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September in Stillwater

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Part One

 

It was a lazy afternoon in Stillwater, Pennsylvania. Late September was often like that. The weather hadn’t yet turned, the kids were all in school, and there just wasn’t much happening in the sleepy little town. Not that there was ever much excitement in Stillwater, but the summer was at least a little more lively, the fall had the changing leaves and Halloween, and the winter brought more holidays and sometimes snow. There were only two months that really seemed to drag for Jackson Gibbs: September and March. Both months were at the cusp of change, and Jack always seemed to be waiting: for the season to turn or something exciting to happen.

 

Of course, nothing truly exciting ever happened. Well, there was the time Leroy had come up to conduct that murder investigation. The whole town had been talking about it ever since. And there was the robbery, but Jackson didn’t really like to think about that. Most of the time, however, there was nothing but the familiar rhythms of a town that had been his home nearly his entire life. And most of the time those rhythms were comforting. Only in March and September did Jack long for something exhilarating to happen to draw him out of the same old boring routine.

 

Jackson knew that it was unlikely that any such thing would ever happen, so he contented himself with reading the weekly paper while he waited for school to let out. The student he had hired to stock the shelves would be by and then the girls who liked to follow the handsome young man around would be in to buy some small tidbit as an excuse to gawk or talk to him. Most of those girls had been coming to his store since they were born, but suddenly they would forget where the cans of creamed corn were kept. Jackson found some amusement in watching the follies of youth. But he still had more than an hour before Eric would be in to work.

 

When the bell over the store’s door jingled, Jackson looked up to see who had arrived, expecting that perhaps Mrs. Dougherty had run out of milk again. Instead, he was startled to see a familiar—yet totally unexpected—man standing in the doorway looking slightly lost and more than a little uncomfortable. “Tony? What are you doing here? Is Leroy okay?”

 

“He’s fine,” Tony said with a sigh. He stepped into the store and came over to the table where Jack was sitting. He took the seat that Jack offered silently. “And I’m not really sure why I’m here. I just... I needed to get away from DC for a while and I figured this would be the last place anyone would look for me.”

 

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you need,” Jackson said. “I don’t get many visitors.”

 

Tony exhaled a relieved breath and seemed to relax a little. “Thanks. I really appreciate that.”

 

“You thirsty?” Jack asked as he stood up. “I was just about to pour myself a glass of iced tea.”

 

“That sounds great, actually,” Tony said.

 

Jackson went to the back room to grab the pitcher out of the fridge along with a couple glasses. He knew that Tony DiNozzo was not the type to just spill his guts, but he was a lot more talkative than Leroy ever was and Jack hoped that he would tell him what was going on. Jack had grown rather fond of Tony and would like to help if he could. And it was patently obvious that Tony was in need of help. His normally meticulous clothes were wrinkled and dirty. His hair was a wreck. And his eyes were bloodshot, like he hadn’t slept in days.

 

When Jack got beck with the drinks, Tony was no longer at the table. Jack looked and found him in front of the store, staring at his ringing cell phone. He sighed and then pressed a button to answer it.

 

“Will you stop calling me every five minutes?” Tony was obviously annoyed with whoever had called. “Whatever. Promise me that no one is tracing this call or I hang up now and you won’t hear from me again until my leave is up.” Tony made a face and Jack saw the tension in his neck and forehead. “Gibbs, I didn’t run away! I just need some time away from everything. I filled out the proper forms for a leave of absence and you signed them.” Ah, so he was talking to Leroy. That would make anyone tense. “If you had read the forms you would have known that I was taking six weeks.”

 

Jackson had to chuckle at that. Tony had obviously used Leroy’s dislike of paperwork against him. Jack always thought that Tony was a smart one, and the only one who could really keep his boy in line since Shannon died. The fact that Tony was taking a six week vacation from a job he loved had Jack worried, however, and he was pretty sure that most of the harassment coming from Leroy stemmed from a similar concern for Tony.

 

“I’m at a friend’s,” Tony was saying. “No, I don’t know how long I’ll be here and I don’t know where I’ll go after this.” There was a long pause and Jack saw some of the tension leave Tony’s shoulders as he listened. Jack was rather surprised that his son had anything to say that took more than three words, but it was almost a full minute before Tony spoke again. “I know, LJ. I’ll call you in a couple days.” Another longer than normal pause, then, “Try not to worry so much. I’m going to be fine. I promise.”

 

Jackson stepped outside as Tony ended the call. “Sounds like there’s a lot more to you being here than just needing to get away from DC.”

 

Tony shrugged. “Yeah.”

 

“You didn’t tell Leroy you’re here?”

 

Tony grinned. “He’s been blowing up my phone since I left. I figure if he knows where I am, he’ll do one of two things: he’ll either start harassing you for information or he’ll come up here.”

