you could have accomplished it with, Ducky? What were you going to do? Say ‘gee Dinozzo, there’s a slight problem with your vision and walking’s gotten a bit difficult but that really has nothing to do with why I’m revoking your field status?’ His legs may not work, but his brain is perfectly fine and I’m not going to insult him with platitudes."

Gibbs took a deep breath. "You think it isn’t killing me to watch him battle this and every day lose some small skirmish for his independence?"

"Boss?"

Gibbs stiffened at this new intruder, who was decidedly not Abby – the one he’d expected to put in her two-cents-worth next. This query was soft, almost apologetic.

Ducky watched Gibbs’ shoulders slump.

"I," Kate pointed back toward the elevator, "have work to do."

"As do I," agreed Ducky gesturing in the opposite direction.

"Tony, I--" Gibbs looked up and then fell silent. He brushed a hand through his cropped hair and grimaced ruefully. "I’m really not good at this stuff, if you haven’t noticed."

"Oh, I’ve noticed." Tony managed to smile back. "The whole building’s noticed, boss."

But then Tony leaned heavily against the crutch, his leg in sudden spasm. He gritted his teeth against the cramp, closing his eyes momentarily to compose himself.

And the next thing he knew he was being hugged. Gently. One of Gibbs’ hands wrapped against his back, the other on the back of his head. He pressed his face against Gibbs’ warm neck.

"Boss," Tony reminded, tensing despite the contentment that threatened to seep through him whenever he was in Gibbs’ arms.

"It’s not an ‘us’ thing," Gibbs rocked him slightly side to side. "It’s a boss-employee thing."

"You hug all your employees?"

"At one time or the other. Unbelievable as it may sound."

Tony inhaled deeply, his breath catching, and Gibbs drew him even closer.

"It’s okay. Let it out," soothed the older man. "Nobody’s here."

"I ..." the body pressed up against his suddenly fought the hold but Gibbs didn’t let go and Tony finally fell back against him heavily. "I’m sorry."

"What have you got to feel sorry for?" whispered Gibbs.

"That you have to watch. That I’m going to lose..."

"You’re not going to ‘lose’, Tony. You’re going to ‘survive’, just like all the rest of us."

"Not like all the rest..."

Gibbs closed his eyes, swaying a bit in instinctive comfort. "No you’re not. Much, much better than all the rest."

Tony’s laugh was a little broken. "Know that’s not true. I’m a fucking mess."

Gibbs pressed his lips to Tony’s forehead. "I don’t hire ‘fucking messes’. You know my standards."

Gibbs could feel tears now against his neck and Tony’s voice was punctuated by small, convulsive intakes of air. "Never knew what you were doing with me, why you took me in."

"I took you in because you impressed me. The same way Kate impressed me. The same as Ducky and Abby."

Tony shook his head in denial. And pulling back mere inches, Gibbs lightly shook Tony’s shoulders. "Are you insulting my managerial acumen, DiNozzo?"

At least the intake of air this time was more a snort than a disguised sob. "No, boss."

"Good." Tony’s back was patted one more time and, then, Gibbs released him. "You okay?"

Tony nodded and wiped the wetness from his cheeks.

"Then, come on, we need to go check on Hale."

"I called. He’s still in ICU."

"He’s a suspect in one crime and a material witness in another. We go check on him. Personally."

"Yeah." Tony re-firmed his grip on Rufus’ harness, "I could just stay..."

Gibbs let out a nearly silent sigh and fought the urge to take Tony back in his arms. Take him home and show him how much he thought Anthony DiNozzo was truly worth. But that, he knew, would not quiet the half of Tony’s soul that needed soothing.

"I’ll buy you lunch," he offered.

"Is this an–" began Tony.

"—just an employee thing," Gibbs reassured.

"You’ve bought Kate lunch?"

"Uh huh." Gibbs kept a palm against Tony’s back as he haltingly made his way back to the elevator.

"And you didn’t take me?"

"DiNozzo."

There was a quicksilver flash of a grin at the tone and for the first time since he’d sunk down across from Gibbs and shared the doctor’s pronouncement, the sturdy hand removed itself from its place at the small of his back and he was popped lightly on the side of the head.

~oOo~

"Well, look, if it isn’t the second fucking asshole in my life."

"Mrs. Hale, I presume," said Gibbs coolly, his guiding hand never leaving Tony’s arm. He’d seen the young woman’s glance up as they entered the waiting area, the look of disbelief on her face quickly turning to an unreadable expression.

"Gretchen," returned Tony with a calmness that was only belied by the minute tremor Gibbs’ could feel shaking Tony’s bicep.

"You look like shit."

Gibbs started to step forward, but Tony released the grip on the crutch and swung his arm out to block him.

"I’m surprised you came."

The admission was met with a shrug. "He hasn’t signed the divorce papers."

"So," returned Tony, "you’re hoping for a fatal outcome."

The bundle of blankets, piled just beyond where Gretchen Hale sat, stirred, but the woman took no notice. Not even when a small hand pushed sleepily out from the hospital-issued covers.

"Mama?"

Gibbs frowned as he looked from the man he stood beside to the miniature version with the same tousled light brown hair, who was wrestling sleepily with the blanket on the bench.

"Hush, Sam."

The little boy, Gibbs estimated the child was three or four, scrubbed at his face, wrinkling his nose and frowning. An expression that immediately disappeared when he caught sight of Rufus and he scrambled to his feet and slid across the floor to sit serious and silent, studying the tall dog.

"Sam! Leave him alone."

Tony held up a hand, "It’s okay." He squinted around Gibbs. "Is there a place I can sit down?"

Gibbs gently propelled him toward the other bench. "Here."

Tony released the harness, taking almost a controlled fall to the hard vinyl, which Gibbs had to stay with a grunt. Rufus obediently settled by his feet. It took a minute, in which Sam observed the commotion a little wide-eyed, but the siren song of canine companionship won out and he scooted closer with a softly whispered, but clearly delighted, "Doggy."

Gibbs watched as he touched Rufus’ brow, a tentative stroke of tiny fingers. No doubt at all in his mind that this diminutive version of DiNozzo was Tony’s son.

DiNozzo sat motionless, his gaze fixed on Gretchen Hale. "You haven’t changed have you?"

"You have," she observed coldly.

"Your husband is lying in ICU."

"Soon to be ex-husband," she corrected.

"Not if he hasn’t signed the divorce papers. Who is it this time, Gretchen? You sleep with his new partner?"

"Nope." The woman was stylishly thin, dressed in stiletto heels even for a day in ICU waiting. Her glance lingered on Gibbs and then dismissed him. "His boss."

"Caracas?"

"Think ... higher." She rubbed the tip of one long, manicured nail with the ball of her thumb.

"Stebbins?"

"Almost got it in one."

"Gretch, you slept with Lloyd Stebbins?"

"Well, sleeping with you didn’t get me anywhere except the maternity ward."

Tony straightened. "Greg was telling the truth?"

The woman’s expression wrinkled into a sneer that Gibbs hoped Tony couldn’t make out. "For God’s sakes, Tony, you just have to look at him."

"I...I can’t," murmured Tony, looking down.

Unable to take the shock and grief on Tony’s face, Gibbs stood up and crossed in front of him, careful not to move too quickly. "We came to check on your husband’s condition, Mrs. Hale. I suggest you and I go do just that."

"And you are?"

"Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, NCIS." He pulled out his badge and flashed it in her direction. "Your husband tried to assault a Federal Agent. More than once."

"What’s that to me?"

Gibbs looked her up and down critically. "Apparently, nothing," he observed, taking her arm and pulling her toward the double doors.

He looked back at DiNozzo, slumped against the back of the bench, and at the boy still delightedly patting a patient Rufus. "You two going to be okay, Tony?"

"We’ll be fine."

The tone didn’t match the assurance, but Gibbs’ took him at his word. Tony heard the click of the door shutting behind him. He squinted down at the two fuzzy shapes at his feet.

"Why’s he got on clothes?"

"What?"

"Why’s he got on..." Tony heard the rip of the Velcro strip that closed Rufus’ vest, "...clothes."

"His name is Rufus." Tony reached down and rubbed the rough neck affectionately. "And he’s got on a vest because he’s a special kind of dog. He’s got a job."

There was a protracted silence as this was pondered.

"What kind of job?"

"He helps me walk."

Tony could make out a small arm snaking over to touch the crutch leaning against the bench.

"Yeah, just like that does."

"I can run real fast," announced Sam solemnly.

Tony grinned. "I bet you can."

"And I can play b-ball and roller skate."

"My name’s Tony." DiNozzo stuck a hand out and felt the press of a hot, damp one in his. He marveled at the feel of the small fingers.

"I’m Sam."

"Nice to meet you, Sam."

The hand removed itself. "My daddy’s sick."

"I know. I used to work with your daddy."

"You a policeman?"

Tony smiled "Not any more."

"I’m going to be a policeman." Sam announced decisively, getting to his feet.

Tony suddenly tensed, realizing that if he moved far then he’d have a hard time either following him or seeing where he had gone.

"Hey, Sam?"

The small body moved close enough for Tony to feel the warmth of it against his braced knee.

"I need you to do me a favor, can you do that?"

There was no sound but he could see movement, probably a nod.

"I can’t see very well so I need you to stay with me."

"You need me?"

"Uh huh." Tony reached out his hand again and was relieved when fingers curled around his. Then there was the squeak of sneakers against vinyl as the bench was laboriously climbed. The small, living warmth settled against his side.

Tony reached out and ran his fingers through the soft, fine hair. "You’ll make a great cop, kid."

~oOo~

It had been quite a while, longer than Tony had expected. Just how long would have to remain a question, though, as his watch was out of reach, his left arm supporting the curled weight of the sleeping child.

He was half-asleep himself, drowsy and warmed. He’d tried to piece it together, get his mind to wrap around the concept that this was his child. Flesh of his flesh. He’d shivered briefly when it occurred to him that he might have inadvertently made a copy of his own faulty nerves and synapses. The enormity of it overwhelming him.

The door swung open with such a quiet click that it took Tony a minute to realize they weren’t alone. He sat up a bit straighter.

A hand – Gibbs’ -- settled on his shoulder. "He didn’t make it."

Sam was perfunctorily removed from his side. He could smell Gretchen’s perfume, see the glint of her blonde hair as she swept the sleeping form up into her arms.

"Gret—"Tony started to offer his condolences but she disappeared silently into the murky haze of his shortened horizon with a sharp clicking of heels.

He found himself reaching after her...

The hand that reached back was familiarly masculine. Rufus yawned audibly at Gibbs’ close appearance. His nails snapped against the flooring as he rose and shook himself.

"He’s a nice kid," Tony mused as the hand holding his own massaged a gentle thumb over his knuckles.

"Must take after his father," observed Gibbs.

Tony smiled wanly. "Wants to be a cop."

"Then he does take after his father." Gibbs put a hand under Tony’s elbow, urging him up, then he held him steady as he swayed fractionally. "Come on. I think we should eat."

"She take it well?"

"Oh yeah," Gibbs made sure Tony was stable before he released him, "like a trooper who doesn’t need to get the divorce papers signed now."

"That’s Gretchen," Tony agreed, waiting while Gibbs settled himself with his hand under Tony’s left arm.

"You have some rights in this, Tony -- if you want to pursue them."

The doors swung open and they were out in the hall.

"Some great parent I’d make," pointed out Tony, nodding downing at his unsteady gait.

"Stop selling yourself short," ordered Gibbs. "Last time I looked parenting was not about legs."

Gibbs and Rufus, both, pulled him back to a sudden halt at an intersection of hallways. Tony laughed darkly. "How ‘bout eyes?"

"DiNozzo." Tony turned away from Gibbs’ hiss in his ear. "You will stop that right now."

"Or what – you gonna hug me again, boss?"

The hand griping his arm kneaded his bicep. "If I have to."

~oOo~

It was only once they were seated at a table at Addie’s, and their orders were taken, that Gibbs settled into true interrogation mode. Tony had realized in the car that Gibbs was carefully policing his normal investigational impulses, the man’s innate curiosity probably warring with his managerial vow to provide the promised lunch.

"So, what possessed you?"

"To sleep with her?" Tony leaned his elbows on the table, his fingers worrying each other. "You have to ask me that? You saw her."

Gibbs was noncommittal. "Seen one skinny blonde, you’ve seen them all."

"Just because ‘skinny blondes’ aren’t your cup of tea, Gibbs, doesn’t mean that all of us are immune."

"Skinny brunets," corrected Gibbs, reaching across to cover Tony’s hands with one of his own despite the relative publicness of their table. "That’s what I’m into right now."

Tony snorted disbelievingly, but his hands engulfed Gibbs’ and didn’t let go. "Guess you can say that Gretchen and I were kind of in the same place at the same time. She was lonely. I was horny." He blinked wearily. "Not much of an excuse is it?"

"No," agreed Gibbs.

His hand was abruptly abandoned, Tony’s fingers moving back to their fretful repetitions. "She told me she was on the pill."

Gibbs watched the nervous motion. "Apparently not."

"Apparently," Tony echoed. "Think that was probably just a miscalculation on her part."

"Forgetting condoms?"

Gibbs sounded ... parental.

"Wanting a baby," corrected Tony.

Gibbs took a deep swallow of his iced tea. "She sure as hell doesn’t seem to want him."

Tony’s hands moved on to examine the precisely placed silverware. "Gretchen is not the most mature of individuals. She married Greg way too young."

"Guess that was a miscalculation, too," observed Gibbs.

"She wouldn’t hurt him," avowed Tony. "She’s self-centered but she isn’t a child abuser. I’m sure of that. Except for ...Voss, my character judgments are pretty sound."

"There’s more to abuse than actual physical neglect and violence."

Tony sighed. "I, uh, know that."

He leaned back as the waiter approached, dropping his hands to his lap, letting the aroma and steamy heat of the loaded burger wash over his down- turned face. He was hungry, surprisingly, even if his stomach was still tied in a clove hitch. Across the way, he could fuzzily make out Gibbs picking through his salad and the familiar sight released a bit of the tension tangling his gut.

"For a man who’ll drink cold coffee that’s been sitting all night in a room floating in sawdust, you are the finickiest eater."

"Don’t drink it cold," Gibbs corrected, dissecting another piece of lettuce and laying the portion that didn’t make the grade on his bread plate. "Use the heat gun."

"The heat gun doesn’t sizzle," pointed out Tony, feeling steady enough to take a bite of the hamburger.

"Sometimes the branding iron is handy," shrugged Gibbs amiably. He watched, relieved, as Tony dug into his French fries with newfound gusto. There hadn’t been a lot of hope that he’d be able to get DiNozzo to eat at all, much less properly, considering the morning he just had. But if inane conversation got the man to take in nourishment – even if that meant, in Tony’s case, fries and a bacon cheeseburger – Gibbs would take it.

Unfortunately, inanities only went so far. They didn’t cover things like Tony reaching left handed for his glass of ice water and a tremor hitting at just the wrong moment. The sweating glass poised for a frozen, infinitesimal second on its bottom edge before it succumbed to gravity in a splintering crash. The jangle of breaking glass brought nearby conversation to an excruciating hush.

"Fuck," murmured Tony, his trembling hand still hanging in mid-air where the glass decidedly now wasn’t. He finally managed to form the uncooperative fingers into a fist that matched the right hand he had clenched around his napkin.

"It’s okay." Gibbs moved to kneel on the dry side of the table. "It’s just water."

Tony closed his eyes, "Get me out of here, Gibbs."

"Hey, I know it’s been a shitty day," consoled Gibbs, his glare catching a few of the nosier diners, his hand finding the one Tony held fisted in his lap. He glanced up at the waiter hovering nearby with a towel and nodded at him, before suggesting to Tony, "Why don’t you finish the burger?"

"Okay, okay. You’re right. Leaving ... leaving is stupid," admitted Tony, forcibly straightening his fingers. "It’s just been a bit more than I was thinking I was going to have to face when we drove in this morning. Guess I didn’t see it coming, boss."

Gibbs frowned at the use of the unofficial title when he was holding Tony’s hand in his, even if it was unobtrusively beneath white linen.

"I thought you were just going to yell at me," confessed Tony.

"Why would I yell at you?"

"See," Tony’s soft whisper held a disturbing edge, "that’s what I didn’t get. You don’t yell at the truly weak, Gibbs. Just at the ones you think could have done better. I didn’t realize I’d crossed that line into not being able to help myself, you know?"

"Tony, that’s not—"

"And then, God, Gretchen..." Tony drew a sharp breath as the waiter reappeared, his fingers rapidly disentangling from Gibbs’.

"Your water, sir. I’m going to put it right here, by your plate."

Tony nodded, not really hearing, oblivious even to Gibbs’ sudden rise from his side.

"He’s not blind!"

"Hey," Tony patted his palm against Gibbs’ taut stomach. "Easy. I’m the one that’s having the breakdown here, remember?"

"You’re not having a breakdown."

"That an order?"

Standing down, Gibbs settled back at his plate. "Yes, it is."

"Okay," returned Tony easily. "I’m not having a breakdown."

"Good. Then eat your burger."

