On the surface Tony was all smooth professional, stepping into Gibbs's abandoned shoes like they'd been reconstructed to fit him perfectly. Tim and Ziva buckled straight under; you couldn't have paid either of them to slip on those lace-ups, but they could provide support. Some sort of comfy insole, maybe. It was only in quiet moments, sneaking glances at his new team leader from behind his monitor, that Tim could see the weight of his responsibility settle on him in a creased brow or a subtle roll of the shoulders. And the way he swallowed Gibbs's name every time it threatened to slip out—there was the other half of that story.
Sure, they all missed Gibbs, but Tony had it worst. He'd lost his mentor and gained everything that mentor had shielded them from in one fell swoop. The extra paperwork was the least of his worries; no wonder the dark circles under his eyes were growing on a daily basis. And, sure, DiNozzo may have been literally the most annoying person Tim had ever met, but he was also the guy that showed up at Tim's door after he'd shot Detective John Benedict and refused to let Tim push him away. Tim had tried really hard, too. Maybe this time around he could be the one holding out a helping hand.
But what to do? There was no way in hell Tim was ever going to come out and ask Tony about his feelings because there was exactly zero chance that wouldn't finish up in Tony's nth declaration of Tim-as-woman and he was way too tired of defending that particular corner. So there was Bad Plan #1. And not even for Tony was Tim going to hit the clubs of DC. Besides, casual sex as opiate was Bad Plan #2, probably more for the hookups than for Tony, and Tim had no inclination to be an accessory to heartbreak.
That left door number three: distract, distract, distract. If Tony's mind and hands were occupied with something else, there would be no room left for wallowing in either despair or paperwork. As it happened, Tim had just the thing.
"Hey, boss, how do you feel about Lego?" he asked as they packed up for the night.
Tony paused in the middle of zipping up his backpack and stared at Tim. "I wasn't aware it was possible to have feelings about Legos past the age of ten, McPlasticFantastic. Before that it was mostly, 'Ow, I should not have tried to stuff that in there.' Don't ask. Why?"
"No reason. I have this Death Star Two set I need to build for a neighbor kid and it's more complex than I'd thought. I could use a hand if you could spare the time."
"For a neighbor kid, huh?" Tony zipped his backpack the rest of the way and slung it over his shoulder. "Sure. Shouldn't you be able to do this in your sleep?"
Tim shrugged. It was only a half untruth when he said, "It's fiddly. Sometimes two pairs of hands are better than one."
"All right, then, Special Agent. My hands are yours to use as you will. No. Wait. That came out wrong."
"D'you wanna just leave now?"
"Look at the size of that thing!"
"Cut the chatter, Red Two. Accelerate to attack speed."
"Huh?" Tony gave Tim a blank look.
Tim blinked, disappointed. Being a movie geek didn't mean Tony was that kind of movie geek. "Oh, you weren't- Okay, never mind."
"Just how many bricks are in it anyway?"
"Three thousand, four hundred forty nine."
Tony dropped the manual as if it burned him and grinned. "I have a very bad feeling about this."
Apparently he was that kind of geek. Tim grinned back and cracked his knuckles. "I find your lack of faith disturbing," Tim said. "But probably we'll need to not talk in quotes the whole time or things'll get confusing fast."
"You're not going to say, 'Help me, Obi Wan DiNozzo, you're my only hope?"
"I could, but your ego is way out of line already." Tony opened his mouth to answer, but Tim slid in real quick, "No pulling the boss card outside work," and Tony closed his mouth without saying a word.
"Food'll be here soon. Let's get started, shall we? Box one, page one."
Tony handed the box into Tim's waiting hand and opened the manual. "Box one, page one."
By the time the food arrived they'd made a good start on the project. It looked nothing like any Death Star Tim knew, but they were perfecting the foundations and experience told him that would save them time (and probably heartache, even if it was just his) in the long run.
"So," said Tony, snapping his chopsticks in front of Tim's face, "this Death Star is for a neighbor, huh?"
"It's the Death Star Two, Tony, I told you."
"One, two, what's the difference?"
Tim sat up straight, unable not to give an earnest reply. "Well, obviously the initial design was flawed due to the thermal exhaust port leaving it vulnerable to attack by Luke and the Rebels. Result? Death Star go boom!" He made an explodey hand gesture, accidentally showering himself with rice grains. "Oops." He brushed himself down and continued. "So the new version—that's the Death Star Two for sequel naming reasons—was upgraded to have millions of millimeter-wide exhaust ports scattered over the surface of the station, each propelling some of the excess gases and heat into the vacuum of space. And then there's the superlaser, which-"
"For the love of…Elf Lord, how do you even breathe?"
"You were the one who wanted a mini Darth Vader to play with."
"Point." Tony shoved a wodge of noodles in his mouth, chewing and swallowing quickly. "Next box?"
Tim kept his smile to himself. "Next box," he agreed.
"You've got to be kidding me," Tony said, staring at the script in his hands. "You want me to do what?"
"C'mon, Tony, I told you. You're the movie guy, I need your advice."
"The PowerPoint isn't enough for you now? You have to torture us with a documentary?"
"It's not torture, it's education."
"You keep telling yourself that, McInquisitor." Tony flipped through a few pages of the script, muttering to himself. "'Thunderball isn't science, Tony'…Why did I ever even mention it? I brought this on myself. Oh my gosh, there are two hundred pages here." He looked up at McGee. "Two. Hundred. Pages. How is there that much information on jet packs out there? You sure this isn't another one of your works of fiction, Gemcity?"
