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Gibbs' mind raced as he chugged another big sip of his coffee, trying to come up with an answer. His first impulse had been to stand up and shout: "Hell, no! He's mine! He's not going anywhere but with me!", but long years had taught him to stifle his impulses (much to his chagrin - where would they be now if he hadn't?), and sipping his coffee gave him the time he needed to formulate a more appropriate response, no matter how much he hated it. Everyone knew about Gibbs and his coffee, and no one - except maybe Tony - had figured out yet that it was a delaying tactic, something he used when he was momentarily out of his depth. Swallowing the liquid, Gibbs nodded at Vance.

"Seems like a good opportunity for him."

"It is, Gibbs. He meshed rather well with the team in LA last time, and Hetty can really use his undercover skills for a while. He'd also be learning a lot."

"He'd lead the team?"

"Callen would still have point on the lead, but with DiNozzo there, they'd be able to split up more for the smaller operations, let DiNozzo lead the second team. It would be good for his leadership skills."

Gibbs nodded again, not that he really thought Tony needed any practice at that. Tony had led the MCRT in his absence - absences (he winced) - remarkably, and he knew Tony had been ready for his own team for years now. But Tony hadn't seemed to want that. Not that Gibbs had ever really asked. When had he ever asked what Tony really wanted?

Sighing to himself, Gibbs looked down to his now empty coffee cup, then pretended to take another sip to throw Leon off.

"Alright then. When does Hetty need him?"

"As soon as possible, Gibbs."

"And my team?"

"I'm confident the three of you can handle what might be thrown your way. Have McGee start to fill in as Senior Agent. It would only be for a few weeks, so you won't miss DiNozzo that much."

Gibbs contained the snort that threatened to escape his throat at that statement.

"Fine. A few weeks. And then I get him back, right?"

Vance stared at the man across his desk for a few moments, wondering why Gibbs was so adamant about this, but he had learned over the years that it was just better not to go against him.

"Of course. Once DiNozzo is done in LA, you'll get him back."

Though secretly, Vance thought that LA might be a good fit for DiNozzo, and hoped that once the man had gotten a taste of leading his own undercover team for a while, he'd decide he liked it, and would want to stay there. Then DiNozzo would be Hetty's problem, and not directly under Vance's scrutiny all the time here in DC.

*****

Tony sat on his couch, peeling at the label of his beer bottle unconsciously. A movie was playing in the background, but he wasn't paying attention to it. Instead, his mind was swirling around the talk he'd had with Vance that afternoon. Return to LA. A chance to lead his own Special Operations team, go undercover most of the time. Even in the short time he'd spent there on his last visit, and the unfortunate circumstances of losing Rio (not his fault!), he'd come to appreciate the team. Tony had soon felt respect for Callen and Sam, the way they handled things and each other, and Kensi, well, she'd been like a little sister to him almost immediately, like Abby had. And Tony had most definitely enjoyed trading barbs with Deeks, and Hetty was like a diminutive Gibbs, sometimes a little scary and gruff, but with a heart of gold. He smirked at himself. Gibbs with a heart of gold. Never let anyone know that he'd thought that.

In truth, things between him and Gibbs were strained, had been for a while now. Tony had been truly shocked when Gibbs had questioned Tony still being on his team, had questioned Tony's motives for being at NCIS. Maybe this was the break they both needed. Maybe this was the opportunity he needed to show what he could do without Gibbs. And impress Gibbs in the mean time.

*****

Gibbs growled as he threw the sander across his basement, wincing when he heard it hit the basement wall. Sending Tony off on assignment, again. That never sat well with him. But he knew Tony deserved it, deserved this chance, and even when his heart protested against it with all it had, maybe it was for the better. Vance seemed to be coming around to Tony's talents, and it was only fair. The way they had met that first time, right after the Jenny-fiasco, had set the wrong tone, and Gibbs knew that Tony deserved better than to have Vance question his every move. Also, LA was a good fit for Tony. He had proven over the years that he could do undercover better than anyone on Gibbs' team, and to lead a team like that would look good on his resume. And Gibbs had been struggling with himself about Tony's place on his team anyway. Not that he wanted Tony to go away, go anywhere, no way, but Gibbs had an obligation to look to the future. He'd promised Kelly that. This would be good for Tony. But still his heart broke.

