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Gibbs has flushed Pennsylvania from his mind -- lingering guilt over his father aside, that's a promise he knows he won't be able to keep any better than his wedding vows of late -- when he sees the package on DiNozzo's desk, return address STILLWATER.

His knee-jerk reaction is to ask, "What the hell is this, DiNozzo?" and let all his anger bleed out, but he can't help but remember how excited Tony had been, even to ask Jack one question, and Gibbs can admit he's a little stupid-indulgent when it comes to his senior field agent.  He's tried being meaner, but Tony just gets more manic, overly bright-eyed, even more eager to please, and the entire mileu is a little more than Gibbs can swallow.

He decides to ignore it, and when Tony comes in later that day, he doesn't mention it, either, just smiles down at the box and stuffs it into his backpack, creating strange angles and corners, and disappears with it at the end of the day without a single comment.  Gibbs thinks, "Well, hell," and decides to let it go for lack of anything better to do.

It doesn't come up again until a couple of months afterward, when out of the blue his father calls, leaves a message on his home answering machine in gruff tone that betrays barely-concealed worry.

"Leroy," the recording spools out, "sorry to bother.  I'm wondering if anything's gone on with Tony -- I haven't heard from him in near two weeks and it's not like him.  Anyway, take care, and don't screw up that car."

Gibbs stares at the machine for what feels like forever, halfway through taking off his jacket.  It still smells like the intensive care ward, where Tony's been drifting into and out of medicated sleep for the last two weeks after taking two bullets in a drug sting gone horribly wrong.  Gibbs had spent some time shouting at him about how he'd been on narcotics in Baltimore, for fucks sake! shouldn't he have a better sense of self-preservation? but it'd mostly been for naught since Tony had still been in his second of a total three surgeries, and McGee had looked too blood-soaked and out of it to respond.

He wonders how often Tony's been talking with his father -- what they've been talking about.  If, he can't help wondering, it was like Sharon all over, slipping tidbits of Gibbs' life into seemingly innocuous conversations, and he can't help but let a surge of fury at that melt into resignation.  Tony has never been just another field agent -- even Tony must know that by now, Gibbs thinks.

He picks up the phone, and when his father answers on the fourth ring -- it's the asscrack of dawn, almost four a.m. -- Gibbs says, "Hey, Dad," and his father says, "Hi, son."  It's harder than expected to scrape the news out of his throat, to say that Tony's hurt and maybe he won't be okay, and to hear the shock meted out in his father's silence.

The next three weeks are a literal hell, between the required inquiries at NCIS and trying not to beat four marines to death.  The director has him physically removed from the room after he flings one of them into the wall, but Gibbs can't imagine it's not warranted when none of them gets what they almost did, and how much hellfire Gibbs is going to bring down on their heads for hurting one of his own.  Abby cries a lot, and has gotten really good at pasting a rapid-fire smile on her face every time Tony swims into consciousness.

And he does, more and more frequently, and the early disconnect from reality melts all too quickly into abject misery.  Tony's an awful whiner when he's well; he's worse when he's sick because he goes mum and silently unhappy, face pale and drawn and asking, pitifully, when he'll be able to leave the hospital, get out of this stupid bed, pee on his own.

By the second month, during which the doctors are starting to make mildly optimistic noises about Tony being able to go home, Jack Gibbs is starting to call on daily intervals, demanding updates on his young friend, and finally, Gibbs loses his patience with the whole thing.

"Boss," Tony croaks, sounding hoarse, "what are you doing?"

Gibbs doesn't look up from where he's dialing an outside line from Tony's bedside phone.  "I'm putting myself out of my misery, DiNozzo, what's it look like?"

"It looks like you're running up my hospital bill dialing up a long distance number," Tony jokes.

"Save it, DiNozzo," Gibbs says, gently, and when he hears Jack Gibbs say, "Hello?" he passes over the receiver and tells Tony, "For you."

Tony looks puzzled for all of a minute before he accepts the phone, and when he hears Jack's voice, a smile breaks out over his face.  It's tired and shy and small, but when he says, "Hey, Mr. Gibbs," the happiness in his voice is evident and real, and Gibbs lets himself exhale for the first time in weeks -- sit down in the plastic chair next to Tony's bed and let his muscles go loose.

