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Jethro answered the phone on the second ring with a terse “Gibbs.” The laugh on the other end startled him. “You answer all your calls like they’re from Dispatch, don’t you, Boss?”

 

Jethro rolled his eyes. “I’m not your boss, DiNozzo.”

 

“So you keep saying,” Tony replied cheerfully—he’d had a good day, then. On a bad day, he’d have said, “I know, it’s a habit, okay?”

 

Jethro let himself smile, since Tony couldn’t see it. “You call for a reason, or just to bug me?”

 

Tony chuckled. “Well, Gibbs, now that you mention it, I just got pizza and I may have bought too much...” Jethro could hear the idiotic grin in his voice.

 

Jethro snorted. “There’s no such thing as too much pizza as far as your stomach’s concerned, DiNozzo.”

 

Tony gave a theatrical groan. “Gibbs, do you want pizza or not?”

 

Jethro grinned. “Bring beer,” he said.

 

Tony said, “On it, Boss,” brightly, and hung up before Jethro could remind Tony that he wasn’t the boss any longer—on purpose, obviously, since Tony wasn’t generally given to abruptly ending phone calls. Jethro shook his head. Idiot.

 

He stayed there for several beats until he realized he was grinning fondly down at his cellphone, and then tossed it onto the workbench with a growl. He wasn’t going to turn into an idiot over this. Just because Tony was coming over more and more often, frequently with no particular reason evident, it didn’t mean Jethro could afford to turn into a goddamned girl over him. He sighed and went back to the carving he’d been doing.  It would eventually end up hung off a nail in the living room, a square of carved wood that served no purpose whatsoever other than being made.

 

Maybe he’d told Abby the truth, and he really had been ready for retirement. He was going bloody soft.

 

***

 

Tony eventually turned up forty minutes later, armed with pizza, a six-pack of beer, and a wide grin.

 

Jethro beckoned him into the kitchen with a jerk of his head, and Tony followed him in. His hair was damp—he’d had time to shower and change. The faded jeans weren’t something he’d keep at work, so he’d changed at home, and it was only seven, so he’d left work on time, or sooner.

 

“Good day?” Jethro asked casually, snagging the beer from Tony  and dumping it in the fridge to cool down a little.

 

Tony did some ridiculous victory dance that should have been at odds with the silver at his temples, but somehow wasn’t. “Six hours, Gibbs,” he said, practically bouncing. “We closed a case in six hours!” He finished with an honest-to-god twirl before falling sideways into a chair. How old did the guy think he was?

 

Jethro grinned. His own personal record was two and a half hours, but that had been more luck than any investigative brilliance on anybody’s part. “Wilson’s shaping up well, I take it,” he said, taking the chair opposite Tony’s across the kitchen table.

 

“Yup,” Tony said happily. “Probie’s taken him under his wing, sort of.”

 

Jethro nodded. “How’s that going?” he asked, before he could help himself. It had been his team, after all—still felt like it was, in a way.

 

Tony raised his eyebrows in inquiry.

 

“McGee,” Jethro elaborated. “How’s he doing as Senior Field Agent?”

 

Tony smiled and sprawled back in the chair he was sitting on, hoisting one elbow onto the table. “Good,” he said, “really good,” and it made something warm in Jethro to hear the heavy satisfaction in his voice. McGee had been Tony’s probie, as Tony himself had been Jethro’s, and Jethro, in turn, had been Franks’. Sometimes patterns repeating themselves was a good thing.

 

He nodded, because there was no need to say anything to that.

 

Tony flipped the top on one of the pizza boxes open. “Man, I’m starving,” he said, and even that was cheerful. Jesus. He snagged a slice and devoured it with gusto. Jethro, inured by long exposure to the bottomless pit that was DiNozzo’s stomach, didn’t so much as roll his eyes, and got up to grab the beer from the fridge.

 

Dinner with DiNozzo. When had this become normal, something that he did once or twice a week? It had probably started with the goddamned hazelnut creamer in his fridge, with Jethro actually hinting that he might not mind seeing DiNozzo around every now and then. You didn’t give DiNozzo a hint like that unless you meant it.