 

“You think asking him not to trace your call is going to keep him from looking?” Jack asked as he led the way back inside and poured their drinks.

 

Tony retook his seat and accepted the glass Jack handed to him. “No, but it will slow him down a little. It won’t take him long to go through the list of people I could possible go stay with. I don’t have that many friends; at least not ones I would just drop in on. I’m hoping it takes him a while to go through my frat brothers first, though.”

 

They were both quiet for a time, just sitting and drinking the freshly brewed iced tea. “Six weeks?”

 

Tony shrugged and drew patterns in the condensation on the outside of his glass. “I deserve a little time. I haven’t taken my full vacation since I started working there. Plus I had bereavement leave…”

 

Jackson eyed him carefully. “Your dad?”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said quietly. “I went to the funeral yesterday, drove back to DC last night and was up all night thinking. I just couldn’t stay. So I went into work this morning and put in the paperwork. I left before the ink was dry.”

 

“Wanna talk about it?” Jack asked.

 

Tony shrugged again. “He wasn’t sick at all. And he was actually doing pretty well for himself this past year. He actually had money to leave in his will.”

 

“You were getting past your differences, weren’t you?” Jack asked. He and Tony had talked a little about his father the last time Jack had been in DC.

 

“We were,” Tony said. “And I’m really glad we had the chance for that. But…”

 

“But a few months of phone calls can’t make up for a lifetime of lies and neglect?” Jack asked.

 

“Yeah,” Tony sighed.

 

Jackson could tell that there was more going on than just the death of his father, but he could also tell that Tony wasn’t yet ready to talk, so he let it go. Besides, Eric would be in any minute to start work.

 

“Why don’t you go on up to the house and get yourself settled,” Jack said. “You can stay in the guest room. That’s the blue room with the blue and green afghan on the bed. Settle in and I’ll be home after I close up for the evening.”  Jack figured he could coerce more information out of the kid over dinner.

 

Tony finished his tea and thanked Jackson before heading back out to his car and driving slowly up the road to the house. Jack watched him go and wondered just how much pain the boy had to be in to run away from everything like this.

 

GDGDGDGDGD

 

Tony carried his suitcase up to the blue room and sat it on the bed. He couldn’t believe that he had run to Jackson Gibbs when his life was falling apart. Then again, the older man had been more concerned about Tony than his own father over the years. They had kept in touch by phone after that case that brought them to Stillwater. It wasn’t like they chatted everyday, but one or the other would call to check in about once a month. At first it had just been an excuse to find out more about Gibbs, but over the months and years it had become more than that. Jackson Gibbs was as close to a father figure as Tony had ever had.

 

Of course Gibbs had no idea that Tony had befriended his father and wouldn’t think to come looking for him in Stillwater.

 

Tony opened his case and began moving his clothes from there to the dresser and closet. He hadn’t packed nearly as much as he normally would have, but he wasn’t planning on needing suits or designer labels for the next six weeks and jeans didn’t require as much space or as many accessories.  No, Tony’s suitcase was filled with jeans, t-shirts and sweaters. There was the obligatory running gear and one nice outfit in case he ended up going out to a restaurant at some point or Jack dragged him to church. The latter seemed more likely.

 

Once that was done, Tony wandered down the hall and explored the rest of the upstairs. Jackson’s room was tidy, but well lived in. There were books stacked by the nightstand and a pair of reading glasses in reach. There were pictures of Gibb’s mom and Jackson. There were pictures of Gibbs and Shannon and Kelly. There were little trinkets around that Tony knew Gibbs would never have in his house, but Tony suspected that Jack kept them because Gibb’s mom had bought them.

 

Tony felt a little voyeuristic when he peeked into Gibbs’ childhood bedroom. That didn’t keep him from going inside, however. The most telling thing about the room were the posters of muscle cars that still hung on the walls: a Challenger that looked almost identical to the one he now drove, a Pontiac GTO, a Camaro, a Mustang… all the greats were represented. In the late sixties and early seventies, when Gibbs was a teen, the world was going through the hippie revolution, but Gibbs was more concerned with cars. And fighting. On the shelf above the desk there were books about guns, books about military strategy, books about wars… It was no wonder the man had ended up a Marine. There was no clutter here, but Tony hadn’t really expected any. Gibbs was a minimalist now and he had obviously been a minimalist then.

 

There was nothing else on the second floor other than the bathroom, so Tony went downstairs to snoop. He knew it was rude, but he was an investigator, he got paid for being nosey. Jackson wouldn’t be surprised and Tony rather thought he’d be amused.

 

The first floor was pretty simple. The front room—what most people call a living room but Jackson Gibbs was not most people—took up the entire front portion of the house. On the back wall, there were two doorways; through one was the kitchen and the dining room was through the other. The stairs ran along the right side of the house and Tony knew that there was a door to the cellar stairs in the kitchen. The door off the kitchen led to the back porch and the small detached garage.

