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Three Days After

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Tony couldn't help but think this was a bad idea. He had darkened Gibbs' doorstep once before, three days ago. Twice was asking too much. But here he was, looking for comfort from a man who was snarling at having to train two probies. He was ready to leave, go home and play with his GI Joe and forget this whole idea, when the door in front of him opened. Gibbs was standing on the other side, and the man did the unthinkable: he smiled at the boy. He stepped to the side and Tony shuffled in, taking off his shoes.

Gibbs put a hand on his shoulder and Tony found himself being led to the old couch in the living room. Gibbs turned the TV to I Love Lucy and sat down on the couch, looking at Tony expectantly.

Tony sat down on the couch, and left DiNozzo's worries at the door. Gibbs rested one arm across the back of the couch, and let his hand rest on Tony's shoulder. Tony didn't flinch away, but didn't feel the touch was right. He looked over to Gibbs. "Something on your mind, kid?" Gibbs asked.

Blushing, Tony ducked his head away and shook it.

Gibbs rubbed a thumb on Tony's arm and Tony suddenly felt so guilty for taking Gibbs' time. The man had other things he could surely be doing, and Tony was stopping him. Tears formed in his eyes and his breath caught. He didn't want to be a bother, everything just sorta happened.

"Aw, Tony..." Gibbs murmured. "What's wrong?"

Tony didn't even know, and that was the worst part! He needed some indeterminable comfort, and no amount of crying could ebb away the craving. His stomach hurt from crying and he wished he could just stop and--Arms were around him, applying gentle pressure and a source of warmth. "It's okay," Gibbs whispered. "It's okay."

Tony whimpered and tried to stop crying, because he knew it was okay. He was safe and warm and with Gibbs. He knew that.

So why was he so upset?

"Someone's having a bad day," Gibbs murmured. "Are you thirsty?"

Tony shrugged. He was thirsty, but he didn't want Gibbs to get up on his account.

"Come on, let's go to the kitchen," Gibbs coaxed.

Tony obediently stood and followed Gibbs into the kitchen. Gibbs opened his refrigerator and pulled out a jug of milk...and chocolate sauce?

"You struck me as someone who would like chocolate milk," Gibbs explained. "I'm not gonna use the chocolate except on you, so use as much as you want."

Tony smiled bashfully and ducked his head. Gibbs poured a tall glass of milk and set it on the kitchen table. Tony sat in front of it as Gibbs brought over the chocolate sauce. Tony took the bottle from Gibbs and Gibbs sat across the table. He tipped it upside down and undid the cap, letting the sauce ooze out of the bottle into the glass. He squeezed the bottle gently and the sauce came out quicker, but Tony wasn't satisfied with the amount of it in his glass yet. He let it pour until the milk looked gray without being stirred before he righted the bottle. Gibbs arched his eyebrows when Tony lifted it up, but said nothing other than, "That's a lot of chocolate."

Tony shrugged. "I like lots of chocolate."

Gibbs chuckled. "I can see that. Though maybe from now on I could pour the chocolate in? I promise to make sure there's enough in it, though I may use a little less than that."

Tony thought it over and nodded. "Okay."

"Feel a little better?" Gibbs asked.

Tony took a sip of the milk and shrugged. "I guess."

Gibbs hummed in thought. "Well, you had a long couple days. A lot of it is probably you being worn out."

Tony nodded his agreement. That did make sense.

"But Tony?" Gibbs asked. Tony turned his attention back to Gibbs and Gibbs gave him a soft smile. "You've done good work recently. I'm proud of you."

Tony's eyes got hot again, but for an entirely different reason. He swiped at his cheeks as tears fell and Gibbs asked in alarm, "Tony? Did I do something wrong?"

"Y-you're r-r-really proud of me?" Tony asked softly, hesitantly, like he might be shot down.

"Of course," Gibbs said. "Would I push you so hard otherwise?"

Tony sniffled and gave Gibbs a watery, grateful smile. "Th-thanks..." he mumbled.

Gibbs just smiled and took one of Tony's hands, rubbing his thumb over the boy's knuckles. "You have to do more than just sit around and watch TV like this, don't you?" Gibbs asked.

"Mhm," Tony said. "Depends on how old I feel, but I can do lots."

"Feel old enough for Checkers?" Gibbs offered. "I have an old board around here somewhere, and much as I love cuddling you, I feel like tonight you probably want to do something, even if it's just sitting at the table and trying to crush me at a board game."

"Hm..." Tony thought about it. He did want to play a game, at least a little, but he was also exhausted. "Maybe in a bit? I'm just really tired right about now."

Gibbs nodded. "That's fine, kid. Take however much time you need. You come first when it comes to this."

"I've never come first before," Tony said in slight awe.

"Can't understand why; you're sweet," Gibbs said.

Tony drank his milk. "Dad never seemed to think so," he said softly. "I...I don't like to talk about it lots, but he wasn't ever really...there for me like I needed. And it wasn't just a couple times. He'd do this all the time. Pretend to care just long enough to impress some girl or another and then leave me alone when I became inconvenient."

Gibbs tutted. "Well, I can be here now, if you need."

