After Darkness

By lila-blue

EMAIL: delilah_miranda@yahoo.com

 

This was written as a birthday present for a friend who wanted a Gibbs/DiNozzo slash story where Gibbs has lost his sight. Thanks to C for sharing. Everything is, as usual, solely my fault. The NCIS guys, of course, do not belong to me.

Post Tenebras Lux -- "After darkness, Light"

~oOo~

The curiously whitened pane of the storefront window bowed and cracked then surged toward them like a sheet on the wind. Gibbs’ hand pressed hard on his shoulder and the tone of his voice was deepened and stretched out, pulled into a frightening bass growl as he ordered, "Dooowwwnnn." Then Gibbs pivoted on his left foot, gaze fixed on the young boy who had just skateboarded past. He managed only a single step in the child’s direction before the flying tide of splintered glass caught the small body and surged, unheeding, onward. On his knees, Tony instinctively hid his face and neck behind his upraised arms. And then the shards burst over them.

The tray, a turquoise rectangle, flew out of the hospital room door, plastic bowl and stainless utensils clattering against the floor, a thin trail of soup branching creek-like into the warp of the worn tile. Tony DiNozzo stepped over the mess, shrugged apologetically at the tearful nurse’s aide he met coming out the door as he was going in, and greeted the figure shifting uncomfortably on the mussed hospital bed. "Good aim, boss."

"I was aiming for her," Gibbs muttered, running a hand through silver hair spiked wildly above the sterile gauze still wrapping his eyes and forehead.

"No, you weren’t," denied Tony, audibly crumpling the bag he held in a hand freshly freed from twenty sutures. "I’ve got pastrami on rye from Vecchio’s."

Finger food, he’d figured out, would be accepted; where anything that required utensils, if forced, would inevitably end up on the floor. Although the actual hallway was a bit more of a fling than Gibbs normally mustered.

Interested, Gibbs sat up a bit straighter only to wince, the movement pulling the dozens of neat rows of stitching on his face and neck and arms.

"Coffee?" he asked, wetting still-healing lips.

"Decaf." At the groan of disappointment Tony settled the bag and pulled the top of the Styrofoam cup. "Best I could do, boss."

Gibbs’ left hand, with its intricate inlay of sutures, made a stiff "gimme" motion. "Give it."

Tony noticed Gibbs carefully kept his bandaged and misshapen right hand resting on its pillow, the tips of the fingers barely visible in the swathing of white. Gingerly the fingers laced in stitching tightened around the cup until Tony finally let it go, though he stretched to keep his own hand under it, just in case Gibbs couldn’t hold on.

"Agent Gibbs!" The not-unfamiliar bark of the unit manager, the one Gibbs openly called "Nurse Ratchet" startled them both. Luckily, Gibbs’ reflex was to tighten his grip, not release it. The cup bowed under the awkward clench of fingers still half-numb themselves.

"I’m sorry." Gibbs' apologies were on automatic repeat now; he didn’t even go through the motions of trying to make them sound genuine.

"No, you’re not," retorted the nurse, shooting a glare at DiNozzo who ducked his head to hide the smile that threatened.

Gibbs buried himself back in the warmth of the cup, muttering into the depths of the drink. "No, I’m not. I can feed myself."

"’Can’ and ‘will’ are not synonymous, Mr. Gibbs."

"What do you care if I eat that slop?" retorted her patient.

"Frankly," the petite woman rubbed at her temple for a moment, "at this point I don’t; but the longer you don’t eat, the longer my staff has the dubious ‘pleasure’ of your company."

"I’m eating." Gibbs stuck the now thoroughly-emptied cup in Tony’s direction. "Give me the damn sandwich, DiNozzo."

"Sure, boss." Tony fumbled with the paper wrapping, lifting half the delicacy out. "Here." He brought Gibbs’ hand to the food. "Got it?"

The reply was an impatient, "Yes, DiNozzo."

Sutured lips stretched painfully, Gibbs took the first bite. "See," he mumbled through a full mouth, "eating."

The sound of the door closing pointedly was the only reply.

"Boss …" began Tony when he was sure they were going to remain undisturbed.

"No."

"I haven’t even asked yet," protested the younger agent.

"Abby, Kate and McGee." Now that he’d started, Gibbs was devouring the sandwich half with decided hunger. "The answer is still ‘no’."

"Boss."

"No."

"Why?" questioned Tony. "They just want to see you."

"No."

Tony shook his head. He was silent for a moment, watching Gibbs finish off the last corner of rye. "You want the rest of the sandwich?"

"Yeah."

Handing over the remainder, he watched it disappear with equal rapidity.

"I live for these one-syllable conversations. You know that, don’t you?"

Mouth full, Gibbs merely grunted.

~oOo~

"Hey, Ducky." The medical examiner glanced up to see the young agent heft himself up to flop supine on the empty autopsy table. "I don’t know how long I can take it."

"You have been to see our fearless leader," surmised the physician.

"Oh, good news. His aim is getting way better. The lunch tray made it all the way out the door."

"Physical therapy," shrugged the Englishman. He smiled a bit when DiNozzo rolled to look at him in disbelief. "Of a sort."

"He’s hungry, Duck. And he throws his lunch across the room. Explain to me how that makes sense, even twisted Gibbs-sense."

"’Pride costs more than hunger, thirst and cold.’ Your Thomas Jefferson said that."

"Yeah, well, I’m starting to feel like some kind of weird enabler in this battle he’s fighting."

"Fighting is the only thing Jethro knows," observed Ducky quietly. "The true worry will come when he stops."

Tony covered his face with his hands, opening his eyes and contemplating the temporary blindness made by his palms. "Great," he agreed, disheartened, "something to look forward to."

~oOo~

"Go away."

"I’m afraid not, Jethro," Ducky declined, patting the lean, pajama-clad shoulder.

"It’s a private unveiling."

"I’m a physician, if you remember," countered Ducky as he roamed the exam room that was festooned with oversized posters of the right and left fundus of the eye. "There is very little about the human body I haven’t seen before."

Gibbs’ head turned so his ear followed the footfalls. Where DiNozzo was standing was something of a mystery, but he knew the younger agent was there; he could hear Tony’s slightly fast respirations coming from somewhere to his right in the unfamiliar acoustics of the exam room.

"Then get DiNozzo out of here."

The soft breaths picked up speed but were drowned out by the clatter of the door opening, the exchange of medical greetings between the ME and the ophthalmologist.

DiNozzo watched Gibbs’ already tight posture go rigid, saw his face set in a studiously neutral mask.

"Agent Gibbs," the ophthalmologist greeted.

The muscles in Gibbs’ throat rippled as he swallowed convulsively. "Let’s just dispense with the pleasantries and get on with it."

"All right," the ophthalmologist agreed. "As I explained before, the flying glass caused severe lacerations. The concussive force caused additional injury. The vitrectomy we performed removed most of the blood; but your retinas are detached, and your corneas badly scarred. At this point we hope for some light vision, perhaps even the ability to see certain shapes, but you should not be alarmed if that is all. To regain any usable vision will, in all likelihood, require several more operations, if it is even proves to be possible."

"I’ve heard it, doc." Gibbs shifted uncomfortably in the exam chair, his left hand clawed into the padded arm of the seat, his right arm immobilized against his chest, the injured hand wrapped protectively.

"Then I’ll begin," said the ophthalmologist, shaking his head at Ducky in a kind of physician’s body language Tony wasn’t privy to, a communication of which Gibbs was unaware.

Coolness brushed his forehead as the layers of gauze were stripped away and Gibbs concentrated on keeping his own breathing even, a deception well-practiced in a dozen undercover operations. Practiced, he knew, not so well here.

"Now the shields."

The pressure of the shallow metal cups lifted, leaving the newly bare skin around his eyes feeling vulnerable and overly sensitive. Automatically he raised his hand to rub the sensation away only to find it caught and held. "Duck?" he whispered. The reply was a strong grasp on his fingers.

"Now the gauze pads," continued the ophthalmologist. "When I remove these, I want you to keep your eyes closed."

The gauze was gently withdrawn. Despite this, Gibbs rocked his head, the air on the tender lids causing a purely reflexive flinch. But even if he’d wanted to open them, his lashes were caked shut with dried tears.

Tony winced in empathy, sucking in a breath. Gibbs looked … bad. The raw upper lids creased with red, half-healed scars; the secretions holding the lids shut were tinged a disturbing pink.

"Easy, Jethro," soothed Ducky when he tried to pull away as pads of sterile solution were rested on the sore skin.

The fingers holding the ME’s tightened as the crusted lashes were delicately wiped.

"Okay, I think we can try it now." The ophthalmologist put down the gauze. "I want you to open your eyes, slowly."

Gibbs obeyed, painfully furrowing his forehead as he tried to lift lids that had been closed for more than two weeks. Eventually, a sliver of bloodshot sclera was revealed, then a hint of cloudy blue. Then the other eye opened, showing the same thin arc of painful looking tissue.

"That’s it." A fresh pad was wiped along the lower lid and the ophthalmologist’s thick fingers gently separated the lids further.

He reached in his pocket for a penlight, and when he turned it on, Tony saw all too clearly that even the doctor’s pronouncements of a slim chance of retaining meaningful vision were probably optimistic. Turning to help the boy had placed Gibbs’ right side closer to the storefront. It was the reason his right hand lay clawed and paralyzed, the shards cutting through nerves and tendons, a particularly large piece of glass nearly severing the wrist. It was one of Tony’s few memories of the scene: Ducky’s hand clamped firmly around Gibbs wrist in an attempt to stem the blood loss.

Gibbs’ right eye was fixed and glassy. Stilled, like his hand. While the left moved fitfully as Gibbs tried to follow the faint dip and sway of the penlight, the right merely rolled upward a little, leaving the faint arc of white visible beneath the cloudy cataract.

"You see a little light."

"Really far off and dim," confirmed Gibbs, squinting into the sharp illumination.

"Good," said the doctor, lifting the right lid to examine the stilled eye further, shining the bright white light directly into the pupil. "Now?"

"No," said Gibbs.

"It is about what we expected." The pen light was shut off. "There is still some hope we can return vision to your left eye."

Gibbs nodded then jerked in surprise as the door slammed. Ducky still knelt beside him, a steadying grasp on his hand. He turned his head, trying to see past the patch of gray that made up what remained of his vision.

"DiNozzo?" he whispered.

~oOo~

"Where do you think you’re going?"

Ducky was surprised to see an actual smile grace Gibbs’ face, if only briefly. The last of the stitches had come out over the past few days, giving some relief, restoring some expressions that had been too painful to make.

"Why do you think I’m going anywhere, Duck?"

"The lack of hospital attire is a start."

"Ah, nice to know your forensic skills are as sharp as ever." Gibbs felt his way along the edge of the bed with his left hand, his right still bound against his ribs. "You see a file folder?"

"I do." Retrieving it, Ducky pressed the thick folder into a hand that refused to take it.

"It’s for you. Legal stuff."

"Legal stuff?" repeated the ME. "May I ask how you …"

"Managed it?" finished Gibbs. "I called Jolie."

"You called Jolie," echoed slowly back at him.

"Are you gonna repeat everything I say, Duck?"

"No. It’s just that she –"

"Hit me in the head with a baseball bat. Yeah, I remember." Gibbs’ scarred hand touched his temple in brief remembrance. "She’s a lawyer," he reminded. "She also never thought that much of my looks. A currently advantageous combination." Gibbs jerked away from the unexpected touch on his cheek. "Don’t Duck, all right? I’m so cobbled together I look like Frankenstein’s monster."

"That a direct quote?" Ducky asked acidly.

"No. The direct quote was ‘I looked like wall-eyed shit.’"

"That makes no sense, Jethro."

"You know Jolie," shrugged Gibbs, as if that was self-explanatory. "And I know what I look like."

"No," pointed out Ducky, "you don’t."

Gibbs put a hand against the end of the bed to steady himself. "Scary enough to make DiNozzo turn tail and run."

"That wasn’t—"

Gibbs cut him off. "She found a rehab place up in Vermont." He gestured vaguely in Ducky’s direction. "The house is for sale. If you’d keep an eye on it until …"

Ducky opened the folder and frowned down at the contents. "What about the boat?"

"What about it?"

"Where is it?"

"Where it’s always been, Duck. I always thought I’d figure out how to get it out of there if I ever got it finished. The new owner can chop it up for firewood."

"Jethro." Gibbs took a couple steps back from the ME’s approach, stumbling against the rolling tray table, unable to right himself before Ducky stepped in and grasped him by the shoulders. "You don’t have to do this."

Gibbs closed his eyes self-consciously. "Yeah, I do."

"And you’re going to leave without saying goodbye?"

"I am saying goodbye, Duck."

"To me. Not to Tony and Kate. Not to Abby. They’re not going to understand."

"Tell ‘em to ask DiNozzo how enjoyable the experience of seeing me was for him. I think he can fill them in."

Ducky’s grip tightened on his shoulder. "You’re not leaving here thinking Anthony fled because he couldn’t stand to look at you."

"I thought his motives were pretty easily apparent," said Gibbs, stepping out of the hold.

"There’s a reason she hit you in the head with a baseball bat, you know."

"Yeah, ‘cause I’m a bastard."

"No, because sometimes you’re a stupid bastard," retorted Ducky. "You’re the one that convinced your staff you were nigh onto invincible. NCIS Agent Gibbs, the always-right. Don’t act shocked that they don’t easily take to finding out you lied, especially the young ones. The impressionable ones, like Tony."

Gibbs reached for the edge of the mattress to sit down and missed, knees already giving, but Ducky caught him by his good arm and safely settled him. "Why do you think I wouldn’t see them?" Gibbs whispered.

The ME drew a deep breath. "Why can’t you let them support you for once? They’d do anything for you. You’ve got to realize that."

