John doesn’t tell Tony that he’s coming back into town, mostly because it’s been six months since they’ve seen each other, and contact has—by necessity—been sporadic. They exchange emails with every data burst, though, and while they haven’t talked about their relationship status, he’s pretty sure Tony would want to see him, especially since John will be in D.C. for an extended period of time.
But John has to get through his evaluation at Walter Reed, and then check into the hotel where the Air Force is putting him up. He’ll at least have more privacy than he had the last time he was in town, and he’s hoping that connection he’d forged with Tony will still be burning brightly.
He’s a little surprised to see General O’Neill in the baggage claim area. “You didn’t have to pick me up, sir.” He knows from experience that O’Neill won’t expect him to salute.
Plus, there are the crutches to contend with, so saluting could land him flat on his face. John’s pretty sure you’re not supposed to face plant in front of the Director of Homeworld Security unless you’re taking a bullet from him.
“It was my pleasure,” O’Neill replies genially. “I like getting the inside scoop on Atlantis. How are things?”
“Hopefully just fine without me,” John replies. “We’re reestablishing ourselves and the base, and reassuring allies that we mean to stay.”
O’Neill grimaces. “At least the mission to win hearts and minds is working somewhere.” He looks at the bulky brace on John’s right leg. “How did that happen?”
“I fell down a mountain,” John admits. “I ended up holed up in a cave for a few days, waiting to see if the pain and swelling would go down enough to let me climb back up the mountain, or to see if my team would find me.”
O’Neill frowns. “Why the hell did it take them that long?”
“I was out with another team, and the general consensus was that I was probably dead,” John replies. “Then there were some major storms, so it took my team time to get to me.”
“Good thing they did,” O’Neil replies. “I’ve had a few close calls like that myself.”
John is just glad that he trusted his team to find him in time. Back when he’d been stuck in that time dilation field, he’d given up quickly. Now he knows the lengths to which they’ll go to find him, and he’d known it was just a matter of time.
Granted, he’s had a few nightmares of being stuck in what wasn’t much better than a hole in the ground, helpless, with torrential rain threatening to wash out the entire side of the mountain.
But nightmares are just that; more annoying is the knee injury that’s sidelined him, and that even the Ancient healing machines can’t repair. He needs rehab, and possibly another surgery, and maybe he goes back into the field if he does everything right.
John is highly motivated to do everything right, and in the meantime, he can touch base with Tony, find out if the deepening relationship he’d left months ago has held up in his absence.
“I can assign someone to drive you while you’re here,” O’Neill offers.
John shakes his head. “I can manage with cabs, sir.”
“That’s going to be expensive,” O’Neill says. “Look, Sheppard, I don’t care what you do while you’re in town, and I’ve got a driver who’s discreet, and will follow orders to drive you and not report your movements to anybody but me—and I want you back on Atlantis.”
John is pretty sure O’Neill knows about his relationship with Tony, and he doesn’t seem to care. Still, DADT has certain strictures. If O’Neill doesn’t ask, and John doesn’t tell, he can continue flying under the radar.
“If this is someone you can trust, then I won’t turn down the offer,” John finally says. “I’ll probably be spending some time with Tony, and he might be able to give me a ride if he’s not working.”
“The hotel is within walking distance of Walter Reed,” O’Neill says. “Even on crutches. It’s close. Pretty basic, but clean.”
John shrugs. “I’ve been in worse places. I’m not picky.”
“It’s the life of a soldier,” O’Neill agrees. “Can I drop you somewhere other than Walter Reed first?”
“I have my evaluation first thing,” John replies.
O’Neill shrugs. “I’ll stick around for that if you don’t mind.”
John knows that O’Neill feels a certain proprietary interest in him, and he doesn’t object. He feels like it might not be a bad idea to have another person at the appointment, to catch anything he misses. If he’s not taking pain medications, he’s fuzzy from the pain, and if he’s on meds, he’s fuzzy from that.
It’s a catch-22 of the sort he detests with an injury of this nature, but it’s also the reality. He’s on earth without his team, and without any promise of returning to Atlantis, and John isn’t sure how Tony is going to respond to his presence.
They hadn’t made each other any promises, either when John left, or in the emails they’d exchanged since.
The evaluation from the doctor is cautiously optimistic. He’d sprained his ACL and torn the meniscus and the medial collateral ligament. His doctor calls it “the unhappy triad,” and says that John will probably need another surgery, but he thinks that John will be able to go back to work eventually.
“How long are we talking?” John asks.
“Depends on your duty station,” Dr. Mehta replies. “Are we talking a desk, or somewhere you can actually stay off your feet?”
John hitches a shoulder. “Well. I’d try.”
Dr. Mehta hums. “You lot are all the same. Then I’d say we’ll hold you back until we’re sure you’re going to make a full recovery.”
John sighs. “Yeah, okay. Thanks, doc.”
“If you have someone who can help you out, you’ll be better off,” Dr. Mehta says. “Do you have friends in the area?”
“One, maybe more,” John replies, because he’d gotten along with Gibbs, and had liked Ziva and McGee well enough.
“He has me,” O’Neill says. “And there are others. It’s one of the reasons he came to Walter Reed instead of staying in Colorado.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll do well, Colonel Sheppard,” Mehta replies. “Having friends and family to support you is invaluable.”
“I’m sure it is,” John replies. “Thanks for your help, doc.”
“Of course,” Dr. Mehta replies.
O’Neill walks him out and says, “Are you sure I can’t call someone for you?”
John hesitates, and then he replies, “Actually, I’d like to call Tony, if that’s okay.”
O’Neill hands John his phone, which is handy, since John has no idea where his old cell phone is, and even if he did have it, he doesn’t have a carrier. John has Tony’s number memorized, and he dials before he can think better of it.
John frowns. Tony’s voice is nearly nonexistent. “Tony? You okay?”
“Rough case,” Tony manages. “Wait. John? Are you in town?”
John grimaces. “Uh, yeah. I busted my knee, and the doctors decided I’d be better off rehabbing stateside.”
“Where are you?” Tony asks.
“General O’Neill is giving me a ride to the hotel from Walter Reed,” John replies.
Tony clears his throat or tries to. “I can come pick you up.”
O’Neill plucks the phone out of John’s hand. “Or I can drop him off wherever you happen to be. Do you have directions?”
John wonders when O’Neill decided that he needed to be managed. And when O’Neill decided to play matchmaker.
“So, I’m taking you to DiNozzo’s,” O’Neill says conversationally. “I don’t care if you stay at the hotel, for the record, as long as you show up for physical therapy and other rehab appointments. If you want to crash with a friend, I’ll cancel the hotel room and save the government some money.”
John frowns. “Sir, are you managing me?”
“Newsflash, I’ve been managing you since you outflew the dart and I suggested you go to Atlantis,” O’Neill replies. “And clearly you need management.”
“I’m really doing fine, sir,” John protests.
O’Neill gives John’s immobilized knee a sardonic look. “Uh huh.”
“Really,” John insists.
“I’m still dropping you off with your friend,” O’Neill replies. “And I’ll take you both out to dinner in a few days.”
John frowns. “Wait. Do you know Gibbs?”
“We might have met up for steaks a time or two,” O’Neill admits.
John blinks. “I have no idea what to do with that.”
“Nice to know I can keep you on your toes,” O’Neill replies, and when they arrive at Tony’s place he says, “I’ll carry your bag.”
John seriously has no idea what to do with that, so he just maneuvers out of the fleet vehicle with his crutches, and follows O’Neill to the elevator. O’Neill is the one to knock, and when Tony answers the door, O’Neill shoves John’s bag at Tony. “Take care of him, DiNozzo.”
Tony grabs the bag on reflex, and says, “Uh, okay?”
“Great,” O’Neill replies. “He has another appointment at Walter Reed tomorrow. Get him there.”
“Sure,” Tony replies, his voice hoarse, and glances at John’s brace. “I can see that.”
“Great, then we’re good to go,” O’Neill says, and leaves.
“Sorry about this,” John says. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be free, but—” He stops. “I’m really bad at this.”
Tony waves him in. “What happened?”
“Shitty mission where I busted my knee up,” John replies. “Are you sick?”
Tony shakes his head. “No.”
Nothing more than that, no words of welcome, and John’s beginning to think that this was a truly terrible idea. He shouldn’t have let O’Neill bully him into coming here, and he definitely should have called first.
John stops just inside the door. “Okay, what’s up, Tony? If you don’t want me here, just tell me, and I’ll head for the hotel. I can call a cab.”
Tony shakes his head emphatically. “No. That’s—really not necessary. I just had a really shitty week.”
Then he stops, and glances at John’s leg. “And sorry. You definitely win for shittiest week.”
John collapses on the couch, setting his crutches aside. “Okay, I think I need an explanation.”
Tony drops John’s bag in his bedroom. “Can it wait a little bit?” he asks quietly. “I just—it would be nice to get used to the idea that you’re actually here.”
“Yeah, sure,” John says.
When Tony sits down next to him on the couch, John slings an arm over his shoulders. “Okay, judging by the expression on your face, your day was totally fucking awful.”
“My week was totally fucking awful,” Tony admits, and then he hauls John in close. “But you being here makes it better.”
“Same,” John replies and just breathes Tony in.
Tony had resolutely not thought about what it meant that Ziva and McGee had turned off their coms until John called and his voice is still hoarse, and he realizes he’s going to have to explain what happened.
He’s going to have to explain why his friends abandoned him, and while he and John had clicked, John has a solid team who would cut off their own arms before hurting him. So, what does it say about Tony that his team would turn off coms? Or maybe it had just been a joke, he isn’t sure. The uncertainty is killing him.
“So, that looks painful,” he finally rasps.
“It’s the unhappy triad, and the doctor wouldn’t even give me a timeline for when I could go back,” John admits. “He said he’d wait until we know for sure if I’ll need another surgery.”
Tony grimaces, knowing exactly what John is talking about. “Fuck, man, I’m sorry.”
John shrugs. “It’s not so bad to recover here. I can see you, maybe manage a trip to see Dave and his family while I’m here. If you’ve got time, that is.”
Tony kisses him then with all the desperation he feels, and John kisses back. “Okay, I think we need to talk,” John says. “I want this. I want you. But I haven’t seen you in months, and I had no idea if we were still doing this.”
“I missed you,” Tony counters. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Sure it is,” John says easily. “Is that all it is?”
“I’m off for the next few days,” Tony replies plaintively. “Can we table it? I’m happy to see you, there’s no one else in my life, and if you want to stay here, you’re more than welcome. Does that cover all the bases?”
John nods. “That’s good enough for me. And shit, I hate to say it, but I’m about ready to pass out.”
“Come on,” Tony replies. “Let’s get you horizontal.”
It’s strangely easy to fall back into their old habits, the ones established in the weeks John had been stuck in D.C., testifying in front of secret Senate committees. John isn’t up for more than just sleeping, but Tony gets him settled and as comfortable as he can be with a couple of pain pills.
John goes right to sleep, but Tony lies awake as the sun descends, shadowing the room until it’s full dark. Tony doesn’t bother turning on a light at that point; he’s still running over the situation in his mind.
Now that they’ve put the perpetrators in jail, he has the time to think about what he’s going to do, what he’s going to tell John—and whether or not he should bother telling Gibbs.
He’s ruminating over the problem in a way he hadn’t done before the case was over, but that’s pretty standard for him. Tony keeps his focus on the case and his team for the most part, at least while it’s active. He kicks himself later, in the dark, dissecting all the things he had and hadn’t done, all the commissions and omissions.
When John starts to stir, Tony glances at the alarm clock and sees that it’s past midnight. He’s got shit for food in the house, but there are still a couple of places that will deliver this time of night.
“You okay?” John asks sleepily.
“I think that’s my line,” Tony counters.
John grimaces. “Yeah, okay, maybe, but you know what’s wrong with me.”
“You hungry?” Tony counters. “I could call for delivery.”
“Yeah, I could eat,” John replies. “Just let me get cleaned up.”
“Need any help?”
“Nah, I got it,” John says. “I’ll call you if I need you.”
Tony goes to the kitchen and calls for pizza, because that’s easy, and his favorite place is still open. He pours himself a couple of fingers of whiskey that he saves for bad nights, and he throws it back quickly and pours a couple more.
John emerges from the bathroom freshly showered, wearing clean sweats with the brace over it, his chest bare. Tony feels a stab of desire quickly stifled, considering that John is probably not going to be up for sex any time soon—nothing athletic, and painkillers can do a real number on the libido.
