“You ready?” says Gibbs from the open doorway of the hospital room.
It’s been Tony’s home – their home, really – for nearly two weeks while he sat and recuperated and sat some more. There’s been nothing to do but play with his IV line and stare out the window. Of course, he could always opt to stare at a magazine, or stare at the little television set. Stare at the wall. Stare at Gibbs and wonder what the next steps are. What’s next for him and for them.
Immediately, Tony thinks, “It’s over.”
But Gibbs won’t let him go.
Dehydrated. Malnourished. A bit shaken up.
The scars aren’t physical. They’re mental and emotional.
“You’ve healed up fine. Your psyche on the other hand…” the doctor had said. “I’d like you to speak with a colleague of mine. She comes highly recommended.”
That’s about when he tunes out.
The entire team has already made their rounds to see him, all of them grinning and grateful to see that he’s alive and kicking, if not very stridently. McGee and Abby and Ducky and Ziva, and even Palmer stops by, and Director Vance, too. All of the usual suspects are here, invading his privacy, chattering way too much, refusing to give him some fucking peace and quiet. It’s all too loud, too intrusive. And they’re asking him questions. Is he okay? Is he hungry? Do they need to get the doctor?
Does he want to talk about it?
How does it feel? How does it feel to be “safe” again?
He doesn’t feel safe. Everything feels like a veiled threat. He can’t sleep with one eye open, so he hardly sleeps at all.
They try to make him smile, and joke, and they try to prod him back into himself, but Tony’s having none of it. He lets them know it with his silence, and his drawn and wary expression, and when they won’t leave, he lets them know it with his anger and frustration.
His temper is explosive.
After one hateful outburst too many, Abby runs into Gibbs in the hallway and she can’t keep the tears at bay. “What’s the matter with him? He’s so—“ She almost can’t bring herself to say ‘awful’, because she feels that might not be fair. She says it anyway, “He’s being so awful.”
“Give him time,” Gibbs says as he lets her arms wrap around his middle. “Give him some time.”
A few times, Ziva comes alone. She and Tony sit together without speaking, and she doesn’t try to make him. She brings a book, and sometimes Gibbs finds her there, curled up on the chair next to Tony’s bed, reading or dozing. And sometimes he’ll see Tony sleeping, actually sleeping, body turned toward her, his breathing deep and even — but far from peaceful.
“It’s a funny thing,” she remarks when she leaves. She wears that tight smile that’s been all too common lately.
Dealing with Tony’s trauma takes a measured approach.
She would know.
They live together like a married couple. They’d done so even before what had happened.
But this Tony is a far cry from the goofy, bighearted soul he thought he knew so well. All that levity is gone – in hiding, out of sight. And the look in his eye, always so calm and steady and expressive, is distant now and clouded by a wary sense of imminent danger.
He’d always been the unshakable one, Gibbs thought. Durable and Teflon tough. Now he has to be careful what he says, and what he does – unsure of what trigger will set him off and what’ll happen if he does go off. He’s like a loaded gun with a light trigger pull, Gibbs doesn’t know if there’s a round in the chamber.
This Tony is a nightmare, and Tony seems to be trapped in one, too — one that lasts through the night and into the day, from sleeping and into waking. He’s suffering in a locked room of mental agony Gibbs can’t seem to assuage. It’s like he’d never been freed from that place. Like he’ll be stuck there forever.
They sleep in the same bed, but even so, Tony maintains his distance — staying on his own side, a wide expanse of cold sheets between them. They haven’t touched in any meaningful way since, and when Gibbs tries and when Tony allows it, he turns his face away.
Gibbs knows this is no way for Tony to live. But only Tony can take that first step forward, and right now he’s not even facing the right direction.
“Agent DiNozzo, I hope you understand this isn’t some disciplinary action,” says the nameless, faceless HR drone-woman in front of him, “In fact, your reputation within this agency is exemplary, and we'd very much like to see you back on full field duty.”
He stares in her direction. Not at her, but past her, at the little Christmas tree above her right shoulder. It’s barely Thanksgiving, yet there it is. The lights wrapped around it twinkle and dance and mock. She’s saying something else about counseling sessions and psych evaluations and “here are the steps we want you to take” and “the director needs to feel confident that you’re competent enough to go back on field duty.” Her tone is calm and gentle.
Inwardly, he thinks, “You fucking bitch. What the fuck to you know about fucking anything.” The fury is completely unbidden, and it’s so sudden and ferocious, it overpowers his mind.
“Don’t you know what I went through?” he wants to say. “All the shit I went through for you and this agency and everybody in it?”
Perhaps it’s all because of his new-found anger issues, born out of frustration, or just a bad attitude. He’s so fucking pissed off, he wants to crush something. He needs to work, but that won’t be happening. Maybe not ever, if these people get their way. These fucking stupid bitches, and this one, with her fat face and her dumb bovine eyes.