But Tony only folded his hands in his lap. "I just keep thinking, what if it’s inheritable?"

Gibbs toyed listlessly with his greens. "What’s inheritable?"

"My spontaneously collapsing nervous system."

"Anybody in your family got MS, Tony?"

"No, not that I know of."

"Then I’d think it’s not too inheritable."

"So you don’t think I’ve condemned him to a life of making an ass out of himself in restaurants?"

Gibbs smiled, reaching across to give Tony’s chin a quick caress with his finger. "Hey. Look at me. Please?"

Tony’s head came up with a small shake, but he did as Gibbs asked.

"From what I hear from Ducky and Abby, that’s an entirely different area to be concerned about."

"That was entirely Abby’s fault. She should have told me what Cho Do Fu was," Tony protested, trying to make out Gibbs’ expression, and hating that he couldn’t. It hit him all over again. It wasn’t just today, but the reality of the long days to come. He let his gaze fall back to the still shaking hand in his lap.

This wasn’t exactly when Gibbs had wanted to push the issue, but he knew the topic would at least yank Tony out of obsessing on his perceived inadequacies. "I want you to talk to a lawyer I know. She specializes in family court cases."

"Gibbs, I don’t know."

"Well, I do," countered Gibbs. "You owe that boy something more than just a ‘see you around, kid.’"

"Gibbs, you look at me." When the whisper was met with silence, Tony repeated it with a hiss. "Look at me. This is my life now."

He pointed to Rufus, on one side, and the crutch that he’d found too steadying to be ignored, on the other. "You won’t even leave me on my own anymore because you’re scared I’m going to fall and break my neck, or inadvertently burn the house down, or something. If I need 24/7 supervision from now on, how the hell am I going to-"

"We," restated Gibbs.

The litany jolted to a halt. "What?"

"We," Gibbs emphasized. "You think I was just ... having a fling, here?"

"You—"Tony shook his head. "You’re telling me this ... now?"

"Good a time as any."

~oOo~

A concerned Kate had clearly been watching the elevator because she was up and walking backwards next to them almost as soon as they’d cleared the doors.

"I was getting worried." Her tone was teasing enough, but the look she shot Gibbs still had "what have you done now" written all over it.

"Hale’s dead," he replied shortly, brushing past her.

"Oh," Kate rested her hand lightly on DiNozzo’s wrist. "Tony, I’m sorry."

Tony’s shoulders shrugged awkwardly, "It’s ... complicated. In a way, this is easier."

He could feel Kate studying him; his reactions never seemed to be quite what she wanted.

"If you need anything..." she finally offered.

"I’m fine. I’ve got that database search running on Mashreza. Should keep me busy for a while."

This clearly wasn’t what she’d wanted to hear either. "I meant if you need anything--"

"I know what you meant, Kate. And I appreciate it." He let go of the harness and held his arm out to her. "Always could use a hug, I guess."

It was nothing like hugging Gibbs. Kate felt fragile in his arms, curved like a multitude of women he’d held before. Soft. She smelled of jasmine. But her strength belied her size. And when he wrapped his free arm around her, he could feel where the gun tucked in at the small of her back. Still, being held by her was ... nice, in a comforting, familial sort of way.

Tony tried to remember when he’d been hugged by a member of his real family: his grandparents long ago; his father’s youngest sister, when they’d surprisingly glanced at each other across a crowded airport. But that hug had been ... tentative, not without reservation on both their parts. His aunt surely having known by then he was not welcome back in the hallowed family halls, that he was a DiNozzo in name only.

Tony squeezed Kate tight once before releasing her with a quiet, "Thanks."

She backed away, her voice revealingly roughened. "You need anything else..."

"I’m good, Kate. It’s okay."

"If Gibbs—"

"It’s okay," Tony reaffirmed. "He was right. I, uh ..." he lifted his hand from the crutch and gestured down at his legs, "I don’t need to be in the field like this. Guess you and McGee will just have to take out the bad guys for me."

"Yeah, okay," accepted Kate. "Look, I’ve got to call Virginia Beach. Some idiot at the shipyards has been smuggling in exotic birds from Puerto Rico."

"You get all the good cases," Tony observed dryly.

"Yeah, well, guess I just have ‘pet detective’ written all over me." She stood a minute longer, though, seemingly unwilling to leave. "Guess I’ll just ..." Kate thumbed over her shoulder, "...go back to work."

Gibbs had watched the drawn-out conversation, not sure exactly what was going on with Todd and her sudden watchdog tendencies. He an idea that his name currently resided on Kate’s suspicious persons list, along with the "creepy" budget guy that she and Abby had a pact to avoid without backup.

Gibbs coughed pointedly. "Could we get to work, people?"

"Yes, Gibbs" and "Yes, boss" mixed somewhat gratefully in a muddled automatic double-reply as if they were both glad for someone else to separate them.

~oOo~

"Time to go, Tony."

Gibbs rolled his eyes as the object of his directive held up an index finger and slowly waved it metronome-like while concentrating on the speech output from the lightweight headphones.

"Got something?" he inquired when Tony stripped off the equipment, ruffling his mussed hair further.

It was already later than Gibbs had intended to leave, thanks to Morrow requesting his presence in MTAC. He really hoped Tony hadn’t come up with anything that would cause this particular day to stretch on any longer. Especially since he didn’t relish the fight he’d get into when he tried to stuff his obviously exhausted partner in a cab if Tony had come up with something that required official attention.

"Maybe a location."

Gibbs put his forehead flush against the edge of the cubicle wall.

"Last week’s," amended Tony.

"Then we’re out of here." Gibbs came around the barrier and gave him a hand up. "We’re going to grab a six-pack and some takeout."

Although from the looks of the younger man, he probably wouldn’t get through one beer before he was down for the count. Tony looked drained, his skin faintly tinged with a pasty gray. Hell, he should have sent Tony home right after lunch, but he hadn’t had the heart to strip yet one more decision away from him.

"Thai?" Tony asked, raising hopeful eyebrows.

"Thai, it is."

On the way out, Gibbs raised a hand in farewell to Kate who was stuffing her satchel full, ready to take her own leave. He frowned at the hunched form of McGee, obliviously pounding away at his keyboard. An agent pulling a late night when there wasn’t a hot case wasn’t something Gibbs would have even registered a few months ago. He pulled Tony to a gentle stop before his newest agent’s desk.

"McGee," he ground out when his silent attention went unnoticed.

McGee’s fingers froze on the keys, only lifting when the computer beeped a virulent protest. Gibbs swore he could see the pulse flutter in the agent’s neck.

"Sir! No, not ‘sir’. Sorry ... Gibbs. I, um, didn’t see you there."

Gibbs felt the arm he was still grasping shake a little and he turned worriedly toward Tony – only to find him struggling to hold back a grin.

"Take it easy, McGee, before you bust something." Gibbs gestured toward the monitor. "If ... whatever that is ... isn’t urgent then shut it down for the night."

"Sir?"

"You heard me. Shut it down. Take Abby out for dinner. Take her to a ... phat party."

McGee blinked nervously at him.

"Leave," restated Gibbs. "You can finish in the morning."

McGee peered around him helplessly as if he expected someone to pop up and explain that he was the butt of some kind of delayed NCIS hazing.

"Not a joke, McGee. Get your gear and go home. I’ll ride your butt some other time."

"Think he means it, McGee," put in Tony, his amusement tempered by the suddenly growing dizziness that was whitening his face further. He rebalanced himself, trying not to lean into Gibbs’ hold. But Gibbs noticed anyway. Tony could tell that from the tightening of the fingers holding his arm and the way Gibbs started them forward again, abruptly leaving McGee to his own devices.

Hell, that Gibbs had even told someone to stop working was a testament to the impact his fucked-up body was having on even the people around him. Or maybe it was just one of the longest fucking days in his entire life. Right up there with telling his dad he had his own career plans, or learning his grandfather had died.

~oOo~

"I think," Tony mused as he collapsed into the passenger seat, "you get major kudos for proper usage of the word ‘phat.’"

"Major kudos?" Gibbs waved Rufus into the back, making sure the happily wagging tail was clear before he shut the door. "Exactly what kind of kudos can I expect?"

"The kind you can’t get in the Navy’s parking lot?"

Gibbs smiled. "I can live with that."

Tony was quiet by the time they stopped for beer and he actually jerked awake at the next stop when Gibbs plunked two fragrant bags of curried noodles in his lap. His condition had degenerated to practical bonelessness by the time they pulled into the driveway.

And this was a habit they were going to have to get out of – sitting in the car while Gibbs contemplated dragging a bedraggled partner up the front steps. The word "wheelchair" peeked tentatively into Gibbs’ consciousness and was immediately slammed with a mental thud back into the darker portions of his brain.

He looked bemusedly at the slumped form beside him, Tony’s arms still protectively cradling their dinner, but the rest of him sagging into a puddle in the bucket seat. Kudos, he decided, were unlikely to be forthcoming – at least this night.

~oOo~

"Couch," he steered when a listing Tony started to just lean against the nearest non-moving object.

"Feels good," mumbled Tony when they’d both unceremoniously collapsed on the thick cushions.

"Does feel good," agreed Gibbs, leaning up against the younger man, arms still locked around Tony’s ribs where he’d tried to slow their descent, happy to be resting his aching back.

Tony dispatched the crutch with a resounding thump and Gibbs looked, a little blearily, in the direction it fell. The older man arched ungracefully when warm hands tugged up his shirttail to palm his sore spine.

"No, this," Tony explained, his hands rubbing soothing circles against the smooth skin.

"Mmmm," returned Gibbs, not moving, deciding not moving could, in fact, be a permanent condition as far as he was concerned.

Tony buried his nose in Gibbs’ silvered hair, planting a dry kiss on the crown of his head. When Gibbs lifted his face toward him, Tony swooped down to capture his mouth.

The "mmmm" he got this time was deeper and accompanied by a preliminary shudder of pleasure as he moved his hands down to cup Gibbs’ ass.

"You sure about this?"

"’m not dizzy when I’m lying down," Tony pointed out as Gibbs guided them both further downward, Tony resting across the cushions and Gibbs resting halfway across Tony.

"What about dinner?"

Tony pulled Gibbs back to him. "Screw dinner."

"Rather screw—" but before he could finish, Gibbs found his mouth otherwise engaged.

Pulling away to reposition himself, Gibbs lifted up on his arms to get most of his weight off the man beneath him. Then he returned to his task only to find a deep sigh breathed from Tony’s lax and slightly parted lips. The fingers that were still hooked over his belt buckle relaxed, the hand settling, still curled, on Tony’s stomach. Tony’s eyelids fluttered once, then closed involuntarily as sleep completely captured him.

Shaking his head, Gibbs pressed a gentle kiss to the bruised forehead still marred with wrinkles, the caress smoothing the worry lines out just a little.

"No kudos, tonight," he murmured, carefully rising from the couch.

He lifted the bent legs and took off Tony’s shoes, covering the oblivious body with a handy throw. Then Gibbs stashed half the takeout in the refrigerator and brought the rest and a bottle of beer back to the recliner, settling in for the night.

~oOo~

Tony stretched against the confines of the sofa, a hand drifting out to pat the thick cushions. Finding the touch unfamiliar, he blinked sleepily and tried to make out what he could in the shadows. Definitely lighter than the bedroom normally was, but not light enough to really see clearly – or at least as clearly as it got these days.

Very familiar soft snoring came from a bit father away than he was used to. Rolling toward the sound, his right leg slipped off the narrow seat, his socked foot jarring against the floor.

Couch. Had to be the couch, Tony decided. Which, from the direction of the snores, put Gibbs in the recliner. Hands moving his still-braced left leg, Tony managed to get his stiffened body seated upright. Last thing he remembered Gibbs was …

Shit.

His fingers crumpled the fuzzy throw. Now there was an insult: falling asleep while your lover was doing his best … and Gibbs’ best was, admittedly, very, very good. Which was another testament to the ability of MS to thoroughly fuck up his body’s normal reactions.

Tony put a hand to his back and grimaced. Gibbs wouldn’t be in any better shape when he woke up. He got to his feet, steadying himself with a clawed grip on the arm of the sofa. Rufus whimpered softly as if he was directing his attention to the foolishness of the situation.

"Hey, Gibbs." The man’s reaction to being startled awake could be … forceful, as Tony had found out a couple of times when they’d first shared a bed. "Gibbs?"

Tony reached out to judge the distance and, overbalanced, found himself falling toward the dark shadow of the chair. The chair arm caught him in the stomach and he folded over, his upper body landing across a still-sleeping Gibbs. His chin striking hard into a rib.

Gibbs bolted up, rolling whatever weight had struck him off and into the floor. His hand groped for the floor lamp, nearly knocking it down before he got both hands around it. The flood of light that followed the snap of the switch revealed a disheveled Tony seated in the floor, head in hands, braced leg straight out in front of him. Rufus nosed around the seated form sympathetically.

"Okay," Tony scrubbed his hands down his face as Gibbs leaned against the lamp, breathing heavily. "That was not one of my more graceful moments."

"What the hell just happened?" asked Gibbs, still trying to blink away the remnants of the deep sleep he’d just unexpectedly exited.

"Thought we should go to bed." Tony sat straighter, taking stock of his current aches and pains. Pretty much the same ones he’d had before he dived into Gibbs, so that meant everything was okay.

"You couldn’t just … call my name or something?"

"Tried that," muttered Tony, pushing his palms against the floor and realizing the futility of the action. No way was he going to make it off the carpet on his own.

"Ah," Gibbs nodded. He looked toward the darkened windows. "What time is it?"

Tony fingered the dial of his watch. "3:30. Give or take a few."

The lamp’s light surrounded Gibbs, limning his silver hair in a luminous halo. The disruptions to his vision could play nice tricks sometimes, too. Like this one … his own special effect.

Gibbs peered at him. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Don’t move," instructed Tony. "Just let me enjoy it."

Gibbs turned, looking all around him. "What?"

The halo followed his movements and Tony laughed softly.

"What?" repeated Gibbs, but he was smiling now, too, even if he didn’t know why.

Tony shook his head, not about to put the words "you look like an angel" and "Gibbs" in the same sentence. Instead, he held out a hand, which Gibbs took and planted on the seat of the recliner. Then getting a good grip under Tony’s arm, Gibbs hauled him up, pivoting him into the seat when he threatened to collapse back to the floor.

"Look, I …" Tony’s resolve disappeared. How the hell did you say how sorry you are that you dropped off in the middle of foreplay?

Gibbs tilted his head and Tony squirmed under the forensic gaze. "You know," Gibbs observed, stretching a hand out to brush his fingers lightly through Tony’s hair, "with that light, your hair looks like it’s glowing."

Tony laughed, his hand returning the favor, feeling the soft brush of the silver strands against his palm. "Maybe we could take it from where we left off?"

"Don’t see why not," conceded Gibbs, leaning forward.

~oOo~

Barely three hours later, Gibbs forced his way upright, hauling himself over a seemingly oblivious and, he noticed with a smile, slightly sticky bed partner. He slapped the snooze button down then curled over the living warmth with a groan, planting his face into the curve of Tony’s neck.

"Can’t be," slurred Tony.

Gibbs nodded his complete agreement at the shittiness of the impending workday, nuzzling the tender skin. "Got bad guys to catch," he finally murmured, making a move to rise only to settle back, the temptation too much to ignore.

"Don’t think there are any bad guys under there," Tony murmured as Gibbs burrowed under the sheets to reach more silky skin.

"I wouldn’t say that," Gibbs contradicted.

Tony arched under his touch, laughing throatily.

"Want to stay home?"

A blue eye slit open and regarded Gibbs suspiciously. "You staying, too?" inquired Tony.

"Can’t."

"Then that makes two of us." Tony threw the covers back and rolled up with an almost muffled moan.

Gibbs sat back and straightened the sheets, watching Tony rub at a particularly strong spasm in his calf. "I’ll share the shower," he offered, bending forward to kiss a bare shoulder.

Tony reached back, laying a hand in benediction on Gibbs’ head. "You think I’m going to fall on my face, don’t you?"

"Absolutely not," disavowed Gibbs, moving upward to nibble at an enticing earlobe, pleased to feel Tony shiver a little beneath the touch. "Maybe fall on your butt."

Tony laughed roughly, shaking his head. "Fine, you’re my shower buddy." He rubbed a hand across his stomach. "And how come I’m always the one that ends up sleeping in the sticky spot?"

"’Cause we always end up on your side of the bed?" Gibbs abandoned his ministrations, crawling over to sit shoulder-to-shoulder against him on the edge of the mattress.

"And why is that?" pondered Tony.

"Because I know enough for the wet spot not to wind up on my side?" proffered Gibbs with a badly hidden grin.

"You know, it’s no wonder all those wives left you."

Gibbs planted a final kiss on Tony’s forehead. "And aren’t we glad they did."

~oOo~

"Call her," instructed Gibbs, slipping the attorney’s phone number into the pocket of Tony’s shirt then squeezing Tony’s arm lightly as he passed him, their reluctance to leave the confines of Gibbs’ bed now making the older man rush for his eight o’clock meeting.