“You want something to drink?” Tony asks.
John shakes his head. “No, not with the pain meds I’m on. I’m due for another dose soon, after I get something in my stomach.”
Tony sips, and it soothes his throat slightly. “Go ahead and ask.”
“I’m not going to force you to talk about it, Tony,” John says, sounding empathetic, more than anything else. “I’ve got my own demons.”
“Your last mission?” Tony queries.
John shrugs. “I got stranded for a few days, waiting for my team to show up. Long story short, they did.”
Tony feels that response like a punch to the gut. Of course, John’s team had shown up, because John is the kind of guy people show up for. “That’s good. I’m glad, John.”
“And that response tells me whatever happened involved your team,” John says quietly.
“Do I talk too much?” Tony blurts out. “I mean, I know I talk a lot, and sometimes I fill the silences when maybe I should just keep my mouth shut, but do you hate it?”
John blinks at him. “Tony, you met McKay, remember?”
Tony has, and he laughs. “Yeah.”
“So, you know I don’t mind if someone likes to talk,” John replies. “Someone tell you that you talked too much?”
Tony shrugs. “That’s not exactly what they said.”
“Start from the beginning,” John suggests.
“I had to get voiceprints for a case,” Tony explains haltingly and takes another drink. “I canvassed a neighborhood, talked to a bunch of people, while McGee and Ziva were on coms.”
John frowns. “Okay, so you had to talk to a bunch of people for a case. What happened?”
“When I got back to the car, where Ziva and McGee were, they said they’d turned the volume off,” Tony explains.
John’s expression goes as cold as Tony’s ever seen. “Did they?”
Tony shakes his head. “I don’t know. I didn’t need them, so there’s no way to tell.”
“No way to tell?” John asks. “Are you sure?”
Tony sighs. “The voice prints are good. There are no problems with the recording. I checked with Abby—discreetly—and the audio was clear.”
John’s expression is thunderous. “So, let me get this straight—either they turned off the volume so they didn’t have to listen to you, thereby putting your life at risk, or they joked about turning off the volume, meaning that you’re not going to be able to trust them in the field?”
“So, you think they were out of line?” Tony asks.
John throws up his hands, at least as much as he can while on crutches. “Are you fucking kidding me, Tony? I got stranded because of a freak accident, and I knew my team was coming. I trusted them to do so. Can you say the same right now?”
Tony sags at having his fears put into words, and knowing someone finds what he’s saying credible, his concerns reasonable. “I don’t know.”
“So, at the very least, you need to know whether they’re just assholes, or they’re irresponsible shit birds,” John says. “Have you talked to Gibbs?”
Tony shakes his head. “No, and he’ll just say that we have to work it out. It’s team dynamics.”
“Then Gibbs needs to have his head smacked,” John snarls. “Tony! You can’t go out in the field with people who don’t have your back!”
Tony runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what else to do!”
“Okay, come here,” John says. “Come on.”
Tony steps closer, and John leans against the counter and pulls Tony in close, rubbing the back of Tony’s head, squeezing the back of his neck, holding him tightly.
“I don’t know what to do,” Tony admits. “I can’t go to Gibbs, I can’t call them on it, and I can’t just let it go.”
“You shouldn’t let it go,” John replies. “Maybe you should talk to Gibbs. Informally, off the record, just casual. He’s your boss, Tony, but he’s your friend, too.”
Tony takes a breath. “And what if he blows me off?”
“Then I’m going to suggest you find something else to do, and I’ll talk to O’Neill about it personally,” John replies. “But Gibbs will do the right thing.”
“You don’t know that,” Tony argues. “You can’t know that.”
“He will if he knows what’s good for him,” John replies, and then the door buzzes.
“That would be the pizza,” Tony says. “I gotta get that.”
He knows the discussion isn’t finished. It is, at most, tabled. Still, it feels good to have John here, to know there’s at least one person who has his back, and who will place his needs first. Tony would do the same for John, which means it’s probably one of the healthiest relationships he’s had to date.
They eat pizza mostly in silence, and John takes another couple of pain pills, and they both go to bed. Tony sleeps this time, though, one arm slung over John’s middle, comforted by the warm, lean form next to him.
He hadn’t lied. There hadn’t been anybody since John left. Some brief interests, one obsession, mostly brought about by the fact that John had been gone a few weeks, and Tony had been grasping at straws, searching for a distraction.
With John here for an indefinite period of time, Tony resolves to enjoy his presence as much as possible.
John knows that Tony’s work isn’t any of his business. Tony is a cop, he’s good at his job, and he’s been doing it a long time.
But John keeps thinking about holing up in that cave, waiting for his team to show, and wondering how he would have felt if he hadn’t known—deep in his bones—that they would.
He doesn’t want that for Tony. John doesn’t want to come back to Earth—on leave, for rehab, or when he retires—to find out that Tony is dead for some shitty reason.
They both have dangerous jobs, and John knows about Y. Pestis, and Ari, and Somalia, because he and Tony had talked about all of that before John had been sent back to Atlantis, just like John had finally talked about Afghanistan and the black mark and riding choppers at McMurdo before his career got a jump start from O’Neill.
John left out the part about alien cities and his freaky gene, and the rest. Tony knew he was leaving things out, and he’d understood, which is more than most partners would get.
So, John feels honor bound to protect Tony the way Tony had protected him all those years ago with a ready lie and a smile.
And John is plagued with his share of nightmares—and not a little bit of claustrophobia—from the cave. He’s woken Tony up twice now with his thrashing and cries for help, and what happened to him hadn’t been anybody’s fault. He doesn’t need to add dreams where Tony dies alone, with no one to watch his back.
He waits a couple of days, and then when Tony’s picking him up from a doctor’s appointment, John asks, “Have you talked to Gibbs yet?”
Gibbs knows John is back in town—Tony had to tell him something the first day when he needed to drive John to Walter Reed first thing. He and Tony even have an invitation for Sunday dinner at Gibbs’ place.
Tony’s knuckles turn white where he’s grabbing the steering wheel. “John, I can’t. What if—what if it breaks up the team?”
John wants to respond with, “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” but Tony won’t take that well, and John says instead, “What if they’d turned off the coms with Gibbs?”
“They wouldn’t have,” Tony protests quickly. “They wouldn’t dare.”
Tony is a cop, first and foremost, and John understands that McGee is a computer geek, and Ziva had been Mossad, but he’s pretty sure that Gibbs would have smacked Tony upside the head for that response.
Gibbs understands the command structure, even if he doesn’t always follow it. John suspects that Gibbs and O’Neill have quite a bit in common on that front.
“Take yourself out of the equation,” John suggests. “Say it was me, and I’d told you what you told me. What would you do?”
Tony opens his mouth, closes it, and then John sees the muscle in Tony’s jaw ticking. “It’s my job to protect them.”
“And it’s their job to protect you,” John replies. “Look, if you won’t go to Gibbs, let me talk to him. You know he likes me.”
“I have no idea why,” Tony mutters, but his hand seeks out John’s, and he intertwines their fingers. “We’re going to his place for dinner soon.”
John breathes a sigh of relief. “So, we’ll talk to him about it then. You can’t just let this go, though.”
“I was planning on it,” Tony admits. “No harm done, right?”
And John gets it—he understands Tony’s self-sacrificing streak, had been the beneficiary of it, in fact. Tony has abandonment issues, just like John does, and deep down, Tony believes that people are going to leave him, and that he deserves to be left.
“If there was really no harm done, you wouldn’t be wondering whether you can even trust your team to have your back right now,” John counters.
Tony is quiet for a long moment. “Did Teyla hit you really hard on the head? Because you’re coming perilously close to talking about your feelings, and I’m pretty sure we don’t do that.”
John snorts. “I still owe you twice over.”
“You don’t,” Tony protests. “I told you, that was water under the bridge.”
“Oh, just like you accompanying me to see Dave, where I had the best conversation with him I’d had since I left home at eighteen, was nothing?” John counters.
“Friends do that,” Tony defends. “Besides, if I can make nice with Senior, you can certainly mend fences with your brother.”
John shrugs. “Maybe so. I need to see him while I’m in town or he’ll never forgive me.”
“I can go with you,” Tony offers. “You’re going to need a driver.”
“If you’ve got the time,” John replies. “Otherwise, I can use that driver O’Neill promised.”
O’Neill renewed the offer when they’d had dinner with him the night prior, and he’d also told Tony, “Look, DiNozzo, you ever get tired of NCIS, I’m happy to poach you.”
John isn’t sure if he’d been able to read Tony’s unhappiness, or if he went around recruiting anybody he thought might be useful. He’d thought it telling that Tony hadn’t immediately turned him down, though, and instead said, “I’ll consider it.”
That alone tells John that Tony’s incredibly unsettled.
Tony glances at him. “I don’t mind driving you around, and I get the feeling that maybe you’d rather not be alone right now.”
John knows exactly what Tony is talking about. “Sorry about the nightmares.”
“I’ve had a few myself,” Tony replies. “Figured it probably has something to do with the leg.”
“Yeah,” John says. “It was touch and go there for a while.”
Tony pulls up in front of Walter Reed, and holds something out.
John glances at it and realizes it’s a key. “What’s this?”
“I’d be glad of the company,” Tony replies, still holding it out. “At least while you’re still in D.C.”
John takes the key and really wishes he could risk a kiss, but instead he takes off his dog tags and unhooks the chain, dropping the key next to the tags. He’ll have to take it off and put it somewhere safe when he goes back to Atlantis, but it can stay right there for now.
He tucks his tags under his shirt, and Tony pats him on the chest, right over his heart. “See you later?”
“You’d better,” John replies.
Work is quiet for once, and Tony gets through his backlog of paperwork and waits for the clock to hit a respectable 6 pm.
At 4:30, though, Gibbs says, “Abby needs some help with inventory, and we haven’t caught a case, so you’re nominated.”
Tony sighs and picks up his phone to call John and let him know that he’s going to be late.
“Not you, DiNozzo,” Gibbs says. “Get out of here, check on your friend.”
Tony appreciates Gibbs’ discretion, even if he doesn’t quite understand why Gibbs is so protective of their relationship.
“Wait, why does Tony get out of doing inventory?” McGee protests.
“Because Tony collected all of the voice prints and ran himself ragged, and his friend is back in town after being deployed,” Gibbs replies patiently. “Next time either of you talk yourselves hoarse while Tony sits in the car and reads, we’ll talk.”
Ziva glares daggers at Tony, and Gibbs says sharply, “Hey! DiNozzo wasn’t the one that ratted you out, so knock it off. Tony, get out of here.”
He gets while the getting is good, and hears Gibbs say, “And if we don’t have a case, I’ll see you Monday!”
Tony has no idea who would have reported it to Gibbs, but then remembers that he’d had to give Abby a story about why he wanted her to double check that everything had been caught on tape. He’d complained—in what he thought was a good-natured, casual way—about working his ass off while Ziva and McGee sat in the car.
Apparently, his comments hadn’t been as nonchalant as he’d hoped, and now he’s going to be dealing with the fallout from that and the conversation John insists he have with Gibbs.
On the other hand, he appreciates the fact that Abby is looking out for him; he’d been feeling a little bit like the odd man out with his team of late.
John is on his couch when Tony lets himself in, looking wrung out and a little high. His leg stretched out on the couch in its heavy brace, his hair damp from the shower.
“How was it today?” Tony asks.
“They’re insisting that I get seen for possible PTSD while they have me at their mercy,” John admits. “I had individual and group today.”
“What’s the verdict?” Tony asks.
John snorts. “Oh, I’ve got PTSD, but I generally have a lock on it, which annoys the counselors, since they want me to open up, but they’re not cleared for my mission, so I get to sit there looking bored without them preventing me from going back on duty.”
Tony gives him a look. “You’re gaming the system.”
“Hey, I know I’ve got issues, but I do okay,” John replies. “I figure they’ll probably get someone in who has clearance, and then I’ll have to cooperate.”
“You hungry?” Tony asks, realizing that it’s only a little after 5, and he has time to run to the store and make dinner if he’s so inclined.
John hitches a shoulder. “I could eat. I didn’t have much for lunch. The painkillers really fuck with my appetite.”
Tony has just the thing, and he says, “Give me an hour, and I’ll have something on the table.”
