"What do I have to do to get an invitation to dinner?" The question Tony had asked Ziva earlier repeated on a loop in his head as he sat, dumb, at his desk. He hadn't even been able to put on a nonchalant expression when confronted with McGee's smug glee at his own inclusion in the party, while Tony had been snubbed. Initially, Tony'd learnt that Palmer (Palmer?!?!) and McGee had had Ziva cook for them. It hadn't been apparent at that point that it had been a bigger get-together. Then Abby had come into the bull pen, and started talking about what a good cook Ziva was. Et tu Abs? But the final nail in the crucifixion of Tony's heart was Gibbs naming the "slow roasted meat stew" they'd had. It "wasn't bad," he added, with that little half smile of his and a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. Not that Tony would know how bad it wasn't. What he did know however, was that there had been a "team" dinner last night, and not only had he not been invited, but the invitees seemed to be genuinely enjoying rubbing his nose in that fact. Suddenly, Ziva's, "I am sorry I did not invite you to dinner Tony," took on a whole new meaning, and no longer rang true. And he sure as Hell had no desire to take her up on her offer to cook for him tonight. Too little, too late, Miss Mossad!
Tony was nothing is not self aware. He knew that Gibbs' lack of reaction, to his absence at Ziva's, hurt more than anyone else's because of the more than platonic feelings Tony'd been harboring for his boss for quite some time now. The attraction he'd first felt, on that cold, hard, alley tarmac in Baltimore, had never waned, had in fact just grown stronger. And it had become complicated by feelings. Tony hadn't really done feelings in a relationship since Wendy. Gibbs though, his passion for justice, his compassion for victims and the all round intensity with which he seemed to do and feel everything, drew Tony's loyalty and affection like no one he'd had in his life before. Of course, it didn't hurt that the older man was basically sex on legs. Tony's bent (pun absolutely intended) didn't normally run to men, though he wasn't entirely inexperienced, but Gibbs' compact, fit body and heated gaze had had Tony hot and bothered on many occasions. Tony had finally admitted to himself though that it wasn't purely physical. He desired the man, yes, but more than that, he wanted his love and respect. And more than that again, he needed to be free to love him in return, to show that he loved him.
This deliberate exclusion by everyone, but especially Gibbs, hurt. A lot. It fed in to Tony's feelings of insecurity. Were the whole team in on it? Did they know he would not be there? Did anyone question his absence? Or (and shit, he wasn't sure that he actually wanted to know the answer to this next question) had they been glad he was missing, encouraged Ziva not to ask him? A team dinner, with the second longest serving member (not counting Abby, since she wasn't in the field), the 2IC no less, not there. He realized that that said everything he needed to know about his place on this team. Fuck! He had to get out of the office, before they saw his heart break, right there, in front of them. He'd already shown McBackstabber too much of his surprise in his expression. He wasn't going to let him see his desolation as well.
He waited for a moment, while he slowly and deliberately smoothed out his expression, then he stood, smiled at McGee and gave him an exaggerated wink,
"Well, some of us have to leave you with the paperwork for now. Gunshot wound to rest up, you know. It was quite the fire fight,"
he grinned, referring to his earlier description of how he got the injury. To hear him, it had been as if he and Ziva were Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas at the O. K. Corral. (He never could decide if he was Burt or Kirk!) Or maybe Michael Caine and Stanley Baker in Zulu (He was definitely Caine!) Either way, the allusion to his movie trivia of earlier did exactly what he wanted it to, what it had done previously, it got McGee to lose his focus on Tony and look away in disgruntled annoyance, muttering again that Ziva had said he'd just scratched his arm on a packing case. (Had she really said that, when she knew that a bullet had caused it? How had he not realized the depth of disdain that his newest team mate felt for him?) While McGee was distracted, Tony was able to walk to the elevator, as if he had all the time in the world, not do what he wanted, which was to run as fast as he could to get away from them all, and instead of waiting for it, to slip down the stairs. He didn't want to draw attention to the fact that he was leaving. He needn't have worried. The others were too busy complimenting Wonder Cook on her culinary prowess to notice that he'd gone, and Ziva herself was so wrapped up in being the centre of such positive attention that she missed the fact that he was gone before she was able to drive him home to cook for him, as she'd offered.
And wasn't that always the way? He got what he wanted. No one stopped him from leaving. But he was gutted instead of happy. No one even noticed him leaving. Wasn't that just the icing on the cake? He'd got to his car before he looked down at his hurt right wing and realized that driving wasn't going to be easy with his arm in a sling. He called a cab instead. His car could just sit there.
Having finally gotten away from the people who'd hurt his feeling more than he'd thought they were possibly capable of, he swallowed around the lump in his throat until it, and the burning behind his eyes, felt as if they were receding. He was closer actual tears than he'd been for years. It was disturbing. DiNozzos didn't cry. He needed to sit down, organize his thoughts, regroup. As much as he was in touch with his emotions, and knew how he felt about things (even if his way of dealing with them was to bundle them away in the back of his psyche somewhere) he wasn't used to being so upset over an office "prank," even such a crappy one. He needed to work out how he felt about this group of people now, especially the ones who had his back in the field every day. Trusting someone with his physical safety was not the same as trusting them with his heart, so he needed to decide if he could still work with them, if he could trust that they wouldn't endanger his life, even if they didn't like him very much. Was he ever glad now that he'd been careful just how much of himself he'd given away at work! Tony was no fool. He knew he was good at his job. He may have left a few posts after a relatively short period of time, but he had done well at each job before he had left. He also accepted that while his methods weren't to everybody's taste, they got results. He generally liked the fact that his annoying persona made people under estimate his brain power. Could he go in to work every day, act as if nothing had changed, and just give up on the idea of socializing with any of his colleagues. He decided to try.
Gibbs noticed DiNozzo was gone, and had clearly left with surprisingly little fanfare. He wondered at that. Tony was usually so energetic and visible in all his activity in the office. It wasn't like the man to just walk out, especially when he had an injury he could milk.