"Call who?" inquired Abby cheerfully.

"Good morning to you, too, Abs," replied Tony.

Abby gave a little grunt of contrition. "You are right, my bad. So, good morning, Tony. Call who?"

Tony grinned. "None of your business, Abby."

"You know that I go for long, long stretches down here with nothing to keep me occupied but Ducky’s old war stories, don’t you?

"Not that interesting," deflected Tony. "I promise you."

"Something with Mashreza?" Abby prodded, moving closer to straighten his collar.

"No."

"Something with … international consequences?"

"Definitely, no."

"Something involving illicit sexual activities?"

"Abby!" sputtered Tony.

"Sorry, Gibbs got McGee so keyed up last night that I couldn’t get his mind on anything else."

"Yeah … well, Abs, about McGee: I mean, the kid’s a sweet guy, but you’ve got a coffin and he’s got Eagle Scout written all over him."

Abby sighed, "Yeah, but those Boy Scouts, they know how to tie really good knots. Hey, you know who can probably tie great knots?" Abby sounded practically wistful. "Gibbs."

Round-eyed, Tony just blinked at her then drew in a breath in relief when Ducky picked the perfect moment to stroll into the lab.

"Ah, Anthony, a minute if you don’t mind."

"Sure," Tony happily tagged after his salvation from unfulfilled lab technicians, "What did you want to—"

"Sherri Lenz’s ASI drug study," began Ducky without preamble the minute they passed the threshold into his office. "She’s a little upset you won’t join it."

Tony’s pleasure at the rescue had been apparently misplaced, he ventured warily, "Doesn’t this come under the heading of patient confidentiality or something?"

"Yes, it does," Ducky admitted. "But she really thinks you might respond to the treatment if she could, and I quote, ‘get it through that thick head of yours.’"

"Thought they shot it in your butt," retorted Tony, sinking down in the chair Ducky always kept across from his desk. "Ever heard of Ambigen Pharmaceuticals?"

"No," admitted the physician, "but I don’t get to prescribe to most of my patients. Sadly, the attractive, young drug reps hardly ever make a morgue call."

"It was acquired last year. Two-hundred-million dollar buyout on the strength of its antigen specific immunotherapy trials alone. It’s practically their only product."

"All right," conceded Ducky. "You obviously take an … unexpected interest in the pharmaceutical industry. I’m not following what that has to do with—"

"Then let’s try something bigger. Ever heard of NewGen BioMed?"

"I have," admitted the ME.

"Well, then, guess who bought them."

"So ASI now belongs to your family’s company."

Tony winced just a little. "Figured Abby just had to tell that one."

"It was a rather juicy piece of gossip," Ducky mused.

"So you see my … reluctance," pressed Tony.

"No. Not at all." Ducky leaned forward, clasping his hands together. "If the treatment works, why should you not take advantage of it?"

"If," emphasized Tony. "Big if. I’m not particularly predisposed to serving as a guinea pig for product testing. Besides," Tony drew in a deep breath, "you don’t think they’re all out there researching for the good of mankind, do you? It’s for the good of my father’s already stuffed wallet. I don’t care how miraculous the drug, he wouldn’t be in it if wasn’t the pro forma that showed major promise."

"The paper in the immunology journal looked very encouraging," countered the physician.

"Duck …" the name was almost a plea. "Just don’t tell Gibbs about this, okay? That’s all I ask. It’s my decision. It’s my fucked up nervous system."

"Of course, Anthony. I would never--"

Tony smiled, "I know. You’d never do anything you didn’t think was in my best interest. But you’ve got to know … a lot of the stuff that was supposed to be in my best interest, wasn’t. So, if you’d just keep this between Sherri and yourself, I’d appreciate it."

Ducky watched as Tony struggled to his feet, his left hand clearly having trouble grasping the handle of the harness. He was weakening further, despite the drug intervention, the weekly physical therapy. The least they needed to do was adjust the harness, pad the handgrip.

Making his way to the elevator, Tony didn’t hear the medical examiner he’d left behind muttering to himself in prep school Greek about the spirit being willing, but the flesh being weak.

~oOo~

This was not, Tony decided, fingering the business card he couldn’t read, a call he wanted to make at his desk. Sighing, he placed the card in the reader, palmed one earpiece of the headphones to his ear and waited for the OCR to decipher the phone number. Then he began the tedious task of repeating the seven numbers under his breath until he could get to the privacy of the conference room.

"Five two six nine seven—"

"Hey," Kate’s call brought the recitation crashing to a numberless halt, "Think they’ve got a connection to Mashreza in this Abu Dhabi communiqué interception that Gibbs—" She stopped as Tony winced. "You okay?"

"Just trying to keep a number in my head."

"A number?" repeated Kate skeptically.

"You know, that ‘you can keep seven digits in your head but only if you keep repeating them’ thing."

"You’re not repeating them," observed Kate.

"I know." Tony smiled disingenuously. "Thank you."

"Want me to look it back up for you?"

Tony waved her off. "No, thanks. I’ll get around to it again later." He limped back to where she was standing. "What’d the intercept get?"

"Well, it was coded, but one of the terms was ‘tidal river.’ Shatt al Arab. Which matches the description of Mashreza’s whereabouts last week. So they think we’re looking at a possible attack at Basra."

"So, how long did it take the spooks to tell us to forget we ever heard of Mashreza?"

"Twenty-eight minutes."

"New record, I’m impressed." Tony realized that things were very quiet considering the CIA had just yanked three weeks worth of work out from under them. "Where’s Gibbs?"

"MTAC."

"He yelling?" inquired Tony.

"More that low growl thing," observed Kate.

"Ah, yeah … know that one."

~oOo~

"Yes, I understand that a paternity test is the first step."

Tony had flinched when the conference room door opened, but Gibbs had slipped in with a quiet, "it’s me," closing the door behind him.

"Yes, I’ll make the appointment for the blood test." Tony fidgeted with the cord on the phone. "Tuesday at two. I’ll be there." He replaced the handset with a sigh.

"We’ll be there," corrected Gibbs, sitting on the long table, feet dangling.

Tony rubbed a hand over dry lips. "I have no idea what Gretchen is going to do."

Gibbs took the restless hand and held it in his. "Don’t worry about the things you can’t control."

Tony smiled. "That’s a new one. Number fourteen?"

"Call it DiNozzo Rule Number Two."

"Number two?" questioned Tony. "What’s number one?"

"One, I don’t think you have a problem with…" Gibbs leaned down and pressed a kiss to Tony’s slightly furrowed forehead, "…it’s never give up without a fight."

~oOo~

"What do you mean you’re flying to Sardinia?"

Over the crackling cell connection, Tony could hear Gibbs sigh. Even for a Monday, this day was turning out extra karmically-loaded. Not that Tony thought karma would dare touch Gibbs. Besides, he was apparently karma-challenged enough for the both of them.

"I mean I’m flying to Sardinia, Tony. It happens. I didn’t have a choice here."

"Yeah, I understand. Sorry. It’s just tomorrow—"

"You’ll be fine," reassured Gibbs. "Get somebody to drive you over there tomorrow. Kate, if she’s not busy; otherwise, grab Abby or Ducky. It’s just a preliminary meeting. I talked to Candy on the phone—"

"Candy? You call my attorney ‘Candy?’ With a ‘y’ or an ‘i?’"

Gibbs started across the tarmac, yelling over the revving engines. "*Our* attorney. And why would that matter? It’s her nickname."

"It doesn’t matter; I’m just …" Tony lowered his voice. "… nervous, okay?"

"The paternity results come back?"

"They’re positive," acknowledged Tony.

"She let you do the test, Tony. I don’t think she’s planning on putting up much of a fight." Gibbs stood at the bottom of the ramp to the C2 and waved off the hurry-up motions from the enlisted man standing at the top. "I’ll call you as soon as I can. This is just a meet-and-greet with some terrorism experts over the Mashreza thing. It shouldn’t take long. You’re going to be fine."

"What do I do if she asks," Tony ducked down, lowering his voice further, "about us?"

"You don’t lie to your attorney, Tony. Ever. And I’ve got to go, I’m holding up a whole transport. It’s going to be okay. I promise."

"Okay." Tony let the words he wanted to say die in his throat. Unsecured cell phones. A planeload of personnel steeped in "don’t ask/don’t tell." But he had never needed to say the words he couldn’t more than he did now.

"I’ll be back as soon as humanly possible," Gibbs vowed.

"I know you will," replied Tony accepting that it was the closest thing to an "I love you" he could expect. Knew the only one he could give in reply would be equally as coded. "Just … watch your six, boss."

He heard Gibbs laugh just as the line closed.

~oOo~

In the late afternoon, Kate took to hovering over his desk. "Gibbs said you need a ride tomorrow."

"I can take a cab."

"He also," Kate smiled, "said to ignore you when you said that."

Kate watched Tony’s composure waiver just the slightest bit.

"He also," she continued again, "said to give you a ride home tonight."

"I can take care of myself, you know," Tony retorted, regaining a bit of his usual hubris.

"Come on, I thought we could talk."

"Gibbs told you to talk to me?"

"No, Tony. I do have a mind of my own." She crossed her arms. "Look, I’m ready to get out of here. I’m sure you are, too."

"Yeah, actually I am. Just," Tony gave a kind of shrug to indicate the whole process that he now had to get through to go anywhere, "give me a minute. I’ll yell at you on the way out."

It netted him a brief interval of quiet, but fifteen minutes later Kate was back to her obvious vigil, bestowing a long look at the man standing impatiently beside her car when he told her to tone it down.

"Tony, I… what I mean to say …" She winced as Tony fidgeted. "Damn it, Tony, stop doing that to me!"

"Doing what?" he protested, frowning. "I was just standing here."

"You never just stand there, Tony."

"Okay, look, whatever you want to say – you’re sorry, you’re pissed, you’re bemused, whatever – let’s just take it as given."

"Fine," snapped Kate, opening the doors, moving to take the leash from Tony’s hand. She closed the back door firmly after Rufus scampered in.

Tony heard the driver’s side door shut with a similar smack. He missed the familiarity of Gibbs’ car. At least, in it, he didn’t feel quite so disconcerted, despite his blurring sight and the slight car sickness he got even when Gibbs drove like a reasonable person, which was, he was pleased to say, most of the time these days. At least he wasn’t sharing the back seat of a cab with a Great Dane, where he likely would have ended up puking on the floorboard.

"So which is it?" he ventured when the engine turned over with a well-tuned purr. "Sorry, pissed or bemused?"

"It’s not the same with McGee."

Which was not at all a comment he’d been expecting. "What?"

"I don’t get to vent about Gibbs anymore." Kate moved a hand off the steering wheel and gestured into the air. "The poor guy is terrified of him. I can’t say one snarky thing without him going pale."

"Ah," mused Tony, "the good old days: pulling all-nighters, wearing the same clothes for three days. You remember when we claimed we both had cell trouble and we took that mental-health hour in the park in Annapolis?"

Kate laughed. "I guess what I want to say is that I miss my partner in crime."

"Me, too," acknowledged Tony. "I miss it more than you could imagine."

"So he’s … treating you okay?"

"Gibbs? Sure. You know beneath that Marine exterior-- Okay, *way* beneath that exterior is a really nice guy."

"Yeah," said Kate, quieting.

Tony closed his eyes to shut out the dizzying collage of afternoon traffic, understanding Todd’s hesitancy, understanding what she couldn’t bring herself to truly ask.

"It’s okay that you know," he finally offered, hearing Kate sigh with relief that he was the one to say it. "I just wouldn’t bring it up with Gibbs. He’s still got that military mindset. And he doesn’t want to look like he’s showing favoritism."

Tony could feel the car take the right-hand turn into Gibbs’ subdivision and he re-opened his eyes. "It’s the first house on the left after you cross the intersection."

"Got it," said Kate. "So, do I get to come in?"

"I can make it up the steps," replied Tony, softening the retort with a small laugh.

"Okay, okay." Kate pulled to a stop in the driveway and got out to release Rufus. "So, I’ll see you tomorrow."

She managed to restrain herself when Tony balanced carefully and began methodically climbing the brick risers. When he got to the top, he waved back at her. Kate shivered slightly in the cool breeze then got back into the car, her own empty house waiting.

~oOo~

Tony twisted again in the suddenly too-large bed, stacking the extra pillows as a stand-in for the warm body he was used to finding there. It didn’t work. Two cool pillows were in no way a substitute for one warm Gibbs. He burrowed face down against them, drawing one to his chest and completely failing to feel the least bit like sleeping. At this rate, he was going to look like shit tomorrow. He used to take sleepless nights with aplomb, now they just served to screw further with his already crappy vision and throw his tentative balance off even more.

And that, as far as sleep-inducing thoughts go, was not going to get him anywhere.

So he thought about Gibbs in Sardinia. Pictured how he would look standing by the blue waters of the lagoon of Colostrai.

When the phone rang, he was deep in an imaginary lunch in a café at Porto Cervo, Gibbs’ silver hair glistening in the hot Mediterranean sun, the corners of his blue eyes crinkling above his smile. He rolled over with a groan and groped for the phone, bringing it to his ear with a clumsiness that was only partly caused by the hour.

"Hey, DiNozzo."

"Hey," replied Tony. The room was still pitch black, the alarm clock glowing a radioactive green that was too florescent to make out. "What time is it?"

"Greenwich mean plus four," returned Gibbs.

"Um, okay."

"It’s six here, Tony. That would make it one in DC."

"I miss you," breathed Tony.

"Miss you too," said Gibbs. "I don’t know how long I’ll be in this meeting. I’ll call you as soon as I can."

"Where exactly are you?"

"I can’t tell you that."

"Yeah, Sorry. I—" Tony scrubbed at his tired eyes. "I wish I was there. I’d make you sit on the beach and listen to me recite Petrarca."

"So … recite some now." Gibbs coaxed.

"Not the same," mumbled Tony.

"Well, I’m on a balcony with a beautiful view of the sun coming up, if that makes you feel better."

"Not really," Tony muttered. He rolled his head, trying to release some of the tension he’d been carrying ever since Gibbs’ first call from the tarmac.

"You been asleep yet?" Gibbs voice was low and concerned.

"Not … really."

"Then recite to me, Tony."

There was a sleepy snort now from the other end of the phone and Gibbs smiled at the familiar sounds of Tony unwinding himself from the sheets. He could imagine him rumpled and sleep-mussed, his back against the dark wood of the headboard, knees drawn up, feet puddled in white cotton.

What little Italian Gibbs knew did not cover the words bestowed on him in Tony’s beautiful, slow tenor.

"Benedetto sia 'l giorno, et 'l mese, et l'anno,

et la stagione, e 'l tempo, et l'ora, e 'l punto,

e 'l bel paese, e 'l loco ov'io fui giunto

da'duo begli occhi che legato m'anno;

et benedetto il primo dolce affanno

ch'i' ebbi ad esser con Amor congiunto,

et l'arco, et le saette ond'i' fui punto,

et le piaghe che 'nfin al cor mi vanno."

The recitation trailed off just as the knock on the hotel room door echoed out onto the terrace.

"Soon, Tony, I promise," Gibbs whispered. "As soon as I can."

In the dark, Tony drew one of the pillows across his stomach, Gibbs reassurances steadying him.

"It’ll be fine," he conceded. "I’ll know you’re thinking about me."

"Try to sleep." The knock resounded again, louder. He cleared his throat, trying out his pitiful Italian. "Ti penso sempre." Tony’s chuckle tickled his ear. "I’m sorry, Tony, I have to go now."

"I know," said Tony, accepting the snap of the disconnection. "Mi manchi, cara mia," he whispered into the darkness.

It was a long time until a DC dawn.

~oOo~

Kate grinned at the tousled-headed man clad only in boxers who met her at Gibbs’ door. Tony’s leg was braced but he was barefoot, his balance kept by a hand planted against the wall. A harness-free Rufus tagging along behind him.

"I need help."

Tony carefully turned, switching hands against the hallway table to keep his balance, swaying unsteadily in the process. Kate lunged when she saw him wavering and put a quick arm around the decidedly too-slim waist, uncomfortably aware it had only been a few months ago she’d been able to tease him about his weight.

"Hey, you okay?"

Tony shrugged the question off; apparently this unsteadiness was standard operating practice. She’d seen Gibbs’ automatic, stabilizing reach in action and never really thought about how he always seemed to appear just as Tony swayed. Although, more than likely, it was that Tony carefully avoided moving around too much without Gibbs being in reaching distance.

"I need help with my clothes."

Tony felt the body under his arm tense.

"Not getting them *on*, Kate." He sounded exasperated. "Picking them out."

"Oh."

"Disappointed?" inquired Tony as they took the sharp turn into the bedroom. He smiled at the responding huff.

All thought of a retort quickly disappeared, though, under Kate’s realization that she was standing in Gibbs *and* Tony’s bedroom. The obvious joint ownership something of a shock even though she’d had to know Tony wasn’t bedding down in the spare room. Curious, she noticed that Gibbs slept on the left side of the bed, because it was currently neatly stacked with enough pillows to make a vaguely Gibbs-like shape. Tony obviously not comfortable sleeping alone. And on the left nightstand was a copy of "The Complete Roman Army" which sealed the ID. Definitely Gibbs.