"I think you just answered you own question, Duck." Gibbs shook off the hand still stabilizing him. "There’s supposed to be a car waiting out front. If you’ll get the discharge papers …"

"Damn it, Jethro. What am I going to do with you?"

"You’re going to let me go, Ducky. That’s what you’re going to do."

~oOo~

The pale hand that slammed across the ME’s chest as he crossed into the lab startled more than staggered him. He looked up curiously into Abby’s face, which was scrunched worriedly beneath her dark bangs.

"What?" he mouthed.

Abby made a shushing sign and drew him across her body so that he had an excellent view of what was becoming a distressingly common occurrence in the bowels of the NCIS building: five-foot-six of Kate Todd stepped toe-to-toe with six-feet-two of Tony DiNozzo.

"You ever pull a stunt like that again, DiNozzo, and I swear you’ll be unemployed so fast your head will spin."

"I knew what I was doing. If you’d let me finish, we’d—"

"You disobeyed a direct order, Tony," restated Kate.

Tony leaned forward, purposely accentuating their difference in heights. "Gibbs would have let me do it."

In response, Kate made an expansive gesture, taking in the not-so-empty lab. "Oh, well, if you see Gibbs anywhere around here, feel free to go report to him. But if you’re going to continue to report to me, you will follow my orders to the letter."

"Now why would I want to do that, Todd?" DiNozzo baited. "We’re trying to solve cases here, not fuck them up."

"That’s it. You’re on report." Kate spun on her heels and headed for the elevator.

"Oh don’t bother …" The lab door slammed behind her. "Because I QUIT!"

"Oh my," said Ducky quietly as DiNozzo paced a tight circle before settling at one of the lab tables, head in hands, pounding his exposed forehead non-too-softly against the corner of the nearest monitor and repeating "fuck" at each blow.

"That one’s mine," determined Abby, pointing a finger in Tony’s direction. "You take the other one."

~oOo~

"He left the office in the right hands."

Slumped at her desk, Kate snorted, her hands drawing down her face tiredly before she peered bleary-eyed at the ME. "DiNozzo doesn’t think so. Sometimes I don‘t either."

"He did," reaffirmed Ducky.

"Well, Tony’s going to get himself killed and it’ll be on my watch."

Ducky settled a hip against the corner of the desk. "You know what today is?"

Kate glanced at her calendar. "Tuesday, June fifteenth."

Ducky merely studied her for a long moment.

"Oh, God," she murmured. "It’s been a year."

"About this time," Ducky turned the face of his watch toward her, "you and I were in DC General’s ER. I still had Jethro’s blood all over me. It didn’t look like he was going to make it and Tony was borderline."

"And that little boy was dead," remembered Kate. She mussed her hands through her hair. "Why doesn’t this get any better, Ducky? Time is supposed to make things better, right?"

"You need a drink," prescribed the physician. "I’d say a strong one."

~oOo~

"Tony?"

"You heard," deduced DiNozzo, knocking his forehead against the monitor one final time, eyes closed.

"Was a little hard not to. If you two are going to keep this up, you really need to get a room."

Tony laughed bitterly, "No worries. Those days are over. I’m almost out of your hair. And as soon as I type up a resignation letter, I plan to go get excruciatingly drunk."

"Bad plan."

This clearly wasn’t the reaction Tony had been expecting. Neither was Abby’s next instruction. "Give me your keys."

"Why?"

Pale fingers jittered under his nose. "Give ‘em."

Befuddled, DiNozzo handed the keychain over.

"You’ve got your priorities all backwards," remarked Abby, switching the captured keys from hand to hand. "Resignations can wait; we’ve got an anniversary to observe."

"I didn’t think anyone remembered," said Tony, his voice hushed.

"I remember," said Abby solemnly. "And the last case of Leroy Jethro Gibbs deserves a toast."

~oOo~

The Life Centre’s director stood at the door of Room 4 and watched the man within for a long moment. An unfair advantage, she knew, but she’d learned in the past months that the only way to truly judge this particular resident’s emotional status was to catch him unaware, before he had time to put on the stolid mask his features usually wore.

"I’m sorry, Jethro." She made her presence known with a slight cough and the commiseration.

As she expected, the apology only made the man methodically searching the drawers of the dresser stiffen his back.

"Long shot anyway."

There was only a slight resignation in the reply. The hope he’d had, what little there was of it, had never been a hope shared – with anyone as far as she knew.

As of nine a.m. this morning, Candice Walters, CMSW and PhD, had eighteen residents in various stages of sight loss and equally various stages of denial. Some of them called to her more than others. This one … well, she’d had her share of attraction to people at the wrong place or the wrong time. Meeting Leroy Jethro Gibbs here and now definitely qualified as both.

He stopped the orderly exploration to bring his good hand to his recently unbandaged left eye.

"Hurt?" she asked, stepping closer to intervene, but he brought the hand down self-consciously.

"The doc said I’d be a little photophobic for a while. Kind of ironic if you think about it: photophobia in the blind."

His visual field, what remained of it, had previously been a monotonous gray. Now it held an unattractive pinkish hue that blossomed brighter when he neared a light source. The bedside lamp brought forth a small spot of cloudy illumination. The windows -- blinds now up and the late afternoon sunlight pouring in -- were pale, soft-edged rectangles when he faced them directly. They faded rapidly when he turned his head to the left, the right eye so damaged he was unable to muster even simple light perception on that side.

It was habit, now, that he pulled his right arm tighter against his ribs as he turned, protecting the permanently curled hand from the damage he’d learned he’d easily inflict if he let it swing numb at his side.

A one-handed blind man and the one hand he could use still suffered from splotchy sensation; the ring finger and pinkie on his left hand nearly as numb as the useless fingers on his right. Braille was out. Tactile identification was iffy. His cane technique, in the words of the mobility instructor who reminded him of Abby … sucked.

And Candice, he knew, was still watching him.

"My last night," he said conversationally, knowing, too, that if he didn’t find a topic, the Centre’s director would find one for him. And it would, inevitably, be one he didn’t want to discuss.

"Apartment all ready?"

"Jeff’s going to take me to the grocery store tomorrow, help set up the kitchen." Gibbs laid the neatly folded shirts out on the bed.

"You gave Donald the phone number?"

"I gave Ducky the phone number," he corrected.

"I am not calling a grown man ‘Ducky’," Candice responded, not for the first time.

The physician -- and she wasn’t even sure what kind of physician he was – was the only one who called. The only number the detailed phone bill ever showed was called from Room 4.

Jethro Gibbs could be stubborn and emotionally aloof and fiercely independent, but people – both the staff and the other residents, particularly the younger ones – gravitated to him. Which made it even harder to believe he only had one other living person important enough to call and be called.

Candice had met the doctor, face-to-face, only once – three weeks into Gibbs’ stay when he’d banged himself up during an early OT session, taking a hard header down the outer stairs. Despite everyone’s reassurances, the older man had immediately driven the hours from DC to check out the scrapes and contusions. And she’d watched a sore and tense Gibbs relax under the comforting touch and low murmurs. As peaceful as she’d ever seen him, before or since.

"He going to come up?"

"Busy," Gibbs deflected.

~oOo~

Kate nursed a rum and Coke, and watched Ducky sip his Glenlivet. "You think he’s really going to quit?"

"In most instances," Ducky opined, "I would say, ‘no’."

"Are you saying this isn’t most instances?"

The ME looked thoughtfully at the well-stocked bar. "Jethro’s … leaving affected us all, but no one so much as Anthony."

"Well, Gibbs didn’t leave him an agent short with a full open caseload." Kate winced at her own words, biting her lip as if she could stop the already-voiced complaint. "I didn’t mean that like it sounded. Really," she took a long pull on the syrupy drink, "I didn’t."

"You’re angry with him."

"Tony? Of course I’m angry. I’m starting to see why Gibbs was always smacking him on the head. The idiot—"

"I did not mean Anthony," interrupted Ducky as he raised his glass in hopes the waitress would take notice.

"You think I’m mad at Gibbs? For God’s sake, Ducky, he almost died. From what Tony said--" Kate took an irritated swipe at the tear that escaped her rapid blinking. "Even he didn’t want us to see him that way. How can I be angry with Gibbs?"

"Easily," concluded Ducky, exchanging old tumbler for new, looking up just long enough to murmur thanks at the waitress. "I, myself, was furious with him."

"And you let him know that?" As quickly as Kate had sounded irritated, she now sounded decidedly protective of the man who’d left her with more work than she could handle and an unruly Tony DiNozzo to control in the bargain.

"I let him know what I thought about his leaving the way he did. The rest," Ducky shook his head, "… the rest was not his fault. Even though I was angry about that as well. It is irrational, but I was angry with Jethro for being injured, much as I was angry with my parents when they died."

"You talk to him, don’t you?"

Ducky threw back a swallow of whiskey. "Twice a week or so."

Kate shut her eyes. "He’s okay?"

"He says he is ‘adapting.’"

"He ever ask about us?"

"No," said Ducky gently, "he doesn’t."

Kate pressed her lips together and blinked rapidly again. "Why’d I even ask?"

"He cares, Kate." In this Ducky looked confident. "Don’t ever doubt that. It’s why he doesn’t ask."

~oOo~

Abby raised her Red Bull and clinked the can against the glass of Campari Tony was holding in mid-air. "To Gibbs."

Tony had been distant ever since she’d dragged him out into the late afternoon drizzle. She’d prevented him from retreating bodily, so he’d obviously found some interior mental wall to hide behind. Now he blinked at her in surprise, unaware he’d been sitting there, the tumbler of bittersweet, rose-hued liquor levered halfway to his slightly open lips.

"I …" he began, only to pause again as if he still wasn’t really in the same moment she was occupying. "I shouldn’t have been there."

Abby frowned. "Been where?"

"With Gibbs when …" Tony trailed off again.

"You’re starting to worry me, here, Tony."

"Yeah, well, I’m not doing a hell of lot for myself at the moment either." He settled the drink back down, untouched. "He was always … different with you and Ducky. You disarmed him, somehow."

"Ah, getting under the great shield of Gibbs. Not a quest for the fainthearted. Gibbs is like one of those little puzzle boxes. A dozen little doors you’ve got to unlock to get to the center." Abby shrugged. "Ducky and I just had a little more time to work on it. He calls him, you know."

Tony took a deep breath. "Is he okay?"

"Don’t know directly. Ducky’s a whole other puzzle box. But it’s lucky I’m a good eavesdropper."

"So?" prodded Tony.

"Both operations failed. He’s not getting his sight back." Abby watched Tony bow his head, his fingers toying with the rim of his glass. "Think they’re ready to kick him out of rehab, too. Ducky mentioned something about an apartment."

"He’s not coming back," he concluded.

"Gibbs? He’s kind of not the prodigal son type. So, I’m thinking ‘not.’ At least unless someone goes and gets him. Someone foolhardy enough to stand up to him and drag his butt back here. Maybe somebody who just can’t seem to follow orders."

Tony snorted. "And how did I get volunteered?"

"Who was the only person besides Ducky he’d let see him in the hospital?"

"That was before …"

Abby raised a dark eyebrow.

"Before I ran out on him," Tony finished.

"You didn’t run out on him. He got into one of his reclusive moods and wouldn’t see you either."

"Because I ran out on him. He probably thinks it’s because I saw him…" Tony gestured to his own face, "…saw what a thousand shards of glass will do to you. And I bolted."

Abby watched Tony rub at the fading scars crisscrossing the backs of his own hands.

"It was a shock, Tony. Maybe not to Ducky -- it’s like the Duck-man’s seen everything -- but you got to glimpse way down inside the center, you got to see our feared and mighty boss vulnerable and it scared you both."

"He doesn’t look so good, Abs."

"Well, luckily, Gibbs was never the preening type. Think—" Abby reached across the table looking terribly serious "—haircut, Gibbs-style."

She grinned at the smile that Tony finally let curl the corners of his mouth … another chink gone out of his distancing armor.

"If Gibbs doesn’t want us finding him, he can make it hard. And if Ducky hasn’t shared yet, it’s doubtful he’s going to."

"Well, you’ve got me." Abby interlaced her fingers, bending her knuckles back in jolting pops. "The hacking thing, remember? What they pay me for? Besides, I think, deep down, Gibbs does want to be found." She took another sip of the canned stimulant. "He just doesn’t realize it yet."

~oOo~

"I got it."

Jeff Martorelli smiled at the cantankerous edge to his client’s voice.

"The microwave talks. The measuring cup talks. The thermostat talks. Hell, the whole damn apartment talks."

"We’ll keep working on the Braille. If your tactile sensitivity improves, things can get quieter," promised Jeff.

Gibbs gave an inarticulate grunt in response.

"What time is it?"

The reply to this request was a groan of displeasure. Gibbs fumbled with the watch he now wore on his right wrist and pressed the button to listen to yet another mechanically-tinged voice, this one reporting it was 12:47.

"Guess you can make us some lunch, then. I’ll…" Jeff smiled a little again at the glare Gibbs tried to throw his way, "just sit over there."

"Would it work if I said I wasn’t hungry?"

"Nope." The occupational therapist pulled the chair away from the small, round table with a loud scraping sound. "I’m thinking a sandwich would be good. There’s bread in the breadbox, tomatoes and lettuce in the crisper, and ham and cheese in the meat drawer. Go to it."

Gibbs moved with surprising grace. A man clearly at home in his body, even as it was now. Probably an ex-athlete, although Gibbs had never even hinted. Even if his record hadn’t revealed it, it was obvious – given the way he took to meticulous organization – the man was ex-military.

Even hampered by the damage to his hands, he accomplished identifying the ingredients, although the OT had tried to make it easier by buying only one of anything that could easily be confused with something else. His life forcibly simplified now.

"I want mayo and mustard."

"Then get ‘em yourself," Gibbs returned as he speared the hapless tomato he was holding onto the spikes in the cutting board with a bit more force than necessary.