McGee shrugged and shoved Tony towards his computer chair. "Science and technology have come a long way, what can I tell you? Sit down and I'll show you the clips."
"Yippee," said Tony with about as much enthusiasm as if Tim had just told him he was going to get a series of shots, but he sat down anyway. What else was he going to do? Jeanne was out of his life, having taken what felt like at least a large chunk of his heart with her. It was as much as he could do to get together the energy to slap on his work ethic every morning. That left the evenings for staring at walls and berating himself for letting it get this far. It was not the most fulfilling existence he had to admit.
"Okay, page one," said Tim. "Now for this shot I was wondering…"
It was past one in the morning when Tony headed home, his head full of more information on human flight than he'd ever needed, or probably deserved. He fell asleep to dreams of motorcycles with wings and what seemed to be McGee in some sort of Red Baron get up. When he woke up he realized that not only had he slept through, he hadn't thought of Jeanne all night. Of course, the act of realization brought his loss flooding back, but still, Tony was grateful for the temporary respite. And they'd only gotten up to page twenty.
"We're gonna have to do some serious pruning," Tony told McGee before he'd even had a chance to make his desk, making scissor motions with his fingers. "This'll hurt you more than it hurts me."
"Are you doing a cleanse?" Ziva asked. "If it hurts you are definitely doing it wrong. Perhaps do not eat so many prunes. They are quite horrible anyway."
"Eat so many…What? No, Ziva we are not doing a cleanse."
Ziva frowned. "But neither of you has a garden so you cannot be- Oh!" She brightened. "Is this that manscaping thing you spoke of, Tony? I did not know that American men shared such things. How very European of you."
"Not in a million years," said Tim.
"We are not manscaping!" Tony batted the quotation marks she'd fitted around the word right back at her. "No manscaping, shared or otherwise. We have a difference of opinion over narrative style. That is all."
McGee looked a little mutinous. "Who's the published author here, Tony?"
"Why you are, McShakespeare, but let's be real. There's a world of difference between ripping off your workplace for a murder mystery and putting together a cohesive throughline in a film documentary. You can be king of plagiarism and I'll be king of…everything else."
"It's not…" McGee's jaw set and then relaxed, his whole posture softening. Tony caught an exchange of glances between his fellow agents and backburnered it to think about later. "That's why I asked for your help," Tim continued, and Tony knew with absolute certainty that's not where his sentence had been going before. "You can tell me your thoughts on narrative style at my place later, okay? I don't want to get in trouble with Gibbs for slacking off at work."
"Who's slacking off now?" Gibbs asked, coming around the corner, his timing as impeccable as ever.
"No one, boss," they chorused and Tony shoved the script hastily into a drawer.
That evening saw Tony taking the script apart page by page and spreading it across the floor of McGee's apartment. "Here," he said, snatching up pages 103 through 141. "You don't need this at all. It's repeating what you said in the opener only taking the boring to coma-inducing levels. Ugh. And this part?" He grabbed at pages 33 through 38 and waving them in Tim's face. "That's your ending. Boom." He carried on, and by the time he shoved the bundle of edited pages back at Tim, covered in arrows and donut crumbs, only half of them remained.
"Read that and tell me it's not a thousand percent improvement."
"You can't have a thousand percent improvement, Tony. Wait. I guess unless you're measuring increase and not a percentage of the t-"
Tony held up a hand. "Don't care, McPedantic. Read it and weep. Or the opposite because it is awesome."
"It's late. I'll read it tomorrow."
"No, now. C'mon, McGee, do it for me." He motioned towards the easy chair in McGee's bedroom. "Go settle in. I'll…" he looked around the room in mild despair. "Make myself what passes for comfortable in this bizarrely couchless geekhole."
McGee sighed. "Probably now isn't the best time to be discussing the concept of autonomy and personal choice. Look, if you're going to make me do this thing why don't you go lie down? Watch TV, take a nap. At least it'll keep you quiet." He tapped the bundle of pages against his desk, neatening the haphazard pile.
"Huh," Tony said, considering the relative potential for backache between bed and computer chair. "Why don't I?"
"Shoes off," said McGee without even bothering to look up.
"But of course." Tony went through to the bedroom, kicked off his shoes and settled on the bed, tucking his hands behind his head. "I'll just rest my eyes a moment," he said.
"You sound like my mom."
Tony heard springs give as McGee sat down. "Then your mom is clearly a person of great sense and perspicacity."
McGee muttered something under his breath that couldn't possibly have been the "warned me about guys like you" that Tony thought he'd heard. Wait. Wasn't there something he'd been supposed to think about? Maybe if he tried to empty his mind it would pop back up like some kind of Thought-in-a-Box. But his brain was so busy, how could he ever-
He woke with a sneeze, warm sunshine tickling his nose, and had only a second or two to orient himself—cozy blanket tossed over his still-clothed body, McGee sprawled uncomfortably across the easy chair, head drooping back, lips slightly parted—before the clock radio alarm kicked in with a sudden, violent beeping that had him stabbing wildly at all available buttons to shut it the hell up.
"Let me," said McGee, who, in his alarm-related frenzy, Tony hadn't noticed moving. He pushed Tony's hand away, pressed a button and the noise stopped.