Tony sank with obvious relief onto the end of the bed.

"I have some trouble with colors."

Taking this as permission, Kate peered into the double closet. Gibbs’ side neatly hung with golf shirts and blazers. Tony’s was more eclectically filled.

"I want to look …" Tony’s voice trailed off and Kate turned to find his hands were nervously working the already rumpled sheets, "…competent," he finally decided.

"Then I think the shirt with the hula girls is definitely out," deadpanned Kate, trying to lighten the suddenly gloomy atmosphere.

Tony smiled weakly.

"Oh, come on," prodded Kate. "I don’t think competency is something you need to worry about."

"Really?" Tony’s forehead furrowed. "Then what’s with all the cracks at work?"

"You get as good as you give, DiNozzo," Kate reminded.

"Yeah, I suppose I do," acknowledged Tony before he suddenly straightened. "Kate, if I’ve ever said anything that made you feel…"

"You have," confirmed Kate.

"Then I’m sorry."

Kate took out a gray suit and laid it on the bed. "No, you’re not," she retorted.

Tony smiled just a little. "Maybe not."

She returned to the closet and retrieved a lighter gray shirt. "Where are your ties?"

"Closet door." Tony squinted at her choices. "I was thinking navy looked more--"

"Competent?" Kate shot back. "Definitely gray. Unobtrusive. Stable." She held up two ties against the shirt. "Favorite color of banks and accounting firms, so you’ll think they’re not fondling your funds."

She chose a conservative, almost monochromatic stripe with the merest hint of purple.

"You can …" she began, unsure that, as unsteady as he seemed, he really would be able to manage getting dressed.

"I can," repeated Tony, more confidently, shooing her out with a flick of his wrist.

~oOo~

Unwilling to wander too far, Kate went to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee from the waiting pot, running a finger over the burnished steel top of coffeemaker. She settled at the table and blew gently over the top of the dark, steaming liquid to cool it then put her profiling skills to work on the small kitchen.

The house was solid and stable. Sparsely decorated, but comfortable in a decidedly masculine sense: heavy, high-quality wood furniture, well-waxed plank floors, high-end kitchen appliances.

How Gibbs spent his paycheck.

On things that were solid.

Things that would last.

There were Tony’s visible contributions, too. The PC sitting on the desk in the sliver of the den she could make out through the far kitchen doorway. The just-seen corner of the plasma TV that Tony had told her about getting after amusedly describing the sole elderly set Gibbs kept in the basement.

On the table there was a notepad with Gibbs’ capitalized printing: an unfinished grocery list of eggs, cereal, and peanut butter. And then there was Tony’s name underlined twice followed by a whole host of alphabet soup that was undoubtedly herbal or pharmaceutical remedies: CaAEP, DHEA, GLA. Then, at the bottom, one she recognized – Arnica oil. She knew it by another name -- from distant summer days spent with her grandmother -- yellow flowered leopard’s bane, used to sooth aches. The kind you got from forcing weakened limbs to move, from enduring relentless muscle spasms.

She imagined Gibbs’ precise mind applying itself to Tony’s illness. He’d probably drawn Abby and Ducky into the hunt as well, had them researching ways to trap the biological criminal causing pain to someone he was meant to protect.

"So?"

Kate jumped guiltily as Tony appeared at the near kitchen door. A distinctly different looking man than had greeted her.

"Oh, wow. Very … competent," judged Kate before getting up to minutely straighten Tony’s tie.

~oOo~

"You want me to go up?"

Kate watched Tony fiddle nervously with the harness, a patient Rufus enduring the fidgeting.

"Maybe you better get me there," he conceded. "I can probably manage if I get to the right door."

The elevator doors split open and Kate ushered Tony in, leaning across him to push the button to the third floor. Then she led him across the bridge over the atrium to the door of the offices of Andrews, Frere and Walker.

The outer office, he’d decided, laying a hand in thanks on Kate’s shoulder for getting him this far, he needed to handle on his own.

He nodded distractedly at her promise to wait, then clumsily managed the door handle, grateful for the obvious placement of the receptionist’s desk, but all too aware of the discomforted pause as the receptionist took in his lumbering gate.

"Anthony DiNozzo," he announced, summoning up his best smile. "For Ms. Walker."

~oOo~

"Well," greeted Kate, entrapping Tony’s elbow in an anxious supporting grasp, moving them all toward the elevator.

"Paperwork," muttered Tony. "Lots of paperwork."

"And?"

"And I’ve got a good chance of getting custody as long as Gretchen is willing."

"And if she’s not?"

The elevator door slid shut.

"I suffer from a progressive, disabling disease. I live in my boss’s house, where I sleep in my boss’s bedroom. My *male* boss’s bedroom. Can’t imagine there’d be any problems there."

"It’ll be okay, Tony," Kate offered. The reassurance immediately sounding pathetically impotent against Tony’s deep sigh.

"She liked my suit," Tony offered, rallying for her sake. "Said I should wear it if we have to go to court."

"You have to go to court?"

"Let’s hope not," muttered Tony, letting Kate take the lead as they stepped from the elevator.

Kate opened her mouth only to realize she was about to repeat the same worthless cliché, when God alone knew if it would be okay or not. She was saved from another feeble attempt at tempering Tony’s obviously valid concerns by the ringing of Tony’s cell and the relaxation she could feel under her guiding palm when he identified the person on the other end of the line with a soft "hey, Gibbs."

~oOo~

 

Gibbs trudged up the steps and dropped his duffle with a thud on floor of the foyer. When no greeting met his weary entrance, he frowned slightly.

"Tony?"

Still nothing.

"You here, DiNozzo?"

The only reply this brought was the distant click of claws on hardwood and the rattle of metal tags as Rufus shook himself.

Visions of Tony lying sprawled and injured in the floor somewhere pushed their terrifying way through his jet-lagged mind.

"Tony?" he called, louder this time, following the faint canine shuffling to the den. "You okay? You hear me?"

Gibbs pulled to a halt, relaxing in relief at the picture before him: Tony was sprawled, all right, but safely, on the couch, head tipped back, mouth open. Peacefully oblivious to the cell phone tipping precariously from his lax hand.

Gibbs leaned over and retrieved the cell, then brushed a kiss against Tony’s forehead, receiving only an unintelligible mumbling in response.

"Hey, sleeping beauty," Gibbs prodded as he settled on the arm of the sofa.

"Mmm?" murmured the object of his affections, snuggling deeper against the cushion he had trapped under a bent arm.

"Tony," Gibbs leaned down, lips brushing the delicate curve of Tony’s ear.

A hand came up, briefly skimming Gibbs’ beard-shadowed cheek before dropping back. Tony muttered a just audible, "Miss you."

"Don’t have to miss me when I’m here, babe."

Gibbs moved to the front of the couch, disentangling the death grip Tony had on the cushion. "Come on, DiNozzo, we’re going to bed."

He took hold of Tony’s wrists and tugged the sleeping body upright, swinging the bare feet on the floor, about to consider throwing the living weight over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

Except Tony blinked sleepily, "Gibbs?"

"In the flesh," Gibbs assured, but Tony put out a hand, testing the statement. Gibbs allowed the touch to draw him down on the cushion beside the younger man.

"What time is it?"

"About one," murmured Gibbs, bending to rest his head tiredly against the steady rise and fall of Tony’s chest.

"I waited up," laughed Tony.

"I could tell," Gibbs replied dryly. He pressed a kiss against the t-shirt clad shoulder. "What do you say we take this to the bedroom?" The kisses moved up Tony’s neck.

"Don’t know if I can—"

"Sleep, Tony," rebutted Gibbs. "All I want to do is sleep."

Tony arched his neck, revealing the vulnerable expanse of tender skin. He groaned as Gibbs placed a kiss against the hollow of his throat. And he laughed, though it was edged with an unfamiliar harshness.

"I can still do that. I’m just not sure I can make it into the bedroom if I don’t put on the brace."

"Bad day?" asked Gibbs softly, abandoning his ministrations to rub a hand along a thigh he now saw was shaking.

"Missed you," replied Tony, trying to deflect the concern.

"Me, too," Gibbs replied, accepting that this was not the time or the place to be delving into Tony’s symptoms. He reached for the brace. "Why don’t you let me—"

Tony leaned back and steadied himself with his palms, letting Gibbs’ hand work the brace back around his aching leg.

When he was done, Gibbs pulled him up, anchoring him with a firm hand against his waist. Together, they limped slowly toward their goal. Gibbs was tired. His back ached. But he wordlessly accepted the steadily growing weight of his struggling partner, bearing up until he could safely control their descent to the mattress.

Tony’s face was drawn, faint beads of perspiration breaking out against his forehead.

"You taken any painkiller lately?" questioned Gibbs, hauling Tony’s legs up on the bed and cursing silently at the shake of Tony’s head. He stopped to lay a hand against a now-damp cheek. "You don’t have to hurt, Tony."

Tony winced as the brace was removed. "Couldn’t decide if it was worth getting up to get it."

"Christ, DiNozzo," murmured Gibbs, retrieving the bottle form the bathroom cabinet. "What happened to the ones you carry?"

"Took ‘em before I went to the lawyer’s." Tony accepted the tablets and the glass of water. "I’m sorry," he apologized, handing back the tumbler with a slightly shaky hand. "Not the ‘welcome home’ I meant you to come back to."

Depositing the bottle and glass on the nightstand, Gibbs stripped off his shoes, stretching out on the bed, his hand finding Tony’s. His fingers entwined with Tony’s long ones.

"This is all I wanted," murmured Gibbs. "Just to lay here. Hold your hand."

He realized belatedly that Tony had rolled upright to view him with concern. "You okay?"

Gibbs smiled, tightening the grip he held on the hand in his. "Turn off the light and I’ll be just perfect."

 

"How was Sardinia?" inquired Ducky, although, as usual, he gave no time for a reply before continuing, "Fascinating place, actually. One of the most ancient lands in Europe. It was even involved, if only peripherally, in the Punic Wars—"

"He’s worse, isn’t he, Ducky?"

Gibbs fixed him with an interrogative stare.

"I am to presume we’re speaking of Anthony?"

"He’s worse," repeated Gibbs, his tone flat.

"He’s been growing worse the entire time, Jethro. When you see someone day-to-day, as you do, it’s just that the decline is less noticeable."

"I was only gone two days." Gibbs hand slammed down on the metal autopsy table. The echo resounded against the bay walls.

"Yesterday was undoubtedly stressful. His stamina is lacking. I’m sure by this morning--"

"This morning," cut in Gibbs, "I caught him in the bathroom hanging onto the sink for dear life because his legs gave out while he was shaving." A dark look flashed in Gibbs’ blue eyes. "He wouldn’t get back into bed. He insisted on coming in even though he barely made it out to the car. I just about carried him to his desk."

The anger in Gibbs’ eyes disappeared as he contemplated the ME, "There’s got to be something we can do, Duck."

"Dr. Lenz’s suggestion of a wheelchair—"

"Damn it, Ducky. You’re telling me with the advancement of medical science, you can’t do anything—"

"As you’ll remember, all of my patients are dead," retorted Ducky, slightly coolly.

"I don’t mean you in particular, Duck," said Gibbs, quieting. "I just—"

"I thought I’d find you down here."

Both men’s gazes shot to the figure at the door. Ducky immediately pushing a chair in Tony’s direction.

"Please sit down, Anthony."

"Guess I was right," muttered Tony, easing into the chair with a sigh, scrubbing a hand down his face. "Any chance we could change the topic of conversation?" He tried a tentative smile. "How ‘bout those Redskins?"

"Tony," reprimanded Gibbs tiredly, but there was no force behind it.

"My fucked-up nervous system it will be, then."

"I’m worried about you," admitted Gibbs simply.

"And when you’re worried, you talk to Ducky," returned Tony. "I get it."

"I tried to talk to you," Gibbs pointed out, "which got me the silent treatment."

"Nothing to say," shrugged Tony. "My options are rather clear."

"Not to Jethro," murmured Ducky, sotto voce.

Gibbs looked between Tony and the ME.

"You going to explain that, Duck?"

"No," replied the physician, all too aware of the cold-eyed gaze the other two occupants of the morgue had fixed on him. "I would prefer Anthony explain his options to you. All of them."

He met Tony’s eyes, acknowledging the pained look of betrayal.

"I have some reports to pick up from Abby," Ducky explained, drawing near the door.

"Anthony," he said as he passed the seated man, letting the simple prodding suffice.

Then the door shut behind him, leaving the pair to their quiet face-off.

"You going to tell me what he meant?"

Gibbs abandoned his stiff stance, coming to kneel at Tony’s side. The younger man winced as another spasm ran through his leg and Gibbs put a calming hand against his thigh, rubbing away the tremor.

Taking a deep breath, his gaze focused on some spot on the distant wall, Tony admitted, "There’s a drug study; Dr. Lenz wants me to join."

"Okay," replied Gibbs, trying desperately for a neutral tone and almost making it, controlling his impulse to demand an immediate explanation with every bit of undercover skill he could muster.

"ASI, it’s basically an Immunosuppressant injection. If it works there would be fewer T-cells attacking my nervous system."

"Side effects?"

Tony smiled a bit ruefully. "Well for me, the big side effect would be that I’m giving my father’s company a free guinea pig."

"Your family owns this drug?"

Tony nodded.

"So?" questioned Gibbs. "Does it work?"

"Maybe."

Gibbs frowned up at Tony. "Then what are you waiting for?"

"It’s probably hard to understand from the outside."

Tony looked down at the hand gently kneading his aching thigh.

"I’m not on the ‘outside,’ Tony. And you’re hurting. And if this drug might help, hell, I’d steal it for you myself."

"You’d commit larceny for me?" Tony laid a hand atop Gibbs’, stilling his fingers.

"If I had to," Gibbs repeated firmly.

"I don’t want them to know," whispered Tony.

"Why would they know?"

"I don’t know. They just seem to know ... everything."

"Tony, you’re an adult." Gibbs smiled fondly. "Well, most of the time. They have no power if you don’t let them."

"You don’t know the long arm of my father."

"No," conceded Gibbs, "but I know the strength of his son. Don’t hurt yourself to hurt them."

For a long time they simply stayed there, hands clasped. Then Tony closed his eyes.

"I ... I’ll talk to Dr. Lenz."

~oOo~

As they exited the elevator, despite the warmth of the palm pressed firmly against Tony's back, Gibbs managed to do the about-face maneuver that could still throw Tony at times. Passing Tony’s old desk, he snapped firmly into work-mode, barely slowing to give its current occupant time to react.

"McGee, get with DiNozzo and see if he can get you something on Pendleton."

Even feet away, Tony could feel McGee’s cringe and he winced in sympathy, not having forgotten what it was like having the wrath of Gibbs’ come down on his head.

"Come on, McGee," urged Gibbs, none too subtly.

The hand withdrew its warmth and Tony stumbled a bit. The grip returning to gently re-orient him. The two versions of Gibbs somehow coexisting in the same body.

"I mean now!" he barked. "Quit daydreaming about Abby and get your butt over here."

Tony was propelled forward as Gibbs made for his desk, McGee trailing behind them.

"There was something you couldn’t find?" Tony whispered when their newest agent paced him.

"Guess he’s a little pissed at me," ventured McGee, sounding, Tony realized, terribly young.

"Don’t worry." Halting at his own desk, Tony put a hand on McGee’s arm. "His bark is much, much worse than his bite. I should know."

Fortunately for McGee, Tony’s vision was too blurry to make out the sudden convulsive movement of his adam’s apple.

~oOo~

"Where do you think you’re going?"

"Lunch," returned Tony innocently, tightening the grip he had on McGee’s bicep as he tried to steady himself in preparation for grasping the hold of the harness.

"You got something on Pendleton?" inquired Gibbs.

"Not yet."

"Then food is not on your dance card."

"The sat link went down between here and Montreal. It’ll be up in an hour or so," explained Tony. "Unless you want them to send it by Morse, it’ll be a while."

Gibbs huffed out a sigh and returned to his own desk. "All right," he conceded. "Go get lunch."

"I’ll bring you a calzone," offered Tony.

"Manicotti," ordered Kate from a distance.

"And manicotti," Tony agreed. He squinted at McGee. "Think Abs wants something?"

"I’ve got it covered."

"Ha!" Tony cackled triumphantly. "You know what she wants from Luigi’s. It is love."

"You know what Gibbs wants," retorted McGee under his breath.

"Oh, yeah …" agreed Tony with a smile. "Definitely know what makes the man purr."

"Food, McGee," Tony expounded when the thought of a purring Gibbs got only a muffled cough from their youngest agent. "I was talking about food."

~oOo~

"Serious, McGee, you are just way too serious."

As he nosed the sedan out into the noontime traffic, McGee grimaced. "You say that like it’s a bad thing. Gibbs is … serious."

"On Gibbs, it works. You, my man, don’t want to grow up and be Gibbs."