Everything and everyone has gone fucking insane.
Gibbs meets him in the hallway and catches him by the arm. “Hey, how’d it go?” He asks like he gives a shit, and instantly Tony turns that anger onto him.
“She’s a fucking bitch,” he seethes, just loudly enough for a few people to hear over their cubicle walls. “All of these people are crazy.”
“Tony—“ Gibbs warns, hand gripping Tony’s arm a little tighter.
“No!” Tony snaps. “You’re not gonna tell me what to do, or what to say, or how I ought to react, or anything, okay?” He wrenches his arm away, and they both walk to the parking garage and Gibbs’ truck in complete and absolute silence.
Tony’s reaction was so fierce and so dramatic, that Gibbs thinks he might actually start hitting something. But instead, Tony simply shuts down and stares blankly at the ugly urban scenery that whips by his window. He doesn’t apologize. Doesn’t acknowledge the scene he’d made outside HR.
And when they get home, Tony refuses to do anything but watch television and drink beer. That’s where he sleeps, on the couch under an itchy afghan crocheted by one of the ex-wives.
Gibbs leaves him there for the basement and some bourbon and a lot of swirling, repetitive thoughts.
It’s Saturday evening, a couple weeks into December, and Tony’s lying on Gibbs’ couch under a thick blanket and watching infomercial after infomercial. The pale TV light bounces off his face as he gives the stupid thing a continuous, dispassionate stare.
“Get up. Get ready,” Gibbs says as soon as he hits the bottom of the stairs. He’s tugging at the sleeves of his dark gray suit coat — the only one in his wardrobe that had been nicely tailored by suggestion from Tony, and he’s straightening his red tie — a past Christmas gift from Tony. This entire outfit is a reminder of Tony and their — what seems like — previous life. It was a life in which Tony actually participated. “We gotta go. The team’s meeting us there.”
Tony doesn’t bother looking his way. He says to the TV, “I’m not going.”
“Yeah, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You said you were, just yesterday.”
“I changed my mind. I don’t feel well.”
Gibbs looks toward the ceiling and prays for infinite patience, because right about now he’s finally running out of it. That’s the only gift he wants for Christmas: more patience. Patience in bulk. Patience for Tony and for this situation. Although, if it’s possible, Gibbs would also like his boyfriend healthy and happy and whole again, but that would require actual participation from Tony. There’s no movement on that front.
“So you’re just gonna lay there all evening and feel sorry for yourself,” Gibbs says.
And Tony says, “Yes.”
“I feel like you’ve been camped on the couch for two solid weeks. You need to get up. You need to do something.”
“What’s it to you?” Tony challenges. He’s looking at Gibbs now, half sitting up and his hair sticking out in all directions. He hasn’t showered in three days.
“Hey,” Gibbs warns. He’s sick of the attitude. He steps forward and rips the blanket away, ignoring Tony’s flinch. “You’re goin’ to this damn Christmas party whether you like it or not. So get up. Make yourself presentable. Take a shower. We’re leaving in fifteen. Twenty at the most.”
Tony drags himself off the couch, making sure to give Gibbs the dick-eye the entire time. Before he heads upstairs, he says, “Okay. I’ll go. I don’t want to disappoint Abby.”
Gibbs watches him go, and for some reason Tony’s words hurt worse than they ever had before.
He barely smiles the entire night, and he’s miserable from beginning to end.
He’s dressed himself well in one of his most expensive suits, and if you don’t look closely, you might think he’s okay. The happiness of the event is grating, everybody mixing and mingling, the nauseating holiday lights, the eggnog, the festive glee radiating from everybody’s faces. But he makes an effort, hugging Abby, shaking McGee’s hand and following it up with an awkward one-armed hug, saying hello to Ziva and complimenting her dress, following Gibbs around like a noon-time shadow.
He says all the right things. Smiles at all the right moments, but it looks more like a grimace, and when people around them begin to notice his oddly detached and disjointed behavior, that’s when the looks of pity begin.
“See DiNozzo over there?” They say. “Yeah, you remember what happened? Yeah, that’s the guy. Isn’t that awful?”
Everybody who knows him walks on eggshells, because this man isn’t so much Tony as he is an unrecognizable stranger, the ghost of someone they once liked. Now he’s something that might become dangerous if provoked. So mostly, after a while, they stay away.
Ziva meets Gibbs in a quiet corner, and for once during the night, his shadow is absent. She hands him a cup of eggnog and says, “Where’s Tony?”
He accepts it with a grateful nod. “Don’t know. Sulking somewhere with Abby maybe.”
“What is his problem?” Ziva asks, gulping her own eggnog.
