“Uncle Jack, can I have another?” Gibbs’ head shot up at the voice and the wheedling tone. Of course AJ wanted another cookie! What red-blooded little boy wouldn’t. Gibbs gave his father a stern look.
“Dad,” Gibbs warned.
“Oh, let him have one, Leroy! “C’mere, AJ.” Gibbs’ father pulled the boy into a robust hug and mussed his hair. AJ gave his pseudo-grandfather a smile. “That’s a boy. Good kid.”
As AJ took a cookie and scampered off, Gibbs’ father’s expression got serious, and he leaned forward, meeting Gibbs’ eyes. “His mom can’t make it? How’s he taking it?”
Gibbs waited until AJ was out of hearing range, and sighed. “Paula’s going to be afloat for awhile. She couldn’t get off, Dad. Just the way it goes.”
“But AJ is doing okay?”
“He’s doing fine, Dad. We’ll make it work.”
His father grunted, looking around the room. Gibbs followed his father’s gaze. He never would have imagined that this Christmas the house would be full again, in a way it hadn’t for a long time.
“Where’s your boy?” Jack asked, a little smirk on his face. He’d taken to calling Tony Gibbs’ “boy” since meeting him almost a year ago. It was kind of endearing, though Gibbs would never admit it.
“Picking up AJ’s grandfather.” Gibbs tried not to make a face. He didn’t much care for Tony’s father, but Tony and AJ wanted him around, so Gibbs would deal with it.
“Huh,” Jackson said, then he turned to look up at Gibbs. “He okay with you and Tony bein’ together.”
“He has to be,” Gibbs replied, his voice firm. In reality, the ones who mattered in the decision-making process were Tony and AJ, Paula Cassidy-DiNozzo, as Tony’s ex and AJ’s mother, and Gibbs. Nobody else—their friends and former team members, their fathers—,it wasn’t as important what they thought.
“You don’t know?” his father said, and Gibbs reached for a cookie, shrugging.
“Dad, we’ve been to hell and back. I don’t care what his opinion is. We’re a solid family. Me and Tony…” Gibbs’ expression softened as he watched AJ setting up a video game. “Homework!”
“Aw, Uncle Jethro, do I have to?” Gibbs’ arched a brow and gave the boy a stern look and he sighed. “It’s almost Christmas and Grandpa will be here soon and… Aw, all right!” He stamped into the kitchen, green eyes flashing much like Tony’s, a little pout on his face. “I’m gonna call you Scrooge.”
“You do that,” Gibbs replied, trying to hide his smile. He pulled the boy close, kissing the top of his head. “But go get your books. Maybe Uncle Jack can help you with math. He runs a store, you know.”
As AJ ran upstairs, Gibbs caught his father’s gaze, the tender expression, the sadness in his father’s eyes. “What?”
“He’s about the same age as—”
“Yeah. But don’t, Dad. Just don’t. It’s different.”
“But you’re a father to that boy, aren’t you?”
“He is.” Gibbs looked up, seeing Tony in the doorway, and moved to him automatically. Tony snatched the cookie from Gibbs’ hand and crunched on it, giving his lover a gentle hug. Gibbs leaned against Tony, hugging him close, snuggling in and enjoying his boy’s scent and touch.
“Where’s your old man?” Jack asked, trying to peer around Tony.
“Hotel. He’ll be by for dinner. Where’s AJ? Hi Dad!” Tony said, merriment sparkling in his eyes. From the moment he’d met Jack, he’d called him Dad, something Jackson was delighted by. Both men would have liked AJ to call Jackson Grandpa, but Gibbs was a little resistant, and they didn’t push him.
“Dad!” Tossing his books down on the table, AJ launched himself at Tony, who picked him up and spun him around. His legs kicked out, and Gibbs had to dodge the swinging feet. He couldn’t hide his chuckle, and mussed the wildly giggling boy’s hair.
His unconventional family was pretty damn incredible, all things considered.
Gibbs watched Senior and AJ, their heads close together, as Senior taught the boy the basics of poker. He didn’t think a second grader needed to know how to play, but Tony’d indulged his father, and Gibbs wasn’t going to intrude there.