"Don’t you have," McGee hesitated, "career goals?" He watched Tony shift against a particularly strong spasm. "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—"

"Quit apologizing, McGee. Not your fault you’ve got all that get-up-and-go. Annoying as it is. Growing up to be Gibbs isn’t a bad ambition. Just don’t … well, don’t let him push you around so much. You’ve got to push back. Give him something to knock his hard head against."

"Didn’t he – at any point —scare you?"

"Scare me?" repeated Tony. "Uh, well, when we met he tried to steal my murder investigation, complete with dismembered torso, right from under my nose. I caught him at it, by the way. Want to strangle him? At that moment, oh yeah. Fear him? No."

McGee gripped the steering wheel with a vengeance. "He scares the shit out of me."

"Why, McGee, you used profanity." Tony smirked. "You do want to be Gibbs."

"How could you—" began McGee.

"How could I … what?"

Nothing," McGee muttered.

"How could I ‘what?’" Tony repeated.

"That night at the Purple Onion. I heard you and Gibbs talking."

"Ah … shit." Tony closed his eyes.

"Forget I said it," hastened McGee.

"Who all knows?"

"Just me and Abby. Really." McGee’s gaze darted between the street in front of them and Tony’s deflated posture. "Really," he averred.

"And Kate," added Tony.

"Kate knows?"

"Yeah." Tony pressed the heel of his palms against his tired eyes before fixing McGee with a wary look. "So what did you want to ask? How could I ‘what?’"

"No," McGee backtracked, "I don’t want to know anything. I promise."

"Sure you do." Tony turned toward him in the seat. "We’re all … curious."

"I’m perfectly straight."

"I got that McGee. You are the most perfectly straight person I’ve ever seen. That you’re having sex at all, never mind apparently making Abby happy, is something of a … surprise to us all."

McGee frowned. "What does that mean?"

"Just that you’re the most uptight person I think I’ve ever known."

"Okay," replied McGee, irritation making him bold. "What I want to know is how did you ever think of coming on to—" he shuttered slightly, "—to Gibbs of all people?"

"I didn’t. Not that I didn’t *think* about it, but I … didn’t."

"He came on to--" McGee slammed on the brakes to avoid colliding with the row of cars stopped at the red light he hadn’t seen. Tony jerked against the recoiled seat belt. "He came on to *you*?"

"Yeah, McGee," Tony rubbed pointedly at this bruised sternum. "You may find it hard to believe, but Gibbs came on to me. And I don’t think we should be talking about this." He squinted at the too bright street in front of them. "Aren’t we close to Luigi’s?"

"Sorry. Yeah. You’re right," conceded McGee, slowly going forward once the light changed. "It’s just that I can’t see it."

"You can’t see that Gibbs is attractive?" Tony considered this for a second. "Or you can’t see that *I* am?"

"As a sexual partner," opined McGee, "I’d take Todd any day."

"Well, don’t let you hear Abs say that."

"Oh, she thinks it’s sexy."

Tony wrinkled his nose. "That you’d take Todd?"

"No, you and Gibbs …"

"Really?" said Tony, his face lighting. "Cool."

With an overly sharp right-hand turn, the sedan bounced into Luigi’s parking lot.

"Forget I said it," growled McGee.

~oOo~

"Appointment?"

Tony frowned, handing over the last box from Luigi’s. "You’re going to have to do better than that, boss, if you want me to have any idea what you want."

Gibbs took out the half-moon, sniffed at it warily, then bit down into the pastry-covered filling. "Have you made the appointment with Dr. Lenz?" His voice was muffled under mozzarella and sausage. "This is good."

"Meat lovers," replied Tony. "I knew you’d like it."

Gibbs frowned, his gaze darting toward an oblivious Kate. "Was that a double-entendre, Tony?"

"No." Tony’s face scrunched up. "Christ, Gibbs, we’re at work."

"Appointment?" reiterated Gibbs.

"Not yet."

"I want to come with you."

Tony shifted uncomfortably. "You don’t have to … keep an eye on me. I said I’d do it."

"It’s not because I think you won’t go." Gibbs lowered his voice and Tony looked instinctively in Todd’s direction, but all he could make out was the usual Kate-shaped blur. "I just … want to be there."

Sighing, Tony nodded. "Okay."

"So," returned Gibbs, taking another bite, "that sat link back up?"

~oOo~

"They know."

The car sped along the beltway, maintaining a constant eighty miles an hour. A speed only reachable, even to Gibbs, when the day had stretched into night and the concrete eight-laner was nearly empty.

Although their previous topic of conversation had been the relative competence of the Montreal police department, Gibbs took the conversational switch in stride. "I know, Tony."

Tony’s fingers were worrying the webbing of the seatbelt. "You could lose your job, Gibbs. I can’t be responsible—"

"You’re not," Gibbs reached over and captured one of the restless hands.

"I could quit," Tony offered. "It’s not like I’m doing much good."

"You connected Pendleton to that Canadian homicide."

"McGee could have done that."

"No," demurred Gibbs. "He couldn’t. He’s an excellent technician. You’re a creative thinker. He would have never come up with looking for odd wood chipper rental returns."

"Maybe I’m just channeling murderers who return their wood chippers steam-cleaned." Tony’s smile was short-lived. "I’m serious, Gibbs. It’s not worth the risk. If I quit—"

Gibbs gave the hand in his a tight squeeze. "No."

"That’s it?" protested Tony. "Just ‘no.’"

"Yes."

"It isn’t easy loving you, Gibbs. You know that, don’t you?"

Gibbs stretched against the seat. "Oh yeah."

 

~oOo~

"Sherri, this is …" Tony hesitated before deciding the simplest answer was the best, "… Gibbs."

The doctor extended her hand. "Mr. Gibbs. A friend of Dr. Mallard’s, also, I believe."

"Doctor Lenz," Gibbs returned, also volunteering no further information.

"About the study, Tony, the first thing--"

"Is there a chance he’ll be put on a placebo?" broke in Gibbs.

Sherri tilted her head, observing the older man almost clinically. "This is a dose-comparison study. The efficacy of the drug has already been proven against placebo controls."

"That means it’s known to work," interpreted Gibbs.

"Yes, now we’re looking at whether lower doses, which reduce the side effects, are as efficacious in treating the MS."

"What kind of side effects?"

"Um, guys," Tony put a hand on Gibbs’ knee to silence the inquisition, "this is *me* we’re talking about."

"About the study," began the doctor, again, turning her attention back to her patient, "we’ll put you on a particular dosage of the drug. Each time we give you the injection you’ll need to wait until we can determine there’s been no allergic reaction. Any side effects: typical allergic reactions, tiredness, flu-like symptoms -- they all need to be reported. As we’ll be depressing your immune system, you’ll be more vulnerable to opportunistic infections. You get anything, even the sniffles, and you come in. The whole point of antigen specific therapy, however, is to attack the specific T-cells that cause the MS and leave the rest of the immune system functioning. So what we expect to see is an improvement in your symptoms without much harm being done to your ability to fight off other illness."

The doctor paused, looking toward Gibbs first. "Questions?"

Gibbs shook his head.

"Tony?"

"I understand."

"Then if you’re willing, we can complete the paperwork and give you your first injection today." Sherri looked from one man to the other. "Would you like me to give you some time to talk it over?"

"No," demurred Tony. "If there’s a chance it will help, it’s a chance I should take."

"Then, Mr. Gibbs, if you’ll go back out to the waiting room, you can keep Tony company while he waits to be released."

She didn’t miss the brief caress of the older man’s hand against Tony’s neck as he rose to leave.

~oOo~

"Stop fidgeting, Tony."

Gibbs put a hand on the foot that bounced up and down against Tony’s knee.

"This is boring." Tony popped the glass on his watch and read the time. "I can’t take thirty more minutes of this."

"Next time I’ll bring your toys." Gibbs scrabbled through the magazines on the table, coming up with a month-old Sports Illustrated.

"At least you can look at magazines," grumbled the younger man, switching positions, bringing the other foot up to bounce in the other direction. He blinked in surprise as his hand was captured in Gibbs’.

"We’re alone, Tony," reassured Gibbs.

"How alone?"

Gibbs glanced up at the empty window of the receptionist’s desk before bringing the captured hand to his lips for a quick, dry kiss. "This alone."

"Not alone enough," sighed Tony as the door opened and his hand was quickly placed back on his own knee.

He drummed his nails against his thigh.

Gibbs sighed.

"Stop fidgeting, Tony."

~oOo~

"Sore?" inquired Kate with a smile as Tony shifted uncomfortably.

"I hate getting shots."

"Hey, at least Gibbs went with you," she pointed out.

"Oh, yeah, that was a big help. After he tried to interrogate my doctor, he sat in the waiting room and read month-old box scores to me."

Kate grinned at the mental picture of Gibbs trying to entertain a bored and restless Tony. "So, you got some time to do a background check?"

"After I track down McGee’s cell phone records."

"I’ll wait," agreed Kate. "I gotta take the tagged and bagged down to Abby anyway."

Tony didn’t even look up at the next shadow darkening his desk. "I just went through six cell companies and I promised Todd a background check. You’ll have to wait." He shifted his weight gingerly against the seat.

"Sore?"

"Gibbs!" Tony hissed, squinting up at the mock look of concern on Gibbs’ face, as Gibbs raised his hands in placation. "I didn’t mean you couldn’t break in line. I figured you were Stonehauser. What you got?"

"You need to go home?" This look was entirely sincere.

"’Cause my butt’s sore?" returned Tony incredulously.

The shadow moved as Gibbs circled the desk, ending up behind Tony. Abandoning the pretense of professionalism, Tony leaned back against him momentarily, his head resting on Gibbs’ taut stomach.

After just a few seconds, Gibbs leaned down, his whisper barely audible, even breathed as it was against Tony’s ear. "Guess that means you’ll have to top tonight."

Tony gulped and scooted the chair further beneath his desk, concealing his body’s reaction to that assessment as Gibbs strolled innocently away, whistling, of all things.

He was almost immediately replaced by an eager McGee in search of data. "So? Anything more important come up or did you get a chance to get the number?"

The younger agent frowned as Tony grit his teeth.

"No, McGee, nothing came up."

"Okay." McGee looked a bit hurt. "It’s just a figure of speech, DiNozzo."

Tony handed him the printout.

"Maybe for you," he muttered at McGee’s retreating back.

~oOo~

"I have a bone to pick with you," began Tony when the driver-side door shut.

"You know," observed Gibbs, starting the car, "if Ducky were here, he’d probably give you the etymology of that phrase."

"Don’t try to distract me."

"If I wanted to distract you, Tony, I’d—" Gibbs snaked a hand toward the passenger seat.

"Uh uh," warned Tony, fighting off the hand shamelessly winding its way into his lap. "I’m talking about your work behavior."

"*My* work behavior?"

"Yeah, the whole ‘topping’ comment was just," Tony paused, "uncalled for."

"Got you hot, huh?" smirked Gibbs, waving at the guard as the gate arm was raised.

"Whether it got me—"

"Got you hot," this time Gibbs sing-songed it.

"Whether—" Tony’s second grinning attempt at castigation was cut off by the tuneful ringing of his cell. "DiNozzo."

Gibbs listened as Tony’s tone became guarded. He tried to make sense of the one-sided conversation. "Yes. Yes. We would be happy to. Five o’clock Friday. We’ll be there. Yes. Thank you."

"That was?" inquired Gibbs when Tony snapped the phone shut.

"Gretchen’s attorney. She wants to take off for the weekend and wondered if I’d like to exercise visitation."

Gibbs didn’t reply and Tony narrowed his eyes in concern. "You’re okay with this --- with playing weekend dads, right?"

The hand that had been playfully groping in a lapward direction was suddenly extended palm up and Tony pressed his own to it, intertwining his fingers with Gibbs’.

"I’d be more than honored," said Gibbs in such a quiet, serious tone that Tony could only grip the hand he was holding tighter.

"Think I was wrong, you know," Tony observed, his fingers relaxing the hold but still clasping Gibbs’ callused ones, "sometimes loving you isn’t hard at all."

 

 

~oOo~

"Hey." Gibbs looked up from the sports page to see Tony standing before him wearing nothing but a towel and a grin, if you discounted the brace and Rufus, which Gibbs easily did. "You busy?"

"Uh, no." Gibbs refolded the paper. "Something I can do for you?"

"I seem to remember something about … someone being on top?"

"Ah, I seem to remember that too." Gibbs rose from the chair, fingers smoothing over bare skin. He leaned into Tony’s neck, the clean scent of him enticing the older man even more. Pressing his lips to the pulse point he felt the soft beat of life beneath them.

Tony groaned slightly under the delicate pressure.

"Gibbs?" Tony’s hand palmed Gibbs’ side. "Gibbs?" he repeated.

He smiled at the softly breathed "yeah" against his neck.

"Could we take this into the bedroom? ‘Cause I’m a lot better horizontal."

Gibbs’ kissed Tony’s jaw. "You’re good any way,"

"But I’m better horizontal," Tony pointed out, laughing ruefully, his already compromised balance threatening to give out altogether.

Gibbs quickly moved to embrace him, strong arms wrapping around his waist. "Then what are we waiting for?"

~oOo~

Tony crossed off yet another attraction in the nation’s capital. "Zoo?"

"Hills," reminded Gibbs softly, watching Tony close his eyes. "Tony –" he began. "We’ll get some pizza, rent a kid’s movie. Three-year-olds aren’t that difficult. He’ll be happy to play catch in the back yard."

"Said you didn’t have kids."

"Had a younger brother. A kind of parental mid-life surprise."

Tony didn’t quite recognize the mixed emotion on Gibb’s face. "Where is he?"

"Died. When he was twelve. Hit and run. He was riding his bike …"

"I’m sorry." Tony took Gibb’s hand. "I didn’t mean to—"

"Great kid. I was overseas. Got a phone call. We were on a mission, couldn’t get back to the funeral." Gibbs lips thinned. "Hate funerals anyway. A lot of words said by people who didn’t say enough when they were alive."

They sat silent for a minute before Tony said quietly, "Playing catch, huh? On a good day I can play catch."

Gibbs ruffled the light brown hair. "He’s going to be happy, Tony. It’ll be fine."

~oOo~

Gibbs studied the wall of merchandise with his usual intense scrutiny while Tony scuffed his feet self-consciously against the linoleum tiles. He had a finger’s grip on the edge of Gibbs’ jacket pocket so as not to lose him in the depths of his blurrier-than-usual vision. Not that he’d expected one of Sherri’s miracle shots was suddenly going to cure him, but prior to this morning his symptoms had been on a kind of plateau since Gibbs returned from Sardinia.

"What do you think?"

"Uh…" Tony realized he hadn’t heard whatever Gibbs had said before that. "Sorry, I—"

"That one."

Tony followed Gibbs’ pointing finger with difficulty, squinting toward the fuzzy tan and black of the car seat. He moved closer to make out the black block letters on the side of the box.

"Eddie Bauer makes car seats?" He moved even closer. "Tech Elite? What got you Gibbs: the Eddie Bauer or the ‘tech elite’?"

A playfully gentle cuff ruffled his hair and Gibbs’s touch lingered on the short, silky strands. But the hand was yanked away when a sharp gasp cut through the sound of Tony’s soft laughter.

Gibbs spun instinctively, not sure what the gasp meant, but wary that something was wrong somewhere. At first he thought the woman behind them might be going into labor, but the look on her face was … well, Gibbs was glad that Tony wouldn’t see it clearly.

"Can we help you?" Gibbs inquired. Tony had turned, too, the look on his face solely one of concern.

Whatever the woman had started to say, her gaze fell on Tony and softened, if only minutely. When she looked Gibbs deeply in the eyes, though, he could feel the censure radiating from her. More out of instinct than thought, Gibbs stepped protectively in front of Tony and the woman backed off, taking her cart with her.

"She okay?" asked Tony.

With narrowed eyes, Gibbs watched her retreat down the aisle. "Just fine, Tony." He turned back to the display of car seats. "There’s an Alpha Tech Elite." Then looking both ways across the warehouse-like store, Gibbs gently inserted his hand in Tony’s.

"Beats a mere ‘tech elite’," said Tony, gently squeezing Gibbs’ fingers in return.

"The Alpha Tech Elite, it is," decided Gibbs. He took the box down from the shelf. "You ready?"

Tony tugged lightly on Rufus’ harness, starting them both toward the register. Gibbs walked slightly ahead, as he’d learned to, to allow Tony to have a clear target to follow. The rollercoaster of Tony’s sight could leave him with only slightly blurry vision or, on a bad day, could leave him trapped in a warped blur of indecipherable colors. On a bad day, Gibbs would gently grip Tony’s elbow, guiding both him and Rufus on a safe path.

The woman was browsing the rack of newborn clothing near the register. Gibbs could see her flat gaze fix again on both of them, but he knew that Tony was unaware of the scrutiny. Gibbs sighed as he hefted the seat on the counter and Tony frowned.

"Something wrong?"