"I know," Tony said with a smile. "Thanks."

"It helps me as much as it helps you," Gibbs shrugged off. "Really, it's nothing."

Tony appreciated that, Gibbs not making a big deal out of this. Tony got clingy sometimes, or too attached too quickly, but Gibbs didn't mind just sitting with him and making sure he was okay. They had some sort of unspoken deal when it came to this: that Tony was allowed to be himself, and Gibbs wasn't going to judge or tell anyone else. Tony didn't want to disrupt that by being as small as he really wanted to be, so he kept a small part of him adult, enough for him to talk or do something like play checkers or some other sort of board game.

With a yawn, Tony let go of the now mostly empty glass of chocolate milk. What was left was mostly chocolate sauce sludge, and not very appetizing.

"Tired?" Gibbs asked.

Tony nodded. Gibbs hummed. "It is Friday night, and it's been a long week. Do you want to go upstairs and sleep in the guest room? We can always play checkers some other time."

"Um..." Tony hesitated. He didn't want to take up more of Gibbs' time than absolutely necessary, but sleeping did sound nice. "If you're sure it's no trouble," he said.

"None at all," Gibbs said, standing up and taking the glass, putting it in the sink. "Let me show you where the bedroom is."

Tony nodded, following Gibbs up the stairs and into a room with blue-green walls and two twin size beds pushed together to look like a queen. Gibbs laughed. "Forgot they looked like that. Last person to sleep here wanted to make a fort out of two beds and I helped move them together so that all the pillows wouldn't topple off one bed. I can move them back, if you want."

"It's fine," Tony said. "It works."

And it really did. It didn't quite feel like Tony's place but that was all right, because it wasn't Tony's place. Even if he was used to only being little there, he could be little here as well, and he figured it was important to get used to that. If it really helped Gibbs too, then maybe he could feel less bad about taking Gibbs' time.

Tony walked forward and sat on one of the beds, thinking to himself. "I should bring pajamas over with me sometime," he said.

"Might be a good idea," Gibbs agreed. "I can keep a spare set of work clothes here for you as well, if you want."

"You mean it?" Tony asked.

Gibbs nodded. "I'll leave you to sleep, you must be exhausted. If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask."

Tony nodded and Gibbs left the room. Tony got under the covers, his mind whirring. Gibbs was serious about Tony coming over when he needed it if he was offering to keep a spare set of work clothes here for him. That should have been scary but it was oddly...reassuring. He couldn't understand why it was reassuring, but it was nonetheless.

Maybe he made a good choice coming over here again when he needed to. It certainly helped some for him, and Gibbs was calm, soothing, helpful...all the things he had hoped a caregiver could be.

That in and of itself had Tony thinking. A caregiver...was that what Gibbs was? It certainly looked like it, but he knew looks could be deceiving. He would need to investigate this more before he leapt to conclusions. Even so, a part of him was hoping that Gibbs really could do this often. That Tony could have someone in the world rooting for him, for once in his life. The thought hurt his heart, but not in the I'm alone in this ache, but in the I don't have to be alone sort of way, which was infinitely more confusing. Was he hurting because Gibbs would be there for him, or was he hurting because he thought he would inevitably push Gibbs away? Tony stared at the ceiling pondering these questions.

Thoughts swirled around Tony's head until he eventually fell asleep; oddly sound considering how much conflict he was experiencing internally.

The next morning Tony woke up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He didn't recognize where he was, and it took him a second to realize he had gone over to Gibbs' last night. Had he really fallen asleep here? DiNozzo was pulsing under the surface, ready to take over at a moment's notice if things proved to be tricky, if Gibbs proved to be difficult.

But all that happened when Tony went downstairs was Gibbs looking up from where he was setting up a checkers game and smiling. "Hey. I don't know if you're still up for checkers this morning, but it's a Saturday. No need to leave right away if you don't want to."

Tony knew then and there that he was doomed. He had jumped into the deep end of the pool without floaties, had jumped out of a plane with no parachute, had gone upriver without a paddle. Because Gibbs just sitting there, allowing Tony to be little if he needed it-and he sorely did need it-was everything he had ever wished for when he had thought about someone taking care of him.

He sat down and helped Gibbs set up the game of checkers and propped his head up on one hand, using the other to move the pieces when it was his turn. "Do we have anything for breakfast?" Tony asked casually.

"Probably cereal," Gibbs said, making his next move. "Does that work for you?"

Tony nodded as he made one of his pieces jump over Gibbs', and he gave a triumphant grin. "I just wanted to see if I needed to go home for breakfast or not, because I get hungry eventually."

"Understandable," Gibbs said simply. "But you don't have to worry. I have food enough for the both of us."

Tony nodded.

"Tony?" Gibbs asked.

Tony looked up and focused on Gibbs.

"When I say I don't mind this, I mean it, you know? This is new for me, but I know I like being able to help you. So don't be afraid to come over if you need to, okay?"

"Okay," Tony said.

Maybe he was in the deep end of the pool, or falling through the air, or upriver without a paddle. But that was okay.

Because Gibbs was right there with him, and he would make sure Tony didn't get hurt.