Jethro hit the speakerphone button on his cordless before slipping on his belt and jacket.
"Gibbs, it's Kate. Just thought I'd let you know Tony's called in sick again."
Jethro bent down beside his bed and unlocked the safe that housed his gun and ammo. He could hear the concern in his colleague's voice but couldn't quite fathom why she was calling him at home to tell him about DiNozzo. "Spit it out, Kate. What couldn't wait 'til I got to the office?"
"Sorry. Didn't mean to disturb you."
Slipping his weapon into its holster and clipping it to his belt, Jethro rose to his feet and let out a grunt of frustration when he found the coffee mug that he had brought to bed last night was empty. "It's a little late for an apology, Kate. Just tell me what's wrong." Kate's sigh of exasperation was clearly audible, and he chose to ignore it. "Kate!"
The woman's reply was quick, crisp and to the point, and Jethro could almost imagine her saluting as she gave it. "This is the fourth day, sir," she said.
Jethro stopped collecting the various mugs littering his bedroom and glared at the phone. "Four days? Are you sure about that? I thought it was only two."
"No, sir. Tony was also out the two days you and Director Morrow were up on the Hill."
Pausing long enough to enter the bathroom and dump all the mugs in the sink, Jethro reflected on the last time he had seen the ex-cop. It was the evening before he’d left to go to D.C., and as far as he could recall, DiNozzo had looked and acted just fine.
Too fine, in fact.
His new lover had distracted him in such a way that he’d barely had enough time to pack his briefcase and catch a couple of hours of sleep before the alarm went off at 0400. Not to mention, his well-fucked ass was none too happy about the bumpy ride into D.C. and the hard chair it was forced to occupy during the endless round of meetings.
"I'll be top dog next time, DiNozzo," he whispered, a predatory smile appearing briefly on his face.
Despite his fierce adherence to Rule Number Twelve since joining NCIS, Jethro had finally succumbed to the hunger that had plagued him from the moment Anthony DiNozzo was assigned to his team. The young man with the boyish charm and quick wit had wormed his way into Jethro's heart, and after two years of total abstinence, his resolve crumbled during an all-nighter with his team recently.
One finished canvasing the crime scene Tony had sneakily arranged for Kate to travel back with Ducky. He then proceeded to flirt openly with Jethro during the return trip to HQ, leaving no doubt as to his interest in his superior. Jethro had valiantly held onto his control but once faced with pouting lips and puppy dog ‘shame you into anything I want’ eyes, all bets were off. Slamming on the brakes which nearly sent Tony and his devastatingly movie-star handsome face (his description, not Jethro’s) into the front windshield, Jethro had laid one on the man, thus nullifying Rule Number Twelve. The very second the case was solved, he had taken Tony to bed and claimed him as his own.
That had been four weeks ago, and because their workload had increased tenfold in the past two weeks, not to mention the mandatory meetings with the Brass, Jethro had, unfortunately, spent very little downtime with Tony.
He gazed at his reflection in the mirror and frowned. Why in the hell hadn't Tony contacted him personally about being sick? Was it because, he, himself, hadn't taken the time to check in with his new lover - and if he had shown some interest in the younger man's well-being, would it have been Tony's voice on the phone and not Kate's?
"Gibbs, are you there?"
Exiting the bathroom, he collected his wallet, badge and cellphone and slipped them into the pockets of his jacket and slacks. "What illness does DiNozzo claim to be suffering with?"
"That's just it. He hasn't said a word about what's wrong with him. Just says he’s not coming in."
Jethro found his curiosity aroused by the tone of Kate's voice. "What aren't you telling me?"
"He sounds awful," Kate confessed. "And I don't mean awful as in deathly ill awful. He sounds like he's heartsick."
"Heartsick? What the hell does that mean?" Locating his new Palm Pilot, Jethro checked his schedule before asking his next question, "And you're telling me this because?" A feeling of unease settled down upon him, and he instantly knew he was not going to like Kate's answer.
"Gibbs, I'm a profiler. I've been trained to notice things."
Running his hand through his graying hair, Jethro took a seat on the edge of his bed and stared blindly at the bare wall in front of him. "Will it be necessary for me to ask that you keep your observations on this particular matter private?"
It wasn't so much for himself that he insisted upon Kate's silence - he had put in his time with the military and could easily retire if need be so. Tony was his main concern, and he would do whatever was necessary to guarantee the agent’s reputation remain unblemished.
"Kate, do I have your word that you'll . . ."
"What you do behind closed doors is your business," Kate interrupted him. "I called because I'm concerned about Tony, and thought, that since you're his supervisor, you might want to check up on him."
"Watch it, Agent Todd." Pinching the bridge of his nose, Jethro inhaled deeply before ending the conversation with a brusque, "I'll stop by his apartment on my way in to work. Thanks."