He can appreciate her bluntness. Ziva does not waste time mincing words. “He’s a little turned around,” he puts it nicely, and mildly.
Ziva waits, but she knows he won’t say more without prompting. “So who will turn him back around?”
“You can lead a horse to water,” he says.
She counters that with, “If there is bitterness in the heart, sugar in the mouth will not make life sweeter.”
He gives her a rare chuckle. “Where’d you pull that from?”
“It sounds better in Hebrew.” She smirks.
“I’ll take your word for that.”
They lean against the wall together and finish their eggnog.
“I am worried about him,” Ziva admits.
“He’s got another eval on Monday morning.”
“How do you think he’ll do?”
He shrugs. “Better get his head out of his ass if he wants to get back to work.”
That’s when they hear the arguing. Gibbs knows that voice too well, in all of its various moods. And when they struggle through a small group of gawkers, he sees Tony back up against a wall and Balboa at his chest, all while Abby coaxed and cajoled the both of them to calm down and back off.
They diffuse the situation, eventually, and they leave.
“He’s such an asshole, Jethro,” Tony says while Gibbs drives.
Gibbs hasn’t said anything since they left the banquet hall. Nothing as they bundled up in their coats. Nothing as they quickly walked across the frigid carpark. Nothing as they got into Gibbs’ truck and fastened their seat belts. And still nothing as Gibbs began to drive the thing home.
But Tony seems stuck on rehashing the last five minutes of the Christmas party. And stuck on Balboa. “I mean, can you believe that guy? He’s such—“
“Have you stopped to consider,” Gibbs interrupts, “that maybe you’re the asshole in this situation?”
Tony is quiet after that. Maybe he’s considering it, or maybe he’s just reloading that caustic mouth of his.
When Tony still doesn’t speak, Gibbs adds, “You made a fool out of me.”
Headlights slide on and off their faces.
“That wasn’t my intention,” Tony finally says, looking Gibbs’ way.
Gibbs can’t tell if he’s actually contrite or not, because the shadows are too dark on his face. “Yeah, well,” he says, “you made a fool out of yourself, too.”
Christmas looms and suddenly, Gibbs realizes he has no idea what he's getting Tony.
Last year it was a trip to Miami, and the year before that, a really nice watch. But this year... he hasn't figured out this year yet. Somehow, he feels like this year's gift is even more important than any of the others. What do you get a guy hovering on the brink of chaos?
This could be a turning point.
He's on his way across the Food Lion parking lot, two arms weighted down by plastic grocery bags, when the idea hits him.
Tony needs a challenge. Tony needs out of his own miserable head.
“Horse riding lessons?” Tony asks, staring at the piece of paper he’d yanked out of the festive red and green envelope. So this was the big gift, Tony thinks. Really? He’d been half-expecting something… different. Airline tickets, maybe, to an exotic locale, a holiday for the both of them. Last year's trip to Miami had been a fun, and warm, and slightly insane reprieve from the usual.
He turns his stare onto Gibbs, who’s keeping a watchful eye on him.
Already, Gibbs is smiling wryly, as if he knew what Tony has been thinking.
“A gift certificate for horse riding lessons?” Tony says with a frown. “I don’t like horses, or animals in general, really. No offense—“
“You don’t like horses?” Gibbs asks, “or are you just afraid of them?”
“Not afraid. It’s just not my thing. They’re big, and they smell, and... and okay, maybe they’re a little scary.”
“You’re looking for a challenge.” Gibbs says it like it was a matter of fact.
“You need something to focus on. Something other than the fact that you’re not workin’ right now,” Gibbs says. “And something other than what happened to you.”
“I’m not working right now,” Tony says, “because those bitches won’t let me.”
“Hey, bubba. They get their orders from the same place we do. They can’t let you work like this, and with good reason. Tony… what happened—“
“Happened,” Tony finishes for him. “It’s over. It’s done with. I just wanna move on and—“
“Well you can’t,” Gibbs snaps. “You can’t just go back to the way it was. Not without addressing it first.”
“Oh you’re one to talk.”
“Yeah, I am one to talk, because I was like you, Tony, and ignoring it and wishing it away and pretending everything’s okay was a stupid choice. You need to face it, but first, you need to get outta your own damn head. ‘Cause I see you thinking about it. I see you obsessing, and it’s not healthy.”
“No, I need to get back to work. That’s what I need. Not riding some stupid horse, or standing in some circle singing kumbaya and picking daisies with a bunch of head doctors. I need to fucking work. Why don’t you get that, Gibbs? I thought you’d get that.”
“I do get it.”
“Then why are you making this so hard for me?”
Gibbs pauses at the question before laughing in disbelief. “You think I’m making it hard for you?” He laughs a bit louder. “I’ve done nothing but support you, Tony, through all of this.”