Everything he did now had to be broken down into a series of steps, his goals diminished to making it through the next link of a never-ending chain of tasks. If he could check off securing the fucking tomato, that only left him facing "find the knife."

Knives. In the knife block. Right side of the sink.

Subgoal of the moment: find the sink.

He trailed the back of his left hand along the counter until he hit the cool of the stainless basin.

Check off "find the sink." Move on to finding the block of knives. Find the block of knives and move on to one of his favorites – grip the damn thing and manage to hold on.

Grip. Check.

Pull. Check.

Put the knife down on the counter and get a proper hold. Check.

Back to the damn tomato.

~oOo~

"We could tap Ducky’s phone," suggested Tony, leaning against Abby’s shoulder and watching pale fingers fly over the keyboard.

"Inelegant." Abby tilted her head in the direction of the seat next to hers, the soft clicks of the keyboard never slowing. "Sign on."

"Me?"

"Well, you won’t let me tell McGee so, yeah, sign on," she urged, a hand briefly leaving the keys to pull out the chair.

"Don’t you think Kate will miss me?"

Abby rolled her eyes.

"Okay, yeah, you’re right. The less Kate sees of me, the better."

"An apartment has no title transfer," said Abby, getting back to business, "so that’s out. We’ve got his social, so I was thinking if we were lucky they at least transferred the utilities to him."

"We weren’t lucky," deduced Tony, tapping his log-in in one-fingered.

"No." Abby shook her head. "How have you never learned how to type?"

"It works fine," retorted Tony.

"Riiiiight," drawled out the lab tech. "So his cell phone is still with the same carrier but I was thinking maybe he changed plans – like, dropped the international coverage since he’s not getting reimbursed anymore. And maybe when he changed that, he changed his addy or something. And," dark-nailed fingers produced a printout, "voila! He did. Unfortunately, he changed it to the rehab – Room 4, The Life Centre. With the Brit spelling, natch. Looked it up on the net, looks like a nice place."

"You think they’ll tell us where he went?"

"No way. Serious violation of patient privacy regs."

"So?" pressed Tony.

"So we go in the sneaky way." Abby reverse-crunched her fingers with a digit wrenching pop.

"No," observed DiNozzo, "that’s what you’re going to do. What am I going to do?"

"Play Neocron and keep me company?"

~oOo~

"Uh uh … I asked for mayo and mustard."

"No," answered Gibbs, plopping the plate on the table with a clatter.

"You going to spend the rest of your life without condiments on your sandwiches?"

"If I have to." Gibbs located the other plate and used his curled hand as a stop so he could pick it up.

"The hell you are." Jeff scooted away from the table and retrieved the new bottles of mayonnaise and mustard from the refrigerator door.

Gibbs heard a drawer open and something else shut, then suddenly found his plate pushed away and a variety of objects dropped in front of him.

"Identify and open them."

"Thought the official lessons were over," observed Gibbs laconically.

"Just do it. I’m hungry."

With a sigh Gibbs dutifully crept his fingers toward the pile. "Plastic squeeze bottle." He popped the cap and put pressure on the sides. "Still sealed."

"So … open it."

"Crap," muttered Gibbs, bringing his right hand up to act as the only thing it was good for these days – dead weight. Holding the container steady with the press of his hand, he fumbled with the cap, pulling on the seal. The contents spit out with a decided wet splat so he stuck a finger into the congealed mess now soiling the table and offered it to his guest.

~oOo~

"You don’t find this boring?"

"Hell, yeah," said Abby, "I spend half my time waiting for something to go ‘beep’. But when the ‘beep’ comes, it’s like this pure Eureka!-bathtub moment and, for like a second, I’m at the top of Maslow’s fucking hierarchy. I am at one with the cosmos."

Tony blinked. "Over a ‘beep’."

"Well, yeah," said Abby, sounding suddenly shy. "Don’t you ever have orgasmic moments over anything other than …" She studied Tony’s face. "Forget it."

"It’s some kind of ‘female’ thing, isn’t it?"

"No, Ducky has them too. Kind of intellectual Big O’s."

"Whoa." Tony put his hands up. "Ducky getting off in any way is not something I particularly want to think about."

Abby scrunched up her nose. "Why? The Duck-man’s adorable. I bet he’d be such a sweetie in bed." Her frown deepened. "Is this an age-thing? I’ve never really gotten what’s up with that. I mean, a person who’s beautiful at twenty-five is going to be just as beautiful at sixty. Eyes don’t change. Souls don’t change."

Tony opened his mouth to protest but Abby was still rhapsodizing. "And I’ve seen you look at Gibbs, so don’t tell me you don’t find anyone over thirty attractive."

He realized later – sometime after the computer beeped, sending Abby into realms he simply refused to contemplate – that his jaw was still gaping open.

~oOo~

Quiet.

Normally, Gibbs liked quiet.

It had been hard enough to find a peaceful moment sharing a building with eighteen other "residents," but he’d gotten used to the noise again, just as he’d gotten used to the lack of privacy in the corp. Like he’d gotten used to sleeping anywhere. On anything.

Hell, how many mornings had he woken up on a bed of plywood?

Crap.

Among all his other lists for the performance of any menial task while sightless was one marked "mental stability." And in the top five under the heading of "things not to think about" was "the boat." Which was probably kindling by now anyway.

Fuck.

What he needed was distraction.

Weekday afternoon TV held no appeal. He pushed his way off the couch and used his leg to follow the upholstered edge to the end where he stood straighter and put out his left hand at waist-height. Four steps forward. Two to the right. Should hit the desk.

He clumsily knocked into the keyboard and groped until he found the dotted button that brought up the e-mail program. At least it banished the quiet. Even if it translated Ducky’s erudite tones into a harsh electronic rasp. Gibbs fingered the edge of the keyboard and listened to the electronic stand-in for the ME tell him all about the latest case, which devolved into some obscure statistics about the deterioration of bodies locked in submerged footlockers, and, finally, about Tony going off on his own again and Kate’s not-unexpected reaction.

Fuck.

He shut the program down. Quiet wasn’t so bad after all.

~oOo~

"So, why are you standing here?"

Tony looked down at the address scrawled on the piece of paper and then back at a clearly hyper Abby. When he’d left sometime after ten the previous night she’d been on her sixth jumbo-sized cola.

"He’s gone to a lot of trouble to protect his privacy, Abs. What if it’s really what he wants?"

"Forget what he wants," said Abby decisively. "What about what he needs? You can’t just take Gibbs’ word for this stuff, Tony. He lies."

"You say that to his face?"

A tiny grin bent the corner of Abby’s mouth upward. "A time or two, yeah."

"Then, maybe, you should go," said Tony.

"Even you said it -- I know my Gibbs. And you’re the one with the golden ticket to Gibbsville, trust me on this one. You stand at the door and knock –"

"And he’ll slam the door in my face?"

"Maybe the first couple of times." She laid a hand on Tony’s arm. "Try not to take it personally."

"I’m thinking this is not a good idea."

"Well, then stop. Thinking, that is. Just follow your heart, little grasshopper."

"Okay." Tony crumpled the paper in his fist. "Okay. I’ll go, but if he kills me – please don’t have Ducky do the autopsy. It’s … creepy."

"Got you there." Abby reached out and slung an arm around his neck. "Don’t tell Gibbs I hacked him, okay?"

"I can’t believe I’m doing this."

"’You’re like the fabled seeker of prophesy. You’re going to bring our prodigal boss-man back to us." Abby made a complex bow. "I worship at the altar of your blessed sacrifice."

Then she swatted him on the ass. "Now get the hell outta here."

~oOo~

The word "stakeout" (Ducky once told him one long, dark night when Gibbs in serious case-mode was making them both wait for a report from Abby and they’d stretched out parallel on the steel autopsy tables) was metaphorically drawn from the "staking out" of land by surveyors. Substitute LEOs for the stakes and you get … well, you get the backache Tony currently had from being scrunched in the front seat of a Buick, letting the cup of coffee go cold in his hand.

That he was, in fact, staking out Gibbs was nerve-wracking. Just not as nerve-wracking as doing what he’d been contemplating for the seven-hour drive, which was walking up to Apartment 9A and letting an unhappy Gibbs slam the door in his face.

So he’d been waiting.

For what, he didn’t exactly know.

It was one thing to be prodded into boneheaded moves by a cheerleading Abby. Entirely another to face Gibbs alone.

Shit.

That was it. This was stupid. Gibbs didn’t want him here and he knew it. Tony reached for the ignition.

At the same moment, across the street the front door swung open, the slanting late afternoon sun hitting the door’s metal edge with a reflected shard of brilliance that played its way across the dashboard where Tony was dully staring. The sharp triangle of light made him glance up.

Gibbs stood just outside the little covered portico and tilted his face up to the deep blue sky as if basking.

Numbly Tony dropped his hand from the key.

Gibbs was a little thinner. A little grayer. A pair of oddly stylish sunglasses hid his eyes. As Tony watched, he reached out with his left hand and oriented himself against the upright of the portico, then he unhooked the folded cane from his belt and snapped it out. He held his right arm tightly against his side, the lifeless hand curled into his waist.

There was a decided method to Gibbs’ movements. A kind of rote pattern in the way he positioned himself against the wooden pillar so he was aligned straight with the sidewalk in front of him. He held the long cane almost straight-armed, then with a deep sigh visible from even Tony’s distance, started forward. His wrist swung the thin white metal in an arc slightly wider than his shoulders.

Tony got out of the car and leaned against it, both his hands suddenly clammy where they pressed into the driver’s-side door. Gibbs made it to the perpendicular intersection where sidewalk met sidewalk and stopped, gathering the cane vertically against him so the tip rested between his feet.

"My technique sucks, I know."

Tony blinked at this pronouncement; sure it wasn’t meant for him, but at a loss as to who it could be meant for.

"You gonna come in, DiNozzo, or you just going to stand there and gape?"

"Boss?" It came out embarrassingly weakly. "How’d did you—"

"One, Ducky called me. The thing to know about Abby is she’ll crumble if you offer her A&W Root Beer Barrels. Two, you’re staking out a blind man, so it’s not like you’d be hiding. Directly across from the front door was a pretty good bet. Three, it takes eight hours at most to drive up here. It’s now been ten. If you weren’t there, the worst that would happen is that the neighbors think I’m a little … odd."

"You sure you want me to—"

Gibbs had turned his head to the side, trying to make out the weak reply. Now he bowed his head, a disturbingly uncharacteristic movement that showed clearly – as if Tony hadn’t gotten it from the cane and the careful steps – that he was not using his eyes at all. "Get over here, DiNozzo. Now."

The bark was still the same, though.

"Yes, boss."

Gibbs frowned at the sound of keys being dropped on the asphalt. This was followed by the low groan Tony produced when he bent to retrieve them. Gibbs tilted his head to the left a little. "Watch out for the car, DiNozzo," he said patiently.

"Yes, boss."

The vehicle passed. Footsteps beat a steady advance toward him and, in a second, Tony was standing beside him, his shadow blocking the warmth of the low sun. His breathing was audible and a little rapid.

Gibbs toed the crack in the sidewalk where the two concrete slabs met each other to get his exact position. "Quit calling me ‘boss,’ DiNozzo."

"Yes, bo--."

"And move," ordered Gibbs.

"Move?" Tony’s voice, previously faint, had taken on a decided squeak.

"Yeah. When you’re blind, everything you do has a plan. You’re in the way of Step One."

"I—"

"Move, DiNozzo," Gibbs enunciated more clearly.

"Can’t you just take my arm or something?"

"No." Tony found Gibbs’ tone remarkably patient, as if he’d grown used to talking very slowly to idiots who didn’t know how to handle the whole blindness thing. "I got myself out here. I’m required to get myself back."

"That like Gibbs’ Blind Rule One?" inquired Tony.

"Something like that. Now get out of my way."

Tony held up his hands. Then lowered them, somehow embarrassed to have made the clearly unseen gesture. "Okay. I’m getting out of the way."

He stepped onto the grass and Gibbs grunted his approval, resolidfying his grip on the cane. Seven measured steps down the hard walkway he stopped, turning his head back in the direction he’d come. "You coming, DiNozzo?"

"Yeah. Uh, yeah."

Quick footsteps brought Tony even with him. A faint scent of sweat and old coffee joining in the mixed aroma of honeysuckle and car exhaust that usually marked the building’s front courtyard. DiNozzo, he could tell, had shortened his normally fast, long-legged stride. The younger man stayed with him step for precise step, the presence an unwelcome comfort at his side.

"Am I allowed to get the door?"

Gibbs swore he could feel the younger man’s gaze fix on his damaged hand and he found himself drawing his right arm tighter against him. His eyes he could hide behind dark glasses, his hand there was nothing much to do about and, he admitted, it had some uses: paperweight being its currently favored function.

"You can get the door," agreed Gibbs. It took some effort to wedge the cane between his hip and right forearm for safekeeping, pull the door open, keep it open with a toe, regain the cane in his usable hand and then orient himself correctly in the hallway.

Tony’s report of "it’s open" was superfluous, however. Without effort he could feel the whoosh of escaping cooled air washing over him. He let his left hand bump against the door being held open by DiNozzo in order to locate exactly where he’d stepped through. The hallway felt cramped after being outdoors; he could feel the walls pressing inward even though it was easily wide enough for people to pass without any difficulty. Gibbs involuntarily shuddered when he realized he couldn’t imagine being in the confines of a sub, or even a carrier, in his own personal dark.

"You okay?" At least Tony had managed to silence the "boss" he’d been tacking on to the end of every utterance. Although Gibbs could still feel it, hanging unspoken.

"Yeah."

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. Gibbs was back to practically being monosyllabic.

"Can I—"

"No," replied Gibbs to … whatever was being offered. "Place is this way." He nodded his head to the right.