 

Tony had seen the downstairs before, though it had been a couple years, and he knew there wasn’t much to see. The décor was eclectic. Designers would call it shabby-chic but Tony knew that this was just well worn furniture. It was a comfortable house, much more comfortable than the mansion Tony had lived in growing up, despite the lack of modern amenities. It was kind of like the way Gibbs’ house was infinitely more comfortable than Tony’s luxurious apartment, despite not having a TV or a steam shower, or even furniture that had been made this century.

 

Shaking his head at that, Tony opened the door to the cellar and headed down the dim stairs. He smiled at what he found there. He had half expected a workshop of some sort, so he wasn’t surprised to see the half-finished rocking chair. What did surprise him was the fact that Jackson Gibbs had every kind of power tool you could imagine.

 

“I guess he doesn’t have the same aversion to power tools,” Tony muttered as he ran a hand along the worktable.

 

There were two other rooms in the basement and Tony was eager to find their secrets. The first door led to a small root cellar that was lined with shelves filled with canned goods—both homemade and store bought—a full potato bin, a crate of apples, and enough beer to last his old frat brothers a month. Tony chuckled and went to the second room. It was simply a storage room with a few boxes and old pieces of furniture.

 

Tony went back upstairs and turned on the TV. Another difference between Gibbs and his father: Jackson actually had a decent TV and paid for cable. Tony watched the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then realized that he was getting rather hungry. He didn’t want to seem presumptuous, so Tony dithered for a while over whether he should start dinner, but in the end, his hunger outweighed his hesitance. So by the time Jackson got home that evening, Tony had dinner on the table and was just pulling a couple beers from the fridge.

 

“I hope you don’t mind,” Tony said as he handed Jack one of the beers. “I was getting hungry, so I went ahead and made dinner.”

 

Jackson was a little stunned, since no one but the widows in town ever cooked for him, but he smiled. “No, that’s good. Smells good. Just let me wash up.”

 

Tony finished getting everything to the table and soon they were sitting down to eat. Tony had made pasta of some sort with a tomato sauce. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t have any pasta. Or sauce.”

 

Tony grinned. “No, but you have a really great garden. I picked a few tomatoes, used some of the canned tomatoes from the cellar, added those to some sautéed red and green peppers, onions, and garlic—had to use garlic powder since you didn’t have any cloves—tossed in a few herbs, and a little spinach and let it stew for an hour while I made the pasta.”

 

“You made the pasta?” Jack asked. He stared at the plate in front of him warily.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said. “It’s not that difficult. It won’t be as good as it would have been if you’d had semolina instead of just regular flour, but I think it turned out okay.”

 

Jack took a bite and was amazed at what Tony was able to throw together in just an hour. “Wow. That’s good. I never knew you could cook.”

 

Tony shrugged. “I do alright when I have the time. Usually, I’m too tired from working 12 hour days to bother with cooking. When I was a kid, though, the housekeeper, Freda, would let me sit in the kitchen after school and she’d teach me things. She made the best lasagna ever, with homemade noodles and lots of fresh garlic and Italian sausage. Mmm.”

 

“Sounds like a nice lady,” Jack said. They both ate in silence for a while, enjoying the comfortable atmosphere and good food. Eventually, Jack sat back in his chair and looked at Tony. “So, you gonna tell me what this visit is really about?”

 

Part Two

 

Jack sat back in his chair and looked at Tony. “So, you gonna tell me what this visit is really about?”

 

Tony sighed and stood up from the table. He carried his empty plate to the sink and started running the water to fill up the basin. Jack cleared the rest of the table and then took up a towel to dry the dishes Tony washed. Tony was glad that Jackson didn’t push. He needed time to formulate a response to the older man’s question. They worked together in silence until the chore was done, then Jack poured a healthy dose of bourbon for each of them and they went out to the front porch to sit on the swing and enjoy the warm evening.

 

Tony sipped the amber liquid and let the warmth relax him. “It wasn’t just my father’s death; that was just the final straw. There’s been a lot that’s happened in a really short period of time and I just needed time away to think about everything and figure some things out.”

 

“Talk to me kid,” Jack said. “I can’t help if I don’t know the problem.”

 

Tony smiled resignedly. “You can’t help even if I tell you the problem. No one can.”

 

“Then I can listen,” Jack said. “Sometimes just getting stuff off your chest can help. I know when everything happened with the robbery… well, I felt better after I talked to Leroy.”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said. He took another long drink from his glass. “I guess it all started three weeks ago. We were working a case and I was chasing down a suspect when…” Tony took a deep breath to fortify his resolve and then went on. “I was chasing the suspect, but suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Luckily, Gibbs was there to grab him.”

 

“Your lungs?” Jack asked. He knew about Tony’s history with the plague. It was one of Tony’s favorite anecdotes.