Tony keeps his mouth shut, because he knows there’s truth to this.
“Look at yourself,” continues Gibbs. “Actually look at yourself. You’re miserable. You’re unhappy.”
“Because I’m not—“ Tony tries.
“Bullshit!” Gibbs roars, frustrated by how this conversation has so suddenly turned. “Quite frankly, you’re awful to be around right now.”
This triggers something, and Tony can’t keep himself quiet. He quickly gets up from the couch and says, “Why have me here then? Sounds to me you’d be happier without me.”
“Where would you go, Tony?” Gibbs asks, his tone suggesting the idea is ridiculous. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“A hotel. McGee’s place. I don’t know. Anywhere but here!” He’s breathing hard now, and his face feels hot.
Gibbs stares up at Tony as he finishes his tirade. The lights from the Christmas tree illuminate his face in red and blue and green and orange. That face is still drawn and shadowed, and Tony’s body is still that hollowed-out shell they found half-dead and locked in that putrid room, left to slowly starve. He hasn’t put the weight back on, hardly any of it.
“Where would you go?” Gibbs repeats, quieter.
Tony flinches and averts his eyes. He gazes despondently at the Christmas tree. Its festive multi-colored lights glow in the living room’s dim light. The fire crackles. He shuts his eyes and tries to forget everything and everyone. But he can’t forget Gibbs, because he can feel him right beside him. Gibbs has been with him through everything. He’s seen him at his worst. His nastiest, most miserable self. And yeah, Tony can admit he’s been awful. More than awful. He knows he’s breaking the hearts of all of those around him, all of those people he loves and all of those people who dare to love him in return, but he just can’t…
But even then, Gibbs is still here, propping him up. Poking him, prodding him along. Challenging him.
So maybe he’s right — About this one thing.
“I’m sorry,” Tony says in a whisper as he sits. “I’m being stupid.” He drops the envelope in his lap, and then he feels Gibbs’ hand on his face. A rough thumb brushes against his cheek, and maybe Tony feels tears in his eyes, but he’s too proud to admit that they’re there. He stares at his knees.
Seems hitting rock bottom happens more than once when confronting something such as this. He keeps cycling through it. This time, he’s hit harder than all the other times.
“Not stupid,” Gibbs says, his voice oddly gentle. “Just stubborn.”
Tony grins ruefully, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. It never reaches his eyes anymore.
“So… they start this Saturday.”
“What starts?” Tony asks stupidly.
“The riding lessons.”
“That’s the day after tomorrow already.” Truthfully, Tony doesn’t want to say “yes” to Gibbs’ gift, but he also doesn’t want to say “no.” Not after all of this kindness and patience, and after all of Tony’s own intractability. But it’s daunting. He’ll admit that much. Honestly, he doesn’t really know a horse’s ass from its face, but… But…
“Only rule is,” Gibbs says, “once you start, you can’t quit. All or nothing.”
Tony looks at Gibbs.
“You don’t quit, right, Tony?”
“I don’t quit,” Tony agrees. “Alright, then. I’ll give it a go. Thank you… I guess.”
And briefly, Gibbs thinks he might finally be getting through to him.
They kiss lazily on the couch, and for the first time in a while, Tony lets Gibbs touch him. All over. Intimately. It might’ve been one of the best gifts Gibbs has ever received, until he hears “I love you.”
The words are so quiet, he almost misses them.
The Saturday after Christmas, Gibbs wakes up breathing into Tony’s chest. At first, he’s surprised, but then he remembers the past two nights and Tony’s willingness to be close with him again. And last night, with Tony drunk off of a little too much bourbon infused eggnog, he almost began to think everything was on its way to “okay.”
It’s still dark outside, and the room is dark, too, but despite that, Gibbs can feel eyes on him. He turns his head to see that Tony is wide awake.
“Didn’t want to wake you,” Tony says.
Gibbs chuckles, then asks, “Can’t sleep?”
He can feel Tony’s mind reeling around and around already. Is this how it’s been the entire time? “What are you thinkin’ about?”
Tony doesn’t answer, although it’s written all over his face. Despite the peaceful quiet of morning, his expression is tense and guarded.
On impulse, Gibbs reaches out to touch his head, but Tony’s already rolling out of bed. He watches Tony's back.
“Gonna take a shower,” Tony says. “What should I wear to this horse thing? You’re the cowboy.”
Rolling over and looking up toward the ceiling, Gibbs suggests, “Jeans, a warm shirt, good socks… Tight underwear.” Then he smirks.
“Oh great,” Tony huffs.
“Gotta keep ‘em in place. You’ll thank me later.”