"Lead the way, b-" The honorific was quickly swallowed back.

~oOo~

The apartment Gibbs waved him into was utilitarian and sparse. Sort of what he’d expected Gibbs’ house to be like, except the house had turned out to be warm and masculine: full of wood floors and heavy, dark, plump-cushioned furniture; walls filled with built-in bookshelves and a pair of king-sized waterbeds, the master with a mirrored canopy that had given him … pause.

Here, light spilled in from tall windows, defeating the struggles of the air conditioning unit, washing out the flat beige paint. The furniture was rental stuff – cheap and likewise monotonously colored. A computer sat on a desk against one drab wall. An entertainment center took up most of one of the others. The tables were all spotlessly bare.

Tony watched Gibbs stand the cane against the tiny corner made where the doorframe met the wall. Then he pulled his cell phone off his belt and flipped it open, thumbing the OK button under the screen.

Gibbs grimaced a little as the tinny speech mode twanged the battery level and signal strength before moving on to report he’d missed one call – undoubtedly Ducky’s – while he was out running DiNozzo out of the street. He’d felt the insistent vibration but navigating was too complex a task at the moment to allow him to stop and take a phone call. As the none-too-good approximation of a female voice recited the well-known number, he was already holding down the "1" key.

"I found him," he reported at Ducky’s slightly accented greeting. "You can call off the APB."

Tony struggled to listen but, instinctively, as if he knew he was eavesdropping, Gibbs buried the phone tighter against his ear, his own voice softening. "Yeah. I will. Yeah. I know. You’ll have him back tomorrow, Duck. Yeah. You, too."

Tony fidgeted while Gibbs replaced the cell on his belt.

"Now that we’ve determined you are here." Gibbs positioned himself an arm’s length away from the edge of the counter and paced off the five steps to the back of the couch. "I admit I’m at a loss as to ‘why’."

"Wanted to see you, b-- … Gibbs. You kind of kicked me out of the hospital and then you up and disappeared."

"You looking for closure?" Gibbs trailed the back of his hand around the back and arm to sink down into the corner of the sofa.

"No," said Tony, settling on the opposite end of the cushions. "Had closure – admittedly it was a kind of forced closure, but closure we’ve had."

"Did that make any sense, DiNozzo?" frowned Gibbs.

Tony put it plainly. "You left."

"I can’t see, Tony, they weren’t going to let me stay."

"No, not the job." The sofa rocked beneath him as Tony abruptly abandoned his seat. "You left … us."

"You’re part of the job," reasoned Gibbs.

"That’s really all we were to you?"

Gibbs tried to follow the pacing footsteps. "What exactly do you want from me?"

"I want you to come home."

Gibbs rubbed a hand over his jaw. "I don’t have a ‘home’, DiNozzo."

"Of course you do. You have me, and Ducky, and Kate, and Abby. Hell, even McGee misses you. Kate just can’t make him jump out of his skin the way you could."

"You seem to have forgotten something," replied Gibbs wearily.

Tony brushed his legs as he moved past him, but there was no dip to show he’d settled on the couch.

"What?"

Gibbs tried to place where DiNozzo was, putting out a hand that connected solidly with Tony’s knee.

"I’m sitting on the table. And what … what have I forgotten?" the tenor voice reiterated.

"For starters," Gibbs reached up and pulled off the dark glasses, "… this."

"I know you’re blind, boss," said Tony gently.

"Not just ‘blind’," reminded Gibbs unnecessarily.

"Okay, not just blind."

The latticework of scars crisscrossed Gibbs’ half-closed eyelids, a few fainter lines dotting his cheeks and chin and disappearing down his neck. Tony rubbed the ridges on the backs of his own hands self-consciously. The cloudiness of the cataracts was gone, but the blue of Gibbs’ eyes, what he could see of it under drooping lids, still seemed paler than he’d remembered.

"Something you’d want to see every day, DiNozzo?"

Tony tried to lighten the mood. "You think we loved you for your looks?"

"Not your job to love me at all," observed Gibbs, finding his left hand, though weak, nearly threatened to snap the thin plastic of the glasses’ frame.

"Well, you may have kept things on a strictly don’t-take-home basis, but I don’t think the rest of us have that military organization thing going. You, uh, hurt them, shutting them out like that."

"Or is that an ‘I hurt you,’ DiNozzo?"

Gibbs didn’t have to see to know the younger man had flinched, the involuntary movement reported by the soft sigh of cloth brushing cloth. "I know what I did, Gibbs. I know I … ran and that you didn’t let me explain—"

"Nothing to explain. Your supervisor is not your personnel burden to be borne. Or theirs."

"You pushed me down, didn’t you?"

The question was almost too soft for Gibbs to make out. "What?"

"When the bomb went off. I don’t remember it, never have really. But I dream about it, and in the dream you push me down."

Gibbs shook his head. "I … I don’t know. I just remember seeing the boy on the skateboard and knowing it was too late."

Tony’s knees knocked against Gibbs’ as he shifted uncomfortably. "You push me down and, when the glass breaks over us, I cover my head."

"I told you, Tony. I don’t remember. But if you’re thinking—"

"Thinking something like, maybe if I’d helped you … he wouldn’t be dead?"

"He was dead the minute he crossed in front of us. Neither of us could have gotten to him quickly enough."

"I still should have … God," Tony’s roughened voice trailed off.

Abandoning the glasses on the cushion, Gibbs reached out until his hand met the body rocking back and forth in front of him.

"I, uh," Tony released a shuddering breath, "regained consciousness before the paramedics got there, and all I could see was Ducky bending over you, trying to keep you from bleeding out. He’d put his jacket over the boy but the blood…" Tony swallowed convulsively, "I thought you were dead, Gibbs. The way Ducky looked …"

"Come here." Wrapping his hand around Tony’s bicep, Gibbs pulled the agitated body toward him, urging Tony to sit beside him on the couch. "It’s okay, Tony. You did everything right. That just doesn’t necessarily stop things from going to hell in a hand basket."

"I just wanted—"

Gibbs jerked backwards when the tips of Tony’s fingers unexpectedly brushed along his cheekbone and he turned his head, closing his pale eyes. His hands fumbled along the cushions until they locked on the dark glasses, which he clumsily replaced.

"You wanted *what*, DiNozzo? To do your good deed for the day? To come here and cheer up the maimed?"

Gibbs face was flushed, he could feel the embarrassing heat of it, and he lashed out, his left hand striking Tony hard enough to produce a gasp. DiNozzo rose and stepped away, and the realization he wasn’t worthy to fight, the insult of the action, loosened the hold Gibbs had managed to keep on his anger. He followed the retreat unerringly, his curled fist performing an inelegant series of jabs to set up his left hook. Tony fell back with a muffled grunt that Gibbs honed in on with equal precision. He launched himself against the younger man, his body blows going unblocked, and they both crashed to a tangle in the floor. He could feel Tony trying to forestall the punches, the open palms trying to push him back, but he was past placation, past caring that the awkward pounding wasn’t being returned.

He landed a clumsy uppercut as they wrestled on their knees and Tony sagged against him momentarily, his breaths sounding raspy. Only then did Gibbs realize the younger man was mumbling, softly, under the wet respirations. "Stop. Please, stop."

Gibbs immediately released the hold he had on now-bruised ribs and Tony fell backwards onto his ass, curling into himself. But the pleas continued.

Stop. Please, stop.

Gibbs crab-walked backwards on his elbows, the skin of his knuckles sore, his curled fingers aching. His shoulder hit the table Tony had so recently been sitting on, jarring him, adding another dull pain.

Stop. Please stop.

From somewhere in the darkness in front of him, Tony coughed. Gibbs could hear him get his legs under him, could hear the rustle of cloth and the rough intake of air.

A little shaken, Tony put a hand to a particularly sore rib and managed to roll up to his knees. Gibbs looked … terrible. Shocked and bone white where he lay half-sprawled against the coffee table’s sharp corner, his right hand bruised and bloodied from being used as a blunt object. Tony tried to bring air in through a nose he suspected was broken. A pretty effective blunt object, if he were honest.

"Boss, let me help you."

It came out a little … breathless, but not bad considering. Tony managed to get a few inches closer before Gibbs scrambled clumsily, his left hand flailing for purchase on the sofa cushions. He brought the nearest one down between them, an inadequate barrier that Tony easily swept aside.

"Hey," this tone was higher and softer, pitched to be soothing, though the still-raspy quality ruined the effect. "Let me see your hand."

Gibbs drew the curled fist closer against him as Tony reached for it and the balance Tony had been maintaining suddenly failed as the blows caught up with him. He had enough presence of mind to land against the cushioned edge of the sofa, laying there while things grayed in and out.

He tried not to jerk when a hand landed – softly this time – on his head, fingers tentatively exploring his rapidly swelling cheekbone and nose, recoiling from the wetness of his split lip.

"God, DiNozzo …"

Tony pushed himself back up, the room finally coming back into clear focus. "It’s okay."

"I’m sorry." The apology became a litany as Gibbs’ touch ghosted over arms and ribs. "I’m sorry. I’m sorry."

"It’s okay. I’m just a little bent."

Tentatively Tony drew Gibbs toward him, letting the older man rest his forehead against his shoulder … if he would.

But Gibbs pulled away, refusing to be placated, instead still desperately trying to find out what damage had been done. Then it dawned, suddenly, that the pleas for him to stop probably had more to do with Tony’s desire not to hurt him than with any physical harm he’d inflicted. He stumbled backwards in a half-crouch, his back finally impacting with what could only be the desk chair.

Tony felt … bereft, the ghost of the sensation of holding Gibbs still tantalizing the bare skin of his arms. How long he’d wanted to hold the older man… but not here, not under this cloud of hurt.

"Hey, whoa," Tony winced as Gibbs backed heavily into the wooden chair.

Holding on to the slatted back, Gibbs struggled to his feet. "Get out of here, DiNozzo."

Tony wiped away the blood that threatened to drip from his chin. "Not without cleaning us up first." He held his blood-smeared hand away from his clothes as if to show Gibbs the evidence of the battering. "I’m bleeding." Tony pressed his tongue against aching teeth. "Got a couple of loose teeth, too. So, I’m thinking you need to let me see your hands."

Self-consciously, Gibbs stretched his left fingers painfully, then gingerly examined the damage to the digits he couldn’t uncurl. His knuckles proved swollen and sticky – though whether it was with his blood, or Tony’s, he didn’t know.

"Let me see," pleaded Tony softly, coming hesitantly closer. He sniffed loudly, trying to breathe through his rapidly swelling nose.

"Your nose broken?" Gibbs found himself fruitlessly trying to focus on the darker shadow in the pink-gray dusk of his unrestored vision.

"Think so," admitted Tony with a half-hearted smile that Gibbs could hear in the lightened tenor.

Gibbs nodded, lowering his head when Tony drew nearer, suddenly aware he’d lost the dark sunglasses in the shuffle. Fingers tentatively touched his left wrist, a gentle warmth that coaxed him to palm his hand to Tony’s.

The soft touch ebbed and flowed, disappearing as the pads of Tony’s fingers swept over the patches of numbness left where glass had bisected nerve. His ring finger and pinkie shuddered convulsively as the touch stimulated still healing pathways whose full reconnection, according to Ducky, could take years. If it came at all. In truth, had the damage to his right hand not be so extensive, he’d have been bitching about the fucking uselessness of his left. Although from the still congested sound of Tony’s breathing, they both still had their uses.

"Don’t think you broke anything on that one." Tony released the hand gently, and Gibbs curled his fingers inward at the loss of the warmth. "Now let me see the other one."

Licking dry lips, Gibbs moved his right hand away from the protective closeness of his body. He couldn’t really feel anything, just a kind of deep, dull ache that didn’t let up. This time Tony’s fingers didn’t much penetrate the numbness, but he could hear Tony’s deeply drawn breath.

"No wonder my teeth are loose." Tony mused, cupping the twisted hand in his, frowning down at the split knuckles. He pressed against the swollen skin, trying to feel any definite give, unsure how much of the damage to the heavily scarred hand was new. "You got a first-aid kit?"

"Think there’s one in the bathroom, Jeff said …" to tell the truth, Gibbs really hadn’t been listening to the OT about that time, "…something about one."

The light from the bath snapped on with a click and he could hear Tony’s groan as he looked at himself in the mirror. Gibbs knew there was one, had nearly put his fist through its solid smoothness in a fit of frustration the first day he’d been alone. An indulgence he should have allowed himself, rather than letting it build until it was Tony who bore the brunt of his anger.

"Stay there a minute," advised Tony, sweeping back past him to replace the cushions on the couch.

"Not going anywhere," muttered Gibbs.

"Jeff?" Tony inquired, once he’d latched onto Gibbs’ arm and was urging him up toward the sofa.

"Occupational therapist."

"Ah," replied Tony. "Couch is right beside you."

Gibbs drew a deep breath as he sat down. Wasn’t this where they’d started, hadn’t he been the one comforting the younger man when Tony had … fuck… just touched him and all hell had broken loose?

Reminded again of the missing glasses, Gibbs tucked his chin to his chest.

"Don’t," breathed Tony softly.

"Don’t what?"

"Hide." Tony shifted, his hand moving to curve around Gibbs’ wrist where the touch could be felt. "I’m going to touch you, okay? So don’t punch me."

A fingertip lightly brushed the base of Gibbs’ jaw, a gentle entreaty for him to face the younger man.

"You let anyone touch you since the accident?"

"Wasn’t an accident," corrected Gibbs softly. "Bombs aren’t accidents."

"Okay," agreed Tony, equally quietly, "but you didn’t answer my question."

"When you’re …" Gibbs hesitated, finding it unusually hard to get the innocuous five-letter word out of his mouth. "When you’re blind, everybody touches you."

"Not what I meant," pointed out Tony, leaving the "and you know it" to pass silently between them.