It's only a matter of time, then, Gibbs thinks, resigned, before his father hauls his shitkicker of a truck down from Pennsylvania.  He's not at all surprised that the day DiNozzo's released from the hospital, his father's in the parking lot of DiNozzo's apartment waiting when Gibbs drives up, Tony's sleeping face lined with discomfort, slumped over in the driver's side seat.

"Dad, what are you doing here?" Gibbs asks, drawing him away from the car and keeping a careful eye on his agent.  He's been sleeping less and less since they've been decreasing his pain meds, and even though Tony doesn't complain, Gibbs knows two knitting gunshot wounds isn't anything to sneeze at.  

His father keeps looking over Gibbs' shoulder to Tony, face tight with worry.  "I'm here to look in on Tony, that's what," Jack says, scolding.  "I know you -- you were just going to dump him in that probably crapheap apartment of his and let him fend for himself, weren't you?"

Gibbs has a trunk filled with groceries and Tony's prescriptions and a week's worth of clothes in the backseat, but hell if he's going to explain himself to his father at this age.

"What's it to you?" he asks, mostly to be a dick.

Jack scowls at him and turns back to his truck, and when he comes back, he's got a crate of groceries -- fresh from the general store, Gibbs recognizes immediately.

"If you're leaving, I can help take care of him," he says, stubborn.

"Oh for -- " Gibbs sighs, resigned.  "I'm not leaving him alone!"

From behind him, Gibbs hears Tony groan, "Boss?" and he tries (a) to ignore how his father's face softens at that and (b) the way his stomach tightens at that, the way he still aches all over at the obvious pain Tony's in.

"Jesus, Jethro," his father says, disapproving, and shoulders past him to the car, and Gibbs pivots and turns to watch Tony light up at the sight of Jack, and thinks, "oh, hell" in resignation all over again.  It's happening way too much these days, Gibbs admits to himself, and wishes Tony would stop nearly dying -- it'd be easier to be tougher on the guy if he wasn't always ripping Gibbs' heart out of his chest.

Tony's apartment looks the same as the last time Gibbs saw it -- the last time Gibbs drove him home from the hospital -- only dustier and more neglected, after long weeks of only ghosts and emptiness.  He gives his father a meaningful glare and takes the lead on steering a still-shaky DiNozzo toward his bedroom, where Tony creeps under his covers gratefully and doesn't make a single snotty comment as Gibbs pulls up the blankets, tucks him in.  DiNozzo's out by the time Gibbs turns off the lights, and he lets himself hover in the doorway a long minute watching Tony's labored breathing.

Gibbs hasn't quite washed the smell of blood off of his hands, or forgotten the way Tony had struggled underneath his palms and fought for oxygen as his left lung had decompressed, as he'd started to bleed out on the dirty floor of the storage unit, Gibbs' knees braced around his ribcage as Gibbs loomed over him.  

It was like war again, and for a few endless minutes, staring into Tony's eyes -- pupils blown, no longer there -- Gibbs had known Tony would die, and the enormity of grief he'd felt, the nausea had shocked him, set him back.  He's been numb, operating in limbo since; if Tony were well enough to notice, he'd be in a panic, killing himself trying to get Gibbs back to normal.

Jack's touch -- finally -- is what knocks him out of it, and when he turns his head, it's to his father's thoughtful expression.

"He's going to be fine, you know," Jack says.

"I know that," Gibbs tells him, irritated for no reason.  He thinks, stupidly, that of the Gibbs', Tony should be obligated to like him best, no matter what.

Jack pulls his hand away from Gibbs' shoulder, nods his head toward the kitchen.  "Come on," he says.  "Let's go make that boy of yours something to eat for when he wakes up."

Gibbs' immediate reaction should be, "oh shit!" but instead, all he says is, "He doesn't like scrambled eggs."

It makes his father smirk.

"I'll keep that in mind," Jack promises, and tugs him away from the doorway.
DiNozzo's kitchen is surprisingly intimidating, the cupboards and drawers filled with things Gibbs doesn't recognize and can't figure out how to use.  But by delegating responsibility to Jack, he manages to locate pots and pans and ordinary wooden spoons, and he makes the only thing he knows how: split pea soup.

Jack putters around, looking through DiNozzo's books, his movies, and eventually wanders around to throw more onions and tarragon and add more chicken stock to Gibbs' soup when he thinks Gibbs isn't watching.