"Ah, that's better."
"Mmm," said McGee, shuffling on past to the bathroom. "Breakfast's on you."
"That's fair," agreed Tony, and started looking for his shoes.
At breakfast, Tony was in full flow about Bahr and Hickenlooper and the meta of filming a film being filmed when a woman walked into the diner and he froze mid-sentence. It couldn't be…
"Tony. What is it? You okay?"
"It's-" No. No, it wasn't her. The likeness was superficial: the cut of her hair, the same slender build, the way she held herself. But the woman was taller than Jeanne, that hair a shade darker, and when she turned towards them her face, though Tony couldn't deny it was attractive, was not Jeanne's.
McGee followed Tony's gaze. He shook his head. "If you're hoping for an Apocalypse Now type scenario with jet packs you're gonna be a deeply disappointed DiNozzo. I have some questions about the changes you made. Come over tonight?"
"Sure," said Tony, tearing his eyes away from the woman and forcing himself to focus on McGee. "As long as Gibbs doesn't have us burning the midnight whatever."
"Cool. You want to finish my pastry?" McGee pushed the plate over.
Tony narrowed his eyes. Something was going on here. Something he couldn't put his finger on. "Are you trying to make me fat, McGee? Slow me down?"
McGee sighed and made to pull the plate back. Before he could, Tony snatched the unfinished pastry up and shoved it in his mouth, grinning around it.
Right on cue, McGee provided Tony with one of his signature eye rolls. This one would top Tony's grading system at If The Wind Changes You'll Stick Like That.
"You are such a child. Let's go. We'll be late."
That was more like it. Tony wiped his mouth and followed McGee out of the diner.
Tim seemed to have a lot of questions and it took several evenings for them to figure out all the issues with the documentary. By the time they were done Tony knew he would be able to recite chapter and verse on the history of personal flight for the rest of his life whether he liked it or not (he did not) and was looking forward to kicking back on his own with a couple of movies in which everyone stayed firmly on the ground.
"Good night?" McGee asked him the next day.
"Yeah," said Tony, taking himself by surprise with his answer. "Pretty darn good, actually, thanks for asking."
"I imagine you enjoyed the quiet, McGee," said Ziva. There was something in the way she smiled at him. Tony wiggled a finger in his ear. Backburner again.
"You bet. Got a whole ton done on the documentary. I'll have to invite you and Tony over for the premiere soon."
Tony flung his head into his hands. "Oh, no," he groaned. "Please, no."
McGee—evil troll that Tony knew him to be—simply laughed.
Tim regarded Tony from across the breakroom table. Tony's sandwich had been abandoned only a couple of bites in and he flicked aimlessly at the paper it had been wrapped in. The mole hunt had really done a number on him, mentally and physically. The tickets to all-female mud wrestling hadn't gone down as well as Tim had hoped so it looked like once again it was activity time for Tony. Luckily Tim had something ready to go.
He said, "How's the head?"
Tony touched a finger to the back of his skull and winced. "Sore. Thanks so much for asking."
"I didn't ask you to poke it, did I? Hey, listen, you really hate my jazz collection, don't you?"
"Hate is a strong- No. I hate it. Don't call it jazz, it's demeaning to the whole genre. It's muzak, McKennyG. It's wallpaper for the brain."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. One man's brain relaxant is another man's snorefest. So you'll be glad to know I've been reorganizing my stuff and I have to cull my vinyl. How about you come by this evening and tell me what I should keep and what I can put on eBay?"
Tony snorted. "No one is going to pay to be aurally tortured, but whatever."
"I'll take that as a yes."
"I'm taking you as a cry for help."
Tim bit back the snappy retort. This wasn't banter time, not least with Tony's neurons still firing at odd angles. Instead, he stood up to leave and Tony shot out a hand, grabbing his wrist. Tim looked at the hand and then at Tony.
"Tim..." Tony started and then clamped his mouth shut, eyes darting away.
Tony relaxed his grip, letting his hand fall. He flicked at the paper again. "Nothing," he said. "Or. It'll keep. Go back to work, I'll catch up in a minute."
Tim frowned, but did as he was told, running a finger over the rapidly fading red mark Tony had left on his wrist. Something else was bothering Tony now and he was either going to have to get to the bottom of it or come up with an endless supply of LPs for Tony to complain about.
They got into a system pretty fast. Tim would pull a record off of the shelf, handing it over to Tony who squatted like a judgmental gargoyle in front of Tim's bay window. Tony would inspect it and break out one of three reactions: a tut and wince, resulting in tossing it gently to one side, a confused look—in which case Tim would put on a track for a few seconds by which time the wincing would start up again—followed by more tossing or, rarely, an approving nod, stacking the reprieved vinyl next to a speaker on the window ledge.
"We're totally decimating here," Tony said, tossing Mariachi Brass on to the pile. "Not even Tijuana, Tim? You drugstore hussy, you."
Ignoring that last part, Tim chose not to be pedantic. "More or less." He looked ruefully at the huge to-be-thrift-shopped pile. "Can't I just have-"
"No!" Tony slapped Tim's reaching hand away. "The judge's decision is final. Survey says nu-uh. Other ways of telling you I will chew off your hand before I let you set those back on the shelf."