He doesn’t cook when it’s just him, and his version of pulling out all the stops for a date is to make reservations at the nicest place he can swing. But when he’d been in college, he’d cooked for his brothers, and he’d cooked a time or two for Jeanne, although always at her place.
While he’s at the store, he gets food for breakfast, too, since John isn’t up for walking to their usual diner. When he gets back, he pounds out the chicken breasts and puts the water on to boil. The salad comes out of a bag, but the angel hair pasta gets tossed with olive oil, lemon zest, and parsley, and the thin cutlets are breaded and fried, with a quick piccata sauce made in the same pan he’d fried the chicken in.
Tony goes so far as to plate it—pasta, topped with chicken, topped with the sauce, and a salad on the side, with a sprinkle of parsley over the top.
“Shit,” John says in wonderment. “I had no idea.”
Tony grins at him. “I have a rotation of about five recipes that I can use to impress, and that’s about it. After that, we’re down to cereal, and maybe mac and cheese.”
John laughs. “Somehow, I doubt that.”
“I can make a meal for thirty frat brothers,” Tony admits. “But I don’t have much in between—it’s either cooking for two, or thirty.”
John forks up pasta and says, “This is great, Tony. Thanks. I wasn’t even sure I was hungry until I smelled this.”
“Glad you like it,” Tony replies, and is fairly pleased with dinner himself. For a moment, he lets himself imagine what it might be like to have John here all the time, thoughts he’d mostly managed to suppress while John had been away.
If he was smart about things, Tony thinks he’d nip this in the bud, dial it way back to platonic, but he’s never been particularly smart when it concerns matters of the heart.
“Are you going to see Dave while you’re in town?” he asks, not wanting to push, but he’s been in sporadic contact with Dave and his family since John left. It’s awkward, and a little weird, but they’re working past it.
“Already called him,” John admits. “I was going to talk to you about that, actually. They were out of town, but they’re back now and would like to see us.”
And that is why Tony can’t be smart about this, because John says “us,” and it means something, even when he’s not around.
Especially with things at work being kind of shitty right now.
“Just let me know,” Tony replies. “I’d love to see them.”
“You got time this weekend?” John asks. “Dave mentioned having us over for dinner if we’re up for it.”
“Supposedly, I’m off unless we get a case, although you wanted to have dinner with Gibbs on Sunday,” Tony points out.
John shrugs. “Tomorrow works. I’ll let Dave know.”
He shoots off a quick text, and Tony marvels at the domesticity. They’re eating dinner together, and talking about meeting up with family, and Tony doesn’t want to lose this.
Tony also doesn’t want to keep John where he doesn’t want to be, because he wants John to be happy, but he’ll be content with what he has in the moment.
John’s phone chimes almost immediately, and he says, “We’re on, and Tamara is cooking.”
“Can she cook?” Tony asks.
John shrugs. “Didn’t think it was my place to ask. I figure I’ll bring a bottle of wine.”
“Fair enough,” Tony agrees. “I can pick up some flowers.”
John grins helplessly. “Gotta say, this would suck a whole lot more if you weren’t around.”
“You’re just happy I fed you,” Tony teases.
John lets him get away with his deflection, maybe because they both tend to use humor to avoid serious topics. “Sorry I’m not going to be up for much.”
“Hey, no,” Tony says quickly. “I’m just glad you’re mostly in one piece. I’d rather have you here on the injured list than not have you at all.”
John glances away. “It was closer than I would have liked.”
“So, we’ll just enjoy the time together we do have,” Tony replies. “You want to watch a movie?”
And that’s how they wind up on Tony’s couch, with Tony leaning against one arm and John tucked against his chest, bad leg stretched out in front of him. When Tony asked what John wanted to watch, he said, “Something you love.”
Tony chooses Casablanca, because it’s one of his go-to comfort movies, and he doesn’t think it will hold any negative associations for John. There aren’t any caves, anyway, and Tony’s always thought that the better love story is between Rick Blaine and Captain Renault, and he thinks John might agree.
Because John doesn’t care, Tony murmurs his favorite lines along with Humphrey Bogart, and John laughs in the same places that Tony does.
“I always thought this movie was supposed to have an unhappy ending,” John admits.
Tony laughs. “Well, that would depend on whether you really think that Rick and Ilsa should end up together, or if you’re content with an ending where Rick and Renault live happily ever after.”
“There are worse endings to have,” John replies. “Although maybe don’t tell McKay I liked this movie.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Tony promises.
There’s something about just turning on the news after the movie is over and hanging out, John’s lean form warm against his chest, and for the first time, Tony wonders what he would give up to keep this.
He doubts wherever John is stationed needs an agent afloat, but what if they did? Before this last week, even in moments of weakness, he’d never really considered giving up on his team.
Today, he’s not so sure.
“What are you going to tell Miles about your leg?” Tony asks idly during a commercial break.
John shrugs. “The truth: that it was an accident, and I hurt my knee, but the doctors are making it better.” He sighs. “At least it’s something he can understand, that the doctors can fix. I remember when Mom got sick…”
He trails off, and Tony prompts, “You think it was harder?”
“By the time they caught the cancer, it was stage 4,” John replies. “It was like it happened overnight, and yet in slow motion, all at the same time. I always knew my dad was the sort of guy to throw money at a problem until it went away, and he brought in a ton of doctors and specialists, and nothing helped.”
“Dead mothers,” Tony mutters. “Even if they make you crazy, they leave a hole.”
“True enough,” John agrees, squeezing Tony’s hand. “I think I’m about ready to for bed, although I hate to leave you with the dishes.”
Tony smiles. “Don’t worry about it. You should stay off your feet, and it’s nice to have someone to look out for.”
John makes a sound. “Yeah, I get that. Are you okay?”
“I’m better with you here,” Tony replies. “And yes, I will talk to Gibbs on Sunday, or I’ll let you do it.”
John gives a satisfied grunt. “Good. Because if I found out that someone under my command had turned off coms and left someone out to dry, I’d—well, I’d work out an appropriate punishment detail.”
“Latrines?” Tony asks.
John smirks. “Oh, you have no idea.”
“I wish I could set you loose on Ziva and Tim,” Tony admits.
John’s quiet for a moment. “Just say the word. Once I’m a little more recovered, I’ll be happy to show them the error of their ways.”
Tony remembers John’s comment about taking on a bunch of terrorists, and he can suddenly see it. “Tempting, but if things go that far south, I’ll get out.”
“You’ll think about O’Neill’s offer?” John presses. “He meant it.”
“I’m thinking about it right now,” Tony admits. “Thanks.”
“Whatever you do, I’m there for you, as much as I can be.”
Tony smiles. “You know, right now you’re one of the few people I can trust to have my back.”
John allows Tony to help him with his brace once he pulls on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He’d actually left most of his civvies with Tony, since there’d been no need for them on Atlantis, and he has a pair of black jeans and a green t-shirt he knows looks good and brings out the color in his eyes.
Tony doesn’t joke around or make any snide remarks while he’s helping John buckle the awkward brace on. He’s professional, businesslike, right up until he kisses the back of John’s hand, and then the moment turns impossibly romantic.
John would love to believe that he’s immune to such gestures, but he’s not. He might not be much of a romantic himself, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate it.
Tony kisses him quickly and says, “Come on. We should get going.”
John falls asleep a few minutes into the drive, although he doesn’t mean to do so. Once again, the pain medication knocks him out, and he doesn’t wake up until Tony’s pulling up in front of Dave’s house.
“Sorry about that,” John says.
“Hey, I know how much recovery takes out of you, and you’ll want to be rested for this,” Tony says easily.
John swings his legs out of the car, but he can’t get his crutches out of the backseat before Tony’s there, helping him out. John doesn’t appreciate needing the help, but he appreciates the way Tony offers: completely matter of fact, without comment.
The door swings open as they approach and Dave frowns when he sees the brace on John’s leg. “Well, it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he says.
John smiles. “Good to see you, too.”
Dave laughs. “Yeah, don’t tell Tamara I was an asshole. Come here, it’s good to see you.”
“Same here,” John replies, accepting Dave’s hug.
“Tony, good to have you here,” Dave says, shaking Tony’s hand. “I’m glad you’re taking care of him.”
Tony smiles. “Always. At least when I have the chance.”
“Unca John! Unca John!” Miles shouts, running full tilt, and Dave grabs him before he can bowl John over. “What happened to your leg?”
Dave clears his throat. “Miles—”
“It’s fine,” John says quickly. “I fell down a really big hill and hurt my leg, but the doctors are fixing it.”
Miles gives the brace a dubious look. “Really?”
“Really,” John replies. “This brace makes it so I don’t move my knee in a way that hurts me more.”
Miles frowns. “Can I hug you, Unca John?”
“Absolutely,” John replies. “I’d love a hug, buddy. It will make me feel a lot better.”
Dave holds Miles while he wraps his arms around John’s neck. “Can you still fly?” Miles asks.
“Yeah, of course,” John replies. “Not right now, but I’ll fly again soon, and I haven’t forgotten that I’m going to take you up with me. Deal?”
Miles releases him and offers a sunny, gap-toothed grin. “Okay, deal!”
“Thanks for understanding,” John says.
Dave sets Miles down and asks, “You got a hug for Uncle Tony?”
Miles hesitates only momentarily, and then when Tony kneels down, he throws his arms around Tony’s neck. Tony responds by picking him up and throwing him over a shoulder, Miles shrieking in joy.
John shakes his head and follows them into the kitchen, watching as Tony hangs Miles upside down by his ankles.
“Tony,” Tamara scolds. “He’s not going to settle down for dinner.”
Tony sets Miles down gently. “You’re not going to get me into trouble, are you?” he asks. “Because I’d hate for your mom not to ask me back.”
Miles stands up straight. “I wouldn’t get you into trouble!”
“Uh, huh,” Tamara replies, although there’s a smile playing around her mouth. “I’m glad you can behave for your Uncle Tony.” She looks at the brace on John’s leg and frowns. “Oh, that looks—like not much fun.”
“It looks worse than it is,” John replies and accepts her quick hug. “I’ll be fine, though.”
“I’m sure you will be,” Tamara replies. “I hope you both like porchetta.”
John has no idea what that is, but Tony lights up. “That sounds amazing.”
Tamara blushes prettily. “I know you’re Italian, so it was a bit of a risk, but I hope it turns out.”
“I’m sure it’s going to be great,” Tony replies.
John soon figures out that porchetta is a pork roast stuffed with herbs, and along with mashed potatoes and glazed carrots, makes for a delicious meal. Tony is just as enthusiastic with his praise as John, although he goes back for seconds, whereas John can only manage one serving, the medication he’s on making him just a little queasy.
“Can I help clean up?” Tony offers.
Tamara shakes her head. “No, I’ll just leave it for tonight. The housekeeper will take care of it tomorrow.”
As a kid, John had been used to having staff, but that was a long time ago, and it’s strange to have the reminder now of a past he’d left behind. Not that he begrudges Dave his life, because he’s far more suited to it than John had been.
“Do you wanna see my plane?” Miles asks.
“Sure,” John replies. “I’d love to see it, buddy.”
“Why don’t you go grab it and bring it into the living room?” Dave asks. “Uncle John should probably sit down somewhere more comfortable.”
“Okay!” Miles replies and runs off.
Dave smiles indulgently and takes a fussing Sarah. “John, do you want a drink?”
“Better not with the meds I’m on,” John says.
“Club soda?” Tamara offers. “Tony? Can I get you anything?”
“I’d love a drink, but just one,” Tony replies. “I’m going to be driving.”
Dave nods. “I’ll just get her changed.”
“Can I get you something for your leg?” Tamara asks.
“He’ll need to prop it up,” Tony supplies.
Tamara flashes a grin. “I see Tony is taking care of you.”
“Someone has to,” Tony replies.
A few moments later, John has his leg propped up on a pillow in Tony’s lap and a club soda with lime in hand. He’s still not used to the idea that he and Tony can be affectionate with each other in front of other people, but Dave and Tamara know about them, and have been more than accepting.
“How long will you be recovering?” Tamara asks.
John hesitates. “I go in for another surgery on Tuesday to repair the meniscus, and I’ll probably have at least eight weeks of rehab before I can even think about going back on duty.”
Tamara winces in sympathy. “I blew out my ACL playing softball in high school, and I remember it being absolutely miserable. At least you can recover here with friends and family.”
“There is that,” John agrees. “The other option was Peterson Air Force Base, and that would have been far less enjoyable.”
