Where Angels Fear To Tread – Part Two

By: lila-blu

EMAIL: lila-blu

"You want to take this?"

From his seat in the obligatory wheelchair, Tony grimaced at the cello-wrapped basket. "Leave it at the nurses’ station?"

Picking it up, Gibbs was nearly hidden behind the tower’s plaid bow. "Will get no argument from me."

They were halfway out the door to safety when they were met by an obsequiously smiling Douglas Majors who offered his hand with an equally sycophantic, "Mr. DiNozzo, I do so hope your stay was satisfactory."

Handing over the brimming basket with a brief, "Give this to somebody," Gibbs took control of the handles of the wheelchair, leaving the now-burdened administrator and the displaced orderly rapidly behind.

Tony looked back over his shoulder. "Nice move."

"The second wife had a Chihuahua that grinned just like that," said Gibbs, stabbing at the down button of the elevator. "Damn dog hated me. She used to put little sweaters with pompoms on it." Gibbs shook himself slightly causing Tony to grin a much more natural smile than the one the hospital executive could ever bestow.

"Rufus wears a vest," put in Tony.

The chair was pushed into the confines of the elevator.

"And I see a pompom on it, DiNozzo, and you’re both out of here."

He was rewarded by a laugh and he moved his hands from the chair and rested them on Tony’s shoulders, feeling the tension there. He stroked a hand through the crown of short hair as Tony leaned back against him.

~oOo~

Rufus was bouncing, his head appearing momentarily over the fence as he barked with joy at the sight of the agency car pulling into the driveway, looking far more like an overgrown puppy than a highly trained, professional service dog. As Gibbs went to release him, Tony struggled out of the car, finally coming to stand at the bottom of the front steps. He stared at the stoop, which at this moment might be the summit of Machu Picchu for all the energy he felt he could muster.

A wet nose slithered up the side of his free hand and he reached down and gave a pat to the Great Dane’s flank.

Knowing he was being watched, he gave Gibbs a weak grin, "Sure you didn’t add extra steps while I was gone?"

Gibbs tried to hide his concern, but Tony could see the wheels turning behind the blue-eyed gaze. "Nope," he replied casually, putting an arm around Tony’s waist.

He levered them both up the first riser.

"Put some bars in the bathroom, though," Gibbs quietly admitted.

Tony’s head dropped forward and he closed his eyes momentarily. "Okay," he finally conceded, "guess if I complain about the stairs, a few … modifications aren’t unexpected."

Gibbs smiled thinly and heaved them up a few more steps.

~oOo~

From the vantage point of the open stairs, Gibbs could watch unobserved as Kate eyed Tony worriedly, could see her return her attention to her work only to look toward his desk again. When she began to get that determined look in her eye and Gibbs was sure she was just about to rise and go see about him, he drew her attention away from the far cubicle.

"Kate, may I talk to you a moment?"

Kate snapped her gaze from Tony upward to Gibbs and she rose stiffly from her desk with a small sigh under the weight of the scrutiny. "Sure, Gibbs." But her gaze strayed back to a pale and clearly dispirited DiNozzo.

"In the conference room," Gibbs instructed, pointing toward the back wall.

The walk to the empty room was a silent one, Gibbs falling in at her shoulder.

"I need you to stop doing that," said Gibbs as he closed the door.

Kate frowned. "Stop doing what?"

"Sympathy is the worst thing you can do to Tony at the moment."

"He’s not you, Gibbs." Kate crossed her arms and took a few pacing steps before turning back to face him.

"No," agreed Gibbs, "and thank God for that, but he doesn’t need your pity. He needs to—"

"If you’re going to say ‘get back on the horse’," declared Kate flatly, "I might have to shoot you."

Gibbs managed a brief, tightlipped smile. "Abby tell you what she’s working on?"

Kate finally conceded this with a nod. "You’re looking for something on Tony’s family." She fixed him with her best interrogative stare --- the one she’d learned from him. "You ever thought of just talking to them, Gibbs?"

"Tony doesn’t want to."

"So you’re just going to – what?—settle this in court, because in court this could get ugly. Your job could be in jeopardy. Worse, his job could be in jeopardy. No job and there’s no health insurance."

"It won’t get to court," said Gibbs firmly.

"You’re going to blackmail them to leave him alone? I watch you play fast and loose with the rules on investigations - your small lies in pursuit of larger evils. And I’ve even come to accept that it’s necessary … sometimes. But this isn’t a case, Gibbs. It’s Tony’s family."

"I do what I do, Kate."

"You’re a protector." She looked him up and down appraisingly. "You’re pretty easy to profile actually. You probably have something in your past where you think you failed to live up to your duties and you’ve been subconsciously making up for it ever since. So you feel it’s appropriate to break the rules when you need to: when it’s for you and yours."

"Yes, I do," he acknowledged.

"And you’re sure this is the only way."

"If he doesn’t want to see them," Gibbs stated decisively, "I’m not going to force him."

"What about Sam?"

"We’re seeing Gretchen tomorrow."

"She knows about Tony’s family," deduced Kate.

Gibbs nodded. "She knows. She wants to know why Tony didn’t tell her that Sam was an heir to possible millions."

"It could get ugly, Gibbs."

"Yeah," he concurred. "It could."

There was no doubt Gibbs was good. Very good. And, on a case, she had no doubts he would succeed come hell and high water. But this was personal. And she saw in his eyes the complete conviction that this was a cause more than worth fighting for -- this was Tony. And, for a brief second, she let herself fear for both of them.

~oOo~

Gibbs rolled over and leaned into Tony’s bare back, his hand snaking to palm against Tony’s breastbone and feel the rise and fall of the sleeping breaths. He placed a dry kiss on the back of Tony’s neck just under the fringe of brown hair and, murmuring sleepily, Tony turned in his grasp, offering him more enticing places to kiss. The murmurs turned to a wistful moan when he traced his finger around one hard-nubbed nipple.

"Thought I might get some of those kinks out," offered Gibbs softly.

In two hours they’d need to leave for the meeting at the lawyer’s office. And apart from his own pleasure and obvious desire, a rush of endorphins would ease Tony’s usual morning aches, diminish the cramps and tremors.

"You haven’t even found all my kinks," replied Tony, arching a little as Gibbs applied more than just a fingertip touch.

"Don’t move," whispered Gibbs. "Let me do all the work."

~oOo~

"You okay?"

Tony stretched against the car’s seat as he released the seat belt. "Definitely de-kinked."

"You ready for this?" Gibbs took the hand that met his, the cold fingers giving away the nervousness Tony hid behind the smile.

"Yeah," decided Tony, giving Gibbs’ fingers a squeeze before he released them. "I am."

Opening the door, he levered his awkward body upright, balancing against the cool metal until Rufus pressed with stable warmth against his legs. One hand on the frame of the door, he reached down and identified the harness by touch, grasping the leather-wrapped handle.

It was dim in the parking garage and, after glancing up at the bare flickers of the fluorescents above them, Gibbs moved back to put a guiding hand on Tony’s elbow. A grip he didn’t release until they reached the door to Candy Frere’s inner sanctum and it swung open, both Candy and Gretchen’s attorney rising in greeting. Gibbs found himself giving the unfamiliar attorney his own profiler’s glance. He might not, as Tony teased, know any designers but Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean, but even he recognized the cut of an expensive suit, knew the price of the heavy gold links on the French cuffs. And he doubted this was a lawyer who normally saw service at the hourly wage that a Baltimore cop could afford.

~oOo~

"That went well," remarked Tony with forced irony, the outer offices of Andrews, Frere and Walker softly blurred around him, his one clear view of Gibbs’ military-straight spine. At the comment, a striding Gibbs stopped and waited for him, wrapping his hand with unaccustomed tightness around Tony’s upper arm once he reached his side.

"They want to play hardball," murmured Gibbs, "they came to the right place."

Tony tried to pull back a little out of the steel clamp of the grasp. "Gibbs," he hissed quietly, the injured tone finally netting the man’s distracted attention, "you think you could quit playing the Incredible Hulk with my arm?"

Gibbs’ fingers immediately released and Tony smiled, if only wanly, at the tender, apologetic massage of his bruised bicep.

"I told you—" began Tony, only to be shushed as Gretchen and her new attorney exited the office and headed toward the elevator they also waited on.

The grip returned to his arm, lighter now, the touch both soothing and supportive. Gretchen stopped a few feet away, hanging back, but the attorney – Price – was apparently of the how-to-influence-people school of thought and he pushed his way forward intimidatingly close to where they stood.

Gibbs, not shying from overt surveillance, looked his adversary up and down, doing his own probing for weakness.

"Mr. Gibbs," acknowledged Price.

"Special Agent," Gibbs corrected with cool precision.

"Special Agent," returned the lawyer, putting his own emphasis on the title, "there is no need to make this a pissing contest."

A smile, just visible from where Tony stood, quirked the corners of Gibbs’ mouth. The kind of smile you only saw when Gibbs’ was undercover. Tony had figured out, after just a couple of assignments, that this – this patently unGibbslike smile – was Gibbs’ tell. The equivalent of the nervous stacking of poker chips when you had a good hand. It wasn’t an unconvincing flash of teeth, nothing like the falsely ingratiating grin of the hospital administrator. It was a cheerful, sometimes seductive smile that managed to reach his eyes and seemed to have a convincing effect on whoever he directed it at. But it was -- if you knew the man well -- just … wrong. As if a second personality had inhabited the body Gibbs.

"Do you see me pulling anything out, Mr. Price?"

The attorney smiled back, but it was a strained smile.

~oOo~

Gibbs, in case-mode, produced a certain strain in the NCIS hallways. Or, as Abby more colorfully put it – he made serious vibrations in the NCIS celestial aether. Gibbs, in pursuit of the family DiNozzo, was a cosmic force all his own.

And Tony had to deal with both a distracted superior and a distracted lover, there being no hiding from a cranky Gibbs if you had to drive home with him. Tony held onto the door handle as the sedan took a right-hand turn at breakneck speed, Gibbs taking out on the road what little he’d failed to take out on an increasingly Gibbs-shy staff. Tony swallowed back the bile that threatened as his eyes and his dysfunctional balance system stopped reading from the same sensory page. He shut his eyes tight and clung to the handle, noticing the car had finally slowed only when they bumped to a fairly gentle stop.

"Sorry," murmured Gibbs.

Tony cautiously blinked his eyes back open and found they were sitting on the shoulder of one of DCs lesser known byways.

"I don’t like to lose," he explained

"Ah," replied Tony offering his hand, "wouldn’t have guessed that."

Gibbs’ fingers were cold.

"You get used to it, well, after you’ve spent a lifetime with my father," shrugged Tony. "You know that old saying ‘you’ll never be as good as your father’? Don’t know when I first heard it … maybe at school, but when the girl you lose your virginity to says it …" Tony shifted uncomfortably in the seat, "… well, I think it was probably then that I gave up trying to compete with him."

Gibbs frowned. "How old were you?"

"When I gave up? Twelve."

"You lost your virginity when you were twelve?"

"Yeah," Tony drawled the affirmation out guardedly, "when did you lose yours?"

"When I was seventeen."

"Guess I was just an early bloomer," quipped Tony.

But Gibbs studied the man beside him without a trace of humor. "How old was the girl?"

"Fourteen or fifteen."

Gibbs took a deep breath. "Do you think she was speaking from experience?"

Tony laughed. "Now there’s a thought."

"I’m serious."

Tony turned a little more in his direction. "She said it like she was."

"You got a name?"

"Of my first conquest? Of course I’ve got a name – "

Tony didn’t get to finish as he had to grip the handle again as the car started up with a roar and made a stomach-jolting u-turn.

~oOo~

"This couldn’t have waited until morning?" Tony sighed plaintively and leaned back against the desk chair he was, once again, occupying. One hand absently patted Rufus’ head, receiving a halfhearted lick in return, as if Rufus, too, was ready to be off duty for the day.