 

Tony nodded. “I went to see Brad, the doctor who treated me when I had y pestis. He said that it’s some mild scarring. It’s a combination of the damage done by the plague and the fact that I haven’t exactly been good about staying healthy. I’ve had had upper respiratory infections a few times and pneumonia three times since then, the last time just a few months ago.”

 

Jackson raised his eyes in surprise. “You never said.”

 

“To anyone,” Tony admitted. “I mean, Gibbs and the rest of the team knew I was sick, but not how bad it was.”

 

“You’re too good at hiding that stuff,” Jack sighed.

 

“Maybe,” Tony said. “Anyway, Brad told me that I’ve done permanent damage to my lungs. I have to do these breathing exercises everyday to maintain the function I have now, and I can pretty much expect attacks like that one on a fairly regular basis now. I’ve got an emergency inhaler and everything.”

 

“Lot like asthma,” Jack said with a nod.

 

“Yeah,” Tony agreed.

 

“You can still do your job,” Jack said.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said again. “For now. There are others with asthma in the field, so there’s no way they can keep me out because of this.”

 

“But you haven’t told anyone,” Jack said. It wasn’t a question.

 

Tony shrugged and stood up. “I need more bourbon.”  Jack held out his glass and Tony took it with him. A few minutes later he returned with both glasses refilled. Tony sat down and handed a glass to Jack. “The week after finding all that out from Brad, we caught a case that involved the kidnapping of twin boys out of a Marine base daycare.”

 

“Not an easy case,” Jack said.

 

“No,” Tony said quietly. “Especially when your son is involved. He takes those cases—the ones with kids involved—the hardest. And this one wasn’t going well.”

 

“What happened?” Jack asked gently.

 

“We got them back, but not before the bastard…” Tony let the thought trail off, unwilling to put voice to the horrors those two boys had faced. “He hurt them. We were all shaken up by the case.”

 

“Understandably,” Jack said, shuddering at the images that flashed in his head. He took a long drink from his glass.

 

Tony nodded and took a swig of the bourbon. “I was… trying to help Gibbs through it, like I usually do, but he wasn’t… He took it hard.”

 

“And he took it out on you,” Jack said, filling in the blanks. “I know my boy. You don’t have to pussyfoot around the truth.”

 

“Yeah, he took it out on me,” Tony agreed in a subdued voice. “More than usual.”

 

“How?” Jack asked with a frown. He didn’t think Leroy was capable of getting violent with the people he considered family, but there were things that might push him to that.

 

“He said… he said some pretty cruel things,” Tony said. “I’d just as soon not repeat them. He shoved me into the wall and had his arm across my throat. And when he realized what he was doing, he ran. Not like this, but he went and spent all his time in the basement working on the new boat and drinking.”

 

“His usual coping mechanisms,” Jack said with a sigh.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said. “The next day, I got the call about my dad. I spent a few days in New York putting everything together for the funeral and dealing with the lawyers. Gibbs and the team came up for the service. He apologized and I told him I understood.”

 

“But then you disappeared and he thinks it’s because of that altercation,” Jackson intuited.

 

Tony shrugged, but they both recognized the truth in that statement. “I had to get out of there. I went into work this morning and had thirty people all offering condolences before I even made it to my desk. I just couldn’t handle it. So I filled out the paperwork and had Gibbs sign off and then I left. I stopped to pack a bag and headed out of town.”

 

“Well, you’re welcome here for as long as you want to stay,” Jack said. He drained his glass and stood up. “And if you don’t want Leroy to know you’re here, I won’t tell him.”

 

“I appreciate that,” Tony said with a rueful smile. He watched as Jackson walked into the house, the screen door slamming closed behind him. Tony sighed and opened his phone. The line was picked up after one ring. “Hey.”

 

“Hey,” Gibbs said quietly. “You okay?”

 

“Going to be,” Tony said. “You know this isn’t about you, right?”

 

There was silence on the other end of the phone and then, “I was an ass.”

 

Tony chuckled. “Yeah, you were. But this isn’t about that.”

 

“Then what is it about?” Gibbs asked. Tony could hear the soft rasp of sandpaper against wood and he knew that Gibbs was in the basement working on the boat.

 

“It’s about my dad,” Tony said. “It’s about me and who I am and where I belong. LJ, the world shifted on its axis for me and I just need time to find my feet again.”

 

“You belong here,” Gibbs said gruffly. “In DC, at NCIS, on my six.”

 

Tony chuckled again, but this time there was sadness in it. “Maybe. Just… just give me some time? Please?”

 

Gibbs didn’t speak for a while and when he did it wasn’t to answer Tony’s request. “You should call Abby.”

 

“LJ.”

 

Gibbs sighed. “Fine, I’ll give you some time. But not six weeks. If you aren’t back here next week, I’m coming to get you.”

 

“You know where I am?” Tony asked.