"Just think of this as part of the ongoing Education of Timothy No Middle Name McGee. By the time we're done, you'll have a passable collection of tunes with actual substance. Between that and the new couch—well done on finally taking that step, by the way—you can even invite ladies back up here without cringing in embarrassment."
"You should have." Tony snorted, a little twitching smile at the corner of his lips not making it to his eyes.
"As much as I enjoy you judging my choices, you wanna tell me what's up?"
"You mean besides EJ, the concussion, and creepy, shadow cops?"
"Last week's news, DiNozzo."
"Harsh, but fair." Tony rocked back until his ass hit the floor. He wrapped his arms around his knees and squinted up at Tim. "Sit down, would you?"
Tim sat on the couch next to a sleeping Jethro. He crossed his legs and then uncrossed them, feeling incongruously formal. He put his hands on his thighs, then one on the arm of the couch and the other on the dog, then stuffed them both in his pockets. None of it seemed to work and he couldn't tell why.
Tony watched him all the while. "Are you done?"
"Sorry. Yes, done. Go ahead."
"Thank you so much." Tony's voice was the usual sherry dry, but there was a sharp edge to it, like bitters drizzled around the edge of the glass. "So, Stinky John?"
"Apparently I had the whole thing backwards."
Tim's eyes widened, but he kept right on saying nothing at all. Best to let Tony get it all out.
"He did it. The flagpole thing. I was the victim." Tony pressed his lips together, nodding slowly over and over. "Me. I think I- I must have chosen somewhere- I wanted to be the hero of my own story."
"Even though that made you a bully when you weren't?" Tim couldn't even attempt to keep that thought in.
Tony looked startled. "I…guess? Wow. That's all kinds of messed up, don't you think?
"Little bit." A lot. No wonder the guy looked like someone had pulled the rug out from under him and the flooring below it too.
"Tim, I- I know I've ragged on you a whole bunch about, you know, everything, geekwise. Which. Well, that seems like a whole disco ball of hypocrisy given everything I learned today. Can I just issue a blanket apology for it all? Like past and future because we both know I don't always learn well."
Tim felt a sudden, flooding warmth suffuse his chest and with it the urge to give Tony a hug. On an average day he wasn't a big hugger, but Tony was, so Tim put the unusual desire down to wanting to make his friend feel better. He gave in to the impulse, slid off the couch and pulled Tony sideways into an awkward hug. It was the thought, not the finesse that counted after all. Tony leaned into it and Tim could smell faded cologne, the same scent Tony had been wearing since Tim had met him back in his Norfolk posting. These days it was as familiar to Tim as the clack of his typewriter keys, or the taste of his favorite cereal, comforting in its predictability. It was a reminder that no matter what curveballs life tossed Tony's way, somewhere there was always a solid core of sheer Tonyness that remained. It was good to know that he could rely on that, however weird that sounded.
He pulled away. "You want to mock my taste some more?"
Tony's smile was a little damp around the edges and Tim studiously ignored it. "Always." He held out his hand and Tim went to select another disc.
"Magic Night with Gheorghe Zamfir," he said. "Go wild." Tony got his fingertips to the sleeve and Tim yanked it back. "You do realize he's on the soundtrack to Once Upon A Time in America, right? You like that movie. Kill Bill too, and you love that one."
"Being greatness-adjacent doesn't make things automagically great, Tim. Hand it over. Panpipes. Whatever next? If I wanted to hear heavy breathing I'd go watch porn."
"You do you," said Tim and picked out another record.
Tony wasn't sure how he'd found himself at Tim's apartment, in Tim's bedroom no less. On the slightly less surreal side, he had a steamer in one hand and a scraper in the other. Or did that make it more surreal? It was hard to tell. It was hard to think of much these days with Ziva so far away in Israel. They'd left it the best way they could, given the circumstances, but there was part of Tony that wondered if he would have been better off not kissing her at all. This wasn't like getting over Jeanne, even with all the attendant lying and drama; whatever it was—could have been—with Ziva had never really gotten the chance to go anywhere. They'd had all those years and gone precisely nowhere with them. Somehow it was harder to let go of what-ifs than what-was. And all those might-haves lurking in the depths of the night, waiting to ambush him with his new superpower of regret: very much not great. He sighed in time with the hiss of steam.
"Hold that steamer there much longer and you'll melt the wall."
Tony shook himself, pulling the steamer away. "Sorry. Don't know where I went then."
The pause in Tim's rhythmic scraping was momentary, but long enough for Tony to notice it. "No problem, Tony. I'm just happy you could help."
"What better way to spend a rare day off than assisting my buddy Tim swap over one geek wallpaper for another geek wallpaper? Who needs to wallow in bed anyway?"
Tim started to say something, but shook his head, holding out his hand instead. "Here, gimme. Do some scraping."
Tony handed over the steamer and got to work with the scraper, delighted when long strips of paper started to peel away. There was something incredibly satisfying in the curling strands coming away with an easy tug. It reminded Tony of pulling labels off of beer bottles, steady and soothing. He and Tim got into the swing of it, swapping steamer and scraper between them, collecting up the scraps and bundling them into trash bags. It seemed hardly any time at all until the whole wall was done. Tony shoved the last of the discarded paper on top of the rest and squashed it down.
"Glad you just went for the old accent wall, Timmy. One wall was fun, four might be pushing the boundaries of friendship a little."
"Wait until we're matching patterns. Tempers will fray."