*****

They had a team dinner the night before Tony left, a few days later, and even Gibbs joined. Abby was clinging to Tony desperately, trying to commandeer all his attention, but while Tony seemed to have no objection to her arm around his neck practically all night, he made plenty of time for the others. At last, all a little more inebriated than they really should be, Tony detached himself from Abby's clinging and stood to make a speech.

"Now, McWannaBeTony," - McGee smirked as he was expected to do - "when you get into trouble with my tasks, you know my email address, right. Don't hesitate. You wanna get it right the first time with Gibbs, so let me know if you need any help. Other than that, keep doing what you're doing, 'cause you're doing great."

McGee actually blushed a little, and smiled at Tony.

"Now Bish… Innocent, little Bish… Don't let the bad guys…" - he gestured to Gibbs and McGee then - "…get to you. You know your stuff. Use it, but use it wisely, my little Padawan. Don't piss them off."

They all laughed at that point, and Bishop stood to give Tony an impromptu kiss to the cheek in thanks.

"Autopsy Gremlin? Never change. Take care of them, as you have of me."

Jimmy stood to give Tony a quick hug, leading to cleared throats and choked grumbles, but they could all see the unlikely friendship between the two.

"Ducky, Duckman, Duckster…"

"Anthony…!"

Ducky's warning sobered Tony a little, but his smile remained.

"Ducky. Enlighten them all with your findings and stories, and don't take no for an answer. See to them for me, will you?"

Clinking his glass to Tony's, Ducky nodded.

"Abbs…"

Immediately, Tony was inundated in another fierce hug.

"Hug them. Tease them. Baffle them. Be your wonderful self. Help them, okay?"

She nodded emphatically, her face still buried into his neck. When finally released, Tony turned to the last occupant of the table.

"Gibbs…?"

"Christ, Tony. You're only gonna be gone for a couple of weeks. This is not your major farewell speech!"

The glare from across the table nearly broke his heart, but Tony smiled through it anyway.

"Of course."

Tony raised his glass again, resignation in his eyes.

"Gibbs."

Then he drained his glass and slammed it down onto the table. He turned to the others, smiling apologetically.

"I have a really early flight tomorrow, and I still have to pack. I'll see you all soon, okay!"

And they all stared after him as Tony left the restaurant, hailed a cab, and disappeared from their sight.

*****

Tony received Abby's text as he was waiting in the terminal the next morning, wishing him a good trip and demanding he stay in touch and be back soon.

Ducky phoned him that evening, asking how he was settling in, and regaling Tony with one of his stories about the many times Ducky had found himself in unfamiliar territory.

Bishop emailed him the next day, asking him to let her know how he was doing, and if there was anything she could do to help.

Jimmy called that evening, reporting on how strained things were, and Tony laughed as he assured his friend that all would be well.

Tony actually smiled when he received a message from McGee the next day, asking him about some forms Gibbs wanted him to fill out that he'd never heard of. Tony hid his glee as he answered, pointing McGee to his folder of forms that McGee had never discovered, already half filled out and ready for whatever Gibbs needed.

They all kept in touch, some more than others, and Tony missed them with every answer he sent.

He never heard from Gibbs.

*****

Seven months. Seven months Tony had been in LA, and it was killing Gibbs. Every time he saw Tony through the feed in MTAC, every time Gibbs had to listen to Vance raving about Tony's successes in LA, every time Hetty called to tell him what an asset Tony was, every time he heard his team whisper softly about a message from Tony before he strode into the bullpen, Gibbs felt a little more lost. Seven months, and it was killing him.

But this was for Tony, for Tony's own good, for Tony to develop and grow and earn the respect he should have had all these years! But… Tony wasn't here, wasn't with Gibbs, wasn't sitting on his basement stairs and watching him do whatever he was doing there at the moment.

Tony was living the life, doing what he was good at, doing what he was born for. He was playing, being other people, doing good. And Gibbs hated every second of it.

Then the call came.

*****

"Yeah. Gibbs."

"Boss…"

"Tony??"

"Screwed up, Boss. Something went wrong."

Ignoring the looks from Bishop and McGee from across the bullpen, and not caring that he looked a little silly clutching his cell to one ear and grabbing his landline with the other, Gibbs talked.