"Where's DiNozzo?" he barked, looking around.
"He was just here two minutes ago, acting out some stupid gun fight from a movie," sniped McGee. "Seriously Ziva, he's just going to keep telling us that a bullet caused that scratch on his arm. He's such a drama queen."
"What are you talking about McGee?" Gibbs looked irritated. "He was hit by a ricocheting bullet in the storage container. What did he say happened?"
"Ermm...that's what he said Boss," McGee paused, looking guilty now at having disbelieved Tony, "But Ziva said...."
Gibbs turned to the woman, eyes narrowed. He didn't say anything, just starred at her, while she looked back at him defiantly.
"What?" she finally demanded. "He was such a baby, crying about getting shot. It's not as if the bullet even really hit him. It ...foraged him." There was a brief, puzzled pause as they tried to decipher what she meant.
"Grazed, you mean grazed him," it finally came to McGee.
"But cows graze, do they not?" She asked, confused. No one commented on that.
"Ziva, why would you lie about that? I didn't believe him when he was telling me, and now he's gone off by himself with a bullet wound! That's gotta hurt!"
Was he over reacting? Tony decided to withhold judgment. He was so tempted to just up sticks and move on before he had a chance to change his mind. It would save him from getting hurt further. Why would he want to stay where he so obviously wasn't wanted? Instead though, in a move ruled by rational thought rather than emotion, he decided to stay and observe. He'd watch his interactions with everyone with a new detachment, trying to ascertain how they really felt about him. He'd already boxed up his feelings for his boss, and assigned them to the dusty recesses of a heart rarely used. Surely he could do that with the hurt of having no friends too?
This detachment took the form of a less jovial DiNozzo. He was pleasant and polite, professionalism personified. But all of a sudden, he no longer quoted movies, showed no interest in snacking on candy bars at his desk and made no flirtatious remarks and threw no salacious glances at any of the attractive women who happened by his desk on numerous occasions on any given day. For McGee, there was a distinct lack of McNicknames, Ziva's vocabulary and grammar went unchecked and his focus was so good that not once did Gibbs have to head smack him. He didn't sleep in any morning, left later in the evening than everyone other than Gibbs, and was fully caught up on his paperwork (as well as most of Gibbs'.) In short, his team were completely unsettled by his behaviour and no amount of prying or teasing brought about what everyone thought of as the "real" Tony.
After a week, he'd come to a few conclusions. Gibbs? Tony reckoned Gibbs liked him well enough, in a so-long-as-he-got-the-job-done-and-didn't-get-himself-or-anyone-else-killed sort of way. Appreciated him professionally (most of the time) but on a personal level, had more of an benign disinterest in him than any real active regard. Abby was probably the one who came closest to genuinely liking him for who he was, or as much of himself as he'd shown her. She could handle his hyper activity, but then wasn't freaked out if he got quiet on her. And she actually seemed to enjoy the times they spent together, watching movies or bowling. Yet even she hadn't told him about the dinner, and had joined in the teasing afterwards. She was currently really busy with her own social life and Tony's part it had sort of dropped off. She didn't like him any less than she had before (he thought) just didn't have as much time for him. McGee was like his snarky younger brother, just as Cait had been like his sister. He and McGee loved to hate each other, but there was no real malice there.
It was when he came to Ziva that he couldn't discern any genuine positively. She flirted with him, but it was more as a show of power, or a way to keep him within her sphere of influence. She wasn't any more attracted to him than he was to her. While he didn't want a passive partner (or he wouldn't want Gibbs the way he did), Ziva was just too aggressive, had too many sharp edges for him. And he had enough family issues of his own without taking on hers. They both had problems with wanting Daddy's approval. He concluded that she'd left him out of the dinner party to show him his place. She was building her power base, getting in with everyone else, while undermining his position in the affections of the team. To his surprise, after seven days of having no personal contact with anyone in the bull pen, and definitely none out of it, he discovered that he really didn't care about her games. If she wanted to usurp his position in the personal lives of the rest of his co-workers (he hadn't really thought of them as his team this week) then she was welcome to it. If they were that easily won over, they weren't worth his regret. Not sure that he really meant that, Tony ended his lonely week by leaving the office and deciding that he needed to get a pizza, get very drunk and have a pity party for one, before deciding how to deal with the rest of his career with a group of people who were so indifferent to his presence in there lives.
A week of detachment became two, then three. A month went by and Tony hadn't spoken about anything personal in the office with anyone. After initially finding it a little difficult to remain so aloof, he found himself almost slipping in to an undercover style persona. Once he thought about it in those terms, he found it easier. He was seriously considering though, whether he should have a change of career. This work place was becoming toxic to him.
After a week, Gibbs didn't know what to do about the new DiNozzo. And after a month? He was starting to wonder if he'd joined a cult and needed deprogramming! Truth be told, he missed the levity that the "real" Tony had habitually brought into the bull pen. He could always make Gibbs crack a (well hidden) smile at some irreverent impersonation or juvenile comment. The fact that Tony had never been put off by the abrasiveness of Gibbs' personality had endeared him to the older man early in their working relationship. He was irrepressible in the face of Gibbs' aggressive brand of over-caffeinated grumpiness. Tony's ability to diffuse Gibbs' reactions to non NCIS personnel at crime scenes, to charm witnesses and to work harder than any other person he'd ever had on his team, were only a few of Gibbs' reasons for liking working with Tony. The younger man had long since worked his way under Gibbs' skin, and basically, unbeknownst to Gibbs himself for a year or two, into the former marine's heart. It had taken Jethro a while to admit to himself that he was in love with Tony. It had been something of a shock to realize that his six foot two, green eyed, definitely non-female, senior agent meant more to him than all of his previous red heads put together, wives included, barring Shannon. Given the slow build up of his feelings, and the equally slow realization of them, he knew that this was serious for him. When he fell properly, he fell hard, but with no reason to believe that Tony was open to a relationship with a man in general, or him in particular, it was easy for Jethro to remain Gibbs, the bastard boss, and to quote Rule 12 to himself ad nauseam.