The warmth still caressing his jaw moved slightly upward as Tony brushed a fingertip along a fading scar. Gibbs blinked slowly, but he held the impulse to pull back in check, clinging somehow to the small certainty that Tony faced similar scars everyday. He could feel their hated presence on the backs of Tony’s hands.

The touch moved to the soft skin beneath his right eye, the sensation traveling along what he knew was a jagged line of scar tissue. He struggled to keep the unusually heavy eyelid from closing, fighting the urge to hide the useless eye that he knew no longer even moved.

Gibbs frowned at the sense of pressure that he knew was Tony leaning closer, then the corner of the scarred and sagging lid was brushed by a feather-light warmth. This was followed by the briefest of kisses to the hollow of his temple.

"What are you doing?" It should have come out like a command, but instead the question was a near breathless squeak.

"Touching you," said Tony simply, trying to smooth away the lines etching Gibbs’ forehead with a similar caress.

Though he hated the stereotyped notion of it, Gibbs raised his left hand, ignoring the aches of the battered flesh. He found Tony’s arm, followed it up until he could palm the strong shoulder and trace his way to the neck and jaw. His index finger crossed a too familiar rise that revealed healed tissue and he dutifully examined the length of the slashing curve running along the beard-roughened cheek.

"Abby says it makes me look rakish," put in Tony, his smile rippling the muscles beneath Gibbs' touch.

"You seen a plastics guy?"

The shake of Tony’s head separated him momentarily from Gibbs’ reach and he was glad when the warmth settled back under his fingertips. It was difficult to equate what he’d once seen with what he now took in with his damaged touch, but Tony seemed … thinner, and the lines furrowing his forehead now seemed permanent fixtures. He wondered – oddly – if gray had begun to dot the younger man’s brown hair; he’d been about Tony’s age when silver first threaded his own.

He returned gingerly to the scarred cheek. Tony had known what his looks did to other people. Had used them when needed. To be visibly scarred must be … Gibbs closed his hand into a fist.

"Any more?" asked Gibbs, finding his voice damningly shaky.

Suddenly cold fingers closed around his own.

"Not as obvious." Gibbs found his fingers directed upward to a wound so near Tony’s eye that he winced. "Here." Tony’s eyelashes fluttered against his finger. "And here." The last scar disappeared into the soft sweep of Tony’s hair.

Gibbs raised his head. "People do a double-take?"

"Sometimes," admitted Tony.

"I’m sorry."

"Ssh," Tony squeezed the hand still in his. "Considering the alternative, I’m thinking alive and a little nicked up is pretty good."

"A little nicked up?" Gibbs’ laugh had an edge to it that Tony didn’t like.

"Yeah. I figure that’s all it is. A few scuffs on the finish. All the good stuff about a person is still in here." Tony pressed his palm to Gibbs’ chest, feeling the resounding beat of his heart.

"I…" Gibbs shook his head. "I think you better go."

"I don’t want to leave you…"

"…like this," finished Gibbs acidly, pulling away.

"Whoa." Tony’s hand gripped around his arm but Gibbs yanked out of his reach, fists at ready again. "Hey, I thought you wouldn’t punch me."

Gibbs lowered his hands. "I’m not going to punch you, Tony."

"Good, then would you just hear me out? I thought I came up here to tell you that this was killing us … all of us. But I get here, and all I can think about is that it’s killing me. I miss you, Gibbs. And I don’t want to think that I’m missing you because I fucked up."

"We just went over this," comforted Gibbs. "It was a bomb. Whether I was standing two feet closer, or you were, was totally a matter of chance."

"I’m not talking about the bomb." Tony’s voice softened and Gibbs knew he must have ducked his head. "I’m talking about the day in the hospital, when they took the bandages off."

"I get more than double-takes, Tony." Gibbs put out an unsteady hand, resting it on the younger man’s leg. "I’m sure it wasn’t a pretty sight."

"I didn’t leave because of the scars. I left because … I think I couldn’t imagine that you’d really been hurt. That you were just like the rest of us. No special Gibbs-protection. No…"

"…invincibility?" added Gibbs, remembering Ducky’s lecture on the same subject. Gibbs squeezed Tony’s knee. "Nope, no invincibility."

"I’m going to touch you," warned Tony.

He turned Gibbs’ face back toward him. "I guess you … know that I, uh, that my interest in you was never purely professional."

"I don’t need a pity-fuck, DiNozzo."

"You know me, Gibbs; you think I give them? I’m way too egocentric for that."

Gibbs smiled, the laugh lines visible at the corners of his eyes. "You can stay the night, Tony. On the couch." Gibbs sobered as Tony’s thumb ran along his cheek. "I’ve … missed you, too. " His hand covered Tony’s. "I’ve got some ice in the freezer. You might want to put it on those shiners you’re going to have."

Tony found his hand gently lowered.

"I’ll go get it."

"You don’t have to take care of me, Gibbs."

Gibbs carefully removed the tray of ice and topped it with a couple kitchen towels and a plastic bag, treading his way methodically back across the floor. "I’m the one who hit you, DiNozzo. Least I can do is get you some ice." He settled the makeshift first-aid on the table before tossing the towels in Tony’s direction.

"So, you and Kate doing okay?"

"Yeah, we have a few differences of opinion on things." Tony bunched a handful of ice into the plastic and covered it with the towel. "We can get kind of vocal."

"But you’ve got each other’s back," presumed Gibbs.

"Yeah." Tony pressed the icepack to his face and waited for the cold to seep through the cloth. "I hadn’t thought about it, but I guess we do."

They sat in silence for a few minutes before Tony pressed the point. "They want to see you."

"I don’t think so."

Gibbs heard the crunch of the icepack being resettled.

"Don’t sell us short. We want you back. I think we need you back. Kate and me, it’s … maybe …not such a good mix…"

"The reason I didn’t leave it in your hands—-" began Gibbs.

"It’s not that. I didn’t want your job, boss. I just don’t think Kate wanted it, either."

"She’s young. She’ll learn. And the reason—" Gibbs held up a hand when Tony tried to silence him again. "The reason I didn’t leave you in charge is that what you do best is field work: going undercover, or charming the hell out of witnesses. You didn’t want to be filling out the budget and worrying about keeping track of McGee’s vacation days. If you -- or Kate -- saw it as some kind of judgment on your ability, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend that."

Gibbs blinked into the suddenly pressing quiet. "You did think that, didn’t you? Kate, too. Shit." Gibbs carded his hand through his hair. "I wasn’t thinking too clearly at that point. I thought she realized…" He pounded his numbed fist against his thigh.

"Hey," Tony captured the already injured fist and held it carefully, "don’t. I don’t know that we looked for a deeper meaning. The assignment just came down from Morrow and Kate did what she had to. She got the job done."

"You would have, too."

"I would have tried my best," acknowledged Tony. "But that’s not how it came down. I’m okay with that. I’m even okay with arguing with Kate. It’s not like you didn’t give me plenty of practice."

Tony let go of his hand but when Gibbs tried to draw it back, Tony recaptured it lightly. "Uh uh. I haven’t even cleaned you up yet."

Gibbs could barely feel the cool of the disinfectant being dotted against his split knuckles. "Ducky said you threatened to quit."

Tony grunted. "Well, that’s not entirely … untrue."

"You’re a good agent, Tony. I don’t think I said that often enough."

Tony reached across to take Gibbs’ other hand. "I don’t remember you saying that at all, boss."

Gibbs winced when Tony dabbed at the more sensitive flesh. "If I didn’t, I should have."

"It’s okay. I figured that if I hadn’t been fired, I must have been performing adequately." Tony’s voice was serious, none of the light lilt at the end of his words that would have revealed his smile.

Gibbs leaned back against the sofa cushions with a sigh. "I should talk to Kate."

"Yes, you should," agreed Tony, finishing his ministrations. "But not on my behalf." He winced as bruised ribs reminded him that Gibbs wasn’t the only one that had come out of this a little battered. "You got something to drink in his place?"

"Cupboard above the stove," said Gibbs, indicating the kitchen with a tilt of his head.

"Bourbon, boss?" Tony asked when he'd swung the cupboard open.

"Single-barrel bourbon," retorted Gibbs, laying the back of his head against the couch cushion. "Don’t insult it. It took fourteen years in charred oak barrels, letting the angels take their third, to get that bottle."

"Didn’t know you had another hobby besides the boat," mused Tony, placing one of the glasses he’d poured in Gibbs hand, wrapping his own around it until he was sure of Gibbs’ hold.

"My great-grandfather was a cooper," Gibbs took a sip of the amber liquid, "at Bardstown." He held up the glass in a silent toast. "In the county of Bourbon."

"Bourbon is a county," reconfirmed Tony, peering distrustfully at the drink in his hand.

"Abraham Lincoln was born in Bourbon County."

"State of—"

"Kentucky, DiNozzo. The state of Kentucky."

"Sorry, boss. The DiNozzos didn’t really get south of the Mason-Dixon Line." Tony took a tentative sip, letting the taste fill his mouth with hints of burnt caramel and an oaky vanilla. "Guess that explains the name," he mused.

"Name?"

"Leroy Jethro?" Tony prodded. "When have you met another ‘Leroy Jethro’?"

"My father," said Gibbs.

"You were named for your father?"

"And his father."

"There’s a whole line of Leroy Jethro Gibbs?"

"Oh yeah."

"Well, that’s just…" Tony paused, "frightening, actually."

"Whereas ‘Anthony Anastagio DiNozzo’ is—"

"Okay," Tony capitulated, "our parents obviously both sucked at baby naming. At least you didn’t continue the tradition." He took another sip of the smoky whiskey. "This really isn’t too bad."

~oOo~

Tony groped muzzily at the sofa back, squinting against the too-bright light of mid-morning. "What hit me?"

"I did, DiNozzo."

"Not you," groaned Tony, managing to focus on Gibbs, who was seated in the nearby chair looking annoyingly unhungover, "the bourbon." He fought his way upright, grabbing at his sore ribs. "Okay, some of it was you."

Gibbs got up with the same measured precision Tony had witnessed yesterday, methodically moving to the kitchen where he filled a glass with water. Tony thirstily licked his lips. "Could I--?"

"It’s for you, Tony," Gibbs said patiently. "First rule of a hangover: rehydrate."

"What’s in that stuff anyway?"

Making his way carefully now that his one working hand was busy not dropping the glass, Gibbs counted off the steps, locating the foot of the sofa with bare toes. "According to Abby – congeners."

The glass disappeared from his hand, quickly followed by the sound Tony gulping noisily.

"Don’t drink so fast."

"Wouldn’t have thought of you as a guy who knew hangover cures," remarked Tony, swallowing hard, his stomach immediately regretting his impatience. He swallowed again.

"Don’t throw up on the couch, DiNozzo," ordered Gibbs. "It’s rented."

"Right, b—" This time the automatic title was cut off by the pounding of feet retreating in the direction off the bathroom.

Gibbs winced at the sound of retching, retreating into the kitchen to put some space between his ears and the guttural noises.

"What the hell are congers?" Tony asked a few minutes later, voice soft, the question interspersed with short panting breaths.

"Congers are eels," replied Gibbs. "Congeners are toxic chemicals that form during fermentation."

"Why doesn’t that make me feel any better?"

Gibbs followed the sound of the lagging footsteps, returning to his place behind the couch when he heard Tony collapse onto the cushions.

"Try some more water?" He held out the glass. "Slowly, this time?"

~oOo~

"I have to …" Tony stopped, not wanting to leave, but knowing there was enough animosity between him and Kate already, going AWOL yet another day would only add to it. And the drive back to DC was long. "Work," he finished lamely.

He studied Gibbs. "Come with me?"

"Not yet," Gibbs demurred. He turned his head like he was looking away.

"I miss you."

The declaration brought out a small smile. Tony could see it crook the visible corner of Gibbs’ mouth.

"Tony, you don’t have to—"

"Why do you think I’m … soothing your ego or something?"

"DiNozzo, you can have anybody you want. What would you want with a broken down ex-Marine?"

He could hear Tony shift against the couch. The reply was quiet. "I’m not who everybody thinks I am."

"Then who are you, Tony?"

"I’m just some doofus Baltimore cop that you seemed to see something in." The cushions shifted again. "Kate knows who I am. She reams even better than you did."

Tony looked up, wanting to meet the sharp blue-eyed gaze he remembered.

"She sees me all too clearly."

"Tony—" began Gibbs.

"I … look, I better go. As usual I’ve overstayed my welcome."

"Tony, wait."

"It’s okay," Tony hesitated before adding, "boss. I’m not trying to …," the quiet words hesitated again, "I just wanted to see you. Kate and Abby want to see you, too. We … we went through a lot together. They just want to remember."

"Okay, you’re right," Gibbs conceded. "I … owe them that."

A shadow fell across the pale blur of Gibbs’ sight and he lifted his head as if he could make out the younger man in the almost shapeless silhouette.

"Thank you," said Tony, bowing his head, "for not slamming the door in my face."

"The door’s unlocked. You know that."

"Always meant to ask you about that. It’s not the smartest move, you know, leaving your place open."

"It’s just … stuff." Gibbs gestured to the dull walls with his good hand.

"I figured you just always wanted the opportunity to shoot the burglar," replied Tony.

Gibbs grinned.

"You did just want to shoot a burglar, didn’t you?"

"You got me there, Tony." Gibbs pushed to his feet.

"You’ll come?" the younger man pressed.

"I’ll come."

Tony resisted putting a hand out to stop Gibbs’ slight swaying. "You just call and I’ll come get you."

Gibbs nodded.

"Boss?" There was a pause. "Don’t hit me … but I’m going to—"

Gibbs expected to feel the press of fingers, instead he was wrapped up in Tony’s arms, drawn into the warmth of a hard embrace. Clumsily he wrapped his left hand around Tony’s waist, palming his intermittently sensitive hand against the back of the wrinkled shirt, letting himself be held.

