Tony headed down the basement stairs, two beers in hand. He set one on the workbench for Gibbs, who looked up from his work and acknowledged him with warm, blue eyes and a soft half-smile that never failed to give him a fluttery, warm feeling in his chest. They’d gotten home late, and were starving. After demolishing most of a pizza between the two of them, he’d cleaned up the kitchen. Gibbs disappeared to the basement, preoccupied with tomorrow’s op.
Tony took his usual place near the bottom of the stairs and nursed his beer. He loved watching Gibbs work. It was warm down here today and Gibbs had shed his layers, down to just jeans and a t-shirt. The t-shirt must have been one of those he’d shrunk in the wash last week. It was a little snug now, Tony noted appreciatively. He enjoyed the play of muscles in Gibbs’ back and shoulders as he ran the hand sander over the wooden planks in long, gliding strokes. The soft rasp of sanding was relaxing and Gibbs’ movements hypnotic…almost sensual.
Gibbs started this boat not long after asking Tony to move in with him and it was almost complete. There was just some touch up sanding left, and soon they’d start with the varnish and paint. Gibbs even drafted him to help with it; unlike the last one. That boat had ended up in pieces and burned in the backyard not long before they’d become lovers. He’d ask Gibbs from time to time which ex this one was for. Gibbs always refused to tell him, knowing it drove him crazy. It had become a bit of a game, in which Tony found new and inventive ways to ask only to get the same enigmatic smile and head shake in answer.
It bothered him sometimes, Gibbs’ weirdness about the boats and unwillingness to open up about his compulsion to build, and then destroy them. Even so, he loved Gibbs with all his foibles and had no interest in changing him. He just wanted to understand him a little better and Gibbs didn’t always make that easy.
So he started off their game with a playful line of questioning, only to be rebuffed with a terse “Not tonight, Tony, okay?”
Tony fought down a stab of hurt as he wondered what brought on the shift in mood all of a sudden. “Sure, Jethro. You worried about tomorrow?”
“No more than any other time I meet with a mole planted in a terrorist organization,” Gibbs said dryly, not looking up from his sanding.
“Okaaay,” Tony drawled sarcastically, letting Gibbs know he saw through the deflection tactic. Still, he wasn’t going to push Gibbs and decided to turn the conversation back away from work. He stood and stretched, feeling the vertebrae in his back pop as he did so. He walked around the boat, reaching out to run a hand down the smooth planks and feeling a sense of pride as he noted the parts he’d helped with.
“You must know a lot about the water and sailing, to put such detail into the boats,” Tony mused.
“I guess so,” Gibbs replied absently.
“Where did you learn about boats?”
“Told you; Dad and Leroy taught me about woodworking.”
“No, I meant sailing,” Tony clarified. “Where did you learn to sail? No place around Stillwater for big sailboats like this.”
“What makes you think I know, then?”
“Aw, come on Jethro. It’s been awhile but I know a little about sailing and can tell you do too. We should go sometime; I wouldn’t be a novice if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“No,” Gibbs snorted.
“Are you just trying to avoid taking me sailing? We could rent one; it would be fun,” he prodded. “Maybe even take this one out when it’s done.”
Gibbs suddenly felt exposed, defensive. Tony innocently stumbled onto an old hurt he wasn’t prepared to talk about. Before he could stop it, he snapped at the younger man in anger. “I’m not going sailing w…” he stopped himself, but the implication in the unfinished sentence hung heavy between them.
Tony flinched back as if struck, the green eyes widening in hurt before turning flinty. “Go ahead; finish what you were going to say. “With me. And just why the hell not?”
“Enough, Tony,” Gibbs said much more softly, realizing his instinctive response had hurt the younger man.
Tony’s eyes narrowed. “Right; enough. Because God forbid you let me inside those damn walls you’ve built between yourself and the rest of the world. When are you going to let me all the way in, Jethro?” he asked plaintively. “Am I supposed to just spend the rest of my life settling for these little glimpses inside you allow me to have…for being your big secret?”
Gibbs sighed and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. He didn’t know how to talk about this.
“Fine,” Tony said acerbically. “Don’t answer me, Gibbs.” He turned, his back rigid with hurt and anger, and walked up the stairs and closed the basement door firmly behind him.
Of course Tony’s insecurities would have him reading Gibbs’ hesitance as unwillingness to answer. He hoped he could fix this.