Abby reported in with an, "I’m here, bossman," practically as she bounded from the elevator. McGee, who she had in a hand-to-hand tow, looked a little … disheveled, which could have explained the bounce in her step. Anyway, the duo got a real grin from Tony which was more than Gibbs had been able to muster out of him in the past few days.

"What’s up?"

Even though he’d expected alacrity, Gibbs blinked in the face of the energetic arrival. "I need to find someone."

"’Kay," replied Abby. "Who?"

"A Patricia Chaney, born sometime around 1970. In the 80s her family lived in Bridgeport Connecticut, probably sent her to private school, though we’re not sure which one."

"What’d she do?"

"Stole DiNozzo’s cherry," replied Gibbs with the seriousness only he could muster.

"You’re kidding."

"Nope."

Abby’s nose wrinkled. "We find people for that? I mean, if so, I better tell Hank Kenneda that he’s in a world of trouble." She turned to a blushing McGee. "What about you, McGee? Who do you need to warn?"

If possible, McGee blushed even redder.

"Oh, come on," she prodded. "We’re all family here. Even Gibbs had to lose his virginity to somebody."

Not unsympathetic to his youngest agent’s worsening distress, Gibbs handed over the note with what few particulars he had about Patricia Chaney. "Get to it, Abs."

"Oh … yeah," Abby studied the note for a second. "Right. I’ll get right on it." She looked back up at the still blushing McGee, "You coming McGee? I’ll let you help."

With a little sigh, McGee followed.

When they were safely in the elevator, Tony laced his hands together behind his neck. "So, who do you think stole McGee’s cherry?"

"Abby," said Gibbs simply.

Tony sat up straighter. "You are kidding me, right?"

"Nope."

~oOo~

"Patricia Chaney now Arnwine, born April 17, 1970." Abby clicked the remote and popped up a picture of a blonde teenager with a big, black hair bow and an oversized jeweled crucifix choker, "definitely going through her Madonna ‘Desperately Seeking Susan" phase at the time. In the year of our Lord 1985, actually, she was attending a public school in Bridgeport – hence the trendy dress in the school pic -- and living on the corner of Maple and Elm Streets. You have to love the whole Main Street theme. While our Anthony was living at the equally Our Town corners of Elm and Oak about two blocks away." Her fingers made little scissoring motions across the desk. "Walking distance."

She observed Gibbs. "So you gonna tell me why we’re deconstructing the early years of Tony’s sex life?"

"We’re not."

"We’re … not," she echoed in a definite explain-yourself tone.

"We’re deconstructing his father’s sex life."

"Oh." Abby frowned. "Tony and his dad boffed the same … Madonna wannabe?"

Gibbs shrugged.

" Eww. And we’re dragging up Tony’s painful past because …"

One of Gibbs’ hands fretted with the straw on her oversized soda cup. "Because we couldn’t come up with anything else and, if we don’t find something to use as a weapon, all Tony’s father has to do is take the custody battle to court and no judge in the land is going to give Sam to a ill man in a gay relationship -- even if he is the father -- when a paragon of business virtue is there to step in and give the kid everything money can buy."

~oOo~

"Look familiar?"

Gibbs tossed the photo copy across Tony’s desk.

"Trish," Tony identified with a glance. "How come I got older and she hasn’t changed a bit?" He tossed the photo back toward where Gibbs stood.

"We’ve got to do this, Tony."

Tony shook his head. "Won’t work."

"It’ll work."

"You think my father hasn’t already paid her off?" challenged Tony.

"Maybe," Gibbs conceded, "but it’s the only card we have."

"Gibbs, she surely won’t appreciate having her life disrupted."

Gibbs took the photo back into his hand. "I know. That’s what I’m counting on."

~oOo~

Tony shifted in the front seat and asked the same question he’d asked the day before. "Are you sure we just can’t call her and talk this out on the phone?"

The I-95 was taking its toll on his already queasy stomach and he rubbed absently below his ribs trying to calm it.

"Wouldn’t do that with a suspect," observed Gibbs, swinging into the left-hand lane to pass a much slower moving minivan.

Tony closed his eyes and swallowed hard as they swerved back into the center.

"Trish isn’t a suspect," reasoned Tony. "At most she’s a …witness."

"Tony, it’ll make a much greater impression if we’re standing on her front porch." The only reply was a low groan and Gibbs reached out to knead Tony’s thigh. "Want me to pull off and get you something? A soda?"

Tony’s eyes were still closed. "Just … pick a lane and stay in it. I want to get this over with."

~oOo~

It was nearly three when they pulled off into a Connecticut suburb of older, well-kept houses, Gibbs squinting at the blurry driving instructions. His glance at Tony told him the younger man was still asleep, head propped up on his fist, temple pressed against the passenger-side window. He glided the car to a stop before a pale yellow, renovated Victorian and sighed at the natural rock steps leading up to the porch. All, he quickly counted, eight of them and no handrails in sight.

He shook Tony’s shoulder gently. "We’re here."

Tony blinked dazedly at the oak-lined road before him. "Connecticut?" He stretched as best he could in the confining quarters, turning to look at the house. "Nice digs." He blinked again and pressed his forehead against the glass of the side window. "I … think," he amended.

"You ready?"

Gibbs got back a simple "no," but Tony was already moving to unbuckle the seatbelt. In a minute they were both standing stiffly, Tony holding onto the car for balance. Gibbs let out an eager Rufus, who was obviously ecstatic to be released from the back seat.

He trotted around the car to nuzzle at Tony’s hand and have his ears scratched. Then he positioned himself with canine professionalism at Tony’s side.

"Got rock steps, eight of them," Gibbs informed Tony, taking a minute to consider the logistics. "No handrails."

"I’ll make it." Tony said it determinedly, although Gibbs wasn’t sure if the reassurance had solely to do with climbing the stairs. "What if she’s not there?"

"Then we wait for her." Gibbs nodded toward the porch. "Got a porch swing."

"Cozy," muttered Tony, taking the harness up in a firm grip.

At the bottom of the steps, they paused, Gibbs surveying the uneven surface of the rock risers. "Come on," he finally urged, taking definitive action and stepping up, a helping hand clamped high up on Tony’s inner arm. He waited while Tony hefted himself onto the first step then squared him to climb the next. The whole thing, which Gibbs could have easily done in three large steps, took, instead, eight painfully slow ones, but eventually they were safely on the porch. Tony leaned hard against the crutch, more shaken than he obviously wanted to admit.

"Your steps are starting to look appealing," he panted, suddenly cherishing the relative steadiness of the bricks and the wrought iron handrail he faced on a usual day.

"Catch your breath," Gibbs instructed, rubbing a brief circle against the tense shoulder muscles.

"I’m okay," muttered Tony, a bit petulantly. "Let’s get this over with."

Gibbs pressed the antique doorbell and listened for the sound of footsteps. Tony took up a place behind and a little to the right of where he stood, clearly wanting Gibbs to take the lead. In a few seconds the door opened. Patricia Arnwine’s hair was still blonde and curly, but her wardrobe apparently leaned more toward jeans and t-shirts than Madonna these days. A toddler was shyly wrapped around her leg and her free hand rested on child’s head.

She took in Gibbs, then Tony, her eyes lingering on the crutch before she faced Gibbs more fully. "Can I help you?"

"Hi Trish," said Tony softly, causing her gaze to return to his face.

Recognition finally sharpening her gaze, she said, "Tony? Tony DiNozzo?"

"Long time no see," Tony offered.

"Wha … what are you doing here?"

"Could we come in?" asked Gibbs.

"Uh," Trisha backed up a couple of steps, "…sure."

"There’s a small step up," Gibbs pointed out as unobtrusively as he could, trying to not make Tony’s entrance any more awkward than it already was.

"We can sit in the living room," said Trish gesturing across the hall.

Gibbs merely nodded, settling Tony in the closest chair, lowering the crutch to the floor while Rufus sat at his usual position on Tony’s left.

Trish had balanced her little girl on her hip. Small, pudgy fingers reached toward Rufus as she moved to the couch.

"Trish," Tony leaned forward, elbows on knees, "this is Jethro Gibbs, we work together at NCIS."

The acronym brought forth a frown. "That, like, a software group?"

"Naval Criminal Investigative Service," supplied Gibbs. "But we’re not here in an official capacity. We came to talk about a more … personal matter."

"Did you …" Trish gestured vaguely in Tony’s direction, "…get hurt on the job?"

"No," Tony briefly touched his braced knee. "Multiple sclerosis."

"Oh, I’m sorry, Tony."

Tony shifted uncomfortably under the sympathy. "We’re here to talk about my father, Trish."

Gibbs watched as the woman’s body language, previously open, now became protective. She pulled the toddler closer to her.

"Tony, I’ve always had nothing but the utmost regard for father."

"He pay you to say that or just threaten you?" asked Tony.

Trish laughed but the levity was clearly forced. "I don’t know what you mean."

"Yes, you do, Trish," Tony countered gently. "And, whatever happened, you were a minor. Any blame rests solely on my father."

"I have a family, Tony."

"And so do I," Tony acknowledged, "one that I’m trying to keep together and that my father is trying to pull apart. He wants my son, Trish. You can surely understand why I can’t let that happen."

There was sympathy in the woman’s blue eyes, but her reply was firm. "Tony there’s nothing I can do."

"Did you have a relationship with Albert DiNozzo while you were underage?" asked Gibbs.

Tony winced at Gibbs’ cool style of interrogation while Trish merely looked startled, as if she’d forgotten Gibbs was in the room.

"I was … high school was a bad time for me. I had … issues," Trish admitted, one hand holding tightly to her daughter, who was threatening to squirm off the couch. "I did more than one thing I’m ashamed of …"

"Did you have a relationship with Albert DiNozzo?"

"Gibbs!" hissed Tony at the repetition.

Trish looked from one man to the other, finally settling on Gibbs. "If I say I did, what are you going to do with the information?"

"Use it," said Gibbs simply.

"Use it how?" pressed Trish.

"There are things neither of us wants to make public," conceded Gibbs, nodding briefly in Tony’s direction, not stopping to make the declaration clearer. "We don’t intend to bring charges or leak the story to the press. However, if this is going to work, Tony’s father has to think we will."

Trish shook her head. "Why do you think I won’t just call him and tell him that?"

She shied a little at the cool appraisal of Gibbs’ gaze but he merely asked, "When was the last time you saw Albert DiNozzo?"

"When I told him I slept with Tony."

"Bet that went over well," Tony observed wryly.

"Not one of my finer moments," admitted Trish, finally helping the squirming child to the floor. Once released, she made a beeline for Rufus.

Tony held up a hand as Trish jumped up to retrieve her. "It’s okay, he’s great with kids. Sam climbs all over him."

"Sam?"

"My son." Tony dug into his pocket and produced his wallet. Sliding out the snapshot Gibbs had taken of a smiling Sam, he was about to find someway to lever himself up when Gibbs rose, retrieving the photo and passing it to Trish.

Gibbs was met by a gaze that showed, from even this relatively innocuous action, that Trish had apparently figured out what it was that he would not want made public.

She ran a fingertip over the photo. "He’s beautiful, Tony."

"It won’t get out, Trish," Tony assured her. "It’s a bluff and always will be. But we’ve got to make my father think it’s not. The one thing he’ll go to the ends of the earth to protect is his reputation."

"What would I have to do?"

"Stand firm if he contacts you," answered Gibbs. "Say that you will go public if it comes to that."

"I’ll need to talk to Jack - my husband," she explained. "He knows I was a little … wild in my youth but he doesn’t know the specifics. I’ll need time to--"

"Trish," Tony’s voice was soft, "if this is any way will harm your family then I don’t want you--"

Trish could see the look in Gibbs’ eyes harden at Tony’s declaration.

"It’s okay, Tony. Jack wasn’t a saint either. We know this about each other. We’ll survive this." She grimaced. "I owe you one, Tony. For what I said … for what I did."

Gibbs took out one of his cards, scribbling their home phone number on the back. "Our number," he said, deliberately confirming her conclusion.