"I'm starting to remember why I got the hell out of town," Gibbs mutters, slapping Jack's hand away from the black pepper.  For weeks after DiNozzo had come back from nearly dying of the plague -- Jesus Christ, Gibbs thinks, this happens way too much, and makes a note not to tell his father this -- a whiff of the stuff would start a coughing jag that would have everybody in the bullpen terrified.

"I'm starting to think that there're reasons you better stay the hell out," Jack rejoins, mulishly sticking some bread in the oven to toast.  "I can't imagine anybody in Stillwater's going to be too thrilled with your recent shenanigans."

Something hot surges in Gibbs' chest.  "Why?  Because of DiNozzo?" he snaps.

"I was talking about you coming in and arresting everybody, you jackass," Jack tells him off.  "Although I'm pretty sure you going queer isn't going to win you too many popularity votes, either."

Gibbs has a strong urge to cover his face with his hands and just lie down -- but his brain takes that to its logical conclusion and it takes him half a minute to stop thinking about what it'd be like, to wander into the sepia darkness of DiNozzo's bedroom and curl around him in the bed.

"Oh, hell, Leroy -- don't tell me you're ashamed of him," Jack says, the corners of his mouth turning down in actual disapproval.  "You know you owe that boy more than -- "

"Jack!" Gibbs barks, because he can't think of anything else to say, and they glower at each other for a bit until he hears shuffling in the doorway of the kitchen.

DiNozzo is leaning against the entryway to the kitchen, barefoot and bedheaded, and Gibbs surreptitiously glances at his watch to see it's nearly 3 p.m. -- that he and his father have spent almost four hours together without it blowing up into a fight or him running off the join the Marines.  It's a record.

"That smells awesome," DiNozzo says, nodding toward the stove and sniffing the air.  "Is that for me?"

"I was planning on just eating it by myself and makin' you watch," Jack offers, turning off the oven and retrieving the cookie sheet of toast.

Tony pouts.  "Aw -- I see where Gibbs gets it from now."

"He been starving you?" Jack asks, and Gibbs is about to shout, "Oh for *fuck's sake*, Jack!" when DiNozzo cocks his head, puzzled and says:

"Well -- no.  But he does get mad at me when I take too long for lunch."

Jack frowns at Gibbs.  "A boy needs to eat, son."

"He's thirty-six," Gibbs grinds out.  If his father doesn't stop calling DiNozzo his boy, Gibbs is pretty certain he's going to have a stroke.

"Which," his father shoots back, "is high time to be made an honest man."

"Wow," Tony says mildly.  "I just missed a whole, whole long conversation while I was asleep in there, didn't I?"

Gibbs sighs and looks for a bowl.  "Yeah, Tony, you did."

DiNozzo eats with a gusto, though not as much as Gibbs would like, and he bravely ignores the way Jack rips DiNozzo's bread into little pieces for him and how Tony moves, still stiff and hurt, afraid to stretch his arms out.  By the time he's most of the way through a dish of soup, his eyes are drooping again, and Gibbs clears his throat and says, "Come on, DiNozzo," and shuffles him back to bed, ignoring Tony's complaints about being babied.

His dad's face when he comes out of Tony's bedroom, shutting the door, is telling, and Gibbs says, pre-emptively, "I don't want to talk about this."

Jack's opinion about Gibbs not wanting to talk about the Tony situation is plain, and grows plainer as the night lengthens and stretches in the awkward near-silence of a TV set on low sound.  Gibbs is about to ask his father when he's going to go home already, only to turn away from his perusal of Tony's backlog of Newsweek to find his dad asleep -- stretched out on the couch, the very definition of the immovable object.

Gibbs could sleep on the floor, but he's old enough to know he's old enough to pay for that sort of cowardice, and he sighs and goes to Tony's bedroom.

Tony's small and huddled on the right side of the bed, curled around and protecting his ribs, and to see him like this makes something in Gibbs tighten uncomfortably.  He doesn't wish things were different, exactly, just that more was allowed, that he knew the geography of this -- whatever it is.  He knows better than to try and compare his marriages, but these promises, whatever he's promised Tony in word in and deed and eye-rolls, is different than declarations he's made at an alter and with a ring.  He wishes he knew what he was doing here.