While Tony showers, Gibbs heads downstairs, puts a pot of coffee on and gets a jump on breakfast. He promised Laura he’d have her newest student at the barn at nine o’clock sharp, and he’d never been one for tardiness.
He’s nudging scrambled eggs beside buttered toast by the time Tony slowly trudges down the stairs. He’s chosen jeans, like Gibbs said, and a green fleece pullover. He pats at his wet hair in an effort to calm it down, but Gibbs just says, “You’re gonna wear a helmet, so don’t waste time with your hair. Sit down.” Gibbs sets the plate in front of the chair nearest to Tony.
“Not really hungry,” Tony says.
But Gibbs is shaking his head. “Nope. You’re sitting down and eating.”
Tony shoots him a look, but Gibbs won’t be cowed, and in the end, Tony sits and he eats. Gibbs does the same.
After a couple minutes’ worth of chewing, Gibbs says while putting down his coffee mug, “Abs mentioned something about New Year’s Eve.”
Tony swallows and stabs another sausage with his fork.
“Goin’ out with some friends,” Gibbs goes on. "She’d like you to go with her.”
“What about you?” Tony chews slowly.
“Me? You know I like to stay in. Thought you’d wanna have some fun. Said you liked it last year.”
“No.” That’s all Tony says, and then he’s standing up and taking his plate to the trash, then to the sink. After, he says, “Tell her I’m sorry.”
Gibbs shrugs. “Tell her yourself.”
The property is gorgeous, despite the leafless trees and the hibernating grass. It seems to take forever to actually get to the stable once they pull into the long gravel drive. Holiday wreaths and garland drape a sign that reads “Merryweather Farms.” Dark-wooded four plank fencing lines the drive, with pasture on both sides. A few horses stand together in the distance.
They pass a dirt outdoor ring with a few cross-rails set up. A young woman rides a very nicely turned out horse along the rail.
Tony turns to Gibbs and comments, “Mighty fancy, Jethro. Where are the cowboys?”
“An old friend of mine owns this place. I called in a favor.”
“Is this the mystery Laura?”
Gibbs nods as he guides the truck along. They’re almost to the end of the drive and a small parking lot, a few spots still open.
“And who’s mystery Laura?” Tony asks.
Gibbs hesitates, before going with a truthful answer. “I dated her once. Years ago, it seems.”
“Oh,” Tony says.
“This gonna be a problem?”
“No.” Tony doesn’t sound convinced with his own answer. “Just kind of weird is all.”
Gibbs laughs. “Yeah, well, some people can stay friends with their exes, Tony.” He parks the truck and shuts off the engine.
“Still kinda weird,” Tony grumbles, but soon he’s distracted by the aesthetics of this place and for a while it leaves him with his mouth hanging open a bit.
It’s not humble in the least bit, and quite frankly, Tony is surprised that Gibbs chose this place for him. He’d been half-expecting some weather-beaten lean-to far out in the country with a toothless horse trader demanding he saddle up and ride…
He can’t decide if this is better… or worse.
Because this isn’t so much a barn as it is a luxury estate for horse-kind. The building is red-bricked with wood trim, and the entrance lobby itself is wide and open and elegant. A large glass case sits at the far end and displays trophies and ribbons and — Tony stares at it — an Olympic gold medal? “She’s an Olympic gold medal winner?” he asks.
“Well, yeah,” Gibbs answers, somewhat evasively. “Laura’s pretty good at what she does.”
“How am I gonna compete with that?” Tony bitches. “I’m gonna be out there flopping around and busting my balls like some idiot…”
Rolling his eyes, Gibbs says, “It’s not a competition. People pay thousands of dollars to learn from her. Look grateful or something.”
But Tony only frowns harder. It’s impressive — he has the admit — her accomplishments. There are trophies and trophies and more trophies. Pictures, too: the main one a huge bay horse with ribbons lining the reins and a petite woman sitting atop of it, very smiley and very much in control. He squints, cocks his head, and sees a lock of curly red hair escaping from under her helmet.
“—Tony,” someone’s saying from behind him, and he turns to see that same woman, now a little older, in the flesh, standing in front of him. She has her hand extended toward him, and she’s just as smiley and just as red-haired and just as petite. She’s dressed in tan leggings, black boots, a long-sleeved black turtleneck and a puffy dark red vest.
Automatically, he sticks his hand out to shake. She’s looking at him expectantly, and soon, he realizes he must have missed something. “Pardon?” he asks, looking briefly at Gibbs.
“I said,” Laura repeats, “You must be Tony. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you!”
He grins, wide and fake. “Same,” he lies.
She turns to Gibbs — “Oh, he’s adorable, Jethro,” — then back to Tony. “I’m Laura Merryweather. Welcome to the farm.”
“This is impressive,” Tony says, looking again at the glass trophy case.