 

“Tell my dad I said hi,” Gibbs said and Tony could hear the smirk in his voice.

 

“How?”

 

“You never said I couldn’t trace your credit cards,” Gibbs said. “You filled up your tank about an hour before you reached Stillwater. And I know you and my dad talk.”

 

Tony smiled. “Yeah, we do. I’ll call Abby tomorrow.”

 

“Goodnight, Tony.”

 

“Goodnight, LJ.”

 

Tony ended the call and drained the rest of his drink. The stars were much clearer out here and he took a moment to just appreciate how beautiful the night was.

 

GDGDGDGDGD

 

Tony slept late the next morning—late according Jackson Gibbs’ standards at any rate—and then had a leisurely morning before showering and dressing in jeans and a plain long sleeve t-shirt. He made sandwiches for lunch and carried two plates down to the store to eat with Jack. Jack was appreciative of Tony’s thoughtfulness and showed it by gruffly ordering him to restock the canned corn.

 

Tony helped out for a couple hours before the high school boy showed up with the high school girls following. The girls suddenly were spending way too much time watching Tony, and Eric was spending too much time scowling at Tony for stealing their attention, so he decided to head back up to the house and start on dinner.

 

“Hello?”

 

Tony had just put the meatloaf into the oven when a voice echoed through the house from the front door. Tony sighed and washed his hands. “In the kitchen.” He was just drying them when an older woman came through practically dragging a younger woman with her. “Good afternoon.”

 

“Well, hello,” the older lady said. “I’m Irma and this is my niece Geraldine. I don’t suppose Jackson told you about us, did he?”

 

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Tony said with an apologetic smile, all the while trying desperately to come up with excuses for getting out of dating this woman’s niece. It was pretty obvious that was her intention. “I’m Tony DiNozzo.”

 

“Well, Tony, we’re on the church welcome committee and we heard that you were up visiting with dear old Jackson and wanted to drop in and be neighborly,” Irma said. Beside her, Geraldine rolled her eyes and Tony had to bite back a laugh. “Gerry is a wonderful cook and she made you a little something. Give him the cobbler, Gerry.”

 

Gerry sighed and stepped forward with the casserole dish. “Here. It’s peach and blackberry. It goes pretty good with ice cream.”

 

“Thank you,” Tony said with a genuine smile. He could tell that whatever intentions Irma might have, Geraldine didn’t share them. “I just put a meatloaf in the oven and Jack should be home soon, if you ladies would care to join us?”

 

Gerry snorted with amusement when Irma flushed and began making spluttering excuses. “I- I really have to… there’s a Women’s League meeting that I have to attend. But Gerry can stay.”

 

Tony smirked and graciously led the older woman to the door while Gerry took a seat at the kitchen table. When he returned, she turned to him with a laugh. “You really didn’t have to humor her. Now she’s going to tell the rest of town that we’re practically married.”

 

“If it keeps the rest of the concerned aunts and mothers off the doorstep, it’s worth it,” Tony said. “So, Gerry, not interested in being married off to the handsome stranger?”

 

Gerry laughed outright this time. “Not hardly. I have a very lovely partner who would shave my head in my sleep if she found out I let my aunt set me up. Aunt Irma just… doesn’t acknowledge what she doesn’t understand.”

 

“I see,” Tony said. “All the more reason for me to be grateful that you got here before any of the ladies who might welcome any matchmaking.” Tony went back to peeling potatoes and Gerry washed up and set to work helping him. “Why was Irma so dead set against staying for dinner?”

 

Gerry laughed again. “She and Jack were something of an item a while back but then something happened. Now he’s back on the market, though I suspect that Mildred Pierce is getting ready to make her move.”

 

“Gerry Walker, you stop with your gossiping right this instant,” Jack scolded from the back doorway, though his face was flush and Tony suspected that there was more than a grain of truth to Gerry’s suppositions.

 

“Jackson Gibbs, you are quite the ladies man,” Tony said. “I guess your son comes by it naturally.” Jackson huffed and went upstairs to clean up.

 

“You know Leroy?” Gerry asked once they were alone again.

 

“He’s my boss,” Tony said. “I know he hasn’t been up here much in recent years. How do you know him?”

 

Gerry shook her head. “I don’t. Is he really…”

 

“Is he really what?” Tony asked.

 

“Well, there’s a lot of stories floating around about Leroy Jethro Gibbs,” Gerry said. “Most of them make him out to be either the biggest troublemaker in the world or the closest thing to superman that you can get in real life.”

 

Tony had to smile at that. He knew that Gibbs had not been the best liked guy in town and he knew that young Leroy had been in more than one fight before leaving for the Marines. “He’s closer to superman than any man I’ve ever met. He can also be a real bastard.”

 

Gerry put the last potato into the pot of water and turned to look at Tony. “You admire him.”

 

“Very much so,” Tony said quietly as he turned back to the potatoes and put them into a pan of water on the stove to boil.

