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Pavlov's Curse

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"Hey, Abs." Tony edged past the evidence table, which was inexplicably covered with the remains of what might once have been a pretty nice espresso machine. He was thinking he might go in for a stealth hug while she was staring at her computer screen, maybe yank on one of her pigtails, because he was having kind of a great day. But something about the set of her shoulders started to bother him before he'd made it halfway across the room. He suddenly noticed he hadn't had to shout over ear-shattering waves of death metal to make himself heard.

Tony stopped just a little short of hugging distance and said, "Hey," again, and offered a careful smile.

She turned to look at him and yeah, there was trouble; her face was pale enough to make even a vampire flinch, and it had nothing to do with her makeup. "Hey, Tony," she said quietly, and she didn't even try to smile.

Oh, yeah. Trouble.

"So, you wish, and I appear," he said, trying to keep the concern out of his voice so he wouldn't spook her. "What's so important, and so secret, that you had to send me an encrypted email from gothchick779@hotmail.com just to get me to come downstairs? And what the hell encryption was that, anyway? You really thought I could crack that? I'm flattered, but confused."

"Oh, good, I'm glad you knew that was me." Abby finally smiled; it wasn't anything like her usual thousand-watter, but it still a relief to see it. "Thanks for coming down."

"I didn't know for sure it was you. I thought maybe you were trying to hook me up with a friend."

"Tony, don't be ridiculous. Why would I hook you up with a friend?"

Tony laid a hand over his heart. "Ouch."

"Never mind. Not important. What's important is that you're here." Abby's shoulders slumped. "I really need you here right now. Just you, nobody else can know. It's a secret, okay? It's a big, big, big... really big secret. Lives may depend on it."

"Okay." Tony winced inwardly. "You do know I had to get McGee to decrypt that email, right?"

"What? No!" She glared, and slugged him hard in the shoulder. His shooting arm.

"Hey!" He rubbed the sore spot and glared back. "I protect and serve with this arm!"

"Tony, this is not okay! That was for your eyes only." She bit her lip, frowning. "Do you think he read it?"

Tony raised his eyebrows. "Uh. Yeah."

"It was specifically marked 'super secret!' Why would he do that?"

"Because I trained him. Look, don't freak out, Abby, he can keep his mouth shut when it's important. Though I'm not sure why asking me to come down here rated a McGeek-level decoder ring. You do that five times a day."

"But this time is different. This time, I'm in trouble. I think I did something really bad, Tony."

Tony laid his hands gently on her shoulders, and squeezed. "How bad?"

Abby turned her big, miserable eyes up to his. "I think I broke Gibbs."



There was a story. It came out in fits and starts, with a lot of fast talk that Tony didn't completely follow at first and a lot of foot-stomping when he didn't pick it up as fast as Abby expected him to, but after about ten minutes he started to put together a picture. If it had been an actual picture it would have been kind of a cross between an Escher piece and Calvin and Hobbes, but it did eventually start to make the kind of sense these things rarely did outside of Abby's lab.

The dismantled espresso machine, particularly, made sense.

"How long has this been going on?" Tony said, examining the table. The machine hadn't just been taken apart; it had been reduced to its most primitive components. No washer remained on any screw, no screw remained affixed to any fixture. No single part of the device touched any other single part. Tony wasn't sure its creators knew it had this many different pieces.

"Two weeks," Abby said. She puffed out a breath of air that lifted and scattered her bangs. "Two weeks, and all this time I thought I was helping him, Tony. Instead I've been slowly entrapping him in this, this witch machine's evil spell! What are we going to do?"

"First, we're going to calm down." Tony put an arm around her shoulders and tugged her in to his side. "We're going to remember that Gibbs is tougher, smarter, and significantly meaner than any creature that ever swam, crawled, walked or flew across the crust of this planet. And then we're going to figure something out, because we're still pretty badass ourselves, you and me. Okay?"

Abby took a deep breath. "Okay. You're right. We're badass." She didn't sound very convincing.

"Try it again."

"We're bad! ass!"

Tony tilted his head and looked at her critically. "I guess that'll have to do."