Tony stood still, finding he could feel, millimeter by millimeter, the body in his arms relaxing until, finally, Gibbs rested his forehead heavily against Tony’s shoulder, letting him take some of his weight. Tentatively, Tony cupped his hand over the crown of Gibbs’ head, stroking the silvered hair. Even more carefully, he turned toward him and placed a dry kiss against Gibbs’ temple. Gibbs stiffened minutely, then relaxed, their breathing slowing in tandem.

Eventually it was Tony who broke the silence. "I should go."

Against him, Gibbs nodded in agreement and Tony gently disentangled himself, making sure Gibbs was balanced before he released him. Immediately Gibbs reached out, searching for a landmark to use as an anchor in the dark. Tony guided Gibbs’ hand back to the arm of the chair, a hand on his waist as he settled him into it.

Gibbs squinted up at the shadow again blocking the little light he could make out. He realized, belatedly, that he had no idea where his dark glasses were. "Be careful."

"You’ll call?" Tony asked again.

"I’ll call, Tony. I said I would."

Tony grinned at the still familiar tone of irritation.

"Okay, you’ll call. I’m going." The voice grew a little fainter, as if Tony was talking more to himself as he moved toward the door than to Gibbs. "I’m going. I’m going."

And then the door closed with a soft snick and he was truly gone.

Gibbs sat for a while and contemplated how quickly quiet could lose its charm.

~oOo~

The knocking on the door took a while to pound its way into his consciousness, but when it did, Gibbs shot to his feet, his right hand taking a heavy blow against the nightstand in his disoriented scramble.

He fumbled for the watch on his wrist, sleep-impeded fingers too clumsy to easily find the small button.

Two in the morning.

Maybe Tony …

Gibbs squelched that thought down. Maybe in the moment, the younger man had mistaken simple affection for something more, but Gibbs knew that was all it was.

Whoever was at his door at this hour of the morning, it wasn’t Tony.

"Coming," he shouted at the continual rapping as he lurched down the hall, still disoriented, the walls seeming misplaced, the front door steps further than it should have been.

"What—" he started to demand, clumsily jamming the door into his toes when he didn’t step back carefully enough.

"It’s me, Jethro."

Gibbs let the door swing all the way open. "Ducky? What’s wrong?"

"There’s been an accident." A gentle hand grasped his elbow, ready to support him. "It’s Anthony. There was a driver, drunk, driving the wrong way on I-95. He crossed the median. A semi swerved to avoid him; apparently Tony was in the next lane."

Ducky tightened his hold as Gibbs’ footing threatened to fail. "Is he dead, Duck?"

"No," reassured the physician. "He’s in the ICU at Mass General. We got the call around seven. I thought you’d want to--"

"Yeah, uh …" Gibbs ran a hand through his mussed hair. "I’ll get dressed."

"You’re bleeding," observed the physician, taking the fisted right hand into his.

"I hit--" Ducky steadied him as Gibbs tried to turn back toward the bedroom. "The knocking startled me … the nightstand --"

"All right," said Ducky softly. "You’re going to sit down, Jethro. You’re showing some signs of shock."

"No," Gibbs pulled out of his hold. "We should—"

"We’ll go when I make sure you’re all right." He frowned at the slowness of Gibbs’ responses and the slight tremors shaking the leaning body. "I have my Hippocratic Oath to think about."

Carefully, he walked the dazed man to the nearest chair, settling to take the injured fist back into his hands. He gently examined the battered flesh, frowning.

"Jethro, this didn’t all just happen because you ran into the nightstand." He reached over and turned Gibbs’ left hand over as well, a sharp intake of breath telling Gibbs’ he’d seen the bruises. "Did you get into a fight? Are you hurt?"

"I …" Gibbs flexed his sore fingers, "I hit Tony."

"What?" murmured the physician, his fingers gingerly examining each swollen joint. "Why would you hit Anthony?"

"I don’t know." Gibbs closed his eyes. "It just happened."

"Are you hurt?" repeated Ducky, his hands moving to run along Gibbs’ ribs.

"No, he wouldn’t … he didn’t fight back."

"Sit still," instructed the ME, his quick exam finding nothing more than contusions. "Let me find something to wrap your hand."

"God, Duck, if something’s happened to him …"

Gibbs heard the ME’s footsteps halt. "Did he leave angry?"

"No." Gibbs shook his head. "He … he wanted me to come with him."

"It’ll be all right, Jethro. Let me fix you up and then we’ll go. Everything’s going to be fine."

But Ducky sounded tired and Gibbs had been placated with too many empty platitudes in the last year. He buried his face in his hand.

~oOo~

It was a long, silent ride to Boston, broken only by the occasional ringing of Ducky’s cell phone, the almost terse tone in the Englishman’s voice as he answered half a dozen calls.

"Abby and Kate are inside," Ducky warned as he helped Gibbs from the car.

In response he only got an abrupt nod of Gibbs’ head. He offered his arm, gave a small pat to the hand that settled there. "It really will be all right, Jethro."

"When I see him, Duck," Gibbs muttered tensely. "Then it will be all right,"

"Come on then. We’ll get you in there."

~oOo~

"Oh, God," said Kate softly.

Abby looked up from where she sat chewing the quick of her nails. "Boss-man."

She stood up, made a move toward the pair approaching them, then quickly aborted it at the shake of Ducky’s head.

They watched Ducky palm the button to open the ICU doors, Gibbs straight-backed and tense beside him. With a deep sigh, Abby sank into the uncomfortable seat and popped a nail back in her mouth.

~oOo~

The medicinal scent was all too familiar. Gibbs tightened his hold on Ducky’s elbow and tried to steady his breathing. Too distracted to follow the cues of the older man’s body, he stumbled when Ducky slowed, causing the ME to steady him before he addressed the nurse at the station. Gibbs stood, feeling impotent, as medicalese was exchanged, Ducky using his considerable charm to get an unofficial update. DiNozzo was stable. Respiration still being assisted. Broken bones reset. Pupils equal and reactive. Blood pressure a little low. A watch being kept for additional internal bleeding.

Finally, overcome with impatience, Gibbs broke in quietly. "Can I see him, Duck?"

"May we?" inquired Ducky and the nurse gestured them toward one of the glassed-in cubicles, issuing the standard instructions.

But Gibbs was past hearing. In fact there seemed to be a general numbness in all his senses, as if, the longer he stood there, the further he seemed to be removed from even his own body. He needed to be near Tony, to touch him. To reassure himself they weren’t just keeping some horrible truth from him, doling it out bit by bit because they knew, somehow, that Tony had undone in one night all the defenses he’d managed to erect in the past year.

"Jethro?" Ducky’s voice was pitched low, concern radiating in his tone. His hand again clasped Gibbs’ as it lightly rested against its elbow.

"I’m okay, Duck. I just need to …" Gibbs’ voice trailed off.

"This way," said Ducky, slowly starting forward. "It’s just to our right."

A door slid, Gibbs could hear the whisper of the gliders on the metallic track.

"Here," Ducky placed Gibbs’ hand on the cool metal of the side rail. "The whoosh you hear is the respirator. Let me …" There was the muted sound of fabric being rearranged. Ducky’s hand tapped at Gibbs’ and he let Ducky unwrap his fingers from the bar. "Here, take his hand."

Gibbs clasped the limp, cool fingers in his own. The hand that had just hours before had pressed him against the younger man’s strength and warmth.

"Ducky?" Gibbs finally whispered. "He going to be okay?"

"If there are no complications within the next few hours," conceded Ducky, "he should be just fine."

Gibbs squeezed the hand in his tighter, then with the utmost care, he skimmed the length of the still arm, his fingers dancing gingerly around the taped IV site to reach the hard curve of Tony’s collarbone. His hand remained there, fingers resting against the smooth bare skin above the hospital gown until Ducky’s fingers closed around them again, drawing them up to stroke along Tony’s hairline.

"Talk to him, Jethro," Ducky urged softly. "I am a firm believer that the unconscious are aware at some level."

Gibbs nodded, but it took a moment for him find his voice. "Hey, DiNozzo."

His fingers rhythmically caressed the soft, short hair. "If you wanted to see me this soon, you could have just turned around. The door is always open. You know that." The skin of Tony’s forehead was cool. The whoosh of the respirator a mechanical counterpoint to Gibbs’ own shaky breaths. "Give me some time, Tony. That’s all I ask. Just give me some time."

Ducky steadied Gibbs as he nearly faltered. "Perhaps you should sit down, Jethro."

~oOo~

Kate and Abby met him halfway, their eyes fixed on the door of the ICU automatically closing behind him.

"How is he?"

"Anthony or Jethro?" Ducky returned, tired eyes now meeting Kate’s.

"Let’s start with Tony," instructed the agent, reminding him all too much of Gibbs in search of testimony.

"Stabilized. Still on the respirator. Blood pressure still a little," he hesitated, "a little low."

Kate continued her query. "Gibbs?"

"Shocked, as were we all."

"You?"

Ducky smiled wanly. "I am fine."

Abby, still quiet, reached and took the ME’s hand.

Kate frowned in the direction of the doors. "They let him stay?"

"I shouldn’t leave him alone," admitted the ME. "I just wanted to give you an update. We’ll be out soon enough." Ducky squeezed Abby’s hand. "They both need their rest. So do you."

"We’ll be here," responded Abby.

Kate just nodded her agreement.

~oOo~

"I’m not leaving!"

Abby smiled, the stubbornness in Gibbs’ voice reassuring her. It was … comforting, Gibbs’ yelling. Normal. The way nothing had been normal in a long, long time.

"He needs rest, Jethro. So do we all, it’s nearly dawn."

As they came around the corner, Gibbs’ pulled out of Ducky’s grasp. "You want to go? You go. I’m staying here."

"I thought some coffee—"

"They have coffee in the waiting room."

"You’ll call it ‘sludge,’" observed the physician.

"Quite probably." Gibbs swayed a little, unanchored in his darkness.

"All right. I’ll take you to the waiting room," Ducky conceded, his other hand motioning the rest of the NCIS staff from where they’d camped on the only available bench outside the packed waiting area. "Kate and Abby—"

Gibbs turned in the direction of the soft footfalls, his shoulders slumping slightly. "Kate," he greeted when the footsteps halted. "Abby."

"Gibbs," returned Kate, studying the defeated posture, not sure how to treat this unfamiliar, unsure man.

Abby, however, had no such problems. She flew into Gibbs’ arms, almost knocking him backwards, Ducky’s hand swiftly preventing the fall.

Gibbs folded his arms around the lab tech’s shaking form, his good hand gripping a tense shoulder. Abby’s eyes blinked wetly against his neck as she burrowed against him.

"Boss-man," she finally sniffled.

"It’s okay, Abs. He’s going to be fine."

~oOo~

"Starbucks?" Gibbs held out his hand.

"Am I to take it you can recognize coffee brands by scent?" inquired Ducky, wrapping the scarred fingers around the cup.

"Always could do that, Duck," admitted Gibbs, quietly. They’d managed to snag a corner of the busy ICU waiting area and Gibbs had been listening to Kate and Abby’s deep breaths, both women sleeping despite the bustle in and out, the conversations which Gibbs was trying to block out.

"What time is it?"

"Almost seven. We can go back in an hour."

"You could go back now," prodded Gibbs, sipping at the contents of the cup.

"He’s doing fine." Ducky patted Gibbs’ knee. "You should try to get some sleep."

"Same sleep you’ve been getting?" responded Gibbs.

"I’m fine," protested the ME.

"You should be sacked out with those two. " Gibbs inclined his head in the direction of the resting pair.

Ducky reached out and ran a finger along the swollen knuckles of the fist lying in Gibbs’ lap. "The swelling’s increased. It may be that we should have that x-rayed." He lifted the frozen hand gently. "Any pain?"

"Like I’d know?" Gibbs returned.

"I’m at a loss to imagine how you and Anthony wound up practicing the sweet science."

Gibbs shrugged. "My fault. I … I don’t like to be surprised."

"Surprised?" echoed the physician.

"He touched me. I …" Gibbs took another swallow of now-cooling coffee. "I took a swing at him."

"A swing didn’t do this, Jethro."

"Several," Gibbs corrected, "several swings. He wouldn’t fight back, which just made me madder."

"I see," said Ducky, although from the tone of voice Gibbs was sure the ME didn’t.

~oOo~

Kate startled awake and stared, disoriented, at the unfamiliar blanket covering her. Her bladder immediately signaled its displeasure at her ill-timed nap by a dull pain that was joined by the ache in her stiffened muscles.

"Kate?"

"Mmm?" she groaned, massaging her tensed neck. "Gibbs?" she realized a second later, blinking fully awake. She looked around. "Where’s Abby?"

"Ducky took her in."

Gibbs’ head was turned so that his ear was toward the double doors of the waiting room. Kate studied his profile, the dark glasses hiding his eyes, but not hiding the scars that marred his cheek and neck.

She was used to the multitude of scars that Tony carried on his hands, the curving slash on his cheek. Tony’s reticence about the imperfection had taken her by surprise. She’d thought Tony too vain to let himself remain scarred. Then, she’d decided that, maybe, it was guilt. But now she found herself wondering whether it was, instead, that he found it minor compared to the damage inflicted on Gibbs. Unworthy of notice.

"Tony?" she asked softly.

"Don’t know. I let Abby go." Gibbs stiffened slightly as someone entered the waiting room, then relaxed back against the curve of the seat as the steps headed in the opposite direction. "Ducky will be back out in a minute."

"I’ve got to—" Kate pointed toward the restroom, then grimaced. "Ladies room," she explained. "I’ll be right back."

What greeted her on her return was a disheartened-looking Abby, an inpatient Gibbs and obviously exhausted physician who was the one to explain, "We thought you might want to go back."