She studied him a moment before taking it. "I’ll talk to Jack tonight."

"Afterward, call us," Gibbs instructed. After a look at Tony, he added, "please."

Trish nodded, "All right." She walked over to kneel down next to Rufus who was enduring an exuberant patting. "I think you’ve petted the nice doggie enough, Kris."

Taking the cue, Gibbs helped hoist Tony to his feet, Rufus scrambling up, abandoning his newfound friend.

Trish watched Gibbs closely, clearly studying their interaction. Finally, grasping Tony’s forearm lightly, she said, "I’m glad you found someone, Tony."

Tony smiled, imagining the look that must be on Gibbs’ face. "You, too," he replied.

Gibbs nodded his goodbye, bestowing a gentle touch to the top of the little girl’s head as he passed by. At the door he reminded Tony of the step down, then at the edge of the porch he slipped his arm around the slim waist. Released, Rufus trotted down the stone steps, turned and waited for them. Gibbs could feel Trish Arnwine’s gaze on his back and it made him tighten the hold he had on the man beside him. In reply, Tony, likewise, brought an arm around Gibbs’ waist, tugging him toward him.

At the bottom, they unwound their grasps, though Gibbs’ hand lingered in Tony’s for a moment.

The front door clicked shut above them and they made their way to the car unseen.

~oOo~

Gibbs glared at the phone as it sat on the coffee table, even gave it his best intimidating stare, yet it simply sat there and refused to ring. He’d broken murderers with less, intimidated terrorists … but the phone lay inanimate and silent. Deciding he needed to focus on something else, his attention wandered back to ESPN and he spent a few moments dully wondering when the soccer game had turned into a golf match. The droning play-by-play of the shots probably explained why Tony had his nose pressed to Gibbs’ outer thigh and was softly snoring, though. He wasn’t quite sure when that had happened either; he remembered some halfhearted attempts to distract him from his vigil but Tony had obviously given up, and when he’d laid his head in Gibbs’ lap, Gibbs had stroked fingers through the light brown hair, separating the strands.

One of his exes -- he wasn’t even sure which one anymore, the trio of them combining into a kind of single, red-haired, spousal nightmare – had accused him of such singlemindedness while on a case that he’d forget she existed.

He laid a hand on Tony’s head, softly, so as not to wake him.

In his current singlemindedness he’d done the same thing – been so concerned about protecting Tony that he’d ignored him. Not just tonight. The last few days as well. He contemplated this a few moments before giving Tony’s shoulder a gentle shake.

"Hey, Tony."

He leaned forward trying to see the sleepy eyes blink open and got back an unintelligible, "Mmm?"

When he brushed his lips against Tony’s temple he got a more contented hum.

"Come on, let’s go to bed."

Tony rolled his head up and peered suspiciously at him. "You sure you’re finished watchin’ the phone?"

"Rather watch you," replied Gibbs.

"I don’t ring either," observed Tony rubbing a hand over his sleepy eyes, looking for all the world like a much larger version of a tired Sam.

"But I can make you purr," said Gibbs.

Tony huffed out a short laugh then conceded, "Yeah, you can."

"Come on," Gibbs pushed Tony upright.

"We gonna see if I can purr?" asked Tony, his sweet tone marred by the wicked grin and the low throaty growl that followed.

Gibbs grinned back and was just leaning in toward him when the phone finally rang shrilly. Tony’s smile dissolved and he leaned back against the sofa with a sigh while

Gibbs scooped up the phone.

Tony squinted, trying to make out the expression on Gibbs’ face, as listening to the one-sided conversation only netted him a handful of "yeses" and a "we understand." Gibbs’ "thank you" though was quietly heartfelt and Tony straightened, "She agreed?"

"She agreed," said Gibbs with a deep breath, running a palm over his open mouth.

Concerned, Tony rubbed a hand along Gibbs’ back. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I –" Gibbs simply fell silent.

Tony put his other hand over Gibbs’ clenched fist and found it was trembling. "Hey," he said softly, working his fingers into the clenched ones.

"I might have mentioned before that I don’t lose well," admitted Gibbs, smiling wanly.

"You didn’t lose," noted Tony.

Gibbs frowned in the table’s direction, "Took that phone a long time to ring."

Tony’s free hand moving up to cup Gibbs’ head and he planted a kiss on the silver hair. "I’ve learned never to doubt you, Gibbs."

"Never?" asked Gibbs.

"Well, I don’t think you should be left alone with an innocent PDA, but apart from that I’m fully convinced there’s nothing you can’t do."

Shifting, Gibbs took Tony in his arms. "You’re a bad liar, Agent DiNozzo."

"My non-work talents may lie elsewhere," offered Tony, leaning into the cradle of Gibbs’ arms, giving a tender nibble to his neck.

~oOo~

Abby worried her lower lip between white incisors and stared at the empty desk with her hands balled on her hips.

"Where’s bossman?"

"Took a day off," replied Tony, preparing to pop his headphones on.

Abby turned and watched as his fingers skimmed them, settling the earpieces into place, Tony’s gaze not quite on either the monitor, the headphones held in his hands, or her.

Bad day, she knowingly translated from the way he was using his hands to replace his gaze.

When her hand settled warmly on his shoulder, he smiled up at her. "I’m okay. Vision was a little shot this morning."

"Gibbs know?" she asked.

"Abby …" The warning was low and soft, but pointed enough for her to pat him conciliatorily.

"Going," she made it as far as the front of the desk. "This is me going."

"This is you not going very quickly," observed Tony, but the retort was softened with a grin.

"’Kay," she muttered, "I’m leaving you alone."

She looked back over her shoulder and, satisfied that she’d go undetected, slipped into McGee’s space at Tony’s old desk. She crouched down beside a startled McGee, grinning up at him when a rather … anticipatory light shone from his eyes.

"It’s not what you think."

McGee’s full lips pursed. "Damn."

It earned him a swat on the thigh.

"Keep an eye on Tony, would ya?"

McGee frowned in the direction of his colleague.

"The vision thing is a little rough this morning and Gibbs isn’t here."

"I got his back," confirmed McGee.

"Good," Abby grinned again. "You get his back and, tonight, I’ll get your … front."

McGee sighed, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "I hate it when you do this, you know that?"

Abby swatted him again. "No, you don’t."

~oOo~

Gibbs knew wood – knew the strength of white oak, the durability of teak, the dense resistance of greenheart and the hardness of ironwood. And, as he sat in the gracefully appointed lobby and rubbed his hand over the inlay of the small table in front of him, his fingers glided above the light, close grain of the holly and the dark, mahogany-like Brazilwood.

"You admire antiques."

Gibbs looked up sharply. Albert DiNozzo was shorter than his son and Gibbs suspected, if he rose, that even he might have an inch or so on him. He was also stockier than Tony, even before MS stole pounds Tony didn’t need to lose.

"I admire good craftsmanship," returned Gibbs, smoothing a final touch over the lacquered grain. "A job well done."

"So you’re Special Agent Gibbs."

It wasn’t a question and Gibbs stood up, equaling their heights, not about to accept the coming interrogation sitting down.

"Perhaps we should take this conversation into my office," Al DiNozzo raised a hand toward the open door of his sanctum.

Like the waiting area, the office was scaled to impress. Big enough to hold the government-issue cubicles of Gibbs’ entire staff, it held, instead, a massive cherry desk that was swept clean except for the obligatory leather desk accessories. Across the wall were scattered photos of Tony’s father with various politicians and richly framed award certificates. Al DiNozzo sat in the high-backed leather chair behind the desk and gestured toward the pair of brocade covered seats in front of it.

"Please sit down, Special Agent Gibbs. May I call you Jethro?"

"Sure," Gibbs acquiesced, settling in the offered seat.

"You must know that everything I do, I do only with my son’s best interests at heart."

Gibbs merely studied him.

"Anthony has never known what’s good for him." Al DiNozzo gestured around the spacious quarters. "I built this. Well not the company, as such, but what the company became. Built it for my family."

"And Tony wasn’t sufficiently grateful," concluded Gibbs. "So you disinherited him."

"The decision was Anthony’s. I gave him an opportunity at the finest education. He attended the finest prep schools. I could have gotten him into Yale or Oxford. Into the Sorbonne. Instead, he took a football scholarship, worked construction in the summer to make ends meet." Tony’s father clasped his hands together on the desktop and leaned forward. "My offer still holds: a master’s degree from Kellogg or Wharton with a vice-president’s slot when he’s done. Anthony is aware that he’d be welcomed back into the fold."

"You hired Price," stated Gibbs plainly, wanting to get to the point.

"I did," acknowledged Al DiNozzo.

"You have no right to take Tony’s son."

"I have every right. My son is clearly profligate. I can more than easily provide the child with a more," Tony’s father paused, making his point clear, "…normal upbringing. The child’s mother has a right to choose."

Gibbs ignored the jibe regarding their relationship. "The child’s father also has rights."

"We’ll let the courts decide," Al DiNozzo concluded, shuffling some papers, not looking back up.

Gibbs realized he’d been dismissed and he rose smoothly, his fact-finding trip clearly over and the facts just as he’d suspected they would be.

"Perhaps we’ll meet again, Special Agent Gibbs," was called out as he reached the door and he looked back over his shoulder at the man who’d inadvertently blessed him with the greatest gift of his life … Tony.

"I’m sure we will Mr. DiNozzo," he replied. "I’m sure we will."

~oOo~

McGee found himself being regarded skeptically from the furthermost desk. However fuzzy Tony’s vision was, it wasn’t fuzzy enough to let him get away with such obtrusive surveillance.

"You have got to work on your technique, McGee."

Trying to look innocently nonplussed, McGee demurred, "Don’t know what you’re talking about, Tony."

Crossing his hands behind his neck, Tony leaned back a little against the seat. "Abby put you up to it, didn’t she?" He added with a little laugh, "You are *so* caught, my man."

"Still don’t know what you’re talking about."

"She’s got you twisted so far around her little finger—"

"She said you couldn’t see," explained McGee defensively. Then he frowned, watching as Tony’s hands dropped to scrabble self-consciously in search of the abandoned headset. "You can’t see."

"Can’t is such a big word," Tony deflected, wrapping his fingers around the headset and proceeding to settle it back on his spikily mussed hair. "I’m not blind, McGee, I’m just a little fuzzy."

He frowned up at the McGee-shaped shadow that was suddenly haunting the front of his desk.

"Tony?"

"McGee?" he returned in a pointedly less concerned tone.

"Did Gibbs know—"

"Don’t go there," Tony waved a finger in warning.

"It’s just he’s not here."

"He had something to do, McGee."

"Yeah, okay, you’re right. None of my business." The McGee-shape shuffled its feet. "Um … it’s just if, you know, you want to go get lunch or something I’ll be right over there."

Tony waved an open-faced palm. "Bye, McGee."

~oOo~

"I thought perhaps—" The ME let whatever he thought lapse quietly unsaid as Tony sighed deeply.

"Not you, too, Duck."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Abby make up a volunteer list or something?"

"I thought perhaps," Ducky repeated, his cultured accent a bit clipped, "you could assist me in tracking down a bit of information."

"Oh …" Tony straightened in the seat. "Sorry, Duck. Abby sicced McGee on me and I thought—"

"You thought she’d sent me to do he same," deduced Ducky.

"Yeah, well," Tony ducked his head a little, "guess I’m a little paranoid. What do you need?"

"There was once a restaurant in Baltimore named Haussner's …"

"On Eastern Avenue," acknowledged Tony.

"Delightful place. I remember there was a painting in the bar … she was quite nude…"

Tony grinned. "The wood nymph?"

"That was it … the nude wood nymph. I thought sure you’d know. You know, Orpheus’ wife was a wood nymph. A dryad actually. Her name was Eurydice. She died trying to escape the amorous advances of Aristaeus."

Tony could still only make out approximate shapes and fuzzy colors but he heard the ME cross his arms, the brush of the fabric of his jacket audible.