But she waves her hand dismissively at it. “Don’t pay it any attention. That was my barn manager’s idea. Have to drum up the image, you know. I’m a —“ she makes air-quotes, “—top trainer and coach, supposedly.” Then Laura’s off on another tangent, “It’s so nice to see you, Jethro. It’s been so long! Come on back. Come on back and see the place. Tony—“ Again she’s looking at Tony with a sly smirk that appears rather beguiling on her, “—we’ve got lot of ground to cover today, hun.”
They follow Laura into the stable proper, Tony still hanging slightly behind Gibbs. The aisle is floored in brick and swept clean. Stalls extend in both directions, constructed in richly toned wood and wrought iron. A couple horses pop their heads out of their stalls to watch the visitors. A man is busy mucking a few stalls down the way. She waves at him, and he waves back.
“Jethro told me you have zero experience,” Laura says.
“Uh,” Tony answers. “Yeah. Unless you count, like, pony rides and—“
“Well, I don’t. But that’s okay. You’re here to learn.” Laura pauses in front of one stall and grabs what Tony thinks looks like a harness-looking-thingy. “Jethro here is a good rider. Could use a bit more schooling…”
“… but he’s good enough.” She unlatches the door and steps inside.
Tony reads the brass name plaque on the door. It says: Hard Knox.
In no time, she has the harness-looking-thingy on the horse’s head and she’s leading the large black animal out of the stall. Tony backs up, giving it a wide berth.
“This is Knox. Great school horse.” Laura picks some shavings from his forelock. “And believe me, he’s earned his name.”
She laughs. “Don’t worry. He’s more saint than sinner. Come on. Come on.” She leads the horse to a wash stall and secures the cross-ties to the harness-looking-thingy. “This is called a halter,” Laura says, as if reading his mind. She holds up the rope. “Lead rope.” Then touches the cross-ties. “Cross-ties. Easier to groom and tack up in here. Soon you’ll do that yourself, and you’ll see. Not this session, but soon.”
Tony still stands about five feet away from the horse’s head. And for his part, the horse looks supremely bored. Ears pointing forward, then back, then to the side. Eyes big and dark. One hind-foot cocked, haunch dipping down toward the concrete. Tony looks to his right to say something to Gibbs, but finds he’s gone off elsewhere.
“Come on. Come on,” Laura urges, beckoning him closer. “Afraid?”
“No,” Tony lies. “He’s just… large.”
“Knox is fifteen and a half hands. I’ve got warmbloods here pushing seventeen and a half. He’s not big.”
Tony makes a face.
Laura pauses, before explaining, “Hands… It’s how we measure the height of a horse. Four inches in a hand. From hoof to the withers.” She touches Knox’s withers. She then reaches for a brush and quickly begins giving the horse a once over.
She laughs. “Oh boy, like I said, we do have a lot of ground to cover.” She smiles, though, as Tony steps closer and reaches to scratch the horse behind the ears, like one would do with a dog. The horse in return puts a nostril to Tony’s neck and breaths out a gust of warm hay-scented air before sucking some more back in.
Laura keeps on brushing, but from the corner of her eye, she sees a smile and the deepening of some crows’ feet. It’s the universal expression of joy, and she breathes a small sigh of relief.
If this is what Jethro had been hoping for, they might be on the right track.
They stand out in the middle of the cavernous indoor arena. Just Tony, who’s now outfitted in a helmet, and Laura with Knox, the not-so-big black horse who still looks quite bored. She’s put a much longer rope on the horse.
Tony wonders why the horse is still without a saddle — he does know that much, but he’s a bit too intimidated to ask. That might be a first for DiNozzo, and he’s sure Gibbs will have a field day with it, seeing as he’s slept with the woman and all — years ago or not. He sees the older man hanging out by the arena rail, leaning against it and watching the lesson with a wry smile Tony can see from here.
Laura so far has proven to be a patient and engaging teacher, but Tony really doesn’t want to test that.
Right now she’s saying, “Okay, Tony. Here comes the fun part. This is called a lounge rope, and Knox here knows he’s supposed to go around and around in a circle — all under my control. So you’re gonna hop on, and we’ll take it at a slow walk so you can find your seat.”
Tony looks at her as if she’s crazy. “Excuse me?”
“You’re gonna hop on,” she rephrases, slowly, “and you’re gonna get used to the horse’s movement and learn how to balance.”
“There’s no saddle. And what about the rein thingies?” Tony also knows that much.
“You think I’m gonna let you yank my horse around by the mouth with those unbalanced hands?” Laura asks. “I like my horse.” She pats him on the neck. The horse still looks bored, but now he’s staring off toward Gibbs. Perhaps he could sense a horse lover.
Tony doesn’t have an answer, and he suddenly feels incredibly stupid.