Kate looked at Ducky with a slightly panicked expression that Gibbs’ seemed to know about. He raised his head and seemed to appraise her. Ducky held out his hand silently, latching hers, when she extended it, onto his own elbow. "Let him hold you this way."

"Okay."

"Here, Jethro," Ducky held out his hand again, positioning Gibbs. "It’s the first room on the right after you go through the doors."

Kate glanced up at the clock showing 8:13. "Are you sure there’s time?"

"It’ll be fine," said Ducky. "They’ve been lenient." He inclined his head in Gibbs’ direction, his blue eyes somberly expressing what he didn’t dare say in front of Gibbs – that exceptions were being made for reasons that had more to do with his scars than the force of his personality.

"Time’s a-wasting, Kate." Gibbs gave a little tug to her elbow.

"Yeah. Sure." She took a step. "Do I—"

"Just walk, Kate," ordered Gibbs.

So she did.

The nurse at the station, bustled out to intercept them, her tone almost sugary, "Mr. Gibbs, Dr. Mallard wanted me to give you an update." Kate found herself narrowing her eyes at the lilting pitch. "I’m afraid Mr. DiNozzo is still unconscious, but that’s to be expected."

Following the nurse’s short, crisp steps, Kate peered toward the bed in the glassed-in cubicle and realized where the look on Abby’s face came from – in the monotonous gray of the ICU suite, Tony was almost as monochrome: skin still faintly ashen, bruise-blue shadows under his closed eyes, pristine white tape holding the mouthpiece of the respirator in place, faint smearings of orange betadine solution outlining the small cuts butterflied together on his temple.

She could feel Gibbs’ nodding at the continuing recitation of the nurse, each movement producing a small jerk of his grip. But the actual words no longer registered.

"Kate?" Gibbs’ head was tilted away from her again, the ‘listening’ pose from the waiting room. From the look on the nurse’s face, the query must have been on its second or third repetition.

"Yeah?" she said, her voice unconsciously hushed and seeming insignificant against the beeps of the rolling equipment.

"You okay?"

"I’m fine." Kate gave frowned at the nurse who, at least, retreated at the expression.

"I need to see him."

Kate swallowed hard, afraid she was going to have to describe the cloth-draped wound on Tony’s torso, the external fixator that encased his right leg. "See?"

"I ‘see’ with my hands, Kate." Gibbs tucked his contorted right hand closer against him. "Hand," he amended. "I just need to know where it’s safe to touch him."

"Sure. I, uh—" Kate took Gibbs’ hand into her own, bringing it momentarily to the railing before clasping their twined hands around Tony’s lax one, "—the IV is…"

"A pic line at the collarbone," supplied Gibbs, fumbling momentarily before positioning his fingers to wrap around Tony’s. His thumb massaged the cool skin at the knuckles. "Ducky thinks he might hear us. If there’s something you’d like to say."

"The last thing I said to him was ‘you’re on report.’"

Gibbs smiled wanly. "I don’t think he took you seriously."

"Well, the last thing he said to me was that he quit."

"And you didn’t take him seriously, either."

His hand shifted to more fully take Tony’s palm into his.

"How did you …" Kate reached over to smooth nearly invisible wrinkles from the neatly tucked sheets, "make him behave?"

"I let him do what he needed to," Gibbs paused, a fond smile briefly lighting his face, "most of the time."

"What about when what he wants to do is—"

"Dangerous?" finished Gibbs for her. "Breaks the rules?"

"Yeah."

"You weigh the possibilities. And you trust him."

~oOo~

Every once in some unmeasured while, the opaque darkness lightened just a little, a few words pierced the boundary of silence where he floated.

Some of the voices were familiar. He’d even thought he’d heard … Gibbs. Which couldn’t be, because Gibbs had been … the vision, as always, came unwanted: Ducky bending over Gibbs’ bloody body, his hand firmly clamped around a hemorrhaging wrist.

Tony tried to puzzle the incongruity out, but the thought skittered away from him into the pressing darkness and it was a while before he woke enough again to chase it.

~oOo~

Gibbs felt someone hovering over him and instinctively opened his eyes, as useless as that was. His left hand gripped at the vinyl arm of the lounge chair and he tensed against the cushioned back.

"Easy, Jethro." Ducky rubbed a hand along Gibbs’ forearm. "Anthony is awake and off the respirator."

Gibbs sat up. "We can see him?"

"We can," reassured the physician. "He is under the influence of some rather powerful painkillers. He’s a bit disoriented. They thought we might be able to ground him a little."

Getting stiffly to his feet, Gibbs sorted through what Ducky had just said, "Disoriented?"

"It’s not unusual in the case of traumatic injury. Anthony is a bit confused over what put him in ICU."

"He doesn’t remember the wreck," concluded Gibbs.

"No, and he thinks the explosion is responsible for his current injuries. He will sort it all out in time. I just thought that if he saw you were all right—"

Gibbs shifted, drawing his injured hand against him. "Been a while since anyone called this ‘all right’, Duck."

"You can talk to him, Jethro," restated Ducky. "It may be all he needs is someone to ground him, hold his hand."

"Okay." Gibbs reached out his left hand, his touch floundering before Ducky captured the searching fingers and positioned them. "I can do that."

Ducky patted his hand. "Yes, you can."

~oOo~

"Tony?" Tony might be awake, but, for Gibbs, the only immediate change in the too cool room was the absence of the respirator’s steady machinations. He leaned over the railing. "DiNozzo?"

The answering "hey" was badly slurred. The hand that weakly reached out went unseen.

Ducky pulled Gibbs’ hand from the railing and wrapped it around Tony’s reaching fingers, Gibbs leaning down to try and catch the soft mumblings.

"You ‘kay?"

Gibbs tried to offer a smile. "I’m fine, Tony. You know what happened?"

"Bomb," came the soft reply.

"Nope." Gibbs heard the rustle of crisp sheeting as Tony turned his head. "Car wreck."

"I wrecked the car?"

"No. A semi wrecked the car for you."

"Don’ remember."

Gibbs did smile, genuinely, at the petulance in the drugged voice. "Don’t worry. It’ll come back to you after you get off the joy juice."

"Mmm," murmured Tony, his fingers tightening on Gibbs’. "Gonna stay, boss?"

"As long as they’ll let me."

Tony shifted more energetically, then groaned at the pain he’d reawakened. Small grunts of discomfort were huffed between his words. "Not the same without you."

Gibbs rubbed a thumb over Tony’s knuckles. "It’s okay, Tony. Go to sleep. I’ll be here."

"Promise?"

Gibbs gave the fingers in his a squeeze. "Yeah, I promise."

~oOo~

"Ow." Tony squinted at the hardware protruding from his suspended right leg. Obviously he was pumped with some serious pharmaceuticals because nothing really hurt, but it looked –

"Ow," he repeated, dropping his head back against the pillow to take in the rest of his surroundings. Which were, he admitted, not encouraging. Heart monitor. The little pulse checker on his finger. Lots of liquids running into the IV port near his collarbone.

He raised his head back up to look at his stomach, his hand twitching at the strip of cloth laying over it.

Staples. A whole row of them.

Tony winced, his breath releasing in a sudden gasp at the shear amount of metal that currently seemed to be embedded in his skin.

"Tony?"

Tony’s gaze moved to the space beside the bed, to the odd sight of a thoroughly disheveled Gibbs – silver hair mussed, wrinkled shirt untucking itself from equally wrinkled khakis.

"Tony?" Gibbs tilted his head, turning to catch whatever sound had woken him.

"Hey, boss." Tony futilely snaked a hand out between the bars of the railing. "You okay?"

"I’m not the one who had to be cut out of a sedan."

"They cut me out?" Tony dropped his head back to the pillow again. "Ow."

~oOo~

"I don’t need—"

Tony blinked awake again, his bleary vision clearing to give him a ringside seat to something he hadn’t seen in a long time: a beleaguered Ducky trying to out-talk an obviously exhausted and very stubborn Gibbs.

"They will move Anthony to a regular room shortly. We all need to get some rest, Jethro. You included. There is no need for this bedside vigil."

"I shouldn’t have let him go." Gibbs took a couple cautious steps, his hand out to buffer him from obstacles in his path, but after a few feet he stopped, unable to pace in the strange space.

"Jethro, this is in no way your fault."

"We hit the bottle pretty hard the night before, Duck. How long does alcohol take to clear the body?"

"The body can metabolize approximately one drink per hour. I believe by the time Anthony left, he had well overcome the effects of even several of your bourbons."

Gibbs turned a half circle and retraced his steps, Ducky lunging to catch him as he stumbled. "Jethro," Ducky huffed a bit as he momentarily supported Gibbs’ weight, but his tone broached no argument. "This is enough."

Gibbs nodded as he straightened, a dispirited acquiescence. Ducky happened to glance toward the bed, and seeing alert blue eyes, put a finger to his lips.

"Kate booked us rooms at the Hyatt. After we all take a nap, we will return. Anthony will not even know the difference." His gaze locked reassuringly with Tony’s,

"Okay." Gibbs put a hand out. "Just let me …"

"Here," Ducky led him toward the bed. "He’ll be fine, Jethro."

Gibbs dropped his hand behind the railing and smoothed his palm over the coolness of the sheets, listening, unaware of the blue eyes that watched his every move. After a second he drew back, holding his hand out for Ducky, who took it, the physician’s other hand moving to clasp Tony’s in a brief, thankful farewell.

~oOo~

Ducky retrieved the key from the desk clerk, offering a mildly reproving look at the young man’s unabashed study of a drooping Gibbs before leading his charge to the elevator with a gentle, "Come along."

"Give me the layout," instructed Gibbs even as he leaned wearily against the doorframe.

"The only thing you need to know is where the bed is," replied Ducky, walking Gibbs to the end of the first double bed and planting his hand against the mattress. He turned the covers and sat Gibbs unceremoniously down on the clean sheets. Then he knelt stiffly, removing Gibbs’ shoes.

"Ducky, I’m not an invalid," Gibbs protested.

"Sleep," ordered the physician, dropping the second shoe to the floor.

Gibbs leaned back, finding the headboard with his hand then dropping against the unfamiliar pillow. "You’re sure he’s not going to—"

"Sleep, Jethro." Ducky lay down on his own bed, sighing deeply. "Anthony will be fine for a few hours."

"He shouldn’t have come."

Ducky grunted, hoping the lack of a true verbal response would give Gibbs the idea that he was dropping off. Something he looked forward to doing, as soon as he saw his roommate was safely asleep.

"’Told him I didn’t need a pity fuck."

Ducky’s eyes re-opened. "Anthony offered to—"

"’kissed me." Gibbs was definitely dropping off now, his voice slowed and dreamlike. "Should have kissed back."

Ducky rose up on his elbows and frowned at the body sprawled, legs on top of the covers, on the other bed. Sighing, he got up and pulled the sheet and blanket up, covering Gibbs. "We can talk about this later." He patted an exposed shoulder. "Sleep," he repeated.

Gibbs rolled over, burrowing his face into the pillow. After a minute, Ducky went back to his and did the same.

~oOo~

"Duck?"

Ducky groaned. "What time is it?"

The mechanical sound of Gibbs’ talking watch ground against his ears. "Eight twenty-seven PM."

"Duck?" prodded Gibbs again, "Bathroom?"

"Oh," Ducky rolled up and, putting a hand to his back, limped over to where Gibbs sat hunched over on the side of the bed. "This way."

"Your back out?" asked Gibbs as Ducky shuffled them both along.

"At my age, the body does not appreciate a change in lodging." Ducky ran Gibbs’ hand along the cabinet, "Sink. Now reach to your left and you’ll find the loo."

Gibbs waved him off with a "got it" and Ducky retreated to the desk to find the room service menu.

By the time Gibbs reappeared he had ordered a pair of hamburgers and was chatting with a just-awakened Abby who had staggered from her bed only to flop on Gibbs’ mussed sheeting in a back-bending stretch and view him upside-down.

"Abs?" questioned Gibbs, unaware of the blissful smile that the nickname brought to the lab tech’s face. "Where’s Kate?"

"She’s on Tony-watch. She went back a couple hours ago."

"You’re fine, Gibbs, come straight and there will be a chair." He watched the careful steps. "Stop. Just to the right."

Abby watched Gibbs settle in the upholstered seat. "This is all my fault."

"No, it’s not, Abby," retorted Ducky.

Abby rolled over, settling on her stomach, pushing back jet black hair from her face. "I’m the one who talked him into it."

"No one is to blame except the intoxicated driver. Not you. And not you either, Jethro," he added for good measure.

Gibbs covered his eyes with his hand, his exposed eyes feeling vulnerable. "What kind of recovery are we looking at? Can he go back to work?"

"Eventually," acknowledged Ducky. "His leg will need extensive rehab."

"But it’s not career-ending," Gibbs reconfirmed.

"Somebody better tell Kate he has a career." Abby clasped her hand over her mouth. "Forget I said that. That was … snarky of me. When I’m tired, I get snarky, it’s like some biochemical—"

"Abby."

Abby jerked her attention to Gibbs. "Yeah, boss?"

"He’ll have a career."

"’kay," said Abby. "And you didn’t hear—"

"Didn’t hear anything, Abs."

~oOo~

"Kate?"

Staring at the muted pastel print across the waiting room, lost in thought, Kate hadn’t heard their approach but she found herself automatically responding to Gibbs’ unvoiced request with an immediate report, just like in the old days when Gibbs’ desk wasn’t hers.

"He’s doing fine. They plan to move him to a regular room tomorrow if everything keeps going well."

Gibbs groped out for the nearest chair and Ducky eased him toward it.

"How are you?" he asked when he’d settled into the next lounger.

Kate pondered the question, taking a deep sigh before answering, "Okay. I, uh, got to have a little talk with Tony. Well, not much of one, he’s still a little out of it."