Gibbs gave it a little time before heading upstairs. They’d argued before and he’d learned that Tony was easier to talk to once they’d both had time to cool down. And as long as Gibbs made an effort not to be a jackass, Tony was pretty forgiving.
As he walked out into the kitchen, he could see all the downstairs lights were off, indicating Tony had gone to bed. In the master bedroom, his heart sank at the evidence that Tony was clearly more upset than he realized. The bedside lamp had been turned on for him, but the bed was still made and the room was empty. Tony had moved to the guest bedroom.
He went across the hall and walked inside the guest room. He saw the huddled shape illuminated by the moonlight streaming through the blinds. Tony had his back to the door and his body stiffened when Gibbs sat on the opposite side of the bed, signaling he was still awake.
Gibbs reached out and laid a hand hesitantly on Tony’s bare shoulder. “I’m sorry, Tony.”
Tony’s eyes fluttered closed at the feel of that warm, calloused hand on his skin. “Sign of weakness.”
“Never with you, Tony.”
The stiff figure relaxed minutely and Tony sighed. “What are you sorry for, Jethro?” he asked, still facing away from Gibbs.
“For what I said…and for what I didn’t say. It’s still so hard to talk about them sometimes. It’s a hard habit to break; this silence.”
Tony turned over and looked up at Gibbs finally. His expression was sad; vulnerable, but understanding shone from his eyes. “What do I have to do to convince you I’m not threatened by them; by your memories of them? I want to hear about them, whatever you want to share. I’m not your exes. You don’t need to box them away and pretend they don’t exist on my account.”
Gibbs reached out to caress Tony’s face. “What did I do to deserve you?”
“Good question,” came the irreverent answer.
“Are we okay, Tony?” Gibbs asked. His gut was uneasy about tomorrow and he didn’t want either of them distracted by an unresolved argument.
“As long as I know you’re still trying, Jethro, we’ll always be okay.”
Gibbs took Tony’s hand and gave a tiny tug. “Come to bed then…our bed.”
A few minutes later they were settled in the other bed, face to face and legs tangled together.
Gibbs reached to pull Tony into his arms, needing the reassurance of closer contact. He was grateful when Tony came readily, settling his head on Gibbs’ chest and wrapping arm across his waist.
Tony hummed in pleasure as Gibbs’ hand stroked lightly through his hair.
Gibbs began to speak and the body in his arms tensed ever so slightly in anticipation.
“I learned to sail when I was stationed at Camp Pendleton,” Gibbs began. “Kelly was fascinated by the boats and Shannon fell in love with the ocean. I took lessons, and we went sailing on summer weekends when I wasn’t deployed.”
“And the rest?” Tony asked softly.
“When you asked me to take you sailing, it felt like you were trying to take their place,” Gibbs admitted.
“I could never do that. I don’t ever want to try.”
Gibbs tightened his hold on Tony, moved by his generous spirit. “I know. It’s one of the things I love about you.”
Tony moved one hand up to Gibbs chest, over his heart. “All I ask is you make a place for me in here too.”
“You already have one,” Gibbs reassured him. “I know you don’t like the idea of us being a secret for all this time, but you know why.”
They hadn’t been seeing each other long when Jennifer Shepard was named Director. A night spent taking comfort from one another after Kate’s death had quickly turned into something deeper, more meaningful, and exclusive. Gibbs had been upfront with Tony about his prior relationship with Jenny, and he trusted Gibbs’ judgment when he insisted she would react poorly to finding out about them. By mutual agreement, they’d kept their relationship from the others.
“You know as well as I do she’d use it as an excuse to transfer one of us,” Gibbs reminded him. “It won’t always be this way. There are some things we need to talk about, Tony; things I need to tell you,” Gibbs told him, sounding more than a little mysterious. “When the boat is done I’ll tell you all of it, and anything else you want to know. And if you’re still here after, then I think the need for secrecy won’t be an issue any more.”
Tony lifted his head to look Gibbs in the eye apprehensively. “If I'm still here? Why wouldn’t I be? You trying to scare me off, Jethro?”
“Not a chance in hell,” Gibbs said, an edge of possessiveness in his tone. “I’m just trying to say I’m almost ready to let you inside the walls. Breaking these old habits…I just need a little more time.”
Tony gave him one of those heart-stopping, beautiful smiles then leaned down and kissed him gently in answer. The sweet give and take went on for several minutes; not intended to arouse, but meant as an affirmation…a promise given and received.