"It's just that it all went bad so fast," Abby said. She surveyed the ex-espresso maker with a mad scientist's eye. "It was meant to be a psychological experiment. Every time Gibbs said something nice to me, or did something nice, I would give him a nice little shot of caffeine. Like, you know, positive reinforcement."

"That's very Machiavellian of you, Abs."

"No," she said earnestly, "it's really more Pavlovian. Well, kind of a variation. The Pavlov-Sciuto Variation. After all, this is Gibbs we're talking about. It's not like I could just ring a bell. So I bought the machine and installed it down here a couple of weeks ago, so any time I caught him... you know..."

"Being nice," Tony supplied, controlling the urge to roll his eyes.

"Yeah. Any time he was nice to me, I gave him a shot of espresso. And then--"

"And then last week we closed the Patterson case," Tony said. His eyes widened. A tiny cartoon lightbulb of comprehension went on with a 'ding!' in his head, and he groaned out loud. "And he told me I did a good job, and you--"

"And I gave him a shot of espresso," Abby said grimly. "Because really, he was nice to me all along. I wanted him to start being nicer to you guys more, too. Because you guys are awesome."

"Well," Tony said. "I mean, I'm awesome..."

Abby plowed on like she hadn't even heard him. "Ideally, I would have had each of you give him espresso whenever he was nice to you, so he'd start to associate each of you personally with the reward. Then, at some point down the road, we could wean him off the espresso--"

"Because he'd be responding to the sight of us as well by then, yes. I know about the paired stimuli thing. The question is, what went wrong?" The question, really, was what do you think went wrong? because Tony was pretty sure he knew. But he wasn't about to ask that one.

Abby frowned at the eviscerated espresso machine. "It all went haywire. I think this thing is cursed."

"Because he's being so nice to everybody now."

"Without even any more espresso! That wasn't supposed to happen for weeks, Tony. And it wasn't supposed to go this far. I just wanted him to say 'attaboy, Tony!' a little more often, or 'good job, Ziva and McGee!'"

Abby's impression of Gibbs involved lowering her already husky voice to something approaching chain-smoking whiskey-guzzling crack-whore depths, while trying to set Tony's face on fire with her eyes. It managed to be utterly faithful to the source while sounding nothing like him at all. Tony was impressed despite himself, and not just a little bit frightened. And it only got worse when a voice from behind him said, "A little less gravel, Abby. You make me sound like I had asphalt for breakfast."

Tony snapped himself to attention; Gibbs's long-term conditioning program was in its ninth year, and rolling along just fine. Abby pressed her lips together to keep any more words from falling out and stared at Gibbs with crazed, guilty eyes.

"Hey, boss," Tony said. Gibbs just looked at him inquiringly; when he didn't make any sudden moves, Tony started to relax. "We were just talking about the Patterson case. You know," he said, lowering his voice and making significant gestures with his eyebrows, "the Patterson case?"

"I know the Patterson case, DiNozzo," Gibbs snapped. "We closed it last week. I was there. What's left to talk about?"

"Nothing!" Abby said. She slid between them, clearly trying to take some of the heat off Tony. Tony was kind of touched. "Absolutely nothing, that's what we were talking about. About how there's nothing more to talk about, because we closed that case, and... and now we're on to bigger and better things. Like that other case. That ... you just came down here to tell us about." She swallowed once, hard; Tony would have pitied her, if he weren't so busy hiding behind her. "So you should tell us about it," she finished weakly, glancing over her shoulder at Tony as if to say I'm sorry, I'll miss you when you're gone, goodbye.

Gibbs looked at Abby for a long, tense moment. Then his eyes shifted to Tony and softened. "That was good work on the Patterson case, Tony," he said; he even smiled a little. Tony felt himself going a bit squishy in his chest area and his cheeks turned red and Abby saw it all. He bit the inside of his lip, a slightly hysterical laugh rising in his throat, as Gibbs said, "No new case, Abs, just wanted to drop off a Caf-Pow," and kissed her on the cheek and left without another word.