“I do things a little differently than other instructors. I like a new rider to get to know the feel of the horse under them. Their movement. No leather in the way. No artificial hand-holds. No reins to yank around.” She touches the horse’s mouth. “This is one of the most sensitive parts of a horse. The bit is a piece of metal in this mouth. You have to earn the bit after you earn everything else. First, the saddle. Then, the stirrups. After that, reins attached to the halter. Finally, a bit and bridle.”
Tony can only stare at the horse like it’s some insurmountable obstacle.
“Don’t look so freaked out, hun. You’ll be fine.” Laura grabs the tall mounting block and plants it next to Knox. The horse gently swishes his tail and waits. “Come on over. Hop on. We’ll go easy.”
Tony ends up standing on top of the block and looking out over the horse’s broad back.
Laura points out the black mane. “See this?” She grabs it and tugs. “A horse’s mane isn’t like ours. It’s not particularly sensitive. Now, some horses are more sensitive than others, but Knox here isn’t at all. This is your hand-hold if you need it. You won’t need it for long — that’s the goal here — but it’s nice to have.” She nods. “Alright. Hop on.”
It’s a bit awkward, but soon Tony has succeeded at leaping up and swinging a leg over the horse’s back. He freezes up and grabs mane when he sees the ground a bit too far away. “Oh yeah,” he says breathily. “I’m on him… I’m on him…”
She chuckles and comments, “You look uncomfortable.”
“Yeah. It’s ‘cause I know he’s got a mind of his own, and he’s just choosing to stand still right now.”
Laura laughs loudly now. “Interesting way of putting it.” She clucks her tongue, and Knox starts to walk, circling out and away from her. Tony holds on for dear life, hands full of mane and looking straight down. “Your horse wants to know where you’re going, Tony,” she says.
“What?” He’s confused and a fair bit petrified.
“Look up. Don’t keep looking down like that. When you’re riding, you want to look out at wherever you want to go. And the horse knows when you’re not.”
“Thought you said you had him in your control.”
“I do. But when it comes time when I’m not, I need to know you’re in control.”
Knox is plodding along now at a steady walk, and gradually, Tony begins to loosen up a bit. He starts to rely less and less on the mane as he gets into the rhythm of the big animal’s walk.
“Good, good,” Laura says.
Knox snorts and shakes his head
“You, too, Knox,” she adds.
“Yeah, we’re going…” Tony says with a tight smile. “We’re going…”
“Tony, you may not realize it or not, but you’re using some muscles you may not even know you have. They’re all helping you balance, and they’ll start to strengthen the more you ride.”
Tony’s too busy balancing to answer.
“You look like the athletic type,” Laura goes on, “which might make this easier for you to understand, but this is a sport. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. Sure. It’s a sport.”
“It’s a very skilled sport, and there’s a lot of stuff you can do with it. But the thing with our sport is… you have a partner here who’s a different species and who has a mind of his own.”
Tony nods. He has completely let go of the mane now, and he’s resting his hands on his thighs as he works to straighten his posture and keep looking up and out at where the horse is moving.
“So the challenge is working with this animal as a team. Because right now? You’re a team. Riding is a lot more than simply being a passenger, and the better you understand the partnership, the better the horse will appreciate you and want to work for you.”
Again, Tony nods. He feels the horse moving under him, rather intimately. He feels the muscles, and yes, the bones, which are digging so kindly into his crotch. A pad would’ve been nice.
Almost an hour had passed, and they’d worked on various things.
Tony touched his toes while on the horse, leaned backward to lie on the horse, and did a couple emergency dismounts, which made Tony’s knee ache a bit. He also played a game Laura called “around the world” in which he had to sit sideways, then backwards, then the other sideways, then back frontwards — all while on the horse’s back and without hopping off.
After everything, Tony began to feel more confident.
“You have a natural seat,” Laura praises. “I’m impressed, Tony.” She halts Knox and lets him walk up to her. He chews, sighs, and flicks his ears. She looks up at Tony and says, “So… Normally I’d stop the lesson there, but normally I’m instructing kids.” She reaches up and scratches the white spot between the horse’s eyes. “You look comfortable up there. Would you like to try the trot?”
Gibbs had been right about one thing the other day. Tony does love a challenge. Without pausing to think more about it, Tony nods his head. “Sure.”
Laura smiles. “I like a daredevil. We’re gonna have fun.” She clucks and holds her hand up and out, which prompts Knox to move back out into his lazy circle. “Okay now, the walk is a four-beat gait, but the trot is a two-beat gait. So not only is it faster, it’s a bit bouncier. You’re lucky because Knox here is part Paso Fino, so his trot is very smooth.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Tony says as he psychs himself up for it.