“Leeeeeroy,” Senior said, dragging Gibbs’ name out in a way he knew irritated Gibbs.
“Seeeeenior?” Gibbs replied back, adopting an excessively polite tone.
“How about some drinks?”
“How ‘bout ‘em?” Gibbs shot back. His father let out a bark of laughter and Tony just rolled his eyes, squeezing Gibbs around the middle. Gibbs supposed the night had gone okay, all things considered. Senior needled him, as usual, but there was an affectionate undertone there. Jackson was more openly challenging Senior, though in such a friendly manner that the other man was treading carefully. In their own way, they were reining each other in.
And his father was outright cheating at poker. Gibbs had seen him slip a couple of cards up his sleeve. He caught his father’s eye and shook his head subtly, but his father gave him his best wide eyed little old man smile and ignored Gibbs.
“Now, AJ, the straight flush is one of the strongest hands…” Senior started. Gibbs couldn’t help smiling when the boy turned and looked at Jackson.
“Is that right, Uncle Jack?”
“Yep, but like I told you, bluffing counts. If you make them think you have a good hand, you can get away with anything.”
Merriment was sparkling in his father’s eyes, the room filled with warmth and laughter, even through the minor tension winding its way through the room. Senior was proving that he could behave himself, even if they did need to keep an eye on him sometimes.
Tony snaked his other arm around Gibbs’ waist and Gibbs absorbed his lover’s warmth. “This isn’t so bad, is it?” Tony asked in an undertone, nipping Gibbs’ earlobe. “Our fathers are different, but they’re doing okay.”
“Yeah, they are,” Gibbs admitted with a small nod. “We’re doing okay, Tony.”
It took almost a half dozen hours before Jackson retired to the guest room, Senior went back to the hotel, and AJ finally went to sleep in his Magnum-red Ferrari bed. Gibbs stared at the dying fire, accepting a beer from Tony, the warmth of his lover’s body soothing him. Tony tugged Gibbs down on the couch, sitting close, legs touching.
“Meet the In Laws went pretty well,” Tony observed, sipping his beer. “Figured Dad would take you on a lot more than he did.”
“He wasn’t bad,” Gibbs allowed. “He’s just worried about you and AJ.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed, a small smile on his face. “Just didn’t expect it after my childhood. The attack—”
“Changed us all,” Gibbs reminded, slipping an arm around Tony and pulling him close. “None of us came out of it unscathed,” he said quietly into Tony’s hair. “Not the ones we lost, not the ones who will never be the same again…and not the rest of us…”
Tony sat quietly, snuggling in, hand stroking over Gibbs’ chest. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Sometimes I wonder where we’d be if…”
“You need to do this?” Gibbs asked, his voice gentle. Tony had done this before, and it seemed to be a part of his healing process, but it bothered Gibbs to relive it all. The pain, the deaths, the helplessness.
“Okay,” Gibbs said, shifting so that Tony was snuggling tighter against him. He absorbed the way Tony shook slightly, then settled down, Gibbs stroking his hair.
“You ever think about how things would have been like if the attack hadn’t happened?” Tony asked in a whisper.
“Used to,” Gibbs admitted. It was back when he’d isolated himself away from everything and everyone he’d loved. “Try not to any more.” He held Tony closer. “We can’t change it, DiNozzo…Tony. We couldn’t have. We weren’t even there. We couldn’t have saved…”
“They needed us,” Tony said bleakly and snuggled in tighter. Gibbs could feel the ghosts of the past pushing down on his lover.
“Yeah, they did. Been through hell.” Gibbs tipped Tony’s head up, staring into his eyes. “We’ve been through hell, but we got through it, you and me. And you’ve got a great kid there.”
Gibbs blinked a few times, taken aback by Tony’s statement. Though Paula was afloat, she was as hands-on a mother as she could be. In fact, she’d rented a place just down the street, only a couple blocks away. He and Tony were as tight a unit as any relationship Gibbs had ever had—even the only wife who had ever counted. But he hadn’t allowed himself to think of himself as anything more than AJ’s uncle.
“We’ve?” Gibbs asked carefully.
“Yeah, we’ve. You’re more than Uncle Jethro to him. You’re a full-time stepparent who he needs, especially while Paula’s away.” Tony swallowed hard and seemed to be weighing something. “He has a surprise for you, a Christmas present. Jethro…just wait and see.”