 

Of course, Jethro had meant it, but that was beside the point. What was he doing? So Tony seemed to like spending time with him. It didn’t mean anything more than... he’d always held Tony at arm’s length. Of course Tony got a kick out of spending time like this, as equals. In any case, Tony had always just plain liked him, just like he’d always just plain liked Tony. It didn’t mean anything.

 

Right. And maybe one day you’ll actually listen to that instead of just parroting the words.

 

“Boss?”

 

Oh, great. Now he was spacing out with Tony in the goddamned room. The guy was a cop, for god’s sake, and a good one. At some point he was going to start looking and making all the right conclusions.

 

Jethro mentally shook himself, hard, and turned back to the table, a beer bottle in each hand.

 

Tony peered up at him from his comfortable sprawl. “You okay, boss?”

 

Jethro put all his irritation into a glare. “Yeah. And I’m not—”

 

“Not my boss, right, I got that,” Tony agreed easily. “I was at the retirement party and everything.” He gave Jethro an unusually serious look. “Is that it? Going stir-crazy from all the free time?”

 

Jethro sighed and sat down. A year ago, maybe, he would have growled at Tony, pushed him away, dismissed the concern, slapped him down. But things had changed, hadn’t they?

 

“It’s not that,” he said finally. “Just—it’ll pass.” He shrugged, knowing it to be true. It had jarred him five months ago when it had started, but he’d got used to it, to having Tony around occasionally, to enjoying his company and to Tony enjoying his.

 

Bah. What had he been complaining about, again? He pulled himself together, and raised his beer. “It’ll pass,” he repeated, and saw the snap in Tony’s eyes that said he’d been convinced.

 

“Okay,” Tony said. He raised his own beer, clinking it against Jethro’s before taking a long, satisfied swig. He lowered the bottle, and pointed it at Jethro. “But if you need to, you know, not to talk, because you don’t talk, but uh, to be silent at me or whatever it is you do—” he smiled lightly to take any sting out of the words—“you’ll tell me, right?”

 

And damn it, Jethro liked this. The easy assurance, the confidence that Jethro wouldn’t snap his head off, the automatic assumption that Tony had some sort of right to be told if Jethro needed something—it was nothing like Tony’s almost manic need to please him when they’d been on the job.

 

He let his mouth curve into a slight smile. “I’ll tell you, DiNozzo,” he confirmed, and sealed the deal with a long draw on his beer.

 

Tony smiled at him with his eyes (his mouth was occupied with a ridiculous-sized bite of pizza).

 

Jethro really liked this.

 

Damn it.

 

***

 

“Hey, Gibbs.”

 

“Hmm?” Jethro looked sideways down at Tony. The other man was slouched down against the back of the sofa, his head level with Jethro’s shoulder. From three beers.

 

Really good day, Jethro thought with amusement.

 

“Hey, Gibbs.”

 

“I’m listening, DiNozzo.”

 

“No, you weren’t.” Tony rolled his head against the back of the sofa until he could look Jethro in the face. He was grinning, a mischievous little gotcha grin.

 

“Listening now, DiNozzo,” Jethro said patiently. He shifted his feet on the coffee table.

 

When nothing was forthcoming, he prompted, “Tony?”

 

“Huh? Oh, yeah! You ever play basketball, Gibbs?”

 

“Huh?” Jethro turned a little more to squint down at Tony. He was more or less used to Tony going off at tangents like this, even when he was sober, but this one was...interesting.

 

“Y’know, basketball, Boss.”

 

“I’m not your boss,” Jethro corrected automatically. He sighed. “May have played a few times when I was a kid. Why?”

 

Tony shrugged. “No reason. Just, you know, if you did, we could play sometime.”

 

Jethro blinked down at him, starting to smile. “How drunk are you, Tony?”

 

“M’not drunk!” Tony protested. He looked up at Jethro, slightly loopy smile belying his words. “I bet you’d be fun to shoot hoops with, that’s all.”