"Haussner’s. Rather puts one in the mood for German. Perhaps a sandwich from Old Dusseldorf is in order. If you have nothing pressing, my dear boy, perhaps you would care to accompany me."

The answer was a soft but pointed groan. "You should give McGee lessons."

"Jethro wanted to make sure you ate," conceded Ducky.

"Hey … McGee …"

Tony was grinning but Ducky noted that he didn’t bother facing in McGee’s direction. It was bad today, something the younger man had apparently managed to keep from his normally hyper-observant partner. Of course, given where Gibbs had planned to spend the morning, a little distraction was to be expected.

"… want to knock back a knackwurst?"

~oOo~

"Duck?" This time, Tony’s voice was pitched low enough that McGee wouldn’t hear it across the few feet of carpet where he stood shrugging into his jacket. "I might need you to—"

Before he could finish, though, the ME clasped Tony’s arm above the elbow as he had seen Gibbs quietly do on occasion.

"I’ve got you," said Ducky softly, ballasting the younger man as he bent to snag Rufus’ harness. He waited a moment while Tony steadied himself, then he nudged him gently away from the sharp corner of the desk and into a hard left-hand turn.

"What ya waiting for McGee?" grinned Tony, his voice recovering its volume as they passed beside Tony’s old desk.

Ducky smiled encouragement at their youngest coworker as he frowned slightly at the hand Ducky had locked on Tony’s arm.

"Coming," he said finally, taking a final glance at Gibbs’ empty desk and falling in slightly behind them on the same side as Rufus.

Ducky was well aware of McGee guarding Tony’s other side as they made their way to the car, his hands making little guiding motions in the air that Tony was unaware of -- motions that made the young man look like a protective-Gibbs-in-training and Ducky grinned to himself as he slid behind the steering wheel.

The deli was packed with its usual shifting mass of DC business and government workers but the man behind the counter, balding and rotund in a limply wrinkled white butcher’s apron, looked up from his order pad and greeted Ducky with a decidedly un-Germanic "Yo, Doc!" This caused the front half of the line to swivel their heads towards the door that Tony and Rufus were now struggling through. Unaware of the audience he’d attracted, Tony managed to maneuver his recalcitrant legs over the slightly raised lip of the doorway, Rufus professionally ignoring the meaty feast he’d just trotted into.

Abruptly abandoning the orders to what looked to be one of his equally plump sons, the deli owner waded through the crowd, his head scoping the deli’s small and thoroughly occupied seating.

Ducky held out a hand that was engulfed enthusiastically in a strong, plastic-gloved handshake.

"Come, come," he insisted. "We’ll go into the back."

Motioning McGee in the direction of a curtained doorway beside a refrigerated case of dark slices of black forest cake and Bienenstich, Ducky took a firmer hold of Tony’s arm, weaving them through the maze of tables and impatient, hungry patrons who shuffled out of their way only reluctantly, their stares at the trio a kind of blank disbelieving gaze.

"We rate such lunchtime perks because Jack," Ducky confided leaning closer to Tony, "was once a recipient of our services. One of Jethro’s first cases."

For his part, Tony was wrestling with the feeling of being buffeted and lost in the pressing blur of bodies and he latched onto this bit of information as a distraction to the chaos that he found himself in – would, he regretted, have to find his way back out of.

He allowed himself to be led towards a chair, allowed Ducky to loosen the unusually tight grip he had on Rufus’ harness and move his hand to plant it firmly on the cool vinyl of the low-backed seat.

Then, finally, Tony carefully levered himself down into it, a grin making its way across his previously thinned lips. "You knew Gibbs when he was a rookie?"

~oOo~

Gibbs heard the unlocked front door snick open, familiar voices bantering pleasantly, and he took his freshly-poured mug of coffee and leaned against the doorframe. A brief exchange of glances with Ducky expressed his thanks at the same time that a few sharp lines of worry creased his forehead as he took in the hold Ducky had on Tony’s arm, the quiet acceptance of the guidance his normally fiercely independent partner usually shook off.

"Gibbs? You here?"

Ducky watched the lines deepen as Tony blinked toward the dim recesses of the living room, obviously unaware he was being studied with concern from the completely opposite direction.

"Here, Tony," Gibbs corrected.

Tony swiveled toward the kitchen, grinning at the shadow backlit in the frame of the doorway.

The glance Gibbs shot Ducky this time was almost …accusing, as if Tony had somehow coerced the ME into tricking Gibbs into leaving when Tony was clearly in no shape to be on his own. In response, Ducky patted Tony on the arm and took his leave, abandoning the younger man to fend for himself.

Bending as much as he could while still keep a grip on the crutch, Tony released the harness and began fumbling the vest off Rufus one-handed. He smiled when Gibbs knelt, joining him.

"How was my father?"

Freed from the vest, Rufus shook himself happily. Gibbs patted a warm flank as he rose. He brought his hands to Tony’s shoulders, steadying his slight swaying.

"Come on," he said, tugging Tony gently in the direction of the hallway, finally settling him on the couch in the den.

"My father?" inquired Tony for a second time.

Gibbs took his hand, brushing a thumb along his knuckles contemplatively. "He was … fairly polite actually."

Tony sighed and Gibbs didn’t think it was in appreciation of his caress. "That’s a very bad sign," he confided, slumping further into the cushions of the sofa. "It means he thinks he can get away with letting the lawyers play bad cop and he doesn’t have to dirty his hands."

"Your day?" asked Gibbs, hoping to deflect Tony’s normal abundant curiosity.

"Met a man named Jack."

"Jack?" Gibbs, too, like most of his world today, was an almost colorless blur but Tony could easily hear the … suspiciousness in his voice.

"Makes a great corned beef on rye." Then he added with a sly smile, "Tells a really good story."

"I’m sure he does," replied Gibbs, lips tightening into a pressed, thin line. His hand, likewise, tightened its hold ever so slightly on Tony’s as the younger man laughed softly.

Tony pressed the crown of his head back against the sofa’s cushions, releasing some of the tension in his neck. "Never heard of anybody getting knocked out by a perp throwing baby booties before."

"They were bronzed, Tony." Gibbs’ hand abandoned his. "And mounted. On a fucking block of walnut." His fingers pantomimed a book-sized rectangle before going to some invisible line on his scalp. "Ducky put in seventeen stitches."

"Still, baby booties?" Tony chuckled softly again. He rolled his head toward Gibbs. "I love you, you know?"

Gibbs ran the back of his hand along Tony’s cheekbone, seeing so very little of the egotistical man he’d met this morning in his son. He found he longed to meet Tony’s mother, to see if he could find him in her eyes. To see where such a gift came from. "He’s not going to give up easily."

"I think he may have finally met his match," observed Tony, his smile genuine but slightly weary as he leaned forward, hand rustling through soft, short strands, Gibbs’ lips meeting his with an almost chaste, closed-mouthed peck that meant Gibbs had, in his protective wisdom, decided nothing more strenuous than a gentle make-out session would be had tonight. Sighing, Tony leaned back against the couch again. "I want to be the one to tell him."

He heard Gibbs’ sharp intake of breath. Maybe he was too tired. The thought of a protracted debate made him suddenly drained. God knows this was going to take a precise touch and at the moment he felt anything but … precise. Or competent. Or capable. He closed his eyes against the blurriness, but even then he could feel Gibbs studying him.

"Come ‘ere."

Hands urged his shoulders down and he finally relented, Gibbs’ grasp helping drag his recalcitrant legs onto the cushions. Gibbs’ thigh was hard and solid beneath his cheek.

"We’ll talk about it tomorrow," said Gibbs softly as he closed his own eyes, the weight of Tony grounding him.

"’kay," Tony agreed, relaxing further, the press on Gibbs’ leg deepening infinitesimally.

Gibbs listened a while to the deep, even breaths of the man stretched out on the sofa, heard the click of Rufus’ claws on the hardwood as the Great Dane, too, settled down. He remained awake awhile, on duty, erstwhile protector of his small domain, before he succumbed to the warmth and safety and slept.

~oOo~

Gibbs threw a sharp look at McGee while Kate continued to finger the delicate pink yarn of the pair of booties dangling from the edge of Gibbs’ computer monitor.

"Not me, boss," McGee swore, holding up his hands in placation.

"Somebody going to share the significance of baby booties with me?" pressed Kate before shying back from Gibbs’ expression. "Or … not," she muttered.

Gibbs caught her hopeful glance in Tony’s direction and grimaced. "The Peterson case?" It wasn’t quite a … bark, but Kate snapped to attention and dutifully began to report.

~oOo~

Tony squinted at the fuzzy, pink mass that Gibbs had dropped into his open palm. Hesitantly he poked a fingertip into the fluffy softness.

"Yarn?" he shrugged up at Gibbs with an almost-convincing look of innocence.

Gibbs picked the offending booties up by one dangling tie and swung them pendulum-like in front of owlishly blinking eyes. A line appeared between Tony’s brows as he tried to make out the foggy shape.

Letting out a sharp sigh and thinking that he would give Tony another day, maybe two, but if his vision didn’t improve he was marching him straight to Sherri Lenz, Gibbs turned Tony’s left hand palm up again, dropping one bootie squarely before leading the fingers of the right around the frills of the edge. Tony traced the shape twice before a – Gibbs could only call it evil – grin lit his face.

"You trying to tell me you’re having our baby, Gibbs?" he whispered.

A not-unexpected soft smack ruffled his hair.

"Wasn’t me," Tony swore, handing the booties back with a smile before his expression turned serious. "You ready to talk about it now?"

Having managed to derail the conversation about Tony’s father last night and, again, this morning, Gibbs knew he was running out of time.

"When we get home," he promised. "Right now I need you to find out what you can on a sub commander named Christian Latherow. Kate thinks she’s come up with something on the Peterson case. I’m waiting for Abby to check ballistics."

"When we get home," Tony repeated, skeptically waiting for verification.

"I promise."

"One sub commander named Latherow," Tony picked up the headset, apparently satisfied. "You got it."

~oOo~

Engrossed in the data that Tony had managed to dig up on Latherow, Gibbs didn’t even notice the shadow darkening his desk. He scratched briefly at one ear, but the alto humming that followed also failed to net his distracted attention. Finally Abby leaned closer, the Brahm’s melody gaining lyrics.

Lullaby and goodnight

With pink roses bedight

She laughed when Gibbs actually startled.

"Abby …" he began, running a hand through silvered hair.

He watched her pale fingers smooth down a baby-pink crocheted rosette.

Her almost-black lips puckered in consideration. "Hard to believe I ever wore pink, isn’t it?"

Gibbs put two and two together and came up with the tri-part office grapevine of McGee, Abby and a certain medical examiner.

"Like he was gonna keep that to himself?" grinned Abby. "Ballistics are a match. Same gun that was used in ’94."

"Good work." Gibbs passed the tiny pastel booties back to her. "And take these with you."

~oOo~

"We go together."

Tony stopped fumbling with his seatbelt. "That was quick." He leaned to the right as Gibbs reached over to snap it for him.

"Together, " Gibbs repeated. "This is our fight."

"I can live with that," said Tony, "As long as you realize it’s my fight, too, and that the whole world isn’t just balanced on your shoulders."

Gibbs started the car, palming the steering wheel at ten and two. "Are you likening me to Atlas, Tony?"

"Atlas was holding up the sky," Tony corrected, grinning when Gibbs huffed. "Prep school? Silver spoon? The rich are big on classical mythology."

"Statue? Big, round thing that looks like a ball," muttered Gibbs in retort.

"They thought the heavens were spherical and Atlas was supposed to have discovered astronomy or astrology or something."

"Does Ducky realize you know this stuff?"

"Noooo," the word was stretched out.

"Would you like me to educate him?"

The answering "no" was more succinct.

"Both of us," reconfirmed Tony.

Gibbs held out a hand and Tony threaded his, finger to finger, into the warmth.

"Both of us."