Gibbs cocked his head, the emotion in Tony’s eyes touching him on a deep level. “We’ve got a good kid,” he said, emotion choking him. “Thanks, Tony.”
“You earned it.”
They fell silent, sipping their beer, Tony snuggling in close. “You know how much he loves you, right?”
“More than your father,” Gibbs pointed out with a wry little chuckle. He and Senior were trying, but they’d never be close. Not like Tony and Jack, who, after only a short time were emailing and calling a few times a week. But that was okay; Gibbs didn’t mind that Tony was closer to his father than Gibbs would be to Senior, with his cheesy grins and booming voice.
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “But his heart is the right place, you know that.”
“Yeah, I do.”
They sat in silence for a while, then Gibbs motioned to the remote control. “Want to look for a game.”
Tony had changed so much, There were times Gibbs could almost forget, but then there were times like this when the frenetic ball of energy he’d known before the attack mellowed, leaving behind a man and father who was more grounded, who took advantage of every moment. The essence of Tony was still there, in easy grins and movie references, but it had changed, moderated, mellowed. And Gibbs loved both sides of the man beside him.
Lost in his thoughts, Gibbs drifted pleasantly, relaxed, the silence comforting rather than oppressive.
“Jethro? Come on, let’s go to bed.”
Gibbs blinked his eyes open, realizing he’d drifted off to sleep. He stood and stretched, his back cracking, and spied his father in the kitchen. He must have come downstairs for a drink of water and found them asleep.
“Night, Dad,” he said sleepily as he passed Jackson.
“Night, Leroy, Tony.”
“Night, Dad.” Tony’s voice was soft, and Gibbs smiled, following Tony to the bedroom, sticking his head into AJ’s bedroom as they passed it. The boy was sound asleep, breathing deeply in the darkness, and Gibbs couldn’t help going into the room and stroking the soft brown hair, giving the boy a gentle kiss. When Gibbs turned, his breath caught at Tony’s expression of fierce love. Gibbs joined him, squeezing his lover’s hand and smiling. Gibbs made his way to the bedroom and stripped down to boxers and a comfortable T-shirt and crawled into bed, snuggling Tony close.
“Night, Jethro. Love you.”
“Mmmm,” Gibbs replied. Tony knew; he always knew.
He awoke slowly, not quite sure what had awakened him. The house was quiet—AJ was off for holiday break, it was the weekend, so Tony wasn’t working, and there was nowhere they needed to be.
Gibbs’ nose twitched, the scents of coffee and maple syrup reaching him. “Daddy?” the little voice spoke from Gibbs’ end of the bed, and he lifted his head and sat up, looking at the little boy holding a cup of streaming brew.
“AJ, your dad is on the other side of the bed.” He knew that; AJ crawled into bed with them after a nightmare at least once a week.
“Not that Dad,” AJ said, excessive patience in his voice. “You. Daddy.”
“Me?” Gibbs repeated, running a hand through his hair. He’d always been Uncle Jethro to AJ, never…Dad, never Dad to anyone, since…
He swallowed hard, looking at the boy, the emotion rushing up again.
“I brought you breakfast, Daddy,” AJ said, his voice tentative and uncertain now. “Is that okay? Grandpa Jack helped me. I didn’t mess anything up…”
“I bet you didn’t,” Gibbs whispered, his voice raspy. It wasn’t Christmas yet, but this little guy was giving him the best gift of all. And in a life where Gibbs had been given several impossible second chances, this touched his soul.
“Coffee?” AJ offered, disappointment starting to steal across his face. “I’m sorry if I made you mad, Daddy. I…Can I call you Daddy? Dad said to wait until Christmas, but I couldn’t. Are you mad?”
“Not mad,” Gibbs insisted, putting the coffee on the nightstand and pulling the little boy onto his lap, hugging him close. “Thank you, AJ. I love you, Sport,” Gibbs said, looking over to Tony, who was smiling through his own emotion, tears wavering in those expressive green eyes. “Thank you, AJ.”
“Love you too, Daddy. Want some pancakes?”
“Can’t think of anything I want more.”