When he was gone, Abby whirled on Tony with a growl in her voice and fire in her eyes. "I told you," she hissed at him, rubbing at her cheek like it burned. "Cursed!"



He arrived back at his desk with a mission: Investigate, interrogate, if necessary incarcerate Gibbs. Whatever it took to fix him, Abby said. Lift the curse, banish the spell, de-nice-ify him. He even had paperwork delineating his responsibilities and the parameters of his authority. Abby Sciuto was nothing if not thorough.

Across the bull pen, Gibbs was bent over his desk, scribbling his signature at the bottom of a report or a requisition or a death warrant, whatever it was the paper pushers dropped in front of him; Tony had signed reams of unread paper when he was the boss, and Gibbs had more than twice his contempt for bureaucracy on a good day. Tony watched him idly, thinking about Abby more than anything, because she was smart and crazy and actually kind of right. Gibbs was a little softer around the edges lately. He yelled less and talked more, he said please and thank you, and at least once within Tony's hearing last week, he'd apologized. He smiled more, too; a random little half grin that came and went on no particular schedule that Tony could pin down.

He was doing it again, right now; pen stilled, head tilted, laugh lines showing around his mouth and his eyes. Watching Tony watch him.

Tony pushed his chair back and walked casually over to Gibbs's desk. He put his hand down near the stack of papers Gibbs wasn't paying any attention to anymore and leaned in close to whisper, low and confidential, "Boss, are you aware that you're smiling?"

If anything, that carved the laugh lines deeper. Gibbs's mouth turned up at the corner like he really meant it this time and said, "Yeah, DiNozzo, I am. Did you think I picked up a twitch?"

Tony cut his eyes over to Ziva, who was typing industrially at the speed of light, fingers slamming down on the keyboard like she had a personal grudge against it; then over at McGee, watching his computer screen with such deadly focus he couldn't be doing anything but eavesdropping. Tony settled his gaze back on Gibbs, shaking his head. "You're kinda freaking people out."

"Really? That's interesting," Gibbs said, raising his voice just a little. "Anybody with such fragile nerves would probably be better off in some other line of work." Something in the janitorial or fast food industries, his tone suggested with perfect clarity.

Across the room, Ziva's typing reached a fever pitch. Tony thought he could see little wisps of smoke curling up off the keys. McGee wisely decided he was needed urgently in MTAC and was halfway up the stairs by the time Gibbs had finished his sentence.

Tony looked at Gibbs and sighed. "Okay," he said, "I was never here, I didn't say anything. It's a little terrifying for the kids to find out you've actually got teeth at this late date, and I'm sure they're slightly concerned about what you might use them for, but it's cool, no problem; you're the boss, you know best." He paused, then said casually, "Hey, you didn't happen to fall into a vat of chemical waste recently, did you?"

Gibbs leaned back in his chair and gazed at Tony measuringly. Tony could see he was trying to look mad, but failing so badly Tony actually felt a little sorry for him. "Am I not providing you with enough work lately, DiNozzo?"

"No, boss. I mean, yes, boss! You are. Absolutely."

"Because I'd hate to think I was boring you."

Tony raised his hands and backed away. "No, no, I'm good, thanks; I'm perfectly well supplied in the work area. Honest." He grinned, and Gibbs grinned back, and Tony was sad Abby was worried, he was; but he was pretty cheerful about everything else, all things considered. "I'll just get back to all that work I have now," he said. "Right away."

He sat down at his desk, looked at his computer screen, and thought. He thought Gibbs smiling like that brightened up the office quite a bit; and he thought Gibbs walking around like maybe he had something to live for was really not a bad thing at all.

Then he thought damn it, now I'm doing it, and tried to straighten his face out with very little success.

 



Who is Pennywise, Tony said to himself on the way back down to Abby's lab. Hannibal Lecter. The Terminator. The Robert Patrick one from T2, not Arnold. I'll take 'Scary Guys You Don't Want to See Grinning at You' for a thousand, Alex. He winced as the elevator dinged, announcing his presence to Abby's bat-like ears. Batman, he added to his internal list after a moment, because seriously.