~oOo~

"Anthony." Al DiNozzo’s tone was surprised and quite possibly a little irritated. But Gibbs kept his grip on Tony’s elbow, thankful that Tony’s vision seemed to be returning and that the younger man had strode through the door to his father’s office with his usual public confidence. That beneath his hand, Tony’s muscles tightened and released in minute spasm wasn’t something that Al DiNozzo would know.

"Dad," returned Tony stopping just inside the doorway.

"There is no need for you to be here. Mr--," Tony’s father caught the narrowing of Gibbs’ gray eyes and corrected, "Special Agent Gibbs and I will settle this between us."

"What, you gonna box him, Dad? ‘Cause I can assure you, he’ll win."

"You can wait outside, Anthony," he reiterated.

"Of all the pompous, asinine …" Tony took a step forward, Gibbs’ hold tightening automatically against the lurch, "this is my son we’re talking about. My son."

"My grandson," Al DiNozzo retorted, "and there’s nothing to talk about. Given your … lifestyle—"

"Okay, yes, I’ve had lovers, Dad. Of both sexes. And maybe you can make that out to be I’m queer. Even worse, I’m a crippled queer. But I never seduced a 15-year-old. Can you imagine what will happen when it gets out that not only did you raise a fag, you fucked the nice little underage high schooler down the street? The country club grapevine had it that you were fucking her mother, too. You ever get a two-for-one?"

Gibbs’ quick step intercepted Al DiNozzo’s raised hand.

"That’s enough confirmation for me," said Gibbs coldly.

"Rumors won’t get you anything," Tony’s father observed, pressing against Gibbs’ restraining hand, finally wrenching his arm free.

"But Patricia Chaney’s testimony will. And she’s more than willing to give it. It’s something I would think about Mr. DiNozzo."

"I will not be threatened, Mr. Gibbs."

"I believe you just were," observed Gibbs as neutrally as he could manage, watching Al DiNozzo give ground and retreat behind the mahogany security of his desk.

"Get out of here before I call security, and take this sorry excuse for my son with you."

Gibbs nodded sharply, placing his hand back on Tony’s arm. "Come on, Tony."

To his relief Tony gave a crisp nod, turning and walking out with as much composure as he could muster. It was only once they were in the car that Tony’s tremors turned to shudders, but even then Gibbs merely pulled smoothly from the lot giving nothing for Al DiNozzo’s security cameras to see but the back end of the Buick. He drove a few blocks before stopping, pulling over in the emergency lane to unbuckle his seat belt and pull Tony into his arms.

"Low blood sugar?" grinned Tony weakly, unable to stop shaking.

"I don’t think so," Gibbs whispered warmly in his ear.

"Really, I don’t usually fall apart like this, just because he’s an ass."

"I know you don’t," soothed Gibbs, "it’s okay."

Embarrassed, Tony pulled away. "I’m together Gibbs, it’s okay." He pushed a hand through his hair. "Really."

"Yeah," Gibbs agreed, giving him his space, cranking the engine. "Let’s go home."

~oOo~

Two days later, Tony held the piece of paper close to his eyes, squinting at the ten-point type. "I won’t let him do this."

"He’s not going to do anything," countered Gibbs, struggling against the desire to simply take the letter out of Tony’s hands. "It’s a bluff. He has no intention of telling Morrow."

"I can’t let you ruin your career."

"Hey," this time Gibbs did remove the paper from Tony’s grip, "it’s just a letter. It means we’ve rattled him. And when we don’t back down, it will rattle him some more."

Tony closed his eyes. "You don’t know him."

"I know my gut and he’s just baiting us."

"You don’t understand, we’ve given him the perfect way to hurt us. Practically handed it to him on a silver platter."

Gibbs watched worriedly as Tony hitched himself up.

"We were wrong, Gibbs. Confronting him just gave him more reason, not less."

"Tony," he rose and grabbed Tony’s arm, then stepped back, surprised at the force used to shake him off. "Tony…"

"I need to be alone for a while." Tony stopped. "Just, please, when I was upset I used to get in the car and drive."

"You can’t drive, Tony."

Tony winced at the observation. "I think I know that, Gibbs." He limped his way to the door. "Don’t follow me, okay. Just …" one hand swung dismissively, "just … don’t."

He made his way down the stairs, an unharnessed Rufus following after him and being sent back. Gibbs watched him settle on a riser and he coaxed the distraught Great Dane back into the hall intending to give Tony his space.

He heard the low drone of Tony talking to someone on the cellphone, but by the time he heard the taxi pull away from the curb a few minutes later, it was already too late.

~oOo~

"Tony?"

Gretchen crossed her arms against the silky fabric of her robe self-consciously as the concierge smirked at her from behind his desk.

"Tony?" she repeated, her growing irritation dissipating when she got a good look at the way he leaned, exhausted, over the curve of the chest-high reception desk.

He startled at the touch on his shoulder then mustered a weary, "Hey, Gretch."

"How … how’d you get here?" Gretchen scanned the lobby. "Where’s Gibbs?"

"Can I see him?"

Gretchen frowned at the doorman as well. "See?"

"Sam." Tony straightened, one hand’s hard grip on the counter balancing him. "I need to see Sam. Before I lose the chance."

Gretchen switched her glare back to at the man behind the desk until he shuffled his newspaper in an audible crackling.

"Come on, Tony. We’ll call Gibbs." She caught him under the arm, urged him forward with a hand locked around his waist.

~oOo~

"Where is he?"

Gretchen held a finger to her lips and waved him into the dimly lit living room. Not so dimly lit that he couldn’t make out a glowering Lloyd Stebbins sulking in a leather arm chair in the dim lights reflected from the harbor.

To his surprise, Gretchen took his hand, pulling him along toward the bedrooms, pushing the slightly ajar second door open to reveal the sleeping duo, snuggled in the colorful animal-print bedding. Both father and son dead to the world, Tony’s arm curled protectively around the smaller body, his leather coat still on over his shirt and jeans, braced leg hanging stiffly over the edge of the twin mattress.

Finally tearing himself away from the picture in front of him, Gibbs nodded apologetically at the woman beside him. "I’ll get him."

The hand that stopped him was small and warm. "No, just leave them," she whispered in reply. "It’s okay." She motioned him back from the doorway, closing the door with a soft click. "Let them sleep." The look she gave him was almost accusatory. "Tony looked like he could use some."

"He could," admitted Gibbs, studying this apparent emotional turnabout.

"I’ll sign the papers."

"What?" Gibbs whispered in surprise.

"I’ll …" she hesitated a moment under the weight of his stare, "I’ll sign the papers."

Then she left him, dumbfounded, in the shadows of her hallway.

Gibbs leaned against the wall and let out a long sigh.

~oOo~

The sides of the plastic chair, made with a preschooler and not an NCIS agent in mind, bit into the backs of Gibbs’ thighs and when he let his mind drift, the soft exhalations from the bed beside him lulling him toward his own exhausted sleep, he was in serious danger of toppling unbalanced onto the thickly carpeted floor.

Gibbs roused himself with another shake of his head, tired eyes fixing on the finger of rising sunlight beginning to creep under the drawn shade. He squinted at the illuminated dial of his watch, then moved his arm further away from his body and squinted again. Six-twenty. From the direction of the hall he could hear the grumble of voices and, disturbed, Tony jerked slightly. The beginnings of the morning’s spasms. And God knows when he’d taken his last dose of meds.

When the spasm shook him a second time, Gibbs laid a hand on his shoulder and softly called his name.

"Tony," he repeated when the first attempt received no reply.

"Come on, babe," he wheedled, firming the grip on the leather-clad shoulder, amending, "easy," when a particularly strong spasm shook Tony’s legs.

"Where?" Tony jerked back from the unfamiliar bedding then pressed forward soothingly as Sam mumbled sleepily. "Hey, kiddo."

Gibbs got to his feet, a hand on his stiff back, in time to see drowsy blue eyes blink open only to close again, the small body snuggling back toward Tony’s warmth. Tony’s hand stroked the blond hair softly.

"Gretchen called you?" presumed Tony, looking stiffly over his shoulder at Gibbs’ nod. A deep breath caught and held in Tony’s chest. "I know it seems nuts, but it felt like it was my last chance to see him."

Not arguing, not sure that Gretchen’s declaration would still be there in the light of morning, Gibbs only asked quietly, "Do you think you can get up?"

Tony’s laugh was tight. Answer enough, and Gibbs leaned over, scooping up the small, sleeping body. The blue eyes opened to regard him skeptically.

"How about some cartoons, munchkin?"

"’Toons?"

"Yep," said Gibbs, heading with his charge through the door.

"’kay …"

Gibbs settled him on the sofa, shaking a nearby afghan over him, flipping the TV on. Feeling a gaze settle on him, Gibbs turned to find Gretchen leaning around the corner, observing. She nodded her silent approval, vanishing back into the depths of the apartment.

Tony had managed to turn to his back, riding out the worst of the spasms with clenched fists. Gibbs gently pushed his trembling legs over, and sat, kneading the muscles of the thighs through the denim, working his way around the brace on the right leg, silently massaging until the tremors died down. He got him up with a strong pull on Tony’s arm, helping swing the braced leg. Tony pushed up from the bed and took a swaying step.

"Where do you think you’re going?"

Tony ran a hand through his hair, making it stand even more on end. "Need to go apologize."

The knock at the door startled them both, Tony’s precarious balance giving way, Gibbs hand pincering under his arm as he started to fall.

"God, Gretch, I’m sorry …"

Turned to keep his partner steady, Gibbs’ back was to the door and he winced at the beaten tone in Tony’s voice.

"Gibbs tell you?"

"Tell me what?" His head whipped in Gibbs’ direction but the older man only shrugged, still not trusting that the ordeal had simply … ended with Gretchen Hale’s word.

"I’ll sign custody over, Tony. I got a look at what your father must be like when you showed up at the door at 1 a.m. I saw you a lot of ways with Greg, but I’ve never seen you defeated … until last night. You’re a good man, Tony. And anyone who could do that to a good man is not who I want raising my son."

Tony squinted up at her. "You’ll … you’ll sign the papers?"

"I’ll sign the papers giving you custody. But I want visitation rights."

"Sure, Gretchen, anything."

Tony felt Gibbs’ hand close on his shoulder. "I can call our lawyer this morning."

For a moment he saw hesitation in her expression but then with a deep swallow she conceded a soft "okay."

~oOo~

"Tony’s fine."

Tony could hear Gibbs’ slight exasperation as he fielded questions from what was probably a very perplexed McGee. Missing an entire day of work for any reason was so un-Gibbs-like that Tony had little doubt McGee was pondering possible hostage situations, sudden secret military undercover assignments, maybe even alien clones that barked just like Gibbs but, strangely, decided to take another day off.

"Everything is fine, McGee. Now go repeat that to Abby and Kate and Ducky so I don’t have to play twenty questions with them too."

Tony heard the phone shut with a decided snap. "We’re due at Candy’s at eleven. Want to get cleaned up?"

Tony ran a tentative palm along his beard-shadowed cheek. "We borrowing Lloyd’s razor?"

"I’ll make a run to the drug store. There’s extra clothes in the car."

Tony nodded, smiling, but he was well aware of the humming thrum of exhaustion in his body: tiny vibrations making the weakness in his legs worse. His hands, usually unaffected, trembled slightly, something he’d been hiding from Gibbs by pressing them, shaky and sweating, against the fabric of his jeans. Something he couldn’t keep hiding if he was forced to try to stand unbraced through a shower in Gretchen’s lux but hardly handicapped-friendly bath.

"Not sure I can—"

He winced a little as Gibbs’ gaze snapped sharply to him, the gray eyes far too observant. "When did you eat last?"

Tony shrugged, trying to look like it wasn’t a big deal. "Lunch."

Gibbs groaned, his own hand moving up to rub his eyes tiredly. "I don’t have your meds."

"I’ll make it."

"Breakfast," decided Gibbs. After a second this was amended by a "stay here."

Sam was cuddled down in the afghan, drowsily blinking at the TV and Gibbs gave the blond head a quick caress. He looked at Gretchen, curled over a cup of coffee in a nearby arm chair. "Mind if I make Tony some breakfast?"