Why DiNozzo? What was so damned enticing about him? He was charming, to be sure, and incredibly attractive, gorgeous even, his sparkling eyes, normally so full of humour (where had that gone? And why?) so expressive, his tall frame, trim and muscular, that had all drawn Gibbs in, but it was his loyalty, sense of fun and quick brain that held Gibbs' attention. He was damn careful not to let it show though, the head slaps a good way to keep both himself and Tony in check, while allowing a moment of contact. There had been no contact at all this month. It was bothering Gibbs. How could he miss it so much, when there had been so little in the first place? And what was he going to do about it? Could he do anything without giving away how he felt about his agent? And how much was he prepared to do? Even to visit Tony's apartment would be out of character for him, but it was starting to look as if that was what he'd have to do.
It wasn't just Gibbs who was missing the lighter work place atmosphere. Most members of the team had made one remark or another to him about Tony acting out of character. Abby was beside herself. Her attempts, over the past month, to get Tony to go out for dinner, or even for a quick drink after work had been rebuffed. She went to Gibbs after the third failed offer in as many weeks, and demanded that he interrogate Tony, as only he could, and intimidate him into acting "more like himself," in her words. McGee told her that he had been rebuffed too. Not that they were as likely to do extracurricular stuff together, but his offer of after work pizza was politely turned down. Tony always had some previous plan made. Ducky made mention, in passing, that "Young Anthony seemed a tad withdrawn these days." It didn't go unnoticed that Ziva had said nothing on the subject. The supervisory agent thought about what he should say to Tony, how he should approach him. What could he say? After all, he could hardly upbraid him for behaving too professionally at a crime scene, for anticipating when the truck needed gassed or for no longer flirting with the witnesses, except when it came to getting just a little more information out of them. So in true Gibbs fashion, he just acted. He waited until Tony was leaving the office at the end of the day and made sure he was in the elevator at the same time. And hit the emergency stop button.
Tony was only half taken by surprise. He'd slipped in to his own world, in his head, once he'd said he was though for the day. But he'd been waiting for Gibbs to approach him at some point. He knew that Abby had definitely noticed his changed behaviour, as she was becoming a little more insistent when she invited him out. Of course, it would only be a matter of time then before she went to Gibbs. Gibbs would never have approached him of his own volition, Tony thought bitterly. Not interested in Tony himself, so much as Abby's comfort zone, which was currently out of whack because of Tony. He shook his head almost imperceptibly at himself. He was getting maudlin and self pitying. He'd thought he was over that behaviour. Time to see what Gibbs had to say.
Nothing. That was what Gibbs said initially. Just pushed the button, then stood, looking at DiNozzo. He wondered what had been going through DiNozzo's head, to make him shake it, but he didn't ask. Remaining silent had always worked before. Say nothing and DiNozzo was sure to fill in the gaps in conversation. But that was the old DiNozzo. This one was still and silent. No fidgeting, beating out an imaginary tune with his fingers, and nothing to say. When there had been almost five minutes of pressure laden silence, Tony looked at Gibbs, eyebrow raised inquiringly, then moved to press the button. Gibbs stopped him.
"What's with you?"
"Pardon?" Tony sounded polite but puzzled.
"Don't mess with me DiNozzo. You know what I'm talking about. This super agent thing you've got going this last month. No jokes, movies, flirting? What are you doing?" Tony was surprised that Gibbs sounded concerned rather than annoyed. He'd expected anger at having to address the issue.
"Sorry Gibbs, you've lost me. It almost sounds like you're questioning me for being too professional. Am I misunderstanding you here?" Gibbs sort of growled in frustration.
"It's not your professionalism that has me worried DiNozzo. You can be as professional as the best of them when you need to be. It's the bits in between you're missing. Where's the super glue on McGee's mouse thing? Correcting what Ziva says? The outrageous flirting with the admin staff and witnesses?"
"Has my work been lacking this month for want of that behaviour Special Agent Gibbs?" Again, Tony sounded courteous, but baffled. This time Gibbs' growl was more aggressive, but as he couldn't think of what to say to draw Tony out, he thumped the elevator button and started it again. Then, with a glare, he stomped out before Tony had a chance to move once the doors opened.
"That went better than I thought it would," Tony told himself, relieved. But he was mentally exhausted.
Gibbs now knew that he was going to have to visit DiNozzo after hours, at his home.
Once home, Tony took a quick shower. He really needed to wash away the day. He'd had a moment of hope in the elevator, when he'd thought he heard concern in Gibbs' tone. He'd thought, albeit briefly, that Gibbs was actually going to say something. But, as usual, he expected Tony to work for it. Gibbs never seemed to offer anything up, everything always on his terms. And as much as Tony loved (had loved) working for and with the man, he was tired of the inequity in their relationship. Even as his boss, Tony was sick of feeling like he had to do all the work in their interactions. It was just Gibbs' style, Tony knew that, and he had no comeback in the office, that was the way Gibbs worked. But when it came to trying to get Tony to talk about his personal issues, he wasn't buying it anymore. For anything other than work, he was through. If Gibbs wanted to know, he'd have to damn well ask, straight out. No more anticipating or second guessing for Anthony DiNozzo.
After his shower, he threw on some sweats and a hoodie, and made a quick meal. He felt unsettled. His gut was churning a little, and he didn't know why. Maybe he just needed to get out of the apartment for a while. Yeah, that felt like the thing to do. Get a bit dressed up, and head out for a couple of drinks. Nothing heavy, it was a school night after all. But just something to get him out of his own head for a while. He quickly changed his clothes again. A pair of snug, well worn, designer jeans, faded to a soft blue (that didn't make him think of a certain pair of cool, azure eyes, honest) that hugged him in all the right places and a well fitted, deep green cashmere sweater were his sartorial choices. He looked good and he knew it. He was aware that he was a handsome man, and he recognized that looking well bolstered his confidence. He felt in need of that tonight. Well, had needed it all month, truth be told. Keys, wallet, badge, all in his soft brown leather jacket, and he headed out the door, to walk straight in to Gibbs, who'd just arrived and had his hand raised to knock.