Tony hissed in a breath. "Now don't go falling to the Dark Side already. I warned you about the paper."
"And you did not listen."
"I did not."
"Oh, padawan. Foolish, foolish padawan."
Tim shrugged, trying and failing to brush flakes of paper from his sweats. "But it's so cool," he said in his best teenager whine. "God, dad, you never let me do anything."
"Call me dad again." Tony brandished his scraper with menace in Tim's general direction.
Tim held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay! Seriously, though, with my dad there would have been no chance. Magnolia walls all the way and no sticky tack on posters. It was those weird triangle plastic things or staring at a blank space."
"Sounds like a bundle of fun, your pops."
"Yep." Tim shrugged. "But I've been making up for it and tonight I get to sleep with the Force."
"You might want to rephrase that," said Tony. "How about a lunch break before we bust out the paste?"
"We have to let it air out first anyway. But lunch sounds good about now, yeah."
Tim had been wrong about the fraying tempers. Everything was as smooth as Sinatra; they measured, pasted, booked, hung, de-bubbled and trimmed like they'd been born to it. Tony watched Tim up the stepladder, bottom lip sticking out a little as he concentrated on getting the piece of paper perfectly straight. He smiled, letting himself fill up with fondness. Only Gibbs had been a constant in Tony's life for longer and even he'd had his few months' Mexican sabbatical and left them all in the dust. Tim was steady, reliable, still so easy to mess with: Tony's best friend, he'd have to say.
"We make a good team, don't we?"
"Not if you don't catch that fold we don't."
"On it, boss," said Tony, grasping the wallpaper and gently peeling it away from the wall.
They were silent for a while, getting the hang exact. Tim creaked down the stepladder and ran his hand along the perfectly aligned strip.
"Yeah, we do," he said.
By the time the job was done, complete with cleaning and furniture removal it was already getting late. Another meal, a few Tony-curated records and some shared beers later, Tony sighed. He really should head home, but there was literally nothing less appealing than his empty apartment right now.
"No, no," lied Tony. "I'm just beat is all. Seems like a lot of effort to go home. Apparently cardio doesn't translate into home-decorating fitness. Go figure. My back is killing me."
"So stay here."
"On your tiny couch, McHobbit? I said my back is killing me. Do you want me to be pretzeled for life?"
"Melodramatic, aren't you? Not the couch. Crash in the bed."
Tony sat up. "With you?"
"Why Timothy McGee, I'm not that kind of girl."
Tim's eyeroll came about halfway up Tony's grading system, which was way less than he'd been hoping for. "Get over yourself, DiNozzo. You have two choices. One, you can call a cab because the alcohol and exhaustion put you way up the scale for potential death by driving and I don't want that on my conscience. Two, you can, in all platonic safety, go non-euphemistically sleep in my bed where I will also be non-euphemistically sleeping."
"I'll have you know I haven't done anything non-euphemistically since before puberty. What will Jethro say when the sitter brings him back and he finds out his pops has been letting other men in his bed?"
"Tell you what, Tony. I'mma go brush my teeth. You make up your mind and let me know." Tim stood up and lifted the needle off the record and carefully put it away before heading through to the bathroom. The room fell silent and it occurred to Tony that the choice Tim had offered wasn't much of a choice at all.
"You better not sleep naked!" he yelled, taking his empty beer bottle—label neatly peeled and folded and shoved into the top—and setting it by the sink.
Tony had forgotten how comfortable Tim's bed was. The last time he'd fallen asleep by mistake and he'd had it all to himself. Part of him assumed that whether Tim admitted it or not there would be some sort of inherent awkwardness in sharing and they'd lie awake next to each other doing the self-aware deep breathing that never fooled anyone. But Tim waited until Tony was settled, turned on his side, and clapped off the lamp.
"Don't worry. The Force will protect your virtue," he said, and then, "Thanks for your help."
"De nada," Tony replied, and that was the last he knew until morning.
When he woke, his first thought was that Tim's pillows were a little on the firm side for him. His second was the dawning awareness that the 'pillow' was the hollow between Tim's shoulder and chest. Somehow in the night they'd adjusted their positions until Tony rested on Tim, arm stretched across his belly. Tim's arm was around Tony, hand limp against his neck; he was more of a cuddler in his sleep, it would seem. Tony didn't move immediately; he was comfortable and warm, he felt…safe. There was something about this physical closeness that calmed and reassured him. It had been a long time since he'd been like this, skin to skin with someone with no pressure, no expectations, nothing but simple touch. Of course, it helped that one of them was sleeping. There should be clubs for things like this, Tony thought. Or it should be way easier to ask for a hug from a buddy. A buddy hug club. Bug Club. The first rule of Bug Club is tell everybody about Bug Club so no one has to worry about being a member. Also, more hugs for Tony.
He resisted moving, determined to milk the peaceful sensation for as long as possible. Eventually, though, Tim started to stir, the subtle shift in his breathing letting Tony know he was about to surface. Tony extricated himself with caution because the last thing he wanted to do was start the day with an awkward conversation about inappropriate bed behavior. He was dressed and out of the apartment before Tim had completely come to, but not even DC traffic managed to wipe away his relaxed mood. This was the best he'd felt in weeks: bring on the next dead body, Tony was ready to rock.
"So it was mutual?"