She shook her head. "There’s coffee."

Coffee was the last thing his unsteady partner needed this morning. He let him get away with it sometimes, ignoring the physician’s prohibitions against caffeine and alcohol, but he knew the warning signs of Tony’s body as well as Tony did. What he needed right now were carbohydrates for a quick fix. Then protein to give his flagging system something to run on. "Orange juice?"

"In the refrigerator."

Pouring a glass, Gibbs took it back to the bedroom, found himself kneeling, steadying the shaking hands Tony clasped around it. "This time your blood sugar really is low," he diagnosed.

"You taking over for Ducky now?" Tony teased, gratefully sipping at the drink.

"Bacon and eggs," Gibbs ordered. "You think you can make it into the living room?"

"Yeah," replied Tony finishing off the glass and pulling himself to his feet with the help of Gibbs’ free hand. "I can make it."

He shook Gibbs’ hold off as the hall branched out into the living room and made for the other armchair. Shuffling around the kitchen in search of cookware, Gibbs could hear the softly murmured conversation, could hear Tony offering another apology for his late-night appearance. He cracked the eggs a little harder than was strictly necessary against the edge of the small bowl he’d rooted out of the pantry.

"Tony," he interrupted quietly, the plate of scrambled eggs and bacon slices in hand. He shot Gretchen a mild look, expecting a protest about proffering food across the pristine carpet, but she made no comment as Tony balanced the plate on his knees and took the fork up a little shakily.

He studied her with an intensity that would have provoked a reprimand from Tony if he hadn’t been so absorbed in keeping his hands steady. "You are sure about this," he asked.

"Gibbs."

Gibbs smiled tightly at the reprimand when it did come. "Eat," he instructed.

For her part, Gretchen looked more understanding than irritated by the protective questioning. "I’m sure," she reaffirmed, fixing on the hand Gibbs had balanced lightly on Tony’s shoulder as he leaned against the arm of the chair before moving to rest her gaze on the small bundle topped by tousled blond hair snuggled in the afghan. "I trust Tony to take care of him. " She met his gray-eyed gaze frankly. "And I trust you to take care of them both. I can’t imagine my son being in better hands. Not even my own."

Gibbs licked his lips, his hold tightening ever so slightly on Tony’s shoulder. "I’ll do my best."

Gretchen nodded her head. "I know."

~oOo~

"This is a statement of your voluntary transfer of custody." Candy Frere pushed the sheet across the table. "You sign it. We have my assistant notarize it and then we take it to district court to one of the judges over the juvenile docket," she exchanged looks with Gibbs, "preferably not Wilson, and they’ll approve it pursuant to Title 10, Chapter 1."

"And that’s it?" asked Gretchen.

"Well, as you’ve asked to retain visitation rights, we’ll have to work out a schedule, but, yes," agreed the attorney, "that’s it."

Beside Gibbs, Tony shuffled restlessly and Gibbs laid a hand above his knee, rubbing gently to try to sooth the tremoring in the thigh muscles that would only truly be brought under control with rest and the now long-overdue morning’s meds.

"If you’d prefer your attorney to examine it …" offered Candy, ignoring the glare an impatient Gibbs shot at her.

"No," Gretchen said firmly. "I know this is the right thing to do." But the pen remained poised inches above the paper.

"Could we…" Tony felt Gibbs’ hand grasp tensely and he swallowed back the wince that threatened. Obviously Gibbs saw it, though, and released his hold with self-conscious quickness. "Could Gretchen and I have a moment?"

"Alone?" he prodded when neither Gibbs nor their attorney seemed willing to leave.

"Sure," Gibbs finally agreed, accepting the half-smile Tony gave at his reluctance.

"He’s got this … control thing," explained Tony when the door finally snicked shut.

Gretchen twirled the pen self-consciously in her fingers. "He cares about you a great deal."

"Gretch, all I wanted—"

"Tony…"

"All I wanted," he repeated, "was not to lose touch with my son." The first genuine smile she’d seen in a long time lit Tony’s face. "My son. Do you know how incredible that is? I mean I never thought about kids, never thought of wanting them and, then, there he is and I made him and he’s beautiful and brilliant and the best damn thing I’ve done in my otherwise mediocre life. I just wanted to know him, you know? Be a part of his life. And then, like he always does, my dad rears his ugly head and says I can’t have this either.

He took away the money and I didn’t care. But this … Sam … Sam, I had to fight for."

From across the table Gretchen reached to cover his hand with hers. "I know, Tony. And I trust you with his life. It’s just …" She shook her head. "I know you don’t think it of me, but I’m going to miss him."

"Then just give me joint custody."

He could see her considering the offer even though he couldn’t quite make out her face in the haziness of his vision. He’d grown accustomed to the blurriness, but that didn’t mean he didn’t mourn the loss of the quick information he now had to glean in other, slower ways.

She sniffed audibly, "No, but I want every other weekend."

"Okay," Tony agreed easily. "Anything."

"Vacations?"

"Any time."

There was the audible scritch of pen being put to paper.

"I know you don’t understand why I—"

"Gretch," Tony held out his hand, "don’t. I know a gift when I see one and I’m not the kind to ask why."

~oOo~

"Here." Gibbs poured the pills in his cupped palm into Tony’s open one, following the offering with a large glass of water that Tony downed obediently.

"I know it’s not over," observed Tony, handing the glass back, closing his eyes when Gibbs settled a hand on his trembling thigh. "Never over," he concluded ruefully.

"We’ve got a signed custody declaration and a date with a judge. It’s a pretty good hand."

Tony tugged at his wrist, bringing Gibbs’ palm, cupped, against his own. "It is a good hand," he observed, stroking a finger down the curve of the lifeline in a positively spine-tingling way, turning a slightly weary but honest smile crooking the corner of his mouth.

With his free hand, Gibbs drew him toward him, captured the still-smiling lips.

~oOo~

Gibbs pulled the pillow over his head and groaned as the repeated ringing seemed to grow louder. He rolled over and peered foggily at the clock, a hand out to slap the snooze bar until the glowing dashes resolved into a pair of ones and a four and a six.

Saturday.

11:46.

Flailing for the cell he peered at it, too.

No calls.

Beside him, Tony slept on, oblivious.

Flopping back on the bed, he thought it might have all been a dream. But about the time he was going to roll over and bury himself against a warm shoulder, the heavy hand on the doorbell did its damage again.

With an audible groan, Gibbs staggered to his feet, tripping over the fallen covers to tug on his sweatpants. Tony curled toward the suddenly empty space, seeking the missing heat, finally settling on clutching Gibbs’ vacated pillow, burrowing his face into the softness with the low purr.

Smiling now, Gibbs headed to the door, hastily buttoning the denim shirt.

~oOo~

She looked him up and down, her gaze finally settling on the tips of his bare toes which he, too, found himself staring at with the same curiosity. They were … toes. Not particularly attractive, but Tony seemed to have a certain affinity for them.

"Can I … help you?" She finally looked up and he added, "… Mrs. DiNozzo."

"Mr. Gibbs."

She was slender, but not overly so, shoulder-length blonde hair lightened by silver around her face. Very well dressed for a Saturday almost-afternoon, in a way that screamed old money.

"Would you like to come in?"

"I’ve woken you up."

"Which calls for coffee." Gibbs pulled the door all the way open. "Come on in."

She stepped across the door almost carefully. "Is …Anthony here?"

"Still asleep." Gibbs put a hand on her back gently urging her forward so he could close the door.

"Is he … okay?"

"He’s doing pretty well. The drugs seem to be helping."

She nodded but he could see her hands wringing the handle of her undoubtedly expensive handbag.

"Mrs. DiNozzo?"

"Call me Pat."

"Okay, Pat. You want to tell me why you’re here?"

"You’re sleeping with my only son."

Gibbs smiled tightly. "I really do need that coffee."

~oOo~

"I’ve known for a while …" the long, slender fingers, so like Tony’s, only more fragile, circled the rim of the mug. "Anthony tended to take every opportunity to express any behavior his father, and what passes for society in Bridgeport, might find embarrassing."

Gibbs drew back, slightly irritated, "I’m not in the least embarrassed by our relationship."

The smile he got back was at least rueful, "That didn’t come out the way I intended. If Anthony’s at peace, if he’s happy … then I’m happy. It’s just …Anthony’s always seemed to find the hard road."

"His father doesn’t share your sentiments."

"No."

"It ever, once, occur to you to take your son’s side?"

"Don’t presume to know what I’ve done or not done, Mr. Gibbs."

"Jethro," offered Gibbs, "and you’re right. It’s not for me to judge you."

"But you do," she offered, observing him, her eyes following the lines of his face, settling, this time, on the silver fringe of hair curving over his forehead. Tony’s doing … more a demand that he let the military cut grow. Worth it to feel the touch of Tony’s fingertips combing through its length. "Are you old enough to be his father?"

Gibbs straightened his spine. So this is what it was going to be. Interrogation. A game he knew well, knew the rhythm of the parry and thrust. Sometimes physical. Sometimes intellectual.

"Technically," he acquiesced.

/Parry./

"Have you considered that you may just be a replacement?"

/Thrust./

Gibbs kept his voice steady, worked to keep the tightness in his throat from revealing itself in his carefully measured words. "Tony’s concept of a father figure isn’t a positive one. I neither berate nor abuse your son, Mrs. DiNozzo. I think that rules me out of Tony’s definition of a father."

/Thrust./

"I didn’t come here to fight, Mr. Gibbs."

"Then may I ask what you did come for?"

"I wanted to see Anthony. Wanted to see that he’s all right."

"Why now?"

"Because he’s…" her hesitation seemed honest, "…ill. Because I’m worried."

"Because you have a grandson," Gibbs inserted.

"I’m not going to defend myself. I raised Anthony as best I knew how. Made sure he didn’t face the … deprivations I faced growing up. Made sure he had all the tools he needed to make it in the world."

"Not all of them," disagreed Gibbs quietly. The mug he raised was empty and, with a sigh, he rose to refill it. "There were a few small things you left out. Like affection …" the steaming coffee burned the tip of his tongue, "…respect."

"I’d like to see my son."

There were no sounds from the end of the hall. Gibbs knew if he looked, he’d find Tony still deeply sleeping, find his pillow still clutched in Tony’s grip. "One of the symptoms of MS is fatigue. He needs to sleep."

"It’s after noon," she challenged.

"He…" Gibbs swallowed against the return of the tightness in his throat. His voice, when he did find it, was steadier than he’d imagined it would be. "He’s legally blind. On some days I don’t think he can make much out at all. His balance is shot – vestibular ataxia. He should probably be in a wheelchair except he’s too stubborn to give in."

The too-familiar blue eyes blazed with something that, surprisingly, looked like pride. "That’s my Anthony." She paused, watching his reaction. "I gave him tools, remember? Maybe not as much … affection as you would have liked, but he’s strong. He didn’t let Al take that from him. Now," she continued, "may I see my son before I leave?"

~oOo~

He was just as Gibbs had known he would be: his body curved against the space where Gibbs normally lay as if holding it in place for him. Gibbs sank down, his hand closing on the solid heat of Tony’s shoulder.

"Hey."

One sleepy eye blinked up at him.

"Hey, yourself."

"Got company."

"Ducky?" mumbled Tony, pushing himself up.

"Nope."

Tony’s eyes narrowed. "Everything okay?"

Gibbs swatted him gently. "Get dressed. Come on out."

~oOo~

Gibbs nodded a brief affirmation at the questioning glance that was directed at him as he crossed the kitchen. He stopped only long enough to snag his mug from the table and headed to refill it a third time. After that they sat in silence, both listening to the faint snatches of noise from the bedroom: the sound of water in the pipes, the murmurs of one-sided conversation Tony held with Rufus, finally the arrhythmic steps as Tony maneuvered his way down the hall.

"So who’s our mystery—"

"Hello, Anthony."