Gibbs drew in a quick breath as he checked Tony out, even before realizing that he'd done it. He took in the way the sweater clung to his chest, and how the jeans emphasized his long, toned legs. He could only imagine what the over-washed denim did to the man's ass. He could imagine only too well actually, so he quickly pushed the thought aside. He'd gone home to shower and change first himself, and picked up some beer and a bottle of decent bourbon. If he was going to show up at DiNozzo's unannounced, and out of character, he thought he might as well go the whole hog.
He looked good, especially to Tony's eyes. Ever so slightly shorter than Tony, his presence still dominated any room he entered. Maybe it was just his scowl, thought Tony, but the sense of menace he could give off, seemingly without effort, never failed to excite his senior agent. Still, as much as he loved to look at a clearly freshly showered Jethro Gibbs, this was a case of very poor timing. Tony needed recreation, and to get out of his NCIS mindset for an hour or two, and he wasn't going to get that with Gibbs standing in his doorway.
"Uhh, Gibbs? We got a case? " Gibbs raised an eyebrow, and held up the six pack and the liquor. Clearly not then, thought Tony.
"Well, I was just heading out. Can it wait?"
It was definitely a sign that things weren't what they normally were. Gibbs had always known that Tony was usually keen to be in his boss's company, especially after work. That he was trying to avoid it wasn't good.
"Need to speak to you DiNozzo. Tony."
Using his given name? Ahhh, now Tony got it. It was time for the talk. A full month of DiNozzo - Super Cop was all anyone could take, so Bossman had actually come to his home to find out what was going on. Well, Tony'd wanted him to make an effort, to come to him. And here he was. As much as part of him wanted to tell Gibbs to fuck off, that he had other plans, that he should have checked first whether it suited Tony to have this conversation, here in his own home, the younger man felt it would be churlish.
"Come in then."
Gibbs had seen the indecision on Tony's face as he had hesitated before inviting his boss in. And it hadn't escaped his notice that it had been a few weeks since Tony had called him Boss. He had only called him Gibbs recently, and the older man found that he missed the affection he'd always felt was behind the title. Tony wasn't the first agent he'd had on his team to call him Boss, but somehow it meant more coming from a man who he'd respected so much from the start, that he'd gone out of his way to recruit him from Baltimore PD. Gibbs walked in to the apartment, passing Tony, who closed the door after him. Tony accepted the booze and took it to the kitchen, opening a beer for each of them, and pouring a shot of bourbon each too, for good measure. He brought the bottle back in as well. He reckoned they'd need it. Gibbs sat down in the armchair, and as he handed his boss his drinks, Tony was aware of Gibbs looking him up and down and taking in how he was dressed.
"You were heading out? With work in the morning?" The boss in him couldn't help but raise an eyebrow and sound waspish.
"Contrary to popular belief," Tony retorted, with his own eyebrow quirked in annoyance, "I am perfectly capable of going out mid week, and not getting so drunk as to end up in the wrong bed on the other side of town, or to be hung over the next morning." Tony took a seat on the couch, at right angles to Gibbs, so Gibbs had to turn slightly to face him when they spoke. "I know I play at being the consummate screw up, but I thought you, at least, saw through that." Gibbs winced at that. This wasn't the way to gain Tony's confidence. "Mind you though, didn't you question me earlier today about being too professional? I'd have thought you'd be glad to have evidence that the Tony you knew and loved, sorry, I should say worked with and tolerated, was back. So, now that you've established that, moot point that it is, now you're here, and I'm clearly not going anywhere, what do you want Gibbs?"
The bite in Tony's voice was something Gibbs had heard plenty of times before, though rarely directed at him. Tony's attitude didn't make him angry, though it would have done if they'd been in the bullpen. He was just glad to see some fire, some fight, in him, instead to the veneer of laid back indifference he'd been projecting of late. He easily bit back any response he might normally have had to his senior agent's tone, especially in light of his use of the word "tolerated" and said,
"Just need to know what's going on with you Tony. Been worried about you. And not just me. I have Abby, McGee, Ducky, all asking me to see that you're okay."
"What? Ninja Chick not worried too? Shocking."
"What's your problem with Ziva, Tony?" Gibbs knew full well, having watched over the past month, that while other team members had expressed concern about Tony, Ziva hadn't said much at all. He was sure that it was actually Ziva who had the problem, but he felt that if he made it sound as if it was Tony's issue, he could get him to go on the defensive, and talk. The old Tony would have jumped straight in, fallen for the trap and started to babble. Not New Tony. In spite of being a little frustrated that his ploy didn't work, GIbbs couldn't help admiring the way Tony could handle himself. Tony just shrugged and took a pull of his beer.
"Ziva is Ziva. No problem."
"Then why are you withdrawing from everyone Tony. What's changed?"
"Look Gibbs," Tony took a deep breath and hesitated. He couldn't decide whether or not to tell his boss about his changed perspective on his co-workers. Spoken out loud, to someone as pragmatic as Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Tony couldn't help feeling that it was all going to sound very petty and childish. Yet he couldn't help that the whole incident had evoked such strong emotions in him.
"Look Gibbs, I've just been thinking about things, okay? Changing-my-life sort of things. I'm really not ready to talk about them yet."
"Sounds more like leaving-the-team sort of things, DiNozzo. Leaving-NCIS sort of things," Gibbs was worried now, and it made him sound pissed.
"You'd think you'd talk something like that over with someone. Say, like, your team lead!"
As cool and calm as Tony was these days when dealing with his team, it was a struggle to remain so sometimes. His sense of outrage at his exclusion from Ziva's that night, which had lead to him purposefully isolating himself, now reared up and he glared at Gibbs in a manner the man himself would have been proud of. He snorted.