When Gibbs wakes up, he can tell it's late, sun streaming through DiNozzo's bedroom window and coloring the room bright.  He feels heavy and drugged, warm to the tips of his fingers, and when he shifts his head he sees Tony's face, creased from the pillowcase and flushed pink, near enough that Gibbs can feel his breath.  They're tangled together, a mess of limbs underneath the heavy comforters -- and before he can ascribe blame to Tony's octopus-like tendencies, he realizes it's him who navigated across the bed in his sleep, that they're crowded up together on Tony's side of the mattress, curled together in a particularly strong puddle of sunlight.

I should have closed the curtains last night, ends up being all Gibbs thinks before the door to the bedroom opens and his father sticks his head in, saying:

"Jethro, get your damn lazy ass out of bed -- and stop crushing your boy."

Gibbs says, "Dad -- do you mind?" and has a hideous, vivid, immediate flashback to high school, and the time Jackson walked in on him cleaning the pipes just as Tony moans a little and buries his head deeper into Gibbs's neck, DiNozzo's mouth soft against his skin.

"Jesus Christ," Jack mutters, rolling his eyes.  "And you still won't make an honest man of him."

Tony asks, "What?" but it comes out more or less like, "Burgh?" so Gibbs hushes him and starts to untangle himself, putting a settling hand on Tony's shoulder as he gets up.  Gibbs spares a deep and hateful glare for his father before stumbling into the shower, and by the time he gets out half an hour later, scrubbing the water out of his hair with one of DiNozzo's overpriced towels, his father's staked out by the front door -- looking wary and holding Tony's gun.

"Jesus -- Dad!" Gibbs hisses, making a lunge for the weapon and stopping himself when Jack waves an arresting hand.

"Listen!" Jack instructs, and when Gibbs does, he hears metal clicking, somebody picking at the lock, and all the hair on the back of his neck rises up.

He relieves his father of DiNozzo's gun with a warning look, and pushing Jack further from the door, he hears from the other side, "Jesus, McGee!  Who taught you how to pick a lock?  Tony?  Get away from there!" in a very familiar voice.

"You guys!" Gibbs hears Abby hiss.  "Keep it down!  We don't want to wake up Tony!"

"And we wouldn't," Ziva shoots back, "if McGeek here would give me the lockpick!"

Jack gives Gibbs a pitying look, and Gibbs represses the urge to sigh long and low, and reaches for the doorknob.  He hears McGee say, "Hey!" and the sound of Ziva's knuckles meeting his flesh just as he pulls the door open to find Abby, Ziva and McGee squatting around DiNozzo's front door -- an enormous cellophane-wrapped fruit-and-chocolate basket behind them, a small stuffed hippo tucked into a corner of it.

"Gibbs!" Abby cheers, and spying Jack, adds, "Jack!"

"Miss Scuito," Jack says, and giving a still-stunned-looking McGee and Ziva a jaundiced look, he asks, "Cat got your tongue?"

"Cat?" Ziva asks, as McGee jumps up and shouts, "Boss!"

When Gibbs opens DiNozzo's bedroom door, he sees Tony's eyelids flutter, the skin under his lashes still bruised and purple -- too tired. DiNozzo turns a little, tipping his head toward the new streak of light coming from the doorway, and he murmurs, "Gibbs?"

He swallows hard and says, "Hey, DiNozzo -- you got visitors."

After that, it's clusterfuck, obviously, and within ten minutes all his agents and Abby are in Tony's bed like a puppypile, each showing Tony their sickbed offering. DiNozzo's delighted with the video game McGee brings him, claims to love the stuffed hippo, and has already tucked the knife from Ziva under his pillow.

"Most people bring soup, Ziva," Tony chides.

"I did not have time to make my chicken and matzo ball soup," Ziva explained. "Also, you should aim to be injured less, which will be better served by the dagger.""

McGee makes a hangdog expression. "I tried to get her to bring you a card instead," he says. "She wouldn't listen to me."

Tony smiles at both of them, presses a kiss to Abby's temple as she giggles, and Gibbs can't help but to think about how good they look together. Ziva and Tony are both improbably beautiful and McGee's grudging affection for DiNozzo is always fun to see in action -- it would make more sense than whatever's happening between Gibbs and Tony.