Leaning forward, he snapped off the cordless and took a moment to again review the day's schedule. If he skipped his morning stop for coffee, he could run by DiNozzo's, spend a few minutes with him and still get to work on time. Glancing down at himself, Jethro was surprised to feel a certain heat building in his groin at the thought of seeing his lover.
Screw being on time. He was definitely going to need some java.
Savoring the last sip of his coffee, Jethro stepped up to DiNozzo's front door and closely examined the brass door knocker. From the way it was hanging by only one screw, it was obvious that someone had seriously tried to yank it off the door. Dangling from the handle itself was a torn piece of faded ribbon and Jethro had trouble deciphering its original color.
"Wonder what idiot did this?" he questioned the closed door as he banged hard on its surface. Minutes passed and suddenly he grew overly concerned. The visible vandalism, along with the prolonged length of time it was taking DiNozzo to answer the door threw his senses into high alert and he, without thinking, reached for his gun. He was easing it free of its holster when the door swung open and Tony staggered out.
"Boss? You’re here! Why are you here?” Tony took on a look of confusion. “Something wrong?"
"I do believe that's a question I should be asking you."
Jethro frowned as he took in DiNozzo's disheveled appearance - the uncombed hair, the stubble-covered cheeks, the bloodshot eyes, not to mention the distinctive odor of alcohol that clung to his sloppily-clad physique. Anger surpassed concern, and he took a step forward, crowding Tony slightly while demanding, "What the hell is going on, DiNozzo? Kate reported you called in sick again. Doesn't look like you're sick to me. More like you're nursing a hangover."
Snatching the crushed coffee cup from his hand, Tony mimicked him and invaded his personal space, appearing more than ready to dispute the accusations but something caused him to rethink his decision. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he turned away and walked back inside his apartment.
More than slightly aggravated, Jethro was seriously contemplating leaving and putting his insolent lover on report but the reflection of pain in Tony's eyes pulled him up short. He had seen that look before. Hell, he had worn that look himself in the past on far too many occasions and knew exactly what it meant.
Tony was in mourning, and Jethro needed to know the reason why.
Cautiously entering the poorly lit apartment, he masked his surprise when he found Tony sprawled on the couch with a bottle of Jack Daniels firmly gripped in one hand and a framed photograph clutched in the other. Littering the floor in front of him were not only his empty Starbucks coffee cup but also several pizza boxes and at least a six pack’s worth of empty beer bottles. To put it mildly, the room was a mess - except for the glass and chrome metal coffee table sitting in front of the couch. Centered perfectly on its clear surface was a newspaper and the remnants of a faded bow. One look at the bow and Jethro knew exactly why the front door knocker was in the shape it was.
Ignoring Tony for the moment, he hunkered down and concentrated his attention on the newspaper, quickly scanning the headlines. The lead article and accompanying photo was about a local fireman that had been killed in action in the war in Iraq. The man's face looked vaguely familiar and Jethro scoured his memory for a clue. This fireman, this - Jethro checked the article for a name - this Jeff Stanfield had something to do with Tony, and for one reason or another his mind was refusing to cooperate on the how and why.
Tony solved the mystery with five simple words.
"Jeff and I were lovers."
Instantly solidifying in his mind was the image of Tony and Jeff sitting together holding hands. They had been in the audience of people watching a movie ex-wife number three had dragged him to in an attempt to rekindle a flame that had been dead and buried the day he signed his name to the divorce papers. Jethro remembered it hadn't been too long after that fortuitous sighting that Tony, while riding shotgun with him during a long road trip, had, without prompting, confessed his sexuality. Tony had also felt compelled, for some reason, to inform Jethro that he and Jeff had ended their relationship; and even though Jethro wasn't quite sure why the two men had parted ways, he did remember feeling a tad bit relieved that Tony was free and clear of any emotional attachments.
As if reading his thoughts, Tony filled in the blanks. "Jeff was Army Reserve and just couldn't deal with being military and being gay. I guess you could say he went back in the closet after a run in with a group of queer bashing Jarheads, no offense to you, Boss." Taking a long draw on the whiskey bottle, he kept his gaze pinned to the photograph in his hand. "We stayed good friends despite everything and when his unit got called up, I was there for him, seeing him off and all."
The ex-cop gave a brittle laugh before holding out the whiskey bottle to Jethro. "Wanna hear something ironic?" Tony frowned when his offer of libation was declined. Shrugging, he took another swallow and continued on somewhat bemusedly, "Jeff met someone while over in Iraq. Some guy named Lance from Houston." He looked up and shook his head. "Don'tcha think that's fucking ironic?"
Even though he couldn't see the tears, Jethro could definitely hear them in Tony's voice, and he quickly moved to the couch, taking a seat beside his young lover and gently gripping his knee. "When was the last time you communicated with Jeff?"