“Well, I hope you won’t be a stranger while you’re here, John,” Tamara says. “And if you need company in the hospital, just let me know. Our nanny can watch the kids.”
John is touched by the offer, considering that they don’t know each other all that well. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”
Miles comes running into the room, Dave on his heels with Sarah. “Look at my plane, Unca John! Is it like the ones you fly?”
John takes the plane, a model of an F-16, and he says, “I have flown one before, but I mostly flew helicopters, and now I fly experimental aircraft.”
“What’s that?” Miles asks.
“They’re airplanes people are still testing out to see if they’re going to work right,” John replies. It’s probably a little more information than he should share, but the fact that his mission is classified isn’t a secret. Experimental aircraft isn’t a stretch, even if it’s not the whole truth.
Tony squeezes John’s leg, and John knows that Tony at least understands how dangerous his job is.
“Have you ever crashed?” Miles asks.
“Once or twice,” John admits.
Miles’ eyes go wide with alarm. “You can’t crash, Unca John! It’s bad!”
John goes soft. “Hey, you know the real secret to being a good pilot, or a good anything?”
Miles leans forward. “What?” he whispers.
“Everybody crashes,” John replies. “You just have to get up, dust yourself off, and keep going.”
Dave clears his throat. “And with that excellent advice, I think it’s time for bed.”
“No! I don’t wanna!” Miles protests.
John clears his throat. “Tell you what, buddy. For every time you follow your mom and dad’s instructions without complaining, that’s another five minutes up in the air with me.”
The promise is somewhat reckless, because that could add up fairly quickly, but Miles is all of five, and there will be plenty of time for John to fulfill that promise, even if not on the first flight.
Miles’ eyes go wide, and his mouth shuts with a snap. “Five minutes?”
“Starting right now,” John replies.
Miles jumps up. “Okay. ‘Night, Unca John!”
And then he races back to his bedroom.
Dave is clearly torn. “John—”
“I’ll be able to fly in a couple of months, but I won’t be going back right away,” John says. “If I have to make two trips, I’ll make it right.”
Dave smiles. “All right. Thanks. That’s probably the best incentive Miles has had to obey since a kid at school told him that Santa Claus wasn’t real.”
“Happy to be of service,” John replies. “But I’m going to keep my promise, Dave.”
Dave’s expression softens. “Yeah, I know. We’re good. I’m going to go put Miles to bed.”
“Don’t pay any attention to Dave,” Tamara says softly once he’s out of earshot. “My dad and brothers all served, and I know that your life isn’t your own once you sign that contract.”
“I think that it was signing the contract in the first place that did it,” John replies. “I left.”
Tamara hesitates. “It might not be my place to say, but from what Dave has told me, you always said you were going to fly, and you did. So, you ended up doing exactly what you said you were going to do.”
John blinks. That’s the kindest way anyone has ever put his decision to enlist, and more understanding than he ever got from Dave or his dad. “Thanks.”
“I’ll keep talking to Dave,” she says softly. “I’m still working on him.”
“You’re good people,” Tony says when John can’t find the words to reply.
Tamara smiles. “Well, you have no idea how wild Miles has been about anything that flies after finding out that his uncle is a pilot. All he wants is to go flying.”
It’s a gentler reminder than what Dave gave him, but John still hears the warning. She’s on his side, and she believes that he’ll keep his promise, but woe betide him if he doesn’t.
John makes a note to arrange to take Miles up just as soon as he can manage it. Maybe he has to call a friend to make it happen, or rent a plane, but he’s going to give Miles every minute of flight time he promised.
“They’re both down for the night,” Dave says. “Can I get either of you anything else?”
“No,” John says. “We should probably get going. It’s late, and I’m due for another dose of painkillers.”
“Yeah, of course,” Dave says immediately. “I’ve got something on Tuesday, but if you’re going to be in the hospital any longer than just that day—”
John shakes his head. “No, it’s an out-patient procedure. Worst case scenario, I might be in overnight, but I doubt it.”
“Well, let us know,” Dave says, but he’s looking at Tony when he says it.
“I will,” Tony replies. “Especially if I can’t be there.”
Tamara nods. “Good. I have your number, Tony, so I’ll give you a call on Tuesday.”
“Sounds good,” Tony replies. “I’ll talk to you then.”
“Hey,” Dave says, suddenly sounding anxious. “We’ll be down to see you next weekend, okay? We’ll work out a good time and place, even if it’s just bringing you guys a meal at Tony’s place.”
“We’d love to have you,” Tony says immediately. “Just give me a call.”
They say goodbye, and it feels a little stilted, but John doesn’t know if that’s what they had been, or what they are now.
He’s rebuilding his connection with his brother, but it’s slow going.
Although it is nice to know that he has an ally in his sister-in-law.
“I’m going to talk to Gibbs about getting Tuesday off so I can be there for your surgery,” Tony says on the way over to Gibbs’ place on Sunday. “No matter what the outcome of this conversation happens to be.”
John raises an eyebrow. “Then you’re going to have the conversation.”
“I might have to let you have the conversation,” Tony admits. “I don’t know how to say it. And if he doesn’t take it the way I’m hoping, I don’t know.”
John is quiet for a long moment. “Do you want me to bring it up, get things started?”
“Maybe,” Tony admits. “I don’t want to push this on you, but—”
“You were there for me with Dave and the rest of them,” John admits. “We’ll talk to Gibbs, and if I need to step in, I will.”
Tony takes a deep breath. “Yeah, okay.”
He wonders when he’d stopped being used to someone having his back and doesn’t like the answer. He doesn’t know when he stopped trusting his team, but at some point, he’d stopped believing they’d be looking out for him.
And he knows that’s a situation that can’t continue, because it’s liable to get someone killed.
Tony pulls up in front of Gibbs’ house and says, “Sit tight, and I’ll get your crutches.”
John might be getting used to his limitations, at least to a certain extent, because he opens the door and swings his legs out but doesn’t try to stand until Tony comes around and pulls his crutches out.
His smile, when Tony helps him out of the car, is intimate even if they don’t touch.
Tony opens the door for John and follows him inside, hearing Gibbs call out, “Make yourselves comfortable.”
“You need to prop your leg up?” Tony asks.
John shakes his head. “I just need to sit. I’m good.”
“Gibbs, you need any help?” Tony calls.
“Sit!” Gibbs orders and comes back into the living room a few seconds later with a stack of plates. “Green beans okay?”
“Ducky been on you again?” Tony asks.
Gibbs shrugs. “Maybe a little. Contrary to some folks’ opinions, I do occasionally eat something green. I’ve got potatoes, too.” He gives John a sharp look. “Red meat is the best thing for you with that kind of injury. Helps the iron count.”
“Thanks,” John replies.
The scent of grilling meat fills the room, the steaks cooking on the grill Gibbs has over the fire, and it’s been too long since he and Gibbs had an evening like this. Maybe that’s part of the problem, that he’s not connecting with anybody on his team.
But Tony doesn’t think that’s entirely his fault.
The food is as good as it always is, and conversation isn’t as stilted as Tony feared it would be. For once, John does the heavy lifting, talking about his rehab and the injury that brought him home. He doesn’t give a lot of details about where he’d been at the time, but Tony knows there had been a mountain and a ravine and a flash flood.
Tony would like to believe he’d been in Afghanistan, but he suspects it’s far less prosaic than that.
Gibbs allows John to talk, and even contributes a few anecdotes of his own, but then he says. “You want to tell me what’s eating you, Tony?”
Tony isn’t sure that he does, because he’s not sure anything good will come of it, but he also knows that John’s not going to let him get away with saying nothing. “The Military at Home case,” Tony begins.
Gibbs’ eyes narrow. “Yeah?”
Tony takes a deep breath. “When I got done collecting voiceprints, Ziva and McGee said they hadn’t heard the last part of the recording.”
“That’s why you checked with Abby, to make sure the recordings were intact,” Gibbs says flatly. “You told her they were reading when you approached the vehicle.”
“They were,” Tony admits. “I had to tell her something to explain why I was asking.”
Gibbs’ expression gives nothing away. “How much did they miss?”
“According to McGee, a couple of hours,” Tony says. “But maybe they were just messing with me, Boss. It might not mean anything.”
John clears his throat, but he keeps his silence.
“You got something you want to say, Sheppard?” Gibbs demands.
John meets Gibbs glare for glare, and there’s something behind his eyes, some leashed darkness that Tony has only caught glimpses of once or twice before. “You might not like it, sir.”
In John’s mouth, in that moment, “sir” sounds like a curse, and judging by the tightening muscles in Gibbs’ jaw, he thinks so too. “I want to hear it anyway.”
“There are things you don’t do to your teammates,” John says tightly. “Because you have to trust them to have your back in the field, and they have to trust you. I’m not saying that your team can’t be a family, but there are things you can joke about with family you can’t joke about with your team or it erodes trust.”
Gibbs looks skeptical. “DiNozzo, you saying you don’t trust David and McGee to have your back in the field?”
That’s the question that Tony has been dreading, because he doesn’t know the answer. So, he says, “I don’t know.”
Because he can’t lie to Gibbs, partly because it’s Gibbs, and partly because John is sitting right there, and will know that Tony’s lying.
And Tony knows that eventually John will go back to his base, if it’s at all possible, and John isn’t going to be happy with the idea of leaving Tony with a team that can’t be trusted.
John will worry, and Tony hates to think he might be a distraction. And sure, Tony could break up with John, and maybe that would remove the distraction once John got over it, but selfishly, he doesn’t want to do so.
He wants John, for as much time as he can have him, and damn the consequences.
But that also means he has to have this very uncomfortable conversation, instead of sweeping it under the rug and hiding his hurt. He’s just not sure if Gibbs will be the boss he needs him to be in this case, because Tony’s upsetting the status quo by even bringing this up.
Gibbs frowns. “What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I don’t know!” Tony snaps. “I don’t know if I trust them, because I don’t know if they were being serious or not. Either they left me out there without backup for two hours, which is shitty, or they thought nothing of making me believe that they left me hanging. I was doing my job, and they made it personal.”
Gibbs’ expression is thunderous, and Tony suddenly needs some air. He needs to catch his breath before Gibbs tells him he’s being an idiot. “Sorry. I need to use the little boys’ room.”
Once in the bathroom, Tony takes a few deep breaths and splashes water on his face. He flushes the toilet to give his story credibility, and steps out. His steps slow as he approaches the living room, and he can’t help listening in.
“So, what would you do?” Gibbs asks, and he sounds weary.
“My situation is a little different,” John counters. “Although I can tell you that if someone actually shut off coms in the field, I’d send them home so fast their heads would be spinning. If I found out it was just messing around, they’d be doing the dirtiest jobs I could find until the end of their tour.”
Gibbs cocks his head. “You going to keep standing there, DiNozzo?”
Tony shrugs and rejoins them. “Just taking a page out of your playbook, Boss. And I’d say that I’d settle for an apology, but rule number six precludes it.”
“Saying they’ll never, ever do it again would be a good start,” John mutters. “And the least I’d require in order for me to let them back in the field again.”
Gibbs glares at John. “This isn’t cause to pull them out of the field.”
John leans back in his chair. “Yeah? Tell me, Gibbs, you ever lost someone special to you?”
Tony hasn’t told him anything about Shannon or Kelly, so John has no idea what kind of landmine he’s flirting with right now. He’d kick John, but the closest leg is the injured one.
Gibbs’ jaw goes so tight that Tony’s pretty sure he can hear teeth grinding. “Yes.”
John’s expression softens minutely. “So, let me ask what you would have done to the person who was careless with their lives. Would you have let it slide?”
Gibbs shoots a look at Tony.
Tony raises his hands. “I didn’t tell him anything, Boss.”
“We both have dangerous jobs,” John says. “If some bad guy gets to Tony, I’ll have a score to settle, and I’ll take the fight to them. But if you and your people let Tony get killed because of some stupid, petty rivalry, I’ll know who to come to, Gibbs.”
“Is that a threat?” Gibbs demands.
“No, it’s a promise,” John replies. “Because if Tony gets killed due to carelessness on the part of the people who are supposed to watch his back, it’s not going to look good for anybody. You know that.”
Gibbs’ expression is a mixture of discomfort and anger. “I don’t care about appearances.”
“Yeah?” John challenges. “You haven’t answered my question.”
Gibbs lets out a long breath. “I wouldn’t let it slide.”
“And you expect me to?” John demands. “You think I care less about Tony than you did about the people you lost?”