"My team lead? Actually, let's talk about my team lead. And my damn team too, while we're at it!" His derision shocked Gibbs, and for once, it showed in Gibbs' expression.
"Do you mean the same team lead and team who are the sort of people to have team dinners, but not invite the whole team?" Tony sneered. "Who included everyone, except one member, and then were very careful to ensure that that one member found out all about it, and how wonderful it was, and how good a time they missed? Are they the team lead and team that I'm supposed to entrust with a discussion of life changing issues, Gibbs? You know what? I was worried about how stupid that was going to sound when I said it all out loud. I mean, I've been thinking hard about it, and letting it fester inside me for a month now. But as I say it, I can see that I'm still really fucking angry about it, so I don't give a damn if it sounds petty or not. You're all hypocrites. So worried about me now, but so happy to rub my nose in it the morning after. You know something Gibbs?" Tony was on a roll, and didn't want to stop, in case he had a chance to actually think about what he was about to say. He just wanted to say it while he had a head of steam up, and face the consequences afterwards. "You're not a bastard. You're too damn fond of that title for it to be any sort of insult. It's like a badge of honour to you. But you can be a monumental dick sometimes! And that's what every one of you was to me after that dinner. But it showed me where I really stand with every one, so I guess I should be thankful. Yeah. Thank you Ziva. You did me a favour in the long run!"
Gibbs could hardly believe the anger and the pain that he could feel rolling off Tony. Until he thought about it for a second. Of course he could believe that Tony would be deeply hurt by his exclusion. (Why had Ziva done that? He was going to have to find out. He'd assumed that DiNozzo had been invited but had other plans. Now he found out that he'd been deliberately not invited and had been eating his heart out over it.) Tony had a long standing need to belong. His family life had always been poor, short lived connections with a con man father at best, and active abandonment, along with being disowned at an early age, at worst. NCIS was his self appointed family, people he'd chosen himself, and to have been over looked must hurt like a bitch, especially in favour of someone so new. Still, Gibbs couldn't help poking at Tony just a bit, to see if he'd talk some more.
"Is that what this is about? This whole thing has been about not going to Ziva's house for dinner?" While Gibbs sounded incredulous, he was actually processing the information. (Tony felt tolerated, not loved, or even liked. He had been deliberately excluded when everyone else has been deliberately invited.)
"What DiNozzo? Were your feelings hurt?" Gibbs made it sound as if hurt feelings were like breaking Rule 6. He was astonished when he heard Tony reply, softly,
"Yeah. Yeah, they really were."
Gibbs watched as Tony seemed to deflate, his anger and indignation seeming to vanish, leaving only sorrow and disappointment behind. He should have known that Tony's insecurities would mean his feelings were more than a little wounded, but he could hardly believe that Tony was actually being honest about it and making himself emotionally vulnerable. Gibbs kept his surprise to himself, his expression remaining inscrutable.
"But, hey!" breathed Tony, exhaling heavily as if to physically shake himself out of his introspection.
"That was then. I'm over it. I misjudged my relationship with everyone on the team. Everyone." He repeated. Gibbs didn't need a degree in rocket science to get the inferred "even you" which hung heavy in the the air, but remained unsaid.
"They weren't my friends, just colleagues. You live and learn. Won't happen again. Didn't someone once say that was the definition of insanity? Repeating the same actions and expecting a different result? So I stopped. Stopped acting as if I had friends at work, rather than colleagues. And it clearly worked. Different results all round. Suddenly everyone wants me."
Now Tony sounded tired, sad and just a little bitter.
"Problem is, now I don't believe it's genuine. It's just guilt for leaving me out and finally realizing that it wasn't all that funny, and a bit of, 'Keep him sweet, coz we don't like it when he acts out of character.' No one has any clue what to do with me when I'm not flirting like crazy and quoting movies." That seemed to genuinely amuse him. His smile reached his eyes for a second.
"You don't think there's a chance you're over reacting?" Gibbs asked, sounding dubious. It wasn't that he genuinely believed that, but he had a hard ass reputation to uphold, also he wanted to draw more out of Tony.
"Over reacting would have been going with my gut instinct, which was to pack up immediately and get the Hell outta Dodge. I thought about emailing Shepard and just leaving yas all in the lurch. Then I decided to just watch and see if I could work with people who clearly don't like me very much. Not trying to sound self pitying here, but it wouldn't be the first time that my office life hasn't exactly been full of hugs and puppies, and I've managed before. The truth is, I've always got a lot of satisfaction out of being a cop, doing something good, making a difference. And working at NCIS, with you, especially when you were teaching me at the start, and we were a two man team, is the best I've ever been at the job. I didn't want to throw that away. So I ignored my gut, hung around to wait and see."
The thought of Tony feeling as if leaving was an option, (he was so hurt that was his first thought!) punched right into Gibbs' heart. He'd definitely got some things in this situation wrong. Had clearly misread how Tony was being treated by his junior colleagues, and hadn't seen how much Tony was letting go and not pushing his seniority. But then, Gibbs had never really made Tony's seniority clear to them. There was too much ambiguity in the chain of command in his bullpen and it was going to have to stop.
Jethro could feel all of his walls coming down in the face of Tony's hurt. He couldn't bear the look of loneliness in the younger man's eyes. Even if it meant rejection, he had to let Tony know soon that someone loved him entirely. Loved him just as he was, funny, hyper, sensitive, flawed, hidden within himself. Even if the someone who loved him was equally flawed and hidden, surely he'd feel better knowing that he was valued, though being loved by a self proclaimed bastard might not be considered any prize.
Tony wasn't finished with his appraisal of the situation though. He appeared to perk up. It was as if he literally sloughed off his anguish. Jethro knew it was a front. DiNozzo smiled brightly at the man he was starting to think of as his former boss.