Tony caught himself against the frame of door, Rufus immediately positioning himself protectively across the front of his knees to offer stability even though he was harnessless. Gibbs was up in a split second, a palm wrapping around Tony’s arm, another stabilizing his back.

"Sit down," he ordered, manhandling him to the nearest chair.

"Wh—" Tony began, but whatever question the syllable began, it was lost behind the hand he palmed across his mouth. "Mother," he said more distinctly, when he’d gathered himself. "What are you doing here?"

"Can’t a mother visit?"

"No," replied Tony, although Gibbs was unsure from the tone whether it was a declaration or a question in return. He looked from one DiNozzo to another, trying to gage the situation. Tony’s mother was still maintaining her look of well-polished poise but he could see her gaze flit to the dusky circles that seemed to always curve half-moons under Tony’s eyes these days, could see her notice the morning tremors that shook Tony’s hands in minute, nervous vibrations.

"Mr. Gibbs and I were just having a talk."

"About what?"

Pat DiNozzo shrugged. "This and that." She put out a hand, covering one of the shaking ones. "I wanted to see you." Gibbs could see her eyes narrow, the lines at their corners drawing deeper as she looked him over again critically.

"Calling would have been nice."

"You’re too thin. Do you eat enough?" She turned to Gibbs. "Does he eat enough?"

"Mom," the rebuke, Gibbs noticed, was softened with the slightest grin.

"I’m fine," Tony pulled his hand out from under hers, switching their places to cover hers with his own. "My father know you’re here?"

"Mom," he urged when it the question went unanswered.

"No, he doesn’t know I’m here."

"Just another of our little secrets?"

Tony missed the frown that formed on Gibbs’ face. He gave his mother’s hand a reassuring pat. "I’m fine."

"I’ve got something for you," she pulled away to open the clasp of her purse, folding the rectangle of paper into his hand. "I’ve been squirreling away my decorating fund. Your father doesn’t know. He thinks that I can’t see a Faber Mobili chair I can’t live without."

Tony left the folded check on the table, without so much as a glance. "No, Mom, we’re fine. And I’m not fifteen. Slipping me $50 so I can take Mary Alyce Kopinski to the movies and, on the way, stop and get you a bottle of whatever is handy isn’t going to cut it anymore."

"You know I haven’t had a drink in fifteen years."

Tony sighed, ran a hand through his hair. "Okay, that was a little unfair, but we’re not doing the money thing. I don’t need the money." He held out a hand in Gibbs’ direction, found it reassuringly gripped: a powerful, strong clasp. "We," he emphasized the point by tightening his grip on the calloused fingers, "don’t need the money."

"Look," he finally continued, having endured the silence that had stretched out after his declaration as long as he could. He reached his free hand in her direction, saw the blurry motion of her own coming to meet it, their fingertips tangling clumsily. Partly, the on-again-off-again focusing of his eyes. Partly, the little practice they’d had at this kind of comfort.

Irony, maybe, that it was Gibbs, the man who spent most his workday radiating Marine Corp stiffness, who’d taught him the value of casual touch -- of brief, everyday caresses that were only meant to ground, to reassure.

"If you want to see Sam, I’ll arrange it."

The slender fingers entwined deeper, squeezing his own. "I would."

~oOo~

Gibbs leaned against the doorframe, hands tucked in his pockets.

Tony folded the check in half again then ripped it decisively. "Unlike my father, she means well. Unfortunately," he gestured toward the scraps of paper, "the result often looks the same."

"The drunk driving conviction …"

"Brought on by a half-gallon of Gallo’s finest." Tony moved a fingertip through the shredded remains of the check. "I bought it. My dad always found some infraction that cut off my allowance. She gave me pocket change and …"

"You brought her wine," Gibbs surmised.

"Also scotch and vodka."

"At fifteen."

"Fake ID," shrugged Tony. "It was the 80s -- anyway, about that time Dad found a new prep academy to dump me in that was a few too many hours away for weekend visitation. Cured the problem rather nicely." He smiled a too-smooth smile. "Told you the family was fucked up."

Gibbs restrained himself from offering a hand when Tony rose stiffly, balancing against the table’s edge. "Where’re you going?"

"To take the seven pharmaceuticals that call my name." Tony pointed casually in the direction of the bedroom. "Then I think I’ll lie back down for a while." The smile was half-heartedly seductive. "You can join me if you want."

"Be there in a minute."

Gibbs gathered up the scattered paper remains, the amount that had somehow survived intact jumped out at him in well-executed razor-point black: $60,000. One hell of a decorating budget.

~oOo~

Court.

Gibbs tried not to pull at the knot of his tie, stuffing his hand, instead, into the pocket of his jacket and trying to look as cool and collected as he’d feel if he were the witness for the criminal prosecutor rather than a bystander, albeit a deeply involved one, in a case before the DC family court. It reminded him too much of a divorce settlement, specifically the second one where he’d been facing not only an impenitent redhead, but Fornell -- her newly preferred partner. He squinted a little at the seal on the bench wondering if it was the same damn courtroom.

Tony shifted against the hard wood of the old-fashioned chairs, his hands working the aches in his unbraced leg. When the bailiff called for all to rise, he had to press himself up almost on the strength of his arms alone and he shot a quick sideways glance at Gibbs to see if he’d noticed. But Gibbs stood straight-backed, tense and, thankfully, for once, oblivious. Tony’s fingers were still pressed heavily against the well-scratched top of the government-issued table, but Gibbs rubbed thumb to forefinger in a nervous gesture that any good interrogator would have pounced on in a second.

When they were free to sit again, Tony settled back into the chair a bit too heavily. Heavily enough that it even netted Gibbs’ clearly distracted attention, if only for a moment. Then Candy Frere got up.

~oOo~

"You were nervous."

"Don’t get nervous," replied Gibbs’ tightly, the grip he had on Tony’s arm spasming briefly in annoyance, causing Tony to laugh softly.

"You were nervous."

The lobby of the city court building spread out in the foggy bland shades of gray-streaked marble. Tony steeled himself for the trip through the crowd, firming the grips he had on the harness and crutch.

Gibbs gave a put-upon sigh. "Come on, Dad."

"I like the sound of that—" but Tony didn’t get to finish, Gibbs’ grip became abruptly tight, the pull spinning Tony around. His good leg gave and he hit the floor hard, a painfully visual example of Gibbs’ shouted "Get down!"

The next few seconds were a disorienting blur: a cringing Rufus nosing one outstretched hand worriedly; the fuzzy outlines of the crowd diving for cover; the sharp, percussive echoes of semi-automatic weapons fire. It took a minute for the panicked screams to die down, for him to sort out the pained gasps coming from close by. He slid his hand toward the too-still, dark blur beside him, then recoiled from the warm viscid wetness he encountered.

"Gibbs?" He slid forward, the palms of his hands scrabbling for purchase on the cool stone, his reluctant legs practically a dead weight tying him down. "Gibbs!"

Gibbs was still, his face pale and spattered with blood, one arm flung out to the side where Tony had fallen like he’d been protecting him even as he went down.

"No, Gibbs." And Tony realized he was begging, clumsy fingers finally close enough to press beneath the jaw line. "I need help here!" His hands felt numb and cold, unable to tell what might be an arterial beat from the desperate wish for there to be one.

"Please," he begged without the volume needed to get attention in the cacophony, drawing his arms under him to try to rise.

A warm hand pressed against his back, sure fingers taking over from his. "He’s alive."

Tony blinked mutely up at his unexpected rescuer. "Mom?"

"Everything is going to be fine." She ran a hand absently through his hair, rocking back on her heels. "WE NEED HELP NOW!"

Incongruously, Tony smiled at the force of the shout right before his body took to shuddering. He reached out for Gibbs’ hand lying palm up and slightly curled, taking it into his own and willing the man not to leave him. Then hands were on him, separating them, moving him back. He must have made more of a fuss than he realized because they were suddenly around him as well, and his mother was suddenly there again, pulling him toward her away from the well-meaning clutches, cradling his head against the curve of her shoulder and murmuring that Gibbs was in good hands, that everything would be all right.

"Tony?"

He squinted up into the concerned face bowed above him.

"Tony, it’s Jeff Wagner."

The combination of the name and the uniform finally registered and he recognized the Baltimore patrol officer that had transferred to DC about the same time he’d moved to NCIS.

"It’s okay, Tony, we got him. They’re taking good care of your friend."

"Where’s he hit?" whispered Tony, trying to push himself upright and only succeeding when the officer laid a strong grip on his arm and pulled.

"Took a round in the chest, his right."

Right side. Away from the heart. Punctured lung. Possibly broken ribs. Tony recounted what would have been Ducky’s assessment list, repeated his own mantra: Gibbs was going to hang on. Gibbs had to hang on.

"Gunman?"

"Dead," Wagner reported. "Got about thirty rounds in him."

"Sir, can you get up?"

Tony frowned at the EMT. "Gibbs?"

"We’re loading him now, sir."

Tony peered around him to the loaded gurney, then, with a groan and several pairs of helping hands, found himself swaying on his feet, the crutch being pushed back into still trembling fingers. A fretting Rufus whined and pressed a gentle nose into the side of Tony’s leg.

"I’m okay."

It must not have been believable, though, as what seemed a battalion escorted him to a car he dimly recognized as something European and expensive … undoubtedly his mother’s.

In the car, Tony’s numbed fingers fumbled with the phone until it was succinctly removed from his grasp and he heard, as if from a long distance, his mother’s voice asking, "which one?"

"Kate," he finally managed when the phone was pushed within what should have been focusing distance. "She’s number three."

The rest receded into a mostly garbled murmur, a few words rising to break the loop of remembered shock: Gibbs’ voice; the pressure of his hand; the sharp, hard descent to the floor, then the lingering percussions of the shots.

"They’ll be there."

His mother’s hand was on his knee and he found himself concentrating on that touch, the familiar feeling of Gibbs’ hand ghosted in the warmth. He leaned back and closed his eyes and tried to steady his breathing.

~oOo~

He didn’t know where the wheelchair came from, some preparatory call of his mother’s that he was too out of it to notice, no doubt, but his balking only made the orderly more insistent and got him called "sir" in a placating manner. So, finally, he gave in and sat his butt down. Anything that would get him closer to Gibbs.

But as close as it got him was one of the ER cubbyholes where a fresh-faced resident took up the orderly’s gratuitous "sir"-ing.

"Where’d you come from?" he asked, when the ER-staff finally gave them a moment alone. Tony laid back and stared blankly upward, shifting restlessly every now and again, trying to relieve the small aches, trying to ignore the anxious need to get to his feet and stride out and demand to see Gibbs, knowing that if he were foolish enough to try it, he would only end up in a heap on the floor with more well-meaning hands on him, this time equipped with well-meaning sedatives.

"Connecticut," replied his mother with false lightness, displaying what passed for humor in his father’s house.

"Why are you here?" he repeated.

"Because you’re my son and he’s my grandson."

She smiled – just a little – when Tony frowned at her.

~oOo~

"Tony?" Kate was as pasty as he imagined himself to be, followed in tow by an equally white-faced McGee and by Ducky, who with a much calmer expression, took the nearby ER resident by the elbow and began gathering information the young doctor had resisted giving his patient.

"He’s already in OR," Ducky reported when he’d finished the interrogation. "It sounds like a simple through-and-through with a concomitant pneumothorax. If the bullet didn’t ricochet off a rib or do other damage, the surgery will be fairly simple. He should be fine, Tony."

Kate’s hand was in his and Ducky had a supporting palm on his bicep. McGee, while his arms were crossed worriedly over the open lapels of his suit, stood nearby as if shielding him as well and he caught sight of the blur of pink that was his mother pushed into the far corner of the little room.

"It’s okay, you can go now, Mom. You don’t have to wait."

Some look he couldn’t quite make out passed between his mother, when she came forward, and the trio at the side of the gurney. Something that made them edge minutely toward him as if tightening the cordon they’d placed around him.