“No,” Gibbs says softly. “I don’t.” He rubs his eyes. “How are you feeling, Tony?”
Tony frowns. “Huh? I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not,” Gibbs replies, somewhat impatiently. “You’re sick.”
“Okay,” Tony says, drawing out the word. “Why am I sick?”
Gibbs frowns at him. “That sore throat you had brought on a resurgence of bronchitis, and you’re worried about your lungs.”
“I never take a sick day,” Tony objects. “I mean, I’m willing, but they’re not going to believe it, Gibbs.”
Gibbs lifts his eyebrows. “I know, Tony. That’s the point.”
Tony suddenly realizes where Gibbs is going with this. “You’re talking about the Blue Flu.”
“Meanwhile, you’re going to hang out with John here while he has his surgery,” Gibbs says. “I think it’s probably better if you’re not around when I have it out with them.”
And then Gibbs looks at John and says, “I can’t make any promises, but I can tell you that I won’t be careless.”
“Make sure nobody else is, and we won’t have a problem,” John says easily.
Things actually seem pretty cool when they leave, and Tony honestly cannot believe that John just got away with threatening Gibbs and bringing up his family, although he has no idea how much John knows.
“Did you know anything about Gibbs’ family?” Tony asks on the drive back to his apartment.
“In a word, no,” John replies. “But I took a wild guess. The empty house, the bachelorhood, the way he treats his team—sometimes people try to rebuild what they’ve lost, or replace it.” John sighs. “I didn’t like pushing that button, but I’ve been in a position in the past where I made some bad calls because I was thinking of my team like a family without considering all of the ramifications.”
“You can’t make emotional decisions and have them make tactical sense,” Tony murmurs. “At least, not very often.”
John nods. “And I had to get Gibbs to stop thinking about the consequences of this one bad decision, and focus on the potential consequences if something had happened to you. Because the blowback would hit all of them in a big way.”
Tony hadn’t really thought that through; he’d been too focused on his hurt feelings, but this situation isn’t like not being invited to a team dinner. That had hurt, but no one’s life was on the line. The same couldn’t be said for the Military at Home case.
If he’d been hurt, and it came out that Ziva and McGee hadn’t been paying attention, it could mean their badges, and Gibbs would look bad because it’s his team that he’d handpicked and trained.
“Thanks for tonight,” Tony says after a moment. “If you hadn’t been here—I don’t think I’d have said anything, and I think I would have always wondered.”
“I’m selfish,” John replies. “I didn’t know how much I needed you to be here when I got back until I was actually here.”
And that, right there, might be the most romantic thing anybody has ever said to him. Tony doesn’t know how to respond, so he fumbles for John’s hand and squeezes tightly.
“Hey, I’ve got a week off.”
“Too bad I’m not in better shape,” John replies. “You aren’t going to be having much fun with me.”
Tony glances at him. “Just having you here is great, John. I don’t care about the rest, although I wish you weren’t hurting.”
John smiles. “I could say that I wished it was under better circumstances, and I do, but I’m glad I’m here now.”
“So am I,” Tony replies.
Even if things don’t turn out for the best with NCIS, at least Tony knows exactly how John feels about him now.
“Hey,” Tony says. “What you said to Gibbs about raising holy hell if something happens to me? Same goes for me, too, although I’ll have to figure out where you’re stationed first.”
“Good luck with that,” John says, but there’s a smile on his face.
“But any time you’re home, you’ll have a place with me,” Tony adds. “The welcome mat is always out for you.”
John smiles, and his voice is suspiciously thick when he says, “Good to know.”
And now they’re on the same page, and it feels good.
Tony goes in very early the next morning, leaving John still sleeping, to put in his sick leave request. He’s deliberately vague, knowing that Gibbs will fill in the blanks if necessary, and will cover for him with the Director.
Granted, Tony’s pretty sure that Vance hates him, and he might wind up with a phone call and demands for another explanation, but until that happens, Tony’s going to trust Gibbs’ plan.
In spite of everything that’s happened, Tony still trusts Gibbs. At least, he trusts Gibbs to try and fix this, and if he can’t, to tell Tony as much.
Gibbs had chosen Tony once before, but he’s no longer sure that Gibbs will do the same again, not over both Ziva and McGee.
John wakes slowly, finding the bed next to him cold and empty, and a note on the pillow. “Went in early to put in for my time off,” John reads. “I’ll be back in time to drive you to Walter Reed. T.”
John smiles and lies back on the bed, not interested on getting up just yet. For Tony’s sake, he hopes Gibbs’ plan works, because while he knows that Tony could get a job somewhere else, it would be like losing a limb for him.
Eventually, he knows he needs to get up and get moving since it takes him twice as long to get ready with his knee.
He’s in the shower when Tony pokes his head into the bathroom. “Doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m done,” John replies, turning off the water and carefully getting out. Tony is there with a hand out, just in case he slips. Tony hands him his towel, and John has to admit that he appreciates the heated towel bar.
“You need any help?” Tony asks.
John shakes his head, taking in Tony’s sweaty face. “Did you go for a run?”
“Yeah, thought I’d get rid of some energy,” Tony replies. “And I got the coffee going, so help yourself.”
“You’re too good to me,” John says.
Tony shakes his head. “Impossible.”
John manages to pull on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt, which is what he’s been living in unless there’s real reason to make himself presentable. He straps the brace on and gets a cup of coffee, and then he pops a bagel in the toaster because he’s going to need something in his stomach.
And he’s going to need them for his pre-op exam.
“Did you get everything taken care of at the office?” John asks Tony when he emerges.
“Yeah, the paperwork is done,” Tony says. “We’ll see if anybody checks up on me.”
“You think they won’t?” John asks.
Tony shrugs. “It will tell me a lot either way.”
“I guess it will,” John replies and holds out an arm. “Come here.”
He pulls Tony in for a tight hug. “I’m okay,” Tony insists. “I’m just glad you’re here.”
There’s not much more John can say to that, although his heart aches a bit. He wants Tony to have what he has, but it’s not like John can fix this for him, as much as he’d like to.
“We’d better get going,” John finally says. “I’m going to be late.”
“You have group today?”
“Nah, I’m going to skip it,” John replies. “It’s not like I can really talk about much, since it’s all classified.”
Tony gives him a look. “And you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Really don’t,” John says cheerfully. “Besides, I have to go in early for surgery tomorrow, and I’d rather hang out with you while I can.”
Tony looks pleased by that. “That would be great.”
John is grateful that Tony’s so good at flying under the radar, because he stays with John through the meeting with the surgeon, posing as a good friend who’s there to catch whatever John doesn’t.
“You’re staying with your friend?” Dr. Mehta asks.
John shrugs. “That’s the plan.”
“Well, we can probably send you home tomorrow if everything goes well,” Dr. Mehta says, turning to Tony. “Are you going to be home with him, or—”
“I took the week off of work,” Tony replies. “The least I could do for a childhood friend.”
If Dr. Mehta suspects that Tony’s any more than a friend, he doesn’t say anything. “Good. We’re doing this without general anesthesia, but John will need to stay off his feet for at least a couple of days, and that’s easier if he has help.”
“He’ll definitely have help,” Tony replies.
In retrospect, it’s great that Tony is present to listen to all the post-op instructions, because John’s pretty sure he’s not going to remember.
Once they’re through with that appointment, and Dr. Mehta pronounces him ready for surgery. “Hopefully, this will shorten your recovery time, but I can’t make any promises.”
“Give me a list of things I need to do,” Tony says. “And I’ll make sure it gets done.”
The doctor smiles. “I’m glad to hear that.”
“You want to go get lunch somewhere?” Tony asks. “My treat.”
John hesitates. “Yeah, I could really go for Mexican.”
“I know a great place,” Tony replies. “It’s not the best place in town, because that’s a food truck, but I don’t think you want to be on your feet, so we’ll hit the second-best place.”
He’s not looking forward to surgery tomorrow, but it helps to know that Tony’s going to be there.
Tony answers his phone halfway through their lunch and says, “Hey, Tamara. Yeah, he’s going in for surgery tomorrow at 9. No, he’s right here.” He hands John the phone.
“Hey,” John says.
“Is Tony going to be with you?” she asks immediately.
John smiles. “Yeah, he took the week off.”
“Well, I’ll bring a casserole,” she says decidedly. “And I’ll come keep Tony company.”
John probably should protest, but he likes Tamara, and Tony does better when he can entertain someone else. “That would be great.”
“I’ll see you both tomorrow!” Tamara replies cheerfully. “Hang in there, John.”
“Will do.” John hangs up and hands Tony his phone. “She’s going to join us tomorrow.”
Tony raises his eyebrows. “I’ll be fine.”
“She says she’s bringing a casserole.”
Tony grins. “If it’s as good as her porchetta, I think I can get on board with that plan.”
“I thought so, too,” John replies.
“You want to hit a movie after this?” Tony asks. “Or just rent one?”
“Let’s rent,” John replies apologetically. “I think I’m probably going to crash pretty soon.”
Tony shrugs. “Hey, no problem. I’m supposed to be under the weather anyway.”
John’s still a little surprised at Tony’s willingness to just hang out with him, as active as Tony usually is, but he’s grateful, too.
He ends up sleeping most of the afternoon away while a movie plays in the background, and when he wakes up, the apartment is silent, and Tony is reading a book.
Specifically, his book.
“I think you’re already farther in it than I am,” John says.
Tony glances up. “Sorry. I just—thought I’d see what all the fuss is about.”
“I got it because it’s long, and I didn’t think I’d ever finish it,” John admits. “I usually only get a page or two in before I fall asleep.”
“I imagine you probably don’t get much time to read,” Tony says neutrally.
John hitches a shoulder. “You could say that. What time is it?”
“Just after six,” Tony replies. “Are you getting hungry? If you’re going to eat before your surgery, it should be now.”
John shakes his head. “I’m still full from lunch.”
Someone knocks on the door insistently.
“Were you expecting someone?” John asks.
Tony shakes his head. “No, but—”
“Come on, Tony! I know you’re in there!”
Tony raises his eyebrows. “Abby.”
John has only met her once, but he has the sense that Abby isn’t the sort of person to be denied. “It’s okay. She knows.”
Tony gets up to answer the door, and John can just see him over the back of the couch. “Tony!” She throws her arms around him. “You’re okay.”
“Of course I’m okay,” Tony says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You never take a sick day!” Abby protests. “But Gibbs said you were taking the whole week, and he was asking about the recordings, and I just knew something was hinky!”
Tony hugs her. “I’m okay, Abs. I just needed a little time, and John’s having surgery tomorrow, and he needs me.”
Abby glances over Tony’s shoulder. “Oh, hi, John!”
“Hey, Abby,” he replies, amused.
Abby frowns. “Tony, did you lie to Gibbs about being sick so you could stay with John? Because he’ll find out. He’s Gibbs, he always finds out, and—”
“He told me to take the time,” Tony assures her. “It was his idea.”
“Oh, well, of course he’d want you to have time with John while he’s here and injured,” Abby replies, like that explains everything. “Are you going to be okay, John?”
“It’s just my knee,” John replies. “I’ll be fine in no time.”
Abby frowns. “That’s good, but I hope it’s not no time, because Tony’s really missed you, and he’s happier when you’re here.”
John grins. “It’s going to be at least a few weeks, maybe longer.”
“Oh, good,” Abby replies. “I mean, not good that you’re hurt, or that you’ll have a long recovery, but it’s good that you’re here.”
“I agree,” John says.
Abby blows out a breath. “But why did Gibbs tell you to take a whole week off?”
She reminds John a bit of McKay, who could be similarly persistent when there’s information he wants that’s just out of his reach.
“There’s just some things he’s working out,” Tony replies. “You’ll have to ask Gibbs for more details.”
“But he won’t tell me anything,” Abby protests.
Tony shrugs. “Then he has his reasons, but it’s better if you don’t know. It might not mean anything.”
Abby gives Tony a searching look. “Does this have anything to do with the Military at Home case and those voiceprints?”
“It does,” Tony replies evenly.
Abby nods. “Okay. I thought something was weird about that case, but I’ll ask Gibbs.”
“Thanks,” Tony says.
“What time are you having surgery?” Abby asks.
“Nine in the morning,” John replies.
Abby nods. “I can probably stop by over lunch. Have you guys eaten yet?”
“John isn’t hungry, and I was planning on cereal,” Tony replies.