"I didn't act on impulse. I observed for a while. Empirical evidence you know. And my month of watching and waiting has just emphasized that my gut was right initially. I think it's time I moved on. I've been putting some feelers out, getting a handle on other opportunities. I think the Feebies would take me, with my PD and NCIS experience and Tom Morrow always liked me and respected my work in the early days, so Homeland Secu..."
"No!" Gibbs blurted out. "I won't let you leave my team!"
He couldn't seem to help himself. With his inability to apologize, and his habit of barking out orders, borne of years as a gunny, then a supervisory agent, he came across as much more aggressive than he had intended. Tony was angry all over again.
"Yeah, about that Gibbs," said Tony, sounding vaguely amused despite his annoyance, "Pretty sure that even though I followed you here from Baltimore, I didn't sell you my soul. Reckon you don't get to say when I resign from the team. Seriously though, you do remember that this is my home, right? You came here? You sought me out? You can ream me out any time at work and I have to take it, even when it's a crock of shit and half the head slaps are unwarranted, but not here, off the clock. This is MY place, my refuge. You don't get to butt in and taint it with your bullshit. Just get out. I'll see you at work in the morning."
"No. I mean," now Gibbs hesitated and Tony was surprised enough at the way the older man now sounded unsure to not continue to insist that he leave.
"Tony, (what was with the man constantly using his first name tonight?) I don't want you to leave the team, especially not in these circumstances. If there're other, better positions for you, take your time, let me help you find them, let's look together for the right fit for you, maybe still in NCIS. I can understand you having a problem with the rest of us at the minute. With me, especially as your boss. Shoulda seen this before it happened. Now at least I know why you're so angry, Tony, but I'd like a chance to make it right," Gibbs said. Tony narrowed his eyes at his boss. He didn't trust the new gentle tone of voice, the out of character concern, after the mocking way Gibbs had asked about his hurt feelings.
"I can't speak for the others for sure, but I don't think anyone had any idea that you'd been left off the invite list Tony."
"You didn't see the look on McSnake-In-The-Grass's face. He knew I'd been left out on purpose. I just didn't think my pranks annoyed him THAT much. You? If you say you didn't know, I believe you. Not sure why you'd join in the taunting the next day, but at least I know now you didn't actively encourage her to leave me out."
"I was pissed at you coz I thought you'd flaked out at the last minute to go on some date or other rather than go to a team dinner. And after over four years of working together, Tony, how do you even begin to think I'd encourage that someone be excluded, least of all you?" And now Gibbs was angry that Tony thought so little of where he stood in Gibbs' esteem.
Tony was starting to feel a bit freaked out.
"Do you realize you've used my name about a dozen times today? And now you're being nice! What are you doing Gibbs?"
"Trying to show you that we, I, don't like it when you're so unhappy, didn't mean to make you feel like that. I was trying to find out why you weren't acting like yourself. Now I know and I wanna try to fix it, DiNozzo, coz the team isn't the same when you're not you. You've been at work in body only for the last four weeks. And no one, except Ziva, I guess, knew why. I'm gonna get to the bottom of why she behaved the way she did..."
"No, Gibbs...." Tony tried to interrupt.
"Not just for you Tony. I don't like her screwin' with my team. You and McGee have always managed to argue and bitch with each other without this sort of viciousness. I want to know what she's bringin' into my work place and why."
"I just don't want you to fight my battles. I know it might look as if I do. I basically acted out till you took notice, but I don't want to be the kid that has to go to the teacher to deal with the class bullies." Tony was torn. Now that he had Gibbs attention, he felt as if he'd over reacted. As if he'd been foolish to think that Abby and McGee would deliberately hurt him, or that Gibbs wouldn't value him. And he was so happy to have Gibbs with him, here and now, that he almost forgot how miserable and lonely he'd been over the past four weeks.
"This is something that needs looked at, Tony. It was sly, and aimed directly at you. I wanna know why. But that can wait a bit, till you decide what you want."
Tony grimaced, "I feel like a whiny kid now, but since you're here, and I may never have the balls to say this again," he paused, "It's not just about the party Gibbs. This might sound weak or narcissistic to you, but I kinda need to know that I'm doin' an okay job. I don't expect you to praise me at every turn, or even like me. Hell, I know I'm annoying, and a bit much for a lot of people, but just let me know once in a while that I'm on the right track. I'd really like to know that my work is good enough. Not head slapping me is not the same as telling me I'm doing something right. It just means I haven't pissed you off enough to hit me!"
As much as Gibbs was trying to be patient, this annoyed him. How did Tony not already know that his work was good enough?
"You wouldn't still be on my team if your work wasn't good enough DiNozzo," he snapped.
Tony smiled, proving yet again that Gibbs temper didn't really bother him, no matter what he pretended in front of other agents.
"There he is, the Gibbs I know and lo....appreciate. You were freaking me right out for a while there.
Gibbs half smiled at his Second. But his Second for how long? He knew he wasn't one to pander to his people. His leadership was based on tough love and letting his team compete for his approval. He cared for them, would die for any one of them, but rarely showed it. Of anyone under him, Tony had always been the one to understand his way of doing things. DiNozzo might not expect praise at every turn, but it would seem that Gibbs had been too stinting with his "Atta boys" even for Tony's stalwart ways. Add to that, his subordinate's faith in him had obviously been shaken by what he saw as the betrayal at Ziva's. Seen from Tony's point of view (and Gibbs was notoriously bad at stepping into some one else's shoes) he could understand how it would look like that. It went against the grain for him, but he felt that to keep Tony from leaving, he was going to have to show that he understood where the younger man was coming from. He would rather start to let Tony in on some of his command decisions, than see the younger man go to work somewhere else.
Tony continued, "I know a lot of this is my own fault. I've let things go with the others that I should have acted on, should have shown them more often that I have seniority over them, that they should respect the chain of command. You're the bad cop and I'm the good cop, but I let it go too far. I need to change that a bit if I'm going to stay and be effective as your second with junior agents, especially with someone like Ziva."