Tony laid his head on the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. "That's just it . . . ." Dropping the photograph on the cushion beside him, he tucked the whiskey bottle between his legs and turned his tortured gaze on Jethro. "That's just it. I haven't talked to him. Got all wrapped up in you, in us and . . . ." Tony sought shelter, and Jethro was more than happy to pull him into an embrace. "Dear God forgive me but . . . I forgot him, Jethro. I forgot all about him being over there."
Jethro tangled his fingers in Tony's hair and protectively cradled his head, tucking it beneath his chin. He could feel the man's anguish as if it were his own, and he desperately wished he knew the right words to say that would ease Tony's emotional torment. Words, the kind of words that would heal a wounded heart, were not his forte, and he wisely kept his mouth shut. Instead, he comforted Tony with his touch - holding him close, pressing soft kisses to his forehead and rubbing a hand up and down his back in what he hoped was a soothing manner.
"I didn't mean to forget," Tony confessed in a hushed voice heavy with self-condemnation. "I was just so happy about you finally succumbing to my charms and admitting you loved me that time just slipped away. And now, now it's too late."
Tony's fingers bit into his biceps, and Jethro grunted slightly, knowing without a doubt that he would be sporting a recognizable set of bruises by late afternoon. "Ease up on that grip, DiNozzo."
Without hesitation, Tony did as he was instructed but went one step further and pulled completely away. He returned to his corner of the couch and sought a different type of comfort, a Southern type of comfort by the name of Jack Daniels. Wiping his mouth clean after taking a hearty gulp, he mumbled, "Sorry, Boss. Didn't mean to dump all that shit on ya. I'll go get cleaned up and be into work in a jiffy."
Jethro watched Tony stumble into the bathroom, and he cursed every step that took his lover away from him. No wonder his three wives had left him - he was such an asshole when it came to dealing with people's emotions. Tony was hurting, torn up with grief and all he could do was complain about being held too tight.
Hauling his butt off the couch, Jethro followed after Tony, stopping just short of the bathroom door and listening to the quiet sobbing going on inside. The sound was nearly his undoing, and without a second thought to the consequences, he stripped off his clothes, opened the door and stepped inside the shower.
Jethro pulled Tony into his arms and held the weeping man in a gentle embrace, once again, taking the coward's way out and allowing his touch to speak the words his vocabulary could not supply. He kept a hold on Tony until the water began to turn lukewarm, and with a soft kiss to his lips, hurriedly bathed his limp body. Cutting off the water, he then carefully guided his silent companion out of the shower and efficiently dried the two of them off.
"Let's get you to bed," he said huskily.
Tony's grief stricken gaze was beginning to take its toll, and Jethro felt compelled to stay with his lover, offering whatever solace he could, no matter how long it took. Tony was his priority now - not the job. Jethro grinned, waiting for the lightening to strike. WORK was taking a back seat; he could only imagine the number of former co-workers rolling over in their graves.
His grin deteriorated into a frown. Graves. Thank God his brain had locked down his mouth. Not exactly the most appropriate thought to be having at this moment. B for bastard. Yeah, that was him to a T.
Shaking his head in self condemnation, Jethro tucked Tony under the covers before detouring back into the hallway. He grabbed his pants and retrieved his cellphone, leaving a brief message with Kate's voice mail, informing her that both he and Tony would be out until further notice.
"Let her profile that," he said as he tossed his cell on the pile of clothes on the floor. Hurrying back into the bedroom, Jethro slid in beside Tony and spent the next few minutes kissing and caressing the exhausted man's chilled torso. A quiet lassitude was about to overtake him when he heard Tony speak.
"Boss, would you . . . I mean . . . do you think it'd be . . . ." Tony hid his face in the crook of Jethro’s neck and shoulder. "Forget it," he mumbled.
Jethro hated the way Tony called him 'Boss' when they were alone but now was not the time to correct him. Sliding his fingers into Tony's damp hair, he exerted just enough pressure to make him to look up. "Talk to me, DiNozzo. I'm not going anywhere."
Intertwining their hands together, Tony pressed a kiss to his chest and nervously asked, "Would you mind . . . would you mind if I told you about Jeff? He was really a great guy, and I think even you would've liked him."
"Is that so?"
Jethro gripped Tony's hand and tugged until he was lying partially on top of him. A feeling of utter peace took hold of his heart when Tony settled his weight down upon him, and Jethro couldn't help but share a satisfied grin with the lazily spinning ceiling fan above his head. This was where he belonged, here with Tony, learning everything he could about the intriguing young man he had come to love.
"Go ahead, Tony, I've got all day. Tell me about Jeff."
Snuggling as close as possible, Tony let out a contented sigh and said quietly, "Jeff loved pickles. Now, I know you're asking yourself what's so interesting about that. Have you ever tried eating one slathered with strawberry jam? Let me tell you something, it's . . . ."