"Oh for crap's sake, son," he hears Jack say, and he feels a big hand jerking him out of the doorway, down the hallway, and into the living room. Jack looks irate. "Now you wipe that look off your face right now."

Gibbs thinks his father's clearly showing signs of dementia. "What look?"

"That look like maybe he'd do better with one of them," Jack says, nodding toward the bedroom. "I mean, hell, son -- obviously both those girls are gorgeous, nothing like your mug -- "

Gibbs makes a face. "Thank you."

" -- and that McGee kid apparently is a milionaire, but you've already scared off three wives, you're down to men now, son, and that one's as good as you're going to do," Jack concludes, sounding for all the world like he thinks he's not talking crazy talk.

All Gibbs can say is, "What?"

"I didn't raise my son to get the milk and not buy the cow, Jethro," Jack warns him.

Gibbs hears himself yelling, "Tony is not a cow!"

There's an uncomfortable silence suddenly, and then Tony calls out, sounding even more tired than before, "Wait -- what?"

Jack suddenly looked panicked, glancing over Gibbs' shoulders. "Jesus Christ, son! Didn't you learn anything from all those times you were married?"

"Are you calling me fat?" Tony calls again, sounding high-pitched and distressed.

"Gibbs!" Abby scolds through the doorway. "Tony's not fat! It's all muscle!"

"I don't know," McGee needles, sounding gleeful. "He could stand to lose some weight."

"Probie!" Tony barks.

Ziva laughs, "He is right, Tony -- you are getting sex handles around the middle," and Tony groans and says, "Love handles -- love handles, Ziva -- dear God!"

After he sputters for a while, Gibbs figures there's only one way this can end: tragedy.

"All right, that's it," Gibbs declares, "visiting hours over -- everybody out of Tony's bed."

Ziva and McGee creep off the mattress reluctantly, but Abby only wraps her arms more tightly around Tony's neck and pouts, "Aw -- Gibbs!  Come on!  Tony's probably half-crazy being stuck here with you this whole time and his mattress is so comfortable!"

"I know, Abs -- doesn't mean you get to sleep on it, now off," Gibbs instructs, and before he can even regret it, her eyes are widening and her mouth is drawing up into a gotcha smile.

"How would you know how comfortable Tony's bed is?" Abby purrs.

McGee makes a choking noise and Ziva yelps something in Hebrew.  Gibbs' eyes flicker over to Tony, who is staring at him in surprise, pink melting across his face -- it's the best he's looked in weeks and Gibbs forgives the personal humiliation in favor of happiness at a sign of recovery.

Gibbs could say something to cut Abby off at the pass, or just shrug this off like any of a thousand little innuendos, but he likes the look of stunned, wondering happiness on Tony's face, and maybe Jack's right anyway.  Tony's may not be a cow, but Gibbs isn't averse to keeping him anyway.

"That, Abby," Gibbs says finally, "is none of your business."  He points at the living room, where he can feel Jack's approval radiating like a steam heater.  "Now -- get out."

Tony says, "Boss -- " as soon as the others are out the door, and Gibbs hushes him with a glance.  There's a lot they probably need to talk about here, but Gibbs has a feeling he's not being presumptuous, or maybe it's just the way Tony looks equal parts scared and hopeful.

"I know, Tony," Gibbs says, and closes his hand over Tony's ankle, warm and alive underneath the blankets.  "We'll talk about this when you get better."

"I'm better right now," Tony volunteers, beaming.

"You're falling asleep sitting there talking to me, DiNozzo," Gibbs chides him.  

Tony looks worried for a moment, and Gibbs adds, "I play for keeps, DiNozzo -- I need to know you're not stoned out of your gourd when we talk."

"I'm not the one who's been divorced three times," Tony pouts.

"Later," Gibbs promises, and Tony, appeased or too tired to argue, asks:

"Do you really mean it?"

Gibbs tries to clamp down on a strange feeling of shyness that's creeping through him, watching Tony rumpled and warm in the bed, and Gibbs tries not to imagine all the other ways Tony could end up like that.  It's not just the simmering anticipation of spreading DiNozzo underneath, holding his wrists down to the mattress and finally getting to kiss the words off of Tony's smart mouth -- it's the everything after, the everything else.  Tony looks like a promise Gibbs has been dying to make.

"I do," Gibbs tells him, honest, and it feels nothing like the other three times at all.