Ducky coughed politely, drawing the pair’s attention, "If you’ll excuse me, I shall attempt to get an update out of the nursing staff."

"He leaving us alone for any particular reason?" inquired Kate as she watched the ME head for the door.

"You’re a fine agent, Kate. I’m sure you make a fine senior."

Kate grimaced, settling deeper into the chair. "Why do I think I’m not going to like this?"

"When I left … it was rather abruptly. And I left you without any guidance, for that I apologize."

"Gibbs, you were hurt."

"Yeah, but mainly, I was scared," corrected Gibbs. "I wasn’t ready to admit I’d lost my independence. Wasn’t ready to have you find out I needed you more than you needed me. Any of you. And in doing that, I did you all a disservice."

"I’d learned a lot from you, just watching. I did okay. I knew how to—"

"I know you did," interrupted Gibbs. "You’ve done a good job. Ducky says Morrow’s very happy with your performance. I just don’t know that you’re emulating the right person. I was a big fan of competition, Kate. Maybe too big of one. I set agents against each other because I thought it made them harder, smarter. I played people, manipulated them if I had to, to get to my goal. I played you against Tony, and Tony against you, because it got me what I wanted."

"I think that … competition was already there," countered Kate.

"Maybe, but I didn’t have to exacerbate it. I could have showed you how to work as a team, despite your differences. But I didn’t. Instead I fostered a climate of one-upsmanship." Gibbs turned his face in Kate’s direction. "Why do you think you were the one put in charge? Honestly."

He waited awhile in the resulting silence before pointing out, "Tony had seniority in the agency."

"Because I’m more dependable."

"Define dependable," ordered Gibbs mildly.

"I don’t run off on wild tears." A touch of irritation crept into Kate’s voice. "I obey orders."

"But you’re not as good undercover," observed Gibbs, wishing he could see Kate’s face, he had only audible cues to rely on to tell him if he’d already gone too far. He could hear the slight pick-up in her hushed breathing. "You don’t think on your feet quite as quickly as Tony does."

"Okay," Kate struggled to control the defensive tone, "if that’s true, why didn’t you leave him in charge?"

"Because Tony’s best skills are street-skills, not office ones. But it doesn’t mean he’s not as good an agent. It doesn’t mean he couldn’t have done the job if it were given to him. Hell, I did the job and my skills definitely aren’t office ones."

"Your paperwork was impeccable."

"Yeah," offered Gibbs honestly, "almost made up for my people-skills being abysmal."

"Abby worships the ground you walk on. So does Tony."

"I think DiNozzo is a little more discriminating than that, and Abby is willing to overlook most any shortcoming if you let her be … Abby."

"I somehow doubt the same could be said of their opinion of me."

Gibbs could hear Kate moving restlessly. He put out a hand to still the agitation, the forearm he lightly grasped feeling small and somehow fragile beneath his hand.

"Just because Tony butts head with you doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect you. I need to know you understand that. I need to know you have each other’s backs."

"Of course we do, Gibbs. Just because we argue doesn’t mean—"

"Say it to Tony," Gibbs instructed.

"Okay," conceded Kate. "Maybe you’re right."

Gibbs moved his hand down to clasp Kate’s. "Thank you."

~oOo~

There were forty-two steps from Room 526 of the orthopedic ward to the main elevator. Seventeen steps, after a hard left turn, from the elevator to the front doors; unless it was after official visiting hours, when Gibbs had to reach the locked sliding glass and sidestep three times to find the handle of the smaller side door. He had a semi-regular cabbie, named Louie, who’d come, if he was fareless when Gibbs called, because he liked to grill him about all things Marine; Louie’s son being on the delayed entry program until he graduated in the spring.

Usually it was a walk he made alone, Abby and Kate having returned to DC as soon as Tony was released to the regular room. Ducky following soon after, needed on a case. And for two weeks he’d learned to adapt by himself, memorizing the layout of buildings he hoped never to haunt again.

So now he shrugged off Ducky’s offered elbow, snapping the cane as they exited the elevator with a slightly brusque "I can do it, Duck."

"You’re sure about this?"

"That I can make it to the door?" Gibbs replied innocently.

"No." Ducky sounded stern. "And you know damn well what I’m asking about. You’re sure you’re ready to go back?"

"Not exactly anything in DC to go *back* to," answered Gibbs, arcing the cane expertly, aware of the ME pacing his steps. "But I think I might be ready to go forward." He smiled slightly when the sliding doors hissed open at precisely the moment he’d expected. As he crossed the entranceway, he started counting off the ME’s possible objections: "I’ve got no place to stay. You’ve got a job to get back to. Tony’s on crutches and is going to be in outpatient rehab for at least a month. That what you’re worried about? Granted, I won’t know my way around," Gibbs stopped exactly at the edge of the curb. "But that’s no different than this and I’ve made it this far."

"It is not your abilities I doubt, Jethro."

"What do you doubt then, Duck?"

"The wisdom of leaving you and Anthony to look after each other," fretted the ME.

"Hey, together we’ve got eyes and feet."

"You’ve been spending too much time with Anthony." Ducky took Gibbs’ hand and latched it firmly against his arm before stepping off the curb. "You’re starting to develop a sense of humor."

~oOo~

Gibbs frowned, his sense of direction had always been good but maybe, without sight, he’d gotten himself mentally turned around. He tilted his head feeling the heat of the afternoon sun on his right cheek; the haze of the vision in his left eye brightening pinker when he turned toward the car window. Which made the direction they were traveling in definitely… southward.

In the back seat, Tony snored softly, oblivious to Ducky’s occasional comments on human behavior as evidenced by DC driving patterns.

"Duck?"

"Hmm?" murmured the ME, glancing back at their sleeping passenger.

"Tony lives north of the city."

"Yes, he does."

"We passed over the Potomac and we’re still headed south," pointed out Gibbs.

"You can tell that?" asked Ducky, scientific curiosity ominously shading his voice.

Gibbs shifted in the seat again, turning back toward Ducky. "I can tell we crossed a big bridge and that west is on my side of the car."

"That’s very interesting. I wonder if they’ve done studies on the navigational ability of the natally blind?"

"Where are we going, Duck?" pressed Gibbs.

"As a test of your abilities, why don’t you tell me?"

"Ducky," Gibbs warned, low.

"I’m taking you home," admitted the physician.

"You live further north than Tony does."

There was a brief murmur from the back seat but then the soft snoring resumed.

"I’m not taking you to *my* home, Jethro," Ducky corrected, lowering his voice in deference to their sleeping patient. "I’m taking you to yours."

"Ducky, you sold the house. I have a fat money market fund to prove it."

"The new owner is quite amenable to you staying there."

"Why?" inquired Gibbs.

"Because at my age," admitted Ducky, "I find all those stairs … tiring."

This was met by a beat of silence as Gibbs tried to understand. "You bought my house?"

"I took custody of the property … temporarily." Ducky patted his clearly stunned passenger on the knee. "And I did not use the boat for kindling."

"Duck—"

"Oh, you’re welcome to buy it back."

"Duck—" repeated Gibbs before he closed his mouth, unable to come up with a decent reply.

"I suggest you have Anthony confine himself to the ground floor," offered Ducky helpfully. "At least for the next two weeks."

"I don’t know what to say," Gibbs finally admitted. "I …"

"You don’t think I was really going to let someone chop up two years worth of precision hand sanding, did you?" Ducky turned momentarily to enjoy the look of stunned disbelief on Gibbs’ face. He took the younger man’s hand and squeezed it briefly. "You made a hasty decision that I knew you’d regret."

"I seem to be saying this a lot lately, and it seems inadequate, but … thank you."

"Thanks are never inadequate," observed Ducky, smiling. "And let’s just say I had faith you’d be back."

"Hey, Duck?" A sleepy voice drifted from the back seat. "Do you know you’re in Alexandria?" Tony sat up with a groan, his immobilized leg protesting the movement. "Somebody want to tell me what we’re doing in Alexandria?"

"Going home," replied Gibbs.

~oOo~

"Hey," Gibbs let Tony sweep him safely around his propped-up and braced leg. "How’s the pain?"

"There," replied Tony shortly.

His first day between the parallel bars in rehab had taken its toll, the congenial man Gibbs had left the house with that morning had returned in a much fouler mood. Gibbs settled with extra care on the sofa, all too aware how his lack of sight affected everything from his clumsy navigation to his balance.

"Can I?" he asked, finding Tony’s shoulder with his left hand, identifying the tight trapezius muscles and doing his best to give a one-handed massage.

"Feels good," murmured Tony, tiredly.

Gibbs’ hand kneaded deep into the tense flesh, feeling the stretch of the muscles as Tony lowered his head. Pushing back Tony’s shirt, his hand lingered over the smooth warmth, and moving carefully so as not to rock the cushions, Gibbs sidled closer. The heat from Tony’s body radiated like a visible aura. He palmed the skin, testing the intermittent sensation from his hand, the warmth seeping even into the patches of numbness. Leaving the broad muscles of Tony’s back, he put his lips to the fabric-covered shoulder

Tony tensed, but only slightly. "What are you doing?"

"Touching you," replied Gibbs with a small smile, echoing the conversation, now weeks gone by, that had taken place on a far less comfortable couch.

He could feel Tony’s gaze on him.

"I don’t need a pity-fuck, Gibbs," said Tony softly.

Gibbs grinned. "You think I give them?"

"Too egocentric for that?" offered Tony. He shifted gingerly. "Don’t hit me, Gibbs." He gently put his hand to Gibbs’ jaw. "So help me, if you punch me …"

"I’m not going to hit you, Tony," said Gibbs, leaning into the caress, letting the touch draw him closer. He could feel the soft puffs of Tony’s breath against his lips and he opened his own slightly, the first kiss hesitant and tender.

"You didn’t hit me," breathed Tony.

"Not going to," reiterated Gibbs, bending forward again, his touch more forceful this time. They broke with a shared gasp, lips slightly reddened.

"You’re … sure about this?" questioned Tony one more time.

"I’m the one that should be asking you that," Gibbs responded, his fingers tracing the curve of Tony’s cheek.

"I was sure that night at your apartment. Hell, I’ve been sure pretty much since I first saw you trying to run off with my witness in the Baltimore City Hall."

"Almost made it," Gibbs said, capturing Tony’s mouth a third time.

"As I remember," said Tony when he got a chance to breathe again, "the witness stayed in Baltimore and I’m the one that ended up in DC."

"I always have a plan, DiNozzo," Gibbs advised, unbuttoning Tony’s shirt one-handed.

"I don’t know how much I can …" Tony groaned as he tried to shift on the couch, "… move."

"Then don’t," instructed Gibbs, moving on to unbutton Tony’s jeans.

"I want to …"

"Later," Gibbs promised, letting Tony’s hands help strip the shirt over his head. He shivered a little as Tony’s fingers skimmed his ribs.

Tony laughed as he tried to find a comfortable position that still allowed him to maneuver. "I hate to think we’re going to have to call Ducky to get logistical help."

"Shut up, Tony," grinned Gibbs.

"Shutting u---"

The rest was garbled under the press of Gibbs’ lips.

~oOo~

<Epilogue>

"Come on." Tony tugged at his hesitant partner. "I’m the one that should be nervous, last time I left here I was on report."

But Gibbs’ pull remained strong and steady against his. "Last time I left here, I could see."

"Shit." Tony grimaced at the wooden pitch of Gibbs’ voice. "I’m sorry. We can go if you want. Kate’s waited for me for six weeks, she can wait another day."

"No," Gibbs relented and came a few steps closer to the wall of elevators. "I need to … conquer this."

"Well, given the way you ‘conquered’ me last night …" began Tony.

"DiNozzo."

Tony smiled sweetly at the now-exasperated tone. "Yes, Gibbs?"

Giving up in the face of a determined Tony, Gibbs waved a hand in the direction of the elevator doors. "Lead the way."

~oOo~

"Where is he?"

Kate shrugged. "With Morrow, upstairs."

Tony paced in front of Kate’s desk. "I just went to get the rest of the disability paperwork and he …"

A bemused Kate was grinning at him.

"Wait, did you say he’s with the director?" double-checked Tony.

"In Morrow’s office," verified Kate, a hand moving to casually point over her shoulder at the upper floor.

The confirmation only made him worry his bottom lip between his teeth. "What’s Morrow want with him?"

"Maybe to talk, Tony? They were friends."

"Oh … well." Tony shuffled the paperwork from hand to hand. "Great. I’ll just go … fill these out."

Taking pity on him, Kate leaned reassuringly across the desk. "He’s okay, Tony. He’s in good hands."

~oOo~

"Hey."

"Hey," responded a surprised Tony. The director’s secretary was retreating back up the stairs and Tony could only assume Gibbs had been personally, though quietly, delivered to his custody. "You seen everyone you came to see?"

"Well, I don’t think the girl from property was real pleased to hear my voice," admitted Gibbs dryly.

"Why? What did she say?"

"Something about ‘evil reincarnated’."

"You heard her?"

Gibbs grinned at the protective tone in the younger man’s voice. "It’s the eyes that are shot, Tony. The ears are fine."

"So you’ve done everything you came to do?"

Gibbs shifted, tucking the cane under his right arm, his left hand settling on Tony’s desk. "Even scared McGee."

"Hey, if you’ve scared McGee then your tasks are truly complete," agreed Tony, shutting off his computer.

"Talked to Morrow," added Gibbs. He took Tony’s elbow once the younger man positioned himself beside him.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Gibbs ducked his head momentarily, the unsure gesture causing Tony to frown. "He, uh, offered me a consultant’s position. Part-time."

"You going to take it?"

Gibbs smiled. "I’d need a ride into work."

"Convenient that we live together then," observed Tony, releasing the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

Gibbs squeezed his arm. "You could say that."

 

~end~

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