"Yeah," said Tony, picking at the wall. He sighed. "I just…"
Uh-oh, thought Tim, here we go again. "Just what?"
"I guess neither of us could see it as forever? I don't regret trying because, you know, the Ziva thing."
"Memories and regrets?"
"Something like that." Tony shrugged. "So we had fun, Zoe and me, we tried, but it wasn't- Can you have a rebound if you didn't bound in the first place?"
"If anyone can, you can, Tony. Leave the wall alone, would you? What did it ever do to you?"
"Still orange after all these years."
"Good point. Still, knock it off, it's not fair to the janitors."
Tony stopped picking and leaned against the wall instead, hitting his head off it with tiny thocks. Tim wasn't sure that was a step up, but he let it slide.
"What if there is no forever, Tim? I'm too tired and too old to go back to the whole rotating bedfellow bullcrap. Besides, I have a queen-sized bed now. It feels weird sleeping on my own."
Tim frowned. Moping aloud was a definite forward move for Tony, but it was still moping. Tim hated to see him with all the bounce knocked out of him: he hadn't called a campfire or given Tim shit or a new McName in days. It made Tim anxious and unhappy. There was only one thing to do.
"You think you're up for a sonic adventure?"
"Isn't sonic for hedgehogs?"
"Also screwdrivers, but no. No unnaturally colored hedgehogs or ancient Time Lords."
Tim interrupted before this went down a rabbit hole they might never escape from. "Doesn't matter. I'm installing a new surround sound system and I could use your help."
"Aren't you supposed to be the electronics genius who roams among us?"
"Tony, you've spent more time in movie theaters than the rest of us combined. If anyone's going to be able to tell me when I've hit the surround sound sweet spot, it's you."
"I would deny it, but we both know it's true so I'll spare us the fake blushes. Sure. I'll mosey on over. When do you want me?"
"Tomorrow do? We have the whole day. You could bring some Blu-rays over and we could test the system out. Delilah's away at a conference so it'll be just us boys."
Tony tilted his head. "Hmm. If we do it right the action flicks should blow out your eardrums, horror will get those little hairs on your neck standing to attention and the independents will have you wondering why anyone let the sound guys near a mic in the first place."
"What about sci-fi?"
"Explosions in the vacuum of space don't make a sound, McKubrick. You taught me that."
"Just checking. So we on?"
They looked at each other for a moment and then Tim said, "Probably we should head into interrogation now."
"Huh," said Tony. "I knew there was something I was forgetting."
"Wireless rear speakers," Tim told him. "Because of the-" he made large circles at his sides with his index fingers, "-you know, wheelchair issue."
"That's very thoughtful, Timmy."
"Okay. So what's the plan? Basic set up and then tweak?"
"Sounds good to me."
Tony spun slowly around, giving the room a thorough look over. "We may need to move some things."
"Sure. As long as it doesn't mess with Delilah's access or her stuff, go for your life." And if Tim didn't like it he could always move it back once Tony had gone.
Tim had researched for weeks before ordering his system. He practically had the specs memorized and he'd read the instruction manual twice. It was so tempting to shove Tony out of the way and do it all himself. Two things stopped him: one, that would not help at all with the distraction attempt and two, sometimes wonderful things came out of the combination of his book smarts and Tony's intuition.
"No, see," said Tony, taking Tim's hand away from the speaker, "You don't want to do that."
"I mean, those front speakers are things of beauty, but sometimes a broad focus is not what you need. Like for every Amores Perros there's a Southland Tales that says step away from the storyboard, you do not need to be throwing the kitchen sink in there with the bathwater."
Tim stared at Tony in more confusion than usual. "What?"
"Let the subwoofer be the subwoofer, Tim. Drive all the bass through there and you'll get a dynamic range that'll blow your socks off. Or your slippers. I don't know how you prefer to watch your TV. Wait. I bet it's slippers. Those furry ones that light up when you stomp around."
"Trust me. It'll let the speakers breathe with the higher frequencies, you dig?"
"I…dig?" Of course he did, but Tony was having fun. If he was mocking Tim's choice of imaginary footwear then he was feeling better.
Once the initial setup was complete, it was time for the testing.
"Where do you wanna start?" Tim asked.
"Gotta go classic," said Tony, and dug in the canvas bag he'd dropped on the couch when he arrived. He held up 2001: A Space Odyssey, nodding, eyes wide. "Huh?"
Tim nodded back, grinning. "Oh, absolutely."
The opening chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra hit Tim's ears like the fist of one of Nietzche's Übermensch. Jethro, who'd spent the entire proceedings watching them with suspicion from his favored position under the coffee table, chose that moment to make a break for the bedroom, claws clattering on the wooden floor. Tim couldn't blame him. "That's what I'm talking about!" he said, clapping Tony on the shoulder.
"It's good, but it's not right," Tony replied, voice raised over the music. "Stay there."
Tim closed his eyes and tipped his head back, listening to Tony scurry around, making minute corrections to the speakers. He had to admit that the changes were for the better.
"Okay, that works." Tony's voice came from close behind, making Tim jump. "Settle, McStartle," he said. "If I get you jumpy just you wait until we put The Thing on. We should probably do that one while it's still daylight; I'm not taking responsibility for giving you nightmares."
"There are many reasons you give me nightmares that have nothing to do with horror movies."
Tony flicked the back of Tim's head. "Nice."