"Nope." Gibbs’ gaze flicked in the direction of the woman. "Everything’s fine." He took the credit card from his wallet and offered it to the cashier. The woman bowed her head and went back to browsing the line of pastel sleepers. With a hurried scrawl, Gibbs signed the receipt. He wrestled the box in a one-armed grasp, his other hand settling on the back of Tony’s arm. "Come on, we have a car seat to put in."

~oOo~

Gibbs peered up at the brick-faced rise of post-modern condos lining the edge of the Baltimore East Harbor. "Not your typical row house."

Tony, likewise, craned his neck to blink at the blurry façade. "Gretchen always liked to live large. Bet Lloyd is up to his neck."

Gibbs swung the sedan into the building’s u-shaped drive. He reluctantly turned the keys over to the uniformed valet before collecting Tony and heading into the spacious lobby. Rufus’ claws clicked on the trendy stone floor, earning them a concerned stare from the man manning the reception desk.

Tony steadied himself against the waist-high desk. "We’re here to see Gretchen Hale."

After a thorough confirmation of this, they were allowed on the elevator.

~oOo~

The windows of the condo looked out onto the gray expanse of the harbor which, at least gave Gibbs something to look at while the awkward conversation continued around him. Lloyd Stebbins looked the part of an ex-beat cop whose physiology was going to seed since he’d been promoted into a desk job. Gibbs didn’t like the way he pressed into his space when they were introduced, didn’t like the latent aggression the man displayed to Tony. Although he had to admit Tony gave as good as he got, despite the handicaps of the crutch and brace. Even the sniff Rufus gave the offered hand was short and huffing, a kind of canine disdain that Gibbs could appreciate.

"So, Lloyd, what’s a commander make these days?" asked Tony.

Gibbs appreciated the open smile on Tony’s face, his partner being anything but subtle. And it had the desired effect, Sam was quickly brought out and reintroduced to the two strangers he was going to spend the weekend with. At first, though, he only had eyes for Rufus, and Tony released the Great Dane from his vest and harness, letting the big dog know he was off-duty. Rufus stretched out, huge paws in front of him like a lesser Sphinx and let the little boy pat his rectangular head while Gibbs gathered the bags of clothes and toys that Gretchen handed over. She handed him, lastly, a folded piece of paper with phone numbers and an address on Long Island.

"Lloyd’s family. It’s the first time we’ve met. I just want them to get to know me." Her blue-eyed gaze had a kind of desperate quality. "For me," she continued.

Gibbs looked at Tony sitting on the edge of the couch, his hand resting on the boy’s small shoulder. Both deep in conversation about who was bigger – Sam or Rufus.

"I understand," said Gibbs. The flat tone he said it in went unnoticed as the blonde sighed in relief, smiling and holding out her hand to the pot-bellied Baltimore cop.

Gibbs knelt down beside Sam. He took the discarded vest in his hand, explaining how, when Rufus put it on, he was on-duty, just like a cop. Sam put a small hand to the blue vest, the fingers moving over the circular embroidered patch that said "Please ask before you pet me." Large, solemn blue eyes watched Gibbs fit the vest around the fawn-colored body.

"On-duty," pronounced Sam seriously when the vest was velcroed shut. Gibbs gave a ruffle to the blond head.

"Your mom explain that you were going to stay with us?"

Still wide-eyed and solemn, Sam nodded at Tony.

"You okay with that?"

Sam looked back toward his mother, who nodded encouragement at him.

"Yeah," he finally whispered.

"We’re going to have a good time," said Gibbs. "You like to play catch?"

Again the solemn nod. Gibbs looked up at Tony. He pushed himself up by putting a hand to Tony’s braced knee, letting it linger a little while longer than was strictly necessary.

"Then I guess we best get going." Gibbs gave Tony a hand up, Sam’s fascination with Rufus never wavering. "You want to say goodbye to your mom?"

Gretchen came over to stoop down and murmur her encouragements.

"If you want," said Tony, when she was done, "I think Rufus wouldn’t mind having two people hold on." He moved his hand to the very front of the harness’ handle, feeling the small fingers press coolly against his. "You got him?"

"Yeah," was agreed again, shyly.

"Good, then you and Rufus can show me where elevator is, okay?"

Gibbs watched as the pair started for the door, the diminutive version of Tony happily holding on to Rufus’ vest and the well-trained dog acting like it was perfectly normal to be steadying two DiNozzos rather than one.

Gibbs gave a final nod to the couple and followed them.

~oOo~

Gibbs looked in the rear view mirror to see Tony trying to coax a very serious three-year-old into playing with the toy veterinarian set that Ducky had given them for the trip back, the ME handing over the blue and red plastic case with a very wry "surprisingly they didn’t have a medical examiner set" comment.

Sam’s small, slightly pink-cheeked face had the same look of hidden hurt that sometimes crossed Tony’s, but Gibbs was used to that look almost instantaneously dissolving into the blindingly brilliant smile that was Tony’s main protection. Sam was, thankfully – Gibbs supposed, much less skilled at being disingenuous at the tender age of nearly three-and-a-half.

Nipping Sam on the nose with the vet kit’s stuffed "patient", Tony finally coaxed a tiny smile out of the boy and in a few minutes he was giggling softly, the ends of the plastic stethoscope stuck in his ears.

Taking the beltway slower than he ever had, Gibbs settled into the middle lane and headed for DC.

~oOo~

Taken off the sofa, the three cushions made a fair bed for a very tired veterinarian in training. A slightly cranky one as well, although Gibbs had to admit the kid had done exceptionally well being whisked away by people he barely knew, to a house he’d never seen.

Thank God for Rufus. Released from duty, the Great Dane had become a near perfect patient, allowing all manner of plastic torture devices from the friendly stethoscope to the snub-nosed vaccination needle to be placed against his patiently panting sides.

"Good doggy," Sam declared through a yawn, administering yet another "vaccine" and patting Rufus sympathetically on the head.

Gibbs retrieved the fireman-print sleeping bag. "Guess they didn’t have a cop one," he murmured, unzipping the bag to reveal the Dalmatian print inside. A self-declared wide-awake Sam came and stood companionably beside him, leaning on him a bit as he fought another yawn.

"Fire doggies," Sam pointed out, his palm smoothing down flannel. "I seen a police doggy."

"You did?" asked Gibbs. He dug into the duffle bag and came up with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. He held up the tiny shirt. "The Maryland Terrapins?"

Tony laughed, "Must be Lloyd’s alma mater."

"Think they make Ohio State?"

"You think he’s a Buckeye in training?"

Gibbs’ gaze moved from a proudly smiling Tony to watch Sam rock against Rufus’ side, fighting hard against giving in to the call of bedtime. "I think he’s a DiNozzo in training. Look at him. He’s going to stay awake if it kills him." He handed the clothes to Tony, then scooped the listing body up onto the bed. "Come on, kiddo. Time for bed."

This was met with a not-to-be-questioned shake of Sam’s head. "No."

"Well, how about we put on your pajamas then we’ll talk about staying up?"

"No."

"Brush your teeth?"

"No."

Tony pulled the small body against his, Sam stretching into a backbend, his head ending up on Tony’s thigh. "What about a story?"

The blond head bobbed agreeably against his leg.

Now that he’d suggested it though, Tony looked lost as to how to begin. "I don’t think we want to tell him some of the stories my mom used to tell me." Tony shuddered ever so slightly. "Besides, without the trompe-l'oeil and the candles, it’s just not going to be the same."

"I think I can handle it, Tony." Gibbs smiled, caressing the very blond head. He reached back and snared the stuffed dog that had come with the vet’s kit, handing it over to its owner. "There was this very brave vet who went to…" Gibbs paused momentarily, looking around the room for inspiration, his gaze falling on the National Geographic lying on the nightstand, "… Africa." He tweaked Sam’s belly. "And what do you suppose his name was?"

Giggling from the tickling, Sam shook his head.

"His name was … Sam."

This produced more giggles and the small body squirmed against Tony’s outer thigh.

"He built himself a treehouse in the only tree on the savannah and had the fastest Land Rover in all of Africa."

"Are you sure," cut in Tony, "that this vet’s name isn’t ‘Gibbs’?"

Gibbs swatted gently at Tony’s hair, producing another peal of laughter from Sam.

"Even the most ferocious of animals, like the great lion king of the jungle—"

Sam broke into a roar and Tony roared back at him.

"See, he is a DiNozzo," observed Gibbs dryly before taking the story back up, "he already does imitations. He had a trusty guardian named Rufus."

The blond head rose slightly to look for the Great Dane.

"And two loyal and faithful servants named Tony," Gibbs poked a finger at Tony’s chest then turned it toward himself, "and Jethro. Every morning for breakfast he would eat … " Gibbs stopped, frowning.

"Not coffee," put in Tony.

"… a doughnut covered in sprinkles."

Tony rocked the small body back and forth, receiving a giggle that was growing sleepier. He threw a suspicious look at his partner. "Has Abby been bringing you breakfast again?"

"And," continued Gibbs accentuating the conjunction, "then he would take his faithful servants, Tony and Jethro, and his trusty Rufus and they would climb into the Land Rover and begin his rounds."

"Tony would drive," Tony inserted, leaning down to whisper it in Sam’s ear.

"Tony would not drive," corrected Gibbs. "Sam would drive and he would go to the water holes and take care of the water buffalo and their horn rashes." He ignored the grin on Tony’s face. "He would go to the plains and cure the giraffes with sore throats. Then he would go to the river’s edge where he’d cure the hippopotamuses of their swimmer’s ear."

The wide blue eyes were growing narrower, succumbing under the double assault of the story and the gentle stroke of Tony’s hand against the fine, blond strands of hair.

"He would bandage the paws of the cheetahs so that they would be able to run like the wind and then he'd go up the great mountain to heal the small baby gorillas who would often scamper away from their mothers and eat the very foods they were told not to …"

Gibbs paused, watching the heavy eyelids droop and, this time, stay closed. He lifted the lethargic body and began to wrestle the t-shirt off of complacent arms. Sam rallied enough to protest just a bit but then gave up and let them slip the Terrapin tee over his head.

He was shortly bundled in the sleeping bag on the floor, rubbing a hand over very sleepy eyes. Leaning down awkwardly, Tony gave a final caress to the shiny hair. "Night, buddy."

"’ni …" mumbled Sam, rolling over to clutch the pillow in a fashion Gibbs found very familiar.

Gibbs latched a hand under Tony’s arm and pulled him back upright, holding on when Tony dizzily clutched a firm grip on his shoulder. "I got you," he murmured, further bracing a hand to Tony’s back.

"I know you do," Tony whispered in return.

~oOo~

He caught Tony in the bathroom feeling, rather than reading, the bottle of ibuprofen, his long fingers trying to decipher how to line up the arrow of the cap.

"Bad?" he asked, removing the bottle from the searching touch.

Tony’s bare feet shuffled a little on the cool tile floor. "A little blurry," he admitted. "Got a headache."

Squinting a bit himself, Gibbs snapped the cap open, shaking two capsules into the palm that reached toward him.

"Sam still asleep?"

"If he’s not, he’s incredibly quiet."

Tony took the offered cup of water as well. "You think we ought to … sleep in separate rooms?"

"He’s three, Tony. I don’t think he’s going to question why two adults are sleeping in bed together. I’m sure his mother--"

Tony shuddered. "Not a mental picture I need, Gibbs. I mean Lloyd’s really let himself go."

Gibbs wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist. In the mirror Tony’s reflection looked pensive and Gibbs leaned a soft kiss against the nape of his neck.

"You think he had a good time?"

"I think he had a great time," observed Gibbs, resting his chin on Tony’s shoulder.

Tony shifted in Gibbs’ grasp, turning so they faced each other. "Who knew you could tell a bedtime story?"

Gibbs shrugged.

"What other talents have you been keeping hidden?"

There was a beat while Gibbs thought about this. "I can replace the exhaust manifold on a ’62 Corvette."

Tony laughed. "You truly are multi-talented."

"Come on." Gibbs offered Tony his hand after he carefully disentangled himself. "We’re going to need all the sleep we can get."

Tony popped the top of his watch. "It’s only nine."

"You ever spent a Saturday with a three-year-old?" asked Gibbs, plopping down on the bed with a small groan. When Tony got in, he drew him to him, wrapping an arm around his back, leading Tony to rest his head on his shoulder.

In a short time he heard the chorus of the deep, even breaths of two sleeping DiNozzos and he planted a soft, unseen kiss on Tony’s hair.

~oOo~

The rhythmic tug woke Gibbs, although he squinted in the darkness for a minute not placing exactly what had roused him. He rolled over, leaning over Tony’s shoulder to see a small, unhappy face peering up at him.

"Hey," Gibbs coughed slightly to clear the sleep from his voice. "What’s wrong?"

A tiny finger pointed toward the chair where they had tossed the bedspread. "Monster."

"Oh," Gibbs rested his cheek against Tony’s t-shirt clad arm. "It’s not a monster, but just in case…" He reached a hand over to the small one that reached back. "Climb on up."

Tony snorted briefly as he was scaled but then settled back with a sigh. Gibbs lifted the compact body, tucking Sam under the sheets against Tony’s back then settled on his side, his arm thrown over Tony’s, his hand splayed against the steady rise and fall of Tony’s chest.

Sam sighed deeply, wiggling until he was comfortable, while Tony snored on, oblivious to the grip a small hand twisted in the soft cloth of his t-shirt. And Gibbs settled back, knowing his sleep for the night was over and not caring at all.

~oOo~

"Take McGee and start the interviews." Gibbs balanced the phone then flipped the pancake browning in the pan before checking his watch. "I’ll be there in an hour or so." He glanced up at Tony making his way down the hallway, Rufus and Sam in tow.

"Kate?" asked Tony, stabilizing himself to help Sam climb into one of the chairs circling the kitchen table.

"Got a missing Marine," replied Gibbs. He tossed the pancake from the pan onto a plate, earning an appreciative squeal from Sam. Moving around the counter, he snagged the bottles of syrup. Sam waited, his fisted fork at the ready.

"We have maple," Gibbs put the plate down in front of his eager diner, "or--," he held the second bottle of berry-colored syrup at arm’s length trying to make out the label.

"Blueberry," identified Tony, taking the bottle from his hand as the not unexpected "Booberry!" was echoed from Sam.

"That’s what Tony likes, too," put in Gibbs, the aside tickling Sam’s ear and causing him to giggle.

"My booberry," asserted Sam, small hands engaging in a mock tug-of-war with Tony’s over the plastic bottle.

"You going in?" asked Tony after Sam was happily eating sticky purple forkfuls of pancake.

"Got to," replied Gibbs as he put a plate in front of Tony.

"So what’s up? A missing person’s case usually doesn’t rate a Saturday in DC."

"Does if he’s aide de camp to General Crutchfield. Anybody with that much access to the Pentagon makes them nervous these days."

"What are we going to do about …" Tony laid a hand on Sam’s head.

Gibbs poured an ample helping of maple syrup over his own pancakes. "Ducky makes a great playmate."

~oOo~

For Sam Hale, however, love at first sight proved to be one Goth lab technician. Whether it was the jingling silver chains or the fascination of the spider-web tattoo gracing Abby’s neck, Sam was entranced. Completely and utterly.

Gibbs and Tony easily slipped away while Abby was showing off the "monster" trapped in her computer … a green-grey scaled dragon that shot orange flames across the screen, all to the impressed murmur of her three-year-old audience. Behind her back, Abby’s free hand encouraged their retreat, her giggles mirroring Sam’s.

~oOo~

"Our missing Marine?" inquired Tony, flipping on his PC.

"Adrian Odom." Gibbs sank down in his chair. "Get me what you can. McGee and Kate ought to be done with the—" Gibbs turned as elevator doors opened to reveal the duo. "Anything?"

"According to the general’s office, he simply didn’t show up Thursday morning. A few people remember seeing him at a local bar Wednesday night. He wasn’t acting strangely, wasn’t drinking more than his usual."

"He just never came home," finished McGee.

Kate frowned in the direction of Tony, who was already obliviously bent over his keyboard, headphones in place. "I thought Tony had Sam."

"Abby’s temporarily babysitting," explained Gibbs.

"Abby?" questioned Kate with a smile.

"Hidden talents," murmured Gibbs.

~oOo~

Gibbs looked up at the off-key singing he would have sworn was coming from…

"Kate?" he questioned.

The former secret service agent swung down one happily warbling three-year-old all the while joining in the chorus of The Itsy Bitsy Spider. She shrugged a little self-consciously under Gibbs’ scrutiny. "Abby needed to do some stuff."

"So do you." Gibbs got up and, glancing back to see Tony deep in conversation, the earpiece of the phone replacing the usual headphones, lifted a still-crooning Sam onto his desk. "I’ll look after the munchkin."

Looking just a bit disappointed, Kate patted Sam on the head. "I’ll just … get back on it."

"Come on," Gibbs hefted Sam into his arms. "I’ve got someone for you to meet."

~oOo~

"Duck?" Gibbs stuck his head around the door, making sure the exam tables were empty and the sliding trays were safely locked behind their refrigerated doors.

"In here, Jethro."

Moving quickly through the cool autopsy bay, Gibbs rubbed warmth into the tiny t-shirt clad back. "May we come in?"