 

Jethro laughed softly. Aw, hell. He loved Tony like this, not drunk but a little buzzed, loose-limbed, saying any damn thing that came into his head, all easy warmth and affection.“You know what?” he said, before he’d really thought about it. “Done. You let me know when.” He grinned slightly down at Tony. “Might not be up to your standard, though.”

 

Tony looked up at him inquiringly, with such a little-boy expression that Jethro couldn’t resist the urge to ruffle his hair. “Little fooling around in the backyard doesn’t really compare to varsity basketball, DiNozzo.”

 

Tony’s face brightened. “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll show you the ropes.” He turned back to face the far wall they’d both been staring at, eyes closed, a little smile playing about his mouth. “You and me and a basketball court. You wait, it’ll be awesome.”

 

Jethro couldn’t help laughing. “Awesome, DiNozzo?” His hand, left to its own devices, lingered in Tony’s hair, soft strands weaving through his fingers. Maybe he wasn’t exactly sober either, but right now it didn’t bother him too much. It was just DiNozzo.

 

“You bet.” Tony seemed to have said everything he wanted to on the subject of basketball. He gave a little contented sigh. Jethro left his hand where it was.

 

There was a long moment of silence—how long, Jethro didn’t really know. He’d had three beers, too, the same as Tony.

 

“Hey, Gibbs.”

 

“Yeah, DiNozzo.”

 

“Feels nice.”

 

Jethro froze, suddenly stone cold sober. Shit, shit, shit.

 

Tony made an annoyed noise. “I didn’t say stop.”

 

Jethro gave Tony a very cautious look out of the corner of one eye, not daring to turn and look properly. Tony was slumped against the sofa, eyes closed, the picture of contentment, his socked feet maybe a foot away from Jethro’s on the coffee table. Even as Jethro watched, he frowned a little and pushed his head against Jethro’s hand. “Mmm,” he said. “Don’t stop.”

 

Jethro let out a slow breath and went back to combing his fingers through Tony’s hair. Well, he had permission now. What the hell was he going to do with it?

 

Tony turned his head a bit, slowly, and opened his eyes. He looked a little more alert, so maybe the buzz was wearing off for him, too. “Hey, Boss,” he said, “you ever have a cat?”

 

“A cat?” Jethro repeated, most of his brain occupied with the feel of soft hair against his hand. “No. And I’m not your boss.”

 

“No,” Tony agreed. “For one thing, I don’t think my boss would ever have played with my hair.”

 

Oh. “Tony,” Jethro sighed. Let it go.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said. “I get it now, you know?”

 

“Get what?” Even now, with whatever the hell this was sitting in the one-foot space between them on the sofa—and why had they been sitting that close together to begin with?—it was still... easy, still just DiNozzo, no threat here. Jethro dared to turn his torso a little to meet Tony’s gaze properly. “Get what?” he repeated, when Tony didn’t answer.

 

Tony’s eyes were flitting over Jethro’s face, lighting on his eyes, his nose, his mouth, and back again. “Why you get so annoyed when I call you ‘Boss’,” he said softly.

 

“Yeah?” Jethro asked, equally softly.

 

Tony smiled, just enough to crinkle the slowly-emerging crows’ feet around his eyes. “Yeah,” he responded. “Rule number twelve, right?”

 

Jethro felt himself starting to smile a little as well. Fifteen years. Was nothing safe from this infuriating man? “Yeah,” he admitted finally. “I couldn’t—I’ve never played favorites, DiNozzo. Wasn’t going to start with you.” He shrugged. “But I’m not your boss anymore.”

 

“So now you can have dinner with me,” Tony said, sounding too amused for his own good. “Rule number twelve no longer applies, and that’s all you were going to do about it?”

 

Jethro grinned, and pulled at Tony’s hair a little. “Do I need to remind you who’s playing with whose hair here?” he asked, knowing he was talking nonsense and not caring.

 

Talking of nonsense... “Where do cats come in?” he asked, while his recalcitrant hand varied the stroking with gentle scratching against Tony’s scalp.

 

Tony closed his eyes. “Mmm, that feels good, too.” He opened them again, and they were full of the familiar mischief. “Cats, Bo—Gibbs. They like being petted.”

Well, his hand was already right there. Tony should have seen it coming.