“That won’t do,” Abby replies. “I’ll go pick something up from that deli you like. John, you should eat something. I’ll get soup. Be back in a few!”
John grins when she leaves. “She doesn’t take no for an answer, does she?”
“Not on your life,” Tony replies. “You need another dose?”
“After the soup,” John says. “Abby was right. I should have something in my stomach before I take it.”
“I can tell her to go,” Tony offers.
John can see how much Abby’s presence has comforted Tony, letting him know that someone missed him and cared about him. “No, that’s okay. I don’t mind her being here.”
And John has to admit that he feels better knowing that there are at least a couple of people who have Tony’s back.
The surgery is routine, and it’s not even supposed to take that long, but Tony finds that he’s grateful for Tamara’s cheerful presence. She’s brought a book of crossword puzzles and enlists Tony’s help solving them while they’re waiting.
“Why are you doing this?” Tony asks. “I mean, I know you’re married to John’s brother, but this seems above and beyond.”
Tamara glances at him. “Does it?”
“Kind of,” Tony admits.
Tamara smiles. “Do you know, John’s dad didn’t care for me much.”
Tony frowns. “Really? Why?”
“My dad was in the Army,” Tamara says. “My brother was a Marine, my other brother joined the Air Force. Dad came from a coal-mining town in West Virginia, and that was the only way out. Mom was a nurse, and Dad always said he’d married someone who was too good for him.” She laughs. “Dad still has no clue what to do with the fact that I married someone like Dave Sheppard.”
“You’re saying that you understand the kind of man John is,” Tony says.
Tamara shrugs. “I grew up with that kind of man. I suspect that had I married someone like him, holidays wouldn’t be quite so uncomfortable.”
“I imagine you probably keep Dave grounded,” Tony says.
She dimples. “I like to think so. But the way I grew up, family was there for you when you were sick or in the hospital. People sit with you when you’re waiting for someone to come out of surgery, and they bring casseroles. Granted, it’s a lot easier when you have a nanny to watch your kids while you do, but family often takes care of that, too.”
“I always wondered what it would be like to grow up like that,” Tony confesses.
“It was pretty great,” she admits. “At least for me it was. And honestly, I owe John a lot.”
Tony frowns. “How do you mean?”
“Because Patrick had already lost one son when he insisted it was his way or the highway,” Tamara admits. “Dave brought me home, and he made it clear that if Patrick didn’t approve, he’d choose me over the family business. Patrick came around more after Miles was born, but he accepted me first because he couldn’t lose Dave the way he’d lost John.”
“Well, I guess John breaking free did Dave a favor, too,” Tony says.
“He did,” Tamara says. “John may not realize it, but Dave and I owe him a lot, and you’ve been good for him, and good to us. Being here now—it’s the least I can do.”
“It means a lot to John and me both,” Tony admits. “Things are difficult at work right now, and having John here helps. Knowing we have the support of you and Dave is even better.”
Tamara reaches out for his hand, squeezing tightly. “It’s a tough road you guys have picked, but I understand. Sometimes you just love who you love.”
“Two brothers,” Tamara replies. “And both of them are still in.”
“Got it,” Tony says. “Thanks.”
John is in recovery when Abby shows up shortly after noon. “I’m sorry I can’t stay!” she says breathlessly. “We caught a big case, but I wanted to stop by and make sure John was okay.” She catches sight of Tamara and sticks her hand out. “Abby Sciuto. I work with Tony.”
“Tamara Sheppard,” she replies, giving Abby’s hand a hearty shake. “It’s so nice to meet one of Tony’s friends.”
“More like a little sister, really,” Tony says.
Abby beams. “How is he doing?”
“The surgery went well, and the nurse is with him now,” Tony replies. “We should be able to see him in a few minutes.”
Abby nods. “I can stay that long.”
John is a little loopy when they’re allowed in, and he greets Abby and Tamara both with a grin. “Hey, guys. Or gals. Sorry.”
“Whichever,” Abby says cheerfully. “You’re looking good. How are you feeling?”
“I feel no pain,” John admits.
Tamara chuckles. “Well, that’s good news.”
“Can I talk to you a minute, Abs?” Tony asks.
They leave Tamara with John, and Tony asks, “How are things?”
“Hinky,” Abby admits. “Gibbs has been intense, even more than usual, and I think McGee and Ziva are starting to realize that something is wrong. Have they talked to you?”
“Not a peep,” Tony admits.
Abby hugs him tightly. “I’m sure they’re just busy.”
“You made the time,” Tony mutters into her hair. “And you’re even busier than they are.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Abby insists, although her mouth has an unhappy slant to it. “It’s going to be fine. In the meantime, enjoy your time off with John.”
“I will,” Tony promises.
“And I will see you soon!” Abby insists. “I might be busy, and I have bowling with the nuns tomorrow, but I can help.”
“It means a lot that you’re here now,” Tony replies. “Thanks.”
Abby gives him another tight squeeze. “You know it.”
Abby kisses his cheek, and then goes back in to see John, giving him the same treatment, although her hug is a little more careful.
If Tony has to leave NCIS, he’s going to miss her terribly. He’s going to miss a lot of things.
He gets to take John home later that afternoon, and Tamara accompanies them, fussing over John once they get him settled on the couch and writing out instructions for the three—yes, three—casseroles.
“If you’re up for it, Dave and I will bring the kids by in a few days,” Tamara says. “Just to stop in and say hi and see how you’re doing. If you need more food in the meantime, just let me know.”
“You’re amazing,” Tony says. “If Dave hadn’t already married you, and I weren’t head over heels for John, I would wine and dine you myself.”
Tamara laughs. “You and most of Dave’s fraternity house. I made him work for it.”
“Spoken like a woman who knows what she wants,” Tony replies. “That’s always been a weakness of mine.”
“Flirt,” Tamara replies. “Take care of your boyfriend.”
“Always,” Tony says, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek.
John grins when Tony sits down on the other end of the couch. “She’s great, isn’t she? If I weren’t most sincerely gay, I’d make a play for her.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Tony says fondly. “She’s Dave’s wife.”
John sighs. “True. My life probably would have been easier if I’d been able to fall in love with some nice lady like that, though.”
“Same here,” Tony replies. “I thought I had that once upon a time, but no joy. The good news is that I found a nice guy instead.”
“Lucky for both of us,” John says.
“You doing okay?” Tony asks. “Do you need anything?”
John shakes his head. “No, I’m good.”
If anybody had asked Tony how he’d spend several days alone with John in his apartment, he would have said “having sex on every available surface.” In reality, John’s not up for so much as a blowjob delivered by Tony, and he spends a lot of time sleeping.
They have to go back to the hospital on Thursday for a post-op visit, and the doctor pronounces John ready to start basic exercises at home, with physical therapy to begin a week later. He’s still supposed to use the immobilizing brace, because his ACL sprain is healing but isn’t completely recovered, but he’s on his way.
Tony’s grateful that John is recovering, but he knows that just means their time together is limited.
And that part of it sucks, particularly when Tony keeps waiting for the phone to ring, or someone to show up at his door, and no one does.
No one other than Abby, anyway, who drops by Thursday after work, on her way to bowling, bringing John a stress ball with fringe that lights up when squeezed. “And you’re not supposed to have alcohol when you’re on pain medication, or I’d have brought you beer. Do you guys need anything else?” She grins slyly. “Lube? Condoms?”
“Okay,” Tony says, getting to his feet. “I think you have bowling with the nuns.”
“I do,” Abby says, not losing that grin. “See you guys later!”
John looks a big chagrined when Tony joins him. “Tony, I—”
“Don’t,” Tony says quickly. “John, you have to know I’m just glad to have you here.”
“Even though you have to wait on me hand and foot?” John asks.
Tony gives him a look. “Yeah, even though. It’s nice to be needed, and I’m glad you can rely on me.”
“So am I,” John replies. His expression is sympathetic when he asks, “Is Abby the only one who called?”
Tony looks away. “Yeah. I’m not too surprised about Gibbs, because he knows I’m with you. Ziva and McGee—who knows?”
“What do you want to have happen?”
“I don’t know,” Tony admits. “If I can’t trust them—I don’t know.”
John hesitates, and then says, “You know you don’t have to leave NCIS, right? You’re a decorated agent, Tony. You could have your pick of assignments.”
“I always thought I’d take over from Gibbs when he retired,” Tony admits.
John squeezes Tony’s leg. “You’re not Commander Riker, and the MCRT is not the Enterprise. You know Gibbs isn’t going to retire for years yet. Don’t hold yourself back.”
Tony wants to say that it’s easy enough for John to say that, but he holds his tongue. John’s just trying to help, and it is easier to think about taking another assignment, maybe even a promotion, than it is to think about leaving NCIS altogether.
“I’ll think about it,” Tony promises.
Because that’s all he can do. He has another day of vacation, and then the weekend, and he has no idea what’s going down with his team. Gibbs hasn’t called him, and Abby had been uncharacteristically tight-lipped.
Tony’s hoping that Gibbs at least gives him a heads up this weekend, because he really doesn’t want to walk into a war zone on Monday morning.
John is out of it a lot, because he’s on pain meds, and he’s loopy, but he’s not blind to Tony’s turmoil. Tony is in the dark and John would be upset about that, too.
Finally, on Saturday night, Gibbs drops by unannounced. He looks—weary, and John’s been around him enough to know that’s not the normal state of things. Apparently, Tony agrees with him, but his tone as he says, “Boss,” sounds like a man going to his doom.
“Let’s sit,” Gibbs says. “How are you doing, Sheppard?”
“I’m fine.” John eyes him and the six-pack he’s carrying. “I think I can probably handle one beer, Tony.”
Tony doesn’t argue, just pops the caps off three bottles and hands them around. “How bad is it?”
“It’s not bad, DiNozzo,” Gibbs growls. “Although it’s not good either.” He pauses to take a long drink of his beer, and then seems to brace himself. “Bottom line, there’s not enough evidence to instigate a disciplinary action.”
Tony blinks, then shakes his head. “Gibbs, I never said—”
“I asked them both point blank if they’d turned off coms or if they’d just been joking about it, and they denied ever having said that,” Gibbs says quietly. “Ziva said you were making it up, and McGee says you must have misunderstood what they did say.”
Tony’s expression darkens. “Which was?”
“That they hadn’t been paying as much attention as they should because things were going so well,” Gibbs replies.
John’s watching Tony carefully, and he can see the doubt cross his face as he questions whether he heard what he thought he’d heard, and whether he’d been freaking out all week over nothing.
“Tony,” John says. “You heard what you heard. Don’t start doubting yourself now.”
“Sheppard’s right,” Gibbs growls. “They were lying, but my gut isn’t good enough evidence to do anything.”
Tony stares at his hands. “Okay. So where does that leave us?”
“The way I see it, you have three options,” Gibbs says, and his voice is curiously gentle. “You can let this go, and I’ll make sure I’m the one backing you up from now on.”
Tony’s already shaking his head. “No offense, but you can’t make that promise, Gibbs.”
Gibbs hitches a shoulder. “True. Option two is to confront them head on yourself to see if they learn anything when they see how upset you are.” He pauses, and when Tony doesn’t reply, he adds, “Option three is a transfer. Director Vance has an opening for a team lead in Atsugi. You’d be in charge of the NCIS team that investigates on all Naval bases in Southeast Asia.”
Tony smiles bitterly. “So, Vance wants to send me to the other side of the world.”
“It’s a significant promotion,” Gibbs says reluctantly. “But it also means constant travel, and yeah, it’s on the other side of the world.”
Tony glances at John. “What would you do?”
John’s first inclination is to tell Tony to confront Ziva and McGee, read them the riot act, maybe knock their heads together. Selfishly, he doesn’t want Tony in Japan, because it means the next time he has leave, it will be that much harder to see him. And yet, a promotion like this one?
He’s not sure Tony can afford to pass it up.
“Advancement opportunities?” John asks, because he knows the difference between a promotion that’s a stepping-stone to something better, and a means to get rid of someone without political fallout.
Gibbs shrugs. “Most directors do a stint as head of a global area. It might go nowhere, but that depends on DiNozzo and future openings that are available.”
“My opportunities to go undercover are going to be seriously curtailed,” Tony says.
John doesn’t bother pointing out the obvious—that everybody knows Tony is good at undercover, and he’ll need to show other skills to advance. “Why not do both?” he suggests. “Confront them, and then take the promotion.”
Tony glances at Gibbs. “How long do I have to decide?”