"I need to call your father." He could see her hands worriedly dig through the confines of her bag. "And I need a smoke. But," she continued with a certain defiance, "I’m not leaving. I’ll just … step outside. You go anywhere, you have someone come get me."

"Sure," he finally conceded, lying back on the gurney with a groan when the standoff was over.

"So that’s your mom," ventured Kate.

"Yeah."

"Not what I was expecting."

Tony rose up just a little. "You and me both."

~oOo~

"Time dilation."

"What?" murmured a bleak looking McGee, who’d insisted a finally-released Tony have the entire length of the waiting area’s one free couch.

"Like on those science fiction shows," explained Tony, shifting stiffly. "Go into a hospital and you enter this area where time moves slower."

"You’re talking special relativity."

"Actually," admitted Tony, "I was talking more Star Trek."

One corner of McGee’s mouth quirked a reluctant smile.

"How long this time?"

"Five minutes since you asked me last time," answered McGee.

Tony popped the top on his watch and confirmed the movement of the hands. "Damn." He scrubbed fingers through his hair and pulled at the top of the borrowed scrubs Ducky had helped wrestle him into. "This waiting is killing me."

"He’s going to be fine, Tony." McGee gave his ankle a clumsy pat.

"Okay." Tony released the hold he had on the seam of the hospital-issued top. "I just need to see him, you know."

The pat turned into reassuring grasp. "I know."

~oOo~

"We went shopping at Baby Goth."

Both Abby and Kate wore satisfied if still slightly-strained smirks and he knew this was an attempt, as Kate would put it, to "perk him up" and a Sam wearing a tiny black t-shirt saying (after he leaned for enough forward to make the lettering out) "My Nursery School Sux", black shorts adorned with chains and a pair of mini black combat boots was enough to bring forth an amused purse of his lips.

"You are not dressing my son like that."

Three heads swiveled in the direction of the weak comment from bed.

"Gibbs? Thank God."

"Hey," whispered Gibbs, his own gaze only for Tony, "you okay?"

"Scared out of my mind." Tony hoisted himself up and sat on the side of the bed, settling as carefully as his clumsy body could manage. "Don’t ever do that again." He returned the grasp that reached out weakly.

Gibbs licked his dry lips. "Will try not to. " Eyes dulled by the painkillers flowing amply through his system shut involuntarily, causing him to frown. "Can’t promise."

"I know," replied Tony.

Gibbs rolled his head against the pillow, refocusing on Abby and Kate. "L.L. Bean," he slurred, holding the index finger of his free hand up in feeble warning. "You want to play fashionista, get your own kid."

Abby smoothed a hand across the still creased forehead as Gibbs’ eyes shut again. She managed a look that was at once both worried and bemused. "Gibbs knows the word ‘fashionista’?"

"Well, he did turn out to be gay," observed Kate dryly, shifting a wiggling Sam to her hip.

"But…" protested Abby, "fashionista?"

~oOo~

"Hey."

"Hey," Gibbs replied, mustering a small smile. "Thought you went home."

Tony shrugged. "The girls have got Sam. Thought I’d stay a while."

"And watch me sleep."

"And watch you sleep," repeated Tony nonchalantly before changing the subject. "Police want to talk to you. Think you might have seen exactly what went on."

"Guy grabbed the deputy’s gun and started firing. Pretty simple actually."

"Think there’s some question of how careless the deputy might have been."

"Careless enough," observed Gibbs. "Anybody dead?"

"The guy. The deputy. A couple people were pretty shot up." Tony laid his hand on the side of the bed. "My nerves may never be the same."

"Tony, go home," instructed Gibbs. "I have an entire nursing staff at my beck and call." And, as if to prove the point, a respiratory therapist stepped in, inhaler in hand. "Gah," said Gibbs, spying it, "I hate this part. Go," he ordered, pointing a finger past the therapist, "Tony."

Rufus sprang up when Tony rose and Gibbs watched their clumsy interplay with concerned eyes. "You okay to get out of here?"

Tony waved his cell over his shoulder. "McGee said he’d come get me. Since I’m not wanted, I’ll just go wait for him."

"Come back tomorrow," called Gibbs getting another wave before Tony reclasped the harness, "and bring coffee."

~oOo~

"This is not the life I would have chosen for my son." Patricia DiNozzo regarded Gibbs squarely as he shifted against the pillows of the sofa. "But it seems to suit him." She absently stooped down to retrieve Sam’s stray fire engine from where it had been left rushing to the scene of a fire at the base of the recliner. She placed the toy into the open toy box as Ducky shuffled in bearing two cups of coffee – both decaf, as regular had been banned from the house entirely after it was discovered that not even a healing punctured lung would stop Gibbs’ quest for caffeine. Ducky had rinsed the remains of the bag of Kona dark roast down the drain muttering something about "detox."

Gibbs shot him a jaundiced look, but held out a hand anyway to take the mug. "Isn’t there something you should be doing at the office?"

Ducky merely made a tsking sound. "We agreed, Jethro, that – at least until Monday – you would not be left alone."

Gibbs pointed in Patricia’s direction. "She’s here."

"While Mrs. DiNozzo," conceded Ducky, "appears quite competent," he gave a small nod in the direction of Tony’s mother, "she does not know you as we do."

From Gibbs’ sigh, he knew that more lay beneath the man’s reluctance than simply wanting to be left alone to overstain himself with woodworking and covert searches for anything caffeinated.

He bent down, whispering sotto voce, "Kate will keep an eye on him, Jethro. As will young Agent McGee."

"Not the same, Duck."

This earned him a consoling pat on the arm. "I believe you underestimate Caitlyn’s protective instincts." He lowered his voice even further, his gaze flicking towards their visitor. "It is, as our lovely Abigail puts it, a ‘female thing’."

~oOo~

Gibbs didn’t remember falling asleep alone on the sofa, but he definitely would remember waking to a dimly-lit house and an armful of pliant partner.

A partner, who, when jostled, merely mumbled a sleepy hum and burrowed his nose deeper into the curve of Gibbs’ neck.

"Gotta…" Gibbs grimaced as places pulled deep within his chest protested the movement. He forced himself to relax back into the cushions, panting softly. "Tony, babe."

The hum rematerialized warm and breathy against his skin and Gibbs finally had to give a firm shake with his available hand to a nestling shoulder. "Tony…"

"Hmm?" Blue eyes opened drowsily.

"Off."

"Oh. Oh!" The disentanglement was awkward with sleep and with Tony’s own aches. "Sorry. Sorry." Warm hands reached and massaged down Gibbs’ trapped arm tenderly. "Didn’t mean to go to sleep."

Gibbs managed to get his arm up enough to scrub a hand against his eyes.

"You just looked so," Tony smiled self-consciously, "comfortable lying there."

Gibbs arched a little, testing the resolve of his body. "Where’s Sam?"

"Safely tucked in upstairs."

"And Ducky?"

"Safely tucked in at his house…presumably," Tony added. "Can you get up?"

"I can get up," responded Gibbs in a voice a little flatter than he’d have liked.

"Let’s get you to bed."

Gibbs leaned his head back, looking up at him. Tony was rumpled, hair sticking in a dozen different directions, barefoot under his khakis, his weight shifted to his good leg and a stabilizing hand wrapped around the floor lamp, his makeshift crutch. If he thought he was not actually in any shape to help Gibbs up, he didn’t show it as he rebalanced himself and held a hand, palm up, for Gibbs to grasp. According to the medical profession, the drugs had slowed the MS’s procession and Tony balanced on a plateau – still hilly with good days and bad days – but not the sharp decline of the beginning. But Gibbs liked to think it was stubbornness as much as medication keeping Tony upright.

He looked younger, still, than Gibbs could even imagine any more, though Gibbs knew this was an illusion … that Tony had been through much more than, thankfully, had managed to write itself in his face. And, even a bit paler and thinner than the golden-tanned man he’d hired, Tony was still … well … beautiful. More beautiful to him than he’d been then.

"Is this the lamp thing again?" asked a bemused Tony, noticing the appraising look. He turned a bit and looked at the light accusingly, as if the nimbus from the lamp was somehow limning him and could be shut off and Gibbs would get moving.

"Nope."

"What then?" he asked gently.

"Just looking. Doctors didn’t say anything about just looking."

"Gibbs" was breathed with soft exasperation.

"I love you, you know."

Tony raised a wry eyebrow. "My, um, mother wants to bring my father to visit."

"I love you anyway," Gibbs declared.

"Argh, this is that ‘serious’ moment, isn’t it?"

"Serious moment?"

"Yeah, life and death, shit-scared-out-of-you, that moment." He looked a little self-satisfied. "I’ve already had it. You were just too out of it to realize I was clutching your hand and begging you to not leave me."

"I’m planning on staying around a while."

"Good, now get up while I’m still managing to stay on my feet." The offered hand bobbed up and down more insistently.

With a groan, Gibbs managed to lever himself up without help, although he didn’t shake off the support when Tony grabbed onto him … or maybe he was the support … or maybe they were just doing what came easy these days… holding each other up.

Hands came around waists, elbows locked and Gibbs fitted nicely right into the crook of Tony’s arm, his thigh pressing up against Tony’s braced one. And, step by step, they made it to the Sam’s bedroom where they leaned in, nearly falling and catching themselves, twin hands shooting out for the sides of the door frame. Comedy that Sam slept through, oblivious, one hand tightly woven in a fierce clutch of the blanket.

Gibbs leaned in and gave a brief kiss to Tony’s cheek.

"What was that for?"

Gibbs shrugged. "Promises of things to come."

"Later," amended Tony.

"Later," agreed Gibbs with a groan as they straightened and pushed themselves away from the door.

~oOo~

Morning light banded the walls in stripes when the rustle of covers and the dull, reawakened pain in his chest drove Gibbs to consciousness. Sam didn’t say anything, just crawled his way up between them and snuggled, nose-down, into Gibbs’ shoulder, the blanket dragged behind him, turned edge still clutched in a small hand.

The bottle of pain pills on the nightstand tempted, but Gibbs, instead, resettled his shoulders, easing the ache in his ribs and let the hushed duet of sleeping breathes lull him back toward sleep.

Tony rolled over, one eye opening to gaze at him placidly. "You okay?" he whispered, the question muted by the mound of pillow Tony had folded under his cheek.

"Yeah, he’s not heavy."

Tony nodded, eyes closing. "Think I’ll stay home today. Boss is a bastard, but I think I can get away with it this once."

"You think?" inquired Gibbs.

"Every once in a while people figure out he’s a good guy."

"Mmm," murmured Gibbs, "don’t think that’s a general consensus."

A hand snaked around until it captured Gibbs’ fingers lightly. "You might be surprised."

"Oh, I’d be very surprised," Gibbs agreed, clasping back.

"Surprised me," admitted Tony.

"It did?"

"Yeah. I mean I thought you’d pack me off on disability and be done with me. Didn’t expect …"

"…this?" finished Gibbs.

"Well, no, definitely didn’t expect this, but I didn’t expect the other either. Could never tell that you cared."

"I care," said Gibbs gruffly.

"I know that … now. I just didn’t know it… then." He rose up enough to observe the sharp angles of Gibbs’ profile. "Might want to let McGee in on it, though."

"Not finished scaring him." Gibbs turned his head in Tony’s direction. "Don’t want him to get out of hand."

"Oh, yeah, McGee out of hand. That’ll happen."

"Yeah, I’ve already tamed the bad-boy of the group."

"Bad boy? You know if there wasn’t a three-year-old in our bed …"

"You’d what?" challenged Gibbs.

"I’d show you just how bad the bad-boy can be."

"Save it," Gibbs murmured, "for when my ribs can take it."

"Saving," Tony agreed. "Think I’ll just … go back to sleep for now."

The hand holding Gibbs’ pulled up, lightly thunking their conjoined fingers to the mattress and the movement caused Sam to shift sleepily between them.

"Gibbs?"

"Yeah?"

"If you’d died on me, I would have killed you."

"Same here," muttered Gibbs.

"Just so we understand each other," laughed Tony.

"Oh that I think we do."

~end~

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