 

“Ow!” Tony gave him an aggrieved glance. “For the record, no cat I’ve ever met would have liked that.”

 

“You’re not a cat, DiNozzo. Stop talking nonsense.”

 

Tony gave him a completely unrepentent grin, and sidled closer. “On it, Boss.”

 

“DiNozzo!”

 

“Sorry. Told you, s’a habit.”

 

There was another long silence.

 

“Gibbs.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“I’m really, really turned on right now.”

 

Jethro turned to look down at Tony. Tony met his gaze steadily. His breath was a little short.

 

Jethro licked his lips automatically, and watched Tony follow the movement. Okay. Make or break time.

 

Jethro stopped stroking Tony’s hair and said, softly, “C’mere.”

 

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Come where, Gibbs?” It was a fair point. He was already kind of snuggled up at Jethro’s side.

 

Not breaking their gaze, Jethro reached out, curled his free hand around Tony’s far arm, and tugged gently.

 

His reward for not looking away was the blush that flared along Tony’s cheekbones. Tony licked his lips. Jethro watched him.

 

Almost in slow motion, Tony lifted himself by degrees away from the back of the sofa, never looking away, and moved until he had one knee on the sofa and the other foot on the floor. He reached out, braced himself with one hand on the armrest next to Jethro, lifted his other knee onto the sofa, and lowered himself slowly into Jethro’s lap. Jethro would have been prepared to swear neither of them even blinked.

 

Tony finally came to rest, welcome weight on Jethro’s thighs. He had his hands on either side of Jethro’s head, resting on the back of the sofa. His breath was coming much shorter now.

 

“Gibbs,” he said, barely a breath.

 

“Jethro.”

 

Tony’s lip curled up slightly for a moment. “Finally on first name terms.” He blinked. “Well, middle name.”

 

Any other moment, Jethro would have laughed at that. Right now, though...

 

“Come here, Tony,” he said, his voice soft and husky and breathless and scared in a way he didn’t recognise or understand. He was both more and less scared than he’d ever been in his life.

 

“Where else would I be?” Any other moment, that would have been glib. Tony wasn’t glib now. He was staring at Jethro, his eyes wide and serious and intense, his face more open than Jethro had ever seen him.

 

“There you are,” Jethro whispered. He lifted a hand to Tony’s head again, pushing it into his hair and exerting a gentle pressure.

 

Tony came willingly. On your six, Boss.

 

A bare breath away from Jethro’s mouth, he stopped. “Wait.”

 

Jethro could feel the puff of breath that made the word. “What?”

 

“Before we—you should know. I want... I want a lot of things.” Tony closed his eyes briefly, and opened them again. The expression on his face made Jethro want to gather him into a hug. He didn’t move.

 

Jethro tightened his hand in Tony’s hair briefly. “Tell me.”

 

When nothing came, he repeated, “Tell me, Tony,” and curled his other arm around Tony’s back. It wasn’t subtle, but he didn’t want to be. I’ve got you, Tony.

 

Tony sighed. At that distance, it fluttered the hair on Jethro’s forehead.

 

“I want to shoot hoops with you,” he said finally, and Jethro blinked.

 

“Hoops?” he repeated, gearing up for a sort-of rant on why Tony was bringing up basketball at a time like this—oh. Basketball. Tony’s first love, his first ticket to freedom from his father and for a long time, the only dream he’d had.

 

“Go on,” he urged softly.

 

Tony ducked his head in embarrassment, and Jethro gave in to an impulse he’d always felt when Tony did that, and brushed a kiss against his temple.

 

Tony lifted his head at that. He looked at Jethro in silence for a couple of beats, and then he started talking.

 

“I want to shoot hoops with you,” he said softly, “and laugh at you when you get frustrated because you haven’t played a lot of basketball; I want to share pizzas with you; I want to go watch ballgames on my days off; I—” he stopped abruptly, perhaps second-guessing the decision to say anything, and Jethro whispered “Go on,” his heart pounding.

 

Tony drew in a shaky breath, let it out explosively (the hair on Jethro’s forehead stirred again) and swallowed. Jethro watched his Adam’s apple bob and marveled that he was close enough to hear the slight click in Tony’s throat at the swallow.