 

Gerry paused as she wiped her hands on a towel. “You more than admire him.”

 

Tony looked at her for a long minute. “Nothing will ever come of it.”

 

Gerry smiled sadly at him. “I’m sorry.”

 

“What’s she apologizing for?” Jackson asked as he entered the kitchen.

 

“I just told her about my dad dying,” Tony said. “She was offering her condolences.”

 

Gerry looked surprised, but hid it well when Jackson actually looked her way. “You staying for dinner Gerry?”

 

“Tony invited me, if that’s okay,” Gerry confirmed.

 

“Nice to have some young folks around the house,” Jackson said. The two younger people shared a look and Jackson bristled. “Don’t give me that look. I ain’t like your aunt Irma, girl. I know all about the way you feel for Sheryl. I ain’t gonna try and set you two up. Would be a waste of time. You’ve got Sheryl and the boy has his heart set on that stubborn son of mine.”

 

Tony squawked and Gerry laughed at that. Jackson just gave Tony a benevolent smile. “You think I didn’t know the way you feel for him? Silly boy.”

 

Tony just shook his head. “I should know better than to try and hide anything from a Gibbs.”

 

Part Three

 

The first week in Stillwater passed quickly. Tony spent time at the store with Jackson in the mornings and he spent afternoons exploring the countryside where Gibbs had grown up. He even drove down to Bloomsburg one afternoon to check out the mall. He spent a little time with Gerry, who showed him the best antique stores in the area. On Sunday, Tony went to church with Jackson and he got to meet more of the people from the small town. He felt a little like a celebrity the way some of the folks flocked around him after the service. They all wanted to know who he was and why he was there.

 

Tony, as politely as possible, put off anyone who pressed too hard for information, both at the church and at the store. How could he tell him who he was or why he was in Stillwater when he really didn’t know himself?

 

Every night, Gibbs called and demanded that he return to DC and every night, Tony flat out refused. Once that was over, they would talk for a few minutes about the things Tony had seen or the people he had met that day or they would discuss NCIS and the friends who were worried about Tony. It was during one such call that Tony asked one question that had been bothering him for some time.

 

“LJ, what am I to you?” Tony asked quietly as he stared up at the night sky from his seat on Jackson’s front porch swing.

 

There was a pause over the phone line and Tony could hear the distant sounds of a car as it passed by Gibbs’ house. “What kind of question is that?”

 

“A legitimate question,” Tony huffed with annoyance.

 

Gibbs was silent again and Tony was unsure if he should drop the issue and move on to a safer topic. Finally, Gibbs sighed. “I don’t know. You’re my Senior Field Agent and my friend, but…”

 

“But it’s more than that,” Tony prompted.

 

“Yeah,” Gibbs admitted. “I just don’t know… what that ‘more’ is.”

 

It was Tony’s turn to think quietly before responding. “I think maybe I need to know what the ‘more’ is before I come back. I think maybe you oughta get back to me when you do know the answer.”

 

“Tony…”

 

“I’ll talk to you later, LJ,” Tony said firmly.

 

Gibbs growled but finally relented. “Fine.”

 

“Goodnight.” Tony ended the call and sighed.

 

“That boy of mine isn’t the easiest man to love,” Jackson said from the doorway. He stepped out onto the porch carrying two beers and handed one to Tony before taking a seat in the rocking chair. “Told Shannon the same thing before they got married. Never bothered with those other women; knew they weren’t strong enough or didn’t love him enough to stick by him.”

 

Tony snorted. “You think there’s a shot in hell he’ll ever figure it out?”

 

“That you love him?” Jackson asked. “Or that he loves you just as much?”

 

“Both, either,” Tony said and took a swig of his beer. It wasn’t as good as the beer Gibbs preferred, but it was good enough for a lazy September evening.

 

“You keep at him and he’ll pull his head out of his ass eventually,” Jackson said.

 

Tony nodded and picked at the label of his beer. “Don’t know if I have that much time Jack.”

 

Jackson looked sharply at Tony. “There something you didn’t tell me? About your lungs?”

 

“What? No!” Tony denied once he realized how his statement had been taken. “No, I just meant that… I am seriously thinking about leaving NCIS. And once I’m gone… well, he’ll have no reason to see me or listen to me anymore.”

 

“Oh,” Jackson said. He was still a little disturbed by the thought of something more serious being wrong with Tony, but he ultimately settled down and considered what Tony was saying. “I think you’re wrong about that. I think he’d miss you like hell if you weren’t there all the time. I think it would force him to seek you out away from work. Just look what being gone for a few days has done. I know he calls you every day. More than once.”

 

Tony chuckled. “He always has some excuse. He can’t find some file, or something else completely groundless.”

 

They were both quiet for a time, just letting the sounds of nature and the light nip in the air to permeate them. It was a peaceful place and that peace tended to seep into ones bones and into ones heart.