Ducky’s face creased into a warm smile. "Most certainly. I assume this is Agent DiNozzo the younger."

"Sam," Gibbs rearranged his charge when a small nose tried to bury itself shyly in his collar. "This is Ducky."

"I have a grandson just about your age," said the ME, rising to meet the eyes peeking over Gibbs’ shoulder. "He likes to play with his ball." He produced a rubber ball magically in one hand and Sam lifted his head from where it was tucked under Gibbs’ chin. "Only he keeps losing it." The ball disappeared with a flourish of prestidigitation. "And we have to find it again." Sam laughed as the red orb reappeared in Ducky’s fingers.

Gibbs settled the now distracted body in one of the chairs by the desk. Sam squealed as Ducky made the ball disappear once again.

"Hidden talents," he murmured as he slid unobserved out the door.

~oOo~

"You got something or you just lounging in my chair?" Gibbs queried the occupant spinning his desk chair from side to side.

Tony grinned up at him. "Should I ask where Sam is?"

"Ducky’s playing David Copperfield." Gibbs settled on the desk’s corner. "You got something?"

"It seems our Major Odom should have been named Philip."

"Philip?" questioned Gibbs finally when it became obvious that Tony was waiting for him to take the bait.

"Greek for ‘a lover of horses’."

"You’re not going to tell me he’s …"

"Uh, no," broke in Tony. "Although that you thought that is rather—" Tony paused, considering, "—hinky."

Gibbs waved him off. "The Massey case, I may have been hanging around Abby too much."

"Our major is a player of the ponies. And not too good a judge of horseflesh if his bank account is any indication. According to my sources, he’s down $150 large to the Constantine Brothers."

Gibbs folded his arms across his chest. "Sources?"

"There’s a DC cop that owes me a favor. I called it in." He could feel Gibbs’ skeptical gaze on him. "From when I was with the Baltimore PD. He was doing a drunk and disorderly and I got him a cab and sent him home. Woman thing. The guy needed a break, but I got his badge number -- just in case it came in handy some time."

"Like now."

"Like now," echoed Tony with a satisfied smile. "That’s the problem with you, Gibbs; you just don’t know how to network."

~oOo~

Gibbs took a minute to stand directly behind an unsuspecting McGee and see just what the younger agent was staring at. He didn’t know whether to smile at the sight of Tony, back against the bottom of his cubicle wall, legs straight out in front of him as he bowled the red plastic ball back and forth with Sam, or grimace at the thought of how he was going to get him up off the floor. In the end he decided to leave that question for later.

"McGee?" he asked silkily. "What are you doing?"

The young agent snapped to a pose of near-perfect attention. "N-nothing."

"Do you think instead, you could do ‘something’ at your desk?"

"It’s great, isn’t it?" observed McGee as if he hadn’t even heard the question.

Gibbs shook his head, not following.

"Having kids. I mean, look at them. When have you seen Tony that happy? Uh, although…" McGee was suddenly blushing a bright, nearly cranberry red, "… I guess you have." He took a deep, convulsive breath. "I mean I’m sure you’ve seen him that satisfied." Then he took a second one. "Not ‘satisified’ as such but … contented. Well, uh, not ‘contented’ either. I mean ‘contented’ doesn’t have to mean … uh, just like ‘satisfied’ can mean other things…"

"McGee," said Gibbs softly, "I think you should go back to work before you hurt yourself."

"Yeah," McGee nodded in fervent agreement. "Absolutely. I completely agree."

"McGee?" Gibbs prodded.

"Yes, boss?"

"At your desk," instructed Gibbs.

"Oh, sure. I’ll just be," McGee pointed in the direction of Kate’s cube, "over there at my desk."

"Good man."

~oOo~

"Hey, Tony …" the rest of what Gibbs was about to say died silently on his tongue as he took in the picture before him. Tony was still on the floor of his cube, back against the cubicle wall, legs splayed out. Only now his head was tipped back, his mouth slightly open and his eyes closed. He had an arm wrapped around Sam who was likewise soundly ensconced in dreamland.

Looking behind him to make sure Kate and McGee had actually called it a day, Gibbs knelt down beside the sleeping pair and put a hand out to shake Tony’s shoulder. But Sam murmured in his sleep and Tony, without opening his eyes, tightened the hold he had around the small shoulders. With a slight grin and a shake of his head, Gibbs changed his mind. He settled next to Tony and leaned his own head back against the woven panel of the cube. His shoulder rubbed against the younger man’s and instinctively, Tony nestled into the warmth, his temple touching Gibbs’ when he turned.

It was almost an hour later when Tony jerked awake, his movement causing a not-quite-sleeping but very relaxed Gibbs to startle to awareness.

"Hey," murmured Tony sleepily. "Must have dozed off." He moved his numb arm from beneath Sam’s back. "Gibbs?" He shook his head a little, like he was trying to clear it. "I know why I’m on the floor. Why are you on the floor?"

"I sent everybody home. I came to get you and Sam and …" Gibbs shrugged as if it were self-evident. "If the rest of the family is on the floor, I’m down with that."

"Family?" Tony smiled ruefully.

"Yeah," acknowledged Gibbs.

"I don’t have a lot of luck with family," pointed out Tony.

Gibbs took Tony’s hand into his. "Maybe you just hadn’t found the right one yet."

~oOo~

Six mothers-in-law, five fathers-in-law, two – or was that three? – step in-laws, eight brothers and six sisters all acquired along with their various spouses and ex-spouses and children and step-children – after three marriages, Gibbs was a little too well-acquainted with the numerous ways that family could hatchet away at your soul.

And, despite Tony’s declaration that he didn’t have much luck with things familial, he knew that the younger man had left himself open in a way Gibbs hadn’t … maybe since he lost his brother. Maybe even before that.

There was a light in the younger man’s blue eyes that Gibbs could see even in the rearview mirror. Tony had bonded as Gibbs knew only he could. Quickly. Deeply. That aura of vulnerability that brought Tony success undercover, manifesting itself in the bright-eyed innocence, the dazzling smile -- it was real. Tucked deeply, carefully hidden, but real. Tony had been hurt enough that he’d obviously learned to protect himself, learned to fight back with a quick mind and a sharp tongue. But somewhere during the weekend, it seemed Sam had found his way to that portion of Tony DiNozzo he wouldn’t fully reveal … even to Gibbs.

And Gibbs was afraid he had a good idea what was coming.

He pulled up to the door of the condominium and began to unload his passengers: first Rufus from the back of SUV, then Tony, then a happy Sam, who recognized his home, scrambling up the designer stairs to the lobby doors.

Gretchen had said she’d come down, probably to keep Lloyd and Tony separated, Tony’s barbs from their previous meeting getting further under the Baltimore cop’s skin than his obvious disdain did under Tony’s. Which left them in the upscale lobby, in charge of a three-year-old nearly vibrating with excitement.

Tony tried to say goodbye, but Sam was in no mood to be cuddled or cajoled. He fixed his eyes on the elevator and wouldn’t be moved. Only when it opened to a chorus of "Mama!" loudly and rapidly repeated was the small body set in motion. As Sam charged into his mother’s arms, Gibbs stepped back, unobtrusively taking Tony’s hand into his, feeling Tony’s fingers clench tightly around his own.

And while Gretchen wasn’t effusive, she did hug Sam to her. Whether it was some awakened maternal feelings or just the knowledge that she now possessed something her ex-lover wanted, Gretchen took up the role with previously unseen enthusiasm.

"He had a wonderful time, Tony. She’s … his mother."

"I know," said Tony, dropping Gibbs’s hand and mustering the dazzling smile for Gretchen as she came forward.

"It went well?" asked Gretchen as Gibbs handed over the bags.

"Had a great time," replied Tony, the smile still practically glowing. "You?"

"It was … good," she finally decided. "I think they liked me."

Determining he couldn’t take much of this forced congeniality, Gibbs gave a little pat to Sam’s back, the blond head swiveling in his direction. "See you soon, kiddo." He looked at Gretchen for confirmation and saw a certain indecision.

"Yeah," she eventually agreed. "Bye, Tony." She stuck out her hand like they were closing a business transaction, but either Tony couldn’t make out the gesture or chose to ignore it.

"Bye, Sam," he said instead, cupping his hand around the crown of the boy’s head.

In reply, four chubby fingers waved a goodbye.

~oOo~

"Whoa!" Gibbs quickly slipped in behind Tony and supported him as the razor the younger man was holding dropped to the tiles with a clatter, both Tony’s hands needed to buoy his weight against the hard, cold sides of the sink.

"Just dizzy," murmured Tony, fighting to get his trembling legs back under him.

But even when he was stable, Gibbs refused to release him and, pressed back to chest with the older man, Tony could feel the quick pounding of Gibbs’ heart.

"Didn’t mean to scare you."

"God, Tony …" he could feel Gibbs’ sharp intake of air as he tried to not let worry transform into anger. "I’m calling a builder. We are putting bars in here."

"I’m just tired, Gibbs. Not our usual weekend."

They had, in fact, been snapping at each other ever since leaving Sam back in Baltimore Sunday night and, in the bed last night, Gibbs could feel the heavy tremors shaking Tony’s legs, undoubtedly brought on by stress, too powerful to be quieted by the handful of pharmaceuticals Tony swallowed daily. The hands he’d reached to massage the spasms were quietly accepted but, other than that, Tony had laid silent and still.

"Maybe you’re coming down with something," observed Gibbs a little worriedly, finding the skin under his touch a little warm.

Tony pushed out of his grasp. "I’m fine. If it’s anything, it’s some kind of reaction to the shot." He rubbed gingerly at the injection site still tender from the jabbing the day before.

"If it’s a reaction, we should call—"

Gibbs rarely found himself on the receiving end of the kind of piercing gaze he was often accused of giving. "Okay. Fine," he capitulated. "Maybe I’m overreacting."

~oOo~

"I’m okay," Tony repeated.

The blurry man in the mirror, though, didn’t believe him any more than Gibbs had and the florescent lights of the men’s room didn’t do anything to make his complexion less a pasty gray. And, now that his personal tilt-a-whirl in his head had been joined by a slight case of the chills, he was feeling even less stable. The dark walls and the row of mirrors rushed randomly at and away from him like he truly was at the mercy of some mechanical midway monster.

When the door to the head swung open, Tony resolidified his grasp on the handgrip of the crutch, his other hand planted so firmly that the outside edge of the countertop pressed a red line into the skin of his palm.

"Hey, Tony." McGee unzipped, then noticing the distinct lack of Tony’s usual greeting, looked back over his shoulder. "Tony? You okay?"

"Fine," Tony managed to get out, but the smile reflected back at him was a pitiful specimen.

Rufus shuffled slightly by Tony’s side, waiting for him to take the harness back up, but when he reached for it, the tilt-a-whirl took a decidedly earthward slide and before he really realized what was happening, he was falling.

The hands that caught him were less sure than Gibbs’ in their hold, but they were supporting nonetheless and he needed them.

"Hey! Easy!"

Tony was still upright mainly because McGee had pressed his braced leg tightly against the faux wood of the cabinet. One of McGee’s slightly pudgy hands wrapped around his waist and the other palmed his chest. The closeness of other man’s body brought some warmth but the chills continued to course through him.

 

"Tony?" McGee’s eyes were dark and worried in the mirror. "Okay, let’s sit you down."

Numbly Tony nodded his agreement, but he couldn’t unlock the brace, pressed as he was. "McGee?" he whispered, his voice suddenly succumbing to the same trembling weakness. "Gotta back up."

"Oh." The body behind Tony’s shuffled back. "Okay, just ease—"

As soon as Tony unlocked the brace, though, his weak knee buckled and there wasn’t enough strength in his other leg to keep him vertical. An uncoordinated grab at the sink did nothing to slow his descent and he rapidly found himself on the floor, his butt resting uncomfortably on McGee’s legs. He softly knocked his head back against the younger man’s shoulder in apology.

"Sorry, McGee."

"Hey, it’s okay. I just didn’t want you hitting your head." McGee shifted his legs out from under the nearly unresponsive weight. "Come on, lie down. I’ll go get Ducky."

"No," breathed Tony, embarrassingly unable to muster more than that small protest as McGee lowered his head, first, to his lap, then stripping off his jacket to use as a pillow, settled him as comfortably as possible on the cold floor.

Able to reach him now, Rufus snuffled around one slightly curled hand and Tony reached out to anchor himself against the spinning of the walls, his fingers entwining in the Great Dane’s leather collar.

~oOo~

Kate swung the door open so hard that it hit the wall with a thud. "Tony?"

His cheek pressed into the relative softness of the jacket, Tony grinned weakly. "Men’s room, Kate. Can’t you read?"

A warm touch curved around his jaw. "What happened?"

"Dizzy. Kind of felt like I was going to pass out."

"You want me to get Gibbs? He’s up with Morrow."

"Don’t bother him." Tony lifted his head, trying to rally, then dropped it back to the makeshift pillow as the room tilted a good forty-five degrees. "Just going to close my eyes…"

And Tony would have sworn that’s all he’d done, but when he opened them again his audience had morphed into McGee, who was giving directions on his cell phone, and Ducky, who bent over him, his fingers pressed beneath his jaw line.

"Ducky?"

"Easy, my boy. Caitlin is getting Jethro. We’re going to take a little ride."

"’m okay," Tony protested, trying to rise, his efforts doing little against the hands now pinning gently his shoulders down.

"You’re disoriented and you’re running a fever." Ducky’s face seemed to swim in and out of focus. "We’re going to get you to the ER."

Tony closed his eyes again, only opening them when the door slammed back once more, this time with even greater force than Kate had mustered.

"What the hell happened?"

The acoustics of the bathroom gave a slight echo to Gibbs’ question.

"It appears to be small episode of syncope."

Then Gibbs face appeared above him, the expression smoothing at the rather weak "hey" that Tony mustered.

"He also appears to be running a fever," added Ducky.

As if testing this, Gibbs put a hand on Tony’s forehead.

"Feels good," murmured Tony under the touch. "Cool."

His eyes fluttered shut.

"Stay with me, Tony."

He tried to at least crack an eyelid in answer to the order, but he was both blazingly hot and – somehow – bone-shakingly cold, and, if he opened his eyes, the carnival ride would start up again.

"Tony?"

It was like he heard Gibbs’ call from some vast distance and then the lights of the midway went out altogether.

~oOo~

The soft "hey" was recognizable even to his cotton-stuffed brain but Tony wasn’t sure why Gibbs’ bed felt so uncomfortable. Not sure, either, why moving his right hand hurt or why, when he did move it, Gibbs clasped his fingers, but the clasp was nice. Soothing.

"You ready to stay awake this time?"

"This time?" Tony didn’t open his eyes but his brows drew toward each other, leaving a little vertical frown mark between them.

"Yeah, the last two times you sort of mumbled at me and went back to sleep."

Eyes still not opening, Tony responded with an "mmmm" then, when his sluggish brain decided that was probably what Gibbs was talking about, murmured, "Wha’did I say?"

The mattress shifted as Gibbs took a seat on it, the warmth of his body pressed to Tony’s hip.

"Not our bed, is it?" Tony finally deduced.

"Nope." Gibbs’ clasp still held his right one, but now his other hand drew through Tony’s hair.

Braving it, knowing what he was going to probably find given the rough sheets and what would, inevitably, turn out to be a hollow needle stuck in the back of his hand, Tony cracked open reluctant eyes. "Hospital?"

Gibbs looked tired, he decided, studying the man.

"You collapsed. Doc says you’ve got some kind of infection." Gibbs pointed at the small bags hanging piggybacked on the IV.

Tony groaned and rolled his head against the pillow. "Sherri’s shot?"

"Could be," conceded Gibbs, his fingers squeezing Tony’s lightly. "She’s going to make some calls, see if this has happened before this quickly."

~oOo~

"Tony?"

Guiltily, Tony stopped picking at the edge of the tape holding the IV in place and peered myopically at McGee -- only all he could make out was the younger agent’s head visible as he peeked almost cautiously around the door.

"Hey, McGee."

The muted greeting was less than cheerful.

"I can come back later," McGee offered.

Tony waved him in. "It’s not you, McGee. I just hate hospitals."

"So, you … okay?"

"Yeah." Tony made a vague gesture toward the plastic bags of fluid hanging above him. "They come and refuel me every few hours. And, of course," his left hand tugged at the top of the hospital gown, "there’s always the flattering attire."

McGee shuffled his feet uncomfortably, his hands jammed into the pockets of his rumpled suit. "You, uh, kind of gave me a scare."

Tony frowned. "I don’t remember anything except driving in with Gibbs this morning."

"Yesterday," corrected McGee.

"Yesterday?" repeated Tony warily.

"I went into the head and you just kind of collapsed. Ended up on my lap."

Tony shifted to view him more fully. "Your lap?"

"Well, it was either go down with you or let you crack your head on the sink."

"Oh," Tony’s fingers returned to worrying the loose corner of white tape, "… thanks."

"Gibbs went a little…"

"…ballistic?" supplied Tony when he paused.

"Yeah," McGee admitted. "That’s why I made Kate go get him."