"Tony! Did you talk to him? What did he say? Was he mean to you at all? I really really want him to be mean to you again." Abby paused, just long enough for a breath, then plunged on. "Not that I want him to be mean to you. I mean, not for personal reasons. I love you, Tony, you know that. What did you find out?"

Tony blinked. "Hey, Abby, how's it going?"

Abby glared. "I'm loving you less right now."

"Listen, I don't think he's cursed." He held up a hand when she opened her mouth, then waited, eyebrows raised, for her to close it. When she did, he continued, "Have you ever seen a movie called Regarding Henry? Harrison Ford, Annette Bening?"

"Tony!"

"He did threaten to give me more work to do if I didn't leave him alone. Does that count at all?"

Abby sighed. "No, not really. I think that's autonomic."

He put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. "I'll check on him again," he said. "If there's a curse, I'll -- I don't know, I'll call a priest or something. Or Gandalf. I'll take care of it, one way or another, okay?"

"You promise?" Her eyes were big and wet and serious, and Tony was overcome with an urge to give her a shortbread cookie and some Kool-Aid.

"I promise. Now, go analyze some blood spatter or something, and turn your music back on before somebody comes down here looking for your body." He pulled her into a quick hug, then shoved her back and parked her in front of her computer. "Work, not worry," he said firmly. "Leave Gibbs to me."



Later -- much later, because Gibbs was still Gibbs, and there were still bad guys in the world -- Tony propped his shoulder against the outside wall of Gibbs's house beside the front door, his hands in his pockets. The porch light cast a dim yellow glow that just barely contained them both. He tilted his head and grinned at Gibbs, who looked remarkably unsurprised to see him. "Hey, boss."

"Tony."

Gibbs was wearing faded blue jeans and a white t-shirt; he had an unopened beer in one hand and a hammer cradled casually in the other. If Tony had been anybody else, he'd have been halfway down the block by now. "Which one of those is for me?"

Gibbs smiled, shaking his head. "Depends on what you're doing on my front porch at one in the morning, DiNozzo."

"An NCIS agent's job never really ends at five o'clock. Not when he's on a mission. Abby sent me."

"Abby sent you." Gibbs's eyes narrowed.

"Oh, yeah. She thinks she broke you. She sent me to put you back together."

"Did she." Gibbs made a show of looking down at himself, then flicked his eyes back up to meet Tony's. "Everything seems to be where I left it."

Tony's grin widened, out of his control. "I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that."

"What does she think she broke?"

"Your attitude. She's been adjusting it. Thinks maybe she turned the dial so far it stuck. Or maybe her espresso machine cursed you. Possibly a little of both."

"Are the two of you implying I have an attitude problem?"

"Not anymore. Abby's been practicing some caffeine-related positive reinforcement techniques on you down in the lab. She says you've gone soft these past few weeks, Gibbs. Lots of smiling, almost no hitting at all, very little barking or glaring. She made a strong case." Tony leaned his head against the door frame, watching Gibbs with a warm smile. "The lady was in distress. Naturally, I put my unparalleled investigative skills at her immediate disposal."

"All seems pretty circumstantial to me," Gibbs said. "Not enough for court without some physical evidence to back it up. You got any?"

Tony's eyebrows rose. "Are you inviting me to examine the crime scene?"

"You got a warrant?"

"Did I mention Abby sent me?" Tony pulled a folded white sheet of paper out of his back pocket and handed it over to Gibbs for examination.

Abby had written it out with a purple Sharpie and sealed it with a sparkly skull and crossbones sticker across the last fold. Gibbs shook his head as he opened it, another lopsided smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. When he looked up at Tony, the smile got even wider.

"Seems in order," Gibbs said quietly. He set his beer down on a table just inside the door, and placed the hammer carefully beside it. "I need a lawyer?"

"Nope." Tony shook his head slowly. "Under Article 31, you do have the right to remain silent. But --"

"You really hope I won't."

Laughing delightedly, Tony stood up straight and raised his hands. "You got me, boss. I really, really hope you won't."