 

“You really gonna leave NCIS?” Jack finally asked.

 

Tony shrugged and polished off the last of his beer. “Don’t know for sure, but probably. My lungs are just gonna keep getting worse. Every time I get sick, the chances are good that more scarring will happen and the more scarring there is, the more likely it is for me to get sick, a vicious cycle that will eventually make it impossible to stay on active field work. Brad’s said that I’ve got anywhere between five and fifteen years before the scarring gets bad enough to keep me from the field, but I’m not sure I want to spend that time chasing bad guys when I know that there’s not going to be a long term career in it. I’m never gonna take over the team. I’ll be out of the field before LJ retires, and I don’t want to work with any other team. I think I’d rather just start looking now for a new career, one that doesn’t require me to run long distances at top speed on a regular basis.”

 

“You could still work at NCIS even without being in the field,” Jackson pointed out.

 

“And I’d hate every minute of it,” Tony said ruefully. “I hate being chained to a desk, watching others go out and do what I can’t. I’ve spent enough time doing that after injuries to know that I would be miserable.”

 

“Guess so,” Jackson agreed. “What’ll you do instead?”

 

“I’ve been thinking about going back to school,” Tony told him. “I could get a PhD in film studies and teach college. Lot’s of young people forced to listen to my ramblings about movies.”

 

“I could see that,” Jackson said.  “You sound like you’ve made up your mind.”

 

“In a way, I guess I have,” Tony said in a subdued tone. “I just don’t know how to…”

 

“Tell my hard-headed son?” Jack guessed.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said. “That, and I hate the thought of leaving him on the field without being there on his six.”

 

“You trust Tim and Ziva, don’t you?” Jack asked. “I mean, you aren’t sitting up here all day everyday worrying about Leroy, are you?”

 

“Huh,” Tony said as if he had just realized that fact when Jack pointed it out to him. “I guess not. I might worry more if I knew he was on a big case, but… maybe you’re right. I do trust Ziva and McGee. They care about him and would do their best to protect him, same as I would.”

 

“I’ve been living a lot of years knowing that my boy faces danger on a daily basis,” Jackson said. “It ain’t easy, but you can learn to deal with those issues. Shannon did, and I’m sure you’re just as strong as she was.”

 

Tony looked surprised and touched by that statement. “I… thanks.”

 

They let the conversation die and went back to star gazing for a few minutes. This time, it was Tony who broke the companionable silence. “How long do you think it will take before he shows up here, ready to drag me home?”

 

Jackson chuckled. “I’m surprised he’s lasted this long. I’d give it 24 hours.”

 

Tony looked closely at Jackson. “That soon? I was thinking more like another week.”

 

“Care to place a wager on it?” Jack asked slyly.

 

GDGDGDGDGD

 

A familiar yellow Challenger pulled up outside the store early the next afternoon and both Tony and Jackson stopped their game of checkers to watch a disgruntled Leroy Jethro Gibbs slam the car door before making his way into the store.

 

“You owe me twenty bucks,” Jack said to Tony before looking back at the checker board and jumping three of Tony’s pieces, thus ending the game.

 

“You should never bet on Checkers with my father,” Gibbs told Tony, his eyes drinking in the sight of the younger man.

 

“Bet wasn’t on the game,” Tony said. “It was on you.”

 

Gibbs snorted. “Never bet against my father when it comes to matters of human behavior.”

 

Jackson got to his feet slowly and went to get a hug from his son. “How you doing?”

 

“Just fine, dad,” Gibbs said and patted his father on the back. “I decided I was done waiting for Tony to come to his senses. Figured I could spend a couple days up here with you and then drag him home, where he belongs.”

 

“You have an answer for my question yet?” Tony asked.

 

Gibbs looked at him and Jackson cleared his throat. “I’ll just be making up some iced tea in the back room.”

 

He hustled off and Gibbs waited until the door to the back room closed before speaking. “I have an answer, but I’m not sure this is the right time or place for that discussion. We have a lot to discuss, you and I.”

 

“Yeah, we do,” Tony agreed. “Some of it you don’t even know yet.”

 

“Like what?” Gibbs asked with concern.

 

“Like you said,” Tony shrugged, “this isn’t the time or place for that discussion.”

 

When Jackson returned with the iced tea, he noticed that his boys were still standing on opposite sides of the room and the tension was still thick in the air. They hadn’t settled anything yet. He shook his head with fond exasperation and handed out the drinks.

 

GDGDGDGDGD

 

It wasn’t until after they had eaten dinner and Jackson had planted himself on the sofa to watch some old western that the two men finally had the privacy to talk. They took their beers out onto the porch and sat on the porch swing.

 

“I’m sorry for running,” Tony said. Before Gibbs could protest, Tony continued, “And don’t give me any of that shit about the rules. Sometimes it’s okay, necessary even, to show weakness to those that matter the most.”