“Grab mane if you need to. Concentrate on your balance. Remember to keep looking out at where you’re going.” Laura then clucks and steps in a bit. It takes a bit, but eventually Knox transitions smoothly from a walk to a slow and steady trot.
Tony grabs mane and hangs on. It’s bouncier than he thought it would be. He tries to follow what she’d said and focuses on his balance.
Things were going great. They were going really great.
Until the manure tractor down the stable aisle backfires.
Knox spooks, only a little, leaping forward a bit in surprise. But that’s enough to jar Tony loose. Tony doesn’t experience anything else but the feeling of falling and the rapidly approaching dirt. He lands on his ass. Hard. Knox halts immediately, and stays in place, shaking out his mane as if in apology.
“Well, shit,” Laura says. “You okay, Tony?”
Tony gets up slowly and holds his ass. “Wow! Yeah. I’m good.” He looks more embarrassed than hurt, and his face flames a bright red.
“It happens.” She claps him on the back. “You don’t even want to know how many times I’ve gone ass over tea kettle. Wait until you ride a bigger horse. Or if you try going over fences. It’s a long way down.” Laughing, she reaches to pat the horse. “Okay. Go ‘head and hop back on.”
Tony stares at her as if she’s crazy. “I think I’m good for today.”
Laura shakes her head. “Nope. You’re hopping back on. When you fall, you have to get back on.”
More than a bit sore, Tony stands back on the block, lifts himself up, and swings a leg up and over the horse again.
“We’ll just walk a bit, then we can stop,” Laura says with a smile. “How do you feel? More confident?”
“A bit,” Tony admits. “Actually… a lot.”
“Great. You look good up there.”
And Tony grins, and it seems to take over his whole face.
“Alright now!” Laura smiles in return. “Give your partner there a good pat.”
Tony leans against the stall door and hands Knox sprigs of hay he’s pulled from the feed room. The horse patiently takes them and chews slowly, as if in thought. His eyes are big and black, and maybe he’s still bored, but he seems willing to stand here for ages as long as Tony keeps passing him pieces of hay.
Reaching up and stroking the horse on the neck, Tony says, “You’re okay, you know?”
Knox huffs out some hot hay breath, and his lips quest for another sprig of hay.
“I think I might like you. Not big on animals. Never have been.” Tony obliges and hands the horse some more hay. “Things have been… tough… lately.” He smiles ruefully. “But I’m sure you don’t care about that. You’re a horse. A good horse.”
Knox chews, and then nudges Tony’s hand. Either asking for more hay, or — Tony could imagine, although he knew it was childish to think so — wanting some more talk.
“Ready to go?” a familiar voice asks from behind him.
Tony turns and runs a hand quickly over his eyes. “Hey.”
Gibbs leans against the stall door beside Tony. He notices how Tony’s mood immediately darkens upon his arrival, and it worries him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Tony says dismissively.
“You seemed fine until I came around.”
Finally, Tony frowns and says, “Did you enjoy me falling on my ass and looking like an incompetent idiot in front of your ex-girlfriend?” He shakes his head. “She’s something else, by the way. I can see what you saw in her. What I can’t see is why you left her.”
The “for a person like me” goes unspoken, and Gibbs knows that. It drives him crazy. “I dated her years ago, Tony. We wanted different things.”
“Do you and I want different things?” Tony suddenly asks.
Gibbs stares at him, then he looks at the horse. He reaches out and brushes a hand against Knox’s nose velvet. “I’d need your input on that.”
“Fair enough,” Tony shrugs.
“And no,” Gibbs says. “I didn’t enjoy watching you falling on your ass, but there’s something I did enjoy.”
Tony turns toward him now. “What’s that?”
“You, smiling. It was real. For the first time in a while.”
Giving his head a shake, Tony laughs in a rare, self-conscious way.
“I’m serious. And while you were here, how many times did you think about what happened to you?”
Tony shrugs and says, truthfully, “Not one time.”
“There you go.”
“Guess you were right. I do need a challenge.”
“I’m always right.” Unexpectedly, Gibbs pushes into Tony’s space and captures his lips with his own, pressing him up against the stall. “And as soon as I get you home, I’m gonna ride—“
There’s a sound of something dropping behind them.
They both turn to look.
An early twenty-something-year-old woman and her horse are stopped in the aisle. Red-faced, she bends down to pick up the brush she’d dropped. “Sorry! Don’t mind me! Just passing through!” She tugs the horse forward, but then finds the gumption to pause and say, “By the way… you guys are, like, the cutest couple ever.”
Tony watches them go before his eyes slide back to Gibbs. “So, I’ve heard horses are great for picking up hot chicks.”
Gibbs rolls his eyes and slaps him on the back of his head. “Good luck with that.”
THE END. :)