For a second, Tony just stood there, grinning at Gibbs, at the way the light hit his hair, at the warmth in his eyes, at the way that t-shirt hugged his shoulders. And for a second, Gibbs just stood there grinning back. Tony was completely at peace in that moment, because it was solid and real and best of all, just for him. He would have let it spool out, but Gibbs shook his head and laughed and reached out and tugged on Tony's tie.

"It's late," Gibbs said. "And this crime scene's getting older by the minute. You coming in?"

"Gee, I don't know," Tony said. "I mean, if we go by the book, technically, I'm supposed to wait for backup..."

Gibbs tugged the tie again, and took a step back, never letting go. "You going by the book these days, DiNozzo? I hadn't heard that." He pulled harder; pulled Tony inside, shut the door, then put him up against it.

"Uh, not so much." Tony licked his lips, grinning, feeling rumpled and handled and good.

"Then how about you get started and let McGee hunt down his own Marine?"

"I bow to the wisdom of my elders, as always," Tony said, and when Gibbs growled he course-corrected to: "Of my mentor?"

Gibbs nodded approvingly.

"Of my preternaturally wise, and benevolent, and startlingly hot for his age--"

"Tony."

"--for anybody's age--"

"Better."

"--sugar daddy," Tony finished, laughing, and the bop to the back of his head was just enough to shove his mouth against Gibbs's, which was pretty much perfect. Tony sank down until his legs were tangled with Gibbs's, until Gibbs had to pin him to the door with his body and lean down to get at his lips, a sacrifice Gibbs seemed absolutely willing to make.

"Suspect appeared calm and extremely cooperative," Tony said unsteadily a few moments later, the next time his mouth was temporarily unengaged.

Gibbs rolled his eyes, and made sure that didn't happen again.



Even later -- because when he was on a hot case, Tony worked it 24/7 -- he looked up at Gibbs and traced the smile lines with his eyes, then with his fingertips. Gibbs let him; Gibbs was remarkably affable about that kind of thing. He touched Gibbs's lips, and Gibbs kissed him again, which was more or less what Tony had been angling for. And then when that was done for a little while (and done very well indeed, because Gibbs never left a job half-finished), Tony said, "So. Ever since the Patterson case..."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "You're not letting this go, are you."

"Well, I would, but -- Abby." Tony shrugged as best he could while lying flat on his back. It did interesting things to the bits of him pressed up against Gibbs, but Tony had work to do. "If I can't wipe the smile off your face, I think she's planning to call in an exorcist."

"It's not my fault," Gibbs shot back. "You're the one who put it there."

Tony beamed at him ridiculously, because he couldn't help himself, and because his heart was doing funny things in his chest and he couldn't quite catch his breath. Gibbs was badass; so badass he could just lay himself bare like it was nothing. It made Tony's gut clench up with nerves, because the last thing he ever expected when his boss pulled him out of Patterson's smashed and smoking car -- dusted him off, cleaned him up, took him home -- the last thing Tony expected to find in himself was the power to hurt Gibbs.

Or the power to make him smile like he was smiling now. All the damn time.

"I don't think I can complain about that," Tony said finally, when he found his voice again.

"Now I'm worried about curses."

Tony laughed. "Pods under the bed, maybe. Abby would go for that. Maybe I'll try it on her tomorrow."

"I could try to look a little less like a lovesick idiot tomorrow," Gibbs suggested thoughtfully. He did something with his face that looked like maybe he was trying it right now; it didn't work at all, and Tony kind of loved him for it.

"Don't," Tony said. He pushed at Gibbs's chest; pushed him over, down into the mattress, and settled himself alongside. He liked Gibbs like this, with a kind of quiet in his eyes. With his face smooth and open, like he was waiting for something and expected it to be something good. "Really. Don't."

"Okay," Gibbs said easily. "I won't. Not a hardship." He reached up, put his hands in Tony's hair; he liked doing that, and Tony liked letting him. "What are you going to do, then?"

"About your smiling problem?" Tony grinned, and he thought, oh, I have so many plans. "I think... I'm going to give you a reason."