“Until Monday,” Gibbs replies. “The posting in Japan isn’t going to be open for another couple of months. From what Vance said, you were in the running for it, but since you turned down Rota, they were hesitant to offer.”
Tony nods slowly. “And if I don’t take this one?”
“They probably won’t offer again,” Gibbs admits.
“I’ll have a decision Monday morning.”
Gibbs finishes off his beer, and claps Tony on the shoulder, leaving his hand there as he says, “Sheppard is right. You can do both, and while I don’t want to lose you, I think you should seriously consider it.”
“I will,” Tony promises.
When Gibbs is gone, Tony says, “You think I should take it.”
“No, I think you should ask yourself what you want,” John counters. “If you want to stay in DC with the MCRT and Gibbs, then you’ll have to find a way to live with that decision. If you want your own team and a shot at the director’s position, then yeah, I think you should take it.”
Tony gets up and wanders over to the window. John could follow, but he’s not sure he should, and his knee is aching like a bad tooth. “A few years ago, I got offered a position as team lead in Rota, Spain,” he admits. “I was in a bad place at the time, and I nearly took the assignment, but Gibbs needed me.”
“I imagine he still needs you,” John says quietly. “He’s got a couple of team members that he can’t trust to tell him the truth when they know it’s going to make them look bad. On the other hand, you can’t trust them not to get you killed, and Gibbs can keep them in line.”
“People are going to wonder,” Tony says softly. “Things like this—it gets around, John.”
“Bad for you or bad for them?”
“Depends on what information ends up floating around.” Tony turns to him. “What would you do in my shoes?”
John honestly has no idea what to tell him. “What do you want, Tony?”
“Two weeks ago, I would have told you I wanted the Enterprise,” Tony replies with a smile, “and I would have waited as long as I had to in order to get it.”
“It’s not two weeks ago.”
Tony grimaces. “Yeah, well, I also didn’t think I’d be offered an opportunity like this.”
“When I took the posting I’m at now, I was in a dead end position,” John offers, trying to give Tony as much information as he can without getting into anything classified. “Hell, the only reason I wound up in charge was because I was the highest ranking officer present when the guy who was in charge died.”
“You didn’t want it?” Tony asks.
“I didn’t think I could have it, so I didn’t let myself want it,” John counters. “I’m saying maybe you put it out of your mind for a lot of the same reasons.”
“Probably,” Tony murmurs. “And I kept hanging around, hoping that—well, hoping.”
“Now, I’ll be waiting for you to come back,” Tony says simply. “And I can do that from anywhere in the world.”
For a moment, John feels as though his heart is being squeezed by a giant fist. He has no idea when it happened, or how, but somewhere along the way he’d fallen in love with Tony DiNozzo.
“You know,” John says slowly. “Once I’m cleared, I’ll have leave to burn. Maybe we should take an actual vacation. Somewhere no one knows us.”
Tony’s expression lightens, and he turns toward John. “I would love that.”
“Hang onto that thought,” John advises, “to get through the next few days.”
Tony crouches by the couch and kisses him long and slow and easy. “I hate that you were hurt, but I’m glad you’re here now. You don’t know how glad.”
John runs a hand through Tony’s thick hair. “Probably about as glad as I was to know I had a place to go, and to see you again.”
“You know how I feel about you, right?” Tony asks.
John thinks about the way Tony had asked for his advice in front of Gibbs, and he thinks he does know. Neither of them are exactly the sort to say the words. “Probably the same way I feel about you.”
And Tony kisses him again.
Tony gets up earlier than he needs to on Monday. John assures him that he can get a ride to Walter Reed. “O’Neill promised me a driver, and I haven’t given him much to do,” John says. “Just let me know how things are going, okay?”
Tony straightens his tie. He’s wearing one his sharper suits, one he uses when he needs to impress, as well as the green-striped tie that brings out the color of his eyes. “How do I look?”
John looks amused. “Personally, I’d love to peel that suit off you, but if you’re going for imposing, you’ve nailed it.”
“Imposing and fuckable?” Tony counters.
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” John says. “Otherwise, I’d make you very, very late for work.”
Tony feels himself responding, and is grateful that he’ll have the drive to calm down again. “Maybe I’ll let you watch me jerk off when I get home tonight.”
“You’re a cruel man,” John accuses.
“Me?” Tony asks. “I’m half hard right now.”
“Something else to think about if today sucks,” John counters.
Tony kisses him. “One for the road.”
“Good luck!” John calls as he leaves.
Tony has an idea of how this would have gone down had John not been in town. He would have taken a weekend, holed up in his apartment, and he would have pushed the hurt down deep. He might have chalked it up to mishearing things, or being oversensitive, the way he had when Ziva had pointedly not invited him to her dinner party years ago.
With John there, Tony had someone else to confirm that what had happened, whatever happened, whatever way it played, was fucked up. Tony didn’t have the space to dismiss it, which meant he had to deal with it.
Tony honestly isn’t sure what he’d prefer at this point.
Tom at security greets Tony genially. “Haven’t seen you this last week, Agent DiNozzo.”
“I was recovering from a bug,” Tony replies with a smile. “Good to see you, Tom. How are the kids?”
“Oh, they’re great, just great,” Tom says, pulling out his phone. “Would you believe that Aaron scored two goals on Sunday? The only two goals scored that game!”
Tony admires the picture of Aaron, who’s maybe eight with a sunny, gap-toothed grin. “That’s great.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Tom asks. “You still look a little peaked.”
Tony shakes his head. “No, I’m good. I just have some big decisions coming up, and I’m feeling a little unsettled, that’s all.”
“Good luck with that,” Tom replies. “We’d be sad to see you go, Agent DiNozzo.”
Tony nods. “Yeah, I’d be sad to leave.”
The bullpen is quiet when Tony gets to his desk. There are a few agents scattered around, but it’s not quite seven, and most people don’t get in until 8 or 9, depending on the lateness of the previous night.
Tony has just sat down and turned his computer on when Gibbs appears with two cups of coffee in hand. He puts one on Tony’s desk and asks, “How’s Sheppard?”
“Fine,” Tony replies. “He’s going to make use of the driver General O’Neill offered to get to Walter Reed today. I think he has another check up plus a visit with the physical therapist. Maybe even group therapy if he doesn’t skip it.”
“You’re two of a kind, DiNozzo,” Gibbs says.
Tony shrugs. “You could say that.”
“Did you make your decision?”
“Little of column B, little of column C,” Tony admits.
Gibbs frowns. “There’s no ‘little’ in column C.”
Tony sighs. “Gibbs, you know who contacted me to find out why I was taking a whole week off for sick leave when I rarely take one day?”
Gibbs doesn’t even have to ask. “Abby.”
“Abby,” Tony confirms. “Not even a text from the others. You know Kate would have been banging on my door.”
A smile briefly touches Gibbs’ lips. “She would have.”
“I can’t trust them,” Tony admits. “I’m confronting them for my own peace of mind, but—it’s time for me to move on.”
“I hate to lose you, Tony,” Gibbs says. “Is there anything I could say to make you stay?”
Tony thinks about it, because there’s still some small corner of his brain that wants all of this to just get better. He wants to say yes, and have Gibbs knock some heads together, and for everything to go back to the way it was before.
But Gibbs can’t make it better. Maybe it had started with Mexico, and was complicated by Jeanne and Israel and Somalia. He’s grateful that Gibbs had chosen him then, but Tony thinks that maybe it’s time he chooses himself.
After all, Gibbs can’t wave a magic wand and make it okay for Tony and John to be together. He can’t protect Tony from his own teammates’ disregard, and Tony has to find a way to live with that.
He thinks it might be easier if he’s on the other side of the world.
A few months ago, before John came back, if Gibbs had made a move, maybe he would have thrown caution to the wind and stayed, but Gibbs hadn’t, and John had come back, and Tony loves him in the same way he’d loved Jeanne, only better, because John knows him.
“No,” Tony says quietly. “I wish there were, but there isn’t. Maybe if—” He stops. “Well. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
He thinks he heard that in a movie, but it’s something he remembers one of his teachers saying when he’d wished for more time to finish an assignment.
Gibbs nods. “McGee is the weak link. I think he knows he’s on thin ice with this thing.”
Tony thinks for a moment. “How sure are you that I’m going to get this promotion?”
“Certain,” Gibbs replies immediately.
“Sure enough to ask Vance to announce it?”
Gibbs hesitates. “Probably.”
“I want to wait to confront them until after that,” Tony says, a plan beginning to form in his mind. “Even if it takes a little longer, I think they’ll give themselves away, or they’ll be a little more susceptible.”
When he and Gibbs are on the same page, it’s a little scary how alike they think. “I agree. You going to wear a wire?”
“No,” Tony replies. “I’d be content with them seeing the error of their ways. I hate to think they’d treat someone else that way.”
Regret passes across Gibbs’ face. “So would I.”
As a tacit admission, Tony will take it, and then he sees Vance stepping off the elevator, and is surprised by the curt summons, “Agent DiNozzo, join me.”
Tony glances at Gibbs, but sees the same wariness on his face that must be on his own, and he follows the director to his office. “Sir,” he says, once the door closes behind them.
“Sit,” Director Vance says, pointing at a chair.
Tony hesitates, but then sits stiffly, waiting to hear his remonstrance.
Vance glares at him, and then he sighs, looking tired. “You know, when Gibbs came to me and told me what had happened, I could hardly believe it. I thought you were maybe exaggerating.”
Tony holds his tongue.
“But I spoke to Tom Morrow, and asked around, and I got unqualified praise from most of the people I talked to,” Vance continues. “You turned down Rota. Why?”
“Gibbs had just come back from Mexico, and he wasn’t 100 percent,” Tony says frankly. “He needed an experienced team lead, and McGee wasn’t there yet, as he’d proven while Gibbs was gone.”
“Then it was loyalty.”
“I’ve always been loyal to Gibbs,” Tony admits.
Tony thinks about his answer for a moment, and then he says, “Director Vance, if your wife pointed out that the people you worked with might get you killed, and that it would gut her, what would you do?”
“I’d get rid of the people she thought would get me killed,” Vance says immediately. “Did you get married without telling anybody?”
In for a penny, in for a pound, Tony thinks, and apparently he’s devolved to proverbs today. “No, but there’s someone important to me. We’re keeping it quiet for very good reasons.”
Vance nods. “Fair enough.” He pauses, and then he says, “How sure are you that they turned off coms?”
“At the very least they were reading and not paying attention,” Tony counters.
Vance glowers. “Whatever my feelings about you were or are, you were doing your job, and they didn’t back you up. If you can get proof of that, I’ll take it from there.”
“If it gets out, they’re going to have a hard time working with another team,” Tony points out. “That’s one of the reasons I hesitated.”
“I don’t care how much you dislike a coworker, you don’t break basic protocol!” Vance snaps, and Tony figures he probably should have known Vance would respond in that way. Vance is a stickler. “That being said, I think you’ll do very well in the Japan posting. Are you going to take it?”
Tony nods. “I am.”
“I’ll make the announcement today.” Vance gets to his feet. “For what it’s worth, I wish this promotion were happening for different, better reasons. You deserve it, but I know it wasn’t your choice, not entirely.”
Tony hesitates and then asks, “Did I earn it?”
“Ten times over,” Vance confirms. “You probably would have been offered another assignment earlier, but no one thought you’d take it.”
“I’m taking it now,” Tony says. “And I’ll do what I can to make sure that McGee and Ziva’s heads are screwed on right before I go.”
“Not your job, Tony,” Vance replies. “But I would appreciate the effort.”
Tony comes down from the director’s office and sees that McGee and Ziva have arrived in his absence. He offers a civil nod to each of them and sits down to sort through his email.
“Are you feeling better, Tony?” Ziva asks, although there’s a sly note to her question that suggests she doesn’t believe he was sick in the first place.
Well, she’s not wrong, although the real reason for his absence probably escapes her. “Much better,” Tony says blandly. “Thanks for asking.”
Implicit in that response is a silent censure that Ziva hadn’t bothered asking until now.
“Was it something to do with your lungs?” McGee asks, sounding a little more hesitant, and genuinely concerned.
“Something like that,” Tony replies. “Probably something I picked up while shaking all those hands.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Tony can see the incipient smirk on Gibbs’ face. Gibbs always enjoys it when Tony toys with people.
Tony doesn’t bother looking at McGee, who can stew in his guilt, because that’s just going to soften him up. His phone vibrates, and he pulls it out, seeing the text from John. My physical therapist likes you more than me. Only explanation for why she’s going Sgt. Hartman on my ass.