"Tell me what's going on. Where are you? What do you need?"

Getting Vance on his landline, Gibbs quickly spoke in the eerie silence on his cell.

"Leon, got Tony on the other line. Something's wrong."

"Tony? Tony! Answer me!"

"Gibbs? What's happening?"

"Tony? Answer me!"

"Boss…?"

It was a strange and confusing few minutes before they finally sorted out that Tony's latest undercover op had blown up in his face. Tony had gotten shot and cut off from his team, couldn't remember who to call except Gibbs' number when he finally came to a pay phone, and Vance had gotten Hetty patched in so she could instruct her team to extract Tony from wherever he was.

Gibbs' team all huddled together in the bullpen while they waited for news.

Finally, the call came. Callen and Sam, Kensi and Deeks had gotten Tony back to safety, the op he was on was closed because Tony had gotten the evidence they needed before he had gotten into trouble and then got himself out despite being wounded, and Tony was in LA County General in surgery to have a bullet removed from his chest. It was not life-threatening, but he had lost a lot of blood, and would be on leave for at least two weeks of recovery before returning to desk duty.

They all sighed in relief and hugged each other, Gibbs standing there, watching his team express their happiness at Tony's survival, and he nearly choked. He had to get out of there.

*****

The next evening, Gibbs frowned in his basement and paused his sanding when he heard tired footsteps cross his hall and living room to his kitchen, then follow through to his basement stairs and down them. He stared up. A vision appeared in his doorway, and he had trouble breathing. Sitting down on a sawhorse with a mug of bourbon, Gibbs watched the vision descend the stairs and settle on the third one from the bottom, beer in hand, sling around his left arm.

There was silence for such a long time, but Gibbs didn't mind, he was just drinking in the vision he'd had so many times - minus the sling - of the man on his basement steps.

*****

"I was losing myself. Even more than usual."

Silence.

"I loved it and I hated it."

More silence.

"I missed my family."

Finally, Gibbs spoke, softly.

"Will you come back, Tony? Will you come back to me?"

Staring up into the man's eyes, Tony sought the true meaning of those words in the blue oceans that haunted his dreams. He nodded.

"Yes."

Very seriously, Gibbs pulled Tony to him, a slight hug at first, careful of his injuries. Then, Gibbs pulled back a little so he could caress Tony's lips with his own. When Tony pulled back, it drew a remorseful moan from both of them. Gibbs nearly choked on the words, but got them out anyway.

"Why would you?"

"Because I missed you. Because it doesn't mean anything when I'm not with you. Because I need to be there, see you every day. Because no matter how much good we did in LA, it never meant as much to me as it did when you smiled at me. Because I can't relax if I don't know that I can't come here to basement, boat, bourbon, after. Because I need you. And I want you. Have always wanted you. Nothing but you."

Tony saw Gibbs squirm on his sawhorse, very uncomfortable, and reaching for words he just could grasp at that moment. Tony smiled. He understood. He knew this man, he loved him, and he knew that this man loved him too. Gibbs just couldn't say it, not now, not after this. But Tony knew. He smiled.

"Well, in all honesty, I missed my suits. LA is no place for a good, sharp suit, Jethro. I've been wearing jeans for months, and while they are comfortable, my ass looks far better in a nice, sharp Armani suit. And my shoes! I missed my shoes! Great shoes! An ties! no one in LA knows how to wear a tie the correct way! Except Hetty, of course, but she's like you. She appreciates a man who dresses well, even if she doesn't care to admit…"

Tony was silenced by Gibbs grabbing his shirt and pulling him close, so close there was hardly any air between them. When Gibbs' lips pressed to his again, Tony let it happen, gave in and sighed in happiness.

"Jethro…?"

"I love your suits."

Tony softly quirked one corner of his lips.

"I love your ties, and your shoes."

Tony's smile grew a little wider.

"There is no one in the country who loves you in your suits and ties and shoes more than I do."

Tony grinned unrepentantly.

"Yeah?"

"Oh, yeah."

Finding himself on the receiving end of another devouring and completely mind-blowing kiss, Tony could only smile softly.

"By the way…"

Tony blinked, his eyes glazed with passion. He hummed.

"I know I'm gonna love you out of those suits too…"