Tony grinned, although it was a bit weaker than his normal smile. "Good move."

"Tony … I …," McGee coughed self-consciously. "What I said that day in the car … I didn’t mean for you to think I … I’m not a homophobe and if it came off like I …"

"It’s okay, McGee. I know you’re a good guy. A little … nervous, but a good guy."

"Okay," agreed McGee. "Then we’re," his hand did a little side-to-side, "you and me … we’re okay."

"Yeah, McGee, we’re okay. And Gibbs is okay with you, too. You wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want you here. The bark is nothing he doesn’t do to the rest of us."

McGee’s nose wrinkled. "He doesn’t really do it to Abby and Ducky."

"We’re field agents. They’re science-types. He knows they know more about what they’re doing than he does. With us, he knows more."

"Damn right I do," observed Gibbs, fully opening the door he’d been standing behind for more than a few seconds.

Tony watched as McGee flushed.

"McGee," Gibbs greeted.

"I just dropped in to see how Tony was doing. I’ll just … I’ll go back to work now."

"That would be good, McGee," observed Gibbs but the tone was just a bit gentler.

Tony watched the younger man leave stoop-shouldered before fixing Gibbs with an appraising look. "Okay, it’s bad when I think you should give the new guy a break."

"He’ll live," observed Gibbs sipping the last of a cup of hospital-issued coffee and frowning at the bitter edge to it.

"He just won’t enjoy it," Tony completed for him, enjoying the wry grin that Gibbs tried to hide behind the upturned bottom of the styrofoam cup.

"How are you doing?"

When Tony shrugged, Gibbs moved closer.

"Still feel kind of shitty but at least everything isn’t spinning."

"You scared me," admitted Gibbs.

"So I heard," said Tony, patting the side of the bed. He put a hand on Gibbs’ thigh when the older man settled beside him. "Heard I ended up in McGee’s lap, too."

"Missed that," mused Gibbs, covering Tony’s hand with his own.

Tony almost wanted to squirm under the intensity of the gaze Gibbs fixed on him. "What?"

"Just wanted to look at you."

"If that’s just looking at me, I’d really hate to be on the receiving end of one of your interrogations."

In reply, Gibbs leaned over and placed a soft kiss on Tony’s forehead. "I just dropped by to check on you. I got to go see what else Kate turned up on our missing Major Odom and the Constantines. Looks like you were right, by the way."

He smiled gently as Tony pretended to preen a little.

"Get some sleep," he ordered.

"Got nothing else to do," mourned Tony.

"I’ll bring you some tunes when I come back."

Tony waved him off with his palms. "Not bluegrass."

"Not bluegrass," promised Gibbs, stealing a quick kiss from dry lips. In the cool light of the fluorescent overhead, Tony’s changeable eyes were deeply blue. They narrowed a little in worry as he continued to gaze into them.

"You sure you’re okay?"

"Yeah," nodded Gibbs. "And I’ll be back … " He pushed off the bed. "Gotta find some better coffee anyway."

"You come back in here with a Red Eye, I expect at least a Caramel Macchiato," muttered Tony.

A goodbye was waved in his direction and the younger man good-naturedly shook his head before lying back against the pillows with a sigh.

~oOo~

A mournful looking Rufus thumped his tail halfheartedly at Gibbs’ entrance, but he refused to give up his post beside Tony’s desk.

"I tried Woof-a-Roni, but I think he wants to know where Tony is," Kate offered as she came around her desk.

"Hey, boy," Gibbs knelt down and scratched under the thick collar. "Tony’s doing fine. He wants his CDs and some Starbucks," he added in Kate’s direction.

"Can’t keep the boy down long," observed Kate in what Gibbs knew was the younger agent’s attempt at cheering them both. She wore the kind of hopeful, falsely perky expression she’d had when she’d urged him not to be such a ‘Gloomy Gus’ over Ari -- and he was probably wearing the same one that he’d worn after she’d said it, because she backed back toward her desk with an "I’ll just go back to work."

"Come on," Gibbs slapped his hand lightly against his thigh. "Come on, boy."

Rufus laid his head back down on his paws.

Gibbs gave the short hair between Rufus’ high set ears a soothing rub. "Me too, Ruf. Me too."

~oOo~

"What the hell is going on here?" Gibbs stood in the door glowering at the now-silent knot of people surrounding Tony’s bed. At least the multi-voiced argument you could hear all the way to the elevator had been silenced.

"I’m not going anywhere," Tony re-emphasized in the break and then the cacophony started up again.

"Hold it!" Like observers at Wimbledon, they all turned back to Gibbs. "Tony?" he enquired, pushing his way to the side of the bed.

"I don’t want a private room."

Gibbs looked over to the other still empty bed sitting not four feet from the one Tony occupied. He frowned at Sherri Lenz who had the chart she held tucked against her under crossed arms. "You need to move him for isolation reasons?"

"No," she said simply.

He looked over the other members of the standing foursome, picking the nurse to fix his best interrogating stare on. "You need to move him," Gibbs’ gaze flicked to her ID, "Jane?"

"Not me."

Nodding at the remaining pair of well-suited attendees to the little meeting he’d interrupted, Gibbs asked silkily, "And you are?"

The shorter of the men stuck out his hand. "Douglas Majors, hospital administrator." He pulled the hand back in when Gibbs merely frowned at the offered palm and turned to the final intruder.

"And you?"

"I’m merely here to look after Anthony’s best interests."

"And you are?" repeated Gibbs, tilting his head slightly to make sure the man had no choice but to meet his eyes.

"Gino Prinzi, Vice President for Corporate Affairs, NewGen BioMedical."

"Translate that to ‘lackey for my father,’" put in Tony bitterly.

"How’d they find you?" asked Gibbs quietly.

Tony nodded his head toward Sherri. "The good doctor, here, reported a possible serious side effect to the ASI treatment."

"I thought you said his privacy was protected," Gibbs accused sharply, earning himself a calming pat on the arm from Tony.

"I reported by his patient number," replied the neurologist. "But their computer apparently cross-referenced the information."

"And there was a flag," finished Gibbs.

"Mr. DiNozzo is merely concerned—" began Prinzi.

"About his wallet and his community standing." Tony completed the sentence with a look of disgust then he met Gibbs’ gaze with a pleading one of his own.

"Get him out of here," ordered Gibbs.

"NewGen BioMed is a major supporter –" began the administrator in protest.

"Get him out of here or I will have a restraining order and a lawyer down here within an hour."

When neither man moved, Gibbs took a step toward them. Tony’s pale face lit with a grin as the pair took an instinctive step backwards then decided that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valor and retreated to the hall.

"Sweet," admired Tony before he took a deep breath, "but they’ll be back."

Gibbs crossed his arms across his chest. "Not while I’m here."

Tony lay back against the pillows, the smile still on his face, but it was tighter, brittler now. "Can’t stay here forever."

"Want to bet?"

Tony snorted. "What about when they call security?"

Gibbs’ hand moved to his cell then, remembering where he was, he moved to the empty bed and picked up the old-fashioned handset of the room’s phone. "Not going to happen."

There was another snort from the occupied bed, but a quieter one. Gibbs looked across the small space separating them and gave Tony an encouraging smile. "Go to sleep, Tony," he instructed. Then he cradled the phone closer, "Abs? I need you to do me a favor …

~oOo~

"What you got, Abs?"

Abby smiled, scooting the rolling stool from one side of the lab to another. "You know, industrial espionage is not usually my thing. But for you, I make an exception." She pressed a few keys and gestured Gibbs’ attention to the screen. "Albert DiNozzo, the picture is courtesy of a Money magazine article. Self-made millionaire, one of those classic, heartwarming immigrant tales – started as a forklift operator at a medical supply company in the 1950s. By the 1970s, he was running the place."

Abby smirked up at him from her seat. "By the way, ‘DiNozzo’ is not a real name."

Gibbs tilted his head, frowning as he took another sip of coffee.

"Well, I mean, of course, it’s a real name. Anything is a real name if you use it. I heard about some guy who legally changed his name to binary code." Abby started to expound further on the relative merits of being called solely by ones and zeros, but was stopped by the look on Gibbs’ face. "But back to the famiglia di DiNozzo – see the ‘di’ is like ‘of’ or ‘from’ so you’d expect ‘Nozzo’ to be a place or a father’s name, but ‘Nozzo’ isn’t a word, although it may be a diminutive for Giovanozzo, which is, like, equally unusual. ‘Nozze’ is a word; it’s the word for wedding, but being named ‘of the wedding’ doesn’t make a whole lot of conventional naming sense unless you had serious out-of-wedlock issues, maybe the first kid came before the nuptials and you wanted make sure everyone knew this one—"

"Abby," cut off Gibbs. "Tell it to Ducky; he’ll, no doubt, find it fascinating. Tell me what else you know about him." He pointed to the older, darker-haired version of DiNozzo looking down, business-like, from the overhead screen.

"Right," replied Abby, gathering herself back into reporting mode. "Al, here, never went to college. He married her …" Abby flipped another picture electronically up onto the overhead, "… Patricia Hayes. Had one kid – Tony. Hayes, by the way, is an English or Scottish place name for ‘a man who lives near an area of forest fenced off for hunting’ …" she trailed off, "…which is another tidbit I’ll save for the Duckman."

She grinned self-consciously when Gibbs nodded in terse approval.

"Not much on her," Abby continued. "One DUI conviction in 1985, paid a small fine and went to drunk school. Nothing since – unless you’re into counting up mentions in the Bridgeport social columns."

"Anything … hinky about his business?"

"Gibbs, Gibbs, Gibbs. You gave me twelve hours. In twelve hours you get everything there is to find about the nice couple with a twelve-bedroom mini-manse in Connecticut. You want nefarious business dealings in hospital supplies in a non-traded company, it will take a little more time."

~oOo~

Gibbs did a double take at the gaudily beribboned basket on the overbed table then proffered the Starbucks cup almost apologetically. "And all I brought was that Caramel Macchiato." He studied the tower of delicacies intently. "Balsamic vinegar, truffle cheese, porcini mushrooms, artichoke pate, spongata, torrone, chocolate truffles, nuts and raisins in Acacia organic honey." He fixed Tony with a mock serious gaze. "Secret admirer?"

Tony surfaced from the sweet, caramel-dosed coffee long enough to shrug. "Same admirer I had last night."

"They been back?"

Tony waved toward the basket. "Only to bring gifts. It’s my father’s usual MO: If you’ve done something wrong, bribe your way back into their good graces."

Gibbs glanced up at the medicines strung above Tony’s head, noting he’d gained a new miniature bag of slightly yellowish liquid. Tony’s eyes followed his gaze and he abandoned the cup for a moment to scratch self-consciously at the tape on the back of his hand.

"Sherri thinks they identified the bug."

"And?" prodded Gibbs.

"And they think the whole shot thing was just a coincidence, that it hasn’t had time to lower my immune response enough to have caused this."

A strong hand, still warm from the cup, caught the one worrying the tape. "When do I get to take you home?"

Tony turned his hand to clasp it palm to palm with Gibbs’. "A couple of days."

Gibbs’ studied Tony’s face, mentally comparing it to that of the self-importantly composed man on the lab overhead. There was a lot of his mother in him obviously. He had her lightened eyes, no doubt owed to her his sandy hair. And there was something of the hidden depths of Tony’s gaze in hers, even in the flat, two-dimensional picture Abby had shown on the screen.

He found himself getting caught in that gaze, finding affection there, which could still surprise him - not surprise that anyone could fall in love him … he’d convinced three women to marry him, after all; but amazement that anyone could stay in love him after they’d really come to know him.

He tightened the grip on Tony’s hand, "So what caused the infection?"

A dimple briefly appeared as one side of Tony’s mouth twitched in a kind of facial shrug. "Medical mystery."

"I don’t like mysteries," stated Gibbs.

~oOo~

"Yeah, well," Abby declared, "we don’t learn how to decipher this, Gibbs will be in more than his normal not-a-happy-camper mode."

She jumped a good two inches vertically when "I’m not a happy camper?" floated from just beyond her right ear. The you-should-have-warned-me glare she shot at McGee went unnoticed as he was apparently engrossed in studying a stack of papers she knew he’d already been through.

"No, Gibbs, you’re a wonderfully happy camper. You sing along with Kumbaya and make really good s’mores."

"What’s the problem?"

"The problem is that I don’t speak hospital-geek. I can manage a little financial-geek." Abby’s hands, fingers splayed, made little balancing motions. "And I can handle the occasional government-ese … but this stuff …" she gestured back to the printouts. "It’s all about ‘patronage dividends’ which I think are a nom de plume for our old favorite … kickbacks. But it’s subtle, Gibbs, very subtle. It’s, like, lawyer-subtle." She finally admitted, wincing, "I don’t think I’m equipped. I think you need a Doctor of Jurisprudence and I’m a mere bachelor in forensic science."

"McGee?" queried Gibbs.

"Uh, well, while I have a degree in biomedical engineering, we didn’t exactly dwell on the more … financial aspects." He grimaced. "Maybe I should have gone on and gotten that MBA from Wharton."

Gibbs sighed, his exasperated expression brightening a little when he spied Ducky who’d been quietly puttering in the corner with one of the high-powered lab microscopes. "Duck, you’re a doctor."

Ducky tried to wave him off, "Not the kind that knows how to make money, Jethro. Although I hear that joint ventures in diagnostic testing are very profitable these days."

"All right. Abby, if you have spare time, use it for this. McGee," Gibbs tilted his head in the direction of the elevators, "you don’t have spare time. Get upstairs."

He watched as the younger man scrambled to obey.

"How is Anthony?" inquired Ducky, coming over to stand beside him.

"Being pumped full of antibiotics," admitted Gibbs. "Sherri doesn’t seem to think it was the injection."

"You shall have to keep an eye on him," said Ducky seriously.

Gibbs laid a reassuring hand on the ME’s shoulder. "Always do, Duck."

~oOo~

There was still no one occupying the other bed in Tony’s room -- something Gibbs suspected was the bone the administrator threw to his "major supporter". If Tony couldn’t be talked into moving to a private room, they’d at least make sure he had this one to himself. Not that Gibbs actually minded. It gave them a level of privacy and quiet for which he was grateful.

"Hey, Rufus!"

The service dog vest had gotten them through the front door and a bit of humble pleading that no one would ever know about got them past the watchful nurse’s desk.

"I don’t remember you being that glad to see me," observed Gibbs.

Tony looked up from the side of the bed where a delighted Rufus wriggled in unprofessional excitement. "Don’t remember you giving me kisses," Tony shot back. "With tongue," he pointed out as Rufus placed a cold, wet slurp up the side of his cheek.

Gibbs merely rocked a minute on his heels.

"What’s wrong?" asked Tony warily, settling his happy canine companion with a crisp "down!"

"I got a call from Candy," Gibbs admitted. "Gretchen’s lawyer wants a meeting."

"And, why do I think, given the close proximity to one of my father’s minions showing up, that this has something to do—"

"She wants to know why you never told her Sam was an heir to a multi-million dollar company."

"Because I’m not an heir. Why would Sam be?" Tony’s hand shook a little as he combed his hair back. "They know, don’t they? They know about us."

"How could they know?" questioned Gibbs gently.

"I don’t know, they just know. They always have. They knew when I …" Tony closed his eyes and fisted his hands in the hospital-stamped sheets. "They know, Gibbs. I don’t know how but they know."

"Tony, even if they do, Gretchen knows about us. It wasn’t an issue."

"That’s when I was worth a special agent’s salary. If Gretchen wanted her freedom she didn’t have much choice but to be … understanding. They’ll try to take him, Gibbs, and she’ll see the dollar signs and think that means it’s a better life because that’s the way Gretchen is." Tony pulled at the tape still holding the IV in place. "And how do I know it’s not? What have I got to offer compared to a big house and private schools and—"

"Never sounds like you got much out of it," Gibbs pointed out.

"Maybe I was just a misfit. I mean it’s what everyone wants, right? The mansion on the hill?"

"Not me," said Gibbs simply, sitting to take the hand still fretting at the tape into his own.

Tony snorted, "You mean you didn’t come on to me because you found out the relatives were rolling in dough?"

"Nope." Gibbs brushed back the hair from Tony’s forehead. The gaze that met his was searching in its intensity. "I did not partner with you for your money, DiNozzo," he reassured.

This brought a bemused smile to Tony’s face. "You do realize that the rest of the world is not quite so … honest and upright, don’t you?"

Gibbs laughed, his hand moving to cup Tony’s cheek. "I noticed," he said dryly.

"What are we going to do?"

Gibbs glanced once toward the closed door. "Abby’s working on it. In the meantime, what we’re going to do is this." He pulled the willing body toward him and kissed his partner. Kissed him forcefully, deeply and at great length.

Tony gave a little groan when he was finally released, his hand fumbling blindly for Rufus’ head. "Sorry, boy." He grinned when his hand was liberally licked by a lolling tongue. "Good try, but I’m afraid your kissing may have lost the top spot."

"May?" inquired Gibbs sharply.

"Well, I think I need another sample to really be sure."

With a rather smug look, Gibbs complied.

To Part Two