Tony snickers and tucks the phone away.
“Is that from your girlfriend?” Ziva asks.
It takes every bit of restraint Tony has not to say, “No, my boyfriend,” but he’s not going to get John into trouble. Depending on how this day goes—or how this week goes—Ziva might decide to take petty revenge.
“Long lost brother, actually,” Tony says casually.
There’s a long pause as everyone—save for Gibbs—tries to decide whether he’s being serious, and then Ziva says, “Fine, don’t tell us.”
“Thanks, I won’t,” Tony says pleasantly. He keeps working on clearing out his email, ignoring everybody else, and just letting things be awkward.
He’s not playing by the rules, and they all know it, but Tony figures they threw out the rules first.
They don’t catch a case, and around 10 am, Director Vance comes down from his office and clears his throat. “It’s my pleasure to announce that Agent DiNozzo is taking an open position in Atsugi, Japan, as a team leader heading up our Southeast Asia division. We’ll have Agent DiNozzo here for a couple more months, and I’m sure you’ll all join me in congratulating him on his promotion.”
Tony hears congratulations from those in the bullpen. Gibbs is the first to come over to him, and Tony is a little surprised when Gibbs hugs him. “Proud of you, Tony,” he murmurs, just loud enough for Tony to hear him.
Balboa is next, also giving Tony a hug. “Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy,” he says.
“Thanks, man,” Tony replies. “I appreciate that.”
A few others make their way over, enough so that Ziva and McGee’s silence becomes both evident and incredibly awkward.
It’s the word of the day, and Tony needs to remember to text John, because he’ll get a kick out of that.
Finally, McGee comes over with his hand out. “Congratulations, Tony. We’ll miss you, but you deserve it.”
Tony can detect no hint of sarcasm in McGee’s words, and he smiles sincerely. “Thanks, Tim. I appreciate that.”
At that point, Ziva seems to realize that she’d better make a gesture. “Congratulations, Tony.”
Tony plays it cool. “Thank you.”
He can tell that she’s waiting for him to make a joke or an off-color comment, and he doesn’t. He’s decided that for his last weeks here, he’s going to only be himself. He’ll joke when he wants, but he won’t play the joker anymore.
Maybe that had been part of the problem—Tony had been too willing to joke around, to not take things seriously, and so everybody—well, Ziva and McGee—had thought anything was up for grabs.
Tony thought they knew better than that, but maybe he hadn’t been clear enough.
“All right, we’ve got work to do,” Gibbs says, breaking up the small group around. “You can take DiNozzo out for a drink after hours if you really want to.”
They don’t get a case that day, and Tony finds he’s grateful for it. He has a ton of emails in his inbox, and he needs to clean a few things up in anticipation of his departure. He has time, but wants to get started.
He’s not surprised when McGee follows him to the men’s room the next time Tony takes a break, but Tony ignores him. He finishes his business and washes his hands, and finally McGee says, “I never thought you’d leave Gibbs.”
“Yeah, well, neither did I, to be honest,” Tony replies. “But it’s time for me to go.”
“Is this about what happened with the Military At Home case?” McGee blurts out.
Tony raises his eyebrows. “When you let me think that you’d left me twisting in the wind, or when you lied to Gibbs about it? Which one was it that you think was the last straw for me, McGee?”
McGee swallows. “I didn’t lie to Gibbs.”
“You said I’d misheard you.” Tony keeps his voice calm and level.
Tony crosses his arms. “Did I really? You want to leave things on that note, McGee? Because honestly, I want to know if this is something I’m going to have to worry about with my next team, or if it’s just you guys.”
McGee looks stricken. “Tony, it was just a joke!”
“Did you, or did you not turn off coms?” Tony demands, and he knows his voice sounds low and dangerous. It’s the voice he uses on suspects he’s trying to sweat, and McGee swiftly caves.
“We didn’t turn them off,” McGee insists. “We wouldn’t do that to you.”
“But?” Tony hisses.
“But we turned the volume down,” McGee admits. “We probably would have heard if something had gone wrong, but only if we were paying attention.”
“Which you weren’t,” Tony says, and now he’s just tired.
McGee swallows audibly. “Which we weren’t. At least, not always. We were some of the time.”
“You understand that’s a major breach of protocol, right?” Tony presses. “If Gibbs could prove it, you’d be on suspension at the very least. If I’d been hurt, they would have fired you.”
McGee stares at the floor. “I know.”
“What I want to know is whether you’re going to do it again,” Tony says. “You get a new team member, maybe you like them, maybe you don’t, but are you going to hang them out to dry?”
“No!” McGee insists. “I would never!”
“Just me then?” Tony asks.
McGee’s mouth opens, and he says, “I guess so. Tony, I’m sorry.”
“Just don’t do it again, Tim,” he replies wearily. “I don’t want to see your career end over something so stupid and petty.”
“I’m really sorry,” McGee repeats.
Tony shrugs it off. “It’s done. I’m letting it go, and I suggest you do as well.”
McGee is clearly torn. “I don’t want you to leave.”
Tony smiles. “I was always going to leave eventually, Tim. You guys just made it abundantly clear that now was the right time.”
He feels a little bad about that parting shot, but sometimes the truth hurts.
The only person remaining to confront is Ziva, but Tony’s not looking forward to that conversation, and he’s not going to instigate it.
Knowing Ziva, she’ll wait for his next trip to the head.
The day continues to drag, and Tony does his best to avoid Ziva catching him alone. He’s worked out what he wants to say to her, but it’s going to be even more pointed than what he’d said to Tim, and call him crazy, but he doesn’t want to hurt her.
Maybe they treated him like shit, but Tony still thinks of them as family. He’d gone to Somalia for her. He’d smiled at his torturer and put his faith in Gibbs, and that faith had paid off.
But Gibbs can’t protect Tony from his own team, and he can’t force the truth out of Ziva and McGee. Tony has to make his own decisions, and he has to protect himself now.
It’s close to quitting time, and Tony’s thinking about getting home to John, so his guard is down. He visits the head on his way out the door, and once again he’s washing his hands when the door swings open.
Tony sighs, and then says, “I was wondering when you’d corner me.”
Ziva crosses her arms over her chest. “You play jokes on us all the time. I did not think you would take it so much to head.”
“To heart,” Tony corrects. “It’s ‘take it to heart.’”
“Whatever,” she snaps, waving a hand. “You took it too seriously. You can duke it out, but you can’t take it.”
Tony frowns. “It’s dish it out.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Ziva says angrily. “You’re leaving because of some stupid prank!”
Tony stares at her, and then he shakes his head. “I would have thought that you of all people would understand.”
“Understand what?” she still sounds angry.
“What it feels like for everyone you trusted to abandon you, leaving you hung out to dry,” Tony replies. “To know that rescue isn’t coming.”
Ziva’s eyes go wide. “Tony—”
“I know you didn’t turn the coms off,” Tony continues. “But I also know you turned the volume down low enough that if something had happened to me, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t hear it since you weren’t even paying attention.”
Ziva shakes her head, but she can offer no defense. “That was not our intention.”
“And if I’d been hurt, and it came out what you did, you and McGee’s careers would be over,” Tony replies. “I ride the line, Ziva, but I don’t put my friends’ lives in danger. Soap in coffee or whoopee cushions on chairs, that’s silly, it lightens the mood. I don’t leave you hanging, though.”
Ziva shakes her head, as though in dispute. “But Michael—”
“Is that what this is about?” Tony demands. “Are you still holding that against me? I was following a lead, and I was protecting you.”
“No, I don’t hold that against you,” Ziva says quickly. “Of course not. It’s not—you came for me.”
“Did you forget that fact?” Tony asks. “When you let me believe that you’d left me without backup, did you remember what I did to bring you in from the cold?”
Ziva swallows. “No.”
Tony nods, feeling a swell of bitterness. “Yeah, well, funny enough, that doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Ziva protests. “You should have come to us! We could have talked it through.”
Tony gives her a look. “You and Tim lied to Gibbs. You tried to tell him that it was all in my head.”
“So, you knew exactly how much trouble you’d be in if you told the truth,” Tony says. “Which suggests that at some point you knew you were wrong. Bottom line, you were willing to gaslight me.”
“Gaslight?” Ziva asks.
“It’s a movie, you should check it out,” Tony replies. “Besides, it’s a done deal now. I took the offer, and I’m not going back on that decision.”
“You’re abandoning us,” Ziva accuses.
“Turnabout is fair play,” Tony replies, irritated. “Don’t try to send me on a guilt trip, Ziva. It’s not one I’m willing to take. But maybe with your next team member, you should avoid fucking them over. They might not be so willing to let it go.”
He marches out before she can come up with a decent comeback, and heads immediately to his car. Gibbs calls as Tony’s pulling out of the garage. “Yeah.”
“You done for the day?” Gibbs asks. “Because I’ve had a few people ask when they can take you out for a drink.”
“Yeah, I’m done,” Tony says bitterly.
Gibbs sighs. “You’ve got a bunch of leave banked. You want to take some more time?”
“Do you remember Somalia?” Tony asks. “Does anyone remember that op other than me?”
“I remember,” Gibbs replies.
“I don’t get it,” Tony complains.
Gibbs pauses. “Neither do I, Tony.”
“Yeah, I guess I just needed to hear you say that.” Tony pauses. “I might be late tomorrow.”
“Take your time,” Gibbs replies. “Take John to Walter Reed, and then pick him up when he’s ready to leave. I know your time is limited.”
More limited than it might have been if Tony hadn’t taken this promotion, but he can’t regret it. Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s Ziva and Tim, but it’s clearly time for him to leave.
“Thanks,” Tony replies and ends the call.
When he enters his apartment, John is waiting on the couch. “How did it go?” he asks immediately.
Tony drops his keys and his bag just inside the door, and he says, “Scoot up.”
With some maneuvering, Tony inserts himself behind John, cradling him between his spread legs, pressing his face against the side of John’s neck. He smells clean and sharp, and in spite of their banter earlier that day, Tony’s arousal remains thoroughly banked, mostly due to the stresses of the day.
“That bad, huh?” John asks.
“The director said he was behind me and the promotion was mine,” Tony begins. “Tim said he didn’t turn off coms, just turned the volume way down so they wouldn’t hear me. Ziva tried to guilt trip me for leaving. It was a great day without even a robbery to lighten it up.”
“What did you say to the two assholes?” John asks.
“I told McGee that their actions had indicated that it was time to move on, and I reminded Ziva about that time I orchestrated her rescue from terrorists when her dad left her hanging.”
John squeezes his hand. “Harsh.”
“You don’t think I should have said that?” Tony asks, thinking that he really can’t handle it if John won’t support him.
“No, I mean the fact you saved her puts her actions in even harsher light,” John replies. “It’s one thing if your team betrays you. That fucking sucks. But to have someone do what she did when you saved her life? That’s beyond the pale, in my opinion.”
Tony relaxes. “Yeah, me too.”
“So, what’s next?” John asks after a moment.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to be late into work so I can take you to Walter Reed,” Tony begins. “And then when you’re ready to be picked up, I’m going to leave, because I want to spend as much time together as possible. I’m also going to talk to Vance about using some of my leave, and you’re going to talk to your doctors and maybe General O’Neill about taking a vacation and whether that’s doable. And then we’re going to enjoy every moment we spend together.”
“I can get on board with that plan,” John murmurs. “You’re going to be fucking awesome at this job, you know?”
“Yeah,” Tony says and just takes a deep breath. “I know.”
“Do you?” John asks, twisting his neck to meet Tony’s lips in a clumsy kiss. “Because you’re going to be great.”
Tony nuzzles John’s neck. “Are you going to check up on me?”
“You bet,” John says. “Because I want to bask in your reflected glory.”
“That kind of comment deserves a blow job,” Tony replies. “Is the flesh willing?”
“The flesh is still exhausted from my PT session, and the pain killers,” John admits. “Rain check?”
“I’ll consider the urge satisfied with cuddling if you never tell anybody,” Tony says. “I have my reputation to consider.”
John chuckles. “Is this similar to my reputation as a Kirk?”
“Maybe,” Tony says cagily, but he settles deeper into the couch.
“You want to put a movie on?” John asks.
Tony sees the remote a few feet away and decides he’s too lazy to grab it. “Nah. This is good.”
“This is great,” John replies.
And in that moment, it kind of is.