 

Tony licked his lips. “I want to go to work with hickeys and not have people ask me who my date was, because everyone knows,” he said softly. Jethro’s breath caught. He hadn’t been expecting that. “Tony,” he whispered, feeling suddenly overwhelmed. Tony wanted—at work? God. He leaned forward, unable to help himself, and pressed his lips to the base of Tony’s throat. He stayed for a moment, breathing in the smell of beer and pizza sauce and soap and sweat, and then whispered “Go on,” against the hot skin.

 

“I want you to laugh at me,” Tony said. His voice was shaking now. “I want... I want you to laugh with me. I—I spent years trying to make you laugh, and I want it for real now.” In lieu of a response, Jethro nipped at Tony’s throat, first lightly and then more firmly. Tony’s whole body jerked in response, and they both made soft noises at the movement.

 

Tony wasn’t done. “I want a reason to look forward to days off. I want a reason not to go in to work at two in the morning.” Jethro kissed his way up Tony’s throat, nuzzling behind his ear. He twisted the hand in Tony’s hair, pulled him in closer, and slid his other hand under Tony’s t-shirt.

 

Tony released a long, shaky sigh when Jethro encountered the warm, smooth skin of his back. His hands left the sofa back to slide up and down Jethro’s sides, and Jethro didn’t know what drove him more crazy: the way Tony’s hands moved on him, slow and possessive, or the fact that Tony’s breath was hitching now. He curled his arm around Tony’s waist and tugged him in closer: Tony came almost helplessly, biting his lip and keening in his throat at the increased contact of their throbbing, aching cocks.

 

“I—I want to make out on the couch and come in my pants because we—” his breath hitched as Jethro bit gently at his earlobe. Tony made a ‘haaa’ noise and slowly, deliberately began to circle his hips in a hot, inexorable grind. They were both shaking now.

 

“Tony,” Jethro managed, through a throat that felt too dry, in contrast to the sweat running down his face. 

 

Tony huffed a soft laugh and pulled back infinitesimally so that they could see each other’s faces. “Gibbs,” he returned. He leaned in, in, in, stopped with his lips just barely touching Jethro’s, and said, slowly, softly, deliberately, “Jethro.” And then he kissed him.

 

God. Oh, god.

 

Distantly, Jethro was aware of the low, groaning, aching sound leaving his throat, and Tony’s answering cry. He buried his face against Tony’s neck and just... hung on.

 

Tony. Tony. Tony.

 

It felt like a long, long time later that he was able to lift his head and meet Tony’s eyes. He managed to quirk a smile. “Looks like you got your wish,” he said. He finally pried his hands away from Tony’s hair and ass, respectively, and cupped Tony’s face.

 

Tony blinked slowly at him. He was still breathing short, panting breaths, but his eyes were steady. Confident. Jethro swallowed at the faith and unshakeable loyalty in those eyes. Fifteen years.

“I don’t have your way with words,” he said finally. “But if I could, I—”

 

Tony shook his head. “You don’t have to,” he said, and there it was again, in his voice: that core of confidence. He lifted his hands and framed Jethro’s face in turn. “I know.”

 

Then, because he was Tony, his face quirked into a smirk and he said, “I wasn’t hoping for much more that a ‘likewise’ or a grunt or—”

 

His sentence went unfinished as Jethro tumbled him unceremoniously onto the couch, dissolving into laughter that Jethro finally managed to silence with an insistent kiss. When he’d shut Tony up to his satisfaction, he propped himself up on his elbows and just looked. Tony let him, despite a little uncomfortable squirming.

 

Finally Jethro said, evenly, “I love you, too.” He watched Tony’s eyes widen, barely suppressing a triumphant smirk. “Rule eight,” he added, for good measure.

 

Tony rolled his eyes. “Never assume anything. Got it, Boss.”

 

“I’m not your boss, DiNozzo!”

 

Tony’s grin was the wide, unrepentent and slightly manic one that had always made Jethro want to taste it. Since he no longer had any reason not to, he did.

 

fin