 

Gibbs grunt, not agreeing or disagreeing. “If this isn’t about what I did, then why’d you run?”

 

Tony sighed and took a swig of his beer. “It’s about me mostly, some about us, and a little about my dad.”

 

“How so?”

 

“My dad spent his whole life chasing after impossibilities,” Tony said. “He ignored the good things in his life in favor of things he could never get. I don’t want to be like him.”

 

“You aren’t,” Gibbs said quietly.

 

“No?” Tony said. “I’ve been clinging to hopes and dreams for so long that I…” Tony shook his head. “Do you remember the Gonzalez case a few weeks ago?”

 

“Yeah,” Gibbs said. He looked at Tony. “I never would have believed a guy like that could outrun you.”

 

“He couldn’t,” Tony said. “If my lungs hadn’t given out on me, I would have had him. As it was, I was lucky I didn’t pass out.”

 

“Shit, DiNozzo,” Gibbs swore angrily, but Tony could tell it was anger born from concern. “You have Ducky check it out?”

 

“I saw Brad,” Tony said. “I see him a lot. He told me that the scarring on my lungs has gotten worse and will keep getting worse until I won’t be able to be on the field anymore.”

 

“How long?”

 

“Fifteen years if I’m lucky,” Tony said. “And careful. Five if I keep going the way I have been.”

 

“So you’ll be careful,” Gibbs said. “I’ll make sure of it.”

 

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Tony said sorrowfully. “This job… the stress, the long days and sleepless night, the exposure to the weather… it all adds up to lowered immunity. For me, that means getting sick. A lot.”

 

Gibbs said. “I know you’ve had a few colds…”

 

“Five upper respiratory infections and three bouts of pneumonia in the last five years,” Tony corrected.

 

Gibbs growled. “And why didn’t I know about this?”

 

Tony shrugged. “Jackson said I’m too good at hiding things. I guess he’s right. Brad has been on my case for a while to take things easier. I’ve just been trying to deny the inevitable. I love my job LJ. I’ve had dreams of taking over the team when you retire. It’s tough letting that dream go. But I’m not my father and I’m not going to waste my life chasing after something that’s impossible. Staying at NCIS will kill me eventually; maybe not with a bullet or a bomb, but slowly and surely.”

 

“So you’re resigning,” Gibbs said.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said. “I am.”

 

“What’ll you do?” Gibbs asked.

 

Tony looked at him. “I’ve been checking out my options. Dad left me a little money, enough o take a couple years off and pay for school. I put in applications to several doctoral programs. I’m going to get a PhD in film studies.”

 

“Where?” Gibbs asked.

 

“That depends on your answer to my question,” Tony said calmly. “I’ve been accepted at a few different schools. Only one is in DC.”

 

Gibbs snorted. “You’re staying in DC.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Gibbs said.

 

“My question?” Tony prodded.

 

“I’ve never… not with a man,” Gibbs said. “But I want to try.”

 

“Do you love me?” Tony pressed.

 

Gibbs grunted but Tony wouldn’t take that as an answer. Gibbs huffed in annoyance. “Of course I do. More than the last three wives combined. I can’t fucking live without you. Now, will you come back to DC?”

 

Tony smiled at him and nodded. “Yeah, I’ll come back. In a couple days.”

 

“Tony…” Gibbs growled.

 

“You said you took a few days off and you should spend a couple days with your dad,” Tony explained. “He misses you. Besides, the war between the widows is coming to a head and I want to see who comes out on top.”

 

“The war between the widows?” Gibbs asked skeptically.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Your dad has three of them chasing him. Gerry thinks he’ll pick Mildred Pierce, but I’m betting on Fannie O’Neil. Sandy Brown is the long shot bet, if you’re interested in putting some money down.”

 

“Whatever happened to Irma?” Gibbs wondered as he absently took Tony’s hand in his. Tony smiled inwardly and linked his fingers with the other man’s.

 

Tony shrugged. “No one will tell me. But I know that Irma’s pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. Anyway, the whole thing ought to blow up by Sunday. According to Gerry, the ladies have all decided to ambush him after church and make him choose.”

 

“I’m sure they’ll bring their best food offerings,” Gibbs said with amusement.

 

“I think that’s the reason your dad puts up with any of it,” Tony said. “That man can’t cook worth a damn.”

 

Gibbs laughed and then leaned over and planted a kiss on Tony’s lips like it was the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps it was.

 

GDGDGDGDGD

 

Jackson stood beside the window and smiled as he watched his boys kiss. He’d willingly ignore the teasing remarks if it meant that Leroy and Tony were happy. He let the curtain fall back into place and headed up the stairs to get ready for bed.

 

He usually hated September, with it’s long days of waiting. This year, he had to admit that September wasn’t quite so bad.

 

The End