Jethro was starting to feel a slight sense of relief. The dread he'd felt when Tony had first mentioned leaving was lifting a little. It sounded as if there was a real chance that his loyal St Bernard would remain at his side. For a while yet anyway. He moved from his seat to sit on the low coffee table, directly in front of where Tony was sitting, their knees almost touching. His eyes softened as he looked straight into Tony's. He leaned towards the man sitting on the couch before him and put his right hand lightly on Tony's left knee. Tony broke his gaze to look at Jethro's hand. It's weight was warm and comforting. Tony didn't let himself think about how turned on that hand could make him feel, given the chance.
"What do you want, Tony? How do you want this to play out?"
Gibbs just wanted to make the man he now knew for sure that he loved feel better. It would be amazing if Tony wanted him, as he wanted Tony, but even without that, he knew he'd do whatever he could to make Tony happy again, to give him back his love of the job. If that meant changing his style of leadership a bit, deferring more to Tony, letting the junior agents see that Tony was their senior agent in the office and in the field, especially in Gibbs' absence, he reckoned he could do it, and it was a small price to pay to keep the man on his team, watching his six till he was ready for his own team, which would be soon, Jethro knew.
Tony was wary as he watched the expression on Jethro's face. He was having a hard time reconciling the openly caring look with his macho, frequently grumpy boss. But he knew that while Gibbs had clearly not been the all-knowing demi-god Tony had thought, and some team dynamics stuff had slipped by him, his mentor had never lied to him, so if he looked as if he cared for Tony, and wanted him to be happy, then that must genuinely be the case.
"What I want and what I get are usually such different things, Boss."
Gibbs was thrilled to be called that again, for all he longed to hear Tony call him Jethro.
"I want to belong Boss. I want to know you..." he faltered briefly, flustered.
"I mean the team, can at least respect me, and maybe even care for me. I know I'm annoying, but I want to be liked regardless. You guys are the only family I have now, and you all know that. I want to be boxed in with all of you. And I want to love you all right back."
Even after their talk, it was clear that Tony didn't think that this was likely to happen because he added, trying to lighten the mood, "But I'll settle for everyone not groaning at every single one of my movie references. I'll even tone them down a bit. I'll happily take the head slaps and the pranks, so long as I know I'm part of the family."
The slight colour that had risen in Tony's cheeks when he'd hesitated, as he had stumbled over his words, both now and earlier, gave Jethro a strong flare of hope. How was it possible that he'd not seen that Tony might reciprocate his feelings? He'd been so sure that Tony was one hundred percent heterosexual, and totally positive that even if he wasn't, he'd never want an old curmudgeon with gammy knees and poor eyesight, that it hadn't occurred to him that Tony's longing for his approval might be rooted in desire (love possibly?) as well as respect for his employer.
"Yeah, well, again I can't speak for anyone else DiNozzo, but I wouldn't be here, trying to pour expensive bourbon down your throat, and make sure you stay in my bullpen, if I didn't care." Gibbs sounded gruff, a bit sulky even, but Tony knew exactly what that meant. This was his boss actually telling him he wanted him around! That he genuinely wanted him around. How could he have doubted it? Well, they say hindsight is 20/20.
But Gibbs surprised him by continuing,
"I've kept it pretty well hidden, but I do care for you Tony." Jethro had gone a bit pink around the ears now. God, he hated talking about feelings! But he was going to do this. It was the whole "now or never" cliche.
"You're my family too, you know. You, Ducky, Abby. But we, you and me, have been connected since we first met. Look, as I said, I've not been good at showing you how I feel. I've deliberately hidden it, because I wasn't sure how you would take it," Gibbs was definitely struggling to vocalize now.
Tony couldn't believe where his mind was taking him. Was Gibbs starting to tell him what it sounded like he was starting to tell him?
"Aww shit, DiNozzo!" Jethro huffed, "I haven't given you any reason to believe that this is true, but I want you to stay, not just because you're great at your job, which you are, you're a great investigator."
Tony couldn't hold back a massive grin at that. No matter what shit happened between them, Gibbs' approval was still the biggest pleasure in Tony's working life.
"But I'd like us to try getting to know each other on a more personal level."
There was a brief silence.
"Are you trying to say you're attracted to me, Jethro?" Tony sounded disbelieving, but hopeful, in a guarded fashion, calling Gibbs Jethro without even realizing it, so surprised was he by this turn of events. Gibbs, for his part, couldn't quite believe how much he liked hearing Tony call him his given name, without the inevitable hillbilly references.
"Yeah, DiNozzo. That's what I'm tryin' to say." He sounded relieved now that it was out there. Even though Tony hadn't yet said if he felt the same, Gibbs was glad to get it off his chest. Whatever happened now, at least they could be honest with each other from now on.
"Great, I just realized that I finally called you Jethro, and you're back to DiNozzo!" Tony quipped. Gibbs rolled his eyes.
"Fine, Tony. Here'e the deal. If you still feel that you need to leave the team, of course I can't stop you. Wouldn't even if I could. I do really just want you to be happy, even if it means loosing you off my six. But no matter what you do, career wise, I'd really like a chance to get together."
Now he really did blush, something Tony had only ever seen happen when Gibbs was pursued by aggressively amorous women.
"I was hoping that you'd go out to dinner with me some night soon."
"Like a date?"
"Well yeah, DiNozzo," slight impatience showing through. "Like a date. If you want." And there was that insecurity showing through again.
Okay, it felt like Tony had entered some sort of parallel universe, one where Gibbs was bi all of a sudden, and wanted Tony as much as Tony wanted Gibbs. This was the one thing that Tony had wanted for a couple of years now, but had never believed there was any chance of. As uncertain as Jethro looked though, while he waited for Tony to respond, Tony didn't need to pinch himself to know he wasn't dreaming. The older man's pensive expression told Tony that this was for real all right. The younger man's smile was a little shy and nothing short of heart-achingly sweet when he took Jethro's hand off his knee and laced their fingers together.