They cycled through the half-dozen movies Tony had brought, fast forwarding to fight scenes, listening to drums and wedding receptions, falling shell casings and rumbling spaceships, Tony tweaking the layout until finally even he was satisfied.
"All done," he said, starting to put the Blu-ray cases back in his bag.
"We should watch one start to finish," Tim said.
Tony narrowed his eyes. "I know what you're doing, Timmy."
No duh, thought Tim. The game was well and truly given away back when DiNozzo Senior was in his own slough of despond. "That's why you're the boss now, Tony. Your elite detecting skills."
"Well," drawled Tony with the tight smile he only used when he was pretending not to be too pleased, "I appreciate it anyway."
"Friends take care of friends."
Tony was silent and Tim got up to search his own shelves for a new movie, running his finger across the spines.
Tony said, "You know I'm only mean to you 'cos I like you, don't you?"
For no particular reason that he could see, Tim's stomach clenched briefly. "Yes, Tony, I had that one figured out years ago, luckily for my once fragile self-confidence."
"And you're mean to me for the same reason."
"Nope," said Tim. "I'm mean to you because I'm born evil." He grinned and tossed Tony another disc.
About halfway through the movie, Tony reached out and tugged Tim in, kissing him on the temple before pushing him back upright.
Tim rubbed at his head. "Where did that come from?"
"Thanks," said Tony. "For all the times you threw a rope in the hole. How is the Death Star anyway?"
"Death Star Two," said Tim, smiling. "I told you, it was for a neighbor kid."
"That's it, McKeyserSoze, you stick to your story."
"Thank you, I will." Tim turned his attention back to the movie, unable to stop smiling. Still, there was nothing wrong with pride at a job well done.
The first Tim knew about Tony's arrival was the sound of his front door being slammed and Tony sing-songing, "Get up, get up, get up, McTim!" at the top of his voice. He struggled out from under his comforter and sat up, bleary from interrupted sleep. With reluctance, he got to his feet and stumbled through to the kitchen where Tony was setting bags on the countertop.
"Tony, you do realize I gave you that key for emergencies only? What are you doing here?"
Tony whipped around, coming over to take Tim by the elbows. "Yes, I do, and yes this is, and I'm a very, very special agent. Do you think I wouldn't notice when the Head of Cyber was taking a day off?"
Tim sidestepped, shaking Tony off and stabbing the on button on his coffee machine. "What about Major Crimes?"
"Bishop and the Probie have got it. I trust them."
"How's Dwayne working out for you?"
"He's great. You don't care."
That was true enough. He liked Dwayne, but today Tim's ability to give a damn was severely compromised. He switched tracks. "So what's in the bags?"
"Aha!" Tony turned back to the counter and started unpacking. "Today, my moping man-friend, we are baking a cake."
Tony gave Tim a sideways glance. "Because today Delilah is getting married and the traditional way to acknowledge that is in the consumption of baked goods."
"It is not." Tim curled his fingers into his palms. He was trying very hard not to do any acknowledging at all. Why did Tony have to come here and ruin his plans?
"Cake is delicious, Tim. You're going to help me make it. It'll be cathartic, trust me. Better than spending the whole day flopping about in your bed like some kind of mud-deprived pig."
"The point is," said Tony, jabbing the end of a wooden spoon into Tim's chest. Tim grabbed it and pulled it off of him. "The point is that you need an activity. You do it for me; I'm returning the favor. That's what best friends are for."
"That's-" Tim stopped in his tracks. If he'd thought about it he would have said, yes, he knew that he was Tony's best friend, he just wasn't used to hearing it. He handed the spoon back to Tony.
Tony busied himself again. "Look—Where are your scales? Seriously, do I have to do everything myself?—Look. You need to talk about it. Think of the cake as limbering up."
"You're missing the point of activities, Tony. They're supposed to distract you from feelings, not, you know, make you feel them. Try the cupboard next to the stove. Also, since when did you do feelings? And cake."
"You master bread, cake's a walk in the park. Zoe taught me a lot. There was this one time with this guy…never mind. Oh. Got 'em."
Soon enough Tim had a bowl tucked under one arm and was creaming butter and sugar together with a fork under Tony's watchful eye.
"Harder, Tim. Give it fluffy hell."
"You know my food processor could do this quicker."
Tony paused in cracking eggs into a jug. "Yes, but your food processor doesn't have emotional issues that it needs to take out on cake mix."
To Tim's annoyance, beating the batter into submission did start to make him feel a little better. Tony slid the cake mix into the oven and then started gathering the dirty bowls and utensils, running hot water into the sink. He didn't look at Tim.
"You ready to talk yet?"
Tim ran a finger through an escaped drop of batter and licked it off. Tasted good. "It's not- We had an agreement, you know? She wanted to take the job in London and I supported that. But we'd done the long distance thing once and it felt like going backwards from moving in. So we broke up and agreed we were free to see other people, but we said if we found ourselves single and in the same city…"
"Like a riff on the When Harry Met Sally deal?"
"I guess. I don't know what I expected? It wasn't her meeting some English guy in, like, the first week and marrying him six months later."
"Are you still in love with her?" Tony put the cleaned jug down with a loud bang. "Sorry. Don't know my own strength."
"I love her." Tim considered his reply. He'd given this a lot of thought since he'd heard about the wedding and he was close to a hundred percent sure he was being genuine when he said, "But I'm not in love with her. Not anymore. Only knowing that doesn't help; the whole wedding thing hurts anyway."