It was only then that Jethro allowed himself to breath freely again. It was all well and good thinking he knew what way Tony would answer his request for a date, but the wait to hear him actually accept had been agonizing. Actually, hold on, he hadn't definitely said yes yet. But by the look in his eyes, which suddenly appeared shining and slightly moist, it was a done deal.
"I had no idea you felt like this about me, Jethro. You're damn good undercover!"
Gibbs shrugged and said nothing. He'd definitely used up more than his normal daily quota of words.
"I should tell you that I've been attracted to you from the start, Boss. Didn't think you were anything other than a totally straight, married and divorced multiple times, marine, who'd disembowel me if I ever came on to you. Then there was Rule 12. Didn't think you'd ever break that. And I'm not a red head. And there's the whole thing where I don't know anything about wood work. Though you could teach me. It'd be cool to learn that from you, and..."
Gibbs leaned forward a bit and used his free hand to gently tap Tony on the back of the head. The first time in a month. They both smiled, having a visceral reaction to how good it felt to do something so normal, something so emblematic of their whole relationship.
"Shuttin' up, Boss." Tony smiled. Then he started slightly, as he realized just how close their faces were to each other. He could see the different shades of blue in Jethro's irides. The usual cool blue was surrounded by a darker ring, flecks of slightly lighter colour through out. Tony'd never noticed that before.
Jethro was acutely aware of their proximity, and of the desire he felt to just stare into Tony's eyes for an eternity. Now it was all out there, they'd admitted that they were attracted to each other, so he felt as if he had tacit permission now to look his fill. Tony's eyes were a source of wonder to him. Green in some lights, unusual shades of blue in others. Wide and vulnerable at the moment, and shining with hope, joy (and, was that love also?) but they could close down in a second and totally mask what the man was feeling and thinking. Jethro would count himself a lucky guy if he regained enough of Tony's trust to see the open expression that they now held on a regular basis. It was intensely arousing to him, to be so trusted by Tony DiNozzo.
He moved just the couple of inches necessary to lightly touch his lips to Tony's. The hand he'd used to love tap the back of Tony's head still rested lightly at the nape of Tony's neck. The contact, so intimate, caused Tony to shiver lightly.
"This okay?" he asked lowly. Tony nodded, eyes still looking deep into Jethro's.
"Need you to know, Tony. I hope we're on the same page. I'm not screwing with our working relationship, and friendship (even though I haven't been a friend to you recently) for a quick fuck." His mouth was still hovering over Tony's, their lips grazing off each others as he spoke. It was the single most erotic thing Tony'd ever experienced, to have their lips touching, to be staring into this potential lover's eyes, and to not yet be kissing.
"I'm not playing with you here, Tony." Jethro continued, his voice soft, but intense.
"I have no intention of leaving you once we're together. I fell in love with you a while back without even realizing it, and if you don't think you can feel the same, I'd rather find out now and deal with it early, coz it'll only be that much more painful later, if you find you can't love me back."
Tony couldn't quite get his head round the fact that this was Gibbs. His boss, Gibbs. Telling him he loved him. Attracted to him, he got. But there was no way he'd expected this sort of declaration, this soon.
"I'm talking about no more dates for you, Tony, other than me. No pretty witnesses taking your number, no more dinners with your favourite admin staff, no more...."
"So long," broke in Tony, longing for the talking to be over, and the proper kissing to begin, "So long as it also means no more red heads in flashy red convertibles and no cozying up to sexy, ex-girlfriend directors, who seriously want back in to your pants. You're not the only possessive bastard, with a tendency to get a bit jealous. And for the record," he breathed against Jethro's mouth, then let the tip of his tongue slip out to just glance over Jethro's upper lip, "We are definitely on the same page. I love you. Have done for ages now. Had a boner for you from the start but fell in love somewhere about a year or so ago. I want to make a go of this, be exclusive, the whole thing."
There was so much more to talk about, to ask, to establish. How much experience did each of them have with guys? Did they tell people they were seeing each other? What were they doing in relation to rule 12? How were they going to manage in the office? Though neither man thought that Tony was going to have a problem continuing to do as Gibbs ordered, or that Gibbs would have any trouble issuing those orders, even once they were established as lovers. What would the director say, if she found out? Would she try to split up the team? All of these issues, and more, needed to be addressed, not to mention what they were going to do about Ziva and her games within the office politics. But for now, that slight lick that Tony had subjected Jethro to, just about broke the last of the older man's control, and he tightened his grip on the back of Tony's head, surged towards him and finally fused their lips together properly in their first kiss.
Tony, who was still holding one of Jethro's hands, moved his free one to lightly caress Jethro's cheek as the kiss deepened, then slid it round the back of Jethro's neck, to touch the short hairs there. God! How long had he wanted to know what the man's hair felt like. It was softer than it looked, and Tony wasn't at all put off by the very Gibbsian cut! Open mouthed and wet, overtly sexual in nature, the kiss was everything they'd both dreamed an adult first kiss would be. When they finally moved apart, both physically aching to take things further, but loathe to rush, they couldn't help grinning at each other.
"Okay, that's definitely gonna work," sighed Tony, having to adjust his seating position somewhat.
"Yeah," grunted Jethro, doing the same and moving off the coffee table, to sit beside Tony on the couch.
Not really wanting to spoil the mood, but feeling that they had to reach some sort of conclusion about Tony's job, now that they'd established that they were a couple, Jethro slipped slightly into "Gibbs" mode.
"So, what do you want to do about working with the team?"
"Boss," Tony grinned, "We both know I'm not going anywhere now."
"Things are going to change Tony. I promise you that. Doubt I can stop the headslaps..."
"I wouldn't want you to Boss." Tony couldn't keep the massive smile from crossing his face and staying there.
"I'm just glad I feel I can stay now. In NCIS, in DC, with you. On your six."
Jethro returned his smile. God, it was amazing how that smile totally changed his whole demeanour. He looked at Tony with a mischievous glint in his eyes and reached out for him.
"Now, what was that you said about my monumental dick....."