"Oh, honey." Tony shook his head. "I get that."
"Do you? You know, she was always so cautious about marriage around me. Even an oblique reference would freak her out. Before the accident it was different. I don't know. She told me that this Stuart guy had only known her since she was paralyzed and she knew I never had a problem with it but she liked it better that way. She said she felt freer. I don't understand, but it's not me in the wheelchair." Tim twisted his hand in a drawer handle, gripping tightly. This was like throwing up; unbelievably awful in the middle of it, but you knew it was doing you good. And, like with throwing up, once he'd started, he couldn't stop.
He shook his head. "Jethro's gone now. I'm here in this place that we chose for both of us; it's still set up for Delilah to get around easy. It's not that I want her back, not even if it didn't work out with this new guy. I guess it's more…I'm mourning the future I didn't get. She chose her career over me, which I can't blame her for, I probably would have done the same. And then she chose someone else over me." He paused, clenching his jaw before adding, "Which I can't blame her for either."
There was a loud clatter and Tim jerked his head around to see Tony hastily grabbing at his measuring spoons as they made a break for the floor. He dropped them into the jug.
"I could," he said. He took a step towards Tim, wet hands forgotten dripping on the floor. "There's no one better than you."
There was something in the mutinous set of Tony's face that made Tim back off. Tony followed. Tim backed off again.
"Tony what are you doing?"
Tony moved into Tim's personal space a third time and Tim scurried backwards, starting a ridiculous chase around the furniture.
"I fully intend to kiss you."
Tim overbalanced, stomach swooping. He grabbed onto the back of the couch to stop from falling. "Why?!"
Tony's lips twitched. "Because I haven't done it yet and that's seems like an oversight on my part."
"But you don't- You've never-"
"I've never bungee jumped off Mount Everest either. There's a first time for everything."
Tim swallowed. "What if I don't want to kiss you?"
"I'm kind of hoping your curiosity will get the better of you."
It wasn't curiosity that made Tim stand stock still, heart thumping in his throat as Tony closed in. Given Tony's lack of understanding, or caring, about personal space, this wasn't the first time they had stood eye to eye with barely an inch between them, but it was the first time with such intent.
"Okay?" said Tony, taking Tim's head in his hands in a gentle grip, eyes searching his.
"Okay," Tim agreed.
And then Tony closed the gap and they were kissing. As first kisses went, Tim would rank it way up there with the best. They didn't bump noses, there were no issues with excess sloppiness, there was no confusion about what exactly tongues should be used for. Instead there were Tony's still-damp thumbs stroking along Tim's cheekbones and Tim worrying that he was going to hyperventilate because it seemed like he'd completely forgotten how to catch his breath. It was a good kiss, warm and gentle and sure, and Tim gave up caring. If he fainted, Tony would catch him.
When Tony moved away it was only to say, "That's what I thought," and to pull Tim into a hug that he found himself unable to resist, letting Tony take his weight, bringing his hands up to press into Tony's back, feeling his ribs' rapid rise and fall. It seemed Tim wasn't the only one with breathing issues.
Tim allowed himself a moment to bask, but couldn't hold the doubts at bay, the words crowding into his mouth as he pulled out of the embrace.
"What is this? Are you settling? You're single, I'm single, we're not getting any younger…why now? Why me?"
Hurt flickered in Tony's eyes. "I told you, you're my best friend. No one knows me better, no one takes care of me better, don’t think I haven't noticed you doing that. You never let me get complacent, you challenge me, you make me laugh, you make me want to strangle you. When I touch you it grounds me. It always has, even if I didn't understand what was happening. The movies don't always get it right; it doesn't have to be about flashy fireworks, I miss you every day I don't see you, and that's way too many since you moved to Cyber. You're my lodestone, Tim, I don't want another one."
It was as if the kiss was a key opening a box Tim hadn't known he'd kept locked. The Tim Tony had met back in Norfolk had automatically made a neat label for him marked, 'Out of my League, subsection: Way' and that had been that. Tidy, precisely the way Tim liked it. Only it seemed that in recent years that label had faded and Tim's latent attraction to Tony had started to seep out of the box and bound itself up in Tony's welfare. It was important to Tim that Tony was happy. He hadn't understood until now that it was also important that Tony was happy with him. There was one major problem.
A small laugh escaped before Tim could stop it. "That was beautiful, Tony. Honestly. But none of what you said makes you gay."
"Nope," said Tony with a grin. "Or you probably, but things change and not everything fits neatly into pretty boxes, Once and Future Probie, and wishing won't make it so. There are more options than either or and you know it. Did the kiss work for you?"
Well, what kind of question was that? "Yes."
"Me too. Wanna do it again?"
"Me too. Did it turn you on?"
Tim had to stop himself squirming with embarrassment. Was he a grown man or not? "Yes."
"Me too. Do you want me?"
Tim suddenly found it hard to breathe again. He fought to get himself under control. "Yes."
"Me too, I mean, you too…I mean, you know what I mean. So what do you say, you and me, wanna give it a go?"
It really was only a matter of time before he'd be calling for a paper bag, Tim knew. "Sure," he managed to say. "Why not?"
"So I got an activity for you," said Tony with a ridiculous leer that made Tim